Review: Volpone (City Lit Theater)

     
     

17th-century satire is sly like a fox

     
     

Don Bender and Eric Damon Smith in Volpone - City Lit Theater.  Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Volpone
   
Written by Ben Jonson
Music composed by Kingsley Day
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Volpone, or The Fox, was written by Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century in just five weeks. It was first performed by the King’s Men at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606. City Lit Theater’s production is the company’s fourth production of their 31st season.

Volpone tells the story of an old miser, Volpone (Don Bender) who, with his servant Mosca (Eric Damon Smith), fakes a deathly illness in order to convince a handful of wealthy men to shower him with expensive gifts after promising each that they are his sole heir. Bender fits into the part of Volpone like a glove. From his voice to his body language, Bender owns the part as well as the stage. Bender’s Volpone is slimy, greedy and everything you would hope to see from such a character. Likewise, Smith’s Mosca is simply entertaining as Volpone’s faithful servant. He plays up the character and is quite funny as he help to Don Bender as Volpone by Ben Jonson - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.work over the wealthy men as they arrive to pay tribute to the “dying” Volpone. Smith, like Bender, understands just want is required of the character, and Smith is both charming and persuasive as Mosca, like a good salesman who could convince anyone man to buy anything he was selling.

Written in the 1600s, Volpone is written in Early Modern English, but the cast does a wonderful job of making the script accessible to the audience. That being said, the script’s dense at times, and while the energy continues to run high through the performance, the action can seem to drag at times.

Occasionally, Volpone calls on his fool (Ben Chang), Castrone (David Fink) and Androgyno (Chris Pomeroy) to entertain him. Equipped with musical instruments, these three sing and play and are a joy. They never fail to get the audience laughing with the lightness and humor of their performances. They are not the best singers but that fact is pushed aside because they’re so enjoyable to watch on stage.

The men whom Volpone tricks are Corvino (Alex Shotts), Corbaccio (Larry Baldacci) and Voltore (Clay Sanderson). These three men deliver exact portrayals of rich and greedy men who think themselves quite clever when, in fact, there are gullible and easily duped. All three men do a fine job, but Shotts in particular as Corvino takes his character over-the-top, not in an obnoxious way, but in a way that works for a satire. He’s very funny in his characterization and his body language.

For the most part the staging is fine-tuned, although Laura Korn, who plays Corvino’s wife Celia, is stiff in her movements and does not completely commit to her actions.

The set, designed by William Anderson, is simple in its style and coloring. With an art deco style set in the 1920s, the palate is of muted colors like brown, beige, blue and black, and there’s not a lot of flair. The simplicity of the set design offers a nice backdrop for the crazy antics of the show and does not detract from the performance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
       

Patti Roeder and Don Bender in Volpone - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight. Eric Damon Smith (left) as Mosca and Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

Volpone plays at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, through February 27. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 773-293-3682 or visiting citylit.org.

All photos by Johnny Knight

  
  

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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: ★★★
  

 

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REVIEW: The Body Snatchers (City Lit Theater)

Pod people take over City Lit Theater!

 

CityLit-BodySnatchers_web 

 
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Body Snatchers
 
Adapted and directed by Paul Edwards
From the novel by
Jack Finney
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
[ Thru May 9 | tickets: $25 | more info ]

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

If the late-night creature feature is your idea of fun, you’ll love City Lit Theater’s clever and nostalgic version of The Body Snatchers.

Bringing science fiction to the stage often requires surmounting difficult problems of special effects. Creating futuristic worlds and horrifying aliens is a lot easier for moviemakers than it is for theater directors. Yet in this lively world-premiere staging, the horrors are all conveyed — wonderfully — by the actors, while the special effects evoke not the future, but the past.

bodysnatchers Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, which was in turn the basis for the seminal 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and remakes and sequels in 1978, 1993 and 2007, the production effectively uses video displays of the 1950s – the Atomic Age – to create mood, reminding us of the era, paying homage to the films and sometimes standing in for sets on the small and minimally furnished stage.

