Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

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The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Pigeons (Walkabout Theatre)

Buying In and Selling Out—All Over a Cup of Coffee

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Walkabout Theatre presents
 
The Pigeons
 
by Joe Zarrow
directed by Cassy Sanders
at
Swim Café, 1357 W. Chicago (map)
thru June 7th  |  suggested donation: $10-$15  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Without a doubt, one can arrive unprepared for Joe Zarrow’s new play, The Pigeons, produced by Walkabout Theatre, at Swim Café’s space. It’s easily the cleverest, foxiest and physically wildest farces I’ve seen since, well, forever. The production’s biggest drawback may be the space itself. As a lucky critic on opening night, I got central place out of the severely limited seating—other audience members had to Pigeons vert settle for seats way off to the side of the dramatic action because of the café’s bowling-alley structure.

Walkabout chose Swim Cafe to ultra-locate Zarrow’s play in West Town, grounding its gentrification issues directly for that neighborhood. The Pigeons is about West Town’s café society confronting the dilemmas of buying in and selling out. But, honestly, this play could be revised to fit any up-and-coming neighborhood with its hypocritical, image-obsessed, anti-gentrification hipsters. They are a countercultural generation beset by worthy opponents for the same living spaces: the materialistic, self-absorbed yuppies for whom money equals sex and commitment, and the cunning, ethnic enthusiasts for the American Dream, manipulating their way to it by any—and every–means necessary.

Take Martin (Kevin Crisper) for example. He’s a community-conscious eco-hipster needing a place to stay in his gentrifying hood, so that he can keep his job and fulfill its mission to green the area. But he’s also something of a man-whore, whose dalliances with the ladies may be as much about attaining said living space as actual attraction to the ladies in question. Then there’s Martin’s buddy, Lloyd (Keith Neagle), a graphic artist and budding textile artist (okay, he likes crafts) who is totally in love with his slacker lifestyle. Lloyd’s been couch surfing in Martin’s various apartments since, well, college. Any café serves as his office and living room since he can reliably sit in one, with his books and notebooks, over one cup of coffee for up to six hours at a stretch. Lloyd maintains the purity of his ideals, in contrast to Martin, but that may be as much about the fact that he can retreat to his Dad’s home in Wilmette as any true courage of conviction.

Zarrow’s crafty, shrewd and artful dialogue knows whereof it speaks. Even Veronica (Emma Stanton), proprietor of the independent alternative café, in which Martin and Lloyd execute their warring discourses, is more obsessed with image, both the café’s and her own personal image (they are one!), than with selling coffee and paninis. Even slacker Lloyd gets roped into serving the customers while Veronica exits for image consultations with her advisor, Jorge. He discovers too late his gross error in serving Bex (Mary Hollis Inboden), a shapely, success-at-all costs real estate agent who places her complex latte order with him while awaiting a client. “I’m sorry,” says Lloyd, once corrected by Veronica, “I wasn’t aware of your socio-economic profiling policy.”

Bex and her shallow, materialistic, and seductive go-getter agenda may be everything Martin, Lloyd, and Veronica hate, but she’s nothing compared to Chad (Travis Williams), her yuppie frat-boy client. Who knows what subconscious manias really drive Chad, but any interaction with caffeinated beverages leads to behavior that requires a restraining order. The café’s perennial visitor, The Pierogi Lady (Mary Mikva), needs no stimulant other than her aspirations for a piece of the American pie.

 

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All together, Zarrow has created characters one finds in the farcical action movies of “Rat Race” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only he shows greater sophistication in his handling of themes. All the play needs now are some minor editing adjustments—Lloyd’s death scene goes a little too long, as do Veronica’s plans for homelessness at the end.

