Review: Aces (Signal Ensemble)

        
       

Steinhagen’s characters are fun but lack completed plot

  
  

Aaron Snook, Vincent Lonergan, Joseph Stearns, Jon Steinhagen, Philip Winston and Simone Roos in Signal Ensemble's "Aces" by Jon Steinhagen. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

   

Signal Ensemble presents

   
   

Aces

    

Written by Jon Steinhagen
Directed by Ronan Marra
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Bernice Ave. (map)
through June 18th
tickets: $15-$20 |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a challenge for me to watch Joseph Stearns and not imagine him to be the theatrical embodiment of Keith Richards, a persona he nailed even without bearing the most striking resemblance to the rock star god in Signal Ensemble’s Aftermath (our review). Lucky for me in Jon Steinhagen’s new play, Aces, the character Stearns plays is not too far of a stretch from the vice-ridden musician. Director Ronan Marra’s ensemble truly taps into this world perfectly. The characters are all delineated with their own passions and eccentricities. Steinhagen makes some clever but not too obvious 70’s references. Now if only Steinhagen could give his characters a Duke (Joseph Stearns, left)  tries to charm Samantha (Simone Roos, right) with his dance moves, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18.  (Photo: Johnny Knight)consistent plot to allow us to invest more interest in them, this play would be something worth betting on. Unfortunately though, what starts as a fun con-artist story with possibilities of a feminist theme on the side, goes every which way attempting to give each character their own equally important arc which ultimately waters down all of them. Aside from a few strong scenes, the fun dwindles as the play progresses.

The tone of the writing is a little like M*A*S*H. We go from screwball comedy to sentimental love and friendship and back again. Throw in some anti-war sentiments, all set in 1975 Vegas. Instead of military surgeons though, Aces deals with the profession of casino card dealers (at least it does for a little while). The setup is a scam being run by a group of dealers and casino workers. The ringleader of the operation is Lloyd (played by the wonderful character actor Vincent Lonergan). The issue at the top of the play though is that one of the dealers has died, and the scam called “Aces” can no longer operate without the proper number of dealers on the floor. In comes Samantha (Simone Roos) as the new blackjack dealer hired. Let the clichéd ‘boob’ jokes begin. The other female in the cast is Linda (played with great complexity by Elizabeth Bagby), the cocktail waitress with an edge and failed hopes.

The original idea is for each of the members of the scam to go out with Samantha and see if she’s the type of individual who might be willing to take part in it. Time soon tells that this gal from Reno can hang with these Vegas low-lifes. She even has the capability to improve the scam. However, Steinhagen vacates the scam storyline around this point and focuses on each individual character, Steinhagen himself playing the alcoholic floor manager who is lonely after his younger brother Pete (an excellent Philip Winston) moves out. Samantha now becomes a tool to explore what’s going on inside each of the other characters and develops a close relationship to Pete, the most innocent of the bunch. The best, most human and intimate scene of the night is between the two of them sitting on the floor around a lamp she buys to help decorate his empty bachelor pad. Everyone in this group is stuck where they are, mostly for money reasons, to which Samantha asks one of the more resonant questions of the night, “Don’t any of you live within your means?”

     
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

There is definitely a fair share of zingers in Steinhagen’s script with plenty of “breaking balls” in the same vein as Goodfellas. Some of them land stealthily and other’s don’t, but as with any comedic writing you have to put it in front of an audience to see what gets laughs and the lackluster punch lines can easily be swapped out. More than anything though I just longed to know whose story this was and for the stakes to be higher. Duke’s debt issue, for one, is a little too easily solved.

Simone Roos gives life to this play with her smart, sexy performance playing Samantha as never quite what she seems. Stearns is a delight and his disco dancing is hysterical. Representing the anti-war nomadic class of the 70’s is Aaron Snook’s character, Garrett. Snook masters the art of silence and strums a lovely guitar.

