Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Chicago Theater Workshop's Little Miss Sunshine

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Little Miss Sunshine. It was based on the film by Michael Arndt. The book was by James Lapine and the music was by William Finn. It was directed and choreographed by Maggie Portman and the music direction was by Nick Sula. It was about the Hoover family: Olive (Sophie Kaegi); Sheryl (Sharyon A. Culberson), her mother; Richard (Greg Foster), her father; her grandpa (Ken Rubenstein); her brother Dwayne (Kyle Klein II); and her uncle Frank (George Keating). They are going on a road trip so Olive can participate in a beauty pageant, but they don't always get along that well together. They are all trapped in a van together with nothing to do but think about their problems: drug addiction, depression, marital problems, teen problems, and self-doubt. It is about family, resilience, and accepting life. I think this show has a really interesting concept. I've never seen the movie before, so I don't know how many of its strengths and weaknesses were in this show. The script didn't feel like a completely intelligible musical for someone who hadn't seen the movie, but it certainly had some enjoyable moments.

There was a repeated visual moment of the family pushing the bus and struggling to get on it again. The bus was represented by a few character blocks, but the outside of the bus, which they would occasionally lower down, wasn't used in these scenes. They would use strobe lights and the family would lift each other up in slow motion, which was very cool to watch, but I feel like they might have used this too many times. Each sequence being a minute or two, it got slightly boring after you'd already seen it. This sequence is kind of like a metaphor for their family being broken but they all have to push hard and work together to make it work again. I think that is a good lesson to learn.

"I Can't Stand it Anymore" was a repeating song that the mother, father, and brother Dwayne sang. Each of the three sections of this song were about how life was terrible and things needed to change. This isn't the only song about how everything sucks, but I think it was the most well-orchestrated one. When the mother and the father sing it, it is about marital problems. But when it gets to the brother, it is about losing all of his dreams. The character Dwayne never talks until he finds out some terrible news. So he sings the third section of "I Can't Stand it Anymore" to express his unhappiness. It is surprising and interesting to see him talk for the first time in the show and for it to be such a display of anger and sadness. I've worked with Kyle before, so I knew he had an amazing voice, and I was afraid they weren't going to let him sing or talk in this show, so I was very very thankful that they did give him a song and he did a great job with it.

The very last song, "Shake Your Bandonkadonk," was sure a toe-tapper. It was sung by Olive during her pageant. It was not the most appropriate of songs for a young girl and that made it hilarious. She absolutely rocked this song. I thought it was super sweet how at the end of the song her entire family started to sing and dance with her, even though she was being kicked off for singing an inappropriate song. That shows you that even if something goes wrong, the whole family will stand up for each other, and that is what they have learned throughout the course of this road trip. It was also super weird to hear that the grandpa had helped choreograph this entire dance, but you know that the grandpa really did love Olive and was just trying to do what was going to make her win the pageant. He doesn't understand the rules of the pageant, but he does understand what the pageant is actually about that people don't want to admit: putting a bunch of young girls on display for people to judge their bodies. He doesn't really object to it like I do, or find it as creepy, he just knows what it actually is.

People who would like this show are people who like dark family comedies, slo-mo jumping onto buses, and shaking your badonkadonk. This show had a lot of fun parts and there were some good performances. The audience seemed to really enjoy it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review of Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's Great Expectations

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Great Expectations. It was by Charles Dickens and it was adapted by Tanika Gupta. It was co-directed by Lavina Jadhwani and Nick Sandys. It was about a boy named Pip (Anand Bhatt) who was growing up in Bengal. He was sent to play at old, rich Miss Havisham's house (Linda Gillum), and he wanted to grow up to be a gentleman so that he could impress the girl that he had been playing with there, Estella (Netta Walker). He gets his chance from a benefactor who remains nameless. We get to watch him learn how to become a gentleman, but also see how it is more important to be a vital part of society and appreciate where you came from. It is about how love doesn't always work out, being a gentleman is more than just having money, and how it feels to be a stranger in new places and how you can also feel like you are a stranger in your home. I thought that this was a really great show. I have never seen a version like this of Great Expectations, and I really, really enjoyed it.

