Brian Posen interview: Sketchfest and future of Stage 773

     
     
Sketchfest Stage 773 banner Stage 773 renovations
     

 

Brian Posen discusses Sketchfest, Stage 773’s future

By Keith Ecker

Brian Posen thinks big. Just look at his brainchild, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival: In ten years time, the international sketch comedy festival has grown into the largest event of its kind in the world. In fact, this year’s is the biggest yet, boasting 129 groups and more than 800 artists. That’s a far cry from the 30-plus sketch groups the festival started off with.

But Posen’s visions of grandiosity extend beyond the world of sketch comedy. He’s a lover of all forms of performance art. Whether it’s drama, musical theater, dance, sketch, improv or stand-up, he wants to showcase it. And fortunately he has the power to do just that, thanks to his position as the artistic director of Stage 773 (formerly Lukaba Productions, formerly the Theatre Building). He’s currently planning a heavy-duty renovation of the building, splitting one of the three theaters into a cabaret space and a black box space. Ideally, the complex will become a sanctuary for all performance artists, featuring larger productions on the two main stages and smaller variety acts in the new spaces. It’s Posen’s hope this will create a "cross-pollination," with the end goal being to get theatergoers enthused to see comedy while convincing comedy nerds to see theatre.

I spoke with Posen the day before the launch of this year’s Sketchfest. We discussed the festival, cheap beer and the future of Stage 773.

             
Accidental Company - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Awkward Silence - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Just The Tip - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 The Team - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Man-No-Show -  Chicago Sketchfest 2011

Above: Pictures of some of this year’s 129 sketch comedy groups.


Q: How did Sketchfest start?

Posen: It was in 2001. Sketch comedy had begun to flourish. A bunch of sketch groups started to emerge. I had been in this musical comedy group called The Cupid Players and had just finished directing [sketch group] Stir Friday Night. At the same time, I was given this theater space [the Theatre Building], and I wanted to do something with it. So I asked some sketch groups if they wanted to do a small run. We ended up having a little over 30 groups.

It went well, and I wanted to do it again. So I sent the Cupid Players around the country to other festivals, and we learned how to run our festival. So it was this fluke of an idea that I started to nurture. And by the third year, we had taken over the entire Theatre Building.

Q: How does managing the old Theatre Building, now Stage 773, affect the production of Sketchfest?

Posen: The Theatre Building was really good to us. They bent over backward for us. But now we have the freedom to do certain things that we couldn’t before. We can decorate the space anyway we want it. Before we would have to ask for permission to hang posters in parts of the lobby or had limitations on where we could post signage. Now we don’t have to worry about that. We also don’t have to use Ticketmaster, which means our audience doesn’t have to pay those surcharges. Also, the beer’s cheaper now.

Q: This year’s festival claims 129 sketch groups. How many did you have to turn away?

Posen: About 100 groups. I hate doing that. One thing I’m protective of is that all groups are treated equally. We don’t give awards; we don’t say someone is better than another. Our whole vibe is about building a community.

Q: How do you select what groups get into the festival?

Posen: I have an eight-person committee of performers, directors, producers, a tech designer and someone who is not in the profession. It’s really important to have that outsider. They all watch all the submission videos and rate them from 1 to 100. We have a spreadsheet and input all the numbers. But it’s not just based on that. We also look at the uniqueness of the groups. A couple years ago, there was a group we accepted that didn’t quite have the numbers, but they were all over 50. We rarely get a group that is in that age range. It was an awesome point of view to have here. So if there is something that can help the festival get even more diverse, we will consider that, too.

Q: You mention "points of view." How does that factor into sketch comedy?

Posen: With sketch, the artist who is performing the material is also the writer, so it’s all extremely personal to the artist. There are 129 groups this year, and each is coming from a very specific point of view. We have all Asian groups, all black groups, all lesbian groups. We also have kids groups, some with 11, 12 and 13 year olds. When I watch them, I think, "My God! What an awesome point of view. We as adults have to learn from this because they are blowing us out of the water."

Q: How would you describe the difference between a sketch and a one-act play?

Posen: To me, sketch is a mini one-act that is usually focused on satire. So we are making fun of something. There’s something we need to say to the world, and satire is how we do it.

