Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Gift Theatre's Kentucky

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Kentucky. It was by Leah Nanako Winkler and it was directed by Chika Ike. It was about a woman named Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) who is coming back to her hometown in Kentucky for her little sister Sophie's (Harmony Zhang when I saw it, usually Hannah Toriumi) wedding--to talk her out of it. Sophie is now a born-again Christian and is marrying the pastor's son Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes). She feels guilty for leaving her sister and her mother, Masako (Helen Joo Lee), with an abusive father and husband James (Paul D'Addario), so she returns to try to get them to come to New York with her. It is about what home is, lost connections, and different types of love. I think this is an insanely well-written show with fantastic actors and great direction. It was overall an amazing show.

At first I thought that this was going to be a play about the damage that religion has done to families and the world and that I would be rooting for Hiro to rescue her sister. But instead it has a highly respectful view of religion even if the main character doesn't agree with religion as a concept. It shows how some people need religion in their lives to survive and some people don't find comfort in that and how these two types of people can cohabitate and love each other. I liked that the minister, Ernest (Michael E. Martin) and his wife, Amy (Jessica Vann), despite the usual stereotypes, were genuinely nondiscriminatory and kind Kentucky Christians. The Christians in this play, their religion is based on love and forgiveness. So even when Sophie's father lashes out and yells at his own family and his daughter's new family, they forgive him because that is what they believe is right.

I really like this playwright's dark humor, and I especially liked it in this show. When Masako found out that her beloved cat Sylvie (Martel Manning) had died, she was so devastated that she carried around the body in a Cheesecake Factory bag from the rehearsal dinner. This at first seemed funny because it was a callback to two separate things--the cat dying (which was, at first, performed as a comedic bit) and going to Cheesecake Factory (which everyone except for Hiro was much too excited about). But then it becomes a depressing scene of her cradling and singing to her dead cat because she felt like Sylvie was the only living thing that loved her. It shows really layered writing, which gives the audience multiple things to hone in on. There is also one section where Hiro and her high school friends (Emilie Modaff and Maryam Abdi) are out at a bar and start counting how many people at their school died in motorcycle accidents and from drug overdoses. But then when Hiro actually encounters Adam (Manning), whose friend died from a drug overdose, she sees him as a real person instead of this faceless victim. This play has dark humor, but it also uses a character's realizations about dark humor to further her development.

This play tackles trauma and the effects of "life-ruining" people. James, the father, had abused his wife and children for years, but his wife has stuck with him this whole time and forgiven him. There was a moment that made the strength of Masako's choice clear, when she talks about how when her husband has Alzheimers and she is changing his diaper, he will finally love her and say thank you for everything she has done. She has been waiting for him to love her for so long and has this light at the end of the tunnel she is hoping will happen. But of course that is not guaranteed; she is feeding herself lies and hurting her daughters through that. This creates a distance that she is painfully aware of. Every time she sees something that reminds her that her daughter is getting married, she says, "I'm losing her," which is absolutely heartbreaking. This role was played beautifully and I think Lee fully captured the pain and love Masako had, while still letting her have comedic moments which are needed for a character like this. (The rest of the paragraph may be a spoiler, so skip it if you are worried about that.) Hiro ends up walking her sister down the aisle in the place of their father. But before she decides to, it seems like she might refuse to do it. That shows how Hiro is scared of becoming her dad. But her choice to do it in the end shows that she has learned from the trauma of how her father has treated her how to change to be what her sister needs in that moment. In the end, their father shows up and sees what role he has truly played in his daughters' lives, but of course, since he is who he is, he never apologizes and says he thinks the whole idea of walking your daughter down the aisle is stupid. At the same time, Hiro lets herself let her sister have her own life the way she wants to do it, which really ties together that relationship in a way that is not neat but fully realizes that relationship which i think was the exact right thing to do.

People who would like this show are people who like good Kentucky Christians, the fear of becoming your parents, and Cheesecake Factory caskets. I think this is the perfect dark family dramedy. The relationships within the show are amazing, the play is performed wonderfully, and it is written and directed perfectly. I love it so much.