Love is a very prominent topic in this show. But not just romantic love. One example is Herbert Pocket (Lane Anthony Flores) and Pip. They have a very sweet and pedagogical relationship, but their roles change over the course of the play. At first Herbert teaches Pip things like table manners, but later Pip starts to teach him about being more accepting of different cultures. Also Joe (Anish Jethmalani) and Pip have a familial relationship. Joe is like a father to Pip even though they aren't actually related by blood. (Joe is Pip's brother-in-law.) He always says "Ever the best of friends, Pip." It is heartbreaking to watch Joe be so devastated at Pip's leaving the village for the city of Calcutta. Joe's wife (Alka Nayyar) was very strict and wanted the best for Pip but she didn't think he was grateful enough. She doesn't really show love to him until the end. She provides for him, and I don't think she would have done that if she didn't love him, but it is hard to see the love because she is so brutal about it. There are also romantic relationships like Estella and Pip and like Biddy (Rasika Ranganathan) and Pip. Biddy has romantic feelings for Pip, but sadly they are not accepted until it's too late. Biddy still loves him even after she gets married, but, because she is a faithful wife, she only expresses platonic love to Pip after she is married. Estella and Pip seem to both love each other, but Estella is a bit too stuck up to tell Pip about her feelings. Love in this play doesn't seem to always work out the way that we hope it will, but it is always there in every form.

Pip becomes a gentleman even though in the 1800s it wasn't the most normal thing to have somebody from the lower class become a gentleman. The external part of being a gentleman is manners, a posh accent (which he gets from hanging out with Herbert), English clothes, and money. One of my favorite scenes was when Herbert was teaching Pip how to have more genteel table manners. This scene plays differently than other Great Expectations that I've seen. In the ones I've seen before there is just a class difference between Pip and Herbert. But what is going on here is a class difference but also a cultural difference because Pip has probably not used a fork before because that is not a part of his everyday culture. The scene is funny because you see how polite Herbert is being despite being confused by how Pip doesn't know the English manners that Herbert was taught. But Pip seems hungry and scared and nervous about being in a restaurant, so that makes it less hilarious because you feel sorry for him. I think they did that on purpose because it emphasizes how much of a stranger Pip is in this new place. I think the moral of the whole play is that gentility is not really having good manners at the table but being kind to others and helping them out when they have problems. Both Herbert and Pip learn how to do that when they start helping out Magwitch (Robert D. Hardaway). Magwitch isn't seen by the world as a gentleman, but he is very generous and kind. He has been to jail, he didn't go to school, and because he was born in Africa he isn't given the same privileges white people have.

I think this play's main theme was being a stranger. Of course Pip is an example because he moves to the city when he was in the country before. But you also see so many other people being introduced to new places. Magwitch didn't feel like he was home anymore in Africa because his country had been taken over by white men. So he becomes a sailor and he is a stranger in all the places that he travels. Then he becomes a criminal and is treated unfairly and so they send him to the Andaman Islands, which is like a giant jail. The scene where Magwitch is talking about how it feels to be a stranger everywhere he goes is very sad; the actor seemed to be really feeling the pain and it was a beautiful performance. Estella is also a stranger because she was given away and sent to a strange old house to live with a recluse when she was only three. She got used to it and, when she was put in a boarding school when she was a teenager, she got used to that. As you can see she seems really good at readjusting, but you see that she hides her feelings all the time. By the end you learn she is not as cold as people think. I think that it is a really nice touch for Estella to have a soft side, even though she doesn't show it to anyone in her life. But the audience sees it in the way she looks at Pip when they meet as young adults. Joe is another example of feeling out of place. When he goes to visit Pip, he doesn't know any of the customs and he does stuff like spit his tea out onto the plate. You feel sorry for him because he just doesn't know what to do and he's scared and just wants to get it over with. Joe is a very lovable character, which makes it even harder to see him out of place and terrified.

People who would like this show are people who like table manners, new takes on Dickens, and being ever the best of friends. I think that people should definitely go see this show. I think this adaptation captures the true meaning of Great Expectations, even though it has differences from the book. They still had a lot of my favorite scenes in it. It is so much fun. I really loved it.

Photos: Johnny Knight

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review of First Floor Theater's American Hero

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called American Hero. It was by Bess Wohl and it was directed by Cody Estle. It was about a sandwich shop and there were three employees, Jamie (Annie Prichard), Ted (Chris Daley), and Sheri (SaraĆ­ Rodriguez), and it was about each of their individual lives. Sheri is trying to take care of her sick dad. Ted wants to be able to get a better job higher up in the corporation than just a sandwich finisher after losing his job at Bank of America. Jamie had kids and was in a custody battle with her ex-husband. Bob (Brian McKnight) owns the franchise and eventually decides to run off into the sunset without a word leaving his employees to fend for themselves. It is about developing friendships, falling on rough times, and trying to give people what they want. I think this show was a lot of fun. It had a lot of funny and touching moments. I really liked it.

