REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

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REVIEW: Cash (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

        
        

Pissed off by Christmas frivolity? Then try ‘Cash’

        
        

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XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
  
Cash
  
Written by Stephen Louis Grush
Directed by
Jacob Lorenz
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“Hello! I’m Johnny Cash.” XIII Pocket presents Cash with the tagline “The Man in Black, and the Death of the American Dream.” Music icon Johnny Cash sang soulful songs of the human condition. He became a legend singing about doing the wrong thing under the influence of drugs, lust and incarceration. All these themes twist into XIII Pocket’s introduction of folks struggling with being poor, bad, or obsessed. This Cash is less about Johnny and more about the lack of money. The monologue and dialogue vignettes are transitioned together by Johnny Cash songs. The JC selections are a more obscure sampling than his familiar mainstream blockbusters. So, it’s uncertain whether or not the songs mirror the IMGP5112stories. What is certain is that “playwright Stephen Louis Grush dulls the bandage-ripping drama with booze. On a stage decorated with dangling naked light bulbs, the misery and pain of every day Americans is illuminated from the shadows in Cash.

Under the direction by Jacob S. Lorenz, the cast is in intoxicated angst. In a three part vignette, Chip DavisWalks The Line” between crazy and drunk. He pontificates about snake dancing, eyeball donors and being someone’s bitch. Looking like a cross between Jesus and the band Alabama, Davis rants with an increasing dark intensity. Paige Smith and Mark Minton are a fury of “Hurt” as their drinking game spins horrifically out-of-control. Smith and Minton are uncomfortably real with spitting and gun pointing ferocity. Plagued by a “Ring of Fire”, Caitlin McGlone is poignant and funny as a woman screwing her cheating ex-husband. McGlone speaks directly to the audience with the familiar I-don’t–love-him-I-just-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-love-him logic of an unhealthy relationship. McGlone engages perfectly in her ordinariness. Laura Rook and Sean Driscoll have “It Ain’t Me, Babe” banter. The disdain is evident in a coupling crumble. Heath Cordts is primed for “Folsom Prison Blues”. Behind a pulpit, Cordts unemotionally describes a killing spree based around his favorite number ’13.’ Cordts is hysterical as a controlled disturbed freak. In fact, the entire cast is despicable in their portrayals of gritty folks not dealing in reality.

Getting Cash takes the right mindset. It’s not a show about Johnny Cash. It’s not a “Behind The Music” bio-pic on the celebrity. The songs referenced above are not heard during the performance. If you’re looking for a Man in Black to croon familiar tunes, Million Dollar Quartet is a better choice for you to get ‘Cashed’. But if you are tired of holiday plays; find yourself rooting for Scrooge and Grinch to the way they are, or nearly vomit every time you hear an obnoxious carol, this show is Cash-friendly for you! Perhaps, the only Anti-Christmas spirit option available, Cash sings speaks volumes.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
    

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Cash plays through December 19th, and can be seen Thursdays and Sundays at 8pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30pm.  All performances at Stage 773 in Chicago. Running Time for Cash is 65-minutes with no intermission.

3-Words: The better half of a “Jackson” duet, Bill describes it with “disjointed, Cashless, negative.”

  
  

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REVIEW: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

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Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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