REVIEW: A Christmas Carl (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

A Lot of Predictable, a Little Perverse

  
  

A Christmas Carl - Poster

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
A Christmas Carl
  
Created and Directed by Ned Record
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is it about formulaic Christmas stories that we return to again and again each holiday season? Does their familiarity comfort and reassure? Is there something in the ritual retelling of Christmas stories that really re-awakens warmth and goodwill? Chicago dell’Arte’s A Christmas Carl, now onstage at Right Brain Project Rorshach, comes across like a new flavored bag of Doritos—it’s still Doritos, but with a different coating than the Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese varieties. Creator and director Ned Record revamps Charles Dickens’ tale with Tex-Mex flavor but with limited success. The real value of A Christmas Carl is not how closely it adheres to tradition, but in the dippy trips it takes into delightful perversity.

In fact, the production itself seems rather bored with same old Christmas story. Charlene Dickens (Joanna P. Lind) gets stranded in Cleburne, Texas, once her transmission goes out on her way to Nashville. She waits endlessly in Scrooge’s Auto Body Shop, where there are obviously more than a few screws loose. Bob Ratchet (Derek Jarvis) can hardly keep his attention on one line of conversation, let alone the engine block, and Juan (Christopher Thies-Lotito), feigning ignorance of the English language, is hardly decent help. Owner Carl Scrooge (Nick Freed) only paces back and forth from reception to garage, never getting his hands dirty himself and never needing to deliver a “bah, humbug” over giving his employees time off for Christmas day. His flat deadpan drawl more than indicates utter disinterest in holiday merriment or goodwill toward men.

If only the play didn’t lag as much as action in the garage. Charlene’s plans to turn Carl around, by the ritual introduction of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, go dreadfully slow and haltingly predictable. Leading Carl through his paces to Christmas redemption would be excruciating if not for the delightfully freakish presence of Fred (Aaron Kirby), the Goth boyfriend of Carl’s sister, Fran (Jessica Record), and a monomaniacal performance artist trained by none other than the ITT Technical Institute.

What saves A Christmas Carl from Christmas death is the triple-espresso shot of perversity in Kirby’s performance. In fact, Fred steals the show. He becomes the center to A Christmas Carl more than Carl, a terribly interesting wrinkle if this play is, indeed, a Christmas story wrought from the heart of Texas. Clearly, then, Cleburne is not exactly Sarah Palin country or, at least, it is not an America that Sarah Palin prefers to portray. Rather, it’s an America that belongs to the freaks. Even the couples’ exercises enacted by Bob and his wife Emily (Holly Portman) take a charmingly flaky detour from the main action and create a playful space in which only their childlike resolutions matter. That development alone has got to be tidings of comfort and joy to some out there.

Would that Record had taken even more chances with Dicken’s staid and over-familiar tale. The result may have been a wild, fresh and new seasonal classic to awaken audiences from the holiday doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

REVIEW: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

Low Budget, Highbrow Hijinks

 

 
Chicago dell’Arte presents:
 
The Literati
 
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When you walk into the RBP Rorschach Theatre, the first thing you will notice is the lack of chairs. Instead, a dozen or so pillows are strewn about the floor where audience members are instructed to sit. It makes for some leg cramping, but it also pulls you back to preschool story time. And that’s basically what you are about to see, a highbrow version of children’s theatre. Fortunately the end result is far from elementary.

This certainly fits with Chicago dell’Arte’s mantra: “Art for the sake of everyone.” The trio of performers—who also wrote the show—didn’t have to tackle 25 of literature’s most revered works in a manner that is both easily digestible and entertaining. They could have force fed Great Expectations, Frankenstein or Don Quixote down our throats, reenacting each tale with painstaking authenticity. But with The Literati, the interactive series of fives plays within a play, Chicago dell’Arte wisely tempers the academic and the artistic with the comedic.

On paper, the show sounds a bit complex. The company has created 25 short plays based on 25 great works of literature, including the three aforementioned tales. The plays are divided up into categories such as “Epics” and “Classics.” Audience members are plucked from the audience and are instructed to roll a die. The number on the die corresponds with a play under each category. Whatever is rolled forms the lineup for the night.

Each short play utilizes a different form or genre of storytelling. For example, when the group performs Charles DickensGreat Expectations, the trio adds a sci-fi twist, casting cold-hearted Estella (Ned Record) as a robot. Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is played as a rock opera, which includes the song “Hot Cousin.” The show I saw ended on Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale Les Miserables. Chicago dell’Arte plays the piece as a French farce with police inspector Javert chasing protagonist Jean Valjean Benny Hill style.

Layered on top of the mini plays is a larger meta piece. Company member Derek Jarvis is the jovial but serious master of ceremonies who introduces to the audience the concept of the show. It is his mission, as he states, to synthesize the academic and the artistic. Meanwhile, company members Nick Freed and Ned Record assume the roles of goofy, childlike rogues who debase Jarvis’ lofty aspirations.

