Review: Ephemera (Polarity Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The last lost in space cadets

  
  

Kaelan Strouse and Kim Boler - Ephemera

  
Polarity Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Ephemera
  
Written by Bryce Wissel
Directed by Laura Sturm
at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $19  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You have to hand it to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, a daffy space opera called Ephemera. It wings its charming way through its almost stream-of-consciousness universe while, at the same time, interjecting notes of wisdom and flashes of sobering reality. Not so sobering that it subverts its comic balance—playwright Bryce Wissel challenges his characters but never allows them to sink into maudlin self-pity or self-absorption. Directed by Laura Sturm, Ephemera does that delicate dance of riffing on well-worn and outlandish tropes from sci-fi, creates a few new ones on its own, while nodding to the obvious drawbacks of a life suspended in space. The crew of orbital space station Ephemera shows all the wear and tear of living the most ungrounded of existences but that hardly keeps them from playing out all their individual idiosyncrasies, even to the living end.

Kim Boler and Jonas Gray - EphemeraPresented in “installments” by greeter Androids 1 and 2 (Hilary Holbrook and Sarah Grant), the story begins with Ephemera’s crew discovering a talking monkey trapped in its airlock. The monkey, Davy (played with superb body language by Charley Jordan) was the original test monkey sent into space during NASA’s early exploration days. Perhaps–and only perhaps–decades of exposure to interstellar radiation have speeded his evolution to the point where he can hold affable conversation, jovially drink down the station’s alcohol and hit on Colonel Kate McBride (Kim Boler). True to sci-fi/action thriller formula, Kate’s the only female on board–so, of course, Davy’s not Kate’s only suitor. Manuel (Kaelan Strouse), an android who was probably weaned on Telemundo programming, exerts all his exuberant Latin charm to woo her–not to mention showboat the audience.

As hotly pursued as Kate is, it’s through her we discover the darker aspects of Ephemera’s nut-house environment—they have been on board, orbiting Earth, for who knows how long or for what purpose. There’s been no communication from Earth and they all have no memory of any time before they were there. “I don’t even know if we came here willingly,” she plaintively tells Davy. It quickly becomes clear that the crew’s behavior reflects the time-wasting, random goofiness of people without direction or relief from meaningless routine. “Everyone I know has heard all of my jokes,” complains Colonel James Bowie (Jonas Grey). The only one having fun with his role seems to be Commander William B. Travis (played with absurdist brilliance by Bob Wilson) and mostly because his role on the station seems to have been fabricated out of thin air.

      
     Kim Boler, Jonas Grey, Charley Jordan, Kaelan Strouse, Bob Wilson, Sarah Grant and Hilary Holbrook - Ephemera Charles Jordan and Kim Boler - Ephemera
Jonas Grey, Kaelan Strouse, Kim Boler, Charles Jordan - Ephemera Kaelan Strouse in 'Ephemera'

Even the comedy’s non-linear story structure, replete with dropped-in asides from the characters, instills repetitive and nonsensical time loops in the action. Wissel’s comedy matches the flukiness of Douglas Adams’ or even Tom Robbins’ novels. At the heart of its highly randomized exposition is a workplace comedy, where work is very definitely not the issue but getting along with the quirks of one’s co-workers is. For the most part, the non-linear storytelling is very successful—only in the second act does it begin to wear itself out as a MacGuffin. However, Sturm’s cast is spot-on in pace, timing and delivery—a factor made all the more exacting by the production’s technical elements. Plus, artist lewis lains’ set design and further art installations create a great space for the cast’s gentle and gracious finale that brings the show home clean, clear and truthful. If a little more editing could be employed, Ephemera just might takes its place in the stars among its illustrious space comedy forebears.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jonas Gray, Charles Jordan, Kim Bolder

Ephemera continues through May 1st at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $19, and can be purchased online. More info at www.pettheatre.com.

Extra Credit:

     

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REVIEW: Jenny & Jenni (Factory Theater)

     
     

Funky Freestyle Aerobic Friendship

     
     

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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: ★★★
      
     

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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

 
 

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REVIEW: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Polarity Ensemble)

  
   

This ‘Journey’ lacks propulsion

 

 

Long Days Journey - Polarity 002

   
Polarity Ensemble presents
    
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
    
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by
Susan Padveen
at
Josephinum, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $10-$19  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, one of the most important plays in the American canon, is a marathon experience. Four acts, four actors (mostly), and enough substance abuse to melt your liver. Clocking in at almost four hours, the bulky play is rarely done. Polarity Ensemble has bravely engaged with the monster, opening their season with the highly-biographical play. The spark driving this production is dim, causing the world to feel artificial. Considering the challenges, however, Polarity and director Susan Padveen should be commended.

Long Days Journey - Polarity 011Long Day’s Journey can be seen as O’Neill’s love letter to the theatre. Alternatively, it could also be seen as a suicide note.

The play is based on O’Neill’s family life, one that is accustomed to second-rate hotels and late night trains. The father of both the real-life O’Neill and Edmond, his doppelganger in his story, played the lead in a perpetually touring production of The Count of Monte Cristo for thousands of performances. In Long Day’s Journey, the stress of the road has shredded apart Edmond’s family, along with cheap doctors, alcoholism, and a mother with a nasty morphine addiction.

Somewhat surprisingly, the play reads like a living, breathing text rather than a starchy closet drama. O’Neill never saw the play staged. He finished it, threw it in a vault, and said it could only be published a quarter-century after his death. His wishes were subverted, though, and the play saw the light of the day only three years after he was buried. It was met with enormous acclaim, won Eugene a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and now is required reading for any lover of American theatre. O’Neill’s memories are made watchable because of his charming wit and penchant for writing scorching conflicts which are constantly poked and resuscitated.

