Rhino Fest 2011: A Fruit Salad of Fringe

  
  

A Fruit Salad of Fringe

  
  
Astronaut - Lemonade Stand - Strange Lupus Theatre Currency by Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman Spores of Eden by Peter Axel Komistra  
       

All plays reviewed by Paige Listerud

Time simply won’t allow for a thorough review of all the productions curated for Curious Theatre Branch’s 22nd Annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. But an initial smattering might give you a glimpse of the good, the bad, and the deeply uncertain. Chicago’s fringe theater scene is clearly a subculture that depends on prior acquaintanceship—to know which fringe theater companies have a solid reputation for good work and which are still finding their feet and their voice. The following is a truly random selection of Rhino Fest 2011, a fruit salad of fringe, if you will, chosen for variety within the first weekends of the festival—many more productions remain throughout its 5-week run (through February 13). Check out the rest of its schedule.

Prop Thtr    

 All performances @ Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston (map)

 

    
All The Flowers Are Dead - Curious Branch Theatre All That Fall by Samuel Beckett - at Rhino Fest

 

Curious Theatre Branch presents
 
All That Fall/All the Flowers Are Dead
 

All That Fall by Samuel Beckett

Judith Harding, Matthew Kopp, Kate O’Reilly, Meg Hauk and Beau O’Reilly beautifully revived this Beckett radio play, all the while seated at a table crammed with hats and various noisemakers for special effects. Mrs. Rooney (Harding) takes a sojourn from her home to the train station where she means to pick up her husband. Along the way, she runs into various neighbors who may be a help, a hindrance, a peril, or a temptation to her. Beckett’s love of the cadence of language out of Irish mouths suffuses All That Fall, even when characters acknowledge that they are speaking a dead or dying language. It’s a play in which the old survive, even through complaining about the weariness of going on. Youth is either dying or removed by more insidious means. Curious’ production was so charming, rich and evocatively rendered, it’s a pity they will not be performing All That Fall past the first weekend of Rhino Fest. This production truly deserves a remount. If their production of Mexico, a poem play by Gertrude Stein is done half as well, then Chicago audiences are in for a real treat.

All the Flowers Are Dead, written and directed by Matt Rieger

Matt Rieger’s script is almost American Primitive in its construction and dialogue. Two households live in grinding poverty and predictable misery. Jerome takes care of his ailing mother, hoping that his new job planting flowers for the Park District will give them a better chance. His girlfriend, Rusty, gives him a bicycle to get to and from work but she also pressures Jerome into further commitment. Meanwhile, Augie has to contend with his dad, Nicky, for whom another drink is always the right decision and mom is no help when she finally stops pressuring Nicky to find employment and joins him in drink. Sadly, the first half of Rieger’s play is too plodding and the dialogue too boilerplate to capture the imagination. The play only comes alive once Nicky, to regain his son’s affection, steals Jerome’s new bicycle to give to Augie. The play’s conclusion is devastating but takes far too long to get there, making All the Flowers Are Dead a work in progress more than a completed play.


Astronaut - Lemonade Stand - Strange Lupus Theatre

   
Strange Lupus Theatre presents
  
Lemonade Stand
  
Written by Jordan Scrivner
Directed by
Ernest J. Ramon,
Sasha Samochina and Jordan Scrivner
thru Feb 10  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

It looks like another sunny day at the beach with a lovely young woman, Laura (Jessica Bailey), tending her humble and homey lemonade stand. But, in fact, it’s a way station on an asteroid at the other end of a wormhole, through which astronaut Alexander Russell (Ken Brown) has been propelled from his position on Earth’s moon. How did he get here and how will he get back—or go forward, since time and space have been thoroughly transcended? Laura’s answers Alex’s questions rather cryptically, plus the pair faces interruptions from a thoroughly goofy Professor (Crispin Rosenkranz), an affable and romantic delivery guy (Ernest J. Ramon) and a Russian gal (Sasha Samonchina) in disco attire. Strange Lupus’ production still looks rough around the edges–what with Brown coming off more like a confused actor than a confuse astronaut and Rosenkranz’s daffy, congenial professor still in need of refined comic timing. As is, Scrivner has a charming and profound script with Bailey and her delivery guy holding the production’s center. Simple but effective lighting effects from Maria Jacobson and Shannon Penkava, paired with Ramon and Samochina’s sound design, give Lemonade Stand its out-of-this-world vibe.

