Review: Rantoul and Die (American Blues Theater)

     
     

White-Trash angst in central Illinois…..a dark comedy

     
     

Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die'. Photo by Paul Marchese

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
Rantoul and Die
  
Written Mark Roberts
Directed by Erin Quigley
at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater (map)
through May 22  | 
tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Surely few things are more artistically satisfying than watching Francis Guinan on stage in full-frontal, scene-stealing, emotional-meltdown mode. The man can make knocking over a chair resonate with the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But not much. Guinan is one of Chicago’s MVP’s of the theatrosphere, and he’s in excellent form with American Blues Theater’s staging of Rantoul and Die. As is the rest of the stellar cast in playwright Mark Roberts’ profane study of white trash angst in the flatland middle of nowhere.

Kate Buddeke and Cheryl Graeff in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul MarcheseAt roughly 110 miles south of Chicago and half an hour or so outside of Champaign, Rantoul is the flyover territory of flyover territory. In Roberts’ largely plotless, utterly tasteless and immensely entertaining dark comedy, the denizens of Rantoul are likewise the sort of folk who one tends to overlook if not outright avoid. These are a breed of loud, ignorant mouth-breathers to whom political correctness is a foreign concept. They refer to the developmentally disabled as "mongoloid retards." The closest they get to fine dining is stopping in at the local Dairy Queen instead of using the drive-thru.

But this group is also, in the four person ensemble directed by Erin Quigley, oddly likable. They may be at the bottom of society’s ladder but on that lowest of rungs, there is a singular integrity. These are people who say precisely what they think – the filters that most of us use to smooth out the rough edges of our uglier inclinations are absent in this group. There’s an honesty to their no-class brawling and profanity, perverse to be sure, but also unvarnished and unafraid. When Rallis, as pasty-faced a middle-age mope as you’ll ever encounter, fails in his attempt at suicide, his best friend Gary (Guinan) gives him a harsh dose of extreme tough love in lieu of sympathy:

“Suicide is like jerking off in a salad bar,” Gary berates, “There’s no regard for the people left behind.” From there, his get-a-grip lecture really gets profane.

The woefully depressed Rallis, it must be noted, is played by Alan Wilder. For those keeping track, that means that half the cast of Rantoul and Die is comprised of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members. Wilder and Guinan have as long history, and their scenes together here have an ease, a depth and an effortless authenticity that only comes from years of working together. The women in the cast – Kate Buddeke as Rallis’ unhappy wife Debbie and Cheryl Graeff as Callie, Debbie’s manager down at the DQ – come from the storied ranks of the American Blues Theater. Together, the foursome is toxically effective.

Plenty happens in Roberts’ atmospheric tale, including a shooting that leaves one character brain dead (“Summabitch has deviled ham in his head”) about 40 minutes into the 90-minute piece. But plot isn’t the point here. Roberts’ peculiar, pungent brand of storytelling isn’t about a conventional arc so much as it is a portrait of a very particular demographic (although to be sure, each of the four characters are idiosyncratic individuals more than representatives of a type.)

     
Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke

The play works because the dialogue is so barbed-wire sharp and delivered with such deceptively effortless agility by Quigley’s ensemble. The filthy blue-collar rants of Debbie, Callie, Gary and Rallis are capsules of comedy as nasty and black as the black plague. Clearly, Rantoul is no place for those with a low tolerance for profanity, gruesomely violent imagery or extraordinarily vulgar sexual references.

As Rallis, Wilder is a quavering muddle of a whipped porch dog of a man, haplessly clinging to a wife who is beyond over him. As Rallis’ exasperated, long-out-of-love spouse, Buddeke is an evolving mixture of ruthlessness and regret. She also makes it clear that Debbie is a woman who is lonely and frustrated – and surprisingly vulnerable under all her toughness. Which brings us to Graeff, as the unnervingly cheerful Dairy Queen manager. She’s got a second act monologue that is both hair-raising in its horror-porn narrative and a sprightly testimony to the power of positive thinking and a sunny can-do attitude.

