REVIEW: The Infernal Machine (InnateVolution Theater)

     
     

An old tale gets an updated retelling

 

Infernal Machine logo

   
InnateVolution Theater presents
   
The Infernal Machine
   
Written by Jean Cocteau
Directed by Dr. Beverle Bloch & Raymond K Cleveland
at
The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you’ll notice about InnateVolution Theater ProductionsThe Infernal Machine is the venue. The play occupies an unorthodox space, a gay bar specifically. A ring of chairs lines what is normally used as a dance floor while sparkly music videos of disco divas blast on monitors, serving as a strange sort of pre-show.

I’m a firm believer that environment plays a significant role in the theatrical production. And I usually love novel settings. But the choice to perform Jean Cocteau‘s surrealist take on Oedipus in a gay bar where patrons at times spoke over the performers during the first act seemed like a bit of a mistake. Admittedly, by the end of the play, the ambient chatter had quieted down, but it was always a presence and always served as a distraction, even when the actors delivered some pretty strong performances.

But the bar did have a large screen, which was obviously a necessary technical requirement for this play, written by a man known for his offbeat film work. And although I would have liked to have seen more intermingling between the live action of the play and the minimal action that takes place on the screen, the use of visual projections does help establish setting, given the production’s minimal props on stage.

The play itself is a fairly ancient story. It’s the tale of Oedipus, the young man whose future is foretold to be a great tragedy. He’ll one day murder his father and marry his mom. It’s a tale of tragic destiny and the futility of trying to avoid our predetermined futures. It’s also a tale of humility, as Oedipus slowly realizes that even he, conqueror of the Sphinx, is subject to the same rules that dictate all of mankind.

This is my first time to see Cocteau’s version, and from what I gather, it’s basically the same as the original tale minus the ornate poetry of Grecian writing. The language is contemporary; the characters resemble modern-day archetypes. The story is still set back in ancient times, but the characters possess an attitude that make them more relatable to those who live in the here-and-now. Take for example Queen Jocasta (Erin Cline). She’s a drama queen and a half, vamping for the audience and overreacting every time someone steps on her scarf. Cline does a brilliant job bringing this diva to life, making her a very engaging character to watch.

Another wonderful character, and a great comic relief, is the wise old adviser Tiresias (Arne Saupe). Saupe brings to Tiresias a clever sensibility and vaudevillian comedic timing. After all, the old man is blind, which lends itself to a lot of ironic sight gags, and Saupe uses this to full effect.

Much of the rest of the acting is uneven. Experience level seems to vary widely from performer to performer, which serves as a distraction when a scene lags because of one character. At times, the play verges on high school pageantry.

Still, this is a small production by a small theatre company, and overall it is an entertaining show. If you don’t mind a bit of background noise while watching a play, InnateVolution’s The Infernal Machine is a fun night out.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Performances run November 5 – 21, 2010 at The Call (1547 W Bryn Mawr Ave)
in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago..  Regular performances are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  Tickets are $20 and include 1 well liquor, house wine, or Miller drinks.

   
   

 

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REVIEW: Choose Thine Own Adventure (Filament Theatre)

An adventure worth choosing!

 

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 2 (CMYK)

   
Filament Theatre presents
   
Choose Thine Own Adventure
   
Adapted from William Shakespeare by Allison Powell
Directed by Julie Ritchey
at The Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport (map)
through December 11  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

With its fifth season opener, Filament Theatre Company wanted to explore what a Shakespearean theatre setting might be like in the 21st century. They were inspired by the groundlings who stood in the “yard” of the Globe Theatre to watch Shakespeare’s production, yelling, talking and being boisterous throughout the performance. They asked, “Why not embrace that rowdy, passionate side of the human spirit and perform Shakespeare as the groundlings would have wanted it?” Filament Theatre has done away with traditional theatre elements, tearing down the fourth wall and setting the show in a bar to see what can happen with their production of Choose Thine Own Adventure.

The Underground Lounge provides the setting for Choose Thine Own Adventure. The stage is set to look like a London stage circa the Elizabethean period. There are only a few set pieces, mainly a bench center stage that offers use as it is, as a balcony and as a boat to name a few. The bar atmosphere lends itself to the interaction between the actors and the audience. Pre-show entertainment gets everyone in the mood with music rocking out of the speakers while the actors play various games like ring toss with the audience. It’s rowdy, outgoing, lively fun and festivities that foreshadow what’s to come.

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 3 (CMYK)As soon as Choose Thine Own Adventure begins, it’s clear that hilarity will ensue. The four person ensemble of Dromio (Marco Minichiello), Antonio (Ped Naseri), Bernardo (Omen Sade) and Rosalind (Mary Spearen) is equally strong and talented as they play both their roles and themselves as characters. The show opens with each cast member reciting various lines of Shakespeare. They ham it up and play it out the audience in a stagey but entertaining manner. It’s then made known that there’s a mix up as to what show is to be performed so the actors turn the choices to the audience. Completely tearing down that fourth wall between the stage and the seats, the audience is brought right into the action as the actors deliver various choices on where the action can go. Depending on the response they receive, Choose Thine Own Adventure can end in at least 20 different ways. Choices include where the scene should take place, what action should occur or whether it should be a comedy or a tragedy.