Ronan Marra’s direction gets the swagger correct, but it doesn’t hit sightlines. With three-quarter seating, Marra places characters directly in front of each section of the audience. While it works when you happen to be the particular audience in front of the central action (almost always the center), more often than not you have to settle for an audio experience listening closely to what’s happening on the other side of the room while you can only stare at a blackjack dealer two feet in front of you. Even while there are only two characters on stage, Marra has the actors on the same plane, still making life difficult for the audience in the alley seating sections. Part of the sightline issue derives from Melania Lancy’s set, which is ultimately too flat and two-dimensional, forcing actors to hug the back wall too frequently.

In the end, this is much more sentimental character study than Ocean’s 11 style heist plot. This would be less of a problem, except that there is so much setup to the scam that when Steinhagen decides to drop that part of the story almost entirely it feels like the first half of the play was a waste. Nevertheless, the character interplay is light and a great time. It’s an entertaining group of characters to spend a couple hours with, just don’t expect to feel closure in the end, and be sure to sit in the center.

    
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Samantha (Simone Roos, left) shows Linda (Elizabeth Bagby, right) her dealing tricks, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Signal Ensemble Theatre presents the fourth production in their 2010-2011, eighth anniversary season, the world premiere comedy Aces, written by ensemble member and multiple Jeff award-winner Jon Steinhagen, and directed by Ronan Marra at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for full price and $15 for industry/students/seniors. $5 OFF all full-priced tickets on Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29. For more information or to buy tickets call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com. The show runs about 110 minutes with one intermission, and $5 from every ticket sold on June 11 will benefit www.SeasonofConcern.org

Photos by Johnny Knight.

     

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Review: Radio Golf (Raven Theatre)

        
     

Wilson’s thought-provoking drama has a whole new relevancy in 2011

     
     

Warren Levon, Demetria Thomas, Michael Pogue in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf'. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

  
Raven Theatre presents
  
Radio Golf
  
Written by August Wilson 
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through April 9 |  tickets: $30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

It’s only been six years since Radio Golf, the tenth and final work in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle, premiered at Yale Rep.

A lot has happened in six years.

In that time, certain middle-upper-class white signifiers prominently featured in this 1990’s-based drama have taken a dip from grace. Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, lucrative condo investments and, well, Tiger Woods…let’s just say they aren’t what they used to be. “Unemployment” has knocked out “affluenza” as the country’s go-to economic buzz-word, Chicago just watched a mayoral campaign season with similar Harold Washington-era fears about equal race representation and, oh yeah, America elected its first non-white president.

Michael Pogue, Demetria Thomas in a scene from Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.Yesterday, this show about a wealthy young black man running for mayor of Pittsburg was contemporary. Today it’s a period-piece, a quality that only adds to its resounding ideas.

The timing of director Aaron Todd Douglas’ production feels perfect. With just enough distance and room for perspective, we get to see the protagonists’ superficial goals and misplaced trusts with an unwavering knowledge of the consequences—something Wilson, who died in 2005, never got the chance to witness for himself. I wonder if he knew he was creating a prescient work of theatre.

As candidate Wilks, Michael Pogue conveys idealism and an eagerness to please his community, listening to its grievances and welcoming citizens into his private office, a space traditionally reserved for the shady deals that are kept far away from picture-windowed PR campaign centers. Time goes on and compromises need to be made, such as the necessity to petition a neighborhood for blight status and the unethical demolishing of a delinquent taxpayer’s house. A little more arc in Pogue’s demeanor would be compelling. But like the rest of this cast, Pogue finds the rhythm in Wilson’s dialogue most of the time (the poetic allegories are clear and strong), steam-rolling it a bit here and there.

David Adams is the most consistent and entertaining of the bunch. Patient and methodical as the stubborn but righteous owner of the dilapidated property at 1839 Wylie Ave.—a brick house that stands in Wilks’ way between continued suburban poverty and a massive, gentrifying real estate complex—Adams carries the weary but proud burden of a man who values what’s right. Blue collar local Sterling Johnson (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) does likewise. Both actors nail Radio Golf’s comedy with complementing styles: Adams understated and Whitfield abrasive.

It makes me wonder about 2012. 15 years after this story takes place, how much of “the game” will be the same, and who gets to play?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Warren Levon, Michael Pogue, and David Adams in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

Radio Golf continues through April 9th, with performances Thurs. through Sat. 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling 773-338-2177, or online at RavenTheatre.com.

