Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

Joanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

      
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
  
Hickorydickory
   
   
Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.

But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.

Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.

Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.

Thoas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.

Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.

Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.

Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.

And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.

Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.

The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.

  

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues Theater Chicago 01

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: Sketchbook X (Collaboraction)

Collaboraction celebrates the creative spirit with Sketchbook X

 Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre. http://www.collaboraction.org

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook X:   People’s Choice
   
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $20-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

What is a play exactly? Is it a dramatic staging of a story? Is it people moving around in a physical space in front of an audience? And furthermore, what separates a play from a sketch or a scene or even a performance art installation?

Pictured (left to right): Jeffrey Gitelle, Ian McLaren and Emily Shain in “Eighty Four” written by Cory Tamler, directed by Dan Stermer. “Eighty Four” is one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27 at The Chopin Theatre These are the questions I was left pondering after seeing Collaboraction’s tenth annual Sketchbook festival, a showcase of original mixed media performances. This  year’s theme was “exponential.” Yes, it is fairly nebulous, and this is perhaps one reason why the output lacks a certain concreteness and cohesion. Characters and plot become secondary to evoking visceral emotions. Sketchbook X in many ways is more circus than drama.

This isn’t to say that the finished product is all spectacle and no substance. There are some standout pieces.

The one that clearly stands out the most is Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Unlike other pieces that become crushed under their own weight, Five Lesbians is a witty, stylized comedy. Devised by Evan Linder, the play features five women (Sarah Gitenstein, Mary Hollis Inboden, Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa and Megan Johns) who head a local social club centered around a shared love of quiche. The women click and cluck like 1950s southern church ladies and harass the audience. When communist Russia bombs the outside world, all quiche is destroyed. The women go into a tizzy, which leads to their outings.

Five Lesbians works because it is the most refined piece of the festival. The script feels fully fleshed out, the actors are well aware of their characters and the comedic timing is impeccable. There is a lot of commitment, and there is little ambiguity. It has an aesthetic all its own that is so engaging I’d pay to see a full-length production.

Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre

Other standouts include Sacrebleu (devised and performed by Dean Evans, Molly Plunk and Anthony Courser), a pantomimed, slapstick comedy about two eccentric French fur trappers. The short monologue The Blueberry (written by Sean Graney and featuring Celeste Januszewski) is a thoughtful meditation on existence that explains string theory with blueberry imagery.

Other pieces, however, just don’t pan out. What I’m Looking For (written by Brett C. Leonard and featuring Joel Gross and Heather Bodie) is little more than a heavy-handed music video for a Rufus Wainwright song. Meanwhile, The Untimely Death of  Adolf Hitler (written by Andy Grigg and featuring Eddie Karch, Anthony Moseley, Erin Myers, Greg Hardigan and Dan Krall) lacks enough wit to drive the piece beyond its premise. But you can’t expect all the pieces to be gems. Besides, if you don’t like something, just wait 7 to 10 minutes for another play.

Sketchbook-Four-Women As usual, Collaboraction has succeeded in making the festival feel like a big event. The interior of the Chopin Theatre is awash in glowing light and fog. Two large screens flank the sides of the stage and streamers stretch from the floor to the ceiling. It all makes for a breath-taking first impression.

If you want to see all 19 pieces in a row, you’ll have to see the show on a Saturday. Be warned, though. It’s a 4.5-hour long journey, though you are encouraged to come and go as you please.

Overall, Sketchbook X is a mixed bag of intriguing works. The majority of the pieces lack refinement, but there are a few plays that are polished treasures. The theme gets lost among the many productions, but I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, Sketchbook is more of a party that aims to celebrate the creative spirit, and in that sense, it succeeds.

   
   
Rating:  ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


Jade Heart 3

 
Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Jade Heart 2

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