REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

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Victory Gardens and Teatro Vista presents:

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by Eddie Torres
thru November 1st (buy tickets)
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Midway through rehearsals for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, actor Christian Litke took a foot to the face that landed him in the emergency room, suborbital socket bone beneath one eye pulverized. Opening night, he went on with a Technicolor shiner you could see from the back row. Per Kristoffer Diaz’s strict must-not-look-like-fight-choreography stage directions, Litke proceeded to take another half a dozen “camel kicks” in the kisser – as well as a few spine-rattling power-bombs. As it is in real life, the professional wrestling world depicted in Chad Deity is a brand of fakery that’s truly brutal.

Chad-Deity-1 While audiences aren’t apt to suffer physical damage like Litke, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a knock-out victory of equal parts brains and brawn.

Power-bombs (wherein one’s spine hits the floor at a velocity surely spines were not intended to withstand) and lightning-quick roundhouses aside, Diaz’ ground (and bone) breaking take on the world of professional wrestling isn’t rooted in violence for the sake of shock, although it’s plenty violent and often shocking. It doesn’t traffic in the pandering stereotypes that fuel the WWE, although it uses those stereotypes point out their ridiculousness. This is a tale of race, racism and all-American boys grasping at the shiny, illusive brass ring of the All American Dream. It unfolds in hip-hop rhythms and is infused with some of the most politically incorrect language you’ll hear outside a meeting of the Alabama Chapter of the John Birch Society.

In director Eddie Torres, Diaz has a collaborator able to grasp and convey this incendiary material without missing a beat. The script requires a keen ear for both polyglot urban rhythms and the unctuous whitebread idiocy. Torres hears them all, and makes them resonate.

Chad Deity (Kamal Angelo Bolden , looking like the after photo in one of those back-of-the-magazine protein powder ads) is a professional wrestling champ who – as his bigot boss Everett K. Olsen (James Krag, a perfect mix of oiliness and ignorance) likes to say – makes people glad to be American. When Chad wins a fight, the terrorists lose.

But the real hero of Chad Deity is Macedonia Guerra (Desmin Borges, in a breakout performance that should have every agent in town clamoring to meet with him), aka The Mace. Macedonia’s job is to make the likes of Chad Deity look good. Stars like Chad Deity can’t exist without people like the Mace willing to act like they’ve lost every bout. Borges is a wholly endearing mix of self-deprecation and fierce pride. He knows he’s far more intelligent than his boss will ever be. He also knows that all his innate intelligence isn’t worth a slap in a world that prefers its villains and heroes in simple, black and white terms.

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So Mace suits up like a Frito Bandito outfit every fight, declares that he lives to steal American jobs and send American money back to drug lords in Mey-hee-co and lets Chad beat the crap out of him. Because when Chad Deity wins, Americans know why they’re fighting in Afghanistan, E.K. declares. To which the Mace sighs under his bright red sombrero and resignedly shakes his maracas.

For Macedonia, a way up in the wrestling world presents itself in Vigneshwar Padujar (Usman Ally), a multi-lingual Brooklyn-born Indian kid who is, no matter where he goes, “the most amazing thing in the room.” Charisma might owe Chad Deity money, but VP owns the entire fricking bank.

“I’m gonna get you a job,” Madedonia tells VP, and so begins the career of Chad Deity’s next enemy. E.K., in a move so awful it’s hilarious, has VP hit the ring as The Fundamentalist, a “Moslem” who enters flanked by women in burkas and praising Allah. In the lead up to a pay-per-view bout with Chad, the Fundamentalist beats up guys with names like Billy America (Litke, draped in a confederate flag and entering to a blast of Sweet Home Alabama) and The Patriot (also Litke, this time wearing an American flag). The fights manage to be both a tragic commentary on ugly Americans like E.K. and a wildly amusing mockery of them.

As animosity in the ring starts bleeding into real life, the dynamic between wrestlers becomes ever more complicated. As Macedonia worriedly notes, without community among in-ring enemies, wrestling gets dangerous. So as Chad and VP come to despise each other for real, the looming bout between them become fraught with the possibility of unscripted danger.

By having greased up, impossibly muscle-y men tear through the audience waving flags and shouting threats, Chad Deity manages to instigate the kind of audience participation you’d find at ringside at a Vegas championship bout. It’s wildly fun, wickedly funny and deeply provocative. In the so-called fake world of professional wrestling, Diaz captures profundity, adventure, aspirations and true triumph. The result is a theatrical prize.

Rating: «««½

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Nov. 1 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $20 – $48.For more information call 773/871-3000 or go to www.victorygardens.org.