Photos: Claire Demos

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review of WildClaw Theatre's Hell Followed With Her

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hell Followed With Her. It was written by Bill Daniel and directed by Josh Zagoren. It was about a woman named Willow (Sophia Rosado) who comes to the town of Dodge, Texas looking for a criminal on the run, Glanton (George Zarante). The people in the saloon she has walked into notice that she is a bit unusual, but they all have secrets of their own. As a zombie plague infects the town, the saloon-goers slowly notice the strange happenings and become more involved with them than they ever wanted. The show is about strangers, revenge, and having to make difficult choices. I think this is an intriguing concept with some unforgettable characters.

The atmosphere at Wild Claw shows is always very immersive. From the second you walk into the space you really feel the dread and terror that is to come. By the time you walk through the hallway into the onstage saloon, many of the actors already were on stage drinking and talking. The set (co-designed by Rachel Watson and Greg Williamson) had a natural chaos about it. The tables didn't seem to be in their original places but everyone seemed used to it. Maybe there had been a bar fight three years ago and all the tables got pushed to the side and no one ever put them back because they didn't care about it. The lighting (Conchita Avitia) was very dark and natural to the location. The costumes (Satoe Schechner) seemed very lived-in which was perfect for the outlaw vibe of every character. Even if they weren't all technically outlaws, they sure dressed like them.

One of my favorite characters was Shelby (Nora King), who was part of Glanton's clan. She frequently had witty interjections that I was always looking forward to. This character was blind and was a lot smarter than people took her for. She knew a lot about being a criminal and guns and it was funny to see everyone's reaction to her extensive knowledge. Another character I really liked was Cole (Josh Razavi when I saw it, usually Ardarius Blakely). He was a very stoic man; he didn't talk or move for a good chunk of the first act. He seemed to have a soft spot for Willow and he didn't seem to want to hurt anyone, despite coming off as a tough guy. Denton (Gregory Madden) was the sheriff and genuinely seemed like a good person. He was the only person who from start to finish seemed to be doing everything for the greater good. In a show with zombies and outlaws, I think a stable presence whose motive is keeping peace is something that is welcome. I wish I had known more about these characters; I would have enjoyed more in-depth explorations of a few characters instead of having little bits about a very large cast of characters.

This show had gender-blind casting, which is something I usually like in a show because it gives opportunities to gender nonconforming folks and women in shows with largely male casts, which are a lot of shows in the history of theater. I think this play wanted to be feminist and inclusive. It features a strong female central character and a majority non-male-identifying cast. But the majority of the characters in the show were male-identifying, even when played by women and people who were gender nonconforming. They are not telling many female stories, and the one major female story that they tell ends up turning into a straight romance, when the story didn't need it. It would be an interesting town if the characters who had traditionally male pursuits in the time period (and were played by non-male actors) were women and nonconforming characters. I know sometimes scripts can't be changed, but since this was a world premiere, maybe it could have been revised to better reflect the casting or clarify why most of the characters had to be male.

People who would like this show are people who like westerns, immersive atmosphere, and zombie bar fights. I think this is a cool show. It is perfect if you are in a spooky mood.

Photos: Clark Bender/WildClaw Theatre

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review of Promethean Theatre Ensemble's Blue Stockings

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Blue Stockings. It was by Jessica Swale and it was directed by Spenser Davis. It was about a group of girls in the late nineteenth century at Girton College in Cambridge, who were very controversial for their time because women were not yet given the right to graduate with degrees from Cambridge. It is about choosing between knowledge and romance, threats to female friendship, and self-worth. I think this is an intriguing idea for a show, and it was interesting to learn about these women characters.

