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: In Love’s Bright Coils (Genesis Theatre)

Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?

 

 For Web (2 of 4)

  
Genesis Ensemble presents
 
In Love’s Bright Coils
   
Written by The Genesis Ensemble
Directed by Kat Paddock
at The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through August 30th  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian 

Relationships are complicated. Depending on what side a person is on, it can be the greatest adventure or the cruelest fate. Either way, people crave love and affection, often communicating their feelings through the written word. Genesis Ensemble have taken this notion and used it to form their new, original piece In Love’s Bright Coils (the title based on a poem by E.B. White). Directed by Kat Paddock, this experimental piece based on found work seeks to answer the question, “Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?”

For Web (1 of 4) There’s a sense of theatricality even before entering the performance space. The Charnel House is loaded with character and charm. Before the show begins, the audience is led down a hallway lined with letters, text messages, Facebook messages and other types of correspondence. Entering the theatre, the actor’s are already on, filling the space with simultaneous readings of these messages as the audience takes their seats. It’s a sensory overload in a good sense, keeping the eyes moving about the room as this word cluster encapsulates the audience.

In Love’s Bright Coils then officially begins – opening on John and Abigail Adams reading letters they’ve sent each other; then flashing to present time with an angry man (Chris Acevedo) being broken up with through email. His emotions are clearly right at the surface and it’s evident that he understands the character is near breaking point.

The show switches back and forth between earlier times (late 1800’s, 1920’s and 1960’s) with handwritten letters and post mail correspondence to currents times (Facebook, blogs and text messages). The scenes feel a bit disjointed as they jump between time periods, causing one to be momentarily pulled out of the action. Additionally, within the older time period pieces, some of the actors have trouble connecting with the words of the letters, thus losing characterization in the process. More of a back story feels necessary with these vignettes because the letters and actions don’t offer a clear enough explanation. It might make more sense to set the action chronologically – not only would this inform us on how people relate over time, but we’d also experience how communications evolved and what this does to relationships.

The stage throughout the show is bare with a multimedia backdrop, displaying dates, logos and images. The multimedia adds another layer, increasing the interest in what’s occurring on stage. It also acts as a transitional piece, helping to somewhat smooth out the switches between time periods.

A present day scene based on LiveJounal posts is a riot. In a short amount of time, McKenzie Gerber’s character has a clear arch with a fleshed out back-story, which proves to be quite funny. Gerber also moves throughout the space, taking his scene off the stage, which helps the sketch grow as he delves further into the reality of the character.

Karie Miller offers an interesting portrayal of a woman’s careening Facebook addiction, becoming increasingly scattered and spread too thin until her “relationship status” goes from “in a relationship” to “single and unfriended.” Miller fully embodies this social networking addiction and is present in the scene, keeping the audience engaged.

For Web (3 of 4)

Another stand-out vignette comes from present day as well. Two women (Amanda Jane Dunne and Natalie Burtney) have just gone on their first date. Once home, Burtney’s character sends a post-date text. Having yet to receive a response the next day, she spirals into a state of temporary insanity, agonizing over the one meeting, until finally she receives a reply. The scene is wonderfully relatable to the audience, and what comes to mind is, “It’s funny because it’s true” – if we haven’t experienced this personally, then we probably know someone who has. Paddock and Dunne completely embody the characters and portray real, raw emotions that radiate into the audience.

Throughout In Love’s Bright Coils, a man, dressed in black, appears as a messenger and the vocalization of different character’s inner thoughts. Played by Jake Carr, this character is often confusing. In some scenes his purpose is clear as he announces blog posts, email subjects, text messages and instant messages. At other times, however, his character adds nothing save for distraction, once again pulling us away from the main action.

Overall, it’s nice to see Genesis taking these risks. This is a hugely unique show, which is a good thing. The trouble with risks, however, is that sometimes things don’t work out. But by not playing it safe, the ensemble is free to explore new territory, making some very impressionable discoveries.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

For Web (4 of 4) For Web (4 of 4) For Web (4 of 4) For Web (4 of 4)

In Love’s Bright Coils plays at the Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton. The show plays on Friday/Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through August 30. Tickets are $10, and can be reserved by sending an e-mail to genesis.ensemble@gmail.com.

   
   

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REVIEW: Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Party on, Dude!

 

cherrywood

  
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
  
Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable
   
Written by Kirk Lynn
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $13-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fliers announce ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable.  A foursome decides to host a party. They have three kinds of chips, an array of music, bottles of booze and a shots of… milk? In response to their fliers, the guests arrive and fill up the house. The usual party suspects are all present. Free loading crashers. Whiny girl. Depressed divorced guy. Unwanted neighbor. Gaggle of gals in bathroom line. P.D.A. couple on the dance floor. Hot shirtless guy. Person continually announcing ‘I’m wasted.’ Sporadic drunken wrestling. It feels, looks and sounds familiar except with a couple of twists: Somebody brought a gun. Everybody has been drinking wild wolves’ milk. People are opening boxes of their secret desires. Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is a virtual reality party experience without the pressure to mingle or the aid of a cocktail.

In a large living-room-like space, the audience seats encircle the action. Closely matched in numbers, the 50+ wallflowers watch the 49 performers party. It’s such a tight fit that I needed to move my purse before a guy sat on it. Director David Cromer has gone fire-code-capacity to create an authentic party.

