Posts from the ‘Theater’ Category

PARTY TONITE for ANYONE who wants to CHANGE: Cherrywood at Mary-Arrchie

We are told quite early on in Kirk Lynn’s Cherrywood: The Modern Comparable that CHANGE is we’re in for (the play was written in 2004). And in we are, 50 audience members tucked neatly in against all four walls of a dilapidated flophouse or loft, waiting for 49 cast members to arrive and party their inhibitions off.

But as the play begins, there seem to be meager rations, little party, little likelihood of change, and little chance that these intensely anxious folks will ever experience something not completely in their heads. It explains a lot that these alienated, distracted, news-hating adult children are drinking ersatz wolf milk all night, half-joking/half-wistfully-hoping that they will become strong werewolves impervious to human pains. And for a while, that’s really all you get. Emotionally fragile but intelligent people argue about whether there has ever been a good rock band whose name begins with A, and argue about whether this is a cool party or not, and argue about whether it is cool to argue or not; but look at the door with birdlike apprehension everytime the doorbell rings to let in someone new.

Lynn’s structural experiment in Cherrywood is that none of the lines in the script are assigned to particular characters. It was up to director David Cromer and his massive cast to weave characters out of meager threads and snatches of conversations and the occasional rambling monologue. In the expert hands of Cromer and these 49 actors, this is legible rather than chaotic. Legible, but not linear. While one can follow all the threads with a little concentration, it requires multi-tasking. It reminded me of following several discussions on Twitter at once. Response is followed by non-sequiter is followed by contrarian comment.

So, the play starts with anxious young adults, unprepared for the big world, carrying on parallel self-conscious conversation snippets (just like at a party) that wander all over the place. It’s entertaining, particularly because all the eclectic characters remind us of most of the house parties we’ve ever attended. But thankfully, Cherrywood doesn’t wallow in this for 90 minutes. It just marinates in it for a bit before plopping everybody on the grill. There is something decidedly post-ironic at play here, as nearly every partier seems distinctly bored of being bored with everything; even bored with witty sniping rejoinders. And they’ve shown up at this party, perhaps seeking change, and they are going to get it.

If, like me, you like theater that surprises you, stop reading now to avoid the spoilers. Just go ahead and go see it. There are seven more performances between now and August 28th. There are way too many actors and designers and other creatives to mention in this blog, but you can see the online program here. With ticket prices as low as $13 for students and seniors, $18 general admission, Cherrywood is really one of the better theater values in town. And after you see it (or if you already have), tell us what you think in the comments.

On with the spoilers.

The navel gazing stops when that weird old guy that shows up at every party is shot in the hand, somehow, by nobody we can make out. A whodunnit unfolds, but it’s far more than a mystery. The gunshot catalyzes order out of chaos. Most of the party’s attendees are apparently unrooted, alienated, tribeless, and yet leadership must emerge if the mystery is to be solved. That emerging leadership, and willingness to be led, turn out to be far more important than the actual crime. Exits are closed and legal structures are invented, ad hoc, with mixed success. After a gun is found, a clever shell game of cardboard boxes both stows the gun away and redistributes power among all the party-goers.

Shortly, the inevitable pizza guy shows up. He’s a bit of a travelling revival preacher and charismatic cult leader, regaling rapt partiers with his story of advising the governor (on change, of course), doing miracles, and demanding disciples. And he gets them when he starts helping them pull their dreams out of boxes. This unexpected magical realism was great, because it surprised and delighted me. You can’t say that every time you see some magical realism in the theater. At the same time, the pizza guy has enough menace to make us wonder if he’s the pied piper here to steal the children or lead the lemmings off the cliff. Most of the kids are willing to jump, I think.

The emotional strain of these events is released in fantastic catharsis in some of Cherrywood‘s best moments, including a group dance that you really want to join. There are other moments like this, when you kind of wonder whether an audience member will interject and what will happen then. After 90 minutes of sitting less than an arm’s length from the actors, the line between them and us gets a little blurry. That couldn’t happen if there weren’t 49 actors squeezed onstage, squeezing us against the four walls.

