Review: Aces (Signal Ensemble)

        
       

Steinhagen’s characters are fun but lack completed plot

  
  

Aaron Snook, Vincent Lonergan, Joseph Stearns, Jon Steinhagen, Philip Winston and Simone Roos in Signal Ensemble's "Aces" by Jon Steinhagen. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

   

Signal Ensemble presents

   
   

Aces

    

Written by Jon Steinhagen
Directed by Ronan Marra
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Bernice Ave. (map)
through June 18th
tickets: $15-$20 |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a challenge for me to watch Joseph Stearns and not imagine him to be the theatrical embodiment of Keith Richards, a persona he nailed even without bearing the most striking resemblance to the rock star god in Signal Ensemble’s Aftermath (our review). Lucky for me in Jon Steinhagen’s new play, Aces, the character Stearns plays is not too far of a stretch from the vice-ridden musician. Director Ronan Marra’s ensemble truly taps into this world perfectly. The characters are all delineated with their own passions and eccentricities. Steinhagen makes some clever but not too obvious 70’s references. Now if only Steinhagen could give his characters a Duke (Joseph Stearns, left)  tries to charm Samantha (Simone Roos, right) with his dance moves, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18.  (Photo: Johnny Knight)consistent plot to allow us to invest more interest in them, this play would be something worth betting on. Unfortunately though, what starts as a fun con-artist story with possibilities of a feminist theme on the side, goes every which way attempting to give each character their own equally important arc which ultimately waters down all of them. Aside from a few strong scenes, the fun dwindles as the play progresses.

The tone of the writing is a little like M*A*S*H. We go from screwball comedy to sentimental love and friendship and back again. Throw in some anti-war sentiments, all set in 1975 Vegas. Instead of military surgeons though, Aces deals with the profession of casino card dealers (at least it does for a little while). The setup is a scam being run by a group of dealers and casino workers. The ringleader of the operation is Lloyd (played by the wonderful character actor Vincent Lonergan). The issue at the top of the play though is that one of the dealers has died, and the scam called “Aces” can no longer operate without the proper number of dealers on the floor. In comes Samantha (Simone Roos) as the new blackjack dealer hired. Let the clichéd ‘boob’ jokes begin. The other female in the cast is Linda (played with great complexity by Elizabeth Bagby), the cocktail waitress with an edge and failed hopes.

The original idea is for each of the members of the scam to go out with Samantha and see if she’s the type of individual who might be willing to take part in it. Time soon tells that this gal from Reno can hang with these Vegas low-lifes. She even has the capability to improve the scam. However, Steinhagen vacates the scam storyline around this point and focuses on each individual character, Steinhagen himself playing the alcoholic floor manager who is lonely after his younger brother Pete (an excellent Philip Winston) moves out. Samantha now becomes a tool to explore what’s going on inside each of the other characters and develops a close relationship to Pete, the most innocent of the bunch. The best, most human and intimate scene of the night is between the two of them sitting on the floor around a lamp she buys to help decorate his empty bachelor pad. Everyone in this group is stuck where they are, mostly for money reasons, to which Samantha asks one of the more resonant questions of the night, “Don’t any of you live within your means?”

     
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

There is definitely a fair share of zingers in Steinhagen’s script with plenty of “breaking balls” in the same vein as Goodfellas. Some of them land stealthily and other’s don’t, but as with any comedic writing you have to put it in front of an audience to see what gets laughs and the lackluster punch lines can easily be swapped out. More than anything though I just longed to know whose story this was and for the stakes to be higher. Duke’s debt issue, for one, is a little too easily solved.

Simone Roos gives life to this play with her smart, sexy performance playing Samantha as never quite what she seems. Stearns is a delight and his disco dancing is hysterical. Representing the anti-war nomadic class of the 70’s is Aaron Snook’s character, Garrett. Snook masters the art of silence and strums a lovely guitar.

Ronan Marra’s direction gets the swagger correct, but it doesn’t hit sightlines. With three-quarter seating, Marra places characters directly in front of each section of the audience. While it works when you happen to be the particular audience in front of the central action (almost always the center), more often than not you have to settle for an audio experience listening closely to what’s happening on the other side of the room while you can only stare at a blackjack dealer two feet in front of you. Even while there are only two characters on stage, Marra has the actors on the same plane, still making life difficult for the audience in the alley seating sections. Part of the sightline issue derives from Melania Lancy’s set, which is ultimately too flat and two-dimensional, forcing actors to hug the back wall too frequently.

