Review: I Am Montana (Mortar Theatre Company)

  
  

Despite shinging moments, pertinent story blunted by hazy message

  
  

Derek Garza as Ebenn in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography.

   
Mortar Theatre Company presents
  
I Am Montana
  
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Now in their sophomore season, Mortar Theatre Company is obviously drawn to new work that digs into quagmires of social ills, usually presented in an epic, sprawling fashion. Last year’s Under America (our review), for example, presented a complex, multi-tiered tale about the now demolished Cabrini Greene housing projects along with a Dante-esque trip through the American prison system.

Josh Nordmark (Dirk), Derek Garza (Ebenn), and Sentell Harper (Tommy) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG PhotographyTheir latest project, the Midwest premier of I Am Montana by Samuel D. Hunter, takes aim at big box retailers and how they treat their labor. They even have “minimum wage” Thursdays, where admission equals the running time times the national minimum wage ($7.25, although it’s $8.25 in Illinois). The treatment of non-union unskilled labor is often ignored in the arts, but it’s an important issue that involves millions of Americans. The subject seems dry on paper, but director Rachel Edwards Harvith and her cast tell an engaging, layered web of a story. Unfortunately, Harvith and Hunter’s efforts are blunted by an inability to articulate what the piece wants to be. I Am Montana feels unfinished, delivering a collection of loosely-tied ideas and not-quite-cooked characters. Hunter can’t decide whether the play is a hard-hitting human drama or a darkly surrealistic take on modern Americana.

Hunter focuses his play around the tribulations of Eben (Derek Garza), a Montana boy who left to fight in the Israeli army. Now mentally disturbed, he punches a clock at Valumart, a Wal-Mart style retailer with thousands of locations dotting the new American landscape. We watch his winding journey to a Valumart convention, where he’s been selected to speak about the future of business. He’s joined by his childhood friend, the fabulous Tommy (Sentell Harper), and a meth head/obsessive personality, Dirk (Josh Nordmark). The trio drive, sleep, fight, and eat cheap meals on Valumart’s tab. We learn that Eben, who slowly reveals the horrors he went through in the army, obviously has far more sinister plans for the convention than a speech on retail.

Part of the problem is that Hunter leaves plenty of questions with unsatisfying answers. How and why did some dude from small-town Montana end up fighting in the Middle East, and then end up back home working an entry level position? A handgun is stolen from a Valumart, but why are there are no repercussions? And why did Eben’s boss choose three of the least-suited employees to talk to the big boys about profits and expansion—subjects Dirk, Eben, and Tommy care very little for? And a lot of the twists can be spotted a mile away—especially Eben’s evil scheme and his darkest war secret (it’s grotesque, but predictable).

     
Sentell Harper (Tommy) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montant'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Josh Nordmark (Dirk) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montan'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography
Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

The play shines brightest when you discover reality is unraveling. Eben tells macabre anecdotes about Valumart’s shoppers and their vicious, oft fatal quests to save a few bucks. Tommy discusses invading an unfamiliar Valumart, where he threw coffee around the break room and “pissed on an assistant manager.” It’s fun to watch the two wreak havoc at a store and there not be any consequences. Hunter drives into some bizarre territory, but it doesn’t start peeking out until the second half of the play. (I bet the play would work better if the absurdity was dialed up all the way, all the time.)

Garza, Harper, and Nordmark have a great chemistry throughout the production, each knowing how to alternatively console and berate the others. Nicholas Roy Caesar also does fine puppet work as Valupig, Valumart’s porcine mascot. Harper obviously has a stronger connection to the giddy Tommy than to the hardened convicts that filled Under America. The timing and vulnerability of the cast are what really bring the production home.

I caught myself wondering if Eben, Dirk, and Tommy would ever go to the theatre. If they did, I bet they would enjoy the screwed-up moments of I Am Montana, and they would probably pine for more weirdness over social commentary.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

I Am Montana continues through May 1st at the Athenaeum Theatre, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18-$20, and can be purchased online.  For more info, visit mortartheatrecompany.org or download the program.

 

All photos by TCMcG Photography

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Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Muerte Del Maestro (Tympanic Theatre)

   
  

Psychological thriller needs a little more thought

  
  

Tympanic Theatre - Muerte Del Maestro

   
Tympanic Theatre presents
   
Muerte Del Maestro
  
Written by Joshua Mikel
Directed by
Adam Webster
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 22   |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I’ve got nothing against bad language. I curse constantly, and I’m a fan of David Mamet, who is known for his strings of profanity. What I’m not a fan of is ineffective bad language, language that basically serves as a lazy placeholder for other dialogue that would better suit the situation.

