Review: Star Witness (House Theatre)

  
  

When bad scripts happen to talented people

  
  

Mary Redmon, Briana DeGiulio

      
The House Theatre presents
  
Star Witness
  
Written by Joe Meno
Directed by
Sean Graney
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stories about young women that escape their mundane existences by embarking on fantastic journeys are fairly common in pop culture. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Dorothy flew over the rainbow, and just this past weekend, the ladies of Sucker Punch retreated into videogame cut-scenes as an alternative to their imprisonment in an asylum. In Star Witness, the disappearance of a little girl sends Shelley (Briana De Giulio) on a surreal journey that teaches her to appreciate the world around her, no matter how dull it may be. Sean Graney directs a talented cast of actors, but Joe Meno’s script is a rushed, unfinished mystery that fails to captivate, with the characters never given a real chance to develop as the story races to its finish.

Briana DeGiulio, Chris MathewsThe play begins with kindergarten teacher Hazel (Mary Redmon) telling the audience a story about a wily fox and a huntsman as she prepares for a traditional evening of Chinese food, board games, and listening to a police scanner with Shelley. Hazel returns to the story throughout the show, but its connection to the mystery is strained, and slows down the momentum of the present action. After discovering the death of her bird Mr. Peepers and hearing a report of an 1126 – abandoned bicycle – on the police scanner, Hazel is in a volatile mood when Shelley comes home from work. Entering in a her powder blue waitress uniform (one of the many visual and thematic cues taken from “The Wizard of Oz”), Shelley talks about the troublesome day at work for her boyfriend Wayne (Chris Matthews) and herself, before discovering Mr. Peepers and being thrown into the same emotional chaos as her foster grandmother.

As more news comes in over the scanner, Hazel becomes infuriated with God, shouting and throwing down her Bible in rage at the prospect of young Jamie Mae being hurt, while Shelley begins to see an opportunity for the adventure she’d always wanted to have. As various members of the town enter their home, the audience is thrown a lot of exposition, and the hectic pace of the first act doesn’t give the characters much room to breathe. De Giulio and Redmon are given big dramatic moments that allow them to show off their acting chops, but the transitions within the scenes need to be much stronger. It seems as though Meno isn’t quite sure what kind of story he wants to tell. There’s not enough actual detective work to make it feel like a fully realized mystery, and the relationship aspects of the script aren’t developed well enough for it to stand alone as a story about a girl reconnecting with her absent mother by learning to value her small town existence.

Shelley’s monologue about her childhood wish to find a dead body disturbs because of De Giulio’s hauntingly raw delivery, but the moment feels sudden, and slightly inappropriate in the context of the scene. When Wayne comes over and tells Shelley that he plans on taking a job in Indiana, their relationship lacks appropriate definition for the moment to have a strong emotional resonance. It all generally moves much too fast, and when a pair of gym shoes Ghostare found with blood on them (red shoes are a motif throughout), Shelley hops on her bike and begins her journey to find Jamie Mae, signaling the end of act one before it really gets a chance to take off.

The first act of Star Witness takes place in the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs lobby, transforming the space into Hazel’s living room in an unorthodox move by Graney and set designer Lee Keenan. Once Shelley hops on her bike, the door to the main theater opens, revealing an ominous forest that serves as the setting for act two. It’s an ingenious way of involving the audience in a way that the script fails to do, literally forcing them to move into the world of the play. In the second act, Shelley encounters three men, with each one representing different relationships in Shelley’s life. The one-handed toy factory worker Bob Wyatt (Gary Simmers) is a connection to her mother, the flirty, sea monster costume clad Junior (Matthews) symbolizes her romantic relationships, and the creepy baby-mask wearing Norris helps Shelley appreciate her hometown.

The second act suffers from the same problems as the first, but there are some glimpses of what Star Witness could be with some reworking and polish, particularly the scene between Shelley and Junior. De Giulio and Matthews have great chemistry and their flirting is adorable, with Meno slowing down the pace and giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship. As cute as the scene is, though, it’s still a diversion from the main mystery, and Meno’s hectic pacing returns once Junior exits as the play sprints to its conclusion. The story is resolved with almost no investigation on Shelley’s part, which makes the preceding events feel rather pointless, and the rushed conclusion ends up having the same gravitas as a still shot of characters high-fiving at the end of a TV sitcom.

