Review: The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Group)

     
     

It’s bawdy! It’s wacky! It’s macabre! It’s true!

   
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Full Cast Shot featuring Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, & Scott

  
Strange Tree Group presents
   
The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen
  
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I confess! I secretly watch some of the cable ‘reality’ shows about men and women who snap and take out a bumbling hit on their hapless wealthy spouses. Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal that involves sex, drugs, and charming pre-Vaudeville songs? The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a fun romp through the Daguerreotyped and yellowed pages of a Gilded Age tabloid scandal.

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Matt Holzfeind, Stuart Ritter, & Scott Cupper as Doctor CrippenThe Strange Tree Group has presented a new take on the true case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, the milquetoast Dr. Crippen allegedly knocked his trampy spouse off and buried her torso in the basement and then took to the high seas with his girlfriend.

This is a sardonic tale that is made funnier of course by the classic ingredients of comedy: tragedy plus time = comedy. Three actors as the Public, Private, and Fantasy personas divide the character created around H.H. Crippen. Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind play them respectively. It is a great device because each persona is a goldmine of material and might be overwhelming if played by one actor. The three actors bounce off of each other with breakneck dialogue and double takes. They regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. “What about the corpse?” That is a line repeated to great effect for laughs. After all, there is a dismembered body in a claw foot tub while the three personas argue over what to do.

Speaking of great affect, I loved Kate Nawrocki as the deliciously trampy, spoiled, and doomed Cora Crippen. She has the wonderful look of a Gibson girl gone bad.

Playing the opposite and supposedly good girl is Delia Baseman as Ethel LeNeve. Ms. Baseman plays the part of innocent waif mixed with Olive Oyl. It’s fun to see her go from office drone to obviously a little freaky for milquetoast and a dead tramp’s mink coat.

The entire cast is pitch perfect rolling in and out of scenes and talking to the audience in character. The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a Thomas Nast caricature come to life. The songs are sung in the old Vaudeville style touching on the pre-burlesque edginess. Ms. Nawrocki does the harlot sings like Victorian waif to perfection. She is first seen in the claw foot tub surrounded by shiny balloon bubbles. The balloons are popped in burlesque manner when Cora blasts into her true colors and corset. Cora Crippen meets her death in that same tub in true tragicomic fashion. The lurid red satin ‘entrails’ and beating heart precede le piece de resistance- a lock of Cora’s hair. It’s funny on two fronts: it’s what put the noose around the real H.H. Crippen’s neck and it’s a hair weave. See my previous confession about trashy reality television. Cat fights and hair weaves abound when past meets present in this quirky and fun production.

     
Matt Holzfeind and Kate Nawrocki as Cora and Hawley Crippen Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Delia Baseman as Ethel Le Neve and Stuart Ritter as Doctor Crippen.  Photo credit: Tyler Core
Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - - Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, Scott Cupper, & Delia Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group 012

I got the feeling of a sepia toned “Laugh In” set with one liners delivered with perfect timing. Cory Aiello pops in and out as Crippen’s son Otto. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but is spot on through facial expression and body language. The tittering ladies of the social set are quite fun and nicely cast. Carol Enoch, Jenifer Henry, and Jennifer Marschand are dressed in lurid red as they query the audience about telegrams. They enter and exit in staccato steps that give the effect of an early film reel.

All of the actors are made up in white face and bright red cheeks in a nod to the macabre theme of death and romance. Ms. Baseman also designed the costumes for The Three Faces.  She makes excellent choices to recall an era gone by. The pre-show is fun and intriguing as well, with Baseman and Nawrocki singing songs from the Gilded Age. The character of Ethel clacks away at her typewriter relentlessly in rhythm as Cora lounges in the bath exuding luxuriance and a louche attitude. I wish, however, that they had projected a bit better. Some of the lyrics to “A Bicycle Built for Two” got lost or dropped. I’m a music geek from back in the day but it would have served the plotline to hear the innocence of the words in contrast to the deviant behavior.

Strange Tree Productions states that they are committed to producing pieces that celebrate the strange and the magical…and the surprisingly usual nature of unusual behavior. They have succeeded with The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen. From this day forth, I will always question a handlebar moustache and check the labels on my homeopathic medicines!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Bob Kruse, Kate Nawrocki, & Cory Aiello

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays through April 24th as part of Steppenwolf’s 2nd Annual Garage Repertory. These are plays from edgy and talented playwrights and theatre companies on the cutting edge of the craft. They are housed at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. More info at www.strangetree.org

All photos by Tyler Core.

     
     

REVIEW: The War Plays (Strangetree Group)

  
   

Time travel can be fun!

 

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 010

   
The Strangetree Group presents
   
The War Plays
   
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by Kate Nawrocki
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
Through Nov. 20  |  
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Go back in time to World War II with Emily Schwartz’s quirky The War Plays, three connected one-acts about love during wartime given an especially charming bridge in The Strangetree Group’s world premiere production.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 002Do get to the theater early — about 20 minutes before the announced curtain time, the cast commences a musical pre-show designed to start your travels back to the 1940s, and it’s well worth your time. Musical Director Jennifer Marschand plays the lead singer in the five-piece Allied Orchestra, performing period numbers such as "G.I. Jive" and "In the Mood" with Scott Cupper, Noah Ginex, Karen Shimmin and Thomas Zeitner. They play throughout the show, providing the segues between each piece. Like many groups that played during the war, they make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in musical talents.

