Review: Nunset Boulevard (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

Newest nun revue is less than holy

     
     

Lauren Creel, Felicia Fields, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

   

Theatre at the Center presents

  

Nunset Boulevard

  

Written By Dan Goggin
Directed and choreographed by Stacey Flaster
at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN (map)
through May 29   |   tickets: $20- $40  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

They say, “When you find something that works for you, stick to it.” Dan Goggin has made a living off of his troop of fictional nuns from Hoboken, New Jersey since the debut of his smash hit musical Nunsense in 1985. After seven spin-offs Goggin has penned the latest nun adventure, Nunset Boulevard. The musical nuns from Jersey travel to California for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl….-A-Rama. It makes some sense that the Chicago area premiere of this new show is being produced at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, since, after all, Northwest Indiana is seemingly Chicago’s Jersey. It’s where we send our landfill, refining and casino gamblers. In this case, it’s where we send somewhat tired musical comedy such as this production directed rather flatly by Stacey Flaster. While there is some huge talent (namely Tony award nominee Felicia Fields) and occasional chuckles, it’s not quite worth the trip down I-90/94 for what is ultimately a cabaret show with too much space to fill.

Mary Robin Roth (Sister Robert Anne) and Nicole Miller (Sister Leo) in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.In their latest outing, our showbiz sisters arrive in Hollywood for what they think is a booking at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Instead, they are scheduled to appear at the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama, a bowling alley somewhere in Hollywood. While generally Goggin’s nun shows are largely a cabaret style, Sister Hubert (Fields) suggests in this production that they include a plot (in one of the more fun musical numbers of the night). The show is still primarily though a cabaret style performance of comedic bits, musical numbers, improv and interacting with the audience (probably the highlight of the evening). However, there is a through line revolving around Sister Leo (Nicole Miller) and her quest to get “discovered” in Hollywood. It turns out a movie musical about nuns is auditioning across the street. Sister Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth) is skeptical. She is especially conflicted when Sister Leo asks permission to appear before the casting director without wearing her habit. There is also Sister Amnesia (Lauren Creel), whose schitck is that she lost her memory due to a giant crucifix falling on her head.

The raunchier bits play the best, however there are not many of them. During the improv segment with the audience, there is a game made of naming famous nuns from the movies which rewards certain audience members with very funny religious keepsakes. The fact that the nuns sing and dance isn’t novel enough anymore to carry the interest of the audience over two hours. The Hollywood they are visiting is decidedly a Hollywood of old with songs like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and a parade of classic Hollywood blonde bombshells.

Fields provides some wonderful vocals and dry humor to the evening. Creel and Miller are also standouts with their energy. But, Flaster’s direction, along with certain Mary Robin Roth as Sister Robert Anne in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.performances, hamper the pacing. There’s a comedy-killing pause between nearly every line dragging the show down. The cast overall plays too small to fill this space. Also, there were numerous instances where several actors were restarting lines which took the wind out of any possibility for consistent laughs.

Stephen Carmody’s set is a “Vegas meets Magic Kingdom” take on Hollywood. The expansive facade could hold a big band and 20 chorus girls. Instead, we get 3 keyboardists, a drum kit and five nuns. The one-liners and corny, yet sometimes delightful, tunes come across as though they would fit better in a nightclub setting. The formality of this large theatre complex drowns out most of the charm.

Overall, the production elements are too polished and gaudy in contrast with what’s essentially comedic sketches and light songs. The vastness of the theater demands too much non-stop entertainment. I feel the same show could be placed in a setting such as Mary’s Attic (an upstairs bar lounge in Andersonville) and achieve a much better effect on its audience. There is definitely something here for diehard fans of Goggin’s nun series, but not enough to spark any excitement as these Jersey girls’ take on Tinsel Town.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Felicia Fields, Lauren Creel, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

Theatre at the Center presents the Chicago Area premiere of Dan Goggin’s Nunset Boulevard, directed by Stacey Flaster, April 28- May 29 at 1040 Ridge Rd, Munster, IN. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $36 on Wednesdays-Thursdays, and $20-$40 Fridays- Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by phone (219-836-3255) or online at theatreatthecenter.com.

