Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch (Lifeline Theatre)

    
  

The importance of being loved and loving others

  
  

Scene from Somebody Loves You Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - photo by Suzanne Plunkett

    
Lifeline Theatre presents
    
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch
   
Adapted by Frances Limoncelli
Based on book by
Eileen Spinelli
Music by
George Howe
Directed by
Ann Boyd
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Every day for lunch, Mr. Hatch has a cheese and mustard sandwich with a prune for dessert. He’s predictable and dull. Every day, his neighbors greet him with ‘Hello, good neighbor!’ Mr. Hatch ignores them, isolating himself from the daily goings on of his pleasant community. Unexpectedly, he receives a Valentine’s Day package with a note saying ‘somebody loves you.’ Who is his secret admirer? Not knowing the culprit, Mr. Hatch befriends everyone. Feeling loved turns him into a brownie-baking, see-sawing, harmonica-playing, good neighbor. When the postman delivers more news about the package, Mr. Hatch returns to ‘normal.’ What’s a neighborhood to do? Lifeline Theatre’s Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch proves to be an upbeat, engaging, heart-warming ‘Love Thy Neighbor 101’.

Michael T. Downey as Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - Photo by Suzanne PlunkettUnder the rambunctious direction of Ann Boyd, the talented cast IS the bright and cheerful neighborhood. To build the community spirit, two rows of audience are on the stage, each made cozy with blankets. Some of the play’s action takes place in Row D of the audience. The effect allows the quartet of actors to interact with guests to play catch, answer questions and teach a new song. In the lead, Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch) is so glum and downtrodden initially that his makeover is like a caterpillar to butterfly effervescent explosion. The magical fragility adds to the heart-tugging, misty moment when Downy re-cocoons. The rest of the cast play a variety of parts with delightful amusement. In lively animation, Sara Sevigny is jovial as Mrs. Weed, Mr. AND Mrs. Dunwoody, co-worker and a dog. Sevigny looks so surprised every time her puppet barks that she fooled me into seeing a dog. Micah J.L. Kronlokken energetically meets and greets the kids in the audience with a play by play expectation for the performance. He’s a kid-friendly narrator and mailman. Wearing different hats, Tuckie White goes back and forth from teen to lady to kid with active enthusiasm.

Based on the literary work of Eileen Spinelli, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch has been adapted for the Lifeline stage by Frances Limoncelli. Accompanied with songs composed by George Howe, the story teaches life lessons on kindness and isolation. Along with the familiar treat-people-like-you-want-to-be-treated message, Lifeline goes the extra block to say an individual is responsible for his own happiness. At one point, Mr. Hatch profoundly declares, “I’ve wasted too much time being lonely.” Ultimately, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch illustrates the importance of being loved and loving others. It’s a show for all ages. The kids will giggle. The adults may tear up. And everybody will want to live the greeting, “Hello, good neighbor!”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Running Time: Sixty minutes with no intermission. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

 

CAST: Guest artists Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch), Micah J.L. Kronlokken (Mr. Goober), Sara Sevigny (Mrs. Weed), and Tuckie White (Tina Finn). With understudies Timothy Cahill and Victoria Abram-Copenhaver.

CREW: Lifeline Theatre ensemble members Frances Limoncelli (Adaptor); with guest artists Ann Boyd (Director), George Howe (Composer/Lyricist), Jessica Kuehnau (Costume Designer), Aileen McGroddy (Assistant Director), Shayna Petit (Stage Manager), Rick Sims (Sound Designer), Brandon Wardell (Lighting Designer), Chelsea Warren (Scenic & Props Designer).

  
  

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REVIEW: Welcome to Arroyo’s (American Theatre Company)

Arroyo’s could use a remix

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American Theatre Company presents
 
Welcome to Arroyo’s
 
by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by
Jaime Castaneda
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron
(map)
thru May 16th  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was any winner coming out of the recent Pulitzer prize controversy (besides the actual winner, Next to Normal), it would be American Theatre Company. In case you are an actual person and not addicted to theatre blogosphere chatter, basically the Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to a piece that wasn’t a finalist recommended by the Drama Jury. The Jury did, however, recommend Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, (our review ★★★½) which enjoyed plenty of praise for its world premier at Victory Gardens here in Chicago last summer (and I’m kicking myself for missing).

arroyos-dj Why does ATC come out on top? Because months ago, they scheduled the world premier of Diaz’s first play, Welcome to Arroyo’s, therefore serendipitously landing upon a bunch of free publicity. And the opening Monday was buzzing with anticipation—perhaps expectations were too high. While Diaz’s earliest play is tons of fun, it is clearly a stepping stone.

Set in 2004 New York City, the play wanders between three plotlines. Mostly, it follows the trials of green entrepreneur Alejandro Arroyo (the gruff but lovable Joe Minoso) as he tries to attract customers to his brand new bar, transformed from his late mother’s bodega. We also watch his sister Amalia (Christina Nieves) practice and protect her art: graffiti. A romantic yet hostile spark flashes between her and, ironically, a police officer (Edgar Miguel Sanchez). Lastly, Lelly Santiago (Sadieh Rifai) complicates everything with her tireless search for a mythic founder of hip hop, Reina Rey—a Puerto Rican woman who might have very intimate connections with the Arroyos.

Diaz’s problem is that neither of these stories have a whole lot of forward motion. In theory, each of the subplots is powerful and thought-provoking, but the play is spread too thin among the three. No through-line has much momentum on its own, and they don’t really push each other that far. Lelly’s pursuit, for example, is engaging, but unfocused. I was never quite sure what she actually wanted or what was in her way. And once Lelly and Alejandro meet up, Diaz’s dialogue falls into a metaphysical hole, becoming far too abstract to keep audience along.