This minor violation of the audience’s own space (or the audience’s violation of the acting space) wouldn’t work quite the same way without such a large cast. Likewise, the emerging community of characters, which still could become a Jim Jones style wolf-milk cult, seems more vital and relevant when they fill the room. They really need to burst out of their insular flophouse, and become the change they want to see in the world.

Killer Joe by Profiles Theatre, in the Royal George Cabaret

Tracy Letts is a genius. While Killer Joe is not the rich and sympathetic tour de force (sorry for that cliché) that August: Osage County is, it absolutely crackles with energy, uninhibited joy, reckless contempt, and a complete obliviousness to more sensitive audience members that is bracing, astonishing and thrilling. It seems that Letts has no objection to emotionally raping us, but like Joe in one of his more generous moments, he’s willing to let us off the hook with comedy. The humor is vicious, and gives us every opportunity to mock these low-class strivers as they foolishly scheme for the big payoff.

Our amusement, dependent on our perceived cultural superiority, is one example of Letts distillation of the Classical (with a capital C) comedic forms. It’s almost textbook. You have low-class buffoons, concocting a ridiculous plan to rise above their station. Of course, they get over their heads very quickly. We know from the beginning that this crew will be outsmarted at every turn, and end up in as bad or worse a place then when they started (hint: it’s a worse place).

As the stand-in for a comedic protagonist, Joe (Darrell W. Cox in a Jeff-winning performance) breaks the classical mold. One of the most amazing things about this production of Killer Joe is how sympathetic this sociopath becomes, how we connect with him as charismatic leader, despite his brutality. It is hard to imagine liking the first Joe, Michael Shannon, in this role as much as we like Cox. Don’t take that the wrong way…

As for the buffoons, Letts isn’t satisfied to simply give us a Launcelot Gobbo to chuckle at. Instead, he pulls in themes of opera and epic poetry. To set us up for absolutely anything, the play begins with a matricide plot hatched by Chris (Kevin Bigley), and readily assented to by his father, Ansel (Howie Johnson), and Ansel’s girlfriend, Sharla (Somer Benson). From that initial and seemingly ultimate betrayal, we spiral deeper along shrinking concentric rings of family dysfunction, cowardice, and more betrayal. Or perhaps the rings are just a spring, winding tighter and tenser each moment, taunting us until it snaps.

As in Dante, betrayal is the most hideous sin. The greater the traitor, the greater the punishment. Letts (and director Rick Snyder) might go too far with the punishment, but as Dante will tell you, the vilest traitors must spend eternity in Satan’s mouth. Joe makes a pretty good Satan, all in all, and we know before the second act begins that nobody is escaping his maw.

What is left to incorporate into this post-structural amalgam of classical forms? We need a little redemption, and we get it from the sacrificial lamb, Dottie (Claire Wellin). This all melds into a surprisingly moral play by the end, but not quite a morality play. Redemption here is not simple, and it is certainly not cheap, and we leave uncertain as to whether it is going to be enough to save any sinner among us.

Killer Joe is playing in the Royal George Cabaret, by far the best space in that theater. Killer Joe is on sale through July 18th. If you have enough tolerance for graphic violence, physical, emotional and sexual, then I recommend it. This production was a big winner at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards this year, taking the awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Actor in a Principle Role, all in the “Play” category.

Feast by the Albany Park Theater Project

Yeah, this is late. I know.

I previously lamented missing out on Feast by Albany Park Theater Project, but I did get on the mailing list. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they added a show! So I quickly purchased my ticket for the added show, and feeling felicitous, made my way to the Eugene Field Park building, which houses the Laura Wiley Theater, on a Wednesday night.

This was my first time at APTP, and I was not really expecting high production values and beautiful set. Shame on me for assuming that theater developed with and by kids is going to be cheap. That’s an extremely unhelpful assumption, and I’m glad to have been wrong. This is high grade storefront theater, created by obviously dedicated teenagers, directed and coached by experienced theater professionals.

