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.

Continue reading

Review: At Home At The Zoo (Victory Gardens Biograph)

 

A fascinating evening at the ‘Zoo’

 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
At Home At The Zoo
  
Written by Edward Albee  
Directed by Dennis Zacek
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Halsted (map)
through October 31  |   tickets: $35 – $50 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“You are very good in bed,”  a wife tells her husband with imploring sincerity during the Edward Albee’s  Homelife, “I just wish you’d be bad once in a while.”  So goes the one-act piece’s conversation of domestic crisis,  an emotionally complex and elegantly worded discourse between a long-time couple, deeply in love with each other and deeply restless within lives of sheltered security.

By pairing Albee’s new work Homelife with his career-launching The Zoo Story, the Victory Gardens Theater creates a mostly fascinating evening.  Alone, The Zoo Story is a harshly compelling, self-contained  cryptogram of a play – nasty, brutish, violent and short and embedded with disturbing questions about the origin of its violence. Seen with Homelife, The Zoo Story receives a rich, contextual background that makes the piece blaze with heightened immediacy.

To see The Zoo Story is to recoil in shock as an encounter on a Central Park bench moves from civilized pleasantries to bestial bloodsport. The Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Laurentransition is both inexorable and unexpected. With a final, stabbing climax, Albee makes his audience confront more than a few scary concepts. Among them: The tragic fruit of incurable isolation and the disquieting notion that for some people, the world will always be an unwelcoming and awful place. Then there’s the whole idea that no matter how well you insulate yourself – no matter how carefully you cocoon yourself with the trappings of a stable home and family and career – you cannot protect yourself from random outbreaks of life-altering chaos. Your well-appointed home, loving wife and pleasant career can’t save you from mayhem.

Directed by Dennis Zacek, both Homelife and The Zoo Story (produced together as “At Home At The Zoo”) make for a provocative production. The primary problem with the evening is that Homelife is more of a prolonged set-up for The Zoo Story than a drama that can stand on its own. Even so, the issues of the upper-middle class white couple Peter (Tom Amandes) and Ann (Annabel Armour) are delivered with sharp-shooter precision straight to the core of the heart.

Armour’s Ann captures the yearning dissatisfaction of someone trapped in a gilded cage, a spirit so completely tamed that only a flickering spark of its original self remains. That spark, however, is enough to ignite a wildfire of discontent.  When Peter protests that the couple long ago made a decision to live their lives as a  “pleasant journey,” and to “stay away from icebergs,” Ann counters that decades within that safety have left her pining for something “you can’t imagine,” something “terrifying, astonishing, chaotic and mad.”  That yearning is exquisitely rendered by Armour. Live your life as a placid and wholly secure voyage, Ann notes, and you never even really die – you just sort of “vanish.” There’s undeniable terror in that view of the end: Is there anything more scary than the prospect of reaching the end of your life only to realize you’ve never fully lived it? In Homelife, Albee convincingly argues that there is not.

Yet for all the incendiary dialogue of  Homelife, “A Home At The Zoo” doesn’t fully start clicking until its second act with The Zoo Story, when Marc Grapey bursts onto the stage as the unbalanced Jerry. He’s a hilarious loose cannon as the sort of crazy New Yorker whose tone of voice falls just short of overt menace  and whose overall presence is both clownish and embedded with an unmistakable threat of implicit danger.

Tom Amandes - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer2 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 2
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 4 Tom Amandes  - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer

Albee’s contrast between Peter and Ann – a couple so sheltered they’ve lost all track of their own, authentic cores  – and Jerry, whose raw exposed soul is buffeted on all sides by the world’s unkind wildness – is striking and vividly depicted by this pitch-perfect ensemble.

As Peter, Amandes is the very soul of quiet desperation – until he’s not. When Peter finally unleashes the primal howl that he’s squelched for years, the moment is one of supreme destruction and catharsis.  Armour’s Ann is equally powerful in a more subtle manner, mining deeply rooted dissatisfaction and plumbing the fearsome depths of subconscious with intense bravery and dogged effort. And then there’s Grapey, spinning a world of lucid delirium (not as paradoxical as it sounds) and forcing Peter to let loose the great and terrible beast within.  It’s a powerhouse performance, a whirlwind of tragedy and comedy, of inconsolable sorrow and impish playfulness.

Zacek sees that the cast makes the most of Albee’s profound and lacerating dialogue, shaping the trio into a tight-knit ensemble leading its audience into confrontation with some of the darkest pockets of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 3 Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Lauren 2

REVIEW: Aiming for Sainthood (Victory Gardens)

 

The Good Girl

 

 4x6-Front-art

   
Victory Gardens Fresh-Squeezed presents
  
Aiming for Sainthood
   
Written and performed by Arlene Malinowski
Directed by Will Rogers
Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arlene Malinowski’s comic one-act monologue, Aiming for Sainthood, is about being an adult child of deaf parents, right in the middle of her mother’s struggle against cancer. Or, is she more a childlike adult—for Arlene’s vacation trip to her parents’ home in New Jersey alters radically after the out-of-the-blue discovery that Mom has cancer. From that point on everything Arlene attempts as damage control throws her back into the childhood state she knew before leaving home. Onstage at Victory Gardens’s Richard Christiansen Theater for only six performances, Malinowski’s warm and witty tale about managing the unmanageable in the face of mortality is sure to delight audiences familiar with the separate cultures and experiences created by deafness or other lifelong disabilities.

