Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: Fifty Words (Profiles Theatre)

        
        

A rapid-fire assault on a crumbling marriage

  
  

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

  
Profiles Theatre presents
   
  
Fifty Words
  
Written by Michael Weller
Directed by Joe Jahraus
at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

On the way to Profiles, my friend and I were discussing how a play is like the season finale of a TV show, when months, even years worth of plots come to a head, often leaving the audience on a cliffhanger that makes them crave more. The difference is that a play doesn’t have a season’s worth of episodes leading up to it, and playwrights have to integrate all that history into the script without breaking the momentum of the present catastrophe. Michael Weller’s Fifty Words condenses ten years worth of marital crises into a 90-minute whirlwind of exposed secrets and pent-up aggression, as Jan (Katherine Keberlein) and Adam (Darrell H. Cox) spend their first night alone together in 9 years. With their son Dylan in Staten Island for a sleepover, Adam sees the evening as a rare opportunity to revive their struggling sex life, attempting to seduce his wife while she’s preoccupied with their son and her upstart online business. Champagne and take-out aren’t enough to take Jan’s mind off Dylan’s troubling behavior at school and Adam’s lengthy business trips to the Midwest, and the dinner discussion turns ugly as truths come out that could potentially destroy their family.

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)Weller writes quick dialogue that Keberlein and Cox maneuver swiftly, snapping at each other like animals as the stakes are heightened. The mood is constantly shifting as the aggression between the two turns sexual, and Joe Jahraus’ direction captures the tension well, especially in the intimate (some one would say tight) Profiles space. The actors are kept on opposite ends of the kitchen when the arguments are at their fiercest, and when they are physically close it’s either to relieve the tension or because the tension just snapped. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design reflects the tonal shifts during the scenes changes, with cool blue washing over the sensual moments and stark red highlighting the more furious sequences. It’s a bit obvious, but it works in the context of Weller’s script, which has a lot of the standard tropes of the marriage power play –overbearing wife, inattentive husband, troubled child, infidelity – but approaches the concepts from intriguing new angles.

Fifty Words is about the relationship between power and desire, and Jan and Adam are in the paradoxical situation of wanting to take individual control of their marriage wile still wanting a more aggressive partner to fulfill personal desires. The conflict arises from the difference in their needs, with Jan wanting Adam to take a more active role in their son’s life while Adam is more concerned with getting his wife in bed. They’re both fully aware of the other’s demands, and they willfully withhold relief to make the other suffer. As revelations come out, the fighting becomes more violent, and sex becomes a weapon. Sex is a major driving force of the plot, and as usual, Profiles doesn’t shy away from the erotic elements of the script.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss tried to explain why audiences don’t like nudity and sex on stage, but embrace it on film, and there is certainly something unnerving about seeing a topless woman get ravaged by her husband on their kitchen counter. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing. Nudity creates a strong reaction from the audience, and when the subject is physically in the same room, there’s an added layer of intimacy, especially in Profiles’ small space. The comfort the two actors have in their intensely sexual scenes helps solidify their characters’ relationship, and we get a glimpse of the passion that brought them together in the first place.

Like the best season finales, Fifty Words ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, setting up plenty more story to never be explored. That’s the thing with plays: once the lights come up, the story is over. There’s the very rare play sequel/prequel, and there are playwrights like Martin McDonnagh and August Wilson who have recurring characters and locations through multiple works, but for the most part, this is the last time that you will see these characters. Michael Weller leaves Jan and Adam with their marriage in shambles, but their story lives on in what the audience takes away from this production. Profiles’ production reveals the complexities of love, and the ways that secrets and lies can corrode it from the inside. I’m reminded of a quote from another great marriage crisis play this season, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?: “Be careful who you fall in love with, because you might marry him.” Fifty Words is warning that no matter what word you use to describe it, love will always be an unpredictable force that can hurt as much as it heals.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Katherine Keberlein and Darrell W. Cox in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

Profile Theatre’s Fifty Words continues through June 26th at their theatre space, 4147 N. Broadway, with performances Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $35-$40, and can be purchased by phone (773-549-1815) or online.

All photos by Wayne Karl

  
  

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REVIEW: Proof (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

 

Must proof be a prerequisite for belief?

 

Proof-Hal (Nick Freed & Claire (Nilsa Reyna) photo by Scott L. Schoonover

    
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
Proof
  

Written by
David Auburn
Directed by Alex C. Moore
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Proof, a play by David Auburn, a fascinating piece of work that plays with the double entendre of the word “proof” that occurs throughout the show: literal math proofs being solved as well as the need for proof to discover the truth. How can a person prove a fact that seems impossible? Can someone who’s certifiably lost their mind prove to still be a genius in their work? Chicago Fusion Theatre touches on these and so much more with their production.

Robert (Sandy Elias and Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover) The set design, by Scott Schoonover, is subtle yet bold, particularly in the color choices of stark white against bright blue. Suspended above the stage are multiple torn-apart notebooks full of mathematical equations. The rest of the set mimics the notebooks in both color and information, with the stages outer walls also covered in equations.  A mirrored backdrop provides the actors space to add additional equations. The set itself if bare save for one chair.

