Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: Passing Strange (Bailiwick Chicago)

  
  

Bailiwick takes us on a sublime musical journey

  
  

Clockwise from left: LaNisa Frederick, Osiris Khepera, Whitney White, Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Steven Perkins in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy ©2011

   
Bailiwick Chicago presents
  
Passing Strange
   
Written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Passing Strange is a supple title for this coming-of-age rock/soul musical/concert. It refers to how life looks to this young black man from Los Angeles–and to how he moves through it as his hero journey takes him to Amsterdam, Berlin and back home. With one of the richest scores this entertainment genre ever needed and a Midwest premiere by Bailiwick Chicago that’s nothing short of terrific, “Passing Strange” is 150 minutes of smart showbiz. Until now I never knew how much a record album could resemble a family album—until it’s, as the British say, a distinction without a difference.

Jayson "JC" Brooks" as the Narrator in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'.It’s also a very specific journey. It begins in 1976 and ends in the early 80s with the protagonist still only 22. Narrating it with a passion to equal the events is Jayson “JC” Brooks, noted for his Coalhouse Walker in Porchlight’s Ragtime. Known simply as Youth (galvanic Steven Perkins), the seeker is first seen trying out and rejecting religions, to the confusion of his tough-loving, church-going mother (a remarkable LaNisa Frederick), who indulges in her own less-than-sacred “Baptist Fashion Show.” The “call and response” fervor of the revival meetings that Youth attends (“Church Blues Revelation/Music Is the Freight Train in Which God Travels”) becomes a style, if not a subject, that he can share in his own songs. But the youth choir is no inspiration, neither is the girlfriend who rejects him because he’s not black enough.

Influenced by the American-fleeing James Baldwin, Youth journeys to Amsterdam to join the reefer rebels at the Headquarters Café Song, find inspiration with the comforting Marianna (Sharriese Hamilton) who gives him her “Keys,” and get stoned in this punk-rock “Paradise.” But it’s all too perfect. There’s no friction to generate the songs expected from an ex-pat alien on the lam from L.A.

This “fiery pilgrim” finally ends up in still-Communist Berlin where Youth gets sucked into the righteously rebellious performance-art scene. There he cultivates his angry “Negritude” and sticks out as “The Black One,” savoring his outsider identity as he joins a commune of agitprop-crazy Reds. (Their cruel Cold War concept is that “What is inside is just a lie,” that we’re just the creatures of capitalism unless we free ourselves through anti-social theatrics.)

     
Clockwise from top left: Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Osiris Khepera, Steven Perkins. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 Bailiwick A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011
A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011

But one lonely Christmastide, the Youth discovers that even radicals have families to which they return. Perhaps he should go back too. But his mother’s death makes the prodigal’s return to L.A. a bittersweet homecoming (“Passing Phase”). So the Youth’s perpetual tug of war between life and art finally ends in a sardonic thought: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.” Better of “Work the Wound.”

Youth’s quest inevitably conjures up images of Beat Poets on the road, Kerouac-style, as they try by process of elimination to find out what they’re not. Then can come the slow creative accretion that forges their art. It’s never been so eloquent however, with this Tony Award-winning book by Stew (who played the original Narrator) and his cunning, memorable songs (co-written with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with Annie Dorsen). James Morehad music directs the 22 numbers with a singular love for every note. The Bailiwick ensemble couldn’t be tighter or truer to this multi-textured material.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

From left: David Keller, Billy Bungeroth, Kevin Marks, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Ben Taylor. ©2011 Bailiwick Chicago, Photo by Jay Kennedy

All photos by Jay Kennedy, © 2011

     

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Review: I Am Montana (Mortar Theatre Company)

  
  

Despite shinging moments, pertinent story blunted by hazy message

  
  

Derek Garza as Ebenn in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography.

   
Mortar Theatre Company presents
  
I Am Montana
  
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Now in their sophomore season, Mortar Theatre Company is obviously drawn to new work that digs into quagmires of social ills, usually presented in an epic, sprawling fashion. Last year’s Under America (our review), for example, presented a complex, multi-tiered tale about the now demolished Cabrini Greene housing projects along with a Dante-esque trip through the American prison system.

Josh Nordmark (Dirk), Derek Garza (Ebenn), and Sentell Harper (Tommy) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG PhotographyTheir latest project, the Midwest premier of I Am Montana by Samuel D. Hunter, takes aim at big box retailers and how they treat their labor. They even have “minimum wage” Thursdays, where admission equals the running time times the national minimum wage ($7.25, although it’s $8.25 in Illinois). The treatment of non-union unskilled labor is often ignored in the arts, but it’s an important issue that involves millions of Americans. The subject seems dry on paper, but director Rachel Edwards Harvith and her cast tell an engaging, layered web of a story. Unfortunately, Harvith and Hunter’s efforts are blunted by an inability to articulate what the piece wants to be. I Am Montana feels unfinished, delivering a collection of loosely-tied ideas and not-quite-cooked characters. Hunter can’t decide whether the play is a hard-hitting human drama or a darkly surrealistic take on modern Americana.

Hunter focuses his play around the tribulations of Eben (Derek Garza), a Montana boy who left to fight in the Israeli army. Now mentally disturbed, he punches a clock at Valumart, a Wal-Mart style retailer with thousands of locations dotting the new American landscape. We watch his winding journey to a Valumart convention, where he’s been selected to speak about the future of business. He’s joined by his childhood friend, the fabulous Tommy (Sentell Harper), and a meth head/obsessive personality, Dirk (Josh Nordmark). The trio drive, sleep, fight, and eat cheap meals on Valumart’s tab. We learn that Eben, who slowly reveals the horrors he went through in the army, obviously has far more sinister plans for the convention than a speech on retail.

Part of the problem is that Hunter leaves plenty of questions with unsatisfying answers. How and why did some dude from small-town Montana end up fighting in the Middle East, and then end up back home working an entry level position? A handgun is stolen from a Valumart, but why are there are no repercussions? And why did Eben’s boss choose three of the least-suited employees to talk to the big boys about profits and expansion—subjects Dirk, Eben, and Tommy care very little for? And a lot of the twists can be spotted a mile away—especially Eben’s evil scheme and his darkest war secret (it’s grotesque, but predictable).

     
Sentell Harper (Tommy) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montant'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Josh Nordmark (Dirk) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montan'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography
Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

The play shines brightest when you discover reality is unraveling. Eben tells macabre anecdotes about Valumart’s shoppers and their vicious, oft fatal quests to save a few bucks. Tommy discusses invading an unfamiliar Valumart, where he threw coffee around the break room and “pissed on an assistant manager.” It’s fun to watch the two wreak havoc at a store and there not be any consequences. Hunter drives into some bizarre territory, but it doesn’t start peeking out until the second half of the play. (I bet the play would work better if the absurdity was dialed up all the way, all the time.)

Garza, Harper, and Nordmark have a great chemistry throughout the production, each knowing how to alternatively console and berate the others. Nicholas Roy Caesar also does fine puppet work as Valupig, Valumart’s porcine mascot. Harper obviously has a stronger connection to the giddy Tommy than to the hardened convicts that filled Under America. The timing and vulnerability of the cast are what really bring the production home.

I caught myself wondering if Eben, Dirk, and Tommy would ever go to the theatre. If they did, I bet they would enjoy the screwed-up moments of I Am Montana, and they would probably pine for more weirdness over social commentary.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

I Am Montana continues through May 1st at the Athenaeum Theatre, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18-$20, and can be purchased online.  For more info, visit mortartheatrecompany.org or download the program.

 

All photos by TCMcG Photography

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