Featuring: Ken Brown, Jessica Bailey, Crispin Rosenkranz, Ernest Ramon, Sasha Samochina, Tommy Heffron, Paul Scudder

Sound Design by Ryan Dunn and Sasha Samochina


Currency by Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman

   
Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman Duo present
   
Currency
    
Performed by Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman
More information

Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman have the consummate professionalism of a longstanding comic team. While undoubtedly their short theater pieces contain comic moments, their real intent is to go to the center of human movement, habit and meaning. “Coffee Cup Duet” establishes the rhythm of a simple business meeting over coffee, as well as the rituals inherent in meeting and needing transactions wherein coffee and its accoutrements establish the common ground. “’Napse” is a mysterious and unearthly piece, combining Glassman’s commonplace movements with the gargling, choking, chewing, distortions and whispers Glassman conjures from a small mic saddled in his cheek. One never knows where Glassman is going next with the world he creates from each garbled sound. The suspense alone leads to a finish that unites the everyday with eternity. “Time and Again” examines the stop and start repetitive habits of a couple over the issue of when to return a book to the library. Fay and Glassman’s timing is impeccable and interrogates the very coming and going, leaving or staying that makes a relationship. “Homeland” hits the hardest, with a solitary housewife moving backward in time, from the moment she weeps into a phone in her hand to the violation of her home that has provoked her upset. The piece chillingly depicts where we are now.


"The Spores of Eden" by Peter Axel Komistra, now playing at Prop Thtr as part of Chicago Rhino Fest

   
Two Weeks Productions presents
  
The Spores of Eden
    
Written by Peter Axel Komistra
Directed by
Dylan S. Roberts
thru Feb 12  | 
tickets: $12  |  more info

Agatha (Lisa Herceg) and her daughter Linda (Cathlyn Melvin) spare it out over the last egg out of a dozen Agatha has set out in an Easter egg hunt for Linda to find. Not finding the 12th egg, Linda gives up and refuses to go looking for it, even when it begins to rot and stink up the house. A battle of wills ensues when Agatha keeps replacing the rotten egg for Linda to find and Linda keeps refusing to go in search of it.  Decay becomes the only thing the two women know and seems to be the only thing by which the Father (Paul Cary), speaking posthumously, endorses—or so we think. Everything remains at an impasse until Topher (Rory Jobst), Linda’s banished brother, arrives one evening to try and understand his banishment and his wayward life ever since. Peter Komistra seems to not know what to do with characters with such implacable wills as he has crafted here. While the cast does an admirable job with Komistra’s language, the characters themselves only oppose or undermine each other but never reach any kind of clear and creative rapprochement. While it’s thoroughly legitimate to return the play’s circumstances to the same decaying state in which they begin, the conundrums of seeking or failing to find renewal also receive a muddled treatment in the course of the work. The Spores of Eden needs a strong editorial hand and clarification—and it may also benefit from not leaning so heavily on the “Book of Genesis”.

  
  

Mexico - Curious Branch Theatre - Chicago Rhino Fest

           
           

REVIEW: The New Electric Ballroom (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

The once-in-a-lifetime chance at pure love

  
  

Buddeke, Larson and Fitzgerald in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The New Electric Ballroom
  
Written by Enda Walsh
Directed by
Robin Witt
at
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

“Stamped by story, aren’t we Patsy?”

                                –Breda

To attend A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of The New Electric Ballroom is to feel Enda Walsh’s sea of language wash over you, wave upon wave, repetitive yet morphing into new constructions, building to exhilarating maximum impact, then receding to leave an inconspicuously altered shore. Here, within the borders of this abstract play, language is king. Words–“idle words, as if there could be anything idle about them,” says Breda—and stories continuously retold, mark and mold each character by repetition as constant as the monotonous, everyday routines that support and curtail daily life. Clara (Laurie Larson), Breda (Kate Buddeke), and Ada (Kirsten Fitzgerald) are like Three Sisters without a Moscow to which to escape or dream of escape. What they have are Clara and Breda’s stories, which Ada directs them to tell over and over again.

Guy VanSwearingen and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.If life in their coastal Irish town is bleak, then so, ultimately are Clara and Breda’s tales of young, hopeful love, crushed by betrayal and lost chances. Only Patsy (Guy Van Swearingen), the fisherman, disturbs their telling by his regular and comic fish deliveries. But Patsy himself is haunted by his dull, meaningless routine, imagining that even the seagulls inquire of him: “What is the purpose of you, Patsy?” Walsh owes an immense debt to Samuel Beckett, yet he manages to construct yet another level of existential drama onto Beckett’s cathedral.

