Review: Verse Chorus Verse (Tympanic Theatre)

    
  

The Tragedy of Grunge, Redux

  
  

Dennis Frymire, Jon Penick, and Kevin Crispin - Verse Chorus Verse

  
Tympanic Theatre presents
  
Verse Chorus Verse
  
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Kyra Lewandowski
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $12-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Not being a slave to rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve listened, puzzled, to people exclaiming that a certain rock band or music genre saved their lives. I’m equally flummoxed at the notion that any single music artist could be dubbed “the voice of a generation”—there are, after all, so many voices and the most deserving frequently fail to receive widespread attention. Nevertheless, fame places crowns upon a few–that some musicians end in tragedy only serves to superglue that dubious diadem upon the troubled rocker’s brow. Such is the life and music of Kurt Cobain. Tympanic Theatre’s latest production, Verse Chorus Verse, pulls its audience into the milieu of grunge fans, reporters and revivalists marked by Cobain’s death. It’s as if, from the moment he pulled the trigger, time stopped and all hope of going forward was lost.

Actually, Randall Colburn’s interesting new play, under Kyra Lewandowski’s direction at the Side Project Theatre, begins at a far earlier point in the Cobain legend. Fourteen year old Polly (Victoria Gilbert) gets kidnapped, raped and tortured by Gerald Friend (Neal Starbird(left to right) Victoria Gilbert and Neal Starbird - Verse Chorus Verse), who lures her into his car after a punk rock concert–the very same Polly becomes the heroine of Nirvana’s eponymous song on their album “Nevermind”. Flash forward twenty years later, the older Polly now fascinates Garret Leskin (Kevin Crispin), a budding grunge star heralded as the new Cobain, who thoroughly believes that Cobain was murdered. The play’s structure oscillates between the past and present, between that fateful kidnapping and its emotional reverberations far into the future.

For all the dialogue around Cobain and the burden of living up to his legend, the story really belongs to Polly. Gilbert gives a passionate edge to her role’s pathos. Polly is drug-addicted, trapped in the past, and, since becoming enshrined in Cobain’s lyrics, hardly able to see beyond the boundaries of her own legend. The murder mystery that Garret hopes to unravel through her is tangled in half-cooked fictions, inchoate emotional desperation and age-old resentments over who got fame and who got left behind. Dennis Frymore puts in a tough, grilling performance as Mason Dwyer, lead of the Satanic Metal Band, Yeti, who has lost his guitarist Terry (Jon Patrick Penick) to Garret’s up-and-coming band, Samsara.

Lewandoski’s direction also hangs pretty tough—making the most of the black box at Side Project with a spare but versatile set by Dustin Pettegrew. She squeezes every moment for tension and suspense from her cast, shifting between scenes where rockers spar over competing narratives and otherworldly scenes in which Polly survives her kidnapping by Friend, moment by moment, under a starry sky. This doesn’t mean Verse Chorus Verse is perfect. A few fellow audience members confessed to being confused over its alternating shifts between past and present. Plus, the show will obviously carry more meaning for viewers steeped in rock culture. But both the work and production show sophistication, even with its characters’ simplistic pre-occupation with fame. Everyone just wants to be remembered, even Mr. Friend, in a chilling performance by Starbird, tries to be remembered by leaving his marks on Polly’s flesh.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Verse Chorus Verse continues through April 7th at side project theatre (1439 W. Jarvis), with performances Thursday thru Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Tickets are $15 general admission ($12 for senior/student/industry), and can be purchased online. For more info, go to www.tympanictheatre.org.

 

Photos by Paul E. Martinez.

 

 

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REVIEW: The Gay American (The Ruckus)

Sexual fear and loathing in American politics

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The Ruckus presents
 
The Gay American
  
by Kristian O’Hare
directed by
Allison Shoemaker
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 26  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Washington D.C. is the perfect place for a gay sex scandal. The nexus of American political power, the district is already so rife with desperation, loneliness, self-loathing, overweening hypocrisy and insidious self-compromise that the closeted  queers fit right in. Hand in glove. It’s both here, and in the benighted environs of New Jersey, that Kristian O’Hare’s dark, freewheeling satire The Gay American takes its stand. Director Allison Shoemaker has pulled together a sharp and seductive cast, luring us with laser-like sarcasm and poignant reflection into TheGayAmerican_Production11the small studio space at the side project theatre space in Rogers Park, where The Ruckus has set up shop for this world premiere.

