Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)

     
     

Review: Theories of the Sun (Sideshow Theatre)

Yep, it is possible to laugh at Death

 

TheoriesoftheSun-01 (2)

   
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Theories of the Sun
   
Written by Kathleen Akerley
Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through October 3rd  |  tickets: $15- $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Where does Death take a holiday? Apparently, a remote hotel in France! Sideshow Theatre presents the Midwestern premiere of Theories of the Sun. A mother and daughter duo seek medical advice from a quirky doctor. The doctor is in residence at a boutique inn. Also vacationing at the locale are a couple of playwrights, a scotch- infused Tennessee Williams and a frothy-wine sipping Tom Stoppard. Another hotel guest, Mr. Asher, collects theories about the sun from different cultures. Looming invisibly to most of the guests, Death waits for someone. Theories of the Sun is a mysterious gathering of a hodge-podge of characters. Each confronts TheoriesoftheSun-02Death and puts in a special order for preferred exit timing. Despite the primary storyline being the unusual circumstances surrounding the mother and daughter, its boys’ night! Individually and collectively, the guys overshadow with eclipsing humor and vibrant movement. Sideshow Theatre’s Theories of the Sun proves the hypothesis that is possible to laugh at Death.

Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith, with choreographer Katie Spelman, theories of the sun are illuminated with poetic, fluid motion. The synchronization is the bright spot to the story. A game of blindman’s bluff is an effervescent dance with Death. The ensemble, sporting a variety of accents, is dazzling. Matt Fletcher (Stoppard) delivers his British wit with a droll smugness. Uttering lines like ‘being not in tune,’ Fletcher is hilarious as an insipid playwright caught up in semantics. Andy Luther (Williams) plays it perfectly understated as the southern-speaking, unapologetic drunk. Luther’s face-off with Death is a deliciously defiant monologue of fearlessness that unexpectedly ends in tenderness. Jesse Young (Dr. Giraud) is hysterical as an eccentric doctor conducting a series of odd tests. Young deadpans ludicrous statements for riotous results. The storyteller of sun theories, Dylan Stuckey (Asher) is most engaging when he silently reacts to other characters. The entire cast revolves around Death in stunning visuals in a mime-type ballet and exquisite fifties finery (Costume Designer David Hyman).

 

TheoriesoftheSun-03 TheoriesoftheSun-04 TheoriesoftheSun-05 TheoriesoftheSun-06

Playwright Kathleen Akerley has penned a life-and-death tale with eclectic characters. Although the mother-daughter storyline loses some of its luster from recently being Hollywood-ized, Akerley’s provides intrigue in her other character choices and surprising twists. Theories of the Sun is a thought-provoking, entertaining dance to the death. With the finale’s hindsight, you’ll want to relive it for Death’s subtle entrance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a thirty minute intermission

Nora Dunn and her buddy Jesse Young

 

 

SHOW SIDENOTE: “Saturday Night Live” alum Nora Dunn was in the audience on opening night. Pictured here with her buddy, Jesse Young 

 

 

 

 

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