Unfortunately, Joshua Mikel‘s Muerte Del Maestro, produced by Tympanic Theatre, is like a parody of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Gratuitous foul language saturates the dialogue between protagonist Arturo (Chris Acevedo) and best friend/antagonist Kay Kay (Paul E. Martinez) to the point that we are removed from the action of the play. Sure, young men trade playful barbs all the time. But for the love of God, intersperse the four-letter words with some actual conversation.

To the play’s credit, as the action picks up and the psychological thriller begins to unfold, the ample profanity subsides, giving way to more reserved language that Muerte del maestro posterbetter conveys the characters’ emotions and the propels the plot. In fact, it is the play’s second half that earns it the 2.5 rating.

Muerte Del Maestro is about two young bullfighting fans who live in a small town in Spain. When their beloved bullfighter, La Muerte Negra, dies in the middle of a fight, the town hosts an open-call bullfighting championship to find the next great bullfighter. Both Kay Kay and Arturo think they have the skills. However, as the competition nears, Kay Kay’s mental state begins to crack. When he discovers Arturo has been carrying on a secret relationship with his sister, Pumpkin (Carla Alegre), he completely snaps.

None of the acting is remarkable, though Martinez shows some talent playing Kay Kay at his craziest. The most engaging performance is by puppeteers Ellen Girvin and Charlotte Mae Jusino who control a giant paper mache bull and a collection of shadow puppets.

The space is incredibly small and can feel incredibly cramped. Sometimes this works to the play’s benefit. When the large paper mache bull first makes his appearance, he seems massive in these tight quarters. However, it also works to the play’s disadvantage. The amount of unnecessary yelling at the top of the play is headache inducing, the loudness reverberating against the theater’s walls. Once again, like the ample profanities, this too serves to pull the audience out of the play.

Although the script is weak in its current form, it does have potential. The makings of an intriguing psychological thriller are here, and the pacing of Kay Kay’s descent into madness doesn’t feel jarring or forced. Still, I couldn’t help but to wonder why Arturo and Kay Kay were ever friends to begin with. With a few more rewrites, Mikel could have a very good piece of theatre on his hands.

Muerte Del Maestro is a brash play with a lot of attitude but little direction. With some well-directed strong actors and some significant changes to the script, this could be a very good drama. However, in its current form, it’s one step above tolerable.

     
      
Rating: ★★½
   

Cast and Creative Team

     


Chris Acevedo* / Arturo


Carla Alegre / Pumpkin


Paul E. Martinez* / Kay Kay

     


Megan Tabaque / Muerte Negra


Ellen Girvin / Bull


Charlotte Jusino / Bull

     

Joshua Mikel / Playwright

Adam Webster - side project theatre

Adam Webster / Director

 

Production Team:

Stage Manager: Joy Martin; Dramaturg: Aaron C. Thomas; Set Design: Dustin Pettegrew; Light Design: Brian Berman; Costume Design: Crystal Jovae Mazur; Sound Design: Stephen Ptacek; Puppet Design: Lizi Breit; Photos: Sergio Soltero

        
        

REVIEW: Memory (Backstage Theatre Company)

  
  

Captivating ensemble fills space with raw energy

 

 

Memory - Backstage Theatre 4 - photo by Heath Hays

   
Backstage Theatre presents
   
Memory
   
Written by Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through December 18  |  tickets: $22-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

War is hell. Especially when you’re talking about the Holocaust, an event so horrific in nature that it still rocks people to this day. Or, more recently, this hostility and violence has manifested itself in the Israeli and Palestinian War. Views on these two wars are brought together in the Backstage Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Memory by Jonathan Lichtenstein.

Memory - Backstage Theatre 5 - photo by Heath HaysThe set, designed by Heath Hays, starts out as an essentially bare stage: an open space, with some propped-up backward-facing set wall pieces, a piano and a couch. This arrangement leaves plenty of room for the actor’s to move around the space, both physically and emotionally. As the show progresses, the wall pieces are turned around one-by-one to reveal large-scale black-and-white photos that create background scenery that adds to the story.