Q: Since you’re so tuned into the comedy scene, have you noticed any emerging comedy trends?

Posen: The big thing that has changed is how easy it is to make video. People that make comedy have become a lot more technically savvy. As for the content of the comedy, there’s always these phases based on what’s going on in the world. And I think one of the biggest things I see right now is commentaries on just how dumbed down our society has become in the last 10 years.

Q: You’re planning on renovating the Stage 773 space this summer. What’s the impetus for doing this?

Posen: Smaller spaces are a big trend. We want to renovate one of the theaters to create a black box stage and a 70-plus-seat cabaret. These two spaces will be conducive to turnover every two hours. This way the space itself becomes a draw for the audience. So instead of going to the space to see a specific show, they are going to the space to see what shows are playing. We also hope to cross-pollinate the audiences. So the guy leaving the big stage can exit the theater and see the stand-up show in the adjacent space. It’s not easy to get more people to see theater, but we can encourage the people that do see theater to see more things.

Sketchfest Links:

See more Sketchfest Youtube videos HERE

           
           

REVIEW: Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny (Stage 773)

  
  

A barrel of laughs and fun for everyone – don’t miss it!

  
  

tim Soszka, Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin in Bri-Ko at Stage 773 Chicago

   
Stage 773 presents
   
Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny
   
Written/directed by the Ensemble
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $12-$18   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Whenever I am in the Stage 773, (a.k.a. Theatre Building) area, I make a stop at Uncle Fun. I am a whoopie cushion and chattering wind-up-teeth kind of gal, which made Uncle Fun the perfect stop before Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny. I rarely have any expectations before a production that I review but Bri-Ko has a history in Chicago and it turns out a well-deserved one.

The set is dressed in all white with bare hanging bulbs. A set of three lab coats, construction helmets, and goggles lay on white stackable chairs. Enter Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin, and Tim Soszko: three guys with a wonderful comic aura the minute they step onto the stage. A dramatic donning of the lab coats to the requisite rubber gloves begins a hilarious 70-minutes of visual shennanigans with a lovely dark undertone and a healthy dose of making a mess.

Bri-KoI first wondered if this was going to be a "Blue Man Group" experience, which I don’t particularly enjoy. I am happy to report that Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is built on a number of traditions without the visual and sound overload of the aforementione group. Indeed, less is more in the case of Bri-Ko

Posen, Peterlin, and Soszco are Everymen put into everyday situations with absurd twists. These are the guys that no doubt were suspended for practical jokes and bringing Mad Magazine books to catechism class. They are the kids who were way smarter than anyone figured and did everything over the top.

A simple act of eating a marshmallow becomes an experiment in torturing the straight man with tape measures. Changing a light bulb is an exercise in extremes with everyday objects, all backed by the music of Electric Light Orchestra.

This is comedy in the tradition of the great Ernie Kovacs, vaudeville, and great modern clowns such as Red Skelton or Bill Irwin. The craft of the perfect expression and movement is a disappearing art in this age of uber-realism and high definition. A return to simplicity is the perfect antidote for overloaded technology. Bri-Ko pares everything down to make a wonderful concoction of mayhem and gleeful insanity.

The trio adds shades of satire in every skit. “Bedtime Before Christmas Morning” is a combination of Hardy with two Stan Laurels. Striped pajamas and nightcaps (the head cover not the whiskey shot kind) are put on and then prayers are said. Two say Christian prayers and the third pulls out a hat with earlocks and a prayer shawl. It mocks and alludes to political correctness all at once to great effect and good laughs.

Posen/Peterlin/Soszko make genius use of everyday toys such as the revered hackey sack. “The Death of the Hackey Sack” is a twisted and dark play on consumerism in life and death. This bit is worth the price of the ticket alone. The trio portray the wonderful innocence of children in imagining personalities for the hackey sacks. When the toys inanimately fall to the floor, the 3 show their sorrow by performing an elaborate death ritual. They embalm the sacks with sugary breakfast cereal which probably has a nuclear half life. Three separate funerals ensue. The first is a military affair with a 21-Nerfball salute; an expertly folded tiny American flag presented to an audience member. The second ceremony is a coffee can cremation with the ashes interred in a vase and placed on a shelf. The third is a Hunter S. Thompson affair where the deceased hackey sack is shot into space with cross bow. This was my favorite if for nothing other than my own love of Thompson and the altered consciousness slant on his afterlife.