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Review: Victory Garden’s “Blackbird”

 

Blackbird confrontation

Blackbird

a play by David Harrower

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The much anticipated dramatic play Blackbird, staring William Peterson and Mattie Hawkinson is indeed quite disturbing; it gives humanity to both a child molester and his victim as their characters are presented on stage un-judged by the author David Harrower.

blackbird_mattie&william David Harrower has written a soul-stirring play that shows the complexity of human emotions and the struggle we have with guilt and being honest with ourselves. David Harrower does not try to justify Ray’s action nor is in favor of abolishing the age limit for sexual maturity, he sees his work as more of a metaphor for questioning other social norms. Harrower lets the characters stumble through their emotions, not demonizing or giving false purity to either character. Both characters show their humanity, with flaws and wrongful desires along with kindness and love. How horrible a crime was committed is left to the audience to think about and decide, Ray and Una struggle on stage to find that out for themselves.

Fifteen years ago when Ray was in his forties, he befriended a twelve year old girl Una. After serving three years in prison for child abduction, he has painfully put together a new life. After seeing a picture of Ray in a magazine at her doctor’s office Una has come to confront her past assailant. In Ray’s empty office cafeteria the emotional confrontation between them goes in unexpected directions as the molester and victim meet, or possibly it is past lovers meeting again.

blackbird_arguing William Peterson sucks the life out of his character to portray a beat-down Ray just fighting to get from day to day. Peterson’s ability to darken his emotions and stumble with the confidence to express himself is extraordinary. The choices Ray made in his past were absolutely wrong, but what was his motive? How did he let himself form a relationship with a twelve year old girl? William Peterson captures Ray’s inner struggle with the guilt of his actions and the justifications he believes means something.

William Peterson is a star, but this show belongs to Mattie Hawkinson.

Ms. Hawkinson, capturing her character’s poised and nervous state, came on to the stage as Una and through out her personal conversation with Ray keeps the audience glued to her with their attention. With just two characters in most of the play, Mattie proves that she belonged on stage with the best of them. After watching my favorite actor (William Peterson) the first comment I had when I left the theatre was “Get ready for Mattie Hawkinson.” This should be a break out performance to a great career.

blackbird meetingThe set, a cold, desolate cafeteria, was designed by Dean Taucher, and he presents a set that, thought simplistic, is actually very detailed. The remains of coworkers’ lunches are left strewn about, just another mess in the typical unfinished cleaning-up that takes place in a cafeteria. The room that earlier in the day was busy with people and filled with life is now completely empty until the next morning, like the void that fills both Una and Ray’s heart since their earlier relationship. The setting never leaves the office cafeteria and the time of the day expels a creepy lonesome feeling. It seems strange a victim of a sexual crime would meet her predator there.

Blackbird won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of a Tony Award) for best new play in 2007, beating out tough competition with plays such as Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” and Tom Stoppard’s” Rock and Roll.” Making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens, Director Dennis Zacek allows the unique text and talented actors carry the one act conversation.

Blackbird possesses that unique quality found in theatre of presenting a topic that forces the audience to an uncomfortable edge, as their skin crawls with the thought of empathizing with ideas that go against their moral core. It forces you to question the most reviled actions in society, leading one to question personal crimes you have committed and how it would play out if you were confronted with the past fifteen years later.

Rating: «««½

Where: Victory Gardens Theatre
When: Thru – Aug 9, 2009
Tickets: $30-$58, Box Office: 773-871-3000

 2818Fe

 

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Review: "Relatively Close" at Victory Gardens

Review written by Jackie Ingram.

RelativelyClose3 Victory Gardens’s Relatively Close, written by James Sherman and directed by Dennis Začek is – by all judgments – an excellent production. The theatre is beautiful, so forget about bringing your binoculars, because from any seat you have a great view of the ingenious set, designed by John Stark. Relatively Close takes us into the lives of three sisters, domineering Jan (Penny Slusher), sexy Beth (Laura T. Fisher), and shy Marlene (Wendi Weber).  The sisters must decide in one week how to settle their deceased parent’s summer home. The sisters and their husbands, a doll, and what seems to be an angry teenager completes the fresh, hilarious, and very talented cast. The relationships are easy to relate to and you are slowly pulled into their web of bantering, lies, hip-hop, electrifying rhythmic poetry, Lily, and the lust for another sister’s husband. The unexpected twists and turns keep you guessing right until the end. Do yourself a favor – to get the entertainment pleasure of this show you must see it for yourself. It is funny and heartwarming and you might just see a little bit of your own family on stage. This show is truly a must see event.

Rating: ««««

The three sisters for 'Relatively Close' - Penny Slusher, Laura T. Fisher, and Wendi Weber)

The cast of 'Relatively Close'

 

Production Relatively Close
Producers: Victory Gardens
Playwright James Sherman
Directed By: Dennis Zacek
Starring: Usman Ally (Yousef), Daniel Cantor (Ron), Laura T. Fisher (Beth), David Gonzales (Dylan), Penny Slusher, (Jan), Wendi Weber (Marlene), Dexter Zollicoffer (Arthur)
Set Design: John Stark
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Lighting: Julie Mack
Sound: Andre Pluess
Stage Manager: Tina M. Jach
More information: www.victorygardens.org