 

 
 

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Review: Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Signal Ensemble)

     
     

A powerful, manic waltz with unctuous tyranny

     
     

Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

   
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
   
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by
Anthony Ingram
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice
(map)
through March 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s a moment during Signal Ensemble’s production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when the Madman (Joseph Stearns) asks the Commissioner (Eric Paskey), “Weren’t you the warden of that secret prison who did secret things to secret people?” Would that the question didn’t conjure up images of Gitmo, Bagram Airfield and CIA planes transporting black-hooded terrorist suspects to black sites all around the world, yet it does. It’s impossible to complacently relinquish Fo’s brilliant farce to corrupt 1970’s Italy–and that is precisely the point. That world is too much with us. Under Anthony Ingram’s direction, if Signal’s well-oiled and indefatigable cast demonstrates anything, it’s how Fo peels back layer upon layer of mendacious civilization until nothing is left but raw, exposed, abusive power desperately trying to justify itself.

Chris Walsh, Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an AnarchistSince chicanery is the order of the day, why have a protagonist that takes any of it seriously but can deal out sophistry as fast and loose as his foes? As the Madman, hauled into the precinct for dozens of illegal impersonations, Stearns conveys Fo’s rage against the machine with urgent and fierce flippancy. Stearns plays Bugs Bunny to Inspector Bertozzo’s (Vincent Lonergan) Elmer Fudd, while, as Officers 1 and 2, respectively, Elizabeth Bagby and Christopher M. Walsh make their greatest comic impact just standing around munching donuts. After bamboozling Bertozzo into releasing him, the Madman discovers that a judge from Rome will arrive shortly to re-open the investigation into police misconduct over the suicide, er, accidental death, of an anarchist in their custody.

Fo’s play is based upon a true incident of police abuse that took place in Italy in 1969 and audiences would do well to refer to the excellent dramaturgical background on the incident posted in Signal’s lobby. A three-year investigation into the incident revealed layer upon layer of deep and disturbing corruption, with links to fascist elements supported by the government. It’s a tribute, not only to Fo’s work, but also to the fast and bold, controlled frenzy of the cast that such heavy and onerous themes never drag or lose their farcical edge.

The shining comic triad of the evening lines up between Madman, the Commissioner and the Sporty Inspector (Anthony Tournis). The Madman impersonates the Roman judge and pulls one version of the incident after another from men desperate to save their careers—“You guys ought to be novelists!” Ah, but novelists rarely get to sport aviator sunglasses to make people respect their authori-tay or engage in inspired near-death acrobatics at the window. Stearns, Paskey and Tournis take the play’s slapstick to the limit and one might easily order their arrest for having too much fun with their parts.

It’s kidding in deadly earnest. Layered into the performances is a thread of ironic camaraderie between the police and their anarchist prey. Again and again, Fo hints at their cheek-by-jowl relationship. Far from being violent rebels, anarchists “enjoy their creature comforts,” and are petite bourgeois. Whereas the police, as spies, make up the majority of anarchist cells and know all the words for a rousing chorus of “The Whole World is My Homeland.”

        
Anarchist #6 Anarchist #7 Eric Pasky, Simone Roos, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Signal Ensemble shines best when it depicts their bad romance. Act 2, with the introduction of the Reporter (Simone Roos), doesn’t have the same punch as the first. The second act is supposed to drive the comedy into train wreck territory and Stearn’s costumes are a hoot, but his performance comes close to being dangerously preachy. It’s also at risk of being lost for the jumble of slapstick happening toward the back of Signal’s small stage. If only Ingram’s direction could clean up the sightlines a little more. Nevertheless, overall, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is one to see. Signal Ensemble’s production is a powerful, manic waltz through the life-lies Western culture depends upon—necessary medicine, with a ton of farcical sugar to help it all go down.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
Christopher M. Walsh, Joseph Sterns, Anthony Tournis, Elizabeth Bagby, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Joseph Stearns, Signal Ensemble, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through March 19, at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. in Chicago. Tickets/info at 773-347-1350; www.signalensemble.com.

All photo by Johnny Knight.

