Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 at Chicago Children's Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. It was based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West, and directed by Wardell Julius Clark. It was about a family called the Watsons who were taking their eldest child Byron (Stephen "Blu" Allen) to stay with their grandma (Deanna Reed-Foster) in Birmingham, Alabama to teach him how to behave. On their travels they encounter more overt racism than they faced in Flint, Michigan, which causes the youngest son, Kenny (Jeremiah Ruwé/Nelson Simmons), to question what the world is really like. It is about family, injustice, and fear. The play introduces kids to the some of the darker sides of the history of the civil rights movement and reflects anxieties of parents and children when faced with racism and significant social change.

I really loved the family dynamic in this story. Some of my favorite moments were in the car with Daddy (Bear Bellinger), Mama (Sharriese Hamilton), Kenny, Byron, and their little sister Joey (Jillian Giselle/Lyric Sims). I really liked how when they put on Kenny's music, most of them couldn't stand it. It was very funny to watch the time lapse of them growing more disgusted with the song. That they kept playing his song nonetheless showed how much they loved him and how fair they were. I loved the relationship between Daddy and Mama especially. It was very playful and they worked well together. The whole family seemed very connected not only as the characters but as the actors, and they played well together throughout. I think a good example of this is the shaving scene. It was adorable on top of providing some exposition, which is hard to fit in to an adaptation for children, but I think it fit well and furthered my love for the family. Also, I think Grandma Sands might be the most lovable character ever because she was so free, caring, and wise. She loved a good joke. I loved the specificity of her relationships with each of the kids.

I think that this adaptation made a choice to make the whirlpool (which Kenny mishears as Wool Pooh) a specific and visible character (played by Ian Paul Custer), which stripped some of the actual emotion and injustice out of the story because in that moment they make it a fantasy with monsters. The Wool Pooh as a monster represents a lot of the chaos and danger of the south, but because it was a person in a costume, I didn't feel like it worked to do that. It felt like they were almost trying to convince the audience that none of the injustice was real so as not to scare the kids. In the book I found the disorientation of the church bombing that Kenny experiences, and where the Wool Pooh also appears, very effective and emotional. In the book it works because the Wool Pooh is described vaguely enough that it was more of a presence than a monster when he's trying to grab the shoe that we later learn belonged to one of the dead girls. By having him physically fight the Wool Pooh for the shoe, it makes it less realistic and seems to turn a real-life tragedy into a heroic fantasy battle. I think it is not actually that helpful to make it less realistic for kids; it actually makes them afraid of things they don’t need to fight instead of recognizing real problems in the world. I believe if kids are exposed to these topics at an early age, they can learn how to develop a new healthy humanized perspective that recognizes the reality of discrimination, danger, and death. I do understand that sometimes kids transform real dangers into imaginary monsters to make them easier to process, but when you are watching it, it was hard to still place the scene in reality.

People who would like this show are people who like realistic family relationships, detailed introductions to difficult topics, and youthful grandmothers. I think that this show has some beautiful elements and a great story.

Photos: Charles Osgood

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Review of The New Colony's Small World

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Small World. It was written by Jillian Leff and Joe Lino, and it was directed by Andrew Hobgood. It was about a group of cast members at a Disney theme park who are trapped inside of the "It's a Small World" ride after a disaster that has caused the ride to fall apart around them. They all are trying to get out of the ride and save themselves. But they don't all share the same ideas of how to go about it. It is about destruction in the face of happiness, intolerance, and forced camaraderie. I think this is a very intriguing show. It uses a lot of humorous elements to make a larger point. It was a very fun time while also being quite distressing.