I noticed how the women students at Girton--Tess (Heather Kae Smith), Celia (Julia Rowley), Maeve (Imani Lyvette), and Carolyn (Elise Marie Davis)--seemed to be using men's words (in the form of quotation) to make their points in class. It shows that all of the ideas that were respected by society in that time were the ideas of men. By the end they begin to express their own theories and ideas, moving from quotation to contradiction of male theories. They are led to this new way of thinking by their teacher, Miss Blake (Cameron Feagin), who showed them their ideas were just as smart if not smarter than any man's and that they had a right to express them. We see the male students drinking and having fun, while the women have to work five times as hard to try to gain access to (but probably not even get) the achievements that the boys are getting. While all the women are working their butts off, the men are drunkenly proclaiming that women will never be as smart as men are.

I thought the female friendships were very compelling, but I would have liked to have seen more attention paid to them. The female friendships were what I found most interesting, but the play spends a lot of time focused on the men and how misogynistic they are instead of giving the female characters more stage time and character development. The most compelling moments were moments of human connection like when Tess was having a breakdown because she was too focused on her relationship on a boy from another college in the university and wasn't paying attention to her studies. Tess starts to open up to Celia about how she thinks she will never succeed so it seems useless to try. This was one of my favorite moments in the show because you get to see Celia grow because she starts to help Tess in an authoritative way, which we haven't seen from her. Celia always seemed afraid of her brain power and wants to make herself smaller. But in this moment she sees Tess in need and she is propelled by that moment to be brutally honest, talk about herself, and give advice in a unapologetic way. I was sad that the first act ended with the permanent departure of my favorite character, Maeve, because she seemed to be the most mature, intelligent, and likable character in the show. She has to return home to care for her family because the head of Girton, Elizabeth Welsh (Jamie Bragg) believes that appearances are more important than the actual education of women. She is obsessed with getting men's approval for her college, and to do that, women have to appear to value traditional female roles and duties over their education.

I found the focus of the play inconsistent in an unhelpful way, especially in the second act because it shifted its focus from the relationships within Girton to the men and their place in the lives of the women. And at the end, after focusing on a fictional love triangle (between Tess, Ralph [Kevin Sheehan], and Will [Martin Diaz-Valdes]), the play tries to tie it all up like the end of a documentary. I was also disappointed in how the climactic scene of the play featured pretty much only monologues from men, as if the play is more interested in the male view of the situation even though we already know these men's views from earlier in the play. Their pitying apologies weren't convincing at all to me. I'm not sure they were supposed to be, but I was't sure why such meaty monologues were needed if we weren't supposed to be convinced.

People who would like this show are people who like learning about feminism, historical fiction, and drunken male proclamations. I think this is an interesting topic for a show. It has inspired me to look more into this time in history and learn more about the lives of women pursuing education and advancement.

Photos: Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography

Monday, September 30, 2019

Review of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's Howards End

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Howards End. It was adapted by Douglas Post from the novel by E.M. Forster, and it was directed by Nick Sandys. It was about a woman named Margaret Schlegel (Eliza Stoughton), who was very close to a woman, Ruth Wilcox, whose dying wish was to have Margaret inherit Howards End from her. However, Ruth's family decides to ignore her wishes about the property. Margaret and her sister Helen (Heather Chrisler), end up being very close to the Wilcox family after this betrayal, of which they are unaware. The sisters meet a man named Leonard (Terry Bell) after a concert, and they want to help him better his financial situation so he can be as artistic as he can be. This show is about money, intelligence, and the inequality of straight romantic relationships. I think this show is empowering and captivating, and I liked it.

I thought the women's relationships were very interesting to look at in this show. Dolly Wilcox (Emily Tate) sees other women as a threat and Jacky Bast (Jodi Kingsley) sees them as competition. We feel the relationship between Margaret and Ruth, even though we never see it, because it very clearly influenced Margaret. Her opening monologue describes her relationship with Ruth and the time they spent together. Ruth was a comforting presence in Margaret's life. I don't think Margaret thought she was as important to Ruth as she really was because Ruth wasn't a very expressive person, and Margaret didn't know about the gift of Howards End, which would represent independence from male figures, freedom from marriage, and a place for her and her sister to feel safe. The sisters's relationship reflects Margaret's with Ruth, but Margaret takes on the role of Ruth, by becoming Helen's sanctuary. In fact Howards End is a place where women can feel safe, but also independent. I think the key thing is that they don't feel like they are hiding at Howards End, they feel safe, and independently so. Howards End is a system of female inheritance that has been thrown off by toxic masculine systems and by the women who feel safer within those masculine systems.