There is potential in Meno’s script, but Star Witness ultimately feels like a rough draft. The idea of a small-town murder mystery influenced byThe Wizard of Oz” is a fascinating one, and while the play does a passable job with the theme of Shelley wanting something fantastic in her life, the rest of the Oz references need to be more fully realized if they’re to be anything more than cosmetic. Thankfully, Graney knows how to get strong performances out of his actors, and his ensemble ultimately saves the show from disaster. In less capable hands, Star Witness would be dead on arrival.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

Mary Redmon, Gary Simmers, Briana DeGiulio

Star Witness continues at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division) through May 7th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-769-3832. More information is available at www.thehousetheatre.com

All photos by Michael Brosilow

           
           

REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

NutcrakerPoster copy

 

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
House theatre - The Nutcracker House theatre - The Nutcracker
     
     

REVIEW: The Magic Parlour (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

A Perfect Evening of Illusion and Laughter

 

 House Theatre Magic Parlour Dennis Watkins

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
   
The Magic Parlour
  
Featuring Dennis Watkins
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division (map)
through December 17  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

On Friday nights the basement of the Chopin Theatre is transformed into a space full of wonder, enchantment and intrigue. Beginning at 10:30 p.m. Dennis Watkins takes the stage for The Magic Parlour, a weekly, late-night magic show.

The basement space feels more like someone’s living room than a theatre venue. Around the stage are various rugs overlapping one another as well as comfy couches, chairs and tables. It’s a very intimate setting, creating a warm and inviting backdrop. As the crowd begins to fill in, the buzz runs throughout. Audience members range from children to adults and everyone is excited for the magical show they’re about to see.

The moment Watkins’ steps on the stage, it’s clear that he’s a character. He’s immediately charming and personable, warming the audience up with a clever comedic trick. It’s evident that Watkins’s is a talented performer and magician as he makes a torn up dollar bill reappear in a most unusual fashion.

Watkins’ reveals that he comes from a family of magicians as he bonds with the audience over life stories. His specialty is sleight of hand and the tricks he performs under this category are both crowd-House Theatre Magic Parlour posterpleasing and simply amazing. He’s incredibly talented at his craft, and there’s never any indication of how tricks are done or how they work. Nor is there any wish to know because the magic is too wonderful to be ruined.

Many of Watkins’ tricks involve audience participation, which not only adds another layer of entertainment, but it also furthers his connection and trust level with the audience. The interactive aspect is fun for both those involved and those watching the participation. Watkins does a great job of making his volunteers feel comfortable up on stage with him, easing any tension with jokes and humor. Crowd favorites include mind reading numbers, card tricks and tricks with money.

Watkins proves to be not only a magician but a comedian as well. In between and during tricks, he keeps the crowd doubled over with laughter and he recites joke after joke. During the hour-long show, I don’t think more than five minutes went by without something hilarious occurring. Watkins fills the entire space with his charming presence and personality. The hour flew by and I found myself wishing there was an encore performance.

Because he’s so talented, Watkins’ doesn’t need to employ a lot of fuss in order to wow the crowd. There aren’t major special effects or smoke and mirrors. It’s simply him on stage delivering his talent simply and wonderfully.  Come enjoy 60-minutes of pure magic and laughter!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The Magic Parlour plays at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, through December 17 on Friday nights at 10:30 pm. Tickets are $25 for adults, $10 for students and can be purchased at the Chopin Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

Designers get their due at 17th Annual Merritt Awards

Designers celebrate theatre accomplishments

 

2010 Merritt Awards 

By Katy Walsh

Scenery, lights, sounds, costumes; theatre design is devising storytelling beyond the dialogue. On Monday, May 3, 2010, Chicago gathered at the Goodman Theatre to celebrate the role that designers play in the theatre community. The festivities brought together veteran and rookies in the theatre design world for networking and fellowship. The focal point of the evening was the 17th Annual Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration. The award honors the memory of Michael Merritt. Best known for collaborative work with David Mamet, Merritt was a Chicago theatre designer who died at the age of 47 in 1992. The Michael Merritt Endowment Fund preserves Merritt’s legacy with awards acknowledging established designers, nurturing emerging designers and encouraging design students.