Memory – featuring Brenda Barrie, Tony Bozzuto, Samuel Buti, Bilal Dardai, Josh Hambrock, Shane Michael Murphy and Patrick De Nicola is a show about actors rehearsing a play that turns into an actual performance of the play. The show opens on a rehearsal, with the actors all playing themselves, entering and preparing themselves for work. There is no official start to the show in the traditional sense where lights dim and actors take their places. Instead the action just begins, which is slightly confusing, causing one to question what exactly we are watching. Once it becomes clear that the show has in fact started, the action is (intentionally) a bit stressed and scattered. The actors begin to rehearse a scene with their director (Josh Hambrock), moving the scene forward and then stopping it, causing a disconnect between the actors and their characters.

Eventually the rehearsal format falls away and a steady performance begins. Each actor morphs from performing a role and reciting lines to becoming the character and fully bringing them to life.

The show is split between two stories: the story of Eva and the story of Bashar.

Eva’s (Brenda Barrie) story revolves around her long-lost grandson (Shane Michael Murphy) questioning the validity of a long-standing family legend about the Holocaust. It’s told through flashbacks of Eva’s life with her friends Felix (Patrick De Nicola) and Aron (Tony Bozzuto), who later becomes her husband. Bashar’s (Bilal Dardai) story tells of his experience as a Palastinian fighting against an Israeli soldier (Samuel Buti).

Memory proves to be a true ensemble piece, with each actor working in sync with one another. It’s apparent that this cast has come together and bonded, with each member as strong as the next, growing as the show progresses and developing honest portrayals of the characters. The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space.

 

Brenda Barrie in Backstage Theatre Memory - photo by Heath Hays Josh Hambrock & Samuel Buti - Backstage Theatre - Heath Hays photographer
Memory - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays Brenda Barrie & Tony Bozzuto - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays

Barrie plays the role of Eva as both as an older and younger version. Her portrayal of an older Eva is a fascinating one as she embodies the character through her actions, her voice and the emotions that play over her face. Barrie creates a quietly strong persona that seems as though it could snap in an instant, knowing that she’s been carrying around secrets and guilt for years. When it does snap the emotion that’s let loose is so raw and unfiltered that it fills up the entire space.

Murphy’s performance as Peter is lively and full of energy. He’s hungry with a curiosity to know about his family’s past and it drives him to push Eva to open up and reveal the truth.

Eva flashes back to her earlier years where Barrie, Bozzuto and De Nicola are believable as a trio of old friends, discovering who they are and what they’re meant to be. What starts as fun and frivolity quickly turns to fear and anger, causing them to choose sides (or have sides chosen for them) during the Holocaust. All three offer up captivating performances of friendships torn about by lines drawn between the Nazis and the Jews.

The transitions between Eva’s story and Bashar’s story are smooth.  Dardai plays Bashar also with a quiet strength as he stands up for not only his home but his family, his beliefs and his life. An unusual relationship is formed between him and Isaac (played by Samuel Buti). Isaac is torn between trying to help and simply carrying out orders. Buti’s performance shows this struggle through the formation of a relationship that could only happen under these specific circumstances. He’s clear in his devotion to the Israeli army but he’s humanized in his attempts at trying to ease some amount of suffering for Bashar.

At certain times throughout the performance, whether it is from the intensity or excitement of the action, the accents slip out of German/Israeli/Palestinian into something less distinguishable. That being said, the performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating them so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Memory plays at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave., through December 18 Thursday through Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25 and $22 for seniors.

Patrick De Nicola & Tony Bozzuto in Memory at Backstage Theatre

 

 

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REVIEW: The Last Daughter of Oedipus (Babes With Blades)

A New Sophistication for a New Kind of Savior

 Logan Black JK 4583

  
Babes With Blades presents
   
The Last Daughter of Oedipus
   
Written by Jennifer L. Mickelson
Directed by
Tara Branham
at
Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

It’s a good thing there’s an afterlife in The Last Daughter of Oedipus or we mere mortals could easily write off its heroine, Ismene (Kimberly Logan), as a failure at everything she attempts in life. With her new play, produced by Babes With Blades at Lincoln Square Theatre, Jennifer L. Mickelson totally revises Ismene’s traditionally meek and incidental role in Classical myth and literature. More importantly, Mickelson re-imagines her heroine within absolutely appropriate parameters of Ancient Greek religion. The characters of this drama thoroughly believe in the gods, in prayer, in Logan Begale JK 4848 ritual and in the less glowing side of Greek religion, the shadowy beliefs about the supernatural and the underworld. Classical geek alert: The Last Daughter of Oedipus is mythologically correct.

