Reivew: Ribbon Around a Bomb (Prologue Theatre)

     
    

New musical needs to choose an audience

     
     

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

 

Prologue Theatre Company presents

 

Ribbon Around a Bomb

 

Books and Music by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee
Directed by Kiana Harris
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through May 3   |  tickets: $15   |  more info 

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a little unbelievable and absurd to think that in 2011 any collegiate art department would exclude all female painters from a list of 45 great historical artists. Even in my own five minute research (ala Google) I could not find a single list that left out the likes of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. That said, it’s certainly a heavily one-sided battle of sexes in the art history world. This is at least part of what the new identity-stricken musical, Ribbon Around a Bomb by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee, which recently premiered with Prologue Theatre Company, focuses on. At one point a professor (Melody Latham) hands the audience a thesis list of historical painters, who are all men. It was not only a contrived theatrical convention, but also made me feel a little odd sitting in the cabaret bar setting of Mary’s Attic watching what, as far as I could tell, was a children’s musical. When Chamblee implements the “adult” sections though, it feels even more awkward.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The story follows a painter, Kalakara, through three phases of her life. The younger Kalakara (played with perfect wonderment and rebellion by Krysten Williams) is “haunted” by three female painters from history (Angela Alise Johnson, Melody Latham and Kathleen Wrinn). She is an aspiring painting prodigy (although we never get an actual glimpse of her artwork) whose father (Christopher Tucker) disapproves of her career choice. The ghosts are there, at first, to help guide and inspire her. The college student Kalakara (Charlitha Charleston) is traumatized by these experiences and is also dealing with her rebellion against men, particular the one man in love with her, James (a vocally challenged Lance Newton). Finally, there is the older Kalakara (Tinuade Oyelowo) who paints from her mental institution.

It is within the stories of the older Kalakaras, and their mutual haunting of each other, where the script gets muddled, pointlessly depressing and dramatically trite. Chamblee seems to suggest that the only true way to become a great artist, if you’re a female, is to embrace insanity and reject family, happiness and men. It projects a skewed feminist message.

Chamblee clearly has a knack for infectious musical numbers. However, the musical style in this play lacks unity and instead stretches to showcase a hodgepodge of numerous styles that don’t usually mesh. In addition, there is most certainly an overabundance of belting. Chamblee is clearly influenced by several contemporary composers of the musical world including Sondheim, Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The trick is to serve the story first and this story lends itself to more intimate and simple music than is currently written.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The cast is just about as split as Chamblee’s script. While there is some wonderful talent (most notably the impressive vocals of Charleston and Wrinn), there are also several uneven performances in director Kiana Harris’ cast. Harris’ direction serves the first half of this musical well with a decidedly presentational staging. It helps communicate the educational values and emotional relationships clearly, however it is far more suited for a middle-school audience rather than a bar full of adults. For the most part it seems that Chamblee’s script cofuses Harris’ concept – and understandably so: Chamblee’s book and music combat each other caught between a fun historical educational children’s musical revolving around themes of gender equality, and a tediously confounded psychological adult drama. For example, although Tamara de Lempicka was a mid-twentieth century Polish painter, she is instead portrayed and costumed as though she’s a 2011 “Real Housewife of the Netherworld.” This causes a confusing disconnect between her and the other ghosts who are costumed and portrayed in a more period style.

I’d say that Chamblee needs to choose one storyline, and one play to tell, however I’d strongly encourage fleshing out the tale of the young girl painter inspired by historical women who have defied sexism in the art world. She can simply drop the schizophrenia, f-bombs and stripper number that add nothing but a lack of clarity. Allow these women of the past to empower the girl rather than mentally damage her for life. In this sense she should also choose her audience, and if that happens to be a room full of 6th grade girls, then so be it. Finding strength in the past is a lovely message, and the music during these segments is the strongest. It could be cut to 45 minutes and shipped out on a children’s theatre tour. While it is clear Chamblee has greater personal musical ambitions and another deeper story to tell with bold orchestrations, Ribbon Around a Bomb may be better off simple. She can save the center stage belts and diva numbers for the next go-around of musical scribing.

   
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

Ribbon Around a Bomb, Prologue Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical continues thru May 3rd. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $15. For more information visit www.prologuetheatreco.org

Photos by Cole Simon 

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REVIEW: A Doll’s House (Infamous Commonwealth)

  
  

Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results

  
  

Kate Cares and Stephen Dunn in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House", presented by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

  
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
  
A Doll’s House
  
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by
Chris Maher
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.

Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre debuts its sacrifice-themed 2011 season with this half-hearted update on A Doll’s House, directed by ICT Artistic Director Chris Maher.

Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.

If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.

It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.

As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.

But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.

A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)

Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.

The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson

Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).

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

     
     

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