After sitting through that crushing diurnal cycle at Polarity’s space, you aren’t left snoring. But you aren’t left electrified, either. The cast shies away from the play’s essential weightiness. They never look comfortable just letting themselves sit immersed in the Tyrone’s dysfunction. The actors can’t get across the giant, swerving egos the script requires.

Long Days Journey - Polarity 013 Long Days Journey - Polarity 012
Long Days Journey - Polarity 003 Long Days Journey - Polarity 019

Kevin Kenneally is patriarch James. The role is perhaps the most difficult in the tale. He has probably the most stage time, and the hardest journey: watching the aftershocks of a family he had a major hand in destroying. Keanneally cannot plug into the raw power needed for James. For the most part, Keanneally steers his James well. But when the cards are down and pretenses have broken apart, he often retreats into vulnerability, as opposed to struggling to paint over his sensitivity with anger and disappointment.

Caroline Dodge Latta as James’ wife, Mary, fares better. She particularly shines in the last moments, where she brings down the house with one of my favorite monologues of all time. The two brothers are the most interesting piece of the cast. Bryan Breau’s Edmond and Eric Damon Smith’s whiskey-soaked Jamie spar with zest, even if some of the stakes aren’t high enough.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is a powerhouse play. Requiring thorough, battle-ready actors, the experience should be a punch in the throat. Padveen’s production is not a powerhouse. The lying isn’t believable enough, the delusions aren’t thick enough, and the family’s utter inability to communicate isn’t fully fleshed-out. The volatility needs to be wrenched up. O’Neill allows little room for tepidness.

That being said, Polarity could have done much, much, much worse. The major themes all bleed out, leaving plenty to ponder after the night finally arrives. Padveen’s production sucks the breath from you. But O’Neill’s incendiary script can knock you cold.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
       
     

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REVIEW: Messiah on the Frigidaire (Hubris Productions)

Faith among the desperate

Messiah 3

 
Hubris Productions presents
 
Messiah on the Frigidaire
 
Written by John Culbertson
Directed by Dennis Frymire
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The fervid religiosity of the American South suffers so much parody and lampoon it’s a wonder to find any comedy based on it that won’t bog down in cliché and 2-dimensional stereotype. But playwright John Culbertson shows a real feel for his subject. With Messiah on the Frigidaire, he demonstrates enough quick-witted familiarity to zing the zaniness of belief, while compassionately allowing his Messiah 2 characters the room to doubt, despair, and grow. Hubris Productions opens its fourth season at Greenhouse Theater Center with this gentle and astute play. Director Dennis Frymire and cast zealously realize its delicate balance between the hilarity of flamboyant religious showmanship and the loneliness of true dark nights of the soul.

Chief among lost souls is Lou Ann Hightower (Kim Boler)–facing a series of dead ends in her marriage, her blue-collar life, and her church. That might just look like tough times on anyone else. However, Lou Ann is also losing her faith, which for her is like slowly being drained of life’s blood. Luckily, she has a comforting sounding board in her friend and next-door neighbor, Betsy Gridley (Laura Rauh), the happily married ex-slut of Elroy, South Carolina. Lou Ann can confide to Betsy about the estrangement between her and her husband, Dwayne (Aaron Sjoholm), which has occurred under the strain of going nowhere fast. Betsy can still find joy in the streetlights as they come on in the evening, but Lou Ann finds her dreams and Dwayne’s suffocating in the confines of the trailer park.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious and/or obvious ways. In a premature attempt at topiary sculpture, another neighbor’s child has hacked away at one of Lou Ann’s trees. Light from the street lamps projects through its jagged branches, casting a shadow upon the Frigidaire on Lou Ann’s front porch, revealing–the face of Jesus! (Or Willie Nelson, take your choice.) Always thinking, husband Dwayne immediately perceives the monetary value of generating crowds to come view the new icon.

The trouble is, everyone else in town sees the monetary value, too—from the Reverend Hodges (Jeff McVann), who tells Lou Ann she doesn’t “fit in” to his church, to Elroy’s bank president Larry Williamson (Jack Birdwell) who denied Dwayne the loan to open a video store, but set up his own cousin with Dwayne’s idea. Culbertson is quite smart in the the numorous ways he highlights Elroy’s class dynamics. But he is also very conscious about the way it wreaks havoc with Lou Ann’s delicate conscience. Lou Ann may be more Christian than the church she’s been thrown out of or even the believers that show up on her property, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any happier.

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Frymire maintains the possibility of hope by snuggly weaving the relationships between Lou Ann and Betsy, and Lou Ann and Dwayne. Boler’s performance quietly, profoundly reaches to the solitary longing in Lou Ann’s soul but it also exposes Lou Ann’s simple, open acceptance of other people in their beliefs, no matter how wacky. Sjoholm’s Dwayne is a wily but frustrated good guy—chomping at the bit to make good on his dreams; only needing someone, especially Lou Ann, to believe in him. As Betsy, Rauh never goes overboard with the fun and friendly sluttiness—just enough to make her casual and comfortable in her own skin, never enough to overwhelm the friendship between Betsy and Lou Ann.

Even the “bad guys” get a bit of sympathy in their interpretation. Reverend Hodges may be the douchiest of douche bag preachers, but McVann’s performance also gives the impression that he is almost always on the point of obsequiously apologizing to someone. Birdwell portrays Larry Williamson with light, Southern college boy charm, masking the teeth he has underneath just long enough before he needs them.

This is one of those productions where the set should really live up to the quality of the storytelling. John Whittington makes the most of the cramped studio space available, but it still shows a flat, 2-dimensional quality. That might be fine if these were comic book characters—but they are not and the acting is not. Humane portrayals of flawed, human characters deserve humane, if not royal surroundings.

 
Rating: ★★★½