REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Show (NightBlue)

 

Lewd, crude ‘Rocky Horror’ an interactive event

 

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NightBlue Theater presents
    
The Rocky Horror Show
    
Written by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Chris Weise
Musical direction by
Jason Krumweide
at Stage 773*, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

I am old. How old am I? I am so old that the first time I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” film, nobody threw toast. Or came in costume. Or talked back to the screen. Or did anything but sit there agape.

The next several occasions I viewed the film went just about the same. The rock opera about young Brad Majors and his fiancé Janet Weiss and their remarkable night with the degenerates "Over at the Frankenstein Place" was as yet unsullied by any of audience-participation shtick that accompanies any showing of the film today. And while the film phenomenon was in full swing by the time when, some years later, I first saw a production of the stage musical that had preceded the 1975 cult movie classic, no one in the audience did anything more than wear costumes and dance in the aisles during the closing reprise of "Time Warp."

I confess I enjoyed both film and play better that way. I don’t mind the toast tossing or the newspaper head covering, but I wish that theaters of both types would offer at least a few showings where they tell the peanut gallery to shut up so the rest of us can hear the show.

On the night I saw NightBlue Theater’s current production of The Rocky Horror Show, several audience members kept up such a running litany of interjections that it became difficult to follow the actors. That’s a pity, because many of them are strong performers, both as actors and singers. It’s difficult to do Rocky Horror without hamming it up too much, but Director Chris Weise and cast do an admirable job of keeping things in bounds.

On the other hand, Rocky Horror has two only slightly overlapping sets of fans — I’ll call them the nerds and the vulgarians. The nerds, among whom I count myself, can explain all the references in the opening "Science Fiction Double Feature" (a terrific song, but Usherettes Irene Patino and Carolyn Ewald could barely be heard over the audience in NightBlue’s production) and further can run through all of the science-fiction tropes creator Richard O’Brien so cleverly parodied throughout the musical. The vulgarians are mainly just titillated by the smut and funny underwear and enjoy being part of the show.

NightBlue, which sells $5 participation kits containing toast, confetti, newspapers and all the other accouterments, aims its production firmly toward the second group. Pre-show host Mark Stickney welcomes Rocky Horror "virgins" The%20Rocky%20Horror%20Show563_MainPicturefrom the audience on stage before the outset and engages them in a highly lewd contest as well as encouraging everyone to shout out during the show.

The production combines elements of both the stage musical and the film. The minimalist set and David E. Walters and Laura Zettergren‘s costumes put an emphasis on the prurient. Musical Director Jason Krumweide leads a fine four-piece band, playing keyboards himself with Ken Kazin on drums, Larry Sidlow on guitar and Donn De Santo on bass, although the volume sometimes overwhelms the singers — some of the women, especially, seem to be acoustically challenged, and several actors were using hand mikes, including, most oddly, Paul E. Packer as Rocky Horror, Frank N. Furter’s homemade muscle man. Packer has the right physique for but he lacks the part’s youthful innocence and sings at too deep a pitch.

Stickney goes on to play Eddie — with a great version of "Hot Patootie," including a great dance sequence with Katherine Cunningham, as Columbia — and Dr. Scott. Jennifer Reeves Wilson‘s choreography in other dance numbers, such as "Don’t Dream It Be It," sometimes seems messy.

Smooth-voiced Corey Mills plays an especially wimpy Brad Majors, which works very well against Erin O’Shea’s robust Janet Weiss. Eric Hawrysz makes a stiffer than usual Narrator. Megan Schemmel is a picture-perfect Magenta.

As mad scientist Frank N. Furter, Michael Bounincontro channels Tim Curry for all he’s worth, bringing little originality to the role, but doing a fine mimicry with a powerful voice. Kevin Buswell‘s Riff Raff has more novelty, if only because he starts out emulating Lurch.

If you’re looking for vulgarly raucous Halloween good times, NightBlue provides them, especially if you enjoy performing more than you like listening.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

*except Oct. 31, which will be at The Elbo Room

REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare)

Framed ‘Shrew’ no improvement

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
 
The Taming of the Shrew
 
By William Shakespeare with new induction scenes by Neil LaBute
Directed by Josie Rourke
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
Through June 6  |  tickets: $44-$75 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fog spews out over the stage almost ceaselessly throughout Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new version of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is set in sunny Italy, so why all this London-style mist? It’s emblematic of the hazy thinking that clearly CST_SHREW_IMAGE_1prevailed throughout the creation of this deeply flawed production.

In enlisting Neil LaBute to write a new frame for this broadly humorous but troublesomely sexist play, Director Josie Rourke said her goal was to "create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew [and] make the play more relevant to us now…. What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now."

So to reconfigure a play offensive to feminist sensibilities, Rourke hires a man. And his idea of bringing a relevant, contemporary viewpoint to this story about a strong, if bitchy, woman browbeaten into subservient docility by her husband is to introduce a catfight between shrilly vituperative lesbians.

In the frame, which echoes the play-within-a-play format of Shakespeare’s original, we get an unhappy sexual triangle of the Director (a cool performance by Mary Beth Fisher); her long-term partner, the actress playing Katherina (Bianca Amato, turbulent and a little muddy in both roles); and the latter’s latest fling, the ingenue playing sister Bianca (Katherine Cunningham, whose sly performance barely changes from part to part). The Director confronts her partner with infidelity; the actress accuses the Director of trying to control her by casting her in this submissive role.

Just about everything about this production is annoying, from the interminable noisy vacuuming that sets the stage for the frame to the ridiculous conclusion. The lumbering frame promotes the age-old, wrongheaded notions that women have no professionalism or moral fiber, that they’re unreliable and prone to hysterics, and that they’ll do anything for love. Moreover, the new scenes intrude unpleasantly and disruptively into the main show, not least by making it difficult to separate the inner play’s Katherina from the outer play’s actress character.

Having heard the actress in a man-hating tirade against the actor playing her husband and his weakly whimpering response — for all that Ian Bedford does delicious job as Petruchio — it becomes difficult to imagine any sexual tension between the couple. And hot sex is one of the few plausible reasons for Kate’s giving way to her spouse’s abuse.

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The huge, waggish codpieces worn by the actors are absurd and amusing in themselves, but added to the frame’s stereotyped intimations that many of these men are gay, they start to present a somewhat ugly picture.

No show at Chicago Shakespeare is ever wholly without merit, however. Rourke has a nice hand with staging. Even my seat far around to stage right had good views of the action throughout, although in a few spots it seemed unnatural, with characters facing away from the people they were speaking to.

It’s always a pleasure to see Mike Nussbaum, and he’s in fine, funny form as Bianca’s rich and wizened old suitor. Other highlights include Sean Fortunato’s wry Hortensio, another suitor; Larry Yando’s aggravated Baptista, the sisters’ father; and Stephen Ouimette and Alex Goodrich as comic servants.

And then there’s the rich language of The Bard — no matter how wrongheaded his plots, his words resonate.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Extra Credit

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