Another genius skit is what I call “The Crazy Circuit Breaker Box”. Two of the trio accidentally discover a circuit breaker box while the third sits in a wall box, polishing a surviving hackey sack. Each of the breakers causes a different effect including sending shock waves into the hackey sack polisher. One breaker causes a carhop on roller skates to roll by with a hamburger on a tray much to the duo’s delight. Another flip sends out the carhop with juice boxes that they literally drain until the boxes fold over. The third guy gets out of the box and joins them as they introduce him to the magic breaker box. They dim lights, get hamburgers on wheels, and then shock him as a joke. The joke is on them when the guy enjoys the shocks with a sublime smirk on his face. He convulses in ecstasy and tries to keep going but they intervene with faux intervention concern.

Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago

The last part of the show gets more interactive and really messy. A hilarious sketch of lettuce to bio-fuel segues into a made-to-order menu that the audience members can order from the chef on stage. He searches through a giant bowl of water balloons and chucks them into the audience. One person orders split pea soup that is water turned green much to their relief. However, in the great tradition of vaudeville and the holy trio of Moe, Larry, and Curly, a cream pie is a cream pie smooshed in the face of a planted audience member!

Other highlights are a pantomime/sign language rendition of Wilson-Phillips "Hold on For One More Day". The sight of three very manly men acting out such a chirpy chick song gets huge laughs. Another stab at treacly pop culture is what I call “Waiting for Gumball” whereupon two of the trio get gumballs from a giant chute filled with gumballs. The chute doesn’t work for the third of the trio and he goes fetal to Lionel Ritchie’s "Hello". It’s a side bender but all is well in the end. Gumballs, lettuce, Nerfs bb’s and ping pong ball are everywhere. It is as if the bad kids from the block came over and wrecked my room and I loved it.

This is a great family holiday show to forget the chaos of shopping and acquisition. There is nothing like controlled mayhem and madness for the holidays. Watch out for flying lettuce!

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
   

 

Bri-Ko

Bri-Ko

Bri-Ko

     

Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is appropriate for some children. I would suggest over the age of 5 – unless you have done some explaining about death and what is appropriate to try at home. This is a messy show so don’t go wearing your prissiest cashmere or Eiffel Tower hair. Your cashmere will get and your tower of hair will fall. It is a lot of fun and an opportunity to not be uptight for an hour or so. And if you’re nimble there is free gum!

Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny plays Fridays and Saturdays ant 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through January 2nd. There are no performances on December 24th, 25th or January 1st. There is a special New Years Eve kiddie show with balloon animals and kiddie cocktails. Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont in the heart of Lakeview. It is accessible by public transportation and there is valet parking for $10.

        
       

REVIEW: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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Bailiwick Chicago extends F**KING MEN for 2nd time

Bailiwick Chicago Announces 3-Week Extension

of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN


Executive Director Kevin Mayes announced today that Bailiwick Chicago’s hit production of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN will be extended for an additional three weeks due to popular demand. Performances will continue through Sunday, August 29 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont with the original cast.

We are so pleased that Chicago audiences have embraced this production,” said Mayes, “and we are excited that we’ve been able to keep the original cast together for this second extension. It’s been an amazing summer for Bailiwick Chicago, with our two hit shows Aida and F**KING MEN. We are incredibly proud of – and humbled by – the response.

F**KING MEN observes the sex lives of the modern urban gay American male. Conceived as a noir-riff on Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play, LA RONDE, the play examines ten men from all walks of life as they negotiate the before and after of lust, love, betrayal and the pursuit of sex and emotional connection. Funny, poignant, sometimes dramatic, always provocative and sexy, the show has been critically acclaimed by Chicago critics: “Emotionally Searing…Superb Performances…there is truth and understanding in F**KING MEN.” (Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times) “…[F**KING MEN] is serviced brilliantly by this snappy, assured Chicago production.” (Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune) “…F**KING MEN is pretty fucking solid.” (Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago).

