Review: Run-of-the-Mill (Currently Untitled Theatre)

  
  

When ‘Run of The Mill’ happens to good actors

  
  

scene from "Run-of-the-Mill" by Tyler Dean, presented by Currently Untitled Theatre.

  
Currently Untitled Theatre presents
  
Run-of-the-Mill
  
Written by Tyler Dean
Directed by
Nate Silver
at
Act One Studios, 640 N LaSalle,Suite 535 (map)
through Feb 26  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

Sometimes people tempt fate. That seems to be the case with the title of the world premiere production of Run-of-the-Mill by Tyler Dean at Currently Untitled Theatre.

This is the story of a family dealing with the foibles and failings of modern life while trying to avoid the mistakes of the past. This is a noble and fecund premise but the seeds lay fallow in spite of some good acting.

scene from "Run-of-the-Mill" by Tyler Dean, presented by Currently Untitled Theatre.This story follows two marriages. Cynthia and Darryl are parents to Stacy, David, and Collin. Darryl has been unemployed for over a year and things are getting tense. Cynthia is a hard driving real estate agent who is fighting to live down past mistakes.

Brit Cooper Robinson, playing the part of Cynthia, balances the role without coming off as brittle or shrill. Patrick Rybarczyk is wonderful as the ever-optimistic Darryl.

Andrea DeCamp, as a daughter who is struggling with graduation dreams and a marriage proposal, is cool and unaffectedly hip in her portrayal. She and Robinson have a good dynamic as mother and daughter.

Mike Hahalyak and Dan Toot play brothers David and Collin respectively. David has messed up his marriage to Donna (Virginia Marie) and Collin is home from Iraq with a less than honorable discharge.

All of the ingredients are in place, but the writing is stilted and weak. Dean takes a long time with the expository elements of the characters. Though much angst is expressed over the dissolution of David and Donna’s marriage, we aren’t told why until after the intermission in the middle of the second act. Ms. Marie does a beautiful and subtle job of suppressed rage and sexual rejection. Hahalyak is appropriately penitent but by the time we find out about her infidelities – who cares? Hahalyak’s David is given a worn excuse of ADHD and depression for screwing around. It’s a punchline; not a reason. This storyline is so drawn out that it feels like an episode of the retro soap “Search for Tomorrow”.

Collin comes home from Iraq packing a bag of weed in his duffle and dishonorable discharge papers. Dan Toot is great as a kid soldier who grew up through combat. He portrays heartbreak, and there is a subtle hint of post- traumatic stress syndrome simmering. The ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ repeal seems thrown in as an afterthought. It’s not why Collin is ejected from the Army but the real reason is less compelling.

scene from "Run-of-the-Mill" by Tyler Dean, presented by Currently Untitled Theatre.The second act does not continue with the stark mystery but jumps right into an ill- conceived series of flashbacks. The soundtrack plays Huey Lewis and the News’ ‘Power of Love’ just as in ‘Back to the Future’. (Some Marty McFly humor would have helped.) What happened to Cynthia and Darryl is what happens to thousands of families and therefore it’s ‘run of the mill’. That doesn’t make for a great night at the theater. To be certain, there are families whose lives are ordinary and mundane, but I go to the theater to see a more tense dynamic or a story that I haven’t heard before. If I’m going to watch a soap opera, then somebody needs to be held captive in a well or Granny’s in the attic living in Imagination Land.

There are other kinks to be worked out in Run of the Mill”. The staging is rather clumsy. Did anyone think to put brakes on the casters? Moveable sets should not keep moving in the middle of the scene. Why do props in some scenes and then completely expressionistic in others? Is this a fleshed out story or a workshop in invisible burger flipping? Go for the fake food. We know it’s not real and in that case go for the satire, for this story has that potential: “Ward and June discover something happened to the Beaver in Iraq. Will things ever be the same on Morning Glory Lane? Tune in for the finely crafted acting!”.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
   

scene from "Run-of-the-Mill" by Tyler Dean, presented by Currently Untitled Theatre.

Run of the Mill runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 through February 26th at Act One Studios,  640 N. LaSalle in the West Loop. Go to www.currentlyuntitledtheatre.org for more information on the company and the actors.  All photos by Gretchen Allnutt.

 

     
     

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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