REVIEW: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)

     
     

REVIEW: Trans Form

   
  

At the heart of a hidden woman

     
     

Rebecca Kling - Trans Form - New Suit Theatre Company

   
New Suit Theatre presents
   
Trans Form
 
Written and Performed by Rebecca Kling
Directed by
Kate McGroarty and Kristin Idaszak
at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Dec 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgender people face the Herculean task of getting the world to perceive them as the gender they experience themselves to be when all physical characteristics say otherwise. If our culture simply allowed people to discover their gender expression, rather than expecting them to squeeze into one of two bifurcated gender molds, then gender would become just another aspect of personal expression and be allowed its evolution in the individual.

But we don’t live in that kind of world, do we?

Rebecca Kling’s one-woman show, Trans Form is decidedly, consciously intimate and low-key. It renders in minute detail the everyday ways in which transgender people can feel their personal authenticity subverted or denied. That Kling unsentimentally reflects on how she has denied herself in the past is one of the more intriguing and thoughtful elements of this one-act play, produced by New Suit Theatre and co-directed by Kristin Idaszak and Kate McGroarty.

Kling begins with childhood games in which she plays at being a girl but, essentially, her childhood and adolescence is lived as somebody else. Hair pulled back into a bun, in jeans and a dress shirt that covers but can’t conceal her breasts, Kling progresses to femininity as her tale unfolds across twenty years of living in a masculine body. Nothing other than a persistent desire to be a girl, a girl growing into womanhood, sustains her sense of self. But, terrifyingly, it’s a self that can just as easily desire to commit suicide, since what that self wants seems too impossible or too burdensome. Bound in the body of an adolescent boy, Rebecca emerges in Kling’s mind as an urgent, cajoling, even threatening alter ego.

So far as support from the outside is concerned, too much of it appears slight and ephemeral against the expectations that gender will eventually match the male body she was born into. Even basic sentences like, “I think I want to be a girl,” can give her parents too much hope, hope that their child will someday emerge “normal,” her gender non-conformity reduced to a harmless phase. Her therapists are either supportive but clueless or really clueless in subjecting her to arbitrary and meaningless tests. Dressing up for Halloween provides scant relief since, for all her efforts, she can’t even pass as female as well as her drag-attired gay college roommate.

Trans Form 4

Love provides Kling the impetus to change and take on the risks and difficulties of transitioning. Love from a woman, who accepts Kling’s identity as a woman, sparks her transformation. Here’s where Kling’s story becomes oddly truncated. In order to appeal to wider audiences and educate beyond the transgender community, Trans Form has to deliver some kind of basic “Transgender 101” talk. But it is the emotional process of transitioning that sustains audience interest. With Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design and Sarah Gilmore’s sound design, Kling dons a white doctor’s coat to handle this segment humorously, like the spoof on a black and white 1950’s Social Etiquette film. However, the segment also belies the trickiness of blending personal, lived experience with the medicalized constructions of transgender identity. We hear no further about the affair. It becomes sacrificed to the dry, wry and cerebral delivery of psychological definitions and medical jargon.

Likewise, this show still needs further development to sustain even theatricality in the telling of Kling’s story. Some moments are very effective—as when she demonstrates the unremitting requirement of daily hormone therapy. But other sections still require greater physicalization and translation into visual metaphor. Kling has enough emotional distance from her material to observe it with wry and reflective eye. That makes her point of view necessary on a subject that could easily degenerate into maudlin self-absorption. But the artist also needs to lay bare the heart with clarity and precision. An audience may be better informed about transgender experience at the end of Trans Form, but hitting all the emotional bull’s-eyes of transitioning will force them to feel it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Trans Form 3

      
     

Production Team:

Scenic Designer: Sally Weiss, Costume Designer: Kristen Ahern, Lighting Designer: Michael Warden, Sound Designer: Sarah Gilmore, Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Stage Mngr.: Lauren Lassus, Production Manager: Jordan Danz