Now all that director Robin Witt requires is an acting ensemble of steel to carry and drive the weight of Walsh’s language—and to have fun with it. She has that witty, mature, and polished ensemble in Buddeke, Fitzgerald, Larson and Swearingen. Won’t somebody please get them Superman T-shirts to commemorate their achievement? (Although, I’m quite sure getting yourself to the show would be reward enough.) The play’s beginning is bleak, sometimes so bleak it’s comic, but the action heats up when Patsy is finally allowed into the house, where he allows himself to be transformed into the kind of crooning performer who won Clara and Breda’s hearts years before at the New Electric. The strategic ease with which the play’s atmosphere swings from oppressive melancholy to exuberant, magical fantasy attests to Witt’s mastery of the material and the cast’s ability to submit completely to the theatricality of the work.

Walsh’s surreal and existential play may not be for everyone. However, as a meditation on life’s possibilities being just as overwhelming and personally threatening as its stultifying daily grind, few other works are its equal. Ada has a chance at first love with the transformed Patsy, only to watch that chance melt away because of Patsy’s own failure of nerve. That’s an everyday story–a story that marks and molds a lot of people. A Red Orchid delivers Walsh’s heightened version of that story consummately, professionally, and superlatively. Perhaps that is all we can demand of art.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Laurie Larson and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

Laurie Larson, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow. Guy VanSwearingen, Laurie Larson, Kate Buddeke and Kirsten Fitzgerald in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.
     

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

     
     

Wednesday Wordplay: Bono, Euripides, Samuel Beckett

Motivational Quotes

 

bono

There’s the country of America, which you have to defend, but there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea. An idea that’s supposed to be contagious.
           — Bono, Oprah Winfrey Show, 2002

 

The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.
           — Euripides

FDR 

Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.
           — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Pan American Day, April 15, 1939

It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.
           — Phillip Adams

 

martha stewart 

Life is too complicated not to be orderly.
           — Martha Stewart, quoted in Harper’s Bazaar

 

 

In summer, the song sings itself.
           — William Carlos Williams

samuel beckett 

Ever tried?   Ever failed?   No Matter, try again, fail again.  Fail better.
           — Samuel Beckett

Acquire inner peace and a multitude will find their salvation near you.
           — Catherine de Hueck Doherty

REVIEW: End Game (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Beckett’s got game

Endgame-1

 
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
 
Endgame
 
by Samuel Beckett 
directed by
Frank Galati
in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through June 6th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was an emblematic play of the 20th-century, it very well could be Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The play captures defining aspects of the past hundred years: the unspeakable horror, the monotony, the inclination towards self-reference. The human crisis is all there, presented as a 75-minute nihilistic chess game (sort of). Steppenwolf throws some of their best talent at Beckett for their production of Endgame. Frank Galati directs, and the play features Ian Barford, William Petersen, Martha Lavey, and Francis Guinan. Steppenwolf concocts a recipe for on-stage brilliance—great theatre artists working with one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The existentialism sure can get depressing, but the talent involved here is a marvel.

Endgame-3 Beckett’s earlier Waiting for Godot is far more accessible and probably more inherently funny. I would put forth, though, that Endgame is the better play. It’s more primal, more desperate. Complete despair looms just out of reach. The world is dense and merely getting through each day seems the ultimate goal for everybody. This is still pretty hard—one guy can’t stand, one guy can’t sit, and two folks are amputees living in garbage cans.

Galati doesn’t throw any crazy tricks at the play; there is nothing here that would invite legal action from the Beckett estate. Hamm (William Petersen), the protagonist as Beckett points out in his character description, sits blind and regal in a throne/DIY wheelchair. His parents, Nell (Martha Lavey) and Nagg (Francis Guinan), live in non-descript trashcans. They’re all serviced by the only mobile inhabitant, Clov (Ian Barford). In typical Beckett fashion, Sammy has constantly denied that the play is post-nuclear apocalypse. James Schuette’s drab set tiptoes around this fact, however, and places the play in an underground room that looks a lot like a fallout shelter. The set works wonders for the play; Schuette doesn’t distract from Beckett’s language but still throws in his own thematic two cents (the dingy room also looks uncannily like the inside of a face).

Petersen and Barford conquer the stage with their intricate chemistry. The relationship between Hamm and Clov is one of the most complex and layered ever penned for the stage. Seen through the chess-metaphor lens, Hamm is a losing king, commanding around the only pawn he has left. But Hamm also suggests ‘hammer,’ and Clov is often linked to the Latin word for ‘nail’ (clavus, for the Latin nerds out there—Nag and Nell’s names also connect to various European terms for nail). And no one can deny the father-son dynamic between the two.