I really loved the set by Jeffrey D. Kmiec. It looked so realistic; it transported me to a sub shop in a mall in the middle of nowhere. It even smelled like pickles to me. The billboard they had on the window was so cheesy and the whole restaurant was red and blue, which I personally think are not the most flattering colors for a restaurant, which added to the atmosphere more. It was kind of like an even more depressing Subway and that was appropriate! The costumes (Sarah Jo White) also really added to the atmosphere because the uniforms did really remind you of every sub shop you've ever been to. The uniforms for the sub shop really showed that all of these people were all being de-personalized by the corporation. But you also see them in their street clothes, which showed more of their personalities. Ted was very put-together and businesslike. It almost seemed like he still thought he was working at a bank. You see by Sheri's clothes how hard of a worker she is and also how tired she is because she is always wearing a sweatshirt and stretch pants. And Jamie is very put-together, but not businesslike like Ted, but more to call attention to herself.

The first scene was a job interview between Bob and Sheri. Bob was basically asking her a few question and then had her fill out a job application. He looked at it for like two seconds and said, "You're hired!" I found this funny because his standards were so low for people to work at his sandwich shop that he didn't even care what was on her job application. And she didn't seem to care at all about even really seeming interested in the job, which I found funny. I really liked the scene where they were all learning what they had to do as their part of the job. They had to make a sandwich in twenty seconds flat. And it was so anxiety-provoking and hilarious at the same time. Jamie wouldn't even fully wrap the sandwiches, but Ted would very meticulously choose his meats like this was a walk in the park and not a vital situation. And Sheri had the easiest job and just squirted mustard on the bread with a glare on her face. And Bob would ask her questions and she wouldn't know the full answer so she would just say one thing and trail off, and that was hilarious. I think probably the strangest scene I have seen in the whole history of scenes was when a giant, floaty, fear-eating sandwich (Brian McKnight) came to the sandwich shop in the middle of the night to tell Sheri she must save the sandwich shop by making her own sandwiches. It was a super hilarious scene and also just so weird.

These characters are not the most likable characters the first time you meet them. But as the play goes on, you do really come to love them. The audience learns more things about the characters in every scene. What you learn explains why the characters make the decisions they make. They were all such quirky characters, and none of them were in a good place, so they made bad decisions, but the bad decisions made them seem more human. As a result, you get to see them grow more throughout the entire play which makes you have a closer relationship to the characters. I'm not saying anything more specific because a lot of the nice things they do for each other are huge spoilers. So, you'll have to go and see the show!

People who would like this show are people who like the smell of pickles, slowly choosing meats, and fear-eating sandwiches. I think people should go see this show. I think this is a super fun show. I really enjoyed it!

Photos: Ian McLaren

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of The Plagiarists' Circle House

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Circle House. It was conceived and edited by Jessica Wright Buha and it was directed by Kate Nawrocki. It was a promenade-style tour with three different tracks. Circle House is a rehabilitation center for people who don't want to leave the world and stop being ghosts. Tick (Jhenai Mootz), Tack (Judi Schindler), and Tock (Sara Jean McCarthy) are not ghosts, they are time, but also have the job to help the ghosts get on their way. You'll follow either Tick, Tack, or Tock and the ghost that they are in charge of. I followed Bracken (Elaine Small) and Tick. The show, at least the track I saw, is about memory, forgiveness, and how hard it is to let go. I thought that this was a really moving and enjoyable play. It had some really memorable and beautiful moments. I really liked it.

This entire show took place in the North Mansion in Berger Park and you walked around the mansion in the course of the play. One of the most memorable scenes for me was the scene when Bracken was remembering when she played this game with her brother Peter (Graham Emmons) and they would do this boat ride where one person would have their eyes closed and the other would be narrating everything that was happening. I thought it was a super sweet moment to see them play a game that seemed genuinely like a game kids would play. It seemed like they are both on an equal level, which might be unusual for siblings, but I think their bond was strong enough that it didn't seem fake. It is also really nice to see them throughout their entire relationship with each other, so you get to see how it evolves. It was a really interesting thing to watch.

There is one task that Bracken is set to do, which is basically to cut a worm in half. And she really doesn't want to do it, so she decides to name the worm. The audience gets to name the worm. In our case, it was Timothy. And that made you love the worm even more and worry for him. And then Bracken is basically hiding a fugitive worm in a Tic Tac box for the rest of the show. That is hilarious but also kind of sweet. And they keep giving you scares that Tick was going catch the worm. Of course you are on Timothy and Bracken's side the entire time. At points you might forget Timothy is there, but various encounters will remind you that he is there, and at the end Timothy is very important. I think this situation sets up your feelings about Tick to be more complex because she seems to be against the worm and Bracken.

