Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate (Filament)

  
  

Talented cast creates buzz, excitement – but not quite a play

  
  

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Filament Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate
 
Adapted and Directed by Omen Sade
Original Music by DJ Puzzle
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S Canalport (map)
through May 28th
tickets: $10-$15  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Welcome to Club Dionysus. Following Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Friday and Saturday night performances of Eurydice, audiences have the opportunity to stick around for the dance party retelling of the same story in Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. This dizzying and bizarre adaptation was created and directed by Omen Sade, who has incorporated several elements into this production that don’t always mesh. What he does create though, is an excitement and buzz through his utilization of DJ Puzzle and a multi-talented cast.

Nathan-Paul-as-a-Bouffon-WebUpon reentering the space, after a quick renovation following Eurydice, you’ll be asked to show an ID (usually a good sign, in this case you can get a smattering of wine). You’re greeted by the nymphs (Alyssa Denea Duerksen, Becca Drew Emmerich and Ashley Moret). After some time spent calibrating to the change of venue, and change of theatrical aesthetics, the nymphs gather attention with loosely choreographed hip hop dancing that will hopefully become a little tighter with time. We meet our hero, Orpheus (Kevin Barry Crowley), who is a famous rapper in Sade’s play. His entrance takes advantage of the gorgeously industrial freight elevator in the space. Crowley proves to be intense and skilled, working in tandem with DJ Puzzle in creating on-the-spot loops and layering on top of them.

Although the atmosphere is at first exciting, too many gaps of the story are clearly filled inside Sade’s head rather than onstage, such as why Eurydice is dressed in a business suit, or what exactly has brought these two together. It is taken for granted that the audience is familiar with the myth, and if you’re unaware of the story and do not see Filament’s Eurydice prior to this production, the events simply will not be communicated as this production stands alone. This is also partly why it’s best to see the double bill if you’re going to go to either production.

Even with the half-hearted storytelling, the after-party that is Orpheus provides an intoxicating experience. It also makes more interesting use of the Lacuna Loft space than Eurydice. While Eurydice appeared more like an attempt to transform the space into an alley style theater, Sade’s Orpheus fully embraces the vast starkness of the open areas. In the underworld, when Orpheus is followed by Eurydice on their exit out, they cross over into another vacant area of the floor which provides an opportunity for the audience to peer through and spy on the ghostly procession. Audience members are also encouraged, rather strongly, to take part in the festivities and dance. However, there is a barrier about the main dance floor around DJ Puzzle that seems off limits to the audience. The staging becomes only about half promenade. While there are a few opportunities for the audience to roam, they are mostly delegated to the wallflower position due to the central space almost always being occupied by action.

     
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The bouffoons (Lindsey Dorcus, Jack Novak and Nathan Paul) rival DJ Puzzle as the hardest working members of the cast. While their acrobatics are increasingly impressive, their commedia routines fall flat more often than not. Eurydice (Audrey Rose Bertaux-Saint) is performed largely through movement and action. Her acrobatics in the underworld is talented, yet doesn’t exactly communicate much about where she is and what state she is in.

Kyle Land’s lighting provides for some haunting images, inducing an effect reminiscent of German expressionism. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costume design distracts more than helps in this play, contrasting her whimsical design in Eurydice.

Overall, the balance between dance club and play is hazy to the point where there were several moments I’d rather just drop the story all together and simply enjoy moving around the space in this loft rave. DJ Puzzle is transfixing, but his role as Fate never truly comes to fruition. Nevertheless, when the story is in motion, it is told subtly through physicality. As a stand-alone production I couldn’t imagine Sade’s retelling to be worthwhile, but as a compliment and nightcap to Filament’s Eurydice, it’s just weird and fun enough to merit extending your night in Pilsen a little longer.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate is adapted and directed by Omen Sade. It will run Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm through May 28th in conjunction with Eurydice. Tickets are $15; $10 if purchased along with Eurydice. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.

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Review: Eurydice (Filament Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Beautifully poetic, yet occasionally off key

     
     

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

 

Filament Theatre Ensemble Presents

 
Eurydice
 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Julie Ritchey
Original music by Peter Oyloe and Shannon Bengford
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport (map)
thru May 29  |  tickets: $10-$35 sponsorship |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Sarah Ruhl’s work can be seen all over Chicago this year, from The Court’s Orlando—to The Goodman’s premiere of Stage Kiss opening in May. All the while, she is not only being staged in our big name venues, but also in the fringe with Filament Theatre Ensemble’s remount of her 2003 play, Eurydice (in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate). And rest assured, the Pilsen space of the Lacuna Lofts is pure fringe with its unfinished, exposed and vacant expanse. It’s the type of building that’d be perfect for hide-n-seek, or the filming location for the next movie in the Hostel series. In this instance, director Julie Ritchey’s production, and Ruhl’s text, has something in common with the space, in that it is visually interesting, ignites curiosity, but in the end, it’s mostly empty.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, you’ll not be out of the loop, as Ruhl extracts the more romantic and sentimental aspects, expounding on them in a contemporary fashion. The play opens with Orpheus (Peter Oyloe) and Eurydice (Carolyn Faye Kramer) in 1950’s swimsuits (costumed pitch-perfect by Mieka van der Ploeg). His love is so boundless that he offers her the world, literally, by giving her the sea, the sky and the stars. The only two thoughts ever on his mind are Eurydice and music, for Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world. After some lovely staging by Ritchey in the opening scene, Orpheus ties a string around Eurydice’s finger to which she responds amusingly, “That’s a very particular finger.” And so, the worry-free couple is to be wed.

