Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Jenny & Jenni (Factory Theater)

     
     

Funky Freestyle Aerobic Friendship

     
     

DSC_7002

   
The Factory Theater presents
   
Jenny & Jenni
   
Written by Shannon O’Neill
Directed by Laura McKenzie
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston  (map)
through Dec 18 |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Heaven only knows what drugs inspired Shannon O’Neill’s disco-fevered aerobic dance flashback, but Jenny & Jenni, a new comedy produced by The Factory Theater at Prop Theatre’s space, throws down a litany of 1970’s zaniness like no other. The show begins with the claim that—forget Jane Fonda–these two fictional exercise queens were the real start of the 70’s workout craze. Jenny (Shannon O’Neill), spelled normally with a “y,” and Jenni (Christine Jennings), spelled weirdly with an “i,” are high school rejects with crappy, self-absorbed and neglectful parents. They find each other and take the audience on a ride through every absurd 70’s trend with all the Jenny and Jenni posterhyped-up positive outlook of your favorite 70’s sitcom.

Laura McKenzie directs this picaresque ode to the evolutionary beginnings of jazzercise, spandex, and headbands. The show comes in under two and a half hours but for all that, McKenzie runs a tight, organized and whipsmart ensemble. Even transitions between scenes are choreographed with military precision to keep energy up and the fun going; the cast drives the show from beginning to end at an exacting pace. 70’s tunes dominate the dance/aerobic choreography of Donnell Williams, so rest assured the actors are feeling the burn while they joke about feeling it.

By far, the comedy standouts are Nick Leininger, taking on roles such as a smarmy Health Teacher and an encounter group leader, among others. William Bullion makes yet another deadpan funny fringe appearance as Riggins, the principal of Jenny and Jenni’s high school, who is absolutely plum loco about Scottish heritage. High school archenemy Lola St. James (Aileen May) and her gang of mean girls (Kathryn Hribar, Elizabeth Levy, Kim Boler and Sarah Scanlon) try to keep Jenny and Jenni down but Mr. Riggins gives them their first big morale boost to hit the road and build their aerobic workout dream.

Jenny & Jenni has a wild assortment of hilarious scenes. There’s the Scottish Highland Dance competition with Mr. Riggins and his stiff, proper Scottish sidekick, Aidan (Ted Evans). There’s the hallucinogenic drug scene, when, Jenny and Jenni posterdemoralized, Jenny and Jenni lose track of their dream and go off on wild benders of their own. There’s the encounter group session—a scene that deserves its own award for bringing back hysterical reminders of the prevalence of Me Generation pop psychology. There’s the reintroduction of Kathryn Hribar as Crazy Person, which single-handedly manages to amp up the crazy quotient for the whole second act.

The show could still use a strong editorial hand. The aerobic dance-off between Jenny and Jenni’s entourage versus Lola St. James’ Studio 54-style entourage veers into train wreck territory and loses its comic impact. Plus, the show tries for a sweet and happy ending with a reformed Lola seeing the error of her ways. The transformation is neither emotionally convincing nor even necessary, comically speaking. As for the friendship between Jenny and Jenni, O’Neill and Jennings have a wonderfully simple, understated and convincing bond but more humor could be made of their fabulously bizarre, mutual desire to get down and boogie-oogie-oogie.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
      
     

DSC_8061

Ensemble

Wm. Bullion, Kim Boler, Matt Engle, Ted Evans, Kathyrn Hribar, Christine Jennings, Nick Leininger, Elizabeth Levy, Aileen May, Shannon O’Neill, Sarah Scanlon

Production and Creative Team

Directed By: Laura McKenzie
Written by: Shannon O’Neill
Produced by: Manny Tamayo & Timothy C. Amos
Scenic Designer: Ian Zywica
Sound Designer: Brian Lucas
Lighting Designer: Jordan Kardasz
Costume Designer: Emma Weber
Technical Director: Dan Laushman
Choreographer: Donnell Williams
Props Master: Josh Graves
Stage Manager: Allison Queen
Asst. Stage Manager: Christina Dougherty
Graphic Designer: Jason Moody

Original Music By: Laura McKenzie

 
 

Continue reading

Review: Theories of the Sun (Sideshow Theatre)

Yep, it is possible to laugh at Death

 

TheoriesoftheSun-01 (2)

   
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Theories of the Sun
   
Written by Kathleen Akerley
Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through October 3rd  |  tickets: $15- $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Where does Death take a holiday? Apparently, a remote hotel in France! Sideshow Theatre presents the Midwestern premiere of Theories of the Sun. A mother and daughter duo seek medical advice from a quirky doctor. The doctor is in residence at a boutique inn. Also vacationing at the locale are a couple of playwrights, a scotch- infused Tennessee Williams and a frothy-wine sipping Tom Stoppard. Another hotel guest, Mr. Asher, collects theories about the sun from different cultures. Looming invisibly to most of the guests, Death waits for someone. Theories of the Sun is a mysterious gathering of a hodge-podge of characters. Each confronts TheoriesoftheSun-02Death and puts in a special order for preferred exit timing. Despite the primary storyline being the unusual circumstances surrounding the mother and daughter, its boys’ night! Individually and collectively, the guys overshadow with eclipsing humor and vibrant movement. Sideshow Theatre’s Theories of the Sun proves the hypothesis that is possible to laugh at Death.

Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith, with choreographer Katie Spelman, theories of the sun are illuminated with poetic, fluid motion. The synchronization is the bright spot to the story. A game of blindman’s bluff is an effervescent dance with Death. The ensemble, sporting a variety of accents, is dazzling. Matt Fletcher (Stoppard) delivers his British wit with a droll smugness. Uttering lines like ‘being not in tune,’ Fletcher is hilarious as an insipid playwright caught up in semantics. Andy Luther (Williams) plays it perfectly understated as the southern-speaking, unapologetic drunk. Luther’s face-off with Death is a deliciously defiant monologue of fearlessness that unexpectedly ends in tenderness. Jesse Young (Dr. Giraud) is hysterical as an eccentric doctor conducting a series of odd tests. Young deadpans ludicrous statements for riotous results. The storyteller of sun theories, Dylan Stuckey (Asher) is most engaging when he silently reacts to other characters. The entire cast revolves around Death in stunning visuals in a mime-type ballet and exquisite fifties finery (Costume Designer David Hyman).

 

TheoriesoftheSun-03 TheoriesoftheSun-04 TheoriesoftheSun-05 TheoriesoftheSun-06

Playwright Kathleen Akerley has penned a life-and-death tale with eclectic characters. Although the mother-daughter storyline loses some of its luster from recently being Hollywood-ized, Akerley’s provides intrigue in her other character choices and surprising twists. Theories of the Sun is a thought-provoking, entertaining dance to the death. With the finale’s hindsight, you’ll want to relive it for Death’s subtle entrance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a thirty minute intermission

Nora Dunn and her buddy Jesse Young

 

 

SHOW SIDENOTE: “Saturday Night Live” alum Nora Dunn was in the audience on opening night. Pictured here with her buddy, Jesse Young 

 

 

 

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

Neverwhere5

 
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

Neverwhere3 Neverwhere6 Neverwhere4

Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Neverwhere2

Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

Continue reading

Review: Provision Theatre’s “Cotton Patch Gospel”

“Cotton Patch Gospel” shines a golden ray of humanity

 

Provision Theater presents:

Cotton Patch Gospel
by Chapin, Key and Treyz
directed by Lou Contey
through November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

cottonpatch I hadn’t seen Provision Theater Company’s 2004 Jeff-nominated production of Cotton Patch Gospel, so I couldn’t possibly compare it to their current remounting to inaugurate their new, larger theater space. “Nothing brings out Baptists like a new building,” quips Timothy Gregory, in his role as lead storyteller. That applies as much to the new beginnings for Provision as it does for the characters in the show.

Cotton Patch Gospel emerges from American Bible-Belt culture. With music composed by Harry Chapin, performer of the Grammy-nominated “Cat’s In the Cradle,” and book adapted from Clarence Jordan by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel shifts the Gospels of Matthew and John to mid-twentieth century Georgia. Replete with in-jokes for the Southern church-going crowd, it would be narrow in its range of appeal but for the music and lyrics, which evoke the greatest power to unite audiences.

In which case, thank God for a tight band, a swinging chorus, and the light grace and energy with which Gregory reprises his original role. They are the loving spoonful that broadens this show’s message beyond churchy limitations. While the story and lyrics contemporize the sociopolitical religious struggles of the Gospels, the audience becomes awakened to the power plays, hypocrisies, and betrayals that plague humanity’s struggle for justice, community, and the search for spiritual authenticity.

This show owes no small amount of its success to Gregory’s ability to morph from, not only Jesus into his apostles, but also into the darker roles of Herod, (Governor) Pontius Pilate, and a mercenary mega-church preacher. It’s in these momentary roles that Gregory’s aspect takes on shades of George W. Bush and the evangelicals that grace our television screens. He and the his musical team make the most of lyrics that knowingly describe the rationales for the abuse of power and a populace’s collusion with that power.

The production reaches its pinnacle, though, when it successfully depicts Jesus’ own reluctance and anguish at going through the betrayal and death that is coming for him. Likewise, the band and chorus reach a simple yet profound high point in their expression of loss and confusion over Jesus’ death. The resurrection is the joyful relief to this sorrow, but it is precisely these deepest moments of grief that unite the audience in its common humanity.

Provision Theater’s 2004 production was often compared and contrasted with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Cotton Patch Gospel was praised for its kinder, gentler telling of the Jesus story. But I think that simplistic comparison misses the mark. In Gibson’s work we are shocked into fixating on the suffering of Jesus in its gross and uncommon brutality; with Cotton Patch Gospel, we become more aware of all our suffering through Jesus. It is this element that gives this religiously based work more redemptive power and ensures it a more enduring place.

Rating: «««½

 

Continue reading