REVIEW: Laika: Dog In Space (The Neo-Futurists)

  
  

Too much quirk, not enough substance

  
  

 Rob Neill, Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough in Neo-Futurists' Laika: Dog In Space.  Photo by Lauren Sharpe

  
The Neo-Futurists present
   
Laika: Dog in Space
  
Written by Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough and Jill Beckman
Directed by
Phil Ridarelli
Music by
Carl Riehl
at
The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
thru March 12  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The Neo-Futurists are renowned for their experimental theater works, but the transfer of their New York branch’s Laika: Dog In Space tries too hard to be quirky and off-kilter, resulting in a scattershot production that is hard to connect with. Building on the true story of Laika, the first mammal sent into space, and incorporating elements of children’s story The Little Prince and cult classic television series “The Prisoner”, Laika: Dog In Space is intended to be a meditation on the nature of isolation, but the message gets lost in the execution. And while Neo-Futurist shows are often informal, they are usually not messy, which makes the unpolished presentation of Laika even more disappointing.

Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough, Rob Neill in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.For those unfamiliar, Laika was a stray dog that Russian scientists sent into space in Sputnik 2, making it the first mammal in orbit, but killing Laika in the process. Writer/performers Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough, and Jill Beckman imagine that Laika lives on in “The Village” (pronounced “vill-AHj”) an isolated space rock where she is visited by a small fairy that tells stories to pass the time. While the fantastic elements of The Little Prince are apparent, the influence of “The Prisoner” is harder to grasp, beyond giving Laika’s rock the same name as the location of Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 and putting the performers in white lab coats with numbers 1, 2, and 6 on them. A voice instructs the performers on what steps to take next, whether that is “Isolation Investigation,” “Prisoner Trajectory,” or “Storytime,” but the separate elements struggle to come together in a coherent manner.

The Neo-Futurist’s Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (our review ★★★★), has given them a reputation for creating mini-plays that run the gamut from comic to serious to smashing a potato with a sledge hammer. Laika alters the format slightly by telling multiple stories that are connected through the common themes of space, isolation, and imagination, ranging from personal anecdotes from the actors, historical accounts of Laika’s origins, and rock and roll musical interludes. The musical scenes suffer from the volume of the band, which drowns out whatever the actors are singing whenever all four members are playing. Either the actors need to be amplified more, or the band needs to play quieter, a difficult task in the Neo-Futurists’ small space.

A heavier emphasis on technical aspects than the usual Neo-Futurists production means more opportunities for things to go wrong, and despite the casual atmosphere of the show, it’s difficult to overlook Laika’s technical issues. One TV screen displays a “Line In” box rather than the images of the other screens, the pulley rig for Laika’s Village set malfunctions at the end of the production, and an audience interaction portion involving cassette players and headphones is an ill-timed mess. By trying to fit too much, the individual parts suffer, yet despite Laika’s misgivings, when the actors get explicit about the intent of their production, the script finally clicks.

     
A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe. A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

Jill Beckman in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

While I usually have issues with plays that don’t follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, Laika: Dog In Space needs those moments where the actors pause and explain just what is going on, otherwise the show makes no sense. The play’s themes of reality vs. imagination, fact vs. belief, and isolation vs. community become clear once the actors flat out say that those are the concepts they’re trying to get across, but I wish it were evident during the more abstract moments of the show. The production tries to create a sense of community within the room, whether it is through making borsch that the audience can all eat after the show or by pulling audience members on stage to drink Tang upside down, but these elements fail to enlighten the deeper message of the play. Despite being well-performed, the script needs a stronger focus and the technical aspects need to be cleaned up if Laika: Dog In Space hopes to truly take off.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Regular performances continue through March 12, playing Thurs/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm. Two Monday night performances: February 21 and 28 at 8:00 p.m.  Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. All performances take place at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland.   Get your tickets now…

     
     

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REVIEW: Daredevils’ Hamlet (The Neo-Futurists)