The evening started with the 4th Annual Theatre Design Expo. Design students from across the country, along with a handful of Chicago designers, set up displays in the Goodman foyer to showcase their theatre portfolio and aspirations. After viewing the colorful and imaginative exhibits, guests trooped into the Owen Theatre for the Dialogue with the Designers panel discussion. Moderated by the Goodman’s Artistic Director Robert Falls, the group discussed the challenges and accomplishments of collaborative efforts in theatre. The panelists were Michael Bodeen (composer, sound design), 1997 Merritt Award winner John Boesche (projection designer), 2007 Maggio Award and 2004 Merritt Award winner Ana Kuzmanic (costume designer), The House’s Artistic Director Nathan Allen, and tonight’s Merritt honoree Collette Pollard (scenic designer). Following the panel discussion, the awards ceremony commenced.

First, the Michael Merritt Student Scholarships were bestowed on students from Chicago theatre programs:

Costume Design

Jeremy W. Floyd, Northwestern University

Lighting Design

Wade Holliday, Columbia College
The John Murbach Scholarship for Collaborative Design

Scenic Design

Williams G. Wever, The Theatre School at DePaul University 

 


2010 Merritt Awards

Next, the 2010 Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award was awarded. The award honors the memory of Goodman’s Artistic Director Michael Maggio. This year’s recipient:

Scenic Designer

Collette Pollard, 2010 Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award

Pollard’s recent design credits include The Illusion (review ★★★) at Court Theatre, Stoop Stories (review ★★★½) at Goodman Theatre and The House on Mango Street at Steppenwolf Theatre. Her next production opens next week at Writers’ Theatre, Streetcar Named Desire. Pollard has also worked with many Chicago companies, including; The House Theatre of Chicago, Timeline Theatre, Northlight Theatre, and About Face Theatre. Pollard earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts with honors in scenic design from The Theatre School at DePaul University and her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from Northwestern University. Currently, she teaches at Columbia College Chicago.


The evening climaxed with the Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration presented posthumously in honor of the lighting and scenic design work of Michael Philippi.

Lighting and Scenic Designer

Michael Philippi (1951-2009)

2010 Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration

Philippi passed away suddenly on his way to a technical rehearsal for High Holidays at Goodman Theatre on October 27, 2009. His most recent work was enjoyed at Goodman Theatre in productions of Desire Under the Elms, King Lear, Finishing the Picture, A Life in Theatre, Moonlight and Magnolias, and The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Philippe also worked with many Chicago, national and international companies including: Northlight Theatre, Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Guthrie Theatre, Berkley Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He was a recipient of Jefferson Awards for Terra Nova and In the Belly of the Beast, both at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, and Hollywood Drama-Logue Awards for Kabuki Medea at Berkley Repertory Theatre and Changes of Heart at Mark Taper Forum.

The 2010 awards program and fundraising event was co-hosted by the Michael Merritt Endowment Fund Steering Committee at Columbia College Chicago and Goodman Theatre. Sponsors included Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc., J.R. Clancy Inc., Schuler Shook, Rent Com, Rose Brand and Steppenwolf Theatre.

2010 Merritt Awards

REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future

 

Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

Chicago theater openings/closings this week

buckingham-fountain-at-night

show openings

 

1985 The Factory Theater 

All the Fame of Lofty Deeds The House Theatre of Chicago 

Becoming Ingrid Rubicon Theatre Project

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago

The David Bowie Hepzikat Funky Velvet Flarney Solstice Spectacular Live!…From Space (David Bowie’s 1977 Christmas Special Network Edit) New Millenium Theatre

Democracy Eclipse Theatre

G.I.F.T. Collaboraction Theatre

Little Women Circle Theatre

Macbeth Dominican University Performing Arts Center

MassNorthwestern University 

Plaid Tidings Noble Fool Theatricals

Spanish Strings McAninch Arts Center

Stars in the Morning Sky UIC Theatre

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant A Red Orchid Theatre

 

CHICAGO_HOLIDAYS

show closings

 

As You Like It Loyola University

The Black Duckling Dream Theatre 

Book of Days EverGreen Theatre Ensemble 

C’est La Vie Light Opera Works 

Dinner for Six Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

The Fantasticks Porchlight Music Theatre 

Fedra: Queen of Haiti Lookingglass Theatre 

Graceland Profiles Theatre

The Last Unicorn Promethean Theatre

The Mercy Seat Profiles Theatre

Pump Boys and Dinettes Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Spoon River Anthology Saint Sebastian Players

A Streetcar Named Desire Polarity Ensemble Theatre

Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre

Two by Pinter Piven Theatre Workshop