There is an issue that is brought up in the show that I am still thinking about and want to talk about. Basically the entire point of this rehabilitation center for ghosts is to make it ok for them to let go. And there were people, kind of like their coaches, who were saying that is what they should do. But the coaches come to be seen as the villains of the play and they would always walk in and try to stop the fun of the vision that came with memories the ghosts had. I feel like even though you don't want to forget things, it is okay to forget, especially if it does bring you pain to remember. I think just dispersing into the universe after death is a good idea. If you can't see people you love in real life, I think letting go would be the best idea. But I don't feel like the play agreed with me in the end, and that's okay to have different opinions. But I do feel that the way the play ended was not the way I agreed with emotionally. It didn't make me like the play less, it just made me think about the issue more.

People who would like this show are people who like boat games, stories about memory, and fugitive worms. I think that people should go see this show. I think it is a really great experience, and I really enjoyed it. I would love to find out what the other stories that were being told were!

Photos: Joe Mazza at BraveLux

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review of Haven Theatre's We're Gonna Die

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called We're Gonna Die. It was by Young Jean Lee, and it was directed by Josh Sobel. The music director was Spencer Meeks. It was a compilation of stories about life from childhood to adulthood and songs performed by the storyteller/singer (Isa Arciniegas) and her band (Sarah Giovannetti, Jordan Harris, Meeks, and Elle Walker). It is about life, death, and how we should savor what we have. I thought this was a really moving and fun show. The songs were really catchy and I thought all the performers were great and, even though the singer was the one telling the stories, all the performers were really present. I really liked it.

The first story was really sweet. It was about the singer's friends she had as a child. It was about them playing a game on their bikes: basically two of them were murderers and had killed the other's husband and she wanted to get revenge. But it grew sad because eventually they all grew apart from each other and her friends started being mean to her and running away whenever she came up to them. I identified with the strange games that you would play as a child and also the rejection that you can get from other kids. The later stories were mostly about things that haven't happened to me yet. I think it was good that they put in something that even younger people could relate to, even though the show is not specifically for kids.

There was a song that was an impersonation of the singer's mother's impersonation of her own grandmother. It was basically about how crappy it is to be old. She would shift back and forth between creepy old grandma and her own voice. I thought that was funny. She is hobbling around the stage and creeping out her fellow band members with the lecture about how everything will suck when you are old that she is singing. She also had another strange family member who was her uncle. He turned out not to be weird but human, and he just didn't know how to express himself. He was a bachelor and everyone thought that he was weird. And one night, the singer snuck into his room to play a joke on him. And she was going to grab his ankles when he went to bed, but he just ended up falling asleep at his desk while yelling at himself, which is really sad. I think if I had been under the bed at that time, I would have been terrified because seeing someone that is an adult breaking down is just scary because you think they are the people that are supposed to make everything better.

Now for the title song, "We're Gonna Die." I have never heard such a catchy song about the inevitability of death. It was kind of comforting in saying that it would all be ok if you were dead. But it was kind of not comforting because it was saying that it is still going to hurt a bunch of people. I think you want to make a good impression on the world before you die, so it is good if people are sad, but you still want them to get over it. They released balloons, even though it was a song about death, and it actually was a lot of fun throwing around balloons with the rest of the audience. It reminds you that life is too short to spend thinking about death all the time, and it is better just to have fun with everyone when you can.

People who would like this show are people who like murderous bike games, catchy songs about death, and mortality balloons. I think people should go see this show. It is a fun, sad, and epiphanic experience. I loved it.

Photos: Austin D. Oie

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Theatre Above the Law's What Rhymes With America

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called What Rhymes With America. It was by Melissa James Gibson and directed by Tony Lawry. It was about a father named Hank (Dan Sauer) who was trying to rebuild his relationship with his daughter Marlene (Olivia Nicholson) after he has gotten a divorce from his wife. He is trying to win back his wife, but is also interested in other women. There's a woman named Sheryl (Brittany Vogel) who is being a supernumerary with him in the opera. And they seem to be a good match for each other, but he seems to be more interested in the awkward aspiring writer, Lydia (Alicia Ciuffini), but it seems that his (unseen) wife always gets in the way. It is about family, trying to find love, and deeply flawed people. I think this show had a lot of interesting moments and characters.

