REVIEW: Jenny & Jenni (Factory Theater)

     
     

Funky Freestyle Aerobic Friendship

     
     

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The Factory Theater presents
   
Jenny & Jenni
   
Written by Shannon O’Neill
Directed by Laura McKenzie
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston  (map)
through Dec 18 |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Heaven only knows what drugs inspired Shannon O’Neill’s disco-fevered aerobic dance flashback, but Jenny & Jenni, a new comedy produced by The Factory Theater at Prop Theatre’s space, throws down a litany of 1970’s zaniness like no other. The show begins with the claim that—forget Jane Fonda–these two fictional exercise queens were the real start of the 70’s workout craze. Jenny (Shannon O’Neill), spelled normally with a “y,” and Jenni (Christine Jennings), spelled weirdly with an “i,” are high school rejects with crappy, self-absorbed and neglectful parents. They find each other and take the audience on a ride through every absurd 70’s trend with all the Jenny and Jenni posterhyped-up positive outlook of your favorite 70’s sitcom.

Laura McKenzie directs this picaresque ode to the evolutionary beginnings of jazzercise, spandex, and headbands. The show comes in under two and a half hours but for all that, McKenzie runs a tight, organized and whipsmart ensemble. Even transitions between scenes are choreographed with military precision to keep energy up and the fun going; the cast drives the show from beginning to end at an exacting pace. 70’s tunes dominate the dance/aerobic choreography of Donnell Williams, so rest assured the actors are feeling the burn while they joke about feeling it.

By far, the comedy standouts are Nick Leininger, taking on roles such as a smarmy Health Teacher and an encounter group leader, among others. William Bullion makes yet another deadpan funny fringe appearance as Riggins, the principal of Jenny and Jenni’s high school, who is absolutely plum loco about Scottish heritage. High school archenemy Lola St. James (Aileen May) and her gang of mean girls (Kathryn Hribar, Elizabeth Levy, Kim Boler and Sarah Scanlon) try to keep Jenny and Jenni down but Mr. Riggins gives them their first big morale boost to hit the road and build their aerobic workout dream.

Jenny & Jenni has a wild assortment of hilarious scenes. There’s the Scottish Highland Dance competition with Mr. Riggins and his stiff, proper Scottish sidekick, Aidan (Ted Evans). There’s the hallucinogenic drug scene, when, Jenny and Jenni posterdemoralized, Jenny and Jenni lose track of their dream and go off on wild benders of their own. There’s the encounter group session—a scene that deserves its own award for bringing back hysterical reminders of the prevalence of Me Generation pop psychology. There’s the reintroduction of Kathryn Hribar as Crazy Person, which single-handedly manages to amp up the crazy quotient for the whole second act.

The show could still use a strong editorial hand. The aerobic dance-off between Jenny and Jenni’s entourage versus Lola St. James’ Studio 54-style entourage veers into train wreck territory and loses its comic impact. Plus, the show tries for a sweet and happy ending with a reformed Lola seeing the error of her ways. The transformation is neither emotionally convincing nor even necessary, comically speaking. As for the friendship between Jenny and Jenni, O’Neill and Jennings have a wonderfully simple, understated and convincing bond but more humor could be made of their fabulously bizarre, mutual desire to get down and boogie-oogie-oogie.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
      
     

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Ensemble

Wm. Bullion, Kim Boler, Matt Engle, Ted Evans, Kathyrn Hribar, Christine Jennings, Nick Leininger, Elizabeth Levy, Aileen May, Shannon O’Neill, Sarah Scanlon

Production and Creative Team

Directed By: Laura McKenzie
Written by: Shannon O’Neill
Produced by: Manny Tamayo & Timothy C. Amos
Scenic Designer: Ian Zywica
Sound Designer: Brian Lucas
Lighting Designer: Jordan Kardasz
Costume Designer: Emma Weber
Technical Director: Dan Laushman
Choreographer: Donnell Williams
Props Master: Josh Graves
Stage Manager: Allison Queen
Asst. Stage Manager: Christina Dougherty
Graphic Designer: Jason Moody