  
  

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Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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REVIEW: reasons to be pretty (Profiles Theatre)

     
     

Profiles masterfully explores the power of being ‘pretty’ vs. ‘regular’

     
     

Darrel W. Cox and Darci Nalepa in Neil LaBute's 'reasons to be pretty' at Profiles Theatre.  Photo by Wayne Karl.

   
Profiles Theatre presents
  
reasons to be pretty
   
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by
Rick Snyder 
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
thru March 13  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

He will hurt you. He’s a guy. It’s a done deal!

Profiles Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of reasons to be pretty.  Greg dates Steph. His best friend is Kent. Kent is married to Carly. Carly is best friends with Steph. Greg and Kent ogle over the new eye candy at work. Greg offhandedly compares her beautiful face to Steph’s ‘regular’ face. When a guy slams his girlfriend within earshot of her gal pal, the comment will be repeated and repeated and repeated. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But what if the beholder has small, squinty eyes? And what’s ‘regular’ anyway? On the surface, reasons to be pretty is an unattractive expose on men’s shallow nature. At the heart of it, reasons to be pretty is one man’s quest to confront his own inner beauty.

Darrel W. Cox and Darci Nalepa in Neil LaBute's 'reasons to be pretty' at Profiles Theatre.  Photo by Wayne Karl.Playwright Neil LaBute keeps it real with machete-sharp dialogue and imperfect characters. LaBute creates a moment in a relationship and drops the audience into the crossfire. The banter engages so authentically that one feels as if they are in-the-room, wanting to interject a helpful ‘tell her….’ during the confrontations. Despite the various piercing altercations, the drama is funny. LaBute crafts in comedic lines to soften the blows. Director Rick Snyder keeps the wrath at a frenzy, interspersed with breaths of humor. Snyder paces the show tight with conversations quipping along and scene shifts signaled with a buzzard and minimal prop modification.

Profiles Theatre must pick their play choices to showcase the resident divo. reasons to be pretty follows the pattern. Darrell W. Cox is excellent! He starts and ends the play with monologues delivered so perfectly natural it creates an autobiographical feel. He struggles with guilt in a bumbling and endearing manner. LaBute wrote Steph and Carly as strong women. Some men might say ‘regular’ bitches but most women are more inclined to see them as inspiring. Darci Nalepa embraces and emboldens in a food court scene that is every female’s fantasy. Nalepa balances the vulnerability and confidence with glimpses of tears behind a veil of rage. Somer Benson (Carly) is a facade of smug self-righteousness pushing for the truth to be known. Although her words are always sharply direct, Benson quivers memorably facing her own worst fears. Christian Stolte (Kent) schmucks it up to a very unattractive level. Stolte is disgusting… as a vulgar, objectifying prick.

Color it, tweeze it, lift it… men may be the catalyst for the never-ending beauty quest, but the standard is mirrored by women. There is plenty of “reasons to be pretty”! There are even more “reasons to be pretty nice”! This show examines what’s going on below the surface in relationships and attitudes. The ugly truth is some people don’t think YOU are pretty enough. Seeing this show will help you determine if s/he is sitting next to you.

  
  

Rating: ★★★½

   
   

Darrell W. Cox, Christian Stolte and Somer Benson in Neil LaBute's 'reasons to be pretty' at Profiles Theatre.  Photo by Wayne Karl.

Production photos courtesy of Wayne Karl.

 reasons to be pretty, by by Neil LaBute, continues through March 13th at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway.  Performance dates/times are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 7pm.  Running Time: ninety minutes with no intermission.  More info at Profiles’ website.

