REVIEW: The League of Awesome (Factory Theater)

This “League of Awesome” fails to live up to its name

 

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The Factory Theater presents
   
The League of Awesome
   
Written by Corri Feuerstein and Sara Sevigny
Directed by
Matt Engle
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston  (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

(Before I launch into my review of the Factory Theater’s The League of Awesome, I’d like to thank the theater staff for assisting me after I suffered heat exhaustion the first time I tried to see this play. Like a good critic, I cut out early so as to avoid passing out in the audience and stealing the show, so to speak.)


The idea of staging a comic book must have been alluring to the Factory Theater ensemble.

“We can have sound effects! And fight scenes! And super powers! And title cards!” you can imagine them saying as you watch The League of Awesome, the quirky theater company’s newest comedy about an all-female group that, after banishing their arch-nemesis, finds itself stuck with nothing to do.

DSC_0082 But although these little gimmicks are fun and inventive, they do not make a strong play. A strong play requires a sturdy backbone of a story, and unfortunately, this backbone is fractured. That’s not to say that the supplemental sound effects and superpowers—done in Kabuki fashion where assistants dawn black garb to remain invisible to the audience—don’t intermittently work to their desired effect, but without a captivating context to stick these things into, it’s just a lot of noise and flashy ribbons.

The story centers around the “League of Awesome”, a group of superhuman females that rid the city of crime and super villainy. The Beacon (Corri Feuerstein, who also co-wrote the play) has the power to redirect beams of energy. Cat Scratch (Erin Myers) uses sharp claws to scratch her enemies, while her teammate and thinly veiled lover Rumble (Melissa Tropp) uses her brute strength. Finally, there’s Sylvia (Sara Sevigny, who also co-wrote the play), who has the power to conjure anything at will by preceding it with the words “The way I see it…”

At the play’s opening, the team is combating The Sorrowmaker (Dan Granata), a villain who has the power to make people sad. (Coincidentally, the villain is also the ex-boyfriend of The Beacon.) The team defeats The Sorrowmaker after Sylvia banishes him to the pages of a lost installment of the Hardy Boys series.

One-year later, the league has eliminated all crime, thereby eliminating their usefulness. Now they are bored and drink all day. Then, Sylvia’s sister stops by—a plot point that contributes nothing to the story—and reveals her ability to make people break out into song at will. The characters spend more time drinking and being bored as we the audience are bored along with them, but unfortunately have expired our drinks.

Of course, The Sorrowmaker breaks out and seeks to exact his revenge. Meanwhile, Sylvie drunkenly conjures a new superhero named Ms. Great, whose hard-lined sense of justice and morality would make Jesus feel like a sinner.

There’s more to the story, but it quickly becomes a jumbled morass, with subplots dead-ending, floundering and being forgotten about. There’s just too much going on at once for us to become invested. Will Cat Scratch and Rumble get past their petty fighting and stake their purpose within this story? Will Sylvie’s sister come to terms with her powers and will her character become developed enough for us to care? And why is Sylvie’s proclivity to get drunk such a big part of the first half of the play but is kind of forgotten about in the second half?

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Despite all the flaws in the script, the acting is solid. Granata lays it on thick as the spurned villain. He’s got the maniacal scowl and laugh down to a T. Sevigny’s brashness as Sylvie pays off for its comedic effect. But the biggest show-stealer of all is Wm. Bullion as Gladys, a vagrant and the play’s narrator. His delivery and aloofness is laugh-out-loud funny.

With a much tighter script, The League of Awesome could be an awesome production. It has strong performances, unique effects and interesting fight choreography. But without a reason to care about all the whiz and bang on stage, it plays out like a confusing collage of comic book panels.

   
   
Rating: ★★
      
      

 

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REVIEW: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

Multi-talented performers struggle to find show’s unique voice

 

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Bootstraps Comedy Theater, in association with Silent Theatre presents
   
 
The Better Doctor
  
written and directed by Matt Lyle
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Silent Theater Company’s gimmick is what it sounds like: theatre in the style of old silent movies. It opens the door for some awesome physical performances and it even creates a template by which to tell topical stories in a universal way. Such is the case with The Better Doctor, Matt Lyle’s new play about sick, broke kids and the heroic tramp Velma (Kim Lyle), who is dedicated to finding them healthcare.

better-doctor-3 The show begins when the musicians take the stage.  Eric Loughlin on piano and Chris Jett on percussion sit on either side of the stage, bookending the action. The show does not lack energy, or innovation. Matt Lyle, who also directs, comes up with authentic and entertaining bits. Old-fashioned showmanship takes over as the performers charm the audience with sleight of hand tricks and big, blown-out characters.