The original novel and the film were set in the 1950s simply because they were created in the ’50s. In 2010, however, that timing conveys a sense of solid normality, of a time of innocence and placidity against which the invasion of the emotionless vegetable people seems even more unspeakably alien than it would be amid the turmoil of our war-torn and politically weird 21st century. (Oddly, however, the adaptation dismisses the 1950s’ own political peculiarity, to which the original’s theme of infiltration partly alludes.)

In case you’ve somehow managed to miss all the versions of this eerie story, the plot follows the residents of a small Marin County, CA town who are gradually replaced by identical but impassive beings that grow in giant pods.

Brian Pastor plays Miles, the protagonist and narrator. A doctor, lately divorced, Miles is among the first to hear of the trouble when his old flame, the seductive Becky (Sheila Willis), also newly divorced, comes to him with her concerns over her cousin (Susie Griffith), who’s become convinced that their uncle isn’t really their uncle. Then more and more townspeople report such convictions about their relatives. Meanwhile, romance rekindles between Miles and Becky, though both are gun-shy.

CityLit-BodySnatchers_webAfter Miles’ frightened friends Jack and Theodora (Thad Anzur and Shawna Tucker) reveal a startling find in their basement, the foursome begins to tumble to the bizarre and terrifying truth, despite the glib efforts of Mannie (Jerry Bloom), a psychologist, to dismiss it all as mass hysteria, like the Mattoon Mania. No one’s immune, not even the police (Andrew Jorczak).

City Lit has loads of fun with this show, injecting humorous touches at every level, from the fake newspapers on the video screens to the twitching pod people to unexpected reactions on Miles’ asides to the audience. Pastor, with a keen sense of comic timing, takes the focus of the show, but fine performances feature throughout. The supporting characters — especially Bloom’s urbane Mannie, Kingsley Day’s creepy Uncle Ira and June Eubanks’ sly takes on two female roles — add subtlety and interest.

The whole cast follows ably along with Paul Edwards’ somewhat uneven script, lurching from the pure camp and shrill thrills of the B-movies to the novel’s reflective commentary on suburban married life — the point, of course, being that horrors don’t all come from outer space.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Sketchfest comes to Chicago: do not miss it!

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Storytown

by Ian Epstein

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival:

  • Lasts only 8 days
  • erupts with nearly 150 performers
  • consists of nearly 100 troupes
  • is calling your name

sketchfest-logo“We’re creating comedy,” says Brian Posen, the founder and Executive Producer of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  With a head full of curly hair, Posen wears a neatly trimmed beard, a spotless labcoat and a pair of white angel wings, swaying slightly.  He’s standing on a stage in a cloud of fog.  Black horn-rimmed glasses frame his face, giving him the distinguished air you’d expect from a mad, comedic scientist.  A fellow actor, also clad in a labcoat, holds up the machine emitting all this fog.  This is Bri-Ko, one of the sketch comedy troupes participating in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  It’s 4:30pm on Thursday, January 7th, and they’re putting the finishing tech touches on their show.  In three and a half hours the curtain rises simultaneously on three stages to kick off the 9th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, or  SketchFest for short.  And Bri-Ko is one of the troupes that Executive Producer and Founder Brian Posen himself will perform in. 

Sketch Comedy – a history course

Hundreds of years ago and late at night, a writer fumbling over a desk with a dim lamp couldn’t think up the right word for an elusive thought.  Blindly, the writer scratches down a word on the page — a word that is not English at all — that is, in fact, Dutch. 

That elusive idea that the writer wrestled with? Lost to history. It definitely wasn’t a perfect drawing or a final draft, “what the Dutch Painters call a schytz” or a “hasty piece.”  No, this was something else .  An idea too flighty for familiarity.  It needed to be lean and light like a single shriek of laughter.  The “first schetse of a comedy,” perhaps.  From its first uses in English, a sketch is something intimately connected with the person who created it.  It is practically incapable of life outside of that person.  And from its first instance, a sketch has always been about the ability to get across a lot of ideas using a combination of speed and variety – it’s a quick bit of ingenuity or an outline traced in midair. 