 

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Review: Kingsville (Stage Left Theatre)

   

Exposing the poisonous threads of macho culture

   
    

Nick DiLeonardi as Mike and Andrew Raia as Justin  – Photo by Lila Stromer

     
Stage Left Theatre presents
 
Kingsville
    
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by Vance Smith
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through November 21  |    tickets: $22-$28 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

When the student gunmen opened fire at Columbine High School in 1999, the nation took a collective gasp. The very idea that schools could become a place of intentional yet random mass murder was unimaginable and so shocking as to defy belief. Today when students commit in-school murders, they’re met not so much with shock and disbelief as they are with a sense of tragic resignation. The headlines are regional or even local rather than national because on a national scale, school shootings are no longer front page, above-the-fold news. It is as if the world has become comfortably numb to the idea that childhood is a time of danger as much as of innocence.

That sad fact makes Andrew Hinderaker’s Kingsville all the more forceful. Delving the troubled world of a high school reeling from a student shooting, Kingsville is heart-breaking in its veracity and its sensitivity. In its world premiere at Stage Left, Kingsville Kingsville - Stage Left Theatre is also  powerful indelving the related topic of bullying; the sort of relentless, dehumanizing abuse that can drive young people to the violence borne of utter despair. Or at least it is for the first half or so of the play.

For all its many merits, Kingsville loses much of its impact when its plot swerves away from its young protagonists and into the world of an adult who does something so far-fetched it’ll make your eyes roll in disbelief. We’re not going to give away the action here – that would be a major spoiler. Suffice to say, Hinderaker’s narrative ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness.  Until then, Kingsville is a richly compelling story as it mines the volatile, triple-threatening world of adolescence, machismo and guns. Moreover, director Vance Smith has a remarkable pair of young men in the two key roles that anchor the piece.
Andrew Raia plays Justin, a high schooler who has been the target of brutal locker room harassment. Nick DiLeonardi plays Justin’s best (perhaps only) friend Mike, a high school outcast who has found empowerment – and relief from all-consuming loneliness and self-loathing – by learning to shoot at a local teen center. Raia nails the rage, frustration and desperation of a young man for whose daily life is defined by humiliation and dread. It’s with stunning impact that Raia delivers a monologue describing the abuse – the details are excruciating, but it isn’t just the particulars that make the sene so harrowing. Raia taps into an anguish that’s almost unbearably raw and authentic. DiLeonardi’s Mike  seems – superficially at least – more laid back than the deeply wounded Justin, but he’s just as heart-breaking: A fundamentally decent kid driven to do something terrible simply because he doesn’t have the tools to cope with with all the badness around him.

The adults in Kingsville aren’t as effective, primarily because the characters feel more like representations of opposing points of view more than actual people. Wayne (John Arthur Lewis), reeling from the death of his son in a school shooting, advocates arming students so that they aren’t sitting ducks if a gunman opens fire on a classroom. Justin’s father James (John Ferrick) passionately opposes Wayne, a stance that has been an excuse for Justin’s tormentors to take their bullying to heinous levels of cruelty.

Hinderaker also has Audrey, a lecturer (Cat Dean) punctuate the piece, relaying the results of a startling and revealing study about contemporary attitudes about machismo. Audrey’s direct address, like that dubious plot development, detracts from Kingsville more than it adds to the production. The speeches are didactic, and while they offer some eye-opening information, they put a hitch in the storytelling. When the action stops so that Audrey can break in with academic commentary on kids and guns, the audience is bumped out of the story and into a virtual lecture hall.

What Kingsville does well is show how integrated the poisonous threads of macho man culture are within the tapestry of gun culture. They provide the basis of a fantastic, if ultimately unbelievable, story.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Kingsville - poster

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REVIEW: Wild Nights with Emily (Caffeine Theatre)

The dead lesbian’s poet society?