Proof opens on Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano), on her 25th birthday, talking with her father, Robert (Sandy Elias). Desipite DiCristofano and Elias having a real connection that radiates out into the space, DiCristofano starts off a little shaky as she tries to find her ground. As the show continues, however, she definitely improves and finds the depths of Catherine. Elias is instantly personable as he fills the space. When he speaks he owns the stage with an amiable presence.

The plot twists and suddenly it’s clear that Catherine is, in fact, speaking with her dead father – whom she’d taken care of in life – in her own thoughts. It’s a quick turn that pulls the audience further into the action, then caries it forward. Hal (Nick Freed), a former student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s old notebooks, looking for uncovered mathematical discoveries. Freed is funny and charming in his role; he understands his character’s intentions and brings Hal to life.

Catherine’s sister Claire (Nilsa Reyna), returns home for their father’s funeral and to help Catherine out until she figures out what to do. Reyna starts out flat, especially as her character demands that emotions are let loose loose and exposed. DiCristofano, on the other hand, flourishes with her understated, dry humor as she delves into the depths of her character.

Hal (Nick Freed) photo by Scott L. Schoonover Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover
Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano & Robert Sandy Elias) photo Scott L. Schoonover Robert (Sandy Elias) Photo by Scott L. Schoonover

DiCristofano, like Elias, has great stage chemistry with Freed. They play well off of each other. Whenever there’s a scene between DiCristofano and Elias or DiCristofano and Freed, it’s captivating.

Through Proof, the action moves quickly and efficiently. There’s no point in which a scene drags on or is dragged out, allowing the scenes to flow and keep the audience’s attention. In between scenes the characters all add more and more mathematical equations to the walls of the set, adding to the chaos occurring around them. It’s an interesting punctuation between the performances and character interactions.

When Elias takes the stage later in the show in flashbacks of Catherine’s memory, he’s quite a stage presence. He’s full of life and commands the audience’s attention so it’s impossible to tear yourself away.

As the characters become more emotional, the scenes become more raw and heart wrenching. Since it’s such a small space, you can see all of the emotions play out in the actor’s eyes, pulling us into the action and holding us hostage.

Chicago Fusion has given us proof that they are a talented company, ably conveying their seismic artistic voice in intimate spaces.  

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott Schoonover) Proof plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through November 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (312) 988-9000 or at the Royal George Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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Review: “Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living”

 Strong Acting Brings Out the Comedy in this One-Man Show

dr_harlon1

ComedyChicago presents:

Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living

Performed and written by Will Clinger
directed by Kevin Theis
thru December 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

It is in the most desperate of times that we become desperate for our search for happiness. In these cloudy days of economic gloom, war and reality television, many cling to religion or spirituality as a guide to a better tomorrow. The title character in Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living considers himself a sort of shaman, leading the audience on a supposed path to self-fulfillment. In reality, the doctor is much more of a sham than a shaman, and his advice—played out vicariously through characters—is more of a sure-fire path to self-destruction than fulfillment. All this irony, and a very committed actor, makes this one-man show an entertaining spectacle.

dr_harlon3 The brains behind the play is Will Clinger, a veteran of the Chicago stage and screen. He is probably most known for his work as host of WILD CHICAGO, a long-running television show that aired on WTTW.

The play begins with Clinger donning the role of the over-enthusiastic self-help guru Dr. Harlon. Jokes fly fast as the doctor accidentally steps out of the spotlight and receives a call from his good friend David Hasselhoff. Meanwhile a video screen enhances the downstage action, displaying visuals that graphically depict the doctor’s terrible advice, advice that includes such nuggets as the importance of assimilation and suppressing the negative attributes of one’s personality.

After the first scene with the doctor, we never actually see the character again. Yet his advice periodically appears on the screen, serving as transitions from one vignette to the next. These vignettes showcase a variety of followers of Dr. Harlon’s advice. The motley cast of characters includes a father who will go to great lengths to get the perfect Christmas photo of his infant son, an American wine connoisseur dishing about his trip to rural France and a lounge performer who teeters between manic highs and depressing lows.

Clinger’s commitment to the characters represents a skilled comedic actor. Although his range might be narrower than other performers—some of his characters seemed to be slightly altered clones of each other—he does a convincing job of breathing life into each personality, providing them with unique points of view. And with only a matter of seconds between one scene and the next, Clinger pulls off quite the transformative feat.

dr_harlon4 The writing too is worthy of praise, though this praise is tempered by a couple glaring flaws. The play begins with a steady stream of humor with Clinger portraying Dr. Harlon, and there are some big laughs to be had at the wine connoisseur character who delivers a monologue reminiscent of David Sedaris at his best. But there are parts that drag, where the jokes are too dispersed to hold up the scene. There are also a couple of vignettes whose endings undermine the entire scene, particularly one featuring a hack talent agent who’s rehashing days gone by. I won’t give away the scene’s ending, but basically it is an unnecessary cliché that devalues an otherwise rich character.

Director Kevin Theis should be commended for setting vivid scenes when the only props available are a chair, a screen and Clinger. Still images of a landscape with subtle sounds of birds chirping and a frame of a cocktail party accompanied by murmurs and glass clinks help provide vivid, yet minimalist, environments for Clinger’s characters to live in.

Overall, Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living is a comical portrayal of self-destructive self-help. At times the writing falls a little flat, but Clinger knows how to pick up the mood and get the play back on track.

 

Rating: ★★★

dr_harlon2

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