Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

Rainmaker49

  
The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Review: Well of Horniness (Reasonable Facsimile Theatre)

  
  

Despite strong cast, feral lesbian romp jilted by clunky pacing

  
  

The Well of Horniness - A Reasonable Facsimile

  
A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre Company presents
  
The Well of Horniness
  
Written by Holly Hughes
Directed by Samantha Garcia
at The Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Who doesn’t love lesbians on the loose? Well, maybe Peter LaBarbera—but, then, he looks like he hasn’t got laid in, like, forever. The rest of us would eagerly plunge headfirst into a production promising slap-dash Sapphic pleasure. Trouble is, Holly Hughes’ 1983 schlock comedy The Well of Horniness comes across more like a wet, sloppy kiss from your lesbian aunt than a well-placed riff on dangerous, dueling dykes and the bisexual gals who can’t forget them. Not that the cast of A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre Company doesn’t give it the good, old (*ahem*) college try. But Samantha Garcia’s direction spreads out action, and not in a good way, across the Conservatory’s stage, often losing valuable focus and timing.

“These muffdivers have been looking for a rumble,” quotes detective Garnet McClit (Miquela Cruz) and that, at least, is one thing to be grateful for concerning individual performances. As Georgette, Karen Shimmin throws seductive glances over her shoulder like it was meant for you, and does feral, raccoon-raised lesbian with perfection. Angela DeMarco, as the redhead (rather, red-wigged) Babs, brings strong, pistol-packin’ bravado to the stage. Liz Hoffman’s absolutely scores with her daffy depiction of Vicki, who once belonged to the lesbian sorority, Tri Delta Tribads, but now faces married, middle class boredom with her carpet-clearance husband Rod, played with hearty, sympathetic charm by Susan Gaspar. Of the ladies, only Cruz needs to add a little seductive spice to her butch to raise the heat of night.

Tragically, even for schlock theater, the part of the Narrator (Emily Friedrick) is drastically overwrought. Hughes’ comedy is no police procedural or noir thriller, yet a little more attention to the dry style of those two genres might generate more laughs than Friedrick’s current delivery. As is, she comes across more like a town barker hawking her wares than a master of Hughes’ overwrought and over-punned exposition. Of course, a large part of the problem may be Hughes’ writing. It’s showing its age–and its fish jokes do have a limited shelf life. Clearly, schlock is a comic actor’s medium—you have to know when hold back and when shoot for the stars—sometimes without too much help from the script.

(L-R, back row) Karen Shimmin, Miquela Cruz, Susan Gaspar; (front row) Emily Friedrick, Liz Hoffman, Angela DeMarco - the cast of 'The Well of Horniness'

Most of all, the biggest crime seems to be those moments when the ladies play it safe. Police pat downs, prison scenes—these are the things that dreams are made of. They’re already salacious, by their very nature and pornographic history–now how to make them outrageous, transcending their formulaic predictability? That’s the formula that Garcia and cast have yet to work out. Much as I love Hoffman upping the silliness quotient for the show or DeMarco channeling Joan Crawford, The Well of Horniness still clunks along too disjointedly for a truly rad ladies’ night out. Let’s hope they can tighten things up in the course of the run. Do it for the sisters who are doin’ it for themselves!

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

The Well of Horniness continues through April 30th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, at The Cornservatory Theater, 4210 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $12-$15. Make reservations online at www.arftco.com, or call 773-418-4475. Group rates are available. This show is for adults only.

 

Artists

Cast

Miquela Cruz*, Emily Friedrick, Susan Gaspar*, Liz Hoffman* Karen Shimmin* and Angela DeMarco*.

Production

The show is directed by Samantha Garcia*, set and costumes designed by Tina Haglund*, props designed by Susan Gaspar*, stage-managed by Hazel Marie*,
marketing by Steve Hickson*.

*A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre ensemble member.

     
     

REVIEW: The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Project 891 Theatre)

    
     

What does it mean to be Jewish at Christmastime?

     
     

Jason Kellerman and Sarah Latin-Kasper

  
Project 891 Theatre Company presents
   
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
   
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
Through Dec. 19  |  
tickets: $15  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Should a Jewish Christmas tree be topped with a star? That argument launches The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry’s delectable examination of Southern Jewish culture in the mid-20th century, now playing in Project 891 Theatre Company’s nearly perfect site-specific production at Edgewater’s historic, 1914 Gunder Mansion (North Lakeside Cultural Center).

The year is 1939 and the place is Atlanta, where the film "Gone with the Wind" is having its premiere, while Hitler has begun his rampages in Europe.

Liz HoffmanHitler seems remote to most of the Freitag family, complacent, long-established, well-to-do Southern Jews of German heritage, as they trim their Christmas tree. They’re part of an ingrained culture so assimilated they barely know what being Jewish is, other than to chafe at the bigotry of the gentiles who keep them from mixing in the South’s highest society. So they create their own, "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians," in turn manifesting their own anti-Semitism against "the other kind" — Jews more recently arrived, more religious, more obviously ethnic.

Uhry mined the true history of the South and his own upbringing here. The play’s name, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refers to the big society event of the season for the well-heeled Southern Jewish younger set, a cotillion at the exclusive Standard Club.

