Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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REVIEW: Girls vs Boys (The House Theatre and AMTP)

Cool atmosphere jilted by annoying show

 

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The House Theatre and AMTP* presents
 
Girls vs Boys
 
Book/lyrics by Chris Matthews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen
Directed by
Nathan Allen
Music directed by
Ethan Deppe
At the
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru May 9th  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Break-up vs Kill. If given the consequence-free choice, would you have the uncomfortable conversation with the pending ex or just shoot him? The House Theatre, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, presents Girls vs Boys. The lives of six teenagers unravel in a party world GVB 3 of drugs, alcohol, sex and guns. George wants to be cool. Casey wants to feel something. Jason wants his old girlfriend. Sam wants her brother’s respect. Kate wants Jason. Lanie wants safe sex. To get what they want, they pop Ritalin, slam beers, screw friends and fire weapons… all while singing and dancing. Girls vs Boys is “High School Musical” vs “Gossip Girl” where disputes are settled in the Wild West way.

Visual vs Audio: From the moment of arrival, the transformed Chopin Theatre is impressive. Collette Pollard has created a rock concert venue complete with mosh pit. Ticket holders are given the opportunity to join the party in the pit standing or take traditional audience seats. The band is visibly housed on the stage. The action will take place in an area extending in front of the band and encircling the pit. The ensemble will mingle with pit people during scenes. The visual is unique and the anticipation is high.

Then the music starts. The band is loud and it’s hard to hear the singing. There are two hand-held microphones shared between the six main characters. Without the hand-held ones, the entire ensemble is reliant on ear pieces that are inconsistent in volume. To compensate, some of the singing is more like screaming. The screechy tunes might not be noticeable in a rock concert but Girls vs Boys is a musical. Or is it?

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Musical vs Concert: A musical is a play with songs. A concert is songs and play. Girls vs Boys is watching kids at a concert sing with the band, act impulsively and mess up their relationships. This show has a long playlist with in-between conversations that are predictable and trite. It’s similar to concert moments when the band goes  unplugged with an anecdote between songs. If Girls vs Boys was all about the music, dialogue would disrupt the concert flow. Unfortunately, the tunes GVB 5themselves are not memorable. Although the band jams rock, the singers project pop. The fusion is awkward. Even though the script dialogue is flawed, the excessive number of songs promotes a strong desire to return to discourse. “Say it! Don’t sing it!”

Singing vs Dancing: Girls vs Boys is more like a concert with great back-up dancers. Tommy Rapley has choreographed high energy numbers for the cast to dance their way into exhaustion. Climbing in and out of the pit, the ensemble has synchronized, gun-toting, dramatic vigor. Notably, whenever one of the guys takes drugs, their shirt comes off. It was oddly like a Public Service Announcement saying ‘don’t take drugs. They make you strip!’ The good news is the guys are ripped. The bad news is it feels like any Jason Statham movie where the weaker the script, the more he takes his shirt off. Shockingly, Girls vs Boys, shirts came off and I STILL didn’t love it!

 
Rating: ★½
 

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes included a fifteen minute delayed start and a ten minute intermission

Extra Credit:

  • House’s blog entries on Girls vs Boys
  • Chris Jones lists House’s 2010-2011 Season
  • Girls vs Boys production photos courtesy of John Taflan.

*AMTP = American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University 

 

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