Her sister, Antigone (Sarah Scanlon), is dead and buried, making Ismene the last of her bloodline. Now a mournful Kreon (Michael Sherwin), her uncle, rules her dynasty’s city. Creon’s judgment has always been suspect and now crumbles under the guilt of the deaths of his son Haemon and Antigone. If only Ismene could break the original curse that has brought her family and city low, she might be able to rebuild Thebes after its terrible period of war and strife.

Ismene escapes Thebes to seek Theseus’ counsel at Athens, accompanied by her ruddy servant Zeva (Eleanor Katz). On the way, three Athenian women, Amaranta (Mandy Walsh), Cassia (Jasmine Ryan) and Alcina (Katie Mack) redirect her to the Oracle at Delphi. Theseus had just departed to march on Thebes and now Ismene must consult the Oracle in order to understand and break the curse before war breaks out in earnest between her city and Athens. All the while, dark dreams of her incestuous mother Jocasta and her doomed sister Antigone haunt Ismene, driving her onward but giving her no rest or hope. Soon it becomes apparent that Ismene’s dreams and visions are not just in her head but, rather, originate from the ancient Furies who act to fulfill the curse against her family.

Tara Branham’s direction reigns almost effortlessly over the smooth flow of action from fight scene to fight scene. Additionally, her incorporation of Mercedes Rohlfs’ movement direction with Libby Beyreis’ fight choreography truly inspires and evokes stronger veracity for the play’s supernatural elements. The dreadful Furies, Tisiphone (Moira Begale-Smith), Alekto (Amy E. Harmon), and Megaira (Sarah Scanlon), recall the Witches in Macbeth or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who could be leading the protagonist to truth and/or destruction.

The Last Daughter of Oedipus exhibits increasing theatrical depth for Babes With Blades, in both its writing and execution. Lighting (Leigh Barrett), sound (Stephen Ptacek), and costumes (Emma Weber) reveal a powerfully cohesive artistic vision. Furthermore, this play re-awakens, for modern audiences, the original purpose of tragedy in the city-state of Athens, which was to use familiar myth cycles to examine social and political challenges for the health of the state. Ismene’s final monologue before the end of the first act interrogates the sources of terror as much for our own times as for her own.

 

Harmon Logan JK 4800
Harmon Logan Begale Katz Scanlon JK 4649 Katz Black JK 4551

Kimberly Logan brings intelligent desperation to her interpretation of Ismene. The role itself swings from feeling badly to feeling less bad to feeling profoundly bad before Ismene’s final redemption in the underworld. It’s up to supporting characters to realize the plays’ lighter side—to which end, Harmon’s turn as the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi makes for amazing and insightful comic catharsis. Here is a scene that both spoofs and takes seriously our era’s Goddess spirituality movements.

If there’s any fault to be found, it’s in pacing problems, which could easily be resolved in the course of the run. The cast has mastered Mickelson’s heightened language for intention and now needs to pick up the pace in some scenes for crisper realism. As for the fight scenes, standard to BWB productions, a bit too much control undoes the edge that makes for the realistic and thrilling danger of actors swinging swords around. The cast shouldn’t hurt themselves, but they’ve got to make it look like they could!

Of the very few venues in which Attic women actually held power, the exercise of religious offices and duties gave them the greatest social prestige and political influence. Hence, it’s only logical that Babes With Blades’ latest production sees Ismene battling with supernatural forces beyond her control. Yet, it is the their theatrical handling that displays the company’s increased sophistication in its mission to train women in combat roles and develop new dramas featuring fighting roles for women.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
 

Mack Logan Ryan Walsh JK 4304

      

 

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 002

   
Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 008 Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 006
Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 005 Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 001

Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Twins Would Like to Say (Dog & Pony Theatre)

The curious case of Jennifer and June

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents:
 
The Twins Would Like to Say
 
Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Note: This review was originally published on March 1 on Chicago Examiner.com

Just like the titular twins, you can’t escape mirror images in The Twins Would Like to Say. With Dog & Pony’s innovative examination of the curious case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, ever-shifting halls of mirrors offer both literal reflections of the twins’ lives and a metaphor for them.

twins-and-dadWritten and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley, the staging for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series was inspired by the Gibbons twins, born in 1963. As children, the pair made a pact to do everything in absolute unison, and to speak with no one but each other. Extraordinarily, they succeeded for 20 years, all but entirely silent outside the confines of their bedroom, despite the frustrated efforts of their parents and a cadre of psychiatrists who remained utterly stumped. When separated, the twins became catatonic.