     
     

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Music Man (Marriott Theatre)

         
        

Iowa Splendid

 

 

Bernie Yvon and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

    
Marriott Theatre presents
   
The Music Man
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Directed by
Gary Griffin
at
Marriott Theatre, Linconshire (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

For reasons we can only guess at, Marriott Theatre has picked it for their holiday offering. But if ever a show spelled out summer, it’s Meredith Willson‘s 1957 masterpiece The Music Man. Throughout the rollicking story the title character exudes sunny optimism, a flimflam that "Professor" Harold Hill wants to believe as much as the suckers who take it in. His buoyant drive fits the season like a picnic. You’ll forget about the winter completely over the next 150 minutes.

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott TheatreOf course Hill is a 1912 confidence man who hornswaggles a ragtag band into playing music, a shy boy into speaking, a town into believing in itself and a librarian into love. The sturdy story is perfectly embedded in a very particular time capsule, with Willson meticulously employing with glorious abandon assorted slang, celebrities and colorful metaphors from the era and the state.

Helping this miracle worker Hill cast his spell, Willson gives him such powerful persuasion as "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Trouble," the famous snake-oil sermon. By the musical’s end Hill has sold far more than he knows, a passel of dreams for River City to grow on. It’s a great formula: A mysterious stranger comes to town and changes everyone for the best, including himself when he realizes that what he gives is worth far more than what he sells.

Few shows strike such a shrewd balance between downhome decency and showbiz savvy. Because The Music Man wears its songs on its sleeve, it can’t seem too slick or smooth. What matters is the tender loving care.

The heart comes through like a charm in Marriott Theatre’s easy-winning, arena revival. Intimately homespun yet always knowing, Gary Griffin’s staging trusts the material, Willson’s fast-moving book, deceptively clever lyrics and unimprovable melodies–and gets them right throughout.

The look, for instance: Tom Ryan‘s clever, flexible and detailed set pieces combine to create a richly nostalgic Iowa setting, and Nancy Missimi’s fashionplate period costumes complete the illusion.

The human illusions are equally on target. Conning with unforced charm, Bernie Yvon offers a Harold Hill who listens as much as hoodwinks; like a good salesman he connects with the townsfolk until you see how much he means it. His charm is non-negotiable, though the changes he undergoes are a bit harder to measure under Yvon’s boundless confidence.

Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones notwithstanding (comparisons are odious), Johanna McKenzie Miller nicely inhabits Marian’s rich mix of spinster standoffishness and idealistic yearning. Her "Till There Was You" is earned by every line she’s said. (The fact that she also sounds just like Cook in her perfect prime doesn’t hurt in the least either.)

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 2

Johnny Rabe and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 3

Like the leads, the supporting roles betray much more life than art, even the hammy stock roles like John Reeger‘s pompous mayor, Iris Lieberman as his starched-blouse wife, Mary Ernster as Marian’s matchmaking mother and Andy Lupp as Hill’s gleeful trickster accomplice.

As the decent local kids whom Harold helps, Adrian Aguilar and Amanda Tanguay carry the romantic subplot with goofy grace. Special credit goes to little Johnny Rabe whose bashful Winthrop wails out "Gary, Indiana" as if he just made it up.

Finally, Matt Raftery‘s unshowy choreography reminds us that these are unpretentious Iowans whooping it up as best they can: There’s no showoff hoofing here. The “Shipoopi” explodes with prewar pep and a palpable joy that makes the most difficult dancing seem a gift to perform as much as perceive. David Kreppel’s musical direction is assured, especially in the barbershop-quartet offerings.

 

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1pm and 8pm, Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4:30pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 5pm.  There will be an added performance Tuesday, 11/23 at 8pm and Friday, 11/26 at 4:30pm.  No performances Tuesday-Thursday, Nov 24th and 25th.

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

 

 

Continue reading