I think this play was set at Disney to show how different people relate to Disney's utopia policy of making everything perfect. That kind of illusion can help some people, but it can also ruin lives. Each of the characters had a different relationship to Disney. Kim (Stephanie Shum) loved it because she felt like it helped her survive when she felt abandoned. She is invested in preserving the illusion of Disney as a magical place where nothing bad can happen and dreams really do come true. Even though she is severely injured, all she can talk about is Disney and its rules. She is a rule follower, and there doesn't seem to be an end to that. Donny (Patriac Coakley) had loved Disney as a child, but he grew to have a bad relationship with it because one of the cast members ruined the illusion for him. Becca (Jackie Seijo) has come to Disney to get away from her old life. She is surrounded by all these things at Disney that remind her that her own past behavior was less than chivalrous. There is this idea of Price Charming that has been a staple of Disney for years, but she realizes that in abandoning her own princess she has destroyed her own life. Kim embraces the illusion, Donny wants to destroy the illusion just like it was destroyed for him, and for Becca the illusion is a reminder of past mistakes.

Grotesqueness and humor have an interesting pairing in this show. For the entire show, Kim has metal rod impaled in her leg. Where some of the comedy comes from is her trying to keep her spirits up and do what she needs to do in spite of the obvious inconvenience. At one point they find the dead body of their coworker, which produced quite a bit of slapstick comedy. In some ways laughing at disgusting and frightening things is a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at such bad things, like death and pain, it makes us feel like they are not as awful or serious. Humor may not be facing the issue directly, but it can be better than just ignoring it. Humor can show a true understanding of a topic. I think it is good to find humor in scary things because it helps us cope with them and face them more head-on.

This play is very good at pulling you into the story immediately. When the lights come up at the start of the play I was like, "Oh my god. What is happening." It seems like Kim has just gotten impaled and everyone is panicked and basically the first few second while the lights are down are just people screaming. It was a very startling start because it is a mixture of two worlds that are total opposites: a ride talking about how everyone is connected and everyone should just love each other mixed with the aftermath of horror, death, and violence. It was effective because it showed how they were related, the happiness and the horror. It shows you a dark side of Disney and how in this case Disney made people feel bad, or weak, or excluded. What is magical for some can be a disaster for other. But it also reminds us that the idea of everyone coming together and not being so different can survive disaster.

People who would like this show are people who like analysis of Disney, exploring dark undertones, and startling and humorous impalements. I think this is a very strange but fun show. I haven't seen anything like it and it created a new amalgamation in my eyes: the disaster-workplace-grotesque-dark comedy. I liked it.

Photos: Evan Hanover

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Lottery Day. It was written by Ike Holter, and it was directed by Lili-Anne Brown. It was about a woman named Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks) who had lost her husband and daughter five years earlier. She was hosting a party for all of her closest friends and enemies to get rid of a large amount of money that she had come into but didn't want anything to do with because of the memories it brought up for her. It is about family, loss, and community. I thought this was a moving, funny, and immersive show. It felt like I was actually at a party; all the interactions between the characters felt very recognizable, genuine, and complicated.

This is the final play in a 7-play series, all set in Rightlynd, which is an imaginary neighborhood in Chicago. Rightlynd is undergoing gentrification, and all the people living there now are dealing with the issues caused by it in different ways. I have only seen four of the seven--Lottery Day, Red Rex, Prowess, and Exit Strategy--but I would love to see them all. I feel like it would help me get even more references. It kind of reminds me of the Marvel Universe, where things that don't seem to be connected at first end up coming together. It is so exciting to see the characters from the plays you've seen over a long period of time come together, sort of like The Avengers. I love the character of Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) from Red Rex, who also appears in this show. She is so awkward in a confident way. I feel like I've never seen someone who fits that description in a play before, but I definitely know people in real life who are like that. Lottery Day shows that she has made the connections in the community that no one else in the theater company seemed to realize were needed. Zora (Sydney Charles), from Prowess, is still such a badass, even though she's been through so much. In Prowess, she was learning the ropes and was new to everything, but now she is more experienced and seems tired. You see that she did some of what she set out to do, but maybe it's not all she thought it would be. Ricky (Pat Whalen), from Exit Strategy was mentioned in Red Rex, so it was exciting to see him after hearing about him in the later play. Here he seems more laid back, but still very eager to please. He's like, "I just want everyone to like me. Why isn't it working?" It is both irritating and lovable at the same time.