Feast is vibrant and moving. This is not surprising, given the premise. A multicultural teenage cast interviewed denizens of Chicago’s diverse north-side Albany Park neighborhood, learning their culinary traditions and recording their reminiscences, and brought them to the stage with the full energy of their youth. A story of catching fish in the river near one’s boyhood home connects me to my father’s stories of growing up on a Wisconsin lake, only the boyhood home on this stage was in the Philippines. Sacred culinary tradition is upheld in the ritualistic cadences of a halal butcher, taking over the family business with pride so his Lebanese grandfather can retire. The sacred is contrasted by the joyfully corporeal inheritance of a traditional tamale recipe (don’t be stingy with the manteca!), which saves the sidewalk food cart business of two immigrants.

The performance style is less varied than the cultural tapestry. Most of the performance is monologue-based, and very heavy on stylized movement, occasionally distracting, often with other cast members supporting the monologist with choreographed movement or dance. Three breaks from this convention standout.

As a boy tells his story of raising the family cow, destined for the market, he is accompanied by four cast members serving as Foley artists. This is the funniest scene, very charming and engaging. The considerable energy of the young cast is most effectively channeled here. It feels very improvisational, as though the Foley artists and the actor on stage are trying to catch each other.

Three monologues are interwoven in a scene surrounding Illinois’ LINK card, a theoretically more dignified and efficient modern version of food stamps. As a child, my family received food stamps, and my mother used them to buy as much healthy food as she could, so it was with a cringe of concern that I watched one of these three monologues herald a bacchanal of junk food afforded by the LINK on the first day of the month. In a city with food deserts in some poor neighborhoods, it is strange to see such celebration of non-nutritive consumption. But Feast is sharing stories with us, not preaching to us or asking to be preached at, so I guess I can own my self-righteous cultural chauvinism and just deal with it. The young woman who tells this story makes such a platform of her shopping cart–climbing, jumping, twirling and dancing in, on and around it–that at one point there were gasps of alarm from the audience. Another LINK card monologue centers around a young Latina girl completing the government forms for her non-English speaking mother, unaware of the rules and ramifications. I connected most, though, with a third story woven through these two: that of a young man desperate to hide his family’s use of the LINK card from his friends. I can recall his shame from my own childhood, and can certainly empathize a little with his selfish demands that his mother buy name brand groceries for him, while the rest of the family eats generic breakfast cereal sold in bags, not boxes.

Another break from the monologue format was a little disturbing. A group of girls, dressed as gothed-up Victorian dolls, sang stilted and dissonant schoolyard rhymes about feeding and serving a husband and family someday. The rhymes are all vaguely familiar–I had heard many of them on playgrounds–but I hadn’t noticed their insidious potential for socialization of girls towards subservience until I saw them this way.

In all, the show is a terrific collage of the sacred, the profane, pride, shame, nostalgia, tradition, self-actualization, social oppression, frustration and optimism. And it’s all about food! You can’t watch Feast without getting hungry. And you can still see it! More on that at the end. I paid full price: $18 plus Brown Paper Tickets processing charges (which are low and reasonable, unlike with those Ticketmaster bastards).

A friend of mine compared Albany Park Theater Project to El Sistema, and I certainly see where he’s coming from. El Sistema is the Venezuelan program (official name: Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, or FESNOJIV) wherein children and teens of limited opportunities are taught to play an instrument in an orchestra, or even conduct. El Sistema’s most currently famous alum, Gustavo Dudamel, is the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and last year he conducted the U.S. tour of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, made up of the best musicians from El Sistema. El Sistema not only provides a constructive outlet, and helps young people from poor neighborhoods find an artistic voice, it also demands dedication and excellence. I see APTP doing the same. Their program book also makes it clear that there is a successful college counseling component to what they do, by the way.

Feast will be remounted on July 20th, for one performance only, as part of the Goodman Latino Theatre Festival this summer. Tickets are $18, and I highly encourage you to get yours now. I want to take all of my friends who are educators or theater practitioners.

A family secret from BackStage Theatre Company

I’m on the Board of BackStage Theatre Company. Our BackStage family has a little secret. Would you like to know what it is? Click here and we’ll whisper it to you.

