Review: Sinbad, The Untold Story (Adventure Stage Chicago)

  
  

Update on a classic adventure fantasy takes off, but not high

  
  

(l to r) Edgar Sanchez, Mildred Langford, Dana Dajani. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Adventure Stage presents
   
Sinbad: The Untold Story
   
Written by Charles Way
Directed by Amanda Delheimer
at Vittum Theater , 1012 N. Noble (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

How relieving, I thought while sitting amongst the kids and pre-teens at Adventure Stage’s Saturday matinee, to hear the words “Baghdad” and “Koran” outside of a contentious context. The children who will see Sinbad: The Untold Tale are part of a generation who’ve never experienced America before its frighteningly mainstream Islamophobic discourse, before every televised use of the phrase “Muslim” was intrinsically linked to controversy and heated debate. Charles Way’s 2006 play, on the other hand, is about as amenable as it gets: a quest story promoting courage and nobility–values that are universal with characters that are relatable.

The intent, as well as the production’s partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is commendable; the execution is so-so.

Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mike Ooi (koken) - photo Johnny KnightWay’s tale takes place in the years after Sinbad the Sailor’s epic journeys in “1001 Arabian Nights,” after the adventurer has wrapped up his seventh voyage at sea and called it quits. Retirement doesn’t end the world’s conquests, though, so when a witch plagues his city with a haze that in short-time will kill all adults (“Gas-s-s-s!,” anyone?), the tired and afflicted sailor transfers the hero role to his eager orphan porter (Edgar Miguel Sanchez, physically-grounded and affable as the young lead, alongside Dana Dajani as his travel partner Ittifaq).

From thereon, there aren’t many divergences from the tried-and-true action-for-kids plot. The porter is handed a box containing three items to use in times of peril, a girl sets out to prove herself by tagging along, saving him and becoming a love interest along the way, clever quips abound, etc. etc. It’s all very familiar and sustainable. But assuming the young audiences are not familiar with the original Sinbad stories, they’ll likely trip over a few recurring points. They may ask themselves, “who is that old man that keeps talking about adventures that sound more interesting? Who is Ittifaq’s mom, and why should I care?”

The action works from time to time. David Chrzanowski’s fight choreography infuses some video-game-type elements that, at the performance I attended, garnered lots of positive verbal reaction from the kids and least one audible “that’s cooool!” from a little girl behind me. Others fall comically short, like an attempt at a flying carpet that left two actors’ feet visible under their stuffed faux-legs. Not yet versed in polite restraint, many of the children outwardly giggled during a moment clearly aiming for a different response.

Sinbad: The Untold Tale could easily shave off 15 minutes, and its desired audience is a little ambiguous. As a journey tale, it meets the bar–but it isn’t magic.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Sinbad the Untold Story. Photo by Johnny Knight

Sinbad: The Untold Story continues through April 16th, with 10:30am performances March 22, 24 and 31; April 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15.  Family matinee 2pm performances continue April 2, 9 and 16, with a special evening performance April 8th at 7pm. Tickets are not available online.  Instead, call 773.342.4141.

  
  

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REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

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Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

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The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

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Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

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Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

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REVIEW: The Ghosts of Treasure Island (Adventure Stage)

Rockin’ adaptation reveres original pirate tale

 

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Adventure Stage Chicago presents
 
The Ghosts of Treasure Island
 
script by Eric Schmiedl
Music/lyrics by Captain Bogg and Salty
directed by Amanda Delheimer
at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through May 20th | tickets: $12-$17 | more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Childhood is an existential crisis. Little ones ask their parents "why?" after any conceivable statement, sure that adults are omniscient rulers, who hold in their minds the secrets of life’s mysteries. The grown-ups, unable to answer questions  like, "why does a car go? Not how, but why?" end up distracting kiddies with rules, especially rules about how rude and annoying it is to ask unanswerable questions. Our rules say, "be good, and treasure-island1good things will happen to you." Childhood lore tends to reflect and uphold these laws, good conquers, evil is defeated, and happiness reigns. Young adult novels, plays and movies rarely venture into areas of ambiguous morality, but those that do are rewarded with critical acclaim, and sometimes the promise of timelessness; such is the case with Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1881 Treasure Island. This is a tale that truly respects the emotional intelligence of children, and Adventure Stage Chicago‘s theatrical adaption of The Ghosts of Treasure Island doesn’t shy away from that.

From the opening scenes of this thrilling play, the audience is confronted with themes of familial loyalty, regrets of old age and the beckoning call to youth to "make your mark" on the world. This is a show that – to steal Del Close‘s famous phrase – plays to the top of it’s intelligence. From the creative set designed by Chelsea Warren, which includes a beam which can be raised to transform a flat wooden floor into a pirate ship, to the artful adaptation by playwright Eric Schmiedl, who plays hard on the book’s themes of self-discovery and moral ambiguity.

One of the most striking parts of the play is the performance of Glenn Stanton as the depressive alcoholic pirate Billy Bones, whose life of regret, and pathetic death serve as the inciting incident of this play. He is actually scary as the forlorn pirate, whose drunken state gives way to demented fantasies and violent, erratic behavior. Jim Hawkins, played here by youthful Kroydell Galima, should have been played by an actual teenager, instead of an adult actor who can play young. However, Galima is committed, intelligent and earnestly in touch with the emotional state of a child.

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Punctuating scenes and major emotional shifts in this play is the pirate band Captain Bogg and Salty, who according to the program worked closely with the playwright in creating the adaptation. The music is dark and intense, and the lyrics are poetic. The band transforms a turn of the last century tale into a ballad rock musical, whose emotional intensity matches the complicated 129-year old story.