In the end, this is much more sentimental character study than Ocean’s 11 style heist plot. This would be less of a problem, except that there is so much setup to the scam that when Steinhagen decides to drop that part of the story almost entirely it feels like the first half of the play was a waste. Nevertheless, the character interplay is light and a great time. It’s an entertaining group of characters to spend a couple hours with, just don’t expect to feel closure in the end, and be sure to sit in the center.

    
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Samantha (Simone Roos, left) shows Linda (Elizabeth Bagby, right) her dealing tricks, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Signal Ensemble Theatre presents the fourth production in their 2010-2011, eighth anniversary season, the world premiere comedy Aces, written by ensemble member and multiple Jeff award-winner Jon Steinhagen, and directed by Ronan Marra at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for full price and $15 for industry/students/seniors. $5 OFF all full-priced tickets on Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29. For more information or to buy tickets call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com. The show runs about 110 minutes with one intermission, and $5 from every ticket sold on June 11 will benefit www.SeasonofConcern.org

Photos by Johnny Knight.

     

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The battle for the soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll

  
  

(left to right) George (Andrew Yearick) introduces Brian (Aaron Snook) to the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Aftermath
  
Written/Directed by Ronan Marra
at
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
through Jan 23  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Coming late to the Aftermath party, I wanted to see how well the production has held up since switching to Signal Ensemble’s own theater space. Extremely well, it would seem, from the sold-out crowds. Chicagoans are undeniably enjoying playwright and director Ronan Marra’s musical bio and tribute to Brian Jones, the eclectic 60s rock genius and tragic founder of The Rolling Stones.

Mick (Nick Vidal) sings while Brian (Aaron Snook) plays the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra. Photo by Johnny KnightClearly, critical kibitzing may mean nothing, now that Signal’s production has rolled along just fine, both reawakening Boomer nostalgia and exposing a younger generation to the Stones with a laudable facsimile of the original band’s performances. In fact, Marra’s requirement for musical proficiency in his cast stands at the throbbing heart of Signal’s production. Much as Aaron Snook charismatically captivates the audience, intrepidly holding attention under a fabulous mop top of blonde hair, he also pulls his weight hinting at Brian’s natural facility with multiple instruments by playing dulcimer, sitar and electric guitar. The music is the thing. The band’s excellence is the show’s mainstay. Once Mark J. Hurni’s dramatic lighting comes up on “Paint it, Black,” you know that this train is stopping for no one.

Except for one small, perceivable flaw—as Mick Jagger, Nick Vidal’s voice achieves a suitably approximate timbre but is almost drowned out by the force of the band. At least at my Sunday matinee viewing, seated in the front row, most song lyrics were indiscernible. Only during “Lady Jane” does Vidal hold his own, volume-wise. That’s too bad, especially since every other aspect of Vidal’s portrayal is electrifying. He has captured Mick’s strut, the liquid energy that made Jagger a consummate showman and indisputable sex idol. When acting, Vidal has Jagger’s snarky insouciance down pat, but behind the mic his voice pales. Joseph Stearns also doesn’t make for a thoroughly realistic Keith Richards—but the pressure isn’t on him as it is Vidal. He’s not the front man.

Dramatically, Marra’s writing also is lacking. His jukebox musical has an excellent sense of structure, with each number placed to move the action and characters forward; the boilerplate dialogue and predictable storytelling, however, may as well have come from MTV’s “Behind the Music.” Marra wants a balanced reflection on Brian Jones’ life and forgotten contributions to the Rolling Stones’ aesthetic. Yet, he simply hasn’t taken risks to plumb the depths of his troubled but fascinating rock idol. Instead, the audience is lead through a pageant of Brian’s struggles—his battles with Mick for artistic leadership of the Stones, his musical giftedness, his affair with model Anita Pallenberg (Simone Roos) and his downward spiral into paranoia and drug dependency.

     
(left to right) Brian (Aaron Snook) and Mick (Nick Vidal) perform a song, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Bill (Nathan Drackett) and Charlie (Bries Vannon) laugh at the rest of the band during an interview, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”.