Original Music By: Laura McKenzie

 
 

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REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

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Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

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The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The League of Awesome (Factory Theater)

This “League of Awesome” fails to live up to its name

 

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The Factory Theater presents
   
The League of Awesome
   
Written by Corri Feuerstein and Sara Sevigny
Directed by
Matt Engle
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston  (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

(Before I launch into my review of the Factory Theater’s The League of Awesome, I’d like to thank the theater staff for assisting me after I suffered heat exhaustion the first time I tried to see this play. Like a good critic, I cut out early so as to avoid passing out in the audience and stealing the show, so to speak.)


The idea of staging a comic book must have been alluring to the Factory Theater ensemble.

“We can have sound effects! And fight scenes! And super powers! And title cards!” you can imagine them saying as you watch The League of Awesome, the quirky theater company’s newest comedy about an all-female group that, after banishing their arch-nemesis, finds itself stuck with nothing to do.

DSC_0082 But although these little gimmicks are fun and inventive, they do not make a strong play. A strong play requires a sturdy backbone of a story, and unfortunately, this backbone is fractured. That’s not to say that the supplemental sound effects and superpowers—done in Kabuki fashion where assistants dawn black garb to remain invisible to the audience—don’t intermittently work to their desired effect, but without a captivating context to stick these things into, it’s just a lot of noise and flashy ribbons.

The story centers around the “League of Awesome”, a group of superhuman females that rid the city of crime and super villainy. The Beacon (Corri Feuerstein, who also co-wrote the play) has the power to redirect beams of energy. Cat Scratch (Erin Myers) uses sharp claws to scratch her enemies, while her teammate and thinly veiled lover Rumble (Melissa Tropp) uses her brute strength. Finally, there’s Sylvia (Sara Sevigny, who also co-wrote the play), who has the power to conjure anything at will by preceding it with the words “The way I see it…”

At the play’s opening, the team is combating The Sorrowmaker (Dan Granata), a villain who has the power to make people sad. (Coincidentally, the villain is also the ex-boyfriend of The Beacon.) The team defeats The Sorrowmaker after Sylvia banishes him to the pages of a lost installment of the Hardy Boys series.

One-year later, the league has eliminated all crime, thereby eliminating their usefulness. Now they are bored and drink all day. Then, Sylvia’s sister stops by—a plot point that contributes nothing to the story—and reveals her ability to make people break out into song at will. The characters spend more time drinking and being bored as we the audience are bored along with them, but unfortunately have expired our drinks.

Of course, The Sorrowmaker breaks out and seeks to exact his revenge. Meanwhile, Sylvie drunkenly conjures a new superhero named Ms. Great, whose hard-lined sense of justice and morality would make Jesus feel like a sinner.

There’s more to the story, but it quickly becomes a jumbled morass, with subplots dead-ending, floundering and being forgotten about. There’s just too much going on at once for us to become invested. Will Cat Scratch and Rumble get past their petty fighting and stake their purpose within this story? Will Sylvie’s sister come to terms with her powers and will her character become developed enough for us to care? And why is Sylvie’s proclivity to get drunk such a big part of the first half of the play but is kind of forgotten about in the second half?

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Despite all the flaws in the script, the acting is solid. Granata lays it on thick as the spurned villain. He’s got the maniacal scowl and laugh down to a T. Sevigny’s brashness as Sylvie pays off for its comedic effect. But the biggest show-stealer of all is Wm. Bullion as Gladys, a vagrant and the play’s narrator. His delivery and aloofness is laugh-out-loud funny.

With a much tighter script, The League of Awesome could be an awesome production. It has strong performances, unique effects and interesting fight choreography. But without a reason to care about all the whiz and bang on stage, it plays out like a confusing collage of comic book panels.