I was really surprised that a show that had mostly women characters did not pass the Bechdel test. Most of the scenes have Hank in them, and even when Marlene and Lydia have a conversation together they are mostly talking about Lydia's dad who has died. And then Hank even enters that scene. I thought it was troubling that the women never talk to each other and the few seconds they talk together it was about their dads. The main character is a man, and the play is about all the women in his life but mostly in the context of their relationships with Hank.

Sheryl and Hank's scenes were very humorous and uncomfortably funny because she was always complaining how she never got any acting roles. She doesn't understand why no one wants to cast her, but the audience could kind of see that it was because she was overdramatic as a person and also in all of her roles. There is a funny moment where she does the audition for Hank that she had done earlier for Lady Macbeth and had been cut off in the middle. Which, if you know anything about auditions, if they ever say "That's all we need to see," that is not a good sign! When she is doing it for Hank, she is gesturing a lot and using invisible props and she is using the language like she's trying to impress her audience. She also basically explains everything that she is doing to Hank so he will understand her acting better. And I kept wondering if she did that in the audition. If she did, that might have been the reason why she was stopped in the middle of the audition! I kind of feel sorry for her, but at the same time it is hilarious to watch her lack of self-awareness, but also slightly sad.

I thought it was really interesting how the first and last scenes of the play take place with Hank and Marlene on opposites sides of a door because Hank's ex-wife doesn't want them to see each other. He really loves his daughter and he wants to be able to see her again. I think there are some sweet moments in these scenes. I thought they were heartbreaking and some of the best scenes in the play. I think it was realistic how Marlene reacted to her parents getting a divorce. She started getting all emo and writing these songs about deep stuff. It was funny and sad at the same time.

People who would like this show are people who like stories about dads, songs about deep stuff, and over-explained Lady Macbeths. I think this show has good moments and I think a lot of people will really enjoy finding humor in the very flawed people.

Photos: Molly Maloney

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review of Circle Mirror Transformation at Redtwist Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Circle Mirror Transformation. It was by Annie Baker and it was directed by Scott Weinstein. It was about an acting class at the community center in a small town and about the relationships between people in the class. The teacher Marty (Lynda Shadrake), is married to one of the students James (Adam Bitterman). There's also a teenager, Lauren (Talia Payomo), a former actress from New York, Theresa (Emily Tate), and a recently divorced carpenter, Schultz (Michael Sherwin). It is about regret, doing what is best for yourself, and community. I think this was a super moving but also humorous show. It had amazing actors and you really felt like you were part of the class and in that room.

There were a lot of really relatable moments for anyone who has ever taken an acting class. One of the most cringeworthy moments was when Schultz was asking everyone to reenact his childhood bedroom. That involved having people become a bed, a tree, a baseball glove, and a stuffed snake. They are trying to make it feel like his bedroom, but he decides it doesn't, so instead of just saying "great job, guys" he decides to just say, "No. This doesn't look like my bedroom." Well of course it won't actually look like his bedroom because it is a bunch of people bending into shapes to try to look like things in his bedroom. If it resembles his bedroom slightly, it means they did a pretty good job. You have to accept that the exercise is about trying to capture the spirit of something, not exactly recreating it. It was also really relatable how the out-of-class relationships impacted the class. You could see people slowly realizing that people were together as a couple or liked each other or were mad at each other. It is so perfect because it shows you all of the drama of drama class.

Schultz and Theresa's relationship was insanely complicated because they were infatuated with each other for a while, but then Theresa saw they weren't right for each other, but he clung on like a barnacle. They still want to take this class, but they are angry at each other. They are trying to get in touch with who they really are in class, but then their relationships in class alter who they really are. Marty wants to use the acting class to help people find who they really are, but she is devastated when she finds out secrets about her own husband. Lauren wants to actually learn how to act, which I don't blame her for, it actually being an acting class and all. It is sad when she finds out it isn't actually what she thought it was. But even though it isn't really the class she was looking for, she still learned a lot about living actual life from it and started an important relationship.

The last scene was heartbreaking. You realize that things that happened in class ended things for some of the characters. (I'm being vague because this is the last scene and I don't want to give away to much.) It was bittersweet because there were also things that people have talked about in class, like about their dreams, that you find out come true. That made me really happy to see characters you have grown to love be so happy. You realize that the conversation that you think is just an exercise in the drama class is actually in real life years from now. The final scene shows you that all the stuff in the class that seemed pointless and cringeworthy is really helpful for people in the future to help them become successful people if not successful actors.

People who would like this show are people who like the drama of drama class, complicated relationships, and human baseball gloves. I think people should go see this show. It is funny, touching, and I really liked it. It closes soon, so don't miss it!

Photos: Jan Ellen Graves