REVIEW: A Christmas Carl (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

A Lot of Predictable, a Little Perverse

  
  

A Christmas Carl - Poster

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
A Christmas Carl
  
Created and Directed by Ned Record
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is it about formulaic Christmas stories that we return to again and again each holiday season? Does their familiarity comfort and reassure? Is there something in the ritual retelling of Christmas stories that really re-awakens warmth and goodwill? Chicago dell’Arte’s A Christmas Carl, now onstage at Right Brain Project Rorshach, comes across like a new flavored bag of Doritos—it’s still Doritos, but with a different coating than the Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese varieties. Creator and director Ned Record revamps Charles Dickens’ tale with Tex-Mex flavor but with limited success. The real value of A Christmas Carl is not how closely it adheres to tradition, but in the dippy trips it takes into delightful perversity.

In fact, the production itself seems rather bored with same old Christmas story. Charlene Dickens (Joanna P. Lind) gets stranded in Cleburne, Texas, once her transmission goes out on her way to Nashville. She waits endlessly in Scrooge’s Auto Body Shop, where there are obviously more than a few screws loose. Bob Ratchet (Derek Jarvis) can hardly keep his attention on one line of conversation, let alone the engine block, and Juan (Christopher Thies-Lotito), feigning ignorance of the English language, is hardly decent help. Owner Carl Scrooge (Nick Freed) only paces back and forth from reception to garage, never getting his hands dirty himself and never needing to deliver a “bah, humbug” over giving his employees time off for Christmas day. His flat deadpan drawl more than indicates utter disinterest in holiday merriment or goodwill toward men.

If only the play didn’t lag as much as action in the garage. Charlene’s plans to turn Carl around, by the ritual introduction of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, go dreadfully slow and haltingly predictable. Leading Carl through his paces to Christmas redemption would be excruciating if not for the delightfully freakish presence of Fred (Aaron Kirby), the Goth boyfriend of Carl’s sister, Fran (Jessica Record), and a monomaniacal performance artist trained by none other than the ITT Technical Institute.

What saves A Christmas Carl from Christmas death is the triple-espresso shot of perversity in Kirby’s performance. In fact, Fred steals the show. He becomes the center to A Christmas Carl more than Carl, a terribly interesting wrinkle if this play is, indeed, a Christmas story wrought from the heart of Texas. Clearly, then, Cleburne is not exactly Sarah Palin country or, at least, it is not an America that Sarah Palin prefers to portray. Rather, it’s an America that belongs to the freaks. Even the couples’ exercises enacted by Bob and his wife Emily (Holly Portman) take a charmingly flaky detour from the main action and create a playful space in which only their childlike resolutions matter. That development alone has got to be tidings of comfort and joy to some out there.

Would that Record had taken even more chances with Dicken’s staid and over-familiar tale. The result may have been a wild, fresh and new seasonal classic to awaken audiences from the holiday doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

REVIEW: Pretty Penny (Right Brain Project)

Sexual appetite meets physical bodies – or vice-versa

Pretty Penny_1

Right Brain Project presents:

Pretty Penny

by Randall Colburn

directed by Nathan Robbel

through March 20th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Having cabin fever? Then check out the brooding, close quarter’s production of Randall Colburn‘s Pretty Penny over at Right Brain Project instead – it’s an inappropriately intimate storefront variation on an increasingly common theme: the uncomfortable mixture of sexual appetite, physical bodies, and the tech-induced separation of the one from the other.

Pretty Penny_3Victoria (Katy Albert) is a mischief-prone, present-day Women’s Studies student. She decides to pick up twenty hours a week at a no-restrictions-whatsoever phone sex line operation. Jerry (Josh Sumner) owns and operates this wiry brothel.  He’s a would-be photographer but instead of making pictures he wound up taking them from other people, then mixing and matching them to someone else’s voice-for-hire. People on one end of the line pay for what’s repeatedly described as a fiction – a total fantasy. Meanwhile, Jerry’s employees, and Victoria in particular, fall dangerously into the allure of the fantastical, no-restrictions alter-egos.

Enter Crystal (Susan Myburgh), strutting. Crystal is a no nonsense model with the drive and perseverance it takes to succeed in the business of flesh and posing – so naturally there are some skeletons in her closet.  Namely, some lurid, pre-nose-job skeletons, erotic photos taken by Adam some ten years earlier. She’s also got a push-over boyfriend named Tommy (Nick Mikula) who lacks the courage or emotional flexibility to go down on one knee and make Crystal his fiancée.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a pretty keen, emotionless business operator.  And he wants to put those Crystal photos on the hot-line’s site. Crystal resists, then concedes and consents to become the face of Victoria’s fictional persona. Victoria has already seen the picture that is “her.”  She’s busy trying out voices and personalities like new clothes, settling eventually on a squealy, whimsical lilt she names “Penny.”