Given the lack of a plot and the jaw-dropping crudeness of the dialogue, you wouldn’t want Rantoul and Die to fall into the hands of amateurs. It takes a seasoned, top-tier group of artists to pull of something this tasteless with such brutal honesty. This production has that. One can only hope we see more of these ABT/Steppenwolf hybrids in the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese

 

All photos by Paul Marchese

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REVIEW: Night and Day (Remy Bumppo Theatre)

 

The Real Story Vanishing in the Dead of Night

 

Ruth (Linda Gillum) unleashes her rage over the death of Milne at Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
   
Night and Day
   
Written by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by
James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What to make of Remy Bumppo’s latest production Night and Day? On one hand, the whole production is a sexy, easy fit. James Bohnen’s spot-on cast slips casually and effortlessly into Tom Stoppard’s dialogue–just like an old-school lounge lizard would slip into a dry martini or a pair of silk pajamas. On the other hand, what with the United Nations releasing its recent report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Wagner (Shawn Douglass) risks an upclose interview with dictator Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. Congo, Stoppard’s cunning 1978 play still looks like a bunch of white people sittin’ ‘round, talkin’ while a country made up of darker-skinned people burns all around them. Set in the fictional African nation of Kambawe, the home of copper-king ex-pat Geoffrey Carson (David Darlow at our showing) is hardly the Court of Versailles. Nevertheless, on the brink of civil war, who has time to talk about fickle fame, sex, Scotch or the role of the media? These characters do.

Into this jaded milieu, Stoppard interjects the question: Does a free press matter? Define what you mean by a free press, etc. It’s this et cetera that Bohnen’s actors handle so well. Dick Wagner (Shawn Douglass), an Australian-born reporter for the Globe, solidly provides most of the sly, tough cynicism through his omnipresent worry over getting scooped. His colleague and comrade, photojournalist George Guthrie (Jeff Cummings), brings battle weariness and much-needed urgency and passion to a very talky show. Greg Matthew Anderson, playing freelance journalist Jacob Milne, achieves likeability and freshness with a character who sees no problem with blurring the line between serious and tabloid news. If Night and Day reveals anything, it’s Stoppard’s gift for prophecy.

These few, these happy few, descend on Carson’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth (Linda Gillum), because he possesses an untapped, unsevered line and a Telex machine to get the news out to the West. They are the true seekers of the story,  since the rest of Western press is still hanging out in the lobby of the local Sheraton. Carson also has connections with the rebel leader, Colonel Shimbu, whose Ruth (Linda Gillum) seduces young reporter Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. scheduled late-night meeting with the dictatorial President Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) leads to devastating consequences.

Politics aside, Stoppard situates blithe and cynical Ruth at the center of his satire, being the only character whose unspoken thoughts are transparent to the audience and being the one whose name–meaning mercy, sympathy and compassion–contrasts starkly with the ruthlessness all around her. Cherchez la femme, right? And what a femme she is. Gillum doesn’t hit a wrong note, negotiating dialogue directly to the audience and exchanges with her fellow actors like a master magician. Hers may be a performance that redefines the word glib. She excoriates the tabloid press for their paparazzi stalking of her divorce and marriage to Carson in one scene, only to fall for the young, idealistic defender of the tabloid press in another. I’m still pondering how she makes it look so easy, believable, and above all, sympathetic.

For the most part, Night and Day flows as smoothly single malt Scotch from a never-ending stream. Bohnen successfully builds tension with Guthrie’s suspicion of Carson, Milne and Guthrie’s departure to meet Colonel Shimbu, and the anticipated, nerve-racking visit from President Mageeba.

Perry’s entrance as Mageeba, certainly does not disappoint. He’s every bit as gracious, intelligent and threatening as a Western-educated, media-conscious despot should be. Regrettably, Mageeba’s ad hoc interview with Wagner drags and the play’s bit of stage violence comes off as unconvincing. It seems strange that Remy Bumppo should stumble here at such a critical moment. My hopeful assumption is that this was an off performance in an otherwise impeccable production.