The plot is simple, campy and a direct throwback to the simplistic storylines that showcased the comedic genius of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but with a new, political twist. There are ways in which the live-action adaptation of the stylized, antiquated form of silent movie performance works very well. The exaggerated physicality is extremely theatrical, and evokes the feeling of a classic mime routine. The performers take on the athletic challenge with aplomb and grace. Heather Forsythe, who is well utilized for a supporting player demonstrates a knack for physical comedy, and graces the stage with a youthful sass. Her performance, while presentational as her fellow actors, betrays the hint of grounded humanity that made Buster Keaton a true comedic master. The same can be said for lead actor Samuel Zelitch, who’s bumbling medical intern character is straight from the classics.

Kim Lyle’s performance is plucky and confident, and it’s nice to see a woman hero in this context. As Velma, she uses her brawn and wit to find medical care for the three sick little scamps, joining forces with a Buster Keaton-ish intern. The trap and the stone-face team up to fight the powers that be, in this case the wicked Chief of Medicine, played by actor/improviser Mike Brunlieb. The play unfolds in an episodic manor, similar to the silent films that inspired it. Although the scenes progress to create a fluid piece, this is better-doctor-5secondary; each scene’s primary purpose is to open the door for comedy bits.

Around three quarters of the way through, The Better Doctor begins to lag.  During the big chase scene, which gets off to a funny, if precious, start, ends up spiraling down a dark road. As the chase dissolves into a keystone cops parody, the The Better Doctor becomes a show that relies too heavily on a clever premise, without taking ownership of itself. The Better Doctor, while paying faithful homage to the silent greats, has too weak a grasp on its own voice. A silent play that is too stylistically referential, The Better Doctor is to be cutesy at times, and gimmicky at it’s worst.  Bootstraps Comedy Theater needs to revisit this play, and cultivate what is universally true about this show. A little more honesty, and The Better Doctor could be a four star show.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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REVIEW: Casanova Takes a Bath (Theater Oobleck)

From Frivolous Flings to Serious Finances

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Theater Oobleck presents
   
Casanova Takes a Bath
   
Written and performed by David Isaacson
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets: $12 donation  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

David Isaacson’s one-man show, Casanova Takes a Bath, passes itself off as something as light and whipped as blanc mange. His sartorial transformation from modern-day satirist to Giacomo Casanova takes place by means of a few articles of clothing ransacked from his wife’s closet. The bareness of the studio stage at Prop Theatre contains only a blackboard, a stack of newspapers, and an antique music stand with its own stack of papers—Isaacson’s script. Complete with bare-bones lighting design (Martha Bayne), Isaacson’s examination of our current financial crisis, from the perspective of the world’s greatest lover, adherences to the utmost minimal of minimalist theatre principles.

How economical. How unlike the shenanigans of Wall Street financiers, the shenanigans of free-market advocates of deregulation, the blind faith of defenders of “the efficient markets hypothesis,” and those who still believe that math will always represent accurate reality. These dreamers, these practitioners of “creative economics,” these “masters of the universe” only use their various economic jargons to hide those tendencies that mirror the wanton habits of the protagonist of Isaacson’s show. Casanova becomes, for us, the expert to turn to precisely because own his financial profligacy was equal to his perpetual, serial, sexual debauchery.

And why not? When modern day financial instruments and credit default swaps begins to resemble the impulsive gambling schemes of an 18th-century libertine, why shouldn’t we turn to that sly, witty, and insouciant rogue–especially when, down on his luck in prison, he is being candid about all his vices, compulsions, hair-brained money-making misadventures and sexual entrapments. Isaacson has rediscovered the perfect figure to expose us to the implications and ramifications of real-life venture capitalism. Add a little sex, an aspect of human nature that is driven by many of the same delusions and impulses as gambling with other people’s money, and you have the 21st-century financial crisis, only saucier.