Eurydice’s father (played with great heart by Patrick Blashill), is dead, yet he successfully manages to get a letter sent to Eurydice from the underworld. In a chain of events related to the letter, and ‘A Nasty Interesting Man’ (Nathan Pease), she takes a tumble to her death. And thus, she is transferred to the underworld, by way of a raining elevator version of the River Styx. Here we meet our chorus of three stones (played with dedicated physicality by Ted Evans, Brandon Cloyd and Ashley Alvarez), who unfortunately come off more annoying in their childishness than anything else.

The rest of the narrative plays out much the same as any version of the myth, as Orpheus gains entry to the underworld in search of Eurydice. However, in Ruhl’s imagining, there is a certain “through the rabbit hole” element to the underworld. Nothing is as it seems, everyday objects have lost their meaning, and it is a world void of emotion. Ruhl also takes her time to languish in stripping meaning from words like “father” and “love.” She writes a wonderfully lyrical monologue in a letter from Orpheus to Eurydice in which he ponders, “Eurydice is dead….who is Eurydice?…what are people?”

The direction and acting in Ritchey’s production is decidedly set in the two-dimensional, which in part works well with the Greek morality tradition. While it highlights Ruhl’s wit and verse, it sacrifices some of the heart and what’s at stake for each of these characters. Still, Carolyn Faye Kramer’s performance is smart and uninhibited. Nathan Pease’s turn as an “interesting” man is creepy yet intriguing, however as the Lord of the Underworld, Ritchey may have steered Pease’s character too far in the obvious direction with Ruhl’s childlike depiction. The doe-eyed Oyloe has wonderful focus with Orpheus’ unconditional loyalty to love and music. His naïve ambitions are committed to fully.

The overall mise-en-scène is starkly beautiful with the interplay between the cold industrial aesthetic of the space and the warm whimsical poetry in the costume, light and scenic design. Joe Schermoly uses minimal elements within the barren space, such as white tree branches, that are intriguing yet not fully transformative. The freight elevator serves as the perfect mode of transportation to the underworld. Sitting in silence, listening to the clanking of the approaching elevator—waiting—provides for a few of the more exhilarating moments of the night.

One fatal flaw in this production is the recorded music. Too often, it sounds more like the background music in an informational video for a time-share. The composition and design come off as unoriginal (I swear I heard the theme from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast quoted at one point on the piano), and falsely produced—the overly computerized MIDI sound to every note played on the strings takes away the possibility for any emotional response to the music or authenticity. It also underscores a bit loudly during key monologues and scenes. While this may seem a minor point, in a play that relies upon one of the main character’s abilities to create the most beautiful music in the world, it unfortunately takes the wind out of the sails of Orpheus’ journey. When Oyloe is alone on stage conducting a computerized orchestra, we do not believe he has tugged at the heart strings of any person or creature. Oyloe’s live acoustic guitar playing is far more effective than any of his and Shannon Bengford’s arrangements.

Ultimately, Filament may not have the resources to meet the necessities of Ruhl’s play. The lyricism of the dialogue can only sustain the story so far. The light playfulness of the text requires a higher level of theatricality and spectacle to maintain interest, and to achieve the intended emotional effect, and create a separation of the two worlds to flesh out Eurydice’s journey. The play wants to float along in a dream world in which anything can occur, time and language are rendered meaningless, and the desires of the characters are unbridled. In this fanciful, yet uneven production, I was woken up, and taken out of this dreamlike place a few too many times to consider the journey refreshing and worthwhile.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Peter Oyloe as Orpheus and Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is directed by Filament’s Artistic Director, Julie Ritchey. It will run Friday through Sunday April 22 through May 29th in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. All performances are at 7:30pm. Tickets are a $10 – $35 sponsorship. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.


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REVIEW: Church and Pullman, WA (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Exhilaration, fear and loathing in religion

     
     

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Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Church  /  Pullman, WA
  
Written by Young Jean Lee
Directed by
James Palmer
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Young Jean Lee’s plays, Church and Pullman, WA, are really two peas in a pod. Produced by Red Tape Theatre under the direction of James Palmer, Lee’s two one-acts bookend human experience on matters of self-help, personal worth, religion, motivational speaking and hallucinatory mysticism. It’s not just that having faith is, by its nature, not a rational act–Lee’s works steep the audience in the utter irrationality of belief systems of all sorts and in doing so, exposes the raw human struggle to go on in hope and positive meaning for living.

