Review: Among the Squirrels (The Black Ship Co.)


Goths gone wild


Morgan Christansen, Ron Quade, William Goblirsch, Kaitlyn Whitebread - Among the Squirrels - Photo by Sean Howlett.

The Black Ship Company presents
Among the Squirrels
Written by Eric Appleton
Directed by
Nicki Mazzocca
Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Feb 26  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Among the Squirrels is a charming, sensitive and emotionally mature new play by Eric Appleton—something I never expected see at the Gorilla Tango Theatre space, and I’m glad to be proved wrong. Of course, its production is an “import,” brought by the new and “itinerant theater company that hails from Chicago’s Bucktown,” The Black Ship Company. Black is the color, indeed. Directed by Nicki Mazzocca, Among the Squirrels traffics in the trials and tribulations of the sartorially dark denizens of Chicago’s urban Goth subculture as they contend with maintaining relationships and family at the mercy of the desperate absurdities of job-searching in a recession.

Morgan Christansen, William Goblirsch, Ron Quade - Among the Squirrels by Eric Appleton - The Black Ship Co. - Sean HowletTopher (William Goblirsch Jr.) counts off the days of his unemployment like the days of some macabre reign. However, while between jobs, television nature programming and the beneficent image of David Attenborough (Ron Quade) inspire him to turn toward the natural world, “red in tooth and claw.” He finds compelling diversion in observing his neighborhood’s squirrels, naming them with all the familiarity of Jane Goodall among the apes. His mate Vicki (Kaitlyn Whitebread) holds down the fort by working at a fashionable goth hair salon, but when she finds Topher’s joblessness wearing, Topher takes a customer service position at a big box store, regardless of his skills as an IT specialist.

Appleton’s script is clever and testifies to the wittiness of his play’s subculture. “May your life be complicated,” is Vicki’s benediction, just as equally full of terror as it is a blessing. The interview scene between Topher and the big box store manager (Morgan Christiansen in several roles) is a new classic in the way it points up the ridiculous disingenuousness that is the purview of the corporate job interview with a manager who has truly drunk the Koolaid. Meanwhile, pursuing his growing interest in nature observation stimulates a relationship with a local UIC professor, which propels Topher to new horizons just when his relationship with Vicki goes on the skids. Her posh salon goes under and, oh yeah, she is pregnant with Topher’s child.

Among the Squirrels genuinely and authentically explores the transition from wild, countercultural delayed adolescence to taking on the fierce demands of settling down and parenting. The play is almost a love letter to the influences of one’s youth that continue to mold one’s worldview long after the stage of youth has been passed. Topher and Vicki are pushed to grow without demanding that they give up themselves. Indeed, but for a little editorial trimming of overlong scenes, Appleton has constructed a mature and wise delight. The Black Ship Company’s cast makes these characters super-accessible, their handling of Appleton’s script practically a gentle, wry and no nonsense conversation with the audience about growing older/growing up in tough economic times without losing your soul. Their production is certainly worth your time, especially if you enjoy witnessing the Goth gone wild.

Rating: ★★★

William Goblirsch, Kaitlyn Whitebread - Among the Squirrels by Eric Appleton - The Black Ship Co.

William Goblirsch, Morgan Christansen - Among the Squirrels by Eric Appleton - The Black Ship Co William Goblirsch - Among the Squirrels - The Black Ship Co.

All photos by Sean Howlett.


Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.


Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.


Rating: «««½


Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

Continue reading