At the outset, anxious, flighty Lala Levy, one of the daughters of the house, doesn’t yet have a date for this important night. Sensitive, prickly and awkward, Lala is a grave disappointment to her bossy, ambitious mother, Boo, who fears her daughter will never "take." Lala suffers in comparison to her prettier, brighter, collegiate cousin, Sunny Freitag, who shares the family home along with her fond, slightly vague mother, Reba. Boo’s bachelor brother, the long-suffering Adolph Freitag, nominally presides over the household, supporting them all in comfort with the family business, Dixie Bedding Co.

Into this mix comes handsome Joe Farkas, a new and highly valued employee at the firm, Brooklyn-born and unmistakably "one of the other kind." He sets the family at odds on a number of levels, ultimately challenging their perception of what it means to be Jews.

Commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was revised for its Broadway opening the following year. It deservedly received both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

   
Darrelyn Marx and Lori Grupp Liz Hoffman and Austin D Oie

Skillfully staged in the mansion’s wood-paneled front parlor, with seating for just 23, this intimate production features superb acting, notably from the senior members of the cast. Darrelyn Marx excels as the acerbic Boo, pushing and goading her daughter with tough love, portraying this unlikable character with power and empathy. Lori Grupp charms as Reba, and Larry Garner puts in a wonderfully wry performance as Adolph.

Liz Hoffman captures Lala’s painful gracelessness beautifully. Sarah Latin-Kasper makes a serene Sunny, and Jason Kellerman gives Joe a perfect balance between brashness and bewildered sensitivity. His smile when Sunny agrees to a date lights up the room. Austin Oie is hilarious as redheaded Peachy Weil, the well-born Louisiana wiseacre whom Boo hopes to capture for Lala.

For those who prefer their December entertainment without cloying overdoses of sentiment and good cheer, The Last Night of Ballyhoo offers everything a holiday show should have: Great performances, depth, humor and pathos.

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Allow time to find street parking

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Epic Proportions (Project 891 Theatre)

Shortness on vaudevillian style slows down “Epic Proportions”

 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, 3

Project 891 Theatre presents:

 

Epic Proportions

by Larry Cohen and David Crane
directed by Ron Popp
at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre, 1420 W. Irving Park
through March 28th (more info | tickets)

review by Paige Listerud

I once looked down on broad physical comedy. Absorbed by witty dialogue and high concept situations, I relegated trips, pratfalls, and near misses to comedy for the lower orders. That alone makes me a bigger ass than any of the actors that manfully, enthusiastically sport their way through Beau Forbes’ fight choreography in Epic Proportions, Project 891’s latest production at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre. Physical comedy, perfectly timed and emotionally truthful, is like ballet—an athletic challenge that looks deceptively easy.

Anna Shutz, Cole Simon 2 The athletic end of acting has waned with the advance of modern theater, a loss that shows most when well-trained actors take on physically demanding comic roles. Today, the art and craft of physical comedy seems the province of specialists, dropped from the average actor’s repertoire like a hot potato.

Too bad. With the exception of the physical stuff, Ron Popp has assembled an excellent cast, with each actor fit perfectly to type. Benny Bennett (Matt Lozano) is a likable star-struck schlub, beginning his film career as an extra in, “Exuent Omnes”, a movie helmed by the egomaniacal director D. W. DeWitt (Robert Kearcher). Benny’s brother, Phil (Cole Simon), an all-around American boy-next-door, comes to collect Benny to take him home to the farm. But, since it is the Depression, and since extras get a dollar a day plus free meals, and since the last truck has left all 3400 cast members stranded in the desert—per Mr. DeWitt’s orders—Phil stays to become party to the madness of a runaway, overproduced picture that sees no end in sight.

As for “Exuent Omnes”, think “The Ten Commandments” meets “Ben Hur”, meets “Quo Vadis”, meets every other B-list sword and sandal epic. Both brothers fall for pert, cheerful Louise Goldman (Anna Schutz), assistant director to the extras, whose job of dividing the extras into ‘slave group” or “orgy scene group” already sets brother against brother. Add an assistant to Mr. DeWitt (Matt Allis) with the demeanor of a shark and a lesbian costume designer (Liz Hoffman) lusting after Louise and you have plenty here to entertain beyond the sturm und drang of jumbled comic fight scenes.

Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, Matt Lozano.jpg 2 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz

Obviously, the production strives to be consciously overwrought, in stylized parody of Cecille B. Demille films. Some moments are more successful than others. Tommy Culhane’s deliciously bug-eyed gaze and overarching gestures set the right tone for pronouncements about the glory of Rome. Hoffman’s sassy Queen of the Nile and voracious Continental lesbian are treats. If only Popp’s direction didn’t deprive her of a few critical comic moments. Gary Murphy’s Demille-like voice-overs, as well as the cast of the mockumentary that first introduces Exuent Omnes–Kate Konopasek, Floyd A. May, Manny Schenk and Larry Teagarden–round out the manic film enthusiasm for a fictitious cult classic.

The cast certainly exhibits all the exuberance typical of a 1930s comedy. However, the craft that is the legacy of vaudeville and screwball films needs to be tightened up for the sake of a fully realized work. Who knew silliness could be so complicated? Who knew everything old would be new, and necessary, again?

Rating: ★★½

 

Matt Lozano and Cole Simon

EXTRA CREDIT: