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: South Side of Heaven (Second City)

     
     

A morbid comedy of fate done to perfection

     
     

(L-R) Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Tim Robinson, Timothy Edward Mason, and Sam Richardson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

  
The Second City presents
  
South Side of Heaven
  
Directed by Billy Bungeroth
Musical direction by Julie Nichols
at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells (map)
open run  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Watching “Saturday Night Live” this past year I’ve tried hard to believe it’s on its way back to a quality decade. There are currently some talented cast members and writers, a few with Second City roots. However, I am consistently disappointed. Every sketch comes off as a stale parody of a brilliant sketch from past golden ages of the show. I was not exactly sure what was missing until I saw The Second City’s 99th revue, The South Side of Heaven. After over 50 years, Second City has managed to continue to stay current, take risks and find ways to still shock audiences through comedy. South Side shakes the status quo with writing that is absurd, truthful, and at (L-R) Holly Laurent, Sam Richardson • Photo by Michael Brosilow.times, refreshingly dark. Don’t expect a laugh-line at the end of each scene in this revue. There are moments of silence and reflection to take in comedy writing that is more than just a collection of sketches. Director Billy Bungeroth (critically acclaimed for his e.t.c. show still running, The Absolutely Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life our review ★★★½) maintains an aspect of comedy that is currently non-existent in the NBC counterpart to Second City: it remains vital.

Bungeroth of course has an unbelievably talented group of actors and writers in Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. While Richardson gives what may be the best Obama impersonation I’ve ever seen, if there’s only one name to store away from this cast, Robinson is the one. He is bravely sardonic and juvenile as the outgoing Mayor Daley, complete with a flapping cape that is the Chicago flag. This is juxtaposed by Edgar Blackmon’s no-nonsense rapping version of Rahm Emanuel who, with a mob boss’ glare, reminds us to “Pay your taxes.” Robinson also showcases his commitment to his scene partner, which happens to be a Chipotle burrito, in one of the scenes I most identified with, along with a horde of other Chicagoans whose mouth waters at the glimpse of the gold foil wrapped delicacy on a billboard.

It also must be noted that, in part, what makes the casting of this show extraordinary is that there are two African-American actors, something Second City and other Chicago comedy venues fail at historically. The impact is that this allows the stereotypes of whites and blacks to be played to the edge; it also allows the African-American actors to play roles that have nothing to do with race, such as a truly heartfelt, hilarious and truthful segment featuring Robinson and Richardson. Robinson is a 30-something who still believes he’s going to play basketball for the Bulls, while Richardson is a United Center security guard who has aspirations of being a ninja. Heck, as he states, “I’m practically a ninja already.” The friendship and imagination in this scene plays out delightfully, especially to a Gen X and Gen Y crowd who may or may not still play NBA Jam on an old Sega Genesis.

Laurent and Rich complement each other perfectly in their scenes, and hold their own as the female voice in this male dominated cast. They never quite play the sex object—even as Kobe Bryant’s escorts they are still tongue-in-cheek as opinionated Chicago Polish babes. In another piece, Laurent is an English teacher hiding domestic issues which the smart outspoken Rich, as her student, sees through. The message in this scene attests to teaching our youth more facts about how the “real world” works. The segment could also hold its own as an incredible ten-minute play.

     
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Tim Robinson. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Edgar Blackmon •  Photo by Michael Brosilow
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson, Edgar Blackmon • Photo by Michael Brosilow

Thematically, South Side makes a comedic case for one of the nation’s largest problems. In America, people do not think of themselves as poor or middle class. Everyone is wealthy and successful and only in a temporary rut. We are constantly looking upward. People continue to overspend and over-live thinking that the future version of them will be rich enough to afford it. This is why people love American Idol and The Lottery, because it provides the illusion that “Joe Schmo” can become an overnight millionaire, or, why Mayor Daley fought so hard to get Chicago the Olympics, even when it wasn’t fiscally reasonable. South Side professes that people might try realizing that EVERYBODY’S life is miserable regardless of how perfect other people’s lives seem to be. While the show doesn’t entirely bash having dreams and aspirations, it does suggest that there are simply certain fates that cannot be altered. Perhaps only Cubs fans truly understand this notion, and in the best sketch of the night, the rousing debate between Cubs fans and Sox fans transcends the “Red Eye” obligatory June front cover and encroaches upon the territory of Jabari Asim (author of “The N-Word”).

The outrageous and darkly absurd also make several appearances throughout the night. Laurent has created a character reminiscent of Mary Catherine Gallagher, only the awkwardness is amped way up. A scene in with Robinson is the driver of a Chicago tourist horse drawn carriage ride (with Richardson dedicating all of himself to the part of the horse) goes to a place you don’t see coming, and keeps going. And Robinson earns the full exposure award of the night for unabashedly leaving nothing on stage as a captivating dancer.

(L-R) Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson • Photo by John McCloskeyAnother absolutely brilliant scene stars the quick witted Timothy Edward Mason as a TSA agent. Without giving too much away, this segment revolves around the new full body screening at airport security check-in sites. However, it becomes about so much more as it uses the audience, without their knowledge, to unquestionably prove how fragile our identities really are in the over exposed society we live in.

The technical and musical elements play an exceptionally large role in this production. Spotlights don’t always illuminate what we should be looking at. Julie B. Nichols’ music direction provides for very effective live accompaniment. Her transition music is a heavy quick dance beat that keeps the crowd lively. Sarah E. Ross’ set screams contemporary…and Apple Store, something that is both visually fresh and opens itself up to parody for the actors.

For those of you who treat Second City a little like Blue Man Group (you saw it 7 years ago and enjoyed it and you’d like to get back one day), do not make this mistake with South Side. All Second City shows are not created equal. There is no better way to come out of your winter hibernation than to laugh uncontrollably at this show. It may even make you change some of your Facebook privacy settings, reanalyze race in Chicago, and accept what life has dealt you with a stiff drink taking in this revue, created by some of the best in the world at what they do. You might even call them the “Montell Jordan” of comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

(L-R) Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow

South Side of Heaven is in an open run at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells. Shows are Tuesday through Thursday 8PM, Friday and Saturday 8PM and 11PM, and Sunday 7PM. Tickets are $22 Sunday thru Thursday and $27 Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available by phone at (312) 337-3992 or online at www.SecondCity.com.

     
     

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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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