   
   
Rating: ★★
      
      

 

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REVIEW: Hey! Dancin! (Factory Theatre)

Retro play satirizes modern celebrity

 

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Factory Theatre presents
 
Hey! Dancin’!
 
by Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through April 24th (more info)
 
reviewed by Keith Ecker 
 

In 1986, the same year that the Factory Theater’s new play Hey! Dancin’! takes place, I was 5 years old. But just because I was barely old enough to walk doesn’t mean I didn’t know how to dance. I fondly remember shaking it to Prince’s “Batdance” and jiving to the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance.” Yes, my memory is drenched with visions of DayGlo, high tops and sunglasses at night. The Chicago theatre scene seems to share the same penchant for the Reagan era, churning out no less than three 1980s-themed productions in the last month.

hey-dancin3 But whereas the other two plays—both stage versions of The Breakfast Club (here and here) —are adaptations of a popular movie, Hey! Dancin’! is wholly original. And although leading an audience into unknown territory comes with great risk, the entire cast and crew of Hey! Dancin’! executes the wonderfully written piece close to perfection. The end result is a stunningly entertaining play that evokes genuine laughs while offering insight into our modern perceptions of celebrity.

The play is about a fictitious popular cable access Chicago TV show called “Hey! Dancin’!” Think of it as a poor man’s American Bandstand but with much bigger hair and a much smaller audience. The protagonist, Halle (Melissa Nedell), and her sexually blossoming friend Trisha (Catherine Dughi), are obsessed with the show. The two teenagers squeal when their favorite cast members appear on screen, whom they know on a first-name basis.

“Hey! Dancin’!” is about to wrap up its TV season and the girls decide they desperately need to appear on air. Halle has an urge to meet teenage heartthrob Kenny Kapowski (Jacob A. Ware), who goes by the moniker K.K. Trisha has a much less innocent crush on the show’s older host Randy (Anthony Tournis), whose fashion sense is inspired by Miami Vice.

Meanwhile, the cable access network’s station manager Dennis Blackburn (Noah Simon) is getting phone calls from angry parents that the dance music on “Hey! Dancin’!” is upsettingly too “black.” Instead, he is being urged to play the top white hits of the day, Bon Jovi being the prime example. Randy is on the side of the kids and tries to put his foot down on changing the show’s format.

There is yet another plot line at work, one involving the aforementioned heartthrob K.K. and his on-air/off-air girlfriend Tanya Lacy (Aileen May). Tanya is a demanding diva who fancies herself as the star of “Hey! Dancin’!” She concocts a staged lover’s quarrel for the final show of the season, but her tyrannical attitude is a turnoff to K.K., who may just be looking elsewhere for love—or at least a little dry humping in the supply closet.

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle and Trisha give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K., who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.

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Before seeing the play, I was afraid it would suffer from a few obvious pitfalls. First, the concept of a kid’s dance show where the music is “too black” closely parallels the plot of Hairspray. Fortunately, the writers, Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer, knew not to make this a central focus. Instead, the show’s possible demise hangs in the background, allowing the characters and their drama to take center stage.

In addition, a show set in 1986 could easily have been overburdened with cliché references. And although the play definitely capitalizes on ‘80s nostalgia, it refrains from being a staged version of VH1’s “I Love the ‘80s.”

The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.

The show is an hour and 20 minutes long with no intermission, but you won’t be squirming in your seat thanks to Sarah Rose Graber’s directing. She makes sure the play moves along at a fast pace, only slowing down for scenes that demand extra attention, such as the aforementioned supply closet tryst.

Hate them or love them, the 80’s happened. And although that decade continues to be a pox on contemporary society (I’m looking at you MTV), the fact that we now have Hey! Dancin’! almost makes it all worth it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Hey! Dancin’! continues through April 24th, performance on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm ($20.00), and Sundays 7pm ($15.00). All performances at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave.

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

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The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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