Arroyo’s momentum is ferociously spun forward by the antics of Jackson Doran and GQ, who save the play from drowning in headiness. Respectively playing Trip and Nelson, Arroyo’s in-house MCs, these two serve as narrators, commentators, characters, and clowns. They keep the work fun and fresh with their theatrical hijinks, and they could’ve been used even more.

arroyos-bar

Even if the play isn’t that brilliant, director Jaime Castaneda and cast do their best to keep the production’s flow swift and funky, like any good hip hop cut. Minoso can be almost childlike in his portrayal of Alejandro, but he keeps his wits about him, especially when he’s interacting with Trip and Nell. Nieves, though sometimes grating, is fun to watch and brings plenty of swagger. Rifai’s Lelly is the least believable, partly due to Diaz’s shaky writing and partly because of Rifai’s overcompensation.

Yes, I’m a white kid from rural Michigan, but I love my hip hop. This is why I was probably so attracted to Diaz’s attention to urban bravado. Arroyo’s is slick, but not afraid to get goofy. Keith Pitts’ stylish set definitely helps. The play has some crucial errors, but it’s a great ride. Diaz and Castaneda have hit on something, they just need to clarify, streamline, and remix. ATC have landed in buzzworthy territory, but the end product calls for some polishing.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Review: Griffin Theatre’s “The Hostage”

Ballast Needed Along With the Blarney

 hostage1

Griffin Theatre presents:

The Hostage

by Brendan Behan
directed by Jonathan Berry
thru November 1st (tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is a great, hairy monster of a play. Behan wrote this tragi-comedy, with quasi-musical styling, based of his own experience as a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army. While pro-Irish Englishmen and English imperialist pomposity receive heaping helpings of satirical treatment, it’s the IRA Behan savages the most with his robust and agile wit.

hostage2 “I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence,” says Pat (Eamonn McDonagh) about own his service in the IRA. His character comes autobiographically closest to Behan. So, Griffin Theater’s production is a huge, messy meditation on the killing paradoxes of war and patriotism.

An Irish Republican, just 18 years old, is to be executed for killing a policeman, so an equally young and inexperienced British soldier is kidnapped by the IRA and brought to Pat’s teaming bawdy house to be slain in retaliation, should the execution go through. The young British soldier, Leslie (Rob Fenton), becomes a celebrity guest of the household; he is treated to beer by Pat and his mate, Meg (Donna McGough) and pursued by the prostitutes. He even falls in love with the fresh-faced housemaid, Teresa (Nora Fiffer). The whorehouse, filled with various Johns and transgender–as well as female–prostitutes, breaks into song and dance, commenting on the action and breaking the unresolved tensions involved in trying to sort out who is truly friend or truly foe.

hostage3 While humor is the mainstay of this play, much dramatic tension is lost when vital moments within it are not treated seriously enough. The IRA Officer (Kevin Gladish) and Volunteer (Ryan Borque) who bring Leslie in are suppose to be ridiculous, yet they are played a little too close to caricature to add the necessary gravity to take Leslie’s fate seriously. Besides, dedicated assholes like this really exist. Satire allows for characters to hostage4be realistic enough to be recognizable, so that their resemblance jars us to the absurdity of well-worn, politically correct presumptions.

Rom Barkhordar’s interpretation of his role, Monsewer, comes closer to a balance between realism and caricature, perhaps because it is so close to caricature already. Monsewer, an Englishman who fancies himself a patriot to the Irish cause, pretentiously throws around his knowledge of Gaelic and plays the bagpipes badly. Heaven only knows what he is rebelling against, but his show of Republicanism is more a means to an end, than an end in itself, and it is hilarious.

The show benefits mightily from McDonagh, McGough, and Fiffer’s graceful yet rock solid performances. However, Fenton’s portrayal of the endangered British soldier is strangely flat. It’s also not clear whether his Leslie is a Cockney or a recent graduate of Eton. Given Behan’s own allegiance to the working class, such lack of consistency in dialect is a grave mischaracterization.

The cast commits itself completely to the song and dance numbers interwoven into the scenes. Still, I can’t help wondering if the Theater Building space that Griffin Theatre is using doesn’t defeat Jonathan Berry’s direction. Theater in the round might help the fourth-wall removal this play was based on, but dialogue is lost when actors have to turn and direct their address to other sides of the stage. Likewise, sightlines block action from one side of the audience, while the other side may see just fine. The result is a muddled depiction of dramatic action, not necessarily something that brings cast and audience closer.

hostage5 Behan was not interested in dramatically presenting Ireland’s Troubles in a neat and tidy package. War is messy, life is messy, and the ascertainment of who is on your side, who isn’t, and what ought to be done about is fraught with all kinds of doubts, misgivings, and just plain mistakenness. The whorehouse tenants are as loyal to Ireland’s liberty as any, yet they attempt to help Leslie get away. The police raid the bawdy house in order to save Leslie, but get him killed in the crossfire instead.

But if there is a line to be drawn in the sand here, it’s between the intended messiness of the play itself, and the messiness that results when tragic moments are not allowed to be tragic and all necessary contrast is lost. The humor of this play, its jovial ruckus of song and dance, are meant to be temporary relief to the wasteful death and mourning that surrounds these characters’ daily existence. To treat them like simple entertainment, such as we know in a night out to the theater, is to miss why The Hostage was written at all.

 

Rating: ««

 

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Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

hollowlands logo

Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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