Aiming for Sainthood's Arlene Malinowski - with horns!Malinowski’s storytelling performance is funny and outgoing. Will Rogers direction keeps the pace moving around Nick Seiben’s sensible and subtly intriguing set. “I’m all about getting it done,” says Arlene, taking responsibility for Mom’s care, little suspecting her family’s battle with cancer will be a long and draining one that demands immense personal sacrifice from her. Malinowski lightens that struggle with accounts of running into various characters at the hospital, recollections of her thoroughly Catholic childhood, and the recognizable facets of Jersey culture. There’s Butch, the uber-practical gay male nurse in salmon-colored scrubs and Ruby, one of the hospital’s “regulars” who keeps passing out free coupons to the cafeteria. Finally, there’s Arlene’s Dad, who has a very poetic deaf way of telling people they’re stupid, and her sister, Diana, who gets off easy by being the perpetual baby of the family.

Malinowski’s abilities to humorously relate her tale need no critical coaching from the sidelines—a fact pounded home to me by the audience’s delighted response to her script and well-timed performance. From my own chair, I found her handling of these themes a little on the lite side. Think Erma Bombeck meets The Savages meets Late Night Catechism—nice is the sentiment that overwhelms Aiming for Sainthood. If nice and lite is how you like humor about facing down mortality, shouldering the burdens of caretaking, crises of faith and dealing with less-than-responsible siblings, this is your show. All those looking for darker, weightier humor will need to go elsewhere.

I, for one, was almost palpably relieved once Malinowski started acknowledging her propensity for self-neglect in her self-martyrdom. “My head throbs and I smell like a food court,” she says, once Mom’s stay in the hospital has been extended and extended. Taking on all the responsibility has reduced her to junk food, sweatpants and day time television. “I’ll take Perfect Daughters for a thousand, Alex,” she cracks, still thinking her return home to her husband in Los Angeles is imminent.

Malinowski’s humor exists to keep the darkness at bay. Since Arlene is capable of having her own miraculous revelations and since Mom ultimately survives cancer, why not? I left the theater feeling this play’s lightness, but not much depth. However, looking into the contented and moved faces of audience members as they were leaving, I realized that there are disparate ways to deal with resentment and pain. Whatever works.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The production runs September 20-26, 2010, in the in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

 

 

 

Extra Credit:

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Hard Headed Heart (Blair Thomas and Co.)

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

hard-hearted-heart-blair-thomas

         
Blair Thomas & Co. presents
    
Hard Headed Heart
   
Created by Blair Thomas
Victory Gardens, Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 21  | 
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

We long ago learned that puppets aren’t just for kids. In founding Redmoon Theater 20 years ago, puppeteer Blair Thomas taught Chicago that lesson with giant puppets, keen artistry and contemporary work. Now, in his intimate, one-man show Hard Headed Heart, currently at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Thomas deftly schools us in historic puppetry arts while focusing on darkly romantic adult themes.

blair_thomas_credit Saverio Truglia Don’t look for Redmoonlike spectacle, Disneyesque whimsy or Muppety cute — instead, in three lyrical, loosely connected vignettes, Thomas showcases a variety of smaller format, centuries-old puppetry forms: wooden-headed hand puppets; jointed, rod marionettes; scrolling cantastoria; shadow puppets and rod puppets — all with an edge of grotesquerie. In a break with some of the traditions, Thomas, clad in a dusty black suit like a 19th-century undertaker, remains fully visible throughout, sometimes as puppeteer, sometimes as a live actor, creating an amalgam between puppetry and performance art. We’re always aware of the man — Thomas never effaces himself into a hidden operator behind the scenes.

Each of the three segments of the 75-minute show, first produced last year, has its own creative puppet set. Hard Headed Heart begins with Thomas’s lively, amusing rendition of "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal" by Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, a lightly bawdy hand-puppet show about the courtship of the folkloric Spanish scalawag and bully Cristobal and his dubious lady love, Rosita.

At its outset, we’re treated to Thomas, in sad-faced clown makeup, playing the pompous director and the fanciful poet-author, whipping around a rotating costume as he converses with himself. Next comes a Punch and Judy-like act, with classically stylized puppets and a traditionally violent and silly love story. Thomas switches between manipulating the hand puppets, playing several musical instruments and performing in his director role in a frenetic, almost breathless one-man-band performance.

For the second act, Thomas riffs on the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral standard "St. James Infirmary." In this slow-moving piece, Thomas alternates between singing (with a vocal wail reminiscent of Cab Calloway in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon "Snow-White"), operating rod marionettes in front of a motorized paper-scroll backdrop and playing ukelele, toy piano, drums, cymbals and what looks like a mellophone or BlairThomas-St James Infirmary_1_credit Kipling Swehla baritone bugle. With the mournful-visaged marionettes, designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock to evoke antique specimens, Thomas re-enacts the funereal love affair of the song to chillingly dramatic effect, with some particularly effective puppet dance moves that I’m sure are much harder to achieve than he makes them look.