I think it was good that there were new characters in this story because even though it is everyone coming together, the new characters explain why they all came together and what has been their driving force. This play is Mallory's story, and she was a new character to me and in the saga. She's old friends with Robinson (Robert Cornelius), from Rightlynd, Nunley (Tony Santiago), from The Wolf at the End of the Block, and Avery (James Vincent Meredith), who is a new character. She raised Zora, Cassandra (McKenzie Chinn), from Sender, and the new character Ezekiel (Tommy Rivera-Vega). The new characters are just as compelling and complicated as the ones we've seen before. I'm impressed by that because it is difficult to write new characters for the world that compare to characters we already know and love. We already see Ezekiel's connection with Mallory before we know his backstory. He shows his personality very obviously in his first few seconds on stage. He is energetic and eager and very excited to launch his rap career. Avery has known Mallory for a very long time and there is a great tension between them, which you see from their first moments on stage. They both clearly care about each other and know each other very well. The seem to have a rich history, even though we haven't seen it from beginning to end.

I think that Mallory is a very interesting character because of her past and how she copes with that. She has a fear of being alone, so her coping mechanism is to filter her feelings about her loss through parties and barbecues and taking in people who need her help. Even though she has been like a mother to many people, she isn't the stereotype of the harsh but loving black matriarch. She is very clearly messed up and hurt, which gives her more layers. She is mysterious and unpredictable even though she is loving and is planning on giving a lot of money away. She uses her power sometimes in a loving and effective way and sometimes just to use it. I think this play shows how a hero can be complicated and manipulative while still having a positive effect on a lot of people. One of her more complicated choices is inviting Vivien (Michele Vazquez), her new next door neighbor who flips houses, to the party. It is hard to tell if she is trying to make a gesture to say, "even though we are different, we can still be friends," or if she is intimidating Vivien and putting her in a situation she is not very good at adapting to.

People who would like this show are people who like complicated heroines, the Marvel Universe of Chicago Theatre, and confidently awkward people. I think this is a really great show. I was so engaged in it the entire time. It has amazing actors, is beautifully written, and has an amazing director. I loved all of it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review of Refuge Theatre Project's Hands on a Hardbody

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hands on a Hardbody. The book was by Doug Wright and the lyrics were by Amanda Green. The music was by Trey Anastasio and Green. It was directed by Christopher Pazdernik, with music direction by Jon Schneidman and choreography by Ariel Triunfo. It was about a competition in Longview, Texas to win a truck. To win it, you had to keep your hand on it for the longest, which is a lot harder than you might think at first because there is no time limit. You get to learn various life stories of the contestants and what has motivated them to partake in this competition. It is about different types of people coming together, what makes someone more deserving than others, and the "American Dream." I thought it was very well performed and had a story I never would have imagined would make such a compelling musical.

I really liked the construct of the show and how there was a song to show why they each needed the truck. One of my favorite songs of this nature that really stood out to me was "Born in Laredo," which was sung by Jesus Peña (Sebastian Summers). It was sparked by Cindy Barnes (Jenna Fawcett) asking him for identification to make sure he wasn't an illegal immigrant, even though she hadn't asked anyone else that question. The song is about how everybody looks at Jesus like he doesn't belong even though he was born in Texas. People make assumptions about him--that he is a foreigner, that he doesn't speak English, and that he is a criminal--but he just wants to be seen as a Texan. He needs the truck so he can sell it to go to veterinary school so he can achieve the basic respect that someone who was white would get automatically. I really liked "Burn That Bridge," sung by Heather Stovall (Molly Kral) and Mike Ferris (Dan Gold) because of the great harmonies and chemistry the actors had. They both had a great twang to their voice that added a southern flair. It shows one of the less noble motivations of the contestants. Heather just really wants fame. She has other less important goals: just wanting the truck because she wants to have a truck and it reminds her of her dad. That doesn't stack up as well as someone who needs it to get through school.