Director Cassy Sanders demonstrates she has the wherewithal to wind up her sterling, energetic, and savvy cast and let them fly. As Bex, Inboden had me with real estate speak like “Slippy-Whipper” and “I am a real estate agent—I have an instinctual connection to the land.” As Chad, Williams bowled me over with, “Bros before condos” and his own self-congratulatory plans to help out the “poor Spic kids” in the neighborhood. Crispin’s Martin is as self-compromising a philosopher as any, especially when it comes to getting what he desperately wants. “Our dreams are better than his dreams,” he says of Chad; once he confiscates Chad’s money, “What we have here is some real Robin Hood re-distribution shit!” For his part, Neagle makes me wonder just what Lloyd’s “macchiato incident” at Starbucks was really all about. Only the roles of Veronica and The Pierogi Lady seem a little on the thin side, which may have little or nothing to do with Stanton and Mikva’s interpretations of them.

Overall, audiences would do very well to squeeze their way into Swim Café’s space and enjoy the riveting, intelligent, and manic farce that Walkabout and The Pigeons provides for their neighborhood. And I think you can also get some coffee and a pastry before the show.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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REVIEW: punkplay (Pavement Group at Steppenwolf)

Even high school sub-cultures demand conformity.

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Pavement Group presents:

punkplay

written by Gregory Moss
directed by David Perez
Through April 25th at Steppenwolf Garage (more info)

by Barry Eitel

punkplay_1_photobyPeterCoombs You can tell Gregory Moss’ play punkplay is pretty rebellious from the fact that the title refuses to be capitalized. Pavement Group tears up Moss’ play as their entry to Steppenwolf’s new Garage Rep rotation that showcases several exciting young Chicago companies. This 75-minute crude, rude, yet ultimately fascinating drama tells the tale of two teenage boys (a gangly Alexander Lane and Matt Farabee , who doesn’t look a day over 14) growing up in Reagan’s America and diving head first into the world of punk rock. Over the ensuing year or so from hearing their first punk record, we get to watch the duo start a band, idolize girls along with more extreme (read: homeless) punks, and masturbate (a few times). Moss’ script has its holes, but director David Perez and his energetic cast railroad right over them. If you can stomach the scuzziness, this is one great coming-of-age story.

I was wondering which choices were Perez’s decisions or written in the play. Either way, the semi-presentational/realistic/fantastical world located in the Steppenwolf Garage space grabs you and doesn’t let go. Scenic designer Grant Sabin, who actually designed all three shows, has created something like a robo-tripping Glass Menagerie. The set is simple but allows for all sorts of manipulation, projection, and imagination. Nearly all of the products, including beer, comics, and erotic videos, are painted white and slapped with a simple eponymous label, a homage to punk classic Repo Man (which starred a young Emilio Estevez).

Also, all the actors wear roller skates (sort of a Sex Pistol’s Starlight Express)

Lane and Farabee have a great energy together. Somewhat zombified, Duck (Lane) sees himself as the ultimate judge of what is punk. Mickey (Farabee) is bright-eyed and impressionable, yet comes across as much more diverse than his close-minded counterpart. The cast is rounded out by Keith Neagle and Tanya McBride, who play multiple parts with gusto. One of the most bizarre dream/hallucination sequences I’ve ever seen features McBride in a bikini top and a Reagan mask. It’s an image that won’t leave me for a long time.

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Moss’ play covers a lot of territory; his characters trek the already epic journey of high school with the added objective of tearing down the bourgeois, Molly Ringwald culture that surrounds them. It’s a monumental task. Moss does a pretty good job of navigating this tumultuous world, but the script could be condensed. Mickey and Duck take in a pair of transients from Montreal at one point, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Also, Duck’s family situation is explained in the first scene when he moves in with Mickey (he was kicked out of his house), but not much information is given about Mickey’s familial life. You begin to wonder what his parents think about him harboring Duck in his room, which transforms from a stark suburban white to a vomit of graffiti. That missing relationship doesn’t take away much because the production wallows in abstraction, but it would be nice to know something about it (which might be a whole play in itself: groundedplay). Some of the longer speeches wax poetical, and audience interest drops. Some information is extraneous and some is muddled, which suggests Perez and Moss could make the show tighter.

Perez’s production shows how tough and confusing it can be to grow up, like “Breakfast Club” with more spike chokers. Duck and Mickey must face the fact that the punk scene might just be another high school subculture demanding conformity. Luckily, the Black Flag records give way to Sonic Youth, not Sum 41, and we all learn something about ourselves.

Rating: ★★★