The production elements were visually striking. During Margaret's opening monologue, there were all these people standing around with umbrellas. When the scene ended, they bustled along like nothing had happened, which shows how everyone is moving on after Ruth's death, but Margaret is stuck because she doesn't have the property from Ruth that would give her independence. It also shows that Margaret is more of a "noticer" than other people. I liked how every setting used many similar elements (furniture, floor, and walls). At first it seemed like it was just because they understandably didn't have time in transitions to change the whole set. But later I understood the effect it has to unsettle the audience and make us feel like Margaret, Helen, and Leonard, who are all searching for home. Margaret, Helen, and Leonard discover that a place can feel like home, but it has more to do with the people in the place. Helen feels like home to Leonard. Her sister is home to Helen, and Howards End is only really a home for Margaret when her sister is there. Even when they sleep outside, they feel like they are at home together.

Leonard Bast is a victim of society and circumstance. Even when the Schlegel sisters try to help him, they don't really understand his situation. They sit around being intellectuals all the time, and they want him to be able to do what they do because they see he is a very smart person. But the problem with that is that they are not giving him the one thing that they have that he doesn't--an independent income. If they had stayed out of his life, the tragic events that follow probably wouldn't have happened. The play seems to be saying that you should help unfortunate people but with the thing they need not with unrealistic expectations without support.

People who would like this show are people who like feminist sanctuaries, indirect but specific narratives about society, and symbolic umbrellas. I think this is a really intriguing show. It had so many interesting connections that I loved dissecting. I really liked it.

Photos: Michael Courier

Monday, September 9, 2019

Review of Teatro ZinZanni's Love, Chaos & Dinner

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Love, Chaos & Dinner. It is a cabaret with circus acts, comedy and food, and it was directed by Norm Langill. It was a farcical, witty, suggestive night of exuberant spectacle. It was a really fun group experience; it felt like the whole audience was at one big dinner party hosted by slightly insane people.

Rizo (Amelia Zirin-Brown) is the songstress of Teatro ZinZanni. She has an insanely powerful voice, and she absolutely rocked one of my favorite songs, Lizzo's "Cuz I Love You." She was so extravagant as she sang the song. But then this song transitioned into a comedy act of her trying to find her soul mate, who was apparently in the audience that night. And it was absolutely hilarious. She sultrily strutted through the audience looking for her new mate and then proceeded to aggressively flirt and to transform everything an audience member said into a double entendre. She was an amazing improviser and was so hilarious I was cry-laughing in my seat. When she identifies her true love, she has him write his name on her so that she won't forget him. She is absolutely going all out and it is hilarious to see her take everything so far. She is super confident but she is also a complete weirdo. It's amazing.

I absolutely loved the aerial act, Duo Rose. They were both so strong, the movements seemed effortless and graceful. There was so much emotion in each movement and every move connected. They seemed like one person. Each move was in perfect time with their partner. The lyra act by Elena Gatilova was absolutely amazing. There was a lovely twist because the character she was playing seemed very far from the person who did the lyra. She was so graceful, in her arm movement especially. She also seemed to trust herself a lot. There was a certain fluidity that made every single move even more breathtaking. You can see even more how amazing both these acts are because of how close you are to them in the intimate Spiegeltent ZaZou. The Anastasini Brothers had an Icarian act, which is a balancing act with a juggling act (where you juggle a person with your feet), and lots of acrobatics and landing on each other's feet. It was absolutely stunning and crazy to watch. You have to be super in-tune with the other person and have the rhythm. Everything is very precise. But they also seemed to be having a lot of fun with the other person.