I also really enjoyed the song "My Problem Right There," sung by Ronald McCowan (Jared David Michael Grant) as he suffers the effects of having eaten too many candy bars. It talks about his bad life choices and how his problems affect him. But it is a very upbeat song with three backup singer/dancers like The Ronettes, which is appropriate since his name is Ronald. I think it is important that the song is upbeat because if the song was slow and lamenting, it would defeat the idea of the character who is “upbeat” even under the ridiculous circumstances that he is under. And that personality trait is why even though he is there for a short time he makes so many friends and lifts the group spirits even if they are competitors. Something I noticed was how when Ron came back he tries to show Norma (Cathy Reyes McNamara) how her religious practices can help the whole group and that if she just unplugs and spreads the love that she has for God, she could make a lot of people much happier.

This play tackles a very difficult subject: what makes someone deserving. It is hard to decide in this play who should get the truck and who does not deserve it. For example, at first Benny (Derek Fawcett) seems like an outright greedy bad person because of his general demeanor, but then we see him helping out and giving tips to J.D. (Tim Kough). Benny still does not seem to me to be the most deserving of the truck because even in his last ballad he says some racist and rude things. He does this even in a song supposed to show that he is “not so bad” after all. I think that this show is not trying to say, “this person needs this truck more than this person, so you should give it to them, and if they don’t get the truck it is a tragedy.” The musical is trying to show that no one is perfect. This play is not a battle of good vs. evil; it is a battle of people vs. people. Even though, of course, we all have our favorite characters, they are all not perfect and all have somewhat valid reasons for why this truck is so important to them. The audience favors the characters they relate to the most, but each individual audience member might have a different opinion about who is the most worthy.

People who would like this show are people who like plays that challenge the basic structure of good vs. evil, bridge-burning tension, and Ronald-ettes. I think that people should go see this show. It is very heartfelt and fun, and it has great performances. I really liked it.

Photos: Nick Roth

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review of Requiem for a Heavyweight at The Artistic Home

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Requiem for a Heavyweight. It was by Rod Serling and it was directed by John Mossman. It was about a heavyweight champion who went by "Mountain" (Mark Pracht) who had been told he needed to retire because his body was getting too many injuries and he would go blind if he continued in boxing. He tries to get into another line of work, but of course it is not so easy to get a day job when all you have done your whole life is boxing. His manager Maish (Patrick Thornton) wants him to keep fighting, no matter how much it hurts him, and he has started betting on him to lose, so no matter what he can profit off him. Army (Todd Wojcik) tries to be the voice of reason, but Maish won't listen to him. Mountain finds an unexpected ally in Grace (Annie Hogan), who tries to help him find a new job. It is about masculinity, what makes someone deserving of love, and people taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable times. I thought this was an effective play with a great cast and compelling visuals.

The synchronized movement and sound sequences reminded me of more contemporary shows that use percussive dancing like Stomp. The actors are on stage and doing these sequences during transitions. The rhythm was coming from boxing gloves hitting the punch mitts and punching bags and also occasionally from their voices. The sequences would also emphasize moments that had happened in previous scenes, like when Perelli (John LaFlamboy), the wrestling promoter, was beginning to show his true colors. In the transition following you could see him laughing to himself in a maniacal fashion while the men on the sidelines where aggressively punching as background to his cackling. Perelli was very well played. He was very disconcerting and LaFlamboy made him very memorable. He reminded me of a toned-down Joker. His crimes were less deadly, but executed in a similarly wickedly gleeful way.

Violence and how it is tied to masculinity is a very big element of this show. This play was set in the 1950s and though this production features some actors of color in minor roles, it still felt like a very white play mainly concerned with the problems of white men. So it is not representing nonwhite masculinity to any extent. Mountain is an example of innocent, oblivious masculinity. He fights because he has been told that is what he is good at. He dropped out of school, so he thinks fighting is all that he is good for. He is oblivious to how violence has hurt him. He sees boxing as his saving grace that helped him find a job and do something with his life, despite the fact that it has destroyed his mind and body. He doesn't seem to have his own mind, but just follows the rules. When he loses his position as a professional boxer, he seems to lose his main source of feeling masculine because he can't take care of himself. The way he used to take care of himself was through the violent act of boxing. I think that Pracht did a great job of capturing the innocence and eventual noble humiliation of Mountain.