Announcements, costumes and more really convey the flavor of the time. In a wonderful touch as we walked in, I saw one actress drawing a fake stocking seam up the leg of another one.

Once into the theater proper, we get more music (a nice rendition of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," among others, and then the first act, my favorite of the three. In this charmer, Delia Baseman and Marty Scanlon play a pair of teenagers who meet in the London Underground during an air raid. She’s an American, looking after her young brother (Michael Mercier), and hates everything about England and every minute of the war; he’s a cheeky young local who finds the Blitz exciting and romantic. You can practically see the sparks fly as they connect.

Next, Patrick Cannon plays a dull-witted and gawky soldier out at a dance hall with a young woman whose company he’s paid for. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on between them — she’s apparently neither a dime-a-dance girl nor a prostitute, but something in between. Cannon is all ungainly awkwardness while Jenifer Henry ranges from petulant disdain to slow tenderness in a sequence that provides a fine contrast to the first act.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 005

In the longest and least successful of the three plays, Bob Kruse plays a stiffly unhappy soldier invalided home and unable to get rid of an intrusive visiting relative (a debonair Weston Davis) who, to his embarrassment, brings him face-to-face with the lover he’s abandoned (a grim Elizabeth Bagby). While it features the most overt comedy of the trio, this act has the least heart.

Including the pre-show, the whole thing runs about an hour and 15 minutes. The War Plays is a short trip back in time, but a fun one.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 001

Photographer: Tyler Core

   
   

Production Cast

Elizabeth Bagby, Delia Baseman, Patrick Cannon, Scott Cupper, Weston Davis, Noah Ginex, Jenifer Henry, Bob Kruse, Jennifer Marschand, Michael Mercier, Marty Scanlon, Karen Shimmin, Thomas Zeitner

   
   

REVIEW: You Took Away My Flag (Modofac Productions)

Take away these lyrics

 

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog

 
Modofac Productions, LLC presents
 
You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo
 
Book, music and lyrics by Henry H. Perritt Jr.
Directed by
G. J. Cederquist; musical direction by Jeremy Ramey
At
Theatre Building Chicago, Lakeview
Through May 23 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Henry H. Perritt Jr., the Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who authored and produced You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo knows a lot about his play’s subject — he authored two books about the disputed Balkan territory and spent 10 years working toward its redevelopment as an independent state — and something about writing music.

What he doesn’t know is the first rule of drama: Show. Don’t tell.

There’s so much exposition in this musical, it could be a textbook. And it doesn’t help a bit that it’s a sung-through format, so all this explication comes at us in recitative form. Even worse, the lyrics often jar against the music with too many feet per beat, poor scansion and bad rhymes, in awful couplets like these:

 

"Your kind heart will keep you from ever
Using that AK47."

"Must we endure the Serbians’ yoke un-
Til our backs are truly broken?"

"Talk all you want. I don’t care.
Successful insurgencies are really rare."

The exposition begins with the opening song, in which the narrator, a trench-coated American reporter (Brian Birch), gives us some history of the conflict in Kosovo between the occupying, Serbs and the "proud Albanians" — the story is unabashedly 253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdogpro-Albanian — and sets us up to meet 18-year-old Arian (Jordan Phelps), his best friend, Fahri (Ethan Saks), and Arian’s older sister, Vjosa (Amy Steele). The three all work in a cafe run by the siblings’ father, Fatmir (Joshua Harris).

Arian chafes under Serbian military law, but Vjosa is just as bothered by the strictures of Albanian society, and longs for the freedom of America. She is secretly in love with a Serbian officer, Dragan (Shaun Nathan Baer), an unheard-of miscegeny. The boys enrage some Serbian soldiers by taunting them with the Albanian flag. While Dragan protects Arian, one of his men kills Fahri. Vowing revenge, Arian goes off to join the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of guerrillas led by Driton (Patrick Cannon).

Meanwhile, Dragan drunkenly asks Vjosa if she still loves him. She does, but she’s not above stealing secret Serbian plans from him to give to her brother. Fatmir and the reporter try unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to intervene in Kosovo. The fighting goes on, the passage of time symbolized by the reporter’s increasingly blood-stained trench coat, and the purloined plans make no difference.

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog Guilt-stricken Dragan gives the reporter compromising photos of Serbian atrocities that bring international aid at last, and NATO bombs the Serbs out of Kosovo. The proud Albanian Kosovars next struggle with international authorities, ultimately declaring independence but never getting back their Albanian flag.

Parts of the plot seem unlikely, yet not more so than in other musicals. But there’s way too much of it — too many complexities and too many scenes covering too long a time period.

The young cast, all beautiful singers and fine actors, do a heroic job with the material. The music, if not always melodious, is pleasant enough, and sometimes stirring, with a contemporary pop sound. Music director Jeremy Ramey and his musicians (David Orlicz, Nick Anderson and Nick Boettcher) give the score everything they can, but the tunes and the performances have no chance at all against the relentless horribleness of all those words.

 

Rating: ★½

 

 

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