Their production will sell out every night, if there is any justice in this world. The Gay American is top-drawer, savage American comedy. Its script is an outrageous, non-stop interrogation of the value of gay identity politics at its intersection with its closeted presence on the national political scene. Coming out, while a cornerstone in the valorous struggle for sexual identity equality, yellows sickly with corruption, duplicity, and solipsism in the hands of a politico as sleazy and self-promoting as Jim McGreevey (Neal Starbird).

Scene: our nation’s capitol. Gay pages suck up to powerful Washington players in the pursuit of a political career wherein they get to be the top. A closeted power player and vociferous foe of sexual predators, Mark Foley (Walter Brody) keeps a stable of young pages that he can text suggestive comments to back and forth during their term in the page program. After page graduation, once the boys are legal enough, he meets up with them for sex at the hotel room that is “the second most favorite address in D.C.” New Jersey Governor McGreevey, an up-and-coming presidential hopeful, siphons off a Page (Aaron Dean) to serve as his personal aide, whether for his own personal service, or to service him and his wife Dina (Julie Cowden) during one of their “Friday Night Specials”–starting with drinks and jalapeno poppers at no less a place than TGIF Fridays.

All the above is true and established fact. In some respects, O’Hare’s wild and absurd script has written itself and there is no way that he can top the inanity that passes for political reality in America. But the real charm lies in his capacity to craft 3-dimensional comic characters; allowing them softer, sadder, even more poetic moments, while never letting up on the cynical, mercurial rationales by which they sell themselves and each other out. The rest of the charm relies on the crisp and exacting pace with which this show is executed. If there’s an award for lightening fast scene changes in a mercilessly cramped space, this cast and crew have earned it.

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Beyond scene changes, what a joy to witness a complex and sophisticated script fleshed out by such a brilliantly comic cast. Starbird’s Jim McGreevey looks like he has sprung, fully formed, from the New Jersey muck. His office—his real office—is a bathroom stall, for which he explains his preference on two separate occasions: “I love the bathroom stall. It reminds me of my Catholic upbringing,” and “Remember Clark Kent and Superman? That’s the way I feel about bathroom stalls. I enter it Irish Catholic, middle class, married, a normal guy . . . and after a nameless fuck, I leave it feeling like Superman.” For his part, Walter Brody looks so much like Mark Foley he had me doing double takes all evening long. He also captures the fluid ease with which a true Washington player makes the switch from rank exploiter to pillar of morality in 2.8 seconds.

Joshua Davis renders a deliciously tender and corruptible Golan Cipal. He’s the lover that McGreevey continually mistakes for Mexican and, in a 9/11 environment, promotes to homeland security advisor at a six-figure salary–even though Cipal is still an Israeli citizen. O’Hare is ready to play the romance card regarding Cipal’s involvement with McGreevey and Davis digs deep into the role’s contradictions,  evolving Golan’s progress from warm, poetic naïveté to gullible and overwhelmed self-compromise for one’s lover to immersion in self-loathing rage from a lover scorned.

TheGayAmerican_Production14But his rage cannot match the post-partum blackness in the soul of Dina McGreevey (Julie Cowden). I might have wished that O’Hare could have played up the sleaze factor a little more for this character. Certainly the real Dina Matos McGreevey deserves it. O’Hare relies just a little too much on “poor, betrayed woman” tropes for his Dina. Only once does he have her acknowledge her own complicity in her lavender marriage. Plus, a little research reveals that those “Friday Night Specials” were going on well before marriage. Nevertheless, Cowden’s performance is immaculate in its searing emotional truth. Her boozy, pill-popping chats with Jersey gal pal Patty (Elise Mayfield) become especially memorable, particularly when Patty morphs into Constance Wilde. Now that’s a side to Constance that Oscar may never have seen.

