REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

NutcrakerPoster copy

 

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
House theatre - The Nutcracker House theatre - The Nutcracker
     
     

REVIEW: Red Noses (Strawdog Theatre)

Laughing in the face nose of the Black Plague

 

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 2

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
RED NOSES
   
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Matt Hawkins
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through August 15th |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 1 ‘It’s easy to find someone to share your life with. What about someone to share your death?’  Serious contemplations about the fragility of life get a laugh with the addition of a clown prosthetic.  Strawdog Theatre presents the remount of its successful 2009 production RED NOSES.  14th Century Europe is being plagued with death.  The dying is reaching epidemic proportions.  The survivors are targets for flagellant crazed religious types and victim-hunting scavengers.  From this hopeless void, a joyful priest recruits individuals to fight death with humor.  He forms a traveling troupe of performers to ‘ripple and spread’ amusement across the grieving countryside.   Strawdog’s RED NOSES explores the humorous side of the Black Plague by adding a clown-car-filled cast, jamming it to eighties music and letting death urinate on the wall.

The show starts playfully with a game of toss.  Death arrives with a neon yellow ball. The game becomes deadly.  Victims spew out neon yellow barf.  Game over!  The dying has begun.   Death doesn’t keep anyone down for long.  Zombies rise, dance and sing “Only the Good Die Young.” 

Under the direction of Matt Hawkins, the twenty-three cast members are lively, moving from scene to scene and role to role.  They juggle balls, play instruments, and remove spittle as a tight working ensemble.   It’s all about finding the comedic moment and putting a red nose on it.  Shannon Hoag (Marguerite) is hilarious as the disappointed almost-raped nun.  She belts out a wonderful rendition of “I don’t want to lose your love tonight.”  Sarah Goeden (Bells) and Chelsea Paice (Tricycle Clown Messenger) without a word effectively amuse and communicate with ringing and expressive faces.  Michael E. Smith (Pope) delivers a humorous line and attitude with ‘I don’t have to be wise just decisive.’  It’s the small touches that change dire to funny.  Two amputees do a stub version of a high five.  A blind man calls out a color.  
Death gets his cloak caught in his suitcase.  Cause of death?  Talented cast injects shots of fatal humor.  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 3 

‘If there is life after death, why do we have to die?’ Playwright Peter Barnes penned a tale about laughing in the face of death.  To exploit the absurd, he set it in a plague killing era and added clown noses.  The script could go “Patch Adams” cute as one man’s quest to bring joy to the infirmed.  Strawdog wisely chooses a “Monty Python” approach with comedy influenced by pushing the funny aspect of sensitive content.  Barnes’ play has a propensity to go long and tedious with some productions exceeding a three hour running time.  Even with Mike Przygoda (Music Director) orchestrating the 80’s flashback with a high-energy, live soundtrack, the second act gets a little tiresome with death-defying religious undercurrents. Still, “You gotta have faith!” Strawdog’s RED NOSES is plagued with comedy for whatever ails you! 

 

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 4

Running Time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

  
   

Continue reading

REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future

 

Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.

 

Rating: ★★★