In Snook, the show has an actor whose performance gives more ballast to Marra’s two-dimensional writing, but even he cannot redeem the material from its well-worn clichés. Once Brian suspects Anita in an affair with Keith, he and Roos together carry out especially visceral performances, but most of the rest of the action is a predictable dance of rock star dissolution that skirts the edges of both Jones’ genius and his darker side. We leave knowing no more about what made Brian Jones tick than before.

Plus, for hardcore rock aficionados, Marra’s work is just as much an act of forgetting as it is a loving tribute to the fallen Rolling Stone. Significant figures in Brian Jones’ life get tossed wholesale from Aftermath’s storyline. Instrumental to Jones’ ouster from the band was the arrival of Andrew Loog Oldham, who eventually took over most of Jones’ managerial duties and pushed for Jagger/Richards’ songwriting in the name of sustained financial success. Without Oldham’s presence or mention in the drama, Mick Jagger comes across as the principal villain behind Brian getting sacked from the group.

Brian (Aaron Snook) tells his story to the audience, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath” What’s more, significant musical creations get lost in Marra’s truncated retelling. At one point Marra has Brian Jones bring up “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, only to toss it off as just a forgettable, sub-par Stones’ album. Actually, the album was the Stones’ brief venture into psychedelic rock, which reached its apex in 1967. This was the direction in which Jones, with all his world music influences, was going. But its production, broken up by court appearances and random showings by band members and their friends, proved to be a monster to complete. Once produced, it looked like a cheap knock off compared to the Beatles’ wildly successful “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had beaten the Stones to release by six months.

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” was Jones’ last hoorah in terms of his musical influence on the band. According to Richie Unterberger of Allmusic, the album “. . . incorporated African rhythms, Mellotrons, and full orchestration. Never before or since did the Stones take so many chances in the studio. In 1968, the Stones would go back to the basics, and never wander down these paths again . . .” A 1998 bootleg box set of the outtakes of the Satanic sessions reveals Jones in fruitful collaboration with Keith Richards and session pianist Nicky Hopkins, creating the album’s eerie soundscapes. But psychedelic rock was soon to fade as quickly as it had blossomed and Brian was going with it.

Obviously not everything about the Jones’ life can be mentioned, but certainly these milestones deserve more than a glossing. In the end, however, Aftermath remains an enjoyable evening of nostalgic entertainment.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Brian (Aaron Snook, left) talks to a reporter (Vincent Lonergan, center) while Mick (Nick Vidal, right) listens, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath".

   
  

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REVIEW: The Real Inspector Hound (Signal Ensemble)

Hammed-up Stoppard fails to find the laughs

 

(left to right) Moon (Philip Winston) and Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) comment on the play while Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) act in the play, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue - running through September 18.

        
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
    
The Real Inspector Hound
      
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
Through Sept. 18  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

From the time the house opens on Signal Ensemble Theatre’s The Real Inspector Hound, to the close of the play, Charles Schoenherr lies unmoving on stage while the other characters cavort around him, never noticing this still figure at stage rear until nearly the end of the one-act comedy.

It just might be the best performance of the play.

Any theater reviewer who takes aim at Tom Stoppard‘s 1968 comedy risks being classified with Birdboot and Moon, the two pompous critics on whom the play focuses. Stoppard, once a critic himself, mercilessly skewers theater writers, painting them as arrogant, self-absorbed and none too ethical.

The critics comment on the play within a play taking place in front of them in highly affected terms, chat through the action, munch chocolates and begin to write their reviews mid-play. Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen), a married, middle-aged philanderer, flaunts his position to entice pretty actresses while piously proclaiming he does no such thing, while Moon (Philip Winston), his paper’s no. 2 critic, continually laments his second-string status. The two put in some comic turns, but they aren’t enough to overcome the broad strokes with which Director Ronan Marra paints the rest of the show.

The meta-play, an exaggerated English country-house mystery, a la The Mousetrap, takes places in what Mary O’Dowd as Mrs. Drudge, the creepy, scenery-chewing housekeeper, tells us is the "drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring." Scenic Designer Melania Lancy has created a fine drawing-room set in Signal’s spiffy new theater, the former home of now Los Angeles-based Breadline Theatre Group, a 50-seat venue in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) listens to Mrs. Drudge's (Mary O'Dowd) story about the new visitor, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) flirts with Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) while Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd) takes notice, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd), Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), and Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) react to a loud noise outside of the house, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue.  Photo by Johnny Knight

Wealthy widow Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Meredith Bell Alvarez), is entertaining her lover, Simon Gascoyne (John Blick) and — to his embarrassment — Felicity Cunningham (Katie Genualdi), the ingenue he’s also been seeing. Added to the menage is the wheelchair-bound Major Magnus Muldoon (Colby Sellers), half-brother to Lady Cynthia’s late husband, who lusts after his hostess. Meanwhile, the radio announces that a murderous madman is loose in the neighborhood and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), a dog of a police detective, arrives on the scene.