All four cast members are clearly comfortable playing off the audience and do so confidently. They are great with comedic timing and adlibbing lines for effect. Naseri in particular delivers some hysterically improved lines. Naseri, Sade and Minichiello have each created a unique persona for their character. Naseri cleverly plays into the comedy and the laugh lines. Minichiello excels at playing off and playing to the audience while reciting Shakespeare with skill, and Sade powerful stage presence allows him to fill the space. Spearen holds her own against the men of the cast, inserting her own wit and comedic talent as she plays opposite each man.

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 1 (CMYK)The cast is fully engaged throughout the run of Choose Thine Own Adventure, which keeps the audience glued to the action, cracking up and laughing out loud for the entire one-hour run time. They are able to adjust to whatever the audience chooses – and then jump right into the action. While it is funny and entertaining, it is still Shakespeare at its core. The cast has a clear understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and delivers quality performances of the actual material while adding the fun and twists.

Choose Thine Own Adventure is both a well-done work of Shakespeare as well as a hilarious good time that’s full of laughs and lively action.  Filament Theatre has truly created an adventure worth choosing! 

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 4 (CMYK)

Choose Thine Own Adventure plays at The Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport Ave., through December 11, 2010. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at http://www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets/

   
   

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Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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REVIEW: Girls vs Boys (The House Theatre and AMTP)

Cool atmosphere jilted by annoying show

 

GVB 1

 
The House Theatre and AMTP* presents
 
Girls vs Boys
 
Book/lyrics by Chris Matthews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen
Directed by
Nathan Allen
Music directed by
Ethan Deppe
At the
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru May 9th  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Break-up vs Kill. If given the consequence-free choice, would you have the uncomfortable conversation with the pending ex or just shoot him? The House Theatre, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, presents Girls vs Boys. The lives of six teenagers unravel in a party world GVB 3 of drugs, alcohol, sex and guns. George wants to be cool. Casey wants to feel something. Jason wants his old girlfriend. Sam wants her brother’s respect. Kate wants Jason. Lanie wants safe sex. To get what they want, they pop Ritalin, slam beers, screw friends and fire weapons… all while singing and dancing. Girls vs Boys is “High School Musical” vs “Gossip Girl” where disputes are settled in the Wild West way.

Visual vs Audio: From the moment of arrival, the transformed Chopin Theatre is impressive. Collette Pollard has created a rock concert venue complete with mosh pit. Ticket holders are given the opportunity to join the party in the pit standing or take traditional audience seats. The band is visibly housed on the stage. The action will take place in an area extending in front of the band and encircling the pit. The ensemble will mingle with pit people during scenes. The visual is unique and the anticipation is high.

Then the music starts. The band is loud and it’s hard to hear the singing. There are two hand-held microphones shared between the six main characters. Without the hand-held ones, the entire ensemble is reliant on ear pieces that are inconsistent in volume. To compensate, some of the singing is more like screaming. The screechy tunes might not be noticeable in a rock concert but Girls vs Boys is a musical. Or is it?

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Musical vs Concert: A musical is a play with songs. A concert is songs and play. Girls vs Boys is watching kids at a concert sing with the band, act impulsively and mess up their relationships. This show has a long playlist with in-between conversations that are predictable and trite. It’s similar to concert moments when the band goes  unplugged with an anecdote between songs. If Girls vs Boys was all about the music, dialogue would disrupt the concert flow. Unfortunately, the tunes GVB 5themselves are not memorable. Although the band jams rock, the singers project pop. The fusion is awkward. Even though the script dialogue is flawed, the excessive number of songs promotes a strong desire to return to discourse. “Say it! Don’t sing it!”

Singing vs Dancing: Girls vs Boys is more like a concert with great back-up dancers. Tommy Rapley has choreographed high energy numbers for the cast to dance their way into exhaustion. Climbing in and out of the pit, the ensemble has synchronized, gun-toting, dramatic vigor. Notably, whenever one of the guys takes drugs, their shirt comes off. It was oddly like a Public Service Announcement saying ‘don’t take drugs. They make you strip!’ The good news is the guys are ripped. The bad news is it feels like any Jason Statham movie where the weaker the script, the more he takes his shirt off. Shockingly, Girls vs Boys, shirts came off and I STILL didn’t love it!

 
Rating: ★½
 

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes included a fifteen minute delayed start and a ten minute intermission

Extra Credit:

  • House’s blog entries on Girls vs Boys
  • Chris Jones lists House’s 2010-2011 Season
  • Girls vs Boys production photos courtesy of John Taflan.

*AMTP = American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University 

 

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