 

emily3

Caffeine Theatre presents:

 

Wild Nights with Emily

by Madeleine Olnek
directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy
at Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt
through April 11th
(more info)

review by Catey Sullivan 

Emily Dickinson: Spinster virgin in perpetually buttoned-up white, or sensual lesbian lover who let loose after dark in wild nights entwined with her sister-in-law? Wild Nights With Emily would have us believe the latter. To those who would argue it’s Dickinson’s poetry and not her sexuality that matters, we’ll point out that the title of Caffeine Theatre’s roll in the literary hay is taken directly from the Belle of Amherst herself.

emily5 The lady love Dickinson pined for when penning “Might I but moor/ To-night/in thee?”. That would be Susan Dickinson, her brother’s wife. Or so it would according to Madeleine Olnek’s curious, quirky portrait of the poet as a lesbian lover. In Wild Nights, director Meghan Beals McCarthy instills Olnek’s time-tripping tale with the playfulness this 90-minute romp demands.

But while Caffeine’s literary production is as fun as flirting, it falters in one significant aspect, and that is in the person of Emily herself. Reciting passages of longing and frustration and ecstasy from Dickinson’s body of beautiful work, Jessica Bennett’s Emily is more slouching, angsty, over-dramatic adolescent than anguished mature woman.

According to firebrand (or lightning rod, depending on who you talk to) feminist scholar Camille Paglia, Dickinson’s brutality “would stop a truck.” You’d never know to watch this version of Emily. Here, the poet is skittish, fragile, birdlike and childlike in a portrayal that doesn’t hint at the strength within a lioness of arts and letters.

Yet despite that flaw – and since Dickinson is the focus of the piece, it is not inconsequential – Wild Nights is a winning endeavor. There’s a delicious humor to be found as cartoon academics peer down their weighty spectacles into pronouncements such as “We cannot say whether Emily Dickinson was gay any more than we can conjecture that Ben Franklin would have chosen a car with airbags.”

With her ensemble bending gender portraying Dickinson’s contemporaries as well as a parade of posthumous editors, biographers, and tourists (the last tramping through various Dickinson exhibits with amusing degrees of enthusiasm), McCarthy keeps the pace spritely and the visuals vivid.

Wild Nights is a crazy quilt of times and places, bouncing between imagined scenes from Dickinson’s life (and death) and contemporary declarations about the poet’s life. Liberal sprinklings of irreverence (including one memorable wherein an earnest speaker during Mount Holyoke Parents Weekend assures the assemblage that one or two or even three “homosexual” encounters does not a lesbian undergrad make) ensure that this pseudo-biography of Dickinson never gets fusty.

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As Emily and Susan (Dana Black, hold that thought for just a moment please) rapturously discover oral sex, as Susan’s husband (Ian Novak) splutters angrily about insinuating secrets discovered folded among his wife’s “underthings,” as whist games play out and formal dances twirl about, the hidden life of Emily Dickinson unfurls as a colorful collage of eccentricity seemingly at odds with the deliberate, controlled beauty of her writing.

With the exception of Emily and Susan, McCarthy has the cast playing with the broadness of caricatures – which is wholly appropriate given the intermittent over-the-top bubbles of lunacy Olnek instills into many of her scenes. Novak, long one of the Off-Loop’s curiously unsung talents, makes great comic hay as prototypically saucy Irish maid and – more significantly – as Susie’s increasingly suspicious and snappish husband. As Emily’s biographer, Amanda Hartley is a primly outrageous, scissor-happy villainess.

Then there’s Susan, the most complex and intriguing person in this story thanks to Black’s deceptively gentle performance. She’s the quintessential still water running fathoms deep, richly contemplative one moment, smoothly calculating the next, head-over-heels-fall-down-crazy-in-love the next.

The core problem with the performance? It’s difficult to imagine this woman infatuated with the pretty but superficial snip we’re given as Dickinson.

Samantha Umstead and Alarie Hammock’s gorgeous and lavishly detailed costumes add a layer of lush visual beauty to the production and an intriguing contrast to the minimalist velvet drapes and framed poetry fragments of Stephen H. Carmody’s simple, effective set design.

The secret life of Emily Dickinson may forever remain just that. Even so, there’s intrigue in speculating what may have gone on between the lines.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Wild Nights With Emily continues through April 11 in the Berry Methodist Church (Lincoln Square Arts Center), 4754 N. Leavitt. Tickets are $15 – $20. More information is available buy going to www.caffeinetheatre.com

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