What is sketch comedy?

Is it improv?  In a word: no.  Sketch Comedy involves reams of paper full of words and tons of ideas put forward in these things that you might call scripts.  You’d be mistaken, though, since these scripts, animated by the writers who wrote them and appreciated by the audience that views them, become what they call sketchs

Sketches of what, though?  Of movies?  Sometimes.  A TV mini-series?  A full on farce à la Moliere with costumes?  A song cycle or an extended piece of silent, physical comedy?  Commedia dell’arte for the new decade?    A made for TV movie performed live with two people playing ten roles?   Are these sketches just blueprints for knock knock jokes?  Does each maybe contain some shard or kernel from the source of all knock knock jokes ever?

The sketches, Posen explains, differ as widely as the troupes that perform them.  He continues, adding that sketch is the comedic form that is all the rage in the comedy scene these days.  Talking quickly, he runs through history, stopping here and there to point out trends in American comedy with insight and nonchalance. The 80s were all about stand up, he observes, and the 90s saw the rise of improvisation as the ruling form well  into the recently closed out naughts, where the sketch takes off around the time as SketchFest’s 2001 inaugural year.

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Bri-Ko Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Buffet Shark

SketchFest comes to Chicago

Back in 2001, Posen, working as a producer, booked a stage at Theatre Building Chicago to put up a musical by the Chicago writing duo Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day .  The musical was an ambitious production called Aztec Human Sacrifice.  But the bottom fell out and Posen was left with a reserved stage at Theatre Building Chicago.  There were no other takers for the stage and nothing was waiting in the wings.  So Posen hopped on the phone and sent emails to his sketch comedy friends and about a month later the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival met with huge success.  Posen possesses that rare, inspiring combination of an actor’s energy, a comedian’s wit, a teacher’s patience, and an off-hand eloquence that allows him to talk about the traditions of comedy and connect them to complex theories about how theater should work, theories that an academic might trace back to Brecht or far beyond. 

Over its elongating history (who knows what’s in store for next year’s 10 year anniversary…), there have been a variety of trends in what SketchFest emphasizes.  2010 marks an explosion of kid-centric sketch offerings for groups of kids and by groups of kids spilling across the stages by day.

But be sure not to go to a late night show expecting family-friendly content.  Posen warns that sketch, a theatrical form that draws its energy from aggression and hostility before turning it into satirical gold, is largely rated R or PG (depending upon the parent or the rating organization).

In a lot of ways, SketchFest resembles a professional conference — where comedy is the currency of choice and the CEOs appear in clown noses or costumes.  Posen and the SketchFest staff bring together a select panel of performance professionals (only half of the groups that apply make the cut) who gather to discuss and workshop the finer points of their craft.  And a huge part of sketch comedy’s beauty is that the craft is so self-effacing — the better its done, the harder you laugh.  You don’t marvel at the delivery of a particularly difficult line so much as you crumple to the floor crying hysterically.  The countless hours spent slaving over the placement of punchlines in a script or perfecting what is too often perceived as the innate mystery of comic timing fall by the wayside; comedy’s most audible byproduct isn’t applause, it’s laughter. 

Chicago Theater Blog Recommends

(Don’t be afraid to read about the groups or check out the schedule.  Take a look at the Kids friendly offerings!  And remember — they all passed the preliminary inspections so any group is a safe bet!)

Kanellis & Armstrong
1/8/10 @ 9pm
1/9/10 @ 9pm

Hard Left Productions
1/8/10 @ 10pm
1/9/10 @ 10pm

Bri-Ko 
1/8/10 @ 11pm
1/9/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)
1/16/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)

The Cupid Players
1/9/10 @8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Animosity Pierre
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 9pm

In Yo Face
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Rabbit Rabbit
1/15/10 @ 10pm
1/16/10 @ 10pm

BriTANick
1/15/10 @ 11pm
1/16/10 @ 11pm

The Backrow
1/16/10 @ 7pm

sketchfestpromo