REVIEW: The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy)

Innovation triumphs over imitation

 

 

book of liz with mr peanut

   
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
   
The Book of Liz
   
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through December 18th |  tickets: $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Amy Sedaris is a nut. I’ve been following her career since her early days on Comedy Central’s surrealist sketch show “Exit 57” (directed by Annoyance Theatre founder Mick Napier). Unlike her female contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have both deservedly found success on network television, Sedaris has never learned, or perhaps wanted, to tone down her irreverent brand of humor and repackage it for the masses, as evidenced by the darkly hilarious Strangers With Candy. In short, she is a unique spirit that demands a cult following.

Book of Liz - Sarah Rose Graber That is why I was blown away by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s remount of its production of The Book of Liz, a play penned by Sedaris and her equally talented brother, David Sedaris. Sarah Rose Graber fills in for the title character, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a character originally portrayed by Sedaris herself, and brings an energy that is both congruent with the play’s wacky tone while wholly original. This is significant because I would expect Sedaris’ shadow to intimidate most actresses into paying homage, but not so with Graber.

The Book of Liz concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as the Squeamish. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. Her patience is tested when parishioner Brother Brightbee (Brian Kash) visits from a nearby community to learn the lucrative craft. It is then that Liz resolves to run away and experience the outside world.

While on the outside, Liz encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a Ukrainian couple that speaks with cockney accents and a colonial-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back at the Squeamish community, Brother Brightbee becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails again and again to replicate the famous cheeseball recipe.

Graber deserves all the praise she can get for her wide-eyed portrayal of Liz. She is unwavering in her commitment to the character’s little tics, from her squeaky voice to her “Gosh darn” facial expressions. Equally worthy of praise is her supporting cast, including Kash, who did double duty by filling in for Bryan Beckwith, the actor slated to play restaurant manager Duncan. As Brother Brightbee, Kash’s hyperbolized passive aggression toward Liz makes for some tense comedy. Adam El-Sharkawi, too, does an outstanding job as Reverend Tollhouse, the Squeamish community’s no-nonsense leader. In one of the play’s only dramatic scenes, Liz confronts the Reverend about his workhorse ways. Here, Graber and El-Sharkawi forge a genuinely touching connection in the midst of the otherwise hair-brained comedy.

Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s space is tight—incredibly tight. And yet she manages to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment.

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz stays true to the Sedaris spirit. Fortunately, this does not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. If you are looking for a good laugh (and who isn’t these days), check out this production!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast (*indicates returning cast members)

*Sarah Rose Graber…Liz
*Brian Kash…Brother Brightbee
*Nathan Petts…Donny/Visil
*Cynthia Shur…Cecily/Dr. Barb
*Adam El Sharkawi …Rev. Tollhouse
*Lina Bunte…Sister Buterworth
Laura Wilkinson…Oxanna
Eric Bays…Yvonne
Bryan Beckwith…Duncan
Directed by *Angie McMahon

  
  

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Review: Hubris Production’s “Bent”

Hubris’ Revival a Limited, but Still Devastating, Success

Hubris Productions presents

Bent
by Martin Sherman
directed by Jacob Christopher Green

Review by Paige Listerud

To appreciate Martin Sherman’s Bent, one has to acknowledge the times in which it was created. When Sherman finished it in 1970, he was addressing neglected history about the Holocaust–the persecution of gay men and lesbians, along with other marginalized groups, like the Roma and the disabled, were hardly mentioned and Bent2practically forgotten. But he was also answering to the urgency of the budding Gay Liberation Movement, sparked by the Stonewall riots that had taken place just a year before. Bent is not simply about remembrance but also about reclaiming the gay male body in the face of absolute hostility—an attempt that was facilitated by the somewhat earlier explosion of the 60’s Sexual Revolution. These two basic dramatic intentions may still have fit fairly easily in 1979, when the play hit Broadway and received nominations for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

Unfortunately, at the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, Bent is showing its age. It has a singular, radical, and revolutionary focus. It lacks in-depth examination of the interconnectedness of oppressions that would make ripe material for any exploration of the Holocaust today. The men with the pink triangle may have been the lowest of the low in Nazi concentration camps, particularly when they were persecuted by fellow inmates, yet the bare suggestion that life was so much better for Jews is a component of Sherman’s radical shortsightedness–certainly not an anomaly in leftist thinking in the late 60’s, but rather irksome and disturbing to witness now.

“I wanted to do this because I had led workshops with LGBT youth at the Center on Halsted,” said director Jacob Christopher Green. “There were so many of them that didn’t know about the pink triangle. We thought the play was particularly relevant today because of similar economic conditions between the Weimar era and this. And the advances that had been made by Germany’s own homosexual movement by Magnus Hirschfeld and the Institute for Sexual Science. That was all swept away by the Third Reich.” Bent1

So while not at all denying the urgent need for remembrance, it may be time to encourage and develop more fully fleshed-out works that expose the dire straits of queer people under Nazi terror.

Without altering the script, these issues couldn’t be resolved with the very best of casts. Problematic to Hubris Productions’ presentation is an uneven cast. The first act comes across as musty community theater–the few bright moments being Travis Walker’s drag performance as nightclub owner, Greta, and the tender scene between Max (Christopher Kauffman) and Rudy (Michael Shepherd) while they are on the lamb. The set (designed by John Whittington), while irritatingly monochromatic, is designed to give the production many levels to play with, which makes the 2-dimensional direction of most of the action in 1st Act a conundrum.

The second act improves profoundly with the concentration of action on Max and his newfound ally, friend, and lover Horst (Jason Ober). That Kaufman and Ober are able to create a realistic and deeply moving relationship out of BENT_webdialogue that is sometimes stilted is a testimony to their craft and Green’s ability to create a truly intimate connection between them on a very bare and unforgiving stage. In their transgressive celebration of their sexuality and growing vulnerability, their increasing love for one another creeps up on them and on us.

By the time Horst is ruthlessly executed in front of Max, we are swept up in Max’s anguished acknowledgement that he has truly loved. He has loved men. And he has loved without the dulling distractions of alcohol and cocaine that were part of his old decadent life in Berlin. The finale is heartbreaking and devastating. This is the revolution we have needed all evening long.

Rating: ««½

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
When: Thru August 15, 2009
Tickets: $25 Adults, $20 Student/Seniors, Box Office: 773-404-7336
Tickets Online: https://www.tix.com

Cast: Christopher Kauffman, Michael Shepherd, Andrew Skenk, Gregory L. Payne, Travis Walker, Timothy McGuire, Jason Ober

Artistic/Technical Team: Jacob Christopher Green (Director and costumes), John Whittington (set designer), Richard Ebeling (lighting designer), Jason Dabrowski (sound design), CJ Leavens (Props), Nathan Petts (fight choreographer), Patricia Savieo (dramaturge), Lexi Staples (flag art), Tina Frey (stage manager), John Kamys (video creator/director)

Note: A portion of the proceeds from this show will benefit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org

There will be a Talkback Series with the director and actors immediately following the show on Sundays, July 12, 26 and August 9. They will last approximately 30 minutes.

More info: http://www.hubrisproductions.com