But it’s not all witty euphemisms, scandalous liaisons, and weird predictions wrought from engaging in fake occult practices. No, the fun’s got to stop sometime. Isaacson is great at linking the fluff to the finance. But, while he is quite accurate when linking a moment of 18th-century shenanigan to its present-day incarnation in our financial sector, there are moments when his dry, humorous approach just doesn’t bring the hammer down hard enough, hard enough to bring home to the audience the greater perils of our current financial and political situation.

I wonder if Casanova couldn’t be a source to turn to, yet again, in order to awaken us to the deeper implications of the hole we have dug and are still digging ourselves into. Concerning his own experience of his times, Casanova reflected:

All the French ministers are the same. They lavished money which came out of the other people’s pockets to enrich their creatures, and they were absolute: The down-trodden people counted for nothing, and, through this, the indebtedness of the State and the confusion of finances were the inevitable results. A Revolution was necessary.”

Ah, yes. Revolution. Enlightenment revolution, wars for independence taking place in the context of The Enlightenment; bloody revolutions that spiral out of control and lead right on into dictatorship—at some point, all the fun and frivolity stops. Once again, because we have gambled with our future too far, the fun stops and someone gets an eye poked out or a head chopped off or somebody gets thrown into prison. I just hope it’s not me. I didn’t know anything about the financial shenanigans when they started—way back during the Reagan revolution. I just know about the dangerous outcomes; I know them because, creature of the lower orders that I am, I get to be subjected to them.

“All the French ministers are the same. They lavished money which came out of the other people’s pockets to enrich their creatures, and they were absolute: The down-trodden people counted for nothing, and, through this, the indebtedness of the State and the confusion of finances were the inevitable results. A Revolution was necessary.”     Giacomo Casanova

  
   
Rating: ★★★
  

REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


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Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Show closings – last chance to catch ‘em!

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show closings

Abe’s in a Bad Way Free Street Theater (review ★★★)

Air Guitar High Northwestern University

A Chorus Line Village Players Performing Arts Center

The Informer Prop Thtr

J.B. Chicago Fusion Theatre (review ★★★½)

Messiah on the Frigidaire Hubris Productions (review ★★★½)

Number of People Piven Theatre Workshop (review ★★★)

The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★)

Science Fiction Actors Gymnasium (review ★★★½)

Side Man Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (review ★★★★)

A True History of the Johnstown Flood Goodman Theatre (review ★½)

Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre (review ★★★)

 chicagoatnight

this week’s show openings

Billy: A Post-Apocolyptic Comedy Northwestern University

Bloom Bailiwick Chicago

Cabaret The Hypocrites

Curse of the Starving Class New Leaf Theatre

Days of Late – SiNNERMAN Ensemble at the Viaduct Theatre

The Diary of Anne Frank Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

The Doctor’s Dilemma ShawChicago

Elictracidad – DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre

Endgame Steppenwolf Theatre  (our review ★★★½)

The Farnsworth Invention TimeLine Theatre

Girls vs. Boys The House Theatre of Chicago

Hephaestus Lookingglass Theatre

An Ideal HusbandColumbia College at Getz Theatre

Little Women: The Musical Loyola University Chicago

Los Nogales Millenium Park and Teatro VistaTheatre with a View

The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) Dominican University

Oliver Rising Stars Theatre Company

The Original Improv Gladiators Corn Productions

Moses in Egypt Chicago Opera Theater

Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry Piccolo Theatre

Spring Awakening Promethean Theatre Ensemble

The Taming of the Shrew Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek 20% Theatre Chicago

Welcome to Arroyo’s American Theater Company

REVIEW: 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples (n.u.f.a.n.)