The Cabinet at Redmoon

Well, I’m on a learning curve with this. Last week, I said I was going to see a show that weekend, and offered some suggestions and asked for yours. I got a great one from a friend of mine; he suggested I go see Feast by Albany Park Theater Project. I took one look at their website, and was sold. However, by the time I worked out when to go and with who, the weekend was already sold out. So then I thought maybe I’d just wait and see it this week, but dithered long enough that all my options were sold out. Two takeaways:

  1. Pay attention to Albany Park Theater Project! If I snooze, I will lose. So I put my ass on their mailing list.
  2. Plan further ahead. Amy and I have a talent for filling our schedules, to the point of losing control. I have to do a better job carving out time for live performance, both for my three readers, and for myself.

I was determined not to let another weekend slip away! So after a survey of this weekend’s offerings, I learned of one show that I’d missed before, in 2005, and didn’t want to miss again, in the final weekend of its extension at Redmoon Central, The Cabinet.

If you have the slightest inkling toward the macabre, the carnivalesqe grotesque, then get your ticket right now. The Cabinet is only running through Sunday afternoon.

Of course, one expects the show to be good. It was very well-received in 2005 (and perhaps we can thank the current economic climate for the remount), but this is Redmoon we’re talking about! They throw the biggest, coolest outdoor parties in town, and when they aren’t collaborating with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a shadow-puppet-accompanied Swan Lake, they’re performing at the Whitehouse. So yes, you go in expecting something good, probably involving puppets.

But what I didn’t expect was the remarkable subtlety that Redmoon would bring to their steampunky spectacle-driven sensibility. Part of it is, no doubt, the much smaller scale of this production. All action takes place within and around a cabinet of many skewed doors and drawers, about 10 feet wide and 20 feet tall. But part of this subtlety is driven, I think, by the intimacy of the puppeteers with their objects. There are no attempts here to hide the wires, or the puppeteers, or make you wonder how they implemented effect 37a. It is all about the story and the tone thereof.

Further, the design of the puppets is superb. Disturbing, but superb. Such is the sense of command in the cold appraising eyes of Dr. Caligari, that you believe the puppeteers are not controlling him, but rather the other way round. And, though you see them similarly operating the protagonist, somnambulist Cesare, it is clear that they are manhandling him as a forlorn device towards their despicable ends. But the best moment of puppetrized character belongs to the girl who brings Cesare the closest he will ever come to sanity and love. I won’t spoil the moment by describing it, but it is astonishing.

And I certainly did not expect to see such a mirror of the human condition in the voice-over narration of Cesare’s inner experience. As a “somnambulist,” Cesare is never awake, but walks, listens, mourns and acts through his nightmarish, fogged-over lens into the real, waking world.  He is suggestible to evil, and manipulated to commit foul deeds. He mourns this, and longs to wake, but cannot even begin to attempt it. He is like any one of us who has surrendered our capacity for self-determination to affliction or addiction, societal norms, laziness or learned helplessness. Whoever is barely paying attention to the puppeteers pulling his or her own strings is just like Cesare, and just as capable of despair and devolution.

Price: full price is $20, so that is what we paid, per my policy. If I could have gone to the theater in person for my ticket purchase, I could have avoided additional telephone processing charges of $1.50 per ticket. But I couldn’t, so I paid them. It was completely worth it.

This weekend for $20 or less

OK, I have some good options for this weekend’s $20 play. And I don’t know of any conflicts I have that will make me a biased critic. That’s nice for a change, eh? Do you have a better suggestion for me? Tell me in the comments.

XIII Pocket at Steppenwolf Garage Rep, Adore, by Stephen Louis Grush: Steppenwolf’s website is having some kind of problem at the moment, which is a bummer. Sucks to lose a ticket sale because of a broken website. The play is apparently based on the true story of a German cannibal who finds a lover-slash-willing-victim, and it closes soon. Full price for a Garage Rep show is $20.

New Leaf Theatre, Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard: New Leaf wowed me with this eloquent articulation of their new, and clearly well though-out, business plan. If more Chicago storefront theaters could engage in this level of self-awareness and analysis, they’d be in better shape. Full price is $18.