“I know how to live,” exclaims a young woman (Amanda Reader) at the top of Pullman, WA, glowing bright, professional and squeaky clean. She begins as clearly and simplistically as anyone leading a motivational workshop or a weekend seminar spawned by the Human Potential Movement. “The first thing you have to remember is that You Are You,” she scrawls upon the blackboard behind her. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that she is as plagued by doubts as any fallible human, and the motivational tactics she espouses are a thin shield against uncertainty.

As she falters, an assistant (Meghan Reardon) interrupts to guide the audience through a meditation comforting in its childlike, beneficent imagery—“You are sitting on a giant puffball”–which, of course, soon becomes so festooned with unicorns and candy-coated rainbows, it’s absurd. A second assistant (Austin Oie) chimes in with time-honored, Biblically resonant reassurance, “I am an angel of the Lord.” But he also fails to deliver unimpeachable strength of conviction. Between the three motivational speakers, Pullman, WA veers into macabre madness.

Lee’s writing has got a tiger by the tale. How much should we trust belief systems that tell us everything is going to be alright so long as we believe, whether it’s about believing in ourselves, believing in a higher power or believing in some cognitive system built to reassure and propel us forward? That way leads to madness, madness reflected in the imagery of Lee’s script, which owes a debt to Hieronymus Bosch.

The trouble, if there is any, lies in Church being pretty much the same thing, only expanded. Red Tape may want to review the necessity of performing two almost identical plays back to back as they’ve chosen to do. Nevertheless, set up as a storefront church service, Palmer’s more than able cast easily holds their own through all Church’s tangential swerves and comic detours. They are brilliant at exposing faith as the ephemeral and potentially dangerous thing it is. Rev. Jose (Robert L. Oakes), in particular, leads the audiences on a humorous, hallucinatory sojourn with his sermonizing which, by the way, includes mummies, Jesus among leprous child molesters, and almost everything being poison. His fellow Reverends, Angela (Angela Alise Johnson) and Carrie (Carrie Drapac), nail the links between power, faith and fear with the song:

Shakin’ in your bones is required
To believe in colossal empires . . .

A sentiment impacted all the more by the final chorus, both uplifting and terrifying, in their anthem of religious compliance and resignation. So busy praising Jesus, so busy working for the kingdom, so busy serving their master, they ain’t got time to die. One recognizes religion as a strategy for survival—an exhilarating uplift to meet life’s random and often overwhelming challenges. One can also see its desperate acquiescence to a power greater than oneself, which eventually includes temporal power. As far as Lee’s work is concerned, the two are hopelessly intermeshed. Now that’s something that will put the fear of God in you.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Delicate Balance fits in nicely with Redtwist Theatre season

An unraveling of damaged souls

 

 (L-R) Chuck Spencer (Harry), Cece Klinger (Claire), in A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 005

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
A Delicate Balance
   
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 24th  |  tickets: $   |  more info

by Allegra Gallian 

“The Redtwist 2010-11 season is about fear – how we try to understand it, cope with it and overcome it. It’s arguably the greatest driving force in the history of mankind,” said Redtwist Artistic Director Michael Colluci of the theatre’s new season.

(L-R) Jacqueline Grandt (Julia), Brian Parry (Tobias), in A Delicate Balance by Edgar Albee - Redtwist Theatre 002 Redtwist Theatre opened its season this past weekend with Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-Prizing winning play A Delicate Balance.

A Delicate Balance, directed by Steve Scott, opens on Tobias (Brian Parry) and Agnes (Millicent Hurley), an upper-middle-class couple, in their home. The couple discusses their daughter Julia (Jacqueline Grandt) and Agnes’s sister Claire (CeCe Klinger). Agnes and Tobias are burdened but obliged to their family members in need. Claire is an alcoholic and Julia has walked out on her fourth marriage.

The family is joined by Agnes and Tobias’s best friends Henry (Chuck Spencer) and Edna (Jan Ellen Graves). Harry and Edna are overly anxious and show up announced to stay with Agnes and Tobias after having to leave their home due to an unexplained terror they felt.

With a house full of unsteady people in one way or another, each person tiptoes around until breaking points are reached.

A Delicate Balance fits in nicely with Redtwist’s theme of fear as the characters face (or run from) their own demons both literally and figuratively. Edna and Harry have run away from home based on an irrational and sudden fear they both felt. Agnes confronts her fear of possibly going mad and Julia delves into her fear of losing her place in her parent’s lives. Each character at some point faces their fears out in the open in front of all the others, shattering pretenses and politeness in the way of truth.

Redtwist does not disappoint with this fine production.  It’s definitely worth a look-see.

A Delicate Balance at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., plays through October 24. Tickets are $25 to $30 and can be purchased through the theatre’s Web site.

 

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Running Time: approx. 2:35 
Tickets: Thursdays, $25; Fridays & Sundays, $27; Saturdays, $30 (Seniors & Students, $5 discount)   URL: www.redtwist.org/Ticketsdelicate.html

Schedule:
Runs: Thu, Fri, Sat 7:30pm; Sun 3pm Please Note: There is no performance on Sat, Oct 23. There is an add’l performance on Sat, Oct 16 at 3pm
Closes: Sun, Oct 24

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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: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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