Maish's masculinity is very different. He feels very confident and thinks he only needs women for sex if he needs them at all. He doesn't show his emotions, except anger, until the end of the play when he is left alone. His ideas of masculinity conflict with his love for Mountain, because he can't show concern or love because he sees it as unmasculine. His entire profession is centered around violence, even if he doesn't often put himself in harm's way. Army, I think, is the best representation of masculinity because he makes up for Maish's lack of visible affection and concern, or even interest, in Mountain's life outside of boxing. He helps Mountain out in his job search and with his injuries in the ring. He is a nurturing type of man. He understands what is wrong with things and how to stand up to corruption. I think Wojcik did a lovely job of showing the shift between how he acted when Maish was around and when he wasn't. Maish doesn't ask for help so he makes a mess out of Mountain who doesn't know what to do about the mess, so Army picks it up.

People who would like this show are people who like explorations of white masculinity, rhythmic boxing, and wickedly gleeful wrestling promoters. I think this is a compelling story and it has some great performances.

Photos: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review of Lifeline Theatre's The Man Who Was Thursday

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Man Who Was Thursday. It was adapted by Bilal Dardai based on the novel by G.K. Chesterton. It was directed by Jess Hutchinson. It was about a young poet named Gabriel Syme (Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo) who is recruited to be a police detective. He meets an anarchist poet, Lucien Gregory (Cory Hardin), who takes him to a secret anarchist meeting. The anarchists are led by the mysterious Sunday (Allison Cain) who is seen as all powerful and a person to be feared. Gabriel unexpectedly becomes Thursday, joining: the secretary who keeps everyone in line, Monday (Marsha Harman); Gogol, the outspoken Polish man, who is Tuesday (Christopher M, Walsh); The Marquis de St. Eustache, Wednesday (Corbette Pasko), an egotistical French person; the knowledgeable Professor de Worms, who is Friday (Linsey Falls); and the terrifying and stoic Dr. Bull, who is Saturday (Jen Ellison). But all is not as it appears when it comes to these anarchists' identities. It is about fear, appearances vs. reality, and camaraderie. I think this show has a great twist and was well-performed.

The characters Wednesday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, and Comrade Buttons (Sonia Goldberg), were all characters that were written as men in the book but played by women in the show. Monday's character was actually female in the play as, I believe, was Comrade Buttons. There is another character who is disguised as a man but is actually a woman, but I don't want to give that away. Many of the women actors seem to be playing male characters, and I noticed that those roles held higher positions of power in the organization. It was hard to tell if the adaptor was being true to the sexism of the time or couldn't imagine the more powerful characters as women, even if they were played by women. These casting choices could be metatheatrical, reminding the audience that it is a play and it is all about illusion. Plays depend on people pretending to be other people. It also pertains to the plot of this play, where no one is telling the truth about their identities.

This play was very humorous due to many of the recurring jokes. One of my favorite elements of visual humor was the obviously false beards. Whenever a character's true identity would get discovered, they would dramatically rip off their beard and declare who they truly were. Tuesday had an especially false beard, and stereotypical Polish accent, so when he was discovered it was a very jarring switch to his normal accent which I thought was hilarious. Also I thought that Lucien's monologue after he found out that he was not going to become the new Thursday, but instead Symes, who he just found out was a police officer, is going to be Thursday was absolutely hilarious. His facial expressions and melodramatic emotions alarmed the people around him. The reactions of his fellow anarchists were also effective and humorous. I also thought that Dr. Bull was funny in an unnerving way and the first time you hear his voice is hilarious. The way he could sense where people were made him like a stereotypical Bond villain. The Marquis was hilarious because of his conceited physical ad libbing, like when he would be checking his teeth in a knife.

People who would like this show are people who like recasting and rethinking older works, hilarious anarchists, and obviously false beards. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed the humor and wit of the play and performances.