Finally, Thomas presents Wallace Stevens’ poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in a shadow puppet show performed against a set of four backlit, rolling arts scrolls. To the music of Ben Johnston‘s String Quartet #4, Thomas dances below his moving paper images, cranking the rolls and using cut-outs, rod puppets and his hands to convey Stevens’ cryptic poetry.

This won’t be a show for everyone — those impatient with poetry or unsympathetic to largely plotless mood pieces about love gone wrong may not feel that its artistry overcomes those elements. Hard Headed Heart is for those who enjoy sad songs and art for art’s sake.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Note: Hard Headed Heart is suitable for ages 16 and up. Produced without an intermission, the show has open seating.

   
  

Part of Thomas’s performance of "St. James Infirmary" at the 2010 "Cranks and Banners" Festival.

  
  

Cab Calloway sings "St. James Infirmary" in Betty Boop’s "Snow-White."

   
   

Jonathan Heuring – Porchlight Music Theatre’s new managing director

JONATHAN HEURING appointed as new managing director

jonathan-heuring Porchlight Music Theatre has announced the appointment of Jonathan Heuring as full time managing director for the fifteen year old company. As managing director, he will oversee a variety of operations including marketing, development, vendors, subscription and single ticket sales—all the behind-the-scenes activities that support the artistic program.

Jonathan Heuring has worked the past 15 years in a wide variety of theatrical management roles, most notably nine years on the senior staff at Victory Gardens Theater as the Production Manager. He helped produce more than 50 world and regional premiere productions, including the 2001 season when Victory Gardens was the recipient of the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. He also played a major role in the growth that saw the company double in size and he was an integral member of the team that oversaw an $11.6 million campaign to renovate the landmark Biograph Theater into the company’s new home in 2006. Other theater companies he’s worked for include Indiana Repertory, Emerald City, TimeLine Theatre, Oak Park Festival, Lifeline, Famous Door and Center Theatre Ensemble.

Heuring has also worked locally in non-profit management software development and sales for Easy-Ware Corporation, and in commercial theatrical production for Jam Theatricals. He is a charter member of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Arts & Technical Committee, an advisory board member of Premiere Theatre and Performance, and is a proud graduate of Indiana University. He loves to volunteer his spare time to many local non-profits including Inspiration Corporation, Preservation Chicago, and Organizing for America.

From Porchlight’s board president Jeannie Lukow:

It is Porchlight’s privilege to welcome Jonathan Heuring as managing director. His knowledge of the Chicago theatre community, his skills as a theatre administrator, and most of all, his passion for theatre will serve the company well. As Porchlight celebrates the milestone of its 15th anniversary, bringing a full time managing director on board is critical to our growth in the next 15 years."

 

We here at Chicago Theater Blog wish Jonathan the best of luck.

show openings/closings this week

chicagoriverblast

show openings

1001 The Theatre School at DePaul University

American Psyche or a Breath of Fresh Care Gorilla Tango Theatre

Bucket of Blood Annoyance Theatre

The Castle of Otranto First Folio Theatre

Dirty Talking Amish Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity Victory Gardens Theater

Endira Aguijon Theater

The Hundred Dresses Chicago Children’s Theatre

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young Steep Theatre

The Last (and therefore Best) Comedy Show on Earth Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Mercy Seat Profiles Theatre

Mouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre

Richard III Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Salem! The Musical Annoyance Theatre

Sleeping Beauty Big Noise Theatre

Sleepy Hollow Theatre-Hikes

A Streetcar Named Desire Polarity Ensemble Theatre

Taking Steps UIC Theater

Ten Square Pegasus Players and MPAACT

 

chicago-river-from-vietnammemorial

show closings

 

All My Sons TimeLine Theatre (our review)

Baroque and Beatles Chicago a cappella 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Circle Theatre

Desperate Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Hampstead Hooligan in King Arthur’s Court Chicago dell’Arte

High Fidelity…The Musical Route 66 Theatre

Lorca in a Green Dress Halcyon Theatre

Merce Cunningham Dance Company – Dance Center of Columbia College

Miami City Ballet Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Miracle Work Village Players Performing Arts Center

The Set Up Prop Thtr

A Shroud for Lazarus Halcyon Theatre

Texas Sheen Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

This week’s Chicago show openings and ticket specials

Chicago Skyline at night

AND THEN THERE WERE NONEIndependent Stars Theatre

CUSTER’S LAST STAND FESTIVAL OF THE ARTSPiccolo Theatre

INTO THE WIND Gorilla Tango Theatre

JONCollaboraction Theatre

PAUL’S GLASSESGorilla Tango Theatre

POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag Productions

SKETCHTOPIAVictory Gardens Biograph Theater

SODOMITES!!! A MUSICAL OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS Annoyance Theatre

STEEL MAGS LETS YOU DOWN EASYChicago Center for the Performing Arts

 

For special ticket offers, click on “Read more”

Continue reading