The proximity blurs the fourth wall completely in deciphering between the party gawkers versus goers. I consciously refrain from shouting out an answer to ‘name a good band that starts with the letter ‘A’.’ It seems like a jumbling of improv mixed in with scripted lines. Crediting playwright Kirk Lynn with some of the best lines, it’s existentialism goes rave with the ongoing philosophy ‘if you want something different, ask for it.’ Lynn writes dialogue describing cocktail banter as ‘question-answer-it-doesn’t-always-happen-like-that’ mockery. One character describes herself with ‘everything I do is a form of nodding. I want to break my neck to stop nodding.’ In a heated exchange, the neighbor jabs, ‘you remember the world? It’s the room outside the door.’ It’s genuine party chatter. Some conversations are playful. Some are deep. Some just don’t make any sense. Clusters of people are sharing philosophical drunken babble throughout the room. A gunshot brings the house of strangers together in a communal bonding alliance.

For the theatre goer looking for a break from classic plot driven shows, Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is performance art. It is a ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ For those who wonder what Chicago actors and designers do off-season, this is an opportunity to fly-on-the-wall it. If you’ve anticipated they hang out together and party, this would be your imagined drunken haze. The who’s who of storefront theater is boozing it up. It’s a Steep, Lifeline, Dog & Pony, House, Griffin, etc. reunion bash, and man do they know how to party!

  
   
Rating: ★★★
       
    

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: Almost, Maine (The Gift Theatre)

Gift Theatre creates a real charm offensive

 almostmaine_440

The Gift Theatre presents:

Almost, Maine

 [a special dinner/theatre event]

by John Cariani
directed by Barlag, Belcuore, Blandford, Branham, Dibo, Gawlik, and Jones
featuring: Dan Aho, Burfete, DiNicola, Emmons, Jim Farruggio, Ed Flynn, Aemilia Scott, Justine Serino, and Kyle Zornes
through February 21st
(more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Much about John Cariani’s play, Almost, Maine, mirrors Jules Feiffer’s 1977 play Hold Me!  Both are collections of light, comical sketches regarding the uncertainties of the human heart. The essential difference between them is that the poignant neuroticism of Feiffer’s work grounds itself in the daily struggles of urban—okay, New York City—existence, while John Cariani situates his characters in the benignly rural and utterly imaginary location of Almost, Maine.

securedownload So, Fieffer’s characters fret, not only over their past or latest or lack of personal relationships, but also the political and social uneasiness of their times. By contrast, Cariani’s small town residents exist far, far, far away; not just from anything resembling everyday concerns—quite a thing to think about in a play emerging from 2004—but also reality itself. All the struggles of falling in and out of love dominate the minds of Almost’s inhabitants as if there were nothing else going on in the world. Moreover, the play steps further from reality in the literal use of sight gags based on our clichéd idioms about love.

All of which would be a treacly mess in less proficient hands. But Gift Theatre Company’s numerous directors and actors demonstrate a delicate, persistent care for the material, eliciting every critical ounce of human sympathy from the moment. The pain of abandonment or loss receives the wry and gentle touch called for by the text. Humor is almost born, not from the lines, but in the space between the lines as characters contend with what direction to go in the pursuit of romance. In the process, Capriani’s deeper wit about the precariousness of creating or preserving love shines through. It’s a magical place, Almost, Maine—but magical places can be as dangerous as the real ones. Almost is fraught with the possibility of losing one’s big chance at love, even when it is staring you in the face.

almostmaine_440

Since the play has such a short run—and only for benefit purposes–GTC hadn’t planned to have it reviewed. Too bad, they’re getting a good review anyway. At the very least, Almost, Maine is a real charm offensive, a solid showcase for cast and crew. Plus, if it’s perfectly timed to be “date theater” for the masses this Valentine’s Day, at least it’s a work about love that both is and is not about the happy ending.

 

Rating: ★★★

 


THE DINNER:

A four course Northeastern Seafood Dinner For Two @

The Gale Street Inn

  • Crabcake Appetizer
  • New England Chowder
  • Lobster And Mussel Clam Bake For Two
  • Cranberry Cheesecake

Production and dinner are only available as a coupled event:

“The Seafood Duet”
A Very Special Event Generously Sponsored by The Gale Street Inn
To Benefit The Gift Theatre Company

Dinner For Two at Gale Street Inn + Tickets for Two to The Gift = $75.

A Value of $60 for Your Meal + A Value of $50 for Your Tickets = Sweet!
Tax, Tip, Beverage Not Included.
A Non-Seafood Substitute Menu Will Be Available Upon Request.
Sorry, No Refunds.  Exchanges Subject to Seating Availability.

Please give yourselves plenty of time to savor and enjoy your meal before the show! Patrons also enjoy the freedom to park their car in Gale Street’s lot!

For Evening Performances:
Please plan on being seated at Gale Street by 6:00pm and no later than 6:30pm.

For Matinee Performances:
Dinner served after the show starting around 4:30pm.
Before the show, please plan on being seated by 1:00pm.

As a courtesy to you, the audience, and the actors, there is no late seating at The Gift.

For tickets call (773) 283-7071, or
BUY ONLINE!
View Reservation Policies