Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (The Hypocrites)

  
  

The Pirates go promenade with delightful results

  
  

Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
The Hypocrites present
  
The Pirates of Penzance
      
Music/Libretto by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert
Directed by
Sean Graney
Music Direction/Arrangements by
Kevin O’Donnell 
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney has shown that he can create provocative dramas, boisterous comedies, and heartwarming children’s shows, and with The Pirates of Penzance he brings his unique voice to opera. Staging the show in promenade, Graney puts the audience on stage with the actors, giving viewers a brand new perspective of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic. Reveling in the absurdity of the plot – the courtship of Major General Stanley’s (Matt Kahler) daughters by the worst pirates ever – Graney applies the same hyper-silliness that has characterized his recent Court productions. Self-awareness, slapstick, Robert McLean in Pirates of Penzance - Photo by Paul Metreyeonand sight gags have become the major weapons in Graney’s comedic arsenal, but the addition of music forces a focus from the director that brings all the elements together in harmony.

Also serving as the pit, the actors give O’Donnell’s acoustic arrangements the breezy summer vibe of musicians like Jason Mraz or She & Him, while still being able to switch into classical mode when needed. Modernizing Sullivan’s music works well with Graney’s concept, which reimagines the pirates as a gang of man-children in too-short shorts, shrunken undershirts, and high top sneakers. This is a group of men that would rather sip Frescas and riff on the ukulele than pillage and plunder, and the music reflects that carefree attitude in a way the traditional score can’t.

I believe promenade staging is a major part of live theatre’s evolution. In a world where entertainment is available at the click of a mouse, removing the fourth wall and placing the audience on stage creates an experience that can’t be streamed or downloaded. It is a thrill unique to the theater, giving the observer unparalleled freedom to interact with an environment that is usually seen from a distance. There are seats for those that would choose to stay inactive, but the real fun happens when you find yourself surrounded by a gang of people in tutus and boxer shorts strumming guitars and singing four part harmonies. Seemingly minimal actions like moving off a bench to allow for an actor’s entrance force people out of their seats and into the actors’ world, and a sense of community builds among the audience as they collectively await the next surprise. That sense of unpredictability is hard to find, especially in a show as well known as Pirates of Penzance.

     
Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik - Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance Becky Poole, Emily Casey, Matt Kahler, Shawn Pfautsch, Ryan Bourque, Nikki Klix - Pirates of Penzance

After turning 21 and leaving his servitude to the Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) rejoins civilization and falls in love with Mabel (Christine Stulik), the beautiful daughter of a Major General. As Frederic’s swashbuckling comrades are paired off with Mabel’s sisters, the Pirate King (Robert McLean) and Ruth (Stulik), the haggard ship nurse, conspire to keep Frederic a member of their crew. Stulik gives an outstanding performance in her dual roles, showcasing a clear voice that stays strong over a wide range. Her combination of vocals with strong comedic timing and physicality is reminiscent of 90’s SNL members Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, but they likely lack Stulik’s instrumental prowess. Kahler’s Major General has the production’s most impressive number, performing the character’s famous tongue-twisting solo backed by the entire ensemble. Amazing diction and control are required, and Kahler hits his consonants with pointed precision, racing to the song’s heated conclusion.

Each of the actors involved in this production is given an enormous amount of work to do: playing, singing, and dancing, all while trying to remember blocking in a space filled with audience members. That the production moves smoothly without a single hitch is a testament to the effort put in by the entire creative team, spearheaded by the consistently innovative Graney. It may not look or sound like any Gilbert and Sullivan opera you’ve ever seen, but it will probably be the most fun.

  
 
Rating: ★★★½
     
  

Nikki Klix, Emily Casey, Becky Poole - The Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
  

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REVIEW: No Exit (The Hypocrites)

Looks like hell to me

 

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

   
The Hypocrites present
   
No Exit
   
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by
Sean Graney
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through July 11th  |   tickets: $20-$25   |   more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

In order to receive a degree in theatre at my university, every student has to take an Intro to Design class. In this class, every student had to come up with a design concept for Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spiel No Exit. And then we spent long hours drawing costume sketches and pinning together a model box. I’ve seen Sartre’s vision of hell set in a pirate-themed hotel, an emptied-out swimming pool,  and an Arkansas basement (in case Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exityou’re wondering, my own stayed pretty close to the stage direction’s Second Empire-style, with a few liberties, of course). So I was pretty excited to see how a full production of the play would pan out, especially in the hands of director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites.

Featuring a massive nude statue and bright pink walls, the ridiculous design did not disappoint.

For those that weren’t in my Intro to Design class, No Exit paints a grim picture of the afterlife, where you’re locked in a garish room with people you soon learn to hate. Trapped in the tiny dwelling are the journalist Garcin (Robert McLean), the Sapphic postal-clerk Inez (Samantha Gleisten), and the coquettish Estelle (Erin Barlow). They attempt to deal with the situation, forging and shattering alliances like Dante combined with “Survivor.” They famously learn that “hell is other people.” There’s a reason existentialists aren’t known for their cheerfulness.

I got the impression that there was some environmental theatre going on here—the hot, stuffy Athenaeum studio theatre provided the audience with their own Hell. Or maybe it’s all coincidence. Even if there really was no deliberate plan to find the most uncomfortable seats possible, the Hypocrites would be smart to take responsibility. The experience definitely helps you connect to the characters.

Graney and scenic designer Tom Burch demand intense physical acting from the cast. The room is tiny and crowded with furniture and bodies. On top of all this, the whole set is on a steep rake. The design requires accuracy and focus; any sloppiness could end in making the chaos too chaotic.

McLean, Barlow, and Gleisten clamor and climb wonderfully, conquering the walls, sloped floor, and sofas. The three claw at each other in lust, anger, and desperation. More importantly, they can balance their characters’ evil qualities with vulnerability and rational thinking. Sometimes they can’t get a firm grasp on Sartre’s lyrical language. McLean is particularly guilty here, sounding wooden and dull at bits. He clearly gets the pettiness and jealousy of Garcin, though. All three add enough personal quirks and charms to make these borderline psychopaths engaging. John Taflan, clad in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, is endlessly fascinating as the valet. He’s tall, weird, and intimidating, which is what I think the Craigslist ad for a doorman in Hell would ask for.

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

As with most Graney productions, there are exciting conceptual impositions on the text. Many work beautifully. All of the characters carry loads of cash on their person, but, alas, money doesn’t do much for you postmortem (it seems you can either flip coins or operate the vibrating chair). There’s one wonderful moment where Estelle throws fistfuls of change out of her purse, creating visual and aural bedlam.

Other choices don’t stick as well. For example, there’s a globe-stereo-thing the valet brings in. I appreciated the soundtrack it provided (Gaga, Beach Boys, the Police), but it just sort of ended up there. Then there is the cheetah-inspired costuming that begins to appear about three-quarters through. Graney also doesn’t quite find the ending—the story resolves a bit too much for a tale of eternal woe.

Basically, the concepts behind this No Exit were way better than the ones formulated by any freshman in my class. It could’ve been the weather, but I’d like to believe it was the fiery energy and dedication of the cast and team that made that theatre so sweltering. Graney’s version of Hell is no place I’d want to be.

   
   
Rating: ★★★