Review: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

Literary lovefest veers off book

   
 

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
The Literati
  
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at the Athemaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20  |  more info  

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When I first reviewed Chicago dell’Arte’s The Literati, the highly conceptual and gimmick-laced show had a unique charm. It was in a cramped block box at the RBP Rorschach Theatre. The low-budget production was crafty out of necessity, using a ragtag assortment of pillows as chairs and doubling the entryway as a backstage. The small space and the DIY feel added to the production’s high energy and off-kilter Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.aesthetic.

The remount of The Literati, which occupies a space at the Athenaeum Theatre, has sacrificed some of this charm in exchange for a professional lighting system, permanent seating and a larger space that serves to sap some of the performers’ manic energy. (To the company’s credit, the performance I saw was sparsely attended, which I’m certain adversely affected the overall mood of the show.)

The production rests on a fairly simple device. The three company members, Derek Jarvis, Nick Freed and Ned Record, wheel out a bulletin board containing five columns of literary categories. Below each header are five classic titles, including such works as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Voltaire’s “Candide. Audience members are chosen at random to roll an oversized die, which then denotes which texts will get the Chicago dell’Arte treatment.

Said treatment is a dramatic and concise retelling of the tale with liberal reinterpretation. For example, in the performance I saw, “Great Expectations” was performed with Estella as an android, “Little Women” co-starred a sock puppet and “Beowulf” was done in the style of a live-action role-playing game. Yes, it was a total nerdgasm.

And that’s definitely The Literati‘s target audience—brainy nerds. Although you don’t need to be familiar with all the works being reproduced, it certainly helps heighten the level of appreciation if you do. And the humor in general is one that would tickle The Simpson‘s Comic Book Guy’s funny bone. How many people will really appreciate the narrator announcing Beowulf’s hit-point count? I by no means am making a point that this brand of humor is inferior. It’s just a niche, and those that enjoy this brand of shtick will get their share of laughs.

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.And although the larger space does make it more difficult to milk the comedy, what hurts the show more is the constant asides that interrupt the action of the stories. The three performers play caricatures of themselves throughout the production. For example, even when Jarvis is playing Frankenstein’s monster, he’s the character of Jarvis playing Frankenstein’s monster. That’s an interesting meta device, but when the performers constantly break fictional literary characters to add quips as their caricature selves, it drags the momentum of the piece down. After a while, it becomes less a lesson in literature and more one in tedium.

This show has a lot of heart and a lot of charm. And because it’s highly unlikely two performances will be identical, it’s worth seeing multiple times. But to keep audiences coming back, I suggest that Chicago dell’Arte concentrate more on the humor derived from the source material rather than from the banter between the performers.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.

  
   

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REVIEW: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

Low Budget, Highbrow Hijinks

 

 
Chicago dell’Arte presents:
 
The Literati
 
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When you walk into the RBP Rorschach Theatre, the first thing you will notice is the lack of chairs. Instead, a dozen or so pillows are strewn about the floor where audience members are instructed to sit. It makes for some leg cramping, but it also pulls you back to preschool story time. And that’s basically what you are about to see, a highbrow version of children’s theatre. Fortunately the end result is far from elementary.

This certainly fits with Chicago dell’Arte’s mantra: “Art for the sake of everyone.” The trio of performers—who also wrote the show—didn’t have to tackle 25 of literature’s most revered works in a manner that is both easily digestible and entertaining. They could have force fed Great Expectations, Frankenstein or Don Quixote down our throats, reenacting each tale with painstaking authenticity. But with The Literati, the interactive series of fives plays within a play, Chicago dell’Arte wisely tempers the academic and the artistic with the comedic.

On paper, the show sounds a bit complex. The company has created 25 short plays based on 25 great works of literature, including the three aforementioned tales. The plays are divided up into categories such as “Epics” and “Classics.” Audience members are plucked from the audience and are instructed to roll a die. The number on the die corresponds with a play under each category. Whatever is rolled forms the lineup for the night.

Each short play utilizes a different form or genre of storytelling. For example, when the group performs Charles DickensGreat Expectations, the trio adds a sci-fi twist, casting cold-hearted Estella (Ned Record) as a robot. Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is played as a rock opera, which includes the song “Hot Cousin.” The show I saw ended on Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale Les Miserables. Chicago dell’Arte plays the piece as a French farce with police inspector Javert chasing protagonist Jean Valjean Benny Hill style.

Layered on top of the mini plays is a larger meta piece. Company member Derek Jarvis is the jovial but serious master of ceremonies who introduces to the audience the concept of the show. It is his mission, as he states, to synthesize the academic and the artistic. Meanwhile, company members Nick Freed and Ned Record assume the roles of goofy, childlike rogues who debase Jarvis’ lofty aspirations.

With a strong understanding of the source material and brilliant acting chops, Chicago dell’Arte pulls off this marathon of a show. What is most impressive is how there never once is a delay or downtime between pieces. The three manage to weave an uninterrupted narrative throughout The Literati, working in smooth transitions from classic to classic, while casually returning to the meta play throughout.

The show has longevity. Because of the format, there is only a 4 percent chance that any two performances will be exactly alike. There also is a fair amount of improvisational banter throughout, so it is hard to imagine that any classic will have a completely identical retelling from performance to performance.

The Literati might not be staged in a fancy theater, but what it lacks in seating, it makes up for in creativity, talent and heart.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Literati runs April 9th to May 1st (Thursday through Sunday). Run time approximately 90-minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Ticket price: $15 (suggested donation).  Performances: Thursdays, Friday and Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday at 10:30pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Location: RBP Rorschach, 4001 N Ravenswood.

 

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