Endgame-2 Endgame-3

For the past few year, Petersen seems set on proving that he’s not just a television actor by treating Chicago to wonderful performances in Dublin Carol (our review ★★★½) and the considerably twisted Blackbird (our review ★★★½) at Victory Gardens. Even though he is stationary and clad in sunglasses, Petersen glides through Beckett’s world as the lonely king. It’s a delight watching him play off Barford, who makes an infinitely relatable Clov. Stuck in a metal drum, Guinan commands our attention whenever he pops open his lid. He’s an ancient relic yet as helpless as a child. For the short bit she’s in, Lavey does good work feeding on Guinan’s vulnerability and hot temper.

Galati clearly knows this game. However, the production seems to favor the philosopher Beckett instead of the clown. While this forces us to contemplate our own mortality (isn’t this everyone’s ideal Friday night plan?), everything gets a little too mired in the existential muck. As bleak as it is, though, there is a ton of genius at work over at the Steppenwolf right now. It is well worth a glimpse, even if you also have to stare at your own imminent demise.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape (Goodman Theatre)

Masterful production suffers from too large of performance space

Hughie_blog

Goodman Theatre presents:

Hughie / Krapp’s Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill
directed by
Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver
through February 28th (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Hughie_06Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape are the results of two Nobel Prize winning playwrights exploring the idea of loneliness. Both works dive headfirst into aching, despondent, cringe-worthy isolation—not sexy loneliness or quirky loneliness, but the brand of depressing loneliness caused by years of self-inflicted solitude. Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill, neither of whom is known for their sunny view of life, are masters in illustrating this theme in their plays. Pairing up the American O’Neill and the Irish Beckett was a bold decision, but the Goodman’s choice to put these plays together makes a lot of sense. Especially when you add to the mix adept directors Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver and have the two plays carried by one Brian Dennehy. The finished product steals the breath away from the audience by the end, like if we had just witnessed a star implode on itself.

Although both plays could conceivably be described as one-man shows, they are both actually powerful, two-person dialogues. Hughie takes place long after midnight in a fleabag hotel lobby. The hotel’s night clerk (Joe Grifasi) stands alone behind the counter. Enter the drunken Erie Smith (Dennehy). Although the conversation is decidedly one-sided, the night clerk’s presence is essential to Erie’s booze-fueled tirade. Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-person show, but the sole character, also soaking in alcohol, is still having a dialogue. Instead of chatting with another flesh and blood human, Krapp (Dennehy again) interacts with himself, 30 years earlier, through an ancient tape player. Having the characters discourse with someone does the opposite of brightening the situation; the exchanges highlight the fact that these characters are completely starved for an authentic human connection. These plays are definitely not for the easily disturbed. After viewing, some bourbon and Prozac might be necessary to help you fall asleep.

Hughie_05 Krapps_01

Hughie, arguably the weaker of the two, is more plugged in to the real world. It’s fascinating to watch Dennehy rattle off stories of past friends, female conquests, and gambling victories. He mostly rambles about his only confidant in recent memory, the former night clerk, Hughie. Falls’ staging is brilliant. He is able to create viable stage pictures with only one moving actor, yet the production never feels unmotivated or scattershot. Grifasi is spot-on as the spaced-out clerk. Dennehy owns his role, layering bravado and self-assurance on top of Erie’s agonizing stabs at companionship.

Beckett is a much different writer than O’Neill, and requires a distinct approach in all aspects. Dennehy’s Krapp is a 180-turn from Erie. He’s a clown—a very lonely clown that let the opportunities of relationships slip by years ago. This production, directed by Canadian impKrapps_06ort Tarver, snaps together. Every second on stage is fraught with purpose. Dennehy’s dealings with a banana, his tape player, or his door are all significant. It also contains one of the most genius directing choices of this entire theatre season. Whenever Krapp leaves the main room to fetch a drink, he leaves the door open. The only movement on stage is the swinging light pull. There is something so Beckett, so existential, about that moment.