The Hypocrites, Cabaret, music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff: I’m not a huge fan of musicals, having worked on too many in high school, college and summerstock. but The Hypocrites have a reputation for remaking overdone theatrical work into something new and exciting (e.g., Our Town, now in open run in NYC). This production is at the DCA Theater. Full price is $25, but with my student ID, $15.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, with new introductory scenes by Neil LaBute: This only falls into the $20 range due to a special promo for those of us privileged to be under 35 years of age (use the UNDER35 promo code when ordering online). I know this will probably be beautiful to look at, because it’s Chicago Shakes. The Neil LaBute intro scenes are actually the most interesting thing to me about this–that and the fact that I won’t be under 35 forever…  WAIT… nevermind. The UNDER35 promo is not available on Saturday night (which I understand), and I’m busy on Sunday. Maybe I’ll save this one for another week. If you are interested, the promo is currently available for tonight and both Sunday performances.

And speaking of theater this weekend, here is a shameless plug for BackStage Theatre Company. BackStage is celebrating its 10th Anniversary Season with a 10th Birthday Party on Sunday night! We’ve got food, drinks, a raffle with great prizes, song, laughs, a raffle with great prizes, a chance to subscribe early to Season 11, and a raffle with great prizes… I’ll be there, and I hope to see you, too. Reserve your spot here. If you don’t live in Chicagoland, and still want to help a great company make great art, there will be a special raffle drawing for you extra-regionals for a Visa giftcard. $10 bucks and great odds!

Orange Flower Water by BackStage Theatre Company

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m on the Board of BackStage Theatre Company. I’m even the Chair of the Marketing Committee. So you should basically ignore everything I write here, as it is undoubtedly an instance of utterly biased shilling.

OK, so given my involvement, how should I write critically about a BackStage production? My job on the Board is partly to be a cheerleader for the company, after all. I suppose now that the show has closed, I can’t do anything good or bad for this production’s box office or audience reception, but there is always the next show and next season to consider. Maybe the smartest thing to do is simply to keep it honest and brief.

Since I’ve been coming to BackStage productions, I’ve seen two excellent realistic kitchen sink dramas (and zero bad ones). Both were under-appreciated, and both featured Jason Huysman and Tony Bozzuto. The first was On An Average Day, last season at Chemically Imbalanced Theater. Frankly, I can’t think of a better set for that hole-in-the-wall than the disgusting infested kitchen that seemed to grow organically from my friend Heath Hays’ imagination into full realization in every nook and cranny of the Chemically Imbalanced performing space. I really wish more people had seen that show.

For the next one, Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water, Huysman and Bozzuto were joined by the excellent Maggie Kettering and Shelley Nixon. All displayed a level of real courage and intense focus to be so emotionally bare, in such a very small, intimate space. Intimate is certainly the best word to describe this production. Jessica Keuhnau’s and Brandon Wardell’s simple, effective set, beautifully lit by Jared Moore, consisted of a square rotating platform, with a queen size bed on it, set at a 45 degree angle to all four banks of surrounding seats. Wallpapered walls behind the audience put us all in corners of a bedroom, very very close to two disintegrating marriages. And the cast, directed by New Leaf Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jessica Hutchinson, met this intimate audience with a subtlety of craft that drew us in and wouldn’t let us out. After this production, I would never like to see Orange Flower Water produced behind a proscenium. It would be too disappointingly distant.

I do have a complaint about the costume design, by Laura Kollar. I am not sure why these Minnesotans were wearing Bears and Cubs licensed attire. This and other costume choices were sloppy in an otherwise tight production.

BackStage’s website has a new feature. The page for each show has a comments section, where anybody can share their thoughts or reactions. There are some good ones here and here about Orange Flower Water.

Price: Full price to BackStage productions is $20. Amy and I are subscribers, though, so we got 3 tickets for $45, bringing this cost to $15 per ticket. Naturally, I think this is a great value, and think you should subscribe, too, when subscriptions go on sale later this spring. BackStage’s final show of the season is Edward Albee’s Play About the Baby. It opens tonight!