     
     

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The battle for the soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll

  
  

(left to right) George (Andrew Yearick) introduces Brian (Aaron Snook) to the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Aftermath
  
Written/Directed by Ronan Marra
at
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
through Jan 23  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Coming late to the Aftermath party, I wanted to see how well the production has held up since switching to Signal Ensemble’s own theater space. Extremely well, it would seem, from the sold-out crowds. Chicagoans are undeniably enjoying playwright and director Ronan Marra’s musical bio and tribute to Brian Jones, the eclectic 60s rock genius and tragic founder of The Rolling Stones.

Mick (Nick Vidal) sings while Brian (Aaron Snook) plays the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra. Photo by Johnny KnightClearly, critical kibitzing may mean nothing, now that Signal’s production has rolled along just fine, both reawakening Boomer nostalgia and exposing a younger generation to the Stones with a laudable facsimile of the original band’s performances. In fact, Marra’s requirement for musical proficiency in his cast stands at the throbbing heart of Signal’s production. Much as Aaron Snook charismatically captivates the audience, intrepidly holding attention under a fabulous mop top of blonde hair, he also pulls his weight hinting at Brian’s natural facility with multiple instruments by playing dulcimer, sitar and electric guitar. The music is the thing. The band’s excellence is the show’s mainstay. Once Mark J. Hurni’s dramatic lighting comes up on “Paint it, Black,” you know that this train is stopping for no one.

Except for one small, perceivable flaw—as Mick Jagger, Nick Vidal’s voice achieves a suitably approximate timbre but is almost drowned out by the force of the band. At least at my Sunday matinee viewing, seated in the front row, most song lyrics were indiscernible. Only during “Lady Jane” does Vidal hold his own, volume-wise. That’s too bad, especially since every other aspect of Vidal’s portrayal is electrifying. He has captured Mick’s strut, the liquid energy that made Jagger a consummate showman and indisputable sex idol. When acting, Vidal has Jagger’s snarky insouciance down pat, but behind the mic his voice pales. Joseph Stearns also doesn’t make for a thoroughly realistic Keith Richards—but the pressure isn’t on him as it is Vidal. He’s not the front man.

Dramatically, Marra’s writing also is lacking. His jukebox musical has an excellent sense of structure, with each number placed to move the action and characters forward; the boilerplate dialogue and predictable storytelling, however, may as well have come from MTV’s “Behind the Music.” Marra wants a balanced reflection on Brian Jones’ life and forgotten contributions to the Rolling Stones’ aesthetic. Yet, he simply hasn’t taken risks to plumb the depths of his troubled but fascinating rock idol. Instead, the audience is lead through a pageant of Brian’s struggles—his battles with Mick for artistic leadership of the Stones, his musical giftedness, his affair with model Anita Pallenberg (Simone Roos) and his downward spiral into paranoia and drug dependency.

     
(left to right) Brian (Aaron Snook) and Mick (Nick Vidal) perform a song, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Bill (Nathan Drackett) and Charlie (Bries Vannon) laugh at the rest of the band during an interview, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”.

In Snook, the show has an actor whose performance gives more ballast to Marra’s two-dimensional writing, but even he cannot redeem the material from its well-worn clichés. Once Brian suspects Anita in an affair with Keith, he and Roos together carry out especially visceral performances, but most of the rest of the action is a predictable dance of rock star dissolution that skirts the edges of both Jones’ genius and his darker side. We leave knowing no more about what made Brian Jones tick than before.

Plus, for hardcore rock aficionados, Marra’s work is just as much an act of forgetting as it is a loving tribute to the fallen Rolling Stone. Significant figures in Brian Jones’ life get tossed wholesale from Aftermath’s storyline. Instrumental to Jones’ ouster from the band was the arrival of Andrew Loog Oldham, who eventually took over most of Jones’ managerial duties and pushed for Jagger/Richards’ songwriting in the name of sustained financial success. Without Oldham’s presence or mention in the drama, Mick Jagger comes across as the principal villain behind Brian getting sacked from the group.