 

“Jackass” Meets The Bard

 

 

Jay Torrence, John Pierson, Trevor Dawkins, Ryan Walters, Anthony Courser, Brennan Buhl - from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

   
The Neo-Futurists present
  
Daredevils’ Hamlet
  
Written by Ryan Walters and ensemble
Directed by
Halena Kays
at
Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Only in culture centers like Chicago could there be a theater audience savvy enough to completely comprehend this show’s connections between Shakespeare and professional wrestling, the indecisive Hamlet’s crisis of confidence and the endangered masculinity of modern metrosexuals; the actors’ own neuroses and the Shakespearean characters they’re most drawn to. We deserve this show, if only because it won’t be lost on us.

Ryan Walters, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet" In 2005 Ryan Walters’ band of jumpsuited or strait-jacketed daredevils created their first edition of exuberant “jackassery.” But, intent on putting statements behind their stunts, five years later the quintet are riffing on “Hamlet,” using their cartwheels, tumbling, acrobatics, and hoop diving to illustrate the melancholy Dane’s identity crisis and adding their own autobiographical confessions to this absorbing “afterword.” (Each gets to answer questions about their dads, whether they would avenge their father’s murder by exterminating their uncle, and whether they are men of action or men of thought.)

The audience is warmed up as an interactive game of “Four-Square” opens the inquiry. It’s followed by various action-oriented depictions of scenes from the tragedy: Young Ryan Walters rides a tricycle as he attempts a small-scale Knievel-like jump across a wooden ramp. (The exact link to Hamlet escaped me here except that he was also reciting the “What a piece of work is man!” speech.) The graveyard scene is depicted with the performers naked in black light with tiny skulls lit up as codpieces over their privates. Ophelia’s drowning occurs in a real flower-strewn trough, a kind of life-size baptismal font. Though the fight between Hamlet and Laertes is reduced to overhyped WWF combat, the sword fight finale is performed exactly as written because, of course, the daredevils can’t overdo the original when it comes to exaggerated overkill.

John Pierson, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

These 100 minutes teem with fascinating connections where art deconstructs art and life imitates itself. Buhl, stretching a bit, compares Hamlet’s pursuit of justice with his own memories of “wild play” in a kiddie pool that got out of control. Anthony Courser prefers to portray an action figure like Robin Hood whose black-and-white status as a legend is preferable to Hamlet’s moral ambiguity. John Pierson describes the fasting and sacrifices he intends to make throughout the show’s run (including sex and modern food). Jay Torrence is fascinating by Horatio’s loyalty to Hamlet and depicts it with some homoerotic interaction with Walters. Finally, the show’s conceiver, Ryan Walters, playing the pseudo crazy, roller-skating Prince of Denmark, eloquently soliloquizes on the transience of life and its poignant surrogate, the theater, as he bends over an audience member who he intends to never forget. There’s even a brief interlude in which an unnamed actress enters as Gertrude to make a rather convincing defense of Hamlet’s much maligned mother.

It’s not the sometimes indulgent, hit-and-run skits that convince here; they’re clever distractions within a larger illustrated lecture. What wears you down and finally wins you over is the fascinating totality of this free-form action portrait of a play that’s as seemingly inexhaustible as the sun. “Hamlet” and Hamlet are everything we can project onto them and Daredevil’s Hamlet exposes us every bit as much as it illuminates a rather old script.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Trevor Dawkins and Ryan Walters, from Neo Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

All photos by Candice Conner / Oomphotography

   

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REVIEW: Crisis – A Musical Game Show (Neo-Futurists)

A tour de force of originality, wisdom and LOL’s

 

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Neo-Futurists present
 
Crisis (A Musical Game Show)
 
Created by John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei
at Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 5th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

Is life rigged? Are we trapped in a massive capitalist game show in which the halfwits and the shrewd end up at the top with all the money while the intelligent and thoughtful are relegated to loser? In the Neo-Futurists’ brilliant original musical, Crisis – A Musical Game Show, you are left to trust or not, at a most pivotal time in US history, in what you see, what you read, what you hear, and what you think.

CRISIS vert In the grand tradition of true Neo-Futurist theater, which never seeks to suspend disbelief, we must question whether this outrageously well performed set up is truly as advertised. Are those audience members taking scantron tests before the show truly scoring well on the quiz, and thus asked to participate? Is it a lottery? Are the participants pre-chosen? Are you simply relegated to loser by default of the process? Are you feeling so powerless over so many crises in the world that you hand your money over to organizations simply because they promise to find the cure, the solution, to right the wrong? Is capitalism really just a system in which blind faith is a given because so many have been trained to trust authority and never ask questions? A system in which the truly blind are preyed upon by the self-proclaimed altruist  as well as the openly greedy? Trusting others is trusting yourself, Crisis sings to us. Can you be trusted? 

Crisis is a tour de force of originality, energy, skill, timing, and intelligence.  One must follow along at a pace or be left behind, duped into the fast flashing ‘rules’ of a game show setting.  The beauty of this genre is that the performers never condescend. They are in this with you, even as they never let up for two hours of rapid fire intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. There is a simple humility that is natural to this form of theater, and it shines in this cast. After all, the creators of Crisis have lived the American experience and take no outward pride in having figured it out while showing the audience just how willingly we continue to believe the fantasy of the seemingly altruistic money giver, maker and taker,  all in one, brought to us by the television culture that feeds it.

In the deep center of this piece, the three hosts and creators of Crisis  – John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei – tell the truth. They tell the truth through the wild energy they harness and give to the audience. This is not the staid phone-it-in performance set. They are present, engaged, and true to themselves as artists.  If you believe in nothing about our current system by the end of this show, you will believe in gift. You will believe there is theatre in Chicago worth seeing and being a part of. You will get far more than you pay for.  And you will laugh. When is the last time you went to the theater and laughed for two hours?

The hosts, although running the show, are still deeply embedded in the ensemble, sending their force through it. One gets the feeling there is nothing these three can’t catch, save, or recover from.  The rest of the ensemble is tight, on time, connected and hilarious, using an impressive range of skill in commedia dell’arte. The commercials throughout the show from local businesses bring the reality of our current economic state right through the doors in real time with style and wit. The live band is fully a part of the ensemble, highly skilled, funny, and plain cool.

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To win  at this game is simple. Pretend to be annoyed with and above the game. Be very adept at unlocking cabinets, finding the money inside, and shredding documents. Admit in a moment of ‘raw honesty’ to purposely leading your own sibling to physical injury while still saying he isn‘t very bright, and then cover it all over with a high paying job that makes you seem as if you are helping others.  Misrepresent your job as research in the beginning in an attempt to sound as if it carries a scientific basis, then conveniently pull the heartstrings of your audience by bringing attention to a cause or illness for which there is no cure or solution, and for which you have done no actual research, and you just won yourself lots of money. Unfortunately, this describes the directors of too many non-profits to numerate, and makes the openly greedy Wall Street CEO look honest by comparison.

As this is a review of neo-futurist theatre, I am required by participation to disclose the whole truth about my experience Saturday night, and so I will. The Neo-Futurists are a national treasure, supported in part by National Endowment and The Illinois Arts Council. The truth is, it has been a very long time since I have seen one of our true jewel boxes of the arts in this country. These are tax and patronage dollars being spent the way I want them spent: an incredibly high self-motivated standard of performance in an all at once humble and elegant space, where truth through creative expression still wins.

  
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

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Cast and Crew

The Hosts: John Pierson, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Clifton Frei

The Musicians: John Szymanski, Curtis Williams, John Bliss

The Question Designers: Evan Hanover, Bilal Dardai

The Commercial Writing Staff: Megan Mercier, Steve Heisler