Aaron Dean and Freddie Donovan play a perfect pair of congressional pages—perfect bookends portraying the young gay have and have-nots in Washington’s political game playing. Stevie Chaddock gives us a sympathetic and vulnerable Morag–ignored by her parents as they enjoy the “cup quality” of their coffee, lost in the brave new world of cyber-dating, hoping to gain something from exploiting herself before others exploit her. I might have wished for more empowerment for Morag, Page, and Philly Buster but that will never come to pass in this world. No, in this dark, gay tale of Washington sexual shenanigans everyone loses, especially when they think they are winning.

    
     
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

 

 

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REVIEW: Curse of the Starving Class (New Leaf Theatre)

New Leaf’s “curse” satisfies

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New Leaf Theatre presents
 
Curse of the Starving Class
 
By Sam Shepard
Directed by
Kyra Lewandowski
Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park W. (map)
thru May 22nd  |  tickets: $10-$18  | more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepard’s best work always revolves around families. Some say that the American drama is family drama, and Shepherd definitely makes a strong case for this argument. His scathing True West, Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, and gritty A Lie of the Mind all focus on entangled, screwed-up families. Curse of the Starving Class, one of his other heralded “family tragedies,” is as blazing and cut-throat as the rural svclass2 California homestead it’s set in. It focuses on a family with standard structure—father, mother, son, and daughter—but with destructive tendencies. Transforming the Lincoln Park Cultural Center into the dilapidated familial residence, New Leaf does an excellent job capturing Shepherd’s gangster flick yet Aeschylean essence, although some moments are over-broiled and muddy.

The titular “curse” and the titular “starving class” are mentioned several times throughout the play, but neither is really explained at all. The drunken patriarch Weston (John Gray) describes a curse passed down for generations, from father to son, but doesn’t mention any details as to why their family is possessed or the consequences of this venom. The term is also thrown around in regards to the daughter’s first period, her entrance to adulthood. Shepherd is toying around with Classical ideas of fate, but with a horrifically modern twist: no one remembers what the curse is. The characters also have different opinions on the starving class, which is less of an economic distinction and more of a mental illness. The result is a titillating mixture of Aristotelian theory and post-modern sensibility, like if O’Neill wrote a B-movie.

The family, never given a last name, eke out an existence in a broken-down farmhouse; their front door smashed apart by Weston. We are privy to the kitchen area (they are the starving class, after all), and watch as each member contrastingly defile or rebuild the disgusting room. We see the idealistic son Wesley (Layne Manzer) urinate in the food prep area, yet later he attempts to replace the broken door. Ella (Victoria Gilbert), the matriarch, half-heartedly keeps order, and the much-maligned daughter Emma (Alyse Kittner) can’t stand the place. Weston, for all the destruction he causes, takes a shot at revitalizing the house in the final act. The world is ground-up and fallible; the characters attempt change, but can they escape their curse?

Kyra Lewandowski takes on this powerful script with gusto. Her staging is visceral, but sometimes misguided. A couple of very crucial moments take place in the eviscerated doorway, which is concealed from a good chunk of the audience. The production also adds some spooky shadow-work to push the play into a more abstract realm, but Shepherd’s grinding text doesn’t need it. Lewandowski’s expressionist choice distracts rather than adds, but it is fortunately rarely used. Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set and Jared Moore’s lights fill the otherwise welcoming Lincoln Park Cultural Center with gloom and decay, providing the cast with one unappetizing kitchen.

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The cast finds connections with Shepherd’s sometimes cryptic characters, and the entire show breathes and broods. Manzer’s Wesley can be a bit too manic, but Manzer clearly knows Wesley’s vulnerabilities. Gilbert sits in the world the best, making Ella’s most bizarre moments feel natural and understandable. Against both of these powerful actors, Kittner scratches and scrambles, which works for Emma. Gray shines in the last act, but earlier he overplays the drunken stupor and comes off as ungrounded. As the land-grabbing lawyer, Kevin Gladish can’t really penetrate Shepherd’s realm, seeming wooden and unsure. This is difficult territory to conquer, however, and the cast steps up to the challenge and they are not afraid to tear right into it.

There is a lot of important information that is left unsaid in Curse, leaving the audience unsettled and probing in the dark. Lewandowski and her team understand this critical aspect—they know to close doors as they open windows. Minus a few failings, New Leaf Theatre has a self-destructive, nauseating success.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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