Hughie tends to drag a bit and the powerful silences of Krapp’s Last Tape are often interrupted by coughs and shifting, which is more of a comment on the audience than the production. The Albert stage seems a bit large for these plays. The size works for capturing the crushing, Atlas-scale solitude, but the anguished details are occasionally lost in the abyss. Still, the double-bill is remarkable. Nothing is overblown or glossed over; all aspects of both productions are painstakingly devised. Even the show is just over 90 minutes, you’ll have plenty of fodder for hours of therapy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

The Design Team for Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape includes Eugene Lee (Sets), Patrick Clark (Costumes), Robert Thomson (Lights) and Richard Woodbury (Sound). Joseph Drummond is the Production Stage Manager, and T. Paul Lynch is the Stage Manager.  All photography by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: Redtwist Theatre’s “The Pillowman”

Unrelenting yet still insufficient

 Interr2

We like to execute writers . . . It sends a message . . . I don’t know what message it sends. I don’t know where it sends a message—that’s not my department—but it sends a message.”       –Detective Tupolski

 

Redtwist Theatre presents:

The Pillowman

by Martin McDonagh
directed by Kimberly Senior
thru December 27th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

A local playwright once told me that productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays in Ireland are different from American ones–they are actually very funny. “What you have to remember about Waiting for Godot,” she told me, “is that it’s all pub talk.” Mad Irish humor shuffles side by side with bleak existentialism.

Sons Somewhere in the middle of Martin McDonagh’s bleak, sadistic writing is the fun and play of talk–storytelling for the pure hell of it. Even if the story is supposed to shock, laughter comes somewhere before or after the gasp. Actors in Chekhov’s plays have to balance between making the audience laugh or cry. Here actors have to balance on the razor’s edge between laughter and horror. Suspended in the tension of the moment, audiences must be caught between the discomfort they feel over the violence before them and their own sadistic, humorous reaction to it.

As guest director for Redtwist Theatre’s production of The Pillowman, Kimberly Senior has successfully crafted an exhibition of unrelenting tension and suspense. Nothing disrupts the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room that police officers Tupolski (Tom Hickey) and Ariel (Johnny Garcia) have dragged Katurian (Andrew Jessop) into to account for his life’s work as a writer. A few children have been murdered according to methods described in his macabre and unpublished stories. Protesting his innocence, the author gradually discovers just how he is implicated in those crimes.

A writer’s murder fiction becomes reality. How many times have we seen that device? But The Pillowman springboards from worn-out premise into reason-defying psychological depths. The audience is plunged into the black pool of connections between horror and childhood. According to psychologists, the very state of being shocked or horrified recreates in the victim a childlike state of frozen powerlessness, passivity, and surrealism. McDonagh’s work draws no distinction between that paralyzed, surreal consciousness and the world of childlike creativity and play. In The Pillowman, both are inextricably enmeshed. Horror gives birth to, or deeply informs, creativity and even when creativity seems to transform or redeem the impact of horror, it is, in fact, planting the seeds for more.

Happy JesusFam

Redtwist’s production achieves the suspension of time required to create deep horror. In deep horror, there is no future–only an oppressive present that never improves. Nothing describes The Pillowman’s totalitarian state better than a nameless land, much like the land in many fairy tales, of uninterrupted horror, whose residents are kept in childlike submission. Even the agents of the state, like the good cop-bad cop team of Tupolski and Ariel, reveal their childlike natures through the stories they tell about themselves. Here the production shows its greatest strength. Hickey captures all the nuances of a cop who playfully revels in the arbitrary, meaningless nature of state sanctioned sadism, and then revises in front of Katurian a story about himself, in which he goes from heartless mastermind to ingenious savior. As unwavering bad cop, Garcia gives earnest pathos to a man who yearningly hopes his perpetual brutality will reap the love and adoration of children in old age.

ArielKat The relationship between Katurian and his mentally challenged brother, Michal (Peter Oyloe), does not continue that wicked thread. We learn the authorities have dragged in Michal in order to force a confession. Even if Katurian suffers shock from police brutality and the revelation of real child murders, Jessop’s performance is still a little too somnambulant to realize any core of brotherly connection. For my money—and this is a matter of personal taste—I prefer a realist performance of a mentally handicapped person to a performance that simply alludes to it. At least readers can be aware of my bias. In any case, the scene between Katurian and Michal lacks the emotional range to raise the stakes.

Above all, the cast must go further to pull out all the dark humor that inhabits this play, dancing on that razor’s edge between laughs that undermine and laughs that reinforce its sadism. To this end, the side theaters that depict Katurian’s stories are quite impressive. Special attention should be given Marissa Meo’s depiction of the little girl who believes she is Jesus and willingly goes to violent limits to fulfill that belief. Her performance reflects the essence of play, something this production could use a little more of.

Rating: ★★★

PM-Brothers

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Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

elvis-end-days

Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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