REVIEW: The Big Meal (American Theater Company)

  
  

Finger Lickin’ Good!

  
  

Emily Leahy, Philip Earl Johnson, Lia D. Mortensen, Noah Jerome Schwartz in The Big Meal at American Theater Company.

   
American Theater Company presents
   
The Big Meal
        
Written by Dan LeFranc
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
at
American Theater, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $20-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

By the time an average person is 50 years old, he will have consumed over 50,000 meals. Annual sit-down celebrations to drive-through-minivan-feasts, big and small life moments revolve around sharing food. American Theater Company presents the world premiere of The Big Meal.

Andrew Goetten, Lindsay Leopold in The Big Meal at American Theater Company.A server checks out her last table and goes home with him. Their casual hook-up leads to dating. The courtship heats up to love. The intense affection spirals into indifference. They break-up. A chance encounter leads to make-up sex. They get engaged then married. Their romance is a whirlwind… of minutes! The evolution of Nicki and Sam’s lives are illustrated by quick snippet scenes around meals. Initially, it’s just the couple. Later, it’s their parents and children. And not much later, it’s their children’s children. Fifty plus years of bite-size morsels make two lifetimes. The Big Meal is a hearty entrée of life with all the fixings.

Playwright Dan LeFranc penned a meaty story about family. With some prime choices casted, Director Dexter Bullard flame broils it to perfection. Eight actors, from kids to seniors, play multiple roles. Always at the table, Nicki and Sam are played by six actors at various life stages. They age, change and don’t change. It’s the reality of relationships over time. The brilliance of the sustenance is the subtle and distinct flavors. Seeing multiple generations interacting through the years is seeing the whole family tree through the forest. There are the small discoveries, like his dad was a racist so he tells off-color jokes. His mom drank, so he drinks. To bigger moments, she was ignored by her grandpa and her father so she has dysfunctional relationships with men including her son. LeFranc uses overlapping dialogue to create an organic experience. Bullard stages it with tables and chairs continually revolving. The volume and pace are chaotic life happenings. The level of activity halts abruptly for poignant moments to showcase a person’s ‘last supper.’ It’s the all-you-can-eat life banquet with heaping helpings of love and death.

     
Noah Jerome Schwartz and Emily Leahy in The Big Meal at American Theater Company. Lia D. Mortensen, Will Zahrn, Peggy Roeder, Philip Earl Johnson in The Big Meal at American Theater Company.

This talented cast provides a buffet of tasty moments. Collectively, they mesh family style. Individually, they seamlessly morph into someone else. A particularly entertaining transformation is Andrew Goetten playing four different boyfriends in a four minute span. Lindsay Leopold is hysterically neurotic as the youngest version of Nicki. The chemistry between Lia D. Mortensen and Philip Earl Johnson as the midlife couple is well-balanced angst and contentment. Will Zahrn embraces multiple personalities with flourish going from prick to party guy to curmudgeon. Peggy Roeder makes hilarious side comments and then ends the show in a powerful silent haunting visual. Noah Jerome Schwartz and Emily Leahy play several versions of precocious kids delightfully… because they aren’t yours.

The Big Meal is life ordered off the menu. Thought provoking! Knowing preservatives don’t keep anything good indefinitely, ask for the specials but get what you want out of life. And definitely look at the dessert menu. The Big Meal, reservations recommended!

   
  
Rating: ★★★½  
      
     

Peggy Roeder, Will Zahrn, Lia D. Mortensen, Philip Earl Johnson in The Big Meal at American Theater Company.

Lia D. Mortensen, Peggy Roeder, Emily Leahy in The Big Meal at American Theater Company. Lia Mortensen and Emily Leahy in The Big Meal at American Theater Company.

The Big Meal continues through March 6th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm . Running Time: Seventy-five minutes with no intermission

  
  

REVIEW: Bus Stop (The Den Theatre)

  
  

Love, Apple Pie and a Cup of Joe

 
 

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The Den Theatre presents
  
Bus Stop
  
Written by William Inge
Directed by
Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen
at
The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Some people will want to step into The Den, a newly established Wicker Park theater venue founded by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen, for the sheer joy of steeping oneself in pure, unadulterated Americana. William Inge’s Bus Stop will wrap up on January 22, so there’s still time to catch a vision of bygone America in the loving care of a solid cast carrying out intricate, commendable ensemble work. The Den’s waiting area has a comfortable and homey feel, but step inside the theater space and be greeted by the same pleasurable warmth evoked by Caleb McAndrew’s set design. Only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee could complete the perfection of its mid-Twentieth Century rural diner.