Brian (Aaron Snook) tells his story to the audience, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath” What’s more, significant musical creations get lost in Marra’s truncated retelling. At one point Marra has Brian Jones bring up “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, only to toss it off as just a forgettable, sub-par Stones’ album. Actually, the album was the Stones’ brief venture into psychedelic rock, which reached its apex in 1967. This was the direction in which Jones, with all his world music influences, was going. But its production, broken up by court appearances and random showings by band members and their friends, proved to be a monster to complete. Once produced, it looked like a cheap knock off compared to the Beatles’ wildly successful “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had beaten the Stones to release by six months.

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” was Jones’ last hoorah in terms of his musical influence on the band. According to Richie Unterberger of Allmusic, the album “. . . incorporated African rhythms, Mellotrons, and full orchestration. Never before or since did the Stones take so many chances in the studio. In 1968, the Stones would go back to the basics, and never wander down these paths again . . .” A 1998 bootleg box set of the outtakes of the Satanic sessions reveals Jones in fruitful collaboration with Keith Richards and session pianist Nicky Hopkins, creating the album’s eerie soundscapes. But psychedelic rock was soon to fade as quickly as it had blossomed and Brian was going with it.

Obviously not everything about the Jones’ life can be mentioned, but certainly these milestones deserve more than a glossing. In the end, however, Aftermath remains an enjoyable evening of nostalgic entertainment.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Brian (Aaron Snook, left) talks to a reporter (Vincent Lonergan, center) while Mick (Nick Vidal, right) listens, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath".

   
  

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REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

Raven Cat horiz 1

   
Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

BigMama-Mag-edit Mae-Bow-edit
mag-brick-nylon2,CROPPED_resized Raven Cat horiz 2

The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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REVIEW: The Real Inspector Hound (Signal Ensemble)

Hammed-up Stoppard fails to find the laughs

 

(left to right) Moon (Philip Winston) and Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) comment on the play while Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) act in the play, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue - running through September 18.

        
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
    
The Real Inspector Hound
      
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
Through Sept. 18  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

From the time the house opens on Signal Ensemble Theatre’s The Real Inspector Hound, to the close of the play, Charles Schoenherr lies unmoving on stage while the other characters cavort around him, never noticing this still figure at stage rear until nearly the end of the one-act comedy.

It just might be the best performance of the play.

Any theater reviewer who takes aim at Tom Stoppard‘s 1968 comedy risks being classified with Birdboot and Moon, the two pompous critics on whom the play focuses. Stoppard, once a critic himself, mercilessly skewers theater writers, painting them as arrogant, self-absorbed and none too ethical.

The critics comment on the play within a play taking place in front of them in highly affected terms, chat through the action, munch chocolates and begin to write their reviews mid-play. Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen), a married, middle-aged philanderer, flaunts his position to entice pretty actresses while piously proclaiming he does no such thing, while Moon (Philip Winston), his paper’s no. 2 critic, continually laments his second-string status. The two put in some comic turns, but they aren’t enough to overcome the broad strokes with which Director Ronan Marra paints the rest of the show.

The meta-play, an exaggerated English country-house mystery, a la The Mousetrap, takes places in what Mary O’Dowd as Mrs. Drudge, the creepy, scenery-chewing housekeeper, tells us is the "drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring." Scenic Designer Melania Lancy has created a fine drawing-room set in Signal’s spiffy new theater, the former home of now Los Angeles-based Breadline Theatre Group, a 50-seat venue in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) listens to Mrs. Drudge's (Mary O'Dowd) story about the new visitor, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) flirts with Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) while Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd) takes notice, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd), Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), and Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) react to a loud noise outside of the house, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue.  Photo by Johnny Knight

Wealthy widow Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Meredith Bell Alvarez), is entertaining her lover, Simon Gascoyne (John Blick) and — to his embarrassment — Felicity Cunningham (Katie Genualdi), the ingenue he’s also been seeing. Added to the menage is the wheelchair-bound Major Magnus Muldoon (Colby Sellers), half-brother to Lady Cynthia’s late husband, who lusts after his hostess. Meanwhile, the radio announces that a murderous madman is loose in the neighborhood and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), a dog of a police detective, arrives on the scene.

As the play becomes more existential, the critics break through the fourth wall and get drawn into the action on stage. In this production, comic business is piled so high that the parody becomes a parody of itself, laden with overdrawn gestures and pointless shtick, such as when characters continually lift a telephone receiver for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the pace crawls.