Chef Caesar (Frank Ferrante) was the "chef." (The delicious food was actually designed by Debbie Sharpe, which is good because Caesar did not seem like he was in his right mind.) His character is chaotic and lusty. He decided to hold a competition to see who was "man enough" to take over for him. He selected three men from the audience. One of my favorite jobs that one of them had was a pharmacist/drag queen, which I absolutely loved. Caesar also had some amazing improv skills that were showcased in this bit. There is also the brilliantly weird comedy duo of Joe De Paul and Tim Tyler. They were hilarious together, but also had great featured moments. Tyler had a moment where he started to choke on ping pong balls that seemed to materialize in his mouth. He would spit them out and catch them in his mouth, often storing several in his mouth at the same time. It is very strange but absolutely hilarious and strangely impressive. There is another hilarious bit of comedy that had a pretty amazing build up. De Paul started unloading a trashcan that had boxes, a chess piece, a barbie doll, and celery. And he got into the trashcan, stripped to his underwear, and pretended to be King Kong, eating the celery tree and capturing the half-chess-piece-half-barbie-doll. It was absolutely brilliant.

People who would like this show are people who like powerful voices paired with powerful pickup lines, intimate and gorgeous circus, and King Kong creations. This show is funny, insane, and beautiful. I think this was an amazing show. It was a really fun time, and I definitely recommend seeing it.

Photos: Alan Alabastro

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review of The Band's Visit (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Band's Visit. The music and lyrics were by David Yazbek, and the book was by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin. It was directed by David Cromer. It was about a band from Egypt, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who have been asked to perform at the cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel but they end up in the similarly named but small and uneventful town of Bet Hatikvah. When asking for directions, they meet Dina (Chilina Kennedy), Papi (Adam Gabay), and Itzik (Pomme Koch) at Dina's cafe. She decides the town will take them in until they can catch a bus in the morning, but the night is more eventful than anyone had expected. This show is about life-changing experiences, perceptions of importance, and unexpected connections. I think this is a gorgeous show. It has amazing actors and beautiful songs. This is one of my new favorite musicals.

Band members Simon (James Rana) and Camal (Ronnie Malley) stay in Itzik's house with his wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse), father-in-law, Avrum (David Studwell), and baby son. At first, the family seems abrasive, but in sharing stories, they all begin to bond. The first time you see them starting to connect is in the song "The Beat of Your Heart," in which Avrum talks about how he first met his wife and how they fell in love through music. It made them all realize that they are much less different than they had thought at first, even though Itzik's family is Jewish and the Egyptians are Arabs. They rejoice in music and their love of love: "In love and music all is fair." Eventually Simon's concerto will bring the family back together; that seems to be the development of the idea of how music provokes love and builds stronger bonds. Camal's path also leads him to the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), a local who had been waiting for his girlfriend to call him for a very long time and has been standing in front of the payphone waiting. He is there to show how important feeling important to someone is. This story is impactful because it shows how people change each other through their connections with one another, and the Telephone Guy is the symbol of that desire to connect.

There was also a scene at a disco roller rink where Haled (Joe Joseph) from the band tags along on a double date--with Papi and Julia (Sara Kapner) and Zelger (Or Schraiber) and Anna (Jennifer Apple)--but ends up being a wingman for Papi. He sings a song, "Haled's Song about Love," about love to convince Papi that it is not so hard a thing to talk to girls, even though Papi has just expressed, in "Papi Hears the Ocean," that he feels that it is impossible to talk to women without having major panic attacks. It was a very funny scene. I loved how they took something like a disco roller rink, which is not considered very romantic, and turned it into a place of intense romance. Haled is a ladies' man. He knows how to seduce straight women with his voice and presence. He seems to walk around in a romanticized world and he doesn't seem to think about the future. He thinks about right now and what he wants now. The play seems to value fleeting connections because they can destroy prejudice even if it is a connection that can't last for a long time.

Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and Haled have gone home with Dina. Dina is interested in Tewfiq and so she invites him to go with her on a night out. She's interested in him because he is very stoic and is exotic to her. She sings a song called "Omar Sharif" about all the old Egyptian movies she used to watch. She was transported by these movies that played on Friday nights to an intoxicating world of honey, spice, and jasmine. This is such a beautiful song and was done impeccably--the singing, acting, and movement. It showed how much these characters agreed on and how much they could trust each other, even though they hadn't known each other very long. Another moment where you really got to see the specialness of their relationship was when they were sitting on a park bench and Dina wanted to know more about conducting and why he loved it so much. Tewfiq started conducting and she started to follow along. For a little bit there was no sound, just them moving together. Throughout the play the movement is all very purposeful. It makes every moment feel significant because everything has clear purpose and meaning. The play actually begins with the projected statement "Not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important." But the way the play is made completely contradicts that by making every connection memorable.

People who would like this show are people who like gorgeous performances, memorable movement, and romantic roller rinks. I think people should definitely, definitely go see this show. I think it is a very important show because it shows how people with a history of conflict are more similar than they may think and are capable of true connection. I loved it!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review of Trump in Space at Laugh Out Loud Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Trump in Space. The book and lyrics were by Landon Kirksey and Gillian Bellinger. The music was by Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez. It was directed by John Hildreth, music directed by Phil Caldwell, and choreographed by Emily Brantz. It was about two spaceships in the year 2417, the liberal Spaceship California and the Trumpian USC Arizona. The Trump ship is captained by Natasha Trump (Alaina Hoffman). The Starship California's president of the day is Obama Sanders (Scott Cupper). When the California is overtaken by the Trump ship, a romance between Natasha and Obama is rekindled, forcing Natasha to rethink her current ways and prove to the Executive (Caroline Nash and Rudy Voit) that she is more than her name and that she can make her own decisions and love whomever she wants. It is about love, stupidity, and blowing stuff up...with love. I thought that this was a really hilarious show with lots of smart political comedy and catchy songs.

I really liked the witty comedy in this show. I thought the dynamics between the characters--Trump, the Executive, Lieutenant Commander Graham (Jay Gish), Commander Haley (Niki Aquino), and Lieutenant Kushner (Ross Compton)--on the Trump ship were hilarious. There was a scene in the elevator where they kept disagreeing how many lights there were in the elevator and if there needed to be one replaced. That seems to be the answer to how many politicians it takes to change a light bulb--no one knows because they just argue about it incessantly. What I like about this show is that neither side is without flaws, which I think is why the political system is so confusing. They try to separate into two different sides, even though everyone is sometimes an idiot. There are real differences, but nobody is perfect. So any idealist will be disappointed. I think this show is so smart because everything they are saying has a purpose and a meaning behind it. That's what makes the jokes so funny; they are well-rounded and relatable.

There was a gag where Natasha and Obama were trying to resist each other, but one or the other of them kept bursting into song and the other, who was doing a better job of resisting, would stop them. It happened so many times, eventually the accompanist (Caldwell) had to remind them of the rule of threes. I think this happened because Natasha and Obama finally agreed, so someone had to come in and disagree. This show is basically people disagreeing in hilarious ways. Politicians get a lot of comedy made about them. It lets politicians see the truth of a situation is less threatening ways. It is good to take political issues seriously, but sometimes we need a break from yelling at each other.

My favorite song was "Opportunity at All Costs" which was a very robotic song with some very funny choreography to go along with it. They danced around the stage singing about how they were mindless robots just doing what they were told because they didn't know what else to do. The choreography was very 80s-backup-dancer. It seemed very out of place for how those characters usually were for them to be doing a techno-robot dance, so that was very funny.

People who would like this show are people who like witty political comedy, annoying your accompanist, and Republican robot dances. I think that people should go see this show. It is a funny, musical, political romp. It lets people take a break to laugh at some of the ridiculousness of political life.

Photos: Tyler Core