Review: This (Theater Wit)

 
  

Theater Wit exposes adultery with intelligence and grace

  
  

Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in 'This' at Theater Wit. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Theater Wit presents
  
This
  
Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler 
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $24  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What if “the other woman” was not some scheming, seductive siren but your best friend? Many dramas make melodramatic hash out of both kinds of scenarios but This, the latest production of Theater Wit, keeps a cool, compassionate head about sexual transgressions between friends. Melissa James Gibson’s comic script handles the subject with insight, gentle maturity and grace. Theater Wit has a hit on its hands because This demonstrates the right mix of humor and common sense about relationships, love, loss, and recovery. Meanwhile, Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is nothing less than a deft touch–keeping the action clear, light and decidedly on track.

Rebecca Spence as Jane in 'This' at Theater Wit.  Photo by Johnny Knight.Jane (Rebecca Spence) has spent the past year grieving the death of her husband, Roy. Fortunately, she’s had the support of her friends from college, Tom (John Byrnes) and Marrill (Lily Mojekwu), who are married and having their first child; and Alan (Mitchell J. Fain), the “gay friend.” While the gay friend has pretty much become a stock character for contemporary comedy, Fain makes the role distinctly his own, delivering Gibson’s dialogue with a razor sharp edge, which makes the humor more vivid and Alan’s personal revelations more poignant.

Jane’s friendships with these three carry their own sharp edge; the play is quite knowing about the ways friendships can both nourish and undermine the individual. Dinner at Tom and Merrill’s starts with Merrill’s attempts to set up Jane with a new guy, Jean-Pierre (Steve Hadnagy), but it also subjects Jane to a game that puts her on the spot and pulls more information out of her than she’s ready to reveal. Later, Tom shows up on Jane’s doorstep, confessing to a well of untapped desire for her. Jane’s slip-up with Tom acts as the catalyst to plumb whole underlying assumptions her friends have about her and about each other.

The show is not just about Jane but also about how a group of friends handles the rocky changes within long-term relationships—new stresses, miscommunication, unspoken needs and momentary betrayals. Scene after scene regales the audience with witty banter, but the play never strays too far from the loss really haunting Jane. Spence makes every moment count–both her surrender to Tom and her final meltdown are convincingly real. Merrill’s postpartum malaise over her marriage to Tom is grounded by Mojekwu’s solid intelligence and sensuality. Byrnes brings the right level of silent frustration to Tom getting shut out in the marriage. As for Hadnagy’s portrayal of Jean-Pierre, he keeps a light touch—all the better to play an easygoing continental without falling into French-y caricature.

If there are any flaws to the play’s otherwise realistic portrayal of friendship and relationships, it’s in Tom and Merrill’s rather rapid recovery after Jane has let the cat out of the bag about her and Tom’s affair. Also, Alan’s perfect memory–to establish the truth of Merrill and Tom’s He Said/She Said moments—comes across as more of a contrivance than actual drama. But the smoothness with which the cast skates through Gibson’s script redeems these flaws. Wechsler’s cast engages the script with an enviable liquid alacrity, creating scenes with instinctually fluid reactions between people who have known each other for ages. For all the burden of Jane’s secret shame and the pressured snippiness between Tom and Merrill, these are people who like each other and rely on each other’s company as a witness to their lives. No matter what their flaws, they are just the people to bring Jane back to the land of the living.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Rebecca Spence and Lily Mojekwu in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

Mitchell J. Fain and Rebecca Spence in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight. Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

This continues through March 27th, with performance  Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.   Single tickets are $15 to $35.  For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call the Theater Wit box office, 773.975.8150.

    
     

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Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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Review: The Hypocrites’ “Frankenstein”

Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist

Frankenstein1

The Hypocrites present:

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
at the Museum of Contemporary Art Stage
through November 1st (program)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Frankenstein3 From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.

Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.

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It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.

Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.

The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.

Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.

Rating: ★★½

 

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Photos by Paul Metreyeon

Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins

Review: Timeline Theatre’s “All My Sons”

Timeline tackles Miller with outstanding results.

All_My_Sons2

Timeline Theatre presents:

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
directed by Kimberly Senior
Greenhouse Theatre Center 
Running thru October 4th (buy tickets)

 Reviewed by Oliver Sava

All_My_Sons5 Timeline’s All My Sons is a beautiful, haunting piece of theater. Arthur Miller‘s masterpiece is the story of the Keller family, rocked after the disappearance of son Larry during World War II and patriarch Joe’s (Roger Mueller) trial for shipping defective airplane parts that led to the death of 20 pilots. When Larry’s brother Chris (Erik Hellman) invites Ann (Cora Vander Broek), Larry’s sweetheart, to the Keller house to propose to her, tensions rise as mother Kate (Janet Ulrich Brooks) interprets the gesture as a confirmation of Larry’s death. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George (P.J. Powers) arrives with shocking revelations from the man that went to jail for Joe Keller, their father.

Exquisitely directed by Kimberly Senior, the cast captures the sense of family that is essential to a successful production by finding a comfort with each other that allows the language to flow naturally. The rhythm of Senior’s production is like a heartbeat: when the stakes are high the show moves at a rapid pace, taking the audience on an emotional sprint as the characters watch their world collapse, but there are also quiet moments when the actors can slow down and absorb the changing circumstances around them. Silence is used remarkably well, such as when Chris struggles to find the words to express his love for Ann (or does he know the words and is afraid to say them?), and when these pauses are broken, intense reality rushes in to fill the gap. The perfect balance of these moments is what ultimately makes the production so captivating, mimicking the diversity of the everyday.

All_My_Sons3Janet Ulrich Brooks shows why she’s been nominated for two Jeff Awards this year with her portrayal of the delusionally optimistic Kate, perfectly capturing the pain of a mother’s loss underneath a facade of hopefulness. From the moment she takes the stage, Brooks exudes a welcoming presence that pulls the audience firmly into Miller’s world, and it is no surprise when she is able to calm the infuriated George and make him feel like a child in her home again. Brooks seems to bring out the best in her costars, and the scenes that she shares with Mueller are bristling with the chemistry of a couple that has been married for decades.
In the earlier scenes of the play Mueller and Hellman establish the father/son dynamic that lies at the heart of All My Sons, a relationship that revolves around their understanding of war and what it means regarding their missing family member. Hellman plays Chris with a youthful exuberance, but underneath his calm exterior is a man that is haunted by the death he has seen, and caused, in his short life. Conversely, Joe lives in a semi-denial regarding the amount of responsibility he had with the defective airplane parts, and when these two characters’ vastly different emotional states come out in full force the results are explosive.

All_My_Sons6Initially, Cora Vander Broek‘s Ann does not seem to fit in with the rhythm that the company has created. She speaks with a calm confidence that is a stark contrast to the other women in the play, but when she consoles Chris as he confesses his survivor’s guilt, it becomes apparent why Ann is different: she has control. Surrounded by women that have chosen to be subservient to the men in their lives, Anne refuses to compromise for what she wants, and the strength of her convictions ultimately leads to the play’s tragic conclusion. The only person that is able to put a dent in Ann’s steely demeanor is her brother, and Powers plays George with just the right mix of compassion for his sister and disdain for the Kellers so as to never make him seem malicious.

Timeline can proudly add another success to their already hefty list with All My Sons. From the fabulous cast, including the heretofore unmentioned neighbors that establish the world around the Keller home, to the revelatory direction, Miller’s classic is done the justice it deserves. Just ask all the audience members reaching for their tissues at the end of the show.

Rating: ««««

 

View Arthur Miller's -All My Sons- at Timeline Theatre

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