Through it all, Schoenherr lies, still and untwitching. That’s acting.

   
  
Review: ★½
  
  

Note: Allow time for finding street parking, as well as extra time for traveling to the theater on nights when the Cubs play at home.

 (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight. (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight.

        
        

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Life of Brian – a rolling visionary

 

Aftermath 2 Aftermath 5Aftermath 1  
  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
 
Aftermath
 
Written and directed by Ronan Marra
at Raven Theatre, West Stage, 6157 N. Clark  (map)
through June 6th  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I can’t hear the name Rolling Stones without the sound of “Jumping Jack Flash” appearing in my head. I can clearly see the Stones on Ed Sullivan – menacing and Aftermath 5kind of nasty in a sexy bad boy way. The tabloid stories and biographies ‘as told to’ are plentiful with the legendary musicians looking into the camera or artfully demurring. The Signal Ensemble Theatre’s production of Aftermath peers into the unsung genius of Brian Jones.

Writer/director Ronan Marra discovered Brian Jones’ story as a teenager and developed this play as a balanced and loving homage. Nick Vidal as Mick Jagger infuses a frisky and explosive energy into the performance. He slightly resembles Jagger and has a decent voice. Vidal veers into the operatic when singing “Lady Jane,” which threw me off a bit. Marra’s Jagger is an ego driven and preening icon. The reenactments of group interviews come off as both funny and painful to see how Jagger downplayed Jones’ contributions to music. He made himself and Keith Richards the centerpieces instead of acknowledging collaboration as a group.

Aaron Snook plays the role of Brian Jones. Snook speaks directly to the audience post mortem. He plays the drug-addled and mentally ill Jones with a childlike quality. Snook imparts a sympathetic edge that tempered the violence and tantrums for which Jones is remembered. Marra’s direction has Jones literally fading away, the lights making his blonde hair and pale skin even more so.

Comic relief comes in the form of Joseph Stearns and Bries Vannon as Keith Richards and Charlie Watts respectively. Richards’ drug use still leaves people wondering how he is alive. Stearns does a great imitation of Richards and plays the stoner beautifully. In a television interview, Jagger is seen doing most of the talking with the host but the focus is on Richards’ interaction with the host’s sidekick played by Phillip Winston. The best line of the night went to Stearns as well. (I’m thinking of Aftermath 1 getting “whiskey stealing interrogation banshee” put on a tee shirt). Vannon’s depiction of reticent drummer Charlie Watts is excellent in spite of no real physical resemblance. Vannon infuses the role with a dry and sweet manner. The running joke is that Watts always threatened to quit the band but never did.

Ensemble member Simone Roos ably plays the role of rock chick Anita Pallenberg. It has only been a recent occurrence that the women passed around by the bands have been telling their sides of the stories. To Marra’s credit, he writes Pallenberg as more than a groupie. The scenes between Roos and Snook are violent and painful as Jones’ paranoia and insecurity increase from the drugs and fear of abandonment.

Andrew Yearick, in the role of George Harrison, is a nice surprise. He recently appeared in The House of Yes at The Artistic Home Studio (our review ★★★). Yearick portrays a mellow and spiritual Harrison around the time of his exploration into Indian music. He and Snook share a duet on “Norwegian Wood,” self accompanied by guitar and sitar. Harrison is introducing the sitar to Jones as something that is tuned into the player and then they rush through the song, a pacing that is much too fast.

It is to be noted that this talented group of actors actually play the instruments and do a stellar job of it. You’ll no doubt find yourself grooving to the irresistible beats and riffs. On the night that I went, It was pretty evident that most of us were Stones fans.

The theatre is decorated with reenactments of classic Rolling Stones 45 and album covers. The stage is flanked by vertical rows of vinyl records in both sizes and set up for a concert. This is an appropriate choice since it really comes down to the music after an exploration of the legend. Aftermath is a poignant remembrance of Brian Jones and of a time when the world seemed much bigger.

 

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

Aftermath runs through June 6th, 2010. Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3:30pm. (May 24th performance is at 7:30 pm) Tickets are available at www.signalensemble.com or call 773-347-1350. Be prepared to rock!

 

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