With a strong understanding of the source material and brilliant acting chops, Chicago dell’Arte pulls off this marathon of a show. What is most impressive is how there never once is a delay or downtime between pieces. The three manage to weave an uninterrupted narrative throughout The Literati, working in smooth transitions from classic to classic, while casually returning to the meta play throughout.

The show has longevity. Because of the format, there is only a 4 percent chance that any two performances will be exactly alike. There also is a fair amount of improvisational banter throughout, so it is hard to imagine that any classic will have a completely identical retelling from performance to performance.

The Literati might not be staged in a fancy theater, but what it lacks in seating, it makes up for in creativity, talent and heart.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Literati runs April 9th to May 1st (Thursday through Sunday). Run time approximately 90-minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Ticket price: $15 (suggested donation).  Performances: Thursdays, Friday and Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday at 10:30pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Location: RBP Rorschach, 4001 N Ravenswood.

 

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Review: Right Brain Project’s “The Modern Prometheus”

More Entertainment Than Intellectual Challenge

 

The Right Brain Project presents:

The Modern Prometheus

adapted by Brad Lawrence
directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel
thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

IT 3_5x2 - Front - Portrait The Right Brain Project enjoyed success with Brad Lawrence’s play Chalk in 2007, a gumshoe noir retelling of the Oedipus myth. Their collaboration seems a constructive fit with this world premiere of The Modern Prometheus, Lawrence’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in the middle of modern debates between science and religion. It is definitely a more thoughtful piece than most Frankenstein versions—one that RBP gears toward maximum entertainment–but it falls short of being the intellectual challenge touted by its press.

There’s no denying the thrill and accessibility of this production. Right Brain Project has not sacrificed the guilty pleasures of the Frankenstein myth, but tried to integrate them with the play’s more serious content. But before getting into special effects, first and foremost, the production is well grounded in even casting and strong performances. Directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel, the progressive pacing and cast invigorate what could have been a well-worn story stuffed with stock roles.

Dennis Newport, in particular, shows depth and range in his humanistic portrayal of Pastor Friedmann. Erin Elizabeth Orr conveys the full-bodied charm and intelligence of a Victorian heroine as Victor Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth. Tom McGrath makes a delightfully smooth and insouciant villain as the devious lab assistant, Henry. Colby Sellers’ Frankenstein Monster achieves that badly needed balance between terror and pathos to make his creature compelling; while Ned Record (Schultz) and Katherine Jordan (Selma) make a vivid and memorable father-daughter pair.

prometheusStrange that the performance that leaves something of a vacuum is the man of the hour himself, Victor Frankenstein (Nathan Robbel). Brad Lawrence’s Frankenstein is more driven young scientist than mad doctor. Still, Robbel’s interpretation seems a little too relaxed to render a man capable of groundbreaking experiments, let alone playing God.

Likewise, Lawrence’s writing overplays the challenge Frankenstein’s discoveries present to Christian faith, even in this 19th century period. The text shows very little recognition that faith itself is a slippery thing.

In the play, little Selma dies, to be brought back to life dramatically by Victor. Victor Frankenstein’s discoveries have temporarily subverted the natural order. Yet, the scene wherein Pastor Friedmann presents Selma’s testimony that she saw nothing in death, neither heaven nor hell, simply does not hold water. Any tent revivalist preacher could make hash of that “evidence” of God’s non-existence in two minutes.

If fundamentalist Christians in our era build Creationist museums, which squeeze billion of years of geological time into 6000 years of creation, then they can discount any evidence that does not fit the narrative of the faithful. Sadly, Lawrence’s text overshoots this nuance to make the struggle between science and faith a direct and full-throttle wrestling match.

Lawrence shows greater sophistication placing Frankenstein’s discoveries in the context of the Franco-Prussian War. What chaos would erupt if news broke out that brought people all over Europe to Ingolstadt, clamoring for their war dead to be brought back to life? Further recognition that, most likely, the rich would be harvesting the poor to resuscitate their dead would lend even greater horror to Frankenstein’s macabre achievement. Lawrence’s work also shows tremendous promise in the acknowledgement–from the mouth of the pastor, no less–that war is a “terrible invention.” It convincingly depicts the ambiguous, compromised relationship that Frankenstein has with his own creation. A little more consideration of whether any invention actually improves humanity’s lot and this play could be all that it intellectually aspires to be.

Dramatically, the end of the second act requires clean up. One moment especially strains all credulity: the pastor hands over Selma’s prostrate body to the Creature he had denounced as a “vessel of heresy” two minutes before. It’s moments like these that I deeply appreciate the actors’ ability to go full-bore, but they must be corrected all the same.

As is, The Modern Prometheus still provides good, solid entertainment. Special nods go to Anthony Ingram (set design), Mark Hurni (light design), Sarah Elizabeth Miller (costume/makeup/props design), Amy Sokol (music director), and Christopher M. Walsh (fight choreographer) for providing the well balanced and vital special effects needed to vivify a timeless tale.

Rating: «««