Bailiwick Chicago has launched a dedicated web site for the production with photos, videos, and additional information about the show at www.FMenChicago.com.

Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $25. Special Reserved seating is available for $30. Student and Industry rush tickets will be available at the door for $15 at every Sunday performance. Group (6+) tickets are $20.00. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252, or go towww.ticketmaster.com.

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Review: BARE (Stage Door Fine Arts at Stage 773)

Wobbly cast exudes energy and potential

 

 Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010

   
Stage Door Fine Arts presents
   
Bare
   
Book/Lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr.
Book/Music by
Damon Intrabartolo
Directed by
Paula Taylor and Don Smith
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 8  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Bare, formerly known as “Bare: A Pop Opera, is a teen rock musical by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, with lyrics by Hartmere and music by Intrabartolo. The show debuted in October 2000 at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles, where it quickly developed a cult following. As Playbill put it, “fans….cheered [Bare] as being an heir to Rent in style and passion.”

Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010 The only connection to Rent seen in this show, however, is through its stage design. A minimal set with two spiral staircases connecting scaffolding and two sets of lockers, the stage is reminiscent of Rent’s bare bones, warehouse feel. The set is kept dark in all black paint, allowing for audience imagination.

Stage Door Fine Arts’ production of Bare at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) proved problematic from the start. The show started late and was plagued by technical difficulties. Even after a sound check, there were evident problems with the sound equipment. A balance was never really struck between the actors’ voices and their microphones, so for the majority of the show it was near impossible to hear, and therefore understand, what the actors were saying or singing. The microphones also added a tinny quality to their projections, altering the actor’s voices and ultimately hurting their performances.

Bare follows the students of St. Cecelia’s Catholic boarding school as they enter into their senior year. The two main characters, roommates Jason (Sean Doherty) and Peter (Anthony Avino) are harboring a secret that goes against everything they know: they are in a relationship. Problems arise when Peter wants to take their relationship out of the closet and Jason is firmly against that happening.

Avino’s Peter appears nervous in the beginning and slightly unsure of himself. Eventually he calms down, but strains to get through many of his songs. The range of the part seems a little too large and when he goes too low or up into his falsetto, his voice becomes shaky. His middle voice proves to be a strong tenor and in this range he hits some really strong notes.

Doherty is more believable in his characterization of Jason, having a greater grasp on understanding his character. However, he is stiff in his performance and often seems unsure of what to do with his hands aside from leave them hanging. His redeeming quality is his outstanding singing voice.

The students of St. Cecelia are all auditioning for the spring production of Romeo and Juliet. Peter is cast as Mercutio, Jason as Romeo, Jason and Peter’s friend Ivy (Madison Moran) as Juliet and Jason’s twin sister Nadia (Nellie Conboy) as Juliet’s nurse.

 

Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010 Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010

For all this show’s problems, there were certainly points of merit and potential for what Bare could be. Conboy offers a wonderfully bitter and hilarious portrayal of a teenage girl facing the fact that she’s the odd ball in school. She delivers entertaining, punchy numbers like “Plain Jane Fat Ass” and “Spring” with a clear sense of who her character is, and this allows her to genuinely connect with the audience.

Another standout performance is that of Claire (Anne Pallotti), Peter’s mom. She’s quick and clever, delivering a heartfelt performance of a woman coming to terms with her son’s newfound sexuality. In “Warning,” she delivers an honest look at herself, her son and her life, letting down her walls to let the audience in.

After auditions, the cast throws a surprise birthday party for Ivy. Ivy wants Jason, and she makes this known at birthday party. From that point on she makes it her mission to pursue Jason until she wins him over. Madison Moran’s Ivy feels forced until almost the very end of the show. Moran comes across as an actor playing a part, and she’d benefit from a deeper comprehension of her character to really flesh it out. Not until she serves up the emotionally-driven, belted-out “All Grown Up” does the audience finally catch a glimpse of the real Ivy, and while it’s a welcome change of pace, it would be much more convincing having this authenticity throughout.

Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010 Act II proves to be more solid, with increased audience connection bridging the fourth wall. We see Peter and Jason continue to struggle with their relationship in terms of each other, in terms of their religion and in terms of facing the world. Added to that is Ivy and the problems she and Jason have created together. And overall the performances become slightly more realistic, and the sense of watching a play fades back.

When learning of this musical, I was intrigued, and my interest might have been piqued save for the numerous problems the cast faced. As a whole, Bare is missing the kind of guidance needed to improve matters, as actors seem unsure of what to do with themselves, their arms as stiff as their bodies. The requisite enunciation and diction never fully comes to fruition, resulting in jumbled lyrics that are hard to understand, leaving the audience confused as to what’s exactly occurring on stage. The cast is mainly comprised of high school students or recent graduates. Unfortunately their age and lack of professional experience is apparent – muddled choreography and underdeveloped characters make Bare feel more like community theatre than the quality professional theatre Chicago audiences have come to expect. This ensemble is teeming with potential and enthusiasm; I look forward to seeing these actors excel on the city’s many stages in the years to come.

 

    
    
Rating: ★★
   
   

Cast of "Bare", produced by Stage Door Fine Arts, now at Theatre Building Chicago through August 8th, 2010

Bare is playing at Stage 773, 1225 Belmont Ave., August 5 and 6 at 7:30 pm. and August 7 and 8 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.  Tickets are $20, and all are general admission.

      
    

 

       
       

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REVIEW: Arizona Lady (Chicago Folks Operetta)

A Rootin’ Tootin’ Hungarian Cowboy Opera

Arizona Lady Cast

   
Chicago Folks Operetta presents
   
Arizona Lady
  
Music by Emmerich Kálmán
Translated by
Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov
Directed by
Bill Walters
Music-Directed by
Samuel-Hilaire Duplessis
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 1st  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though it is ridiculously sentimental, watching Chicago Folks Operetta put on Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta Arizona Lady had me thinking of Bertolt Brecht. With this work, the Hungarian composer, Kálmán, sets up a counterfeit American landscape, much like Brecht placed In the Jungle of Cities and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the exotic (to them) United States. The inhabitants of Kálmán’s Arizona proclaim that the state is full of silver, gold, and cowboy songs, instead of water shortages and racial animosities. In a way, director Bill Walters’ production is surreal and oddly captivating, mostly overcoming its amateurish missteps.

The plot follows the classic Viennese operetta structure, revolving around two pairs of lovers, one comic and the other a bit juicier (for the record, I saw the second cast for the show and the names reflect that). Lona (Juliet Petrus) rules over a ranch and possesses the mind of businesswomen, supposedly without any room for talk of love. Despite this, she is reluctantly attracted to the wandering, singing cowpolk Roy (Gerald Frantzen), offering him a job and the task of priming her horse, Arizona Lady (Maray Gutierrez), for the local race. This storyline is crisscrossed with the courtship between young shop-owner Nelly (Kellie Cundiff) and the son of a beef magnate/cattle “intern” Chester (Matthew Dingels). Horse thieves, the Kentucky Derby, law and order, escaping to Mexico, and Prohibition all stir up the love stories, resulting in a cute, if somewhat vapid, tale of the Old West that never existed.

This fictional world is actually very intriguing. Theatre celebrates unreality, so Kálmán’s West cobbled from Hollywood, Oklahoma!, and the opera halls of Hungary makes for a wholly unique theatrical experience. There’s plenty of guitar and saloon-style piano in the score, but this is joined by waltzes and Hungarian-folk melodies. Walters completely embraces the apparent contradictions, creating a universe that’s all its own. Part of August Tye’s great choreography is ripped from line-dance halls, while some of it smacks of traditional Eastern European dances. Yet all of it works.

While the cast tears up the score, the acting could be polished. Petrus dips in confidence and seems to rely on constant towel-snapping to conjure up Nona’s sassiness instead of letting the text do that for her. On the other hand, Dingels’ goofy mannerisms and genuine squareness may not be great acting, but could possibly be ingenious for the fumbling Chester. Rounding out the leads, Cundiff and Frantzen are fine if somewhat wooden. The supporting cast is pretty hit or miss. The best moments are little bits stitched in the script, like ranch-hands using a child to smuggle liquor past the Sheriff or someone yelling in the middle of a huge dance number, “Hey! I’m dancing!” like they just realized what was going on. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy falls flat, and the transitions between dialogue and song are downright painful at times. The pace also falls slack in a couple of scenes. (Yes, I understand this is opera, but this light fare doesn’t feel like it should last three hours.)

Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov’s translation of the 1954 operetta, which has never seen an American production until now, is obviously done with a lot of love. While usually charming, the script occasionally gets too silly and audience interest flags. There is also some Spanish dialogue very awkwardly folded in. But they keep Kálmán’s somewhat bizarre world intact.

There are too many stale moments for this Arizona Lady to be completely satisfying, a problem for Glagov, Walters, and the cast. But there’s a lot of passion on-stage over at the Theatre Building. And any indie opera outfit, attempting to do something so grandiose on the budget of a storefront, has a special little piece of my heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Arizona Lady poster

   
   

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REVIEW: Sex Marks the Spot (New Lincoln Theatre)

Even a farce needs to be sincere

  Maggie Grahm and Tony Fiorentino star in Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

  
New Lincoln Theatre presents
  
Sex Marks the Spot
  
Written by Charles Grippo
Directed by
Damian Arnold
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $26   | more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Sex Marks the Spot is a farce about a political sex scandal. Or at least, it wants to be one. At the top of the play, Senator Clooney (Tony Fiorentino) is pacing around his office, badgering his assistant (Adam Schulmerich) as they attempt to finalize the big family values speech that he is going to deliver at tonight’s big debate with porn star Desiree Le Bonque. The reason he’s debating a porn star instead of a politician is Tony Fiorentino and Maggie  Graham star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicagothat his opponent is a priest and, the men have decided that no one can debate a priest and come away from it looking good, so the big porn star offers herself up to be eaten alive in front of thousands of people, a task playwright Charles Grippo assumes, women like her have no problem with. Grippo punishes his audience with a list of Desiree’s films, with names like "Saturday Night Beaver" and "Free My Willy" which, may sound familiar to you, probably because they’re the oldest jokey porn names in the history of jokey porn names.

This kind of thoughtless writing doesn’t bode well for the farce genre, especially a farce like this one, which is in the Noises Off vein of slamming doors and timed exits. Grippo’s logic is faulty, and thus, so are his bits. The audience gets ahead of Grippo at the plays open, and it’s impossible for him to win them over. This is a play without one foot on the ground, nothing real or honest linking the words on stage to the people in the audience, except for it’s earnest cast.

This alone is not enough to garner the obvious venom on the tone of this review. What Charles Grippo is actually guilty of is creating a character that is a disgusting and offensive parody of a woman – a woman who is so broad and weakly conceived that the only characteristic she possesses is vague sycophantism and greed. The only choice this woman makes in the entirety of the play is to take off her clothes, which remain off for the duration of the show. When we finally meet Desiree Le Bonque, she is not written as a porn star, she is written as a whore. She is revealed to be having a secret affair with the senator, and she confronts the him with an ultimatum, marry me or I’ll tell. But it’s her reasoning that pushes her over the edge: she wants the one thing she can’t have: respect. So she asks to marry the one man who can give it to her. Farce or no farce, I can’t imagine a woman alive who still thinks this way, especially one who is supposed to be as successful as Desiree Le Bonque.

   

Adam Schulmerich and Tony Fiorentino star in Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago Tony Fiorentino and Lisa Herceg star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

In a later scene, in which the truly talented Adam Schulmerich is forced to masquerade as Desiree, the scene escalates near to the point of rape, because of the supposed understanding that a denial of sex with the man in question will reveal that he is not, in fact, this woman. The scene is intended to be funny, but is actually one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen in a piece of live theater. It’s not the punchline of this joke that’s horrible, it’s the set up. It’s not the sex, or the sexualization, it’s the total lack of power and credibility this character has, and the information that the audience is supposed to take for granted, that makes for an extremely uncomfortable night of theater. Sex Marks the Spot is intended to be a comedy, but ultimately this is a play that is too far removed from humanity to parody the human condition.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Tony Fiorentino, Adam Schulmerich and  Maggie Graham star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

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