Wagner (Shawn Douglass) gives Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) a lesson in the ethics of journalism in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Does Stoppard ever resolve the question of the necessity of a free press? Tough to say—on the one hand, you don’t want the Mageeba’s of the world in charge of what’s fit to print; on the other, the media is a capitalist enterprise that trivializes critical news and foregrounds trivia, until all information turns into fodder before its gaping maw. Guthrie’s defense of a free press remains the most poetic in the play:

People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.

That is a plea appropriate to 1978, long before the 24-hour news cycle and the digital age. Now we are awash in information, both qualified and unqualified, and we can hardly now call all information light.

We few, we lucky few citizens of open, industrialized nations have, for a long time, used the media as much as a distraction from daily cares as for timely and relevant news. That’s a very human tendency. All the same, I found myself wanting to turn away from the diverting chatter of Stoppard’s principal characters. I grew weary of the same jaded arguments from people still living in a bubble of white and colonial privilege. I longed for Stoppard’s most silent character of the play, Francis (Michael Pogue), the Carson’s servant, to report his truth and have his perspective brought front and center.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit

Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) relays to Wagner (Shawn Douglass) and Carson (David Darlow), the tragic end of reporter Milne's life, in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336.   Photo by Johnny Knight.

Important Event on October 11th:

 

October 11: "Is the Truth Front Page News?" Journalist Panel

A free journalist panel hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele

Performance excerpts from Night and Day, highlighting the risks and responsibilities of foreign correspondents, will springboard a charged panel conversation, hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, on where readers now turn to get the truth.

 

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Review: Remy Bumppo’s “Heroes”

“Heroes” is a 4-star salute

Heroes-cast

Remy Bumppo Theatre presents:

Heroes

by Gerald Sibleyras
translated by Tom Stoppard
directed by James Bohnen
thru November 29th  (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

A head of shrapnel, gimp leg and derangement have never been funnier. Remy Bumppo’s Heroes brings three World War I vets together for convalescent camaraderie. Set in an old-soldier home, our heroes amuse each other with tales of heroes-cast2nun slapping, terrace invasion defense strategies and escape plans with a 200-pound dog statue in tow. It’s not your grandpa’s war show about reliving the glory days of WW I. Instead, Heroes is about three outcasts (four if you count the dog) banning together in united tolerance for the final battle, old age.

The attack happens instantaneously. You are held prisoner to hysterical dialogue from the first few lines. Witty repartee and strong character development is the ammo used by playwright Gerald Sibleyras and translator Tom Stoppard. Director James Bohnen sends his best men to the front with inspirational guidance. The troops don’t disappoint. Insane ideas presented in a logical manner, David Darlow (Gustave) leads the charge with dead pan precision in delivery. Goading his buddies to go to Indochina instead of on a stupid picnic or reading and responding to other people’s mail, Darlow is a lovable and hysterical curmudgeon. Paranoid that the head nun is trying to kill him, Roderick Peeples (Phillippe) brings a physical comedy element that includes continuously fainting during the show until he rouses himself by shouting, “Take them from the rear, Captain!” (You learn late in the show that has nothing to do with war.) Completing the nonstop able squadron, Mike Nussbaum (Henri) is the charming 25 year resident vet of the institution. Shy but sane, Nussbaum ultimately commands the trio’s every activity with blunt acceptance and quips like, “You are all barking mad except for the dog.”

heroes-cast3

I’ve never served in a war, but I most definitely bond with friends over enemy activities. Heroes is an experience in friendship. Observing the ensemble’s interaction, you can’t help but find comparisons to your own life. Everyone has that friend who always asks “Am I getting worse?” to which your group responds, “I haven’t noticed.” Or the pal who hates everything, refuses to participate and then wants to know if anyone missed him to which your group responds, “Nobody gave a damn.” Or the buddy who goes along with the crazy plan right up until someone wants to transport a 200 pound dog statue up a mountain. Friends are the heroes that help you conquer life’s battles. Go with one to see this show! Hint for the show: watch man’s best friend during the final scene and curtain call.

 

Rating: ««««

 

Aside: The hero to my left, James, says Heroes was an “all star salute.”

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