Early on, Colburn sets the forces in motion that will eventually bring Crystal and Victoria face to face.  He also sets this meeting up as one of those forbidden encounters, likely to cause a cataclysmic disturbance.

Pretty Penny_2 It’s a difficult, almost cruel journey for an audience set in the round and just feet from the actors.  Nathan Robbel‘s otherwise strong directing might’ve benefited from an arrangement that didn’t force audience members to deal with the script’s themes of flesh and disconnect in such hyper-focused, claustrophobic quarters.  Luckily, the actor’s are, on the whole, captivating, making it natural to watch them and their subtlest gestures.

Set and props are minimal to not at all – there’s a good bit of miming, which emphasized the play’s thematic focus on our awareness of bodies in digital and physical space.  Colburn’s script is strong, dipping equally into material that is comedic then, all of a sudden, disturbing.  But the real gem of this production is Katy Albert, whose playful ease makes her electric in the collapsing double role of Victoria/Penny.

There’s a lot of writhing around in dim light talking dirty on the phone to a sordid cast of characters in Pretty Penny, but the complexity and maturity of Colburn’s writing in the talented hands of Katy Albert make the show thoughtful and rewarding for those willing to stray into its otherwise dark territory.

Rating:  ★★½

Review: “Put My Finger In Your Mouth”

Slouching Toward the Theater of the Ridiculous

Put your Finger in my Mouth

The Right Brain Project presents

Put My Finger In Your Mouth
by Bob Fisher
Directed by Nathan Robbel
Runs thru August 29th (773.750.2033 for tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Is everything old new again? If Right Brain Project succeeds at anything with its production of Put My Finger In Your Mouth, a new play by Bob Fisher, it’s in evoking a nostalgic, psychedelic, Rocky Horror-like vibe.

Like so many before it, this production’s roots lay the work of New York transgender playwright Jackie Curtis, Andy Warhol film star and creator of The Theater of the Ridiculous. Always on the outside, always fringe, Curtis’s influence prevails to this day through shows like Annoyance Theatre’s Co-ed Prison Sluts or, my old favorites, Cannibal Cheerleaders On Crack or The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

finger in my mouth Under Nathan Robbel’s direction, with a sound design that culls tunes from the 60s, 80s, and 00s, Put My Finger In Your Mouth is a much softer, gentler show intent on generating a dream world that its characters inhabit and pull the audience into, rather than shock or outrage it. But the audience can only receive minor moments of dreamlike satisfaction from themes that are worn, trite and underdeveloped.

The play is a club-kid fable about two sisters, Birdy (Erin Elizabeth Orr) and Turtle (Stacie Hauenstein) whose conflicts revolve around the competing claims of pleasure and security. Birdy wants to risk all for discovery and new experiences, while Turtle clings to a safe, co-dependent existence at home. The risks become greater for Birdy upon entry into the bizarre club world of the androgynous Snailman (Emily Mark), whose fingers secrete a hallucinogenic substance that enslaves all who taste it.

Orr and Hauenstein generate sympathy as the two sisters, but a script that repeats the risk vs. security theme ad nauseum hampers their performances. Sadly, Turtle’s hidden past is telegraphed so far in advance, it has no impact at all once finally revealed. The sultry androgyny of the Snailman and the hold s/he has on her willing minions, create the appropriate otherworldly space for Birdy to be ensnared in, but there is something to be aware of in the play’s limitations regarding gender identity difference.

How Victorian the play is in the portrayal of its leading transgender or intersex character as Other, dangerous, and suspect. Snailman still ends up being the coolest thing aroundit’s just disappointing that, once again, the clichéd dangers of gender transgression get a tired, unimaginative, and unthinking rehash here. Right Brain Project clearly wants to go beyond the predictable. More careful consideration or development of material before production would serve it well.

For all that, the cast certainly creates a “scene” with its performance. From time to time, glimmers of poetry strike up from the script. The Battle of the Furries that takes place in the nightclub finally achieves the psychedelic effect the play has been promising all the while. If one could exhort the playwright and the company to anything, it would be this: be bolder. Be even more right brain. Don’t hang back in the safe zone.

Rating: «½

 

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