Ghosts of Treasure Island is a rocking adaptation that reveres the original tale. A perfect blend of childhood angst and modern day craft have made a near perfect children’s play. There are short comings, however. The play, which runs over an hour and a half may be a bit long for some young audiences. Additionally, this play has the potential to be too scary. It holds children to a high level, so make sure the little guys and girls you bring on board are up for an intellectual challenge and can handle the fear factor. In terms of raising the stakes of children’s theater, however, The Ghosts of Treasure Island truly hits the mark.

 
Rating: ★★★

Recommended for ages 9 and up (4th thru 8th grades).

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  • April 24 (Performance is part of ASC’s Spring Fling: A Pirate Party)
  • May 1 (Behind the Scenes Day – Get a VIP tour after the show)
  • Special Evening Performance: Friday May 7th at 7:00 p.m.
  • May 8 (Picture with a Pirate Day – Take photos with the cast)

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REVIEW: The Last of the Dragons (Lifeline Theatre)

A good time for ALL ages

 

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review by  K.D. Hopkins

As I entered the Lifeline Theatre on a freezing Chicago afternoon, I thought back to the first time I saw real children’s theatre. It was a production of Peter Pan in the early 70’s. I was a cynical kid and did not give in easily to fantastic imagination. Fast forward to 2010 – I watched while what seemed to be an endless stream of children were herded into the cozy theatre. They were a well-behaved bunch and I sensed more sophisticated than most children about theatre. That was a bonus as we settled in for an hour of fun with a really great lesson about individuality and tradition.

TheLastoftheDragons3 LR The Last of the Dragons is a world premiere musical adaptation from a novel by Edith Nesbit. It is of interest to note that Ms. Nesbit was a woman considered ahead of her time in Victorian England. Not only was she an accomplished author but also a political activist involved in creating the precursor to England’s Labour Party – the Fabian Society. The central character of Princess Andromeda (nicknamed Andy) is a girl possessing a strong mind who has decidedly unfeminine pursuits according to her father, the king. She is an accomplished swordswoman, wears her hair short, and likes to dress in trousers. Like Victorian England, women’s roles were defined clearly and if one expected a comfortable life, she would willingly adapt to societal mores.

Princess Andy is played by Anne Sears. She is fresh faced and appealing as the gutsy princess. Her comic gifts show brilliantly in the scene where she is being coached in princess behavior and attire. Mike Ooi plays the King with just enough bombast and humor. Ooi possesses a fine bass voice that resounds in the song “Tradition”. This production does not talk down to the audience just because it is meant for children. There is a layered dynamic between the characters of the King and Princess Andy. They engage in swordplay in the opening scene that hints at the King’s indulgence and acceptance of his daughter’s skills and individuality.

Cast member David Fink is a triple threat as the hilarious D’Artagnan, Chamberlain, and as the Dragon. Mr. Fink has been in previous Lifeline Theatre adaptations (including my all time favorite childhood book “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile”), and here his role of Dragon breaks your heart as the Dragon who is a pacifist and longs to have friends rather than being feared. It’s a fine and subtle lesson about fear and prejudice as traditions that need to be broken in every generation. His characterization of the parrot D’Artagnan had everyone in the audience chuckling. He is physically nimble and obviously knows how to project emotion in spite of a giant papier-mache head.

Kudos is due to Scott Allen Luke as Prince Stanley. He is the perfect counterpoint to Princess Andy’s physicality. His character is studious and henpecked by his mother the Queen played with flair by Mallory Nees. Prince Stanley is told, “You must be more like a prince and less like you”. It is another good lesson in appearances and tradition no matter the time. Glass slippers, white horses, and dwarves can easily be seen as the cool shoes, toys, and school cliques in our time.

The staging of The Last of the Dragons is genius in its simplicity. The young audience can focus on the characters rather than lots of set dressing. The swordplay is not too violent and there are smart double entendres for everyone to enjoy. Director Dorothy Milne has managed to project the just right mix of whimsy and morality lessons with this production. Lifeline’s tagline is ‘big stories up close’ and they continue to be true to their word. The staging of the Dragon’s lair is funny and just scary enough. The Dragon is a beautiful mix of brocade and voile managing to cleverly encompass the breadth of the stage.

The music and lyrics are by Mikhail Fiksel, Kyle Hamman, and Alex Balestrieri. It is easy and fun to sing. In fact, I found myself humming the finale “Fly With A Dragon” as I walked home. David Bareford adapts this play from the story written by Ms. Nesbit, who collaborated with Kenneth Grahame of “Wind in the Willows” fame on her ‘Dragon’ stories toward the end of her colorful and turbulent life. The story is a fun fantasy that the kids will probably act out at home like any good childrens theatre or book. After I left, I recalled another theatre experience from the later 70’s called Warp by Stuart Gordon at the Organic Theater. This fine production of The Last of the Dragons is great preparation for more theatre in a child’s future whether they are three or ready for AARP.

If you have not yet been to a Lifeline Theatre production, this is an excellent one to attend – and see for yourself why this theatre company has been a long-time anchor in the Glenwood Arts District and a precious resource in the neighborhood as a whole.

 

Rating: ★★★

The Last of the Dragons runs through February 21st 2010. Shows are Saturdays at 1:00PM and Sundays at 11:00AM and 1:00PM. The Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park. Call 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com for more information on Lifeline’s productions and other fun programs for children and adults alike. See you in the aisles!

 

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

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The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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