Bus_Stop-122Another significant advantage of the new stage space is that it’s set in deep enough to give well-rounded, 3-D perspective to Martin and Mortensen’s direction. Actors play a scene in one area, up or downstage, without interfering with the relationships of other characters continuing on speechlessly in another. Characters move apart to give each other needed, but uneasy, space – only to rejoin once détente is established, verbally or nonverbally. Bus Stop is Inge’s meditation on love, after all—what brings people together and pushes them apart. So, when it comes to maintaining realistic emotion between the transient souls showing up at Grace’s Diner, give them land, lots of land, under starry skies above. The rest is left up to the cast’s impeccable timing—Martin and Mortensen’s direction keeps the pace real and each scene as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting.

Here Grace, played robustly by Liz Zweifler, comes across as the coffee-refilling mother of all waitresses. Elma (Elise Walter), her earnest, college-bound, naïve employee, learns the romantic ways of men and women never far from Grace’s protective wing. Parts of Bus Stop were surely scandalous in their day. Yet, considering the rapid-fire way kids are thrown into sexual maturity by our internet age, the whole play seems preserved in amber innocence through Elma’s enduring optimism about the human race, Grace’s common sense take on sex and marriage and Will (Ed Smaron) the sheriff’s watchful eye, weather-beaten sage demeanor and looming physical presence.

Into this quasi-family spill the bus driver, Carl (Karl Pothoff), and his hodge-podge collection of passengers. Here they must ride out Kansas’ worst snowstorm in years until the highway can be cleared. Cherie (Arianne Ellison), a low-end nightclub singer, is on the run from Bo (Brian Kavanaugh), a rodeo cowboy who basically forced her onto the bus to take her to his ranch in Montana. His pal, Virgil (Will Kinnear), and the sheriff have to talk him down from going through with his kidnapping plans, which he has made under the astonishingly naïve presumption that a one-night stand with Cherie means everlasting love.

Even in 1955, when Bus Stop first opened, Inge’s premise must have been notoriously hard to sell. The intervening years have not made it any easier. Bo may now be the hardest character to play sympathetically in Bus Stop. Indeed, if Kavanaugh can’t quite reach the credibility necessary to convey it, it’s not for want of trying. His technique is fine, his body language rough and tumble enough to suggest a life of hard work and hard play, but his portrayal of the character’s mentality is still just short of the full-on bullheaded ignorance and cocksureness to make his presumptions about Cherie absurdly real.

Thankfully, scenes between Bo and Virgil become grounded through Kinnear’s low-key, almost Zen-like approach to Virgil. Arianne Ellison’s interaction with Kavanaugh also provides a firmer foundation, giving Cherie a lot of pin-up girl charm and helplessness in the face of Bo’s advances.

Ellison also realistically rounds out Cherie’s quiet, pining confessions to Elma with her need for love and respect, her waning faith in getting either. What’s more, throw away every memory of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the movie version. Ellison brings authentic goods to Cherie singing “That Old Black Magic” during the diner’s impromptu variety show. She really is a small town girl with a pretty face, a nice body and a little talent, struggling her way through an American songbook classic. The whole scene is transformative, actualizing the emotional connections between Cherie and Bo, so that their rapprochement at the end of the play rings with clarity and vitality.

Set designed by Caleb McAndrew for Bus Stop by William Inge - The Den Theatre ChicagoElma’s connection with Dr. Lyman (Ron Wells) builds and proceeds without a hitch—due, in no small part, to Walter’s ability to express unadorned curiosity and excitement blooming under Lyman’s attentions, as well as Wells’ instinctive ability to depict a love-lost man contemplating life from the bottom of a glass. Lyman’s drunken breakdown during his Romeo and Juliet scene with Elma hits with profound and poetic truth. So does his first act finale monologue where, sauced beyond any ability to remember what he’s saying, he admits to his own cowardice and selfishness. Wells’ portrayal of Lyman’s self-loathing leaves an indelible memory.

Pothoff and Smaron admirably fill in the rest of the play with their own variations on masculinity. Carl and Grace delight with their gentle, no-nonsense flirtation, their assignation an open secret that Will charmingly scores laughs on and Elma accepts without judgment. Inge’s presentation of American sexuality–with its sympathetic portrait of Lyman, its acknowledgment of Bo’s sexual immaturity versus Cherie’s experience, and its acceptance Grace’s extra-marital dalliances–definitely reveal a country ready to peal back assumptions on gender roles and Victorian sexual morality.

But in another sense, the play is a snapshot of sexual and relationship innocence we can never and probably should never return to again. Grace may celebrate Cherie leaving with Bo in the end, but no one today can be that celebratory about a man so completely clueless about a woman’s rights over her own person. A guy like that might have as much propensity for battering as good old boy fun–and that’s something that today’s audiences can’t ignore, for all the nostalgic yearning that Bus Stop fulfills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Bus Stop runs Dec. 3 – Jan. 22, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. NO SHOWS Dec. 23-26, 31, and Jan. 1. The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Floor in Wicker Park.