As the play becomes more existential, the critics break through the fourth wall and get drawn into the action on stage. In this production, comic business is piled so high that the parody becomes a parody of itself, laden with overdrawn gestures and pointless shtick, such as when characters continually lift a telephone receiver for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the pace crawls.

Through it all, Schoenherr lies, still and untwitching. That’s acting.

   
  
Review: ★½
  
  

Note: Allow time for finding street parking, as well as extra time for traveling to the theater on nights when the Cubs play at home.

 (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight. (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight.

        
        

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REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai Theatre)

Dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm

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Seanachai Theatre presents:

Dancing at Lughnasa

 

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Elise Kauzlaric
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox
through April 4th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is the deftly-written female roles. The story concentrates on the interactions, loves, and private catastrophes of the Mundy sisters, five adult women who live together in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg. Friel visits this made-up town in several of his plays, including his smash hit Translations, and here he shows a period directly before massive changes swept over Ireland and the world. Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s ode to nostalgia. It exudes the bittersweet feeling that come along with fond memories of a perfect instant in time, a moment followed by years of strife and hardship.

Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 1 Friel’s play gets a delightful treatment by Seanachai Theatre Company, a group that focuses on producing classic and cutting-edge Irish drama (their home base is the Irish American Heritage Center). I’m about as Irish as a Shamrock Shake, but I was able to relate to this heart-wrenching production, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, on a visceral level. It explores themes that are familiar to us all: the sometimes devastating effects of change and the crystal-clear beauty of a perfect memory.

The 1990 play is set in the summer of 1936. Friel’s world is rife with tension; we’re watching the events directly preceding the bubble popping. In this Ballybeg, the Church is confronted with pagan practices (the play’s action takes place around the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa), the industrial revolution is transforming rural life, and the problems of the world, problems which would explode in a few years, are creeping into the remote corners of Ireland.

The narrator, Michael (the charming Kevin Theis), was seven at the time, but now tells us the story as a middle-aged man with the advantage of knowing what happens next. Not a whole lot of action actually occurs in the play, but we stay riveted to every scene because Michael tosses us tidbits of future adversity.

Even though they are all adults, the Mundy sisters range a great deal in age. They are all unmarried and they all work very hard to keep themselves afloat. The oldest is Kate (a powerful Barbara Figgins), whose motherly leadership and strict Catholicism is equally resented and needed by her sisters. Her middle-aged peer is Maggie (Sarah Wellington), who fills the house with jokes, dancing, and soda bread. Rose (Anne Sunseri) and Agnes (Carolyn Klein) are both in their 30s and have a very special bond with each other. Michael’s mother Chris (Simone Roos) is the youngest, and allows herself to be strung Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 2along by Michael’s charismatic yet deadbeat father, Gerry (Philip Winston). The five sisters have to deal with a new addition to the household, Father Jack (Don Bender), their elderly uncle who just returned from a long mission trip to Uganda, where he has contracted malaria and left his Catholicism behind.

The actresses have a great connection with each other, filling the house with lots of love and lots of hostility. Wellington shines the most—she is lovely, vibrant, and fun, yet can still find Maggie’s vulnerability and loneliness. The script says that Rose has a developmental disorder, but this doesn’t come across in Sunseri’s performance, she just seems like the youngest sister (which might be a choice by Kauzlaric). This isn’t a huge problem, but it muddles a later scene involving possible sexual abuse. Beyond this issue, the five women capture the sibling relationship wonderfully. Sometimes they are sweet as honey, sometimes they can’t stand to be under the same roof.

Alan Donahue’s set handles the play well, but Sarah Hughey’s lights are clunky and disjointed. This Dancing at Lughnasa does not skimp on the dancing and music, all of it adding to the joy and drama of the piece.

Even though every aspect of this show is Irish, it hits on something we all know. Seanachai’s production is gorgeous and tragic, dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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