Dirt-cheap dirty jokes

 commerical

n.u.f.a.n ensemble presents:

200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples

 

By Paul Barile
Directed by
Rachel Edwards Harvith
At
Prop Thtr, Avondale Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

As the judge remarked the day that he
acquitted my Aunt Hortense,
‘To be smut  It must be ut-
-terly without redeeming social importance.’       —Tom Lehrer, "Smut"

In the Golden Age of radio theater, every serial had its soundman, the crew member who created the sound effects, often by hand — clapping coconuts together for hoof beats or twisting sheets of cellophane for a crackling fire. In n.u.f.a.n. ensemble‘s staged radio play, 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples, Mike Dunbar, in the role Hap the Foley Guy, spends most of the show blowing bubbles into a jar of water, clanking chains and beating cymbals, and creating convincing sounds while working up to a stretch of brilliantly frenzied physical comedy that’s the highlight of the show.

And just about all that keeps it from meeting Lehrer’s definition of "smut and nothing but."

joe irvingMost of Paul Barile’s world-premiere comedy is a gleeful barrage of raunchy double entendres, ribald puns and blatant sexual innuendos — like a 1940s party record, only filthier. Think humor at the level of “I Used to Work in Chicago" or "Shaving Cream" crossed with the Urban Dictionary.

If dirty jokes give you a thrill, "200 Bullets" will keep you laughing. And since tickets to the late-night show are just $5, the low comedy comes at low cost.

The play is set behind the scenes at a 1937 radio show. Due to a strike, management has brought in inexperienced scab writers — prisoners in a volunteer program — who’ve created a futuristic radio drama pitting humanitarian scientist Dr. October, heroine Liberty Pink and her sidekick, Attaboy, against the malevolent, power-seeking Malice and M’Lady and their henchman, Bilge. As a result, regular advertisers have dropped out, and new sponsors, such as Wicked Willie male supplements, have provided unusual commercials. The last-minute arrangements mean the radio actors go on the air without first having seen the script.

The ensembleKeely Maureen Brennan, Justin Cagney, John Champion, Mary Czerwinski, Joseph E. Hudson, Emily Kane and Ben Veatch — all do a fine job in their dual roles as radio actors and futuristic heroes and villains, while Zach Uttich plays the mostly off-stage Eugene the Engineer. Barile’s script leaves no place for the characters to discuss the peculiarities of the radio play, so all their reaction is visual, and often funnier than the jokes themselves.

Director Rachel Edwards Harvith keeps things moving as the cast segues from the lewd lines of the silly radio story to even more unlikely advertising jingles and back, and Dunbar is constantly in action. In a fun attention to detail, picketers stood outside the theater on opening night.

cagney and veatch mary and emily two

Despite the genuine, if often sophomoric humor, I found myself thinking what a waste it was for all this talent to focus on something so nearly devoid of redeeming social value. This is n.u.f.a.n.’s first deviation into the underworld of blue humor. The ensemble mainly does brief festivals of one-acts and monologues; Barile, who was once music columnist for Chicago’s erstwhile Lerner Newspapers while I was entertainment editor there, has authored a handful of full-length plays.

The first few minutes of "200 Bullets," setting the stage for the strike substitution and introducing the characters, complete with their political biases, is so well crafted that I was sorry to see them disappear almost entirely into the rude comedy of the radio play within the play.

Other bits aren’t so well-done. While folks looking for laughs won’t be bothered, history buffs may be troubled by the script’s endless anachronisms. I won’t go into the smuttier expressions that would have been unknown in 1937, but other examples include the term "foley," which comes out of the motion-picture industry, not radio — a reference to Jack Foley (1891–1967), a pioneer in the creation of specially created sound effects for Universal Studios’ early talkies. Foley started with the 1929 "Show Boat," but he borrowed effects already created by radio soundmen; and the allusion wasn’t used beyond Universal’s sound stages until the 1960s.

In other instances, faked commercial refer to PMS and credit cards. Although symptoms have been recognized for millennia, the term "pre-menstrual syndrome" was first used in the 1950s. And "charge cards," per se, weren’t developed until the 1940s. I’m quibbling, but even filthy fantasy needs consistent context.

While this harebrained comedy is definitely an adult show full of lewd language, you’d have to be fairly prudish to be offended by it. Vulgar but not vilely so, it’s a long way from, say, "The Aristocrats." Frivolous as it is, "200 Bullets" is harmless and mostly amusing.

 

Rating: ★★★

Notes: Performances are at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Allow time to find street parking.

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

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The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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