Their lives are whitewashed a bit here – June and Jennifer’s lengthy criminal records, tragic incarceration and Jennifer’s early death are glossed over in a dreamscape of stylized movement. Yet from the lookalike parrot puppets that open the show to the two simultaneously played sorrowful scenes that end it, The Twins Would Like to Say is cryptic, playful and innovative.  

Bockley’s deft at intermingling sadness, beauty and sound (if you saw Boneyard Prayer, you don’t need us to tell you that). de Mayo’s ability to configure a story into non-linear, non-traditional formats received a well-deserved and high-powered spotlight  with Dog and Pony’s The Vivian Girls, which she devised and directed. Together, the pair constitutes a dream team of unexpected storytelling.

The Twins Would LIke to Say is theater as a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an ever-shifting funhouse maze where reality is warped and the line separating fantasy from reality is fluid. By using a promenade staging, Bockley and de Mayo ensure the audience is an active part of the story –  Rather than sit back and watch as they might with traditional stagings, ticket holders have to participate, moving from room to room as the scenes progress.

The audience’s entrée through the lookingglass is Mr. Nobody (Nick Leininger, a winning mix of the sinister and the sympathetic ), who ushers the audience behind a curtain with the flourish of a side-show huckster keen to have the audience to learn about some strange unknown world rather than just gawk at it.

twins1 doc-office-vertical-1
publisher-letters twins2

The first visual we get of June (Paige Collins) and Jennifer (Ashleigh LaThrop) is both spooky and enthralling. Standing stock still at the dead end of a long hall, the girls stare out with dead eyes, an adolescent vision of those twins from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” 

The promenade structure isn’t without drawbacks. Among them: You’d have to see the piece at least twice to take in it all in. See it only once, and you’re forced to choose between scenes. Eavesdrop on the twins’ psychologist (Kasey Foster) trying to make sense of their behavior, and you become keenly aware that you’re missing what’s going on elsewhere, as dialogue floats in from some unseen periphery. No matter how deft the performances or compelling the action, you’re often left wondering if you’ve made the right choice – and if something more interesting is going on just around the corner.

That shortcoming is especially evident in the final scene, when the audience is split in half and divided by an opaque black curtain. Too say that missing half of the piece’s conclusion is immensely frustrating is an understatement.

That aside, the performances in The Twins Would Like to Say are marvelous, cryptic, playful depictions of people living in a world that’s half stylized fantasy and half brutal reality.

Collins and Ashleigh are wonderful, giggling and whispering in their room like teenage girls the world over up; silent, sullen and above all fearful whenever they’re forced to contend with the outside world. As their taunting, eerie classmates Kathryn Hribar and Teeny Lamothe are cruel and typical teens, shrill voices and nasal giggles evoking a thousand mean girls nightmares. (In real life, Jennifer and June were bullied so badly, their school allowed them to leave 5 minutes early, so as to get a head start on the kids who wanted to beat them up.)

As the twins mother Gloria, Millie Langford is the kind, patient, enabling opposite of the twins father Aubrey (Brandon Boler), whose tough love cruelty results in a cacophony of torment when the twins are forcibly separated.

separation

To depict the intricate fantasies that June and Jennifer spun by filling journals full of elaborate fictions, de Mayo and Bockley stage plays-within-the-play, bringing the pulp fiction storylines and outrageous sexuality of  such dubious works as  “The Pepsi Cola Addict” and “Discomania” (Dan Stermer’s disco choreographer is absolutely delicious). Andrea Everman’s shadow puppets also make the twins’ stories pop with vibrance. All seen in silhouette, a snarling dog, a dying boy and a bereaved father takes on emotional resonance rich in childlike poignance.

The Gibbons lives are by no means completely rendered here, but that hardly matters. What we do get in the 60-minute production is a chance to enter an alternate universe of intricate storytelling.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Twins Would Like to Say  runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted.  Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore (our review ★★½) and Pavement Group’s punkplay (our review ★★★) is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

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