Photos: Suzanne Plunkett

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review of Red Rex at Steep Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Red Rex. It was written by Ike Holter and directed by Jonathan Berry. It is about a theater company that has opened up in the gentrifying neighborhood of Rightlynd. The artistic director, Lana (Morgan Lavenstien when I saw it, usually Amanda Powell) is producing a play she wrote that revolves around the relationship of a lower class black mother who is played by Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner), a woman from the neighborhood who is acting in her first play, and an upper class white man, played by a company member Adam (Jack Miggins), and their unlikely love story. Revelations about the source of her play come to light when Trevor (Debo Balogun), a man from the neighborhood begins talking to company members. The company continues to try to produce this show and in the process the company’s own internalized racism comes to light. This deeply affects Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter), the stage manager, who comes to important realizations about the company and her own direction in life. It is about safety in art, appropriation, and privilege in theater. I think this is a really great show. It makes a lot of great points, is beautifully acted and written, and is hilarious as well.

The play was very good at showing realistic scenes of the struggles of rehearsing and producing a play in toxic environments. Red Rex is completely run by young idealists who don't seem to have any idea that what they are doing is unethical. For example, they did not have an intimacy choreographer in the show within the show (though they do for Red Rex--Christina Gorman). The director didn't think she needed one because she is a gay woman and didn't think she could make anyone uncomfortable. But the reason you have intimacy choreographers is because the director's vision can be more important to them than the wellbeing of their actors. It is kind of like a conflict of interest. The play was also very good at showing the relationships that people develop when they are involved in a show they think will suck or is problematic. Nicole and Adam start a romantic relationship (which is then weird and is then not weird) because they have bonded over their annoyance with Lana and the play. The stage manager, Tori, reaches out to the set designer, Max (Nate Faust) because they are both being mistreated/ignored by Lana. By the time the show opens they have gotten closer and related to each other because they've fought for each other to be respected. Tori has to endure the show Lana produced longer because she has to be there every night, watching the show over and over, a show that goes against so many things that she believes in. She has to keep watching all these scenes and interactions that she told Lana repeatedly made the actors uncomfortable. It doesn't destroy Tori's relationships with the actors because they are all trying.

The type of appropriation we see in this show is literally a white person taking a black person's story and passing it off as her own fictional work. It shows what is wrong with Chicago theater as well as appropriation more generally. It shows a situation where you might be tempted to excuse the appropriation because it appears to be well-meaning and not as obviously appropriative as something like Cher wearing a native american feather headdresses or dreadlocks. I don't think that playwrights shouldn't be able to write characters of different races. But it is especially not okay to take a story from someone who is an actual living person and has an actual life story and take it and tell them how they feel. Lana also changes the original story to have a happy ending that fits her idea of white people as heroes and consent as not always important. The managing director, Greg (Chris Chmelik), tries to bribe the person whose story it is into silence so that the company can profit from the story. Just because you pay someone for their story doesn't mean you have a right to tell it, especially if you are going to change it to make your own points.

Even though this play focuses on some very serious topics, it still has a lot of comedic scenes. One of my favorite of those scenes is where Lana explains the artistic vision for Jagged Surrender and you can see the pure concern on the character's faces. Because you can also see the audience across from you, you also see the concern on their faces for the very artsy bullcrap that Lana has decided to try to create. This was quite funny because I related to the experience of looking at a pitch for a show and just being confused. I also loved Tori's reactions to almost everything. She was so deadpan but you could still see her true reaction even though it was masked. The pitch of the poster to Lana when they had already made it seemed reasonable, but Lana's notes for it and her reaction were totally ridiculous. You see this reaction a lot when directors don't know what direction they want to go with a show, so they decide to ask you to take two opposing ideas and make them work together.

People who would like this show are people who like holding a mirror up to the Chicago theater community, realistic plays about plays, and making fun of artsy bullcrap. I think this is an amazing show. I loved the concept and it was done so well all around. I loved it.

Photos: Lee Miller, Gregg Gilman