 

     
Bus Stop at the Den Theatre Chicago - poster

 

Cast

Arianne Ellison
Brian Kavanaugh
Will Kinnear
Ed Smaron
Elise Walter
Ron Wells
Liz Zweifler

     
     

 

REVIEW: The Hiding Place (Provision Theater)

Powerful story vividly brought to life on the stage

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Provision Theater presents
 
The Hiding Place
 
Adapted and directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the autobiography of
Corrie ten Boom
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
thru May 23rd  |  tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein

The Hiding Place is the story of a brick wall in the ten Boom (sounds close to Tannenbaum) residence in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.  The ten Booms are an upstanding, morally righteous Dutch Christian family from Haarlem. There’s Casper ten Boom (Dennis Kelly), the greying patriarch, who, with his tailored suit and clocksmith’s shop, might as well be a stand-in for father time flanked by his THP-Cynthia Judge, Lia Mortensen.jpg two daughters, Betsie ten Boom (Cynthia Judge) and Corrie ten Boom (Lia Mortensen). Betsie has a prodigious commitment to her faith that makes her character appear to toe the line between naivete and sainthood while her sister Corrie makes up for her sister’s sincerity with cynicism, a kind of cynicism crystallized by loss and hindsight since it’s Corrie’s 1971 book that gives the show its title and its content.

The play begins with Corrie ten Boom at a speaking engagement – discussing faith, forgiveness, and the loss of her sister, and what forces moved her to set up the rehabilitative organization to which she is both steward and spokesperson.

All of a sudden and out of the crowd walks a frenetic, apologetic stranger who reveals himself to Corrie and offers money. He explains who he is and where the money is from and at the mere mention of his name, the elderly Corrie’s knees buckle and she collapses in a faint onto a chair, asking after a glass of water.

In what follows, we leave the elderly Corrie ten Boom scene behind and travel back to where things began, starting in the early days of Nazi-occupied Holland when the Dutch underground is hiding deeper and deeper and becoming ever more necessary and desperate.  As the story unfolds, we are told all we need to of the ten Boom family. We watch them celebrate holidays, mourn the loss of a son to prison – all due to a flagrant and patriotic (in all the wrong ways) act of pride that forced a Nazi to smash his piano-playing fingers before hauling him off to prison. We watch the underground melt from a world of friends to a world of ever-more-anonymous and furtive collection of men all and only known as "Mr. Smith." We watch the righteous ten Boom family take in, house, and feed one Dutch Jew after another, each offering the story of flight into hiding as another stroke in the composite portrait of a community facing Nazi destruction. We watch the ten Boom collaborate with an industrious group of construction-minded "Mr. Smiths" to build an impervious, brick-enclosed hiding place. And then we watch as the Gestapo arrives and the ten Booms are betrayed and Betsie and Corrie are carted off to a prison, and a concentration camp and finally after THP- Lia Mortensen.jpg nearly three hours watching faith, hope, and an enduring belief in the goodness of humans clash with unspeakable cruelty, Corrie – and by extension the whole audience (since by this time Corrie is the only continuous presence – the narrator whose trail we follow) – is confronted with an question about the limits of forgiveness.

The Hiding Place is an undeniably powerful story. And in the hands of Provision Theater‘s Artistic Director Tim Gregory, the adaptation boldly and faithfully animates the story. But in a few places (the muddy mix of accents, for example) a gesture intended to reinforce the authenticity of the story and stay as close as possible to the narrative itself gets in the way of telling it and telling it well on stage. Translation from the page onto the stage doesn’t necessarily need to bear in the character’s speech the artifact of their origin. The accents wind up lending the show an inconsistent feel (as any unfamiliar accent might over the course of three hours and so many characters) that detracts from the shows other successes.

Isaac B. Turner‘s costumes and Inseung Park‘s set, for example, offer color and character without any of the trappings of an obscure, unfamiliar accent that isn’t always well-delivered. Park’s set is a post-and-beam skeleton of a house that calls to mind Todd Rosenthal‘s Tony-winning design for August: Osage County. And then, during intermission, the drama-in-a-big-transparent-house element, so familiar to American theater-goers, evaporates into the shapes of an abstracted, oppressive prison-or-concentration-camp. The choice to spend so much time in the grey, faith-testing agony of a concentration camp is a lot to bear and this production, though well wrought, informative, and necessary, is rewarding for its audience without always being kind.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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