Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review of Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night's Dream at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was by William Shakespeare and it was adapted and directed by Jess McLeod. It is about Hermia (Faith Servant) and Lysander (Christoper Sheard) who are forbidden from being together because Hermia is engaged by her father Egeus (Jarrett King) to Demetrius (Andrew L. Saenz). And Helena (Ally Carey), who has been friends with Hermia since they were very young, is in love with Demetrius, but Demetrius wants to be with Hermia. The four lovers go off into the woods where they encounter some mischievous fairies, Puck (Travis Turner) and Oberon (Sean Fortunato), who are trying to get a changeling boy from Titania (Christiana Clark), who is Oberon's queen. Also in the woods, the Mechanicals--Peter Quince (King), Bottom (Adam Wesley Brown), Snout (Richard Costes), Snug (Hannah Starr), Starveling (Drew Shirley), and Flute (Lane Anthony Flores)--are rehearsing to put on a play for Theseus (Fortunato) and Hippolyta (Clark) on their wedding day. This is a play about love, magic, and worlds coexisting and occasionally coming together. I think that this is a really good introduction to Shakespeare for kids and everyone in the audience seemed to be really into it.

I think the set (by Lauren Nigri) was really beautiful. It looked like a Romantic period painting. It had this colorful background and there were ruins and big rocks. The lover's costumes (by Izumi Inaba) looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel. I think they set it in the Romantic period because they were trying to showcase, especially with the fairies being trees, the artificial naturalistic beauty of the Romantic view. The fairies are not really trees, they are pretending to be. They are tricking everyone around them into thinking something is nature that is not. Like someone building an arch and then ruining it so that it looks like nature has taken over even though it hasn't. The lovers are Romantic romantics because they are all obsessed with love and matching up but also with finding beauty in the hardest situations. Like when Lysander and Hermia have to sleep on a bank and they are so enthusiastic about everything that is happening, even though they have to sleep on the "dank and dirty ground."

The scenes with the Mechanicals weren't as wacky in this production as they usually are. Usually they take themselves so seriously, especially Bottom, which is where a lot the humor comes from. But this version of Bottom didn't seem super stoked for the show and he seemed sort of confused about Titania, which I think is a interesting approach to the character. It is more realistic for him not to just go along with a random woman seducing him in the woods and be totally fine with it. But when you make Bottom less ridiculous it means those scenes are a lot less crazy. In "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe," two of the performers broke out of their shell or hit their stride during the performance. I though that was interesting because you got these characters not just as vessels for comedy. The Lion, played by Snug, started out very mousy and scared but then everyone was encouraging her and Snug got back up on stage and roared her little heart out. It was so adorable and she was just so motivated and transformed. A similar thing happened to Thisbe, played by Flute. Thisbe starts out ridiculous with a very monotone and high-pitched voice but, then Flute turns the scene where Thisbe discovers the dead Pyramus into a moving scene and actually starts acting and doing well with it. Everyone in the theater started applauding like crazy. Even though there were these moments of Snug and Flute discovering their talents and actually showcasing them, that doesn't mean there wasn't any comedy in Pyramus and Thisbe. If there wasn't, it wouldn't have felt right. Snout, who played the Wall, just seemed really excited. It was hilarious how excited he was to play the Wall. Then once he got to the show, he took it so seriously, and was making sure everyone understood he was the Wall, and he was so proud of it. It was adorable and hilarious. The moon, played by Starveling, was also hilarious. He started getting very angry when people would talk over him. And he ripped the dog out of the thorn bush and started speeding through his lines because he was so angry that people were talking over his moment.

There was a choice they made near the end of the play, when the lovers finally get together: that Helena and Demetrius share a moment together alone on stage. I've never seen that happen. I thought it was really nice because this is the relationship that has changed the most, and it shows the difference between real human connection and the purposeful artificialness of some of the rest of the play. They kiss and then they talk about how they are going to talk about their "dream." That line is usually said to the group, but giving it to a scene between just Helena and Demetrius is sweet and effective. Puck has changed the way Demetrius feels about Helena by using a magical natural object (a flower) to unnaturally affect his feelings. It usually doesn't work out well to force someone into a relationship. But I had some hope for this relationship because they show you this moment of actual connection with just one line that shows you that they are actually going to talk to each other. Maybe they aren't just together because a random fairy told them to be.

People who would like this show are people who like Romantic sets, enthusiastic walls, and random fairies hooking you up. I think that people should go see this show. It is a great way for kids to learn about Shakespeare's plays, and it has some great performances in a beautiful space. I liked it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of Porchlight Music Theatre's Merrily We Roll Along

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Merrily We Roll Along. The book and music were by Stephen Sondheim and the book was by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was directed by Michael Weber. Music direction was by Aaron Benham and the musical staging was by Christopher Pazdernik. It is about three old friends Frank (Jim DeSelm), Mary (Neala Barron), and Charley (Matt Crowle), who were all writers who met each other in the '50s. It is about their friendship and how they grow apart (or in this case grow together because the story is told backwards). It is about Frank looking back on his life and realizing all the mistakes that he's made. It is about remorse, unrequited love, and making it in the artistic world. I thought this was a really fun show about not-so-fun topics. I loved the score, and the performances were great.

My favorite song in this show is "Opening Doors." It is basically about all the ups and downs of an artist's life: getting jobs, losing jobs, auditioning, disappointment, and excitement. This is a thing about the artist's life that doesn't get written about a lot in musicals--the experience of the people writing the musicals. You can be passionate about it and still be annoyed with it a lot of the time. I liked how they used typewriters and other unconventional objects, like pencils, as musical instruments. It is also showing how art is work and they are turning this object that is thought of as being used for work into something to make art. Inside this song there is another song called "Who Wants to Live in New York," which Charley and Frank take to a producer, Joe (David Fiorello). He says that it is not catchy enough. It makes you wonder how Sondheim ever got produced, since I think it might be one of his catchiest songs! That is not to say I don't love Sondheim. He is my favorite musical writer, but you can't always tap your feet to the beat. Earlier in the show, but later in their lives, the friends--along with Joe and Beth (Aja Wiltshire), Frank's wife--sing a song called "It's a Hit" after Charley and Frank have just opened their musical, which is the backwards payoff of opening doors. It is basically talking about all the people they had proved wrong. For some reason, in this play, even though you know everything is going to be terrible soon for almost everyone, you still feel happy for everyone when something good happens to them. I think there is a very cool contrast between the songs, but they both make you happy. Even in "Opening Doors" there is a sense of happiness with what they are doing, even if they aren't yet as successful as they want to be.

Mary and Charley sort of get left in the dust once Frank has a hit. Mary has been in love with Frank for a really long time, but has always hid her feelings. In the first scene of the play, everyone sings a song called "That Frank," at a party which is after his movie premiere. You get to see how she feels from the beginning of the show; she loves him but she feels like he is being a jerk all the time. She is so mad at him at the party, and she misses the old Frank. That sets us up to pay attention to how she looks at him or says different little lines in the scenes later on in play. You want to know where who Frank is today came from. And you get to know that because of how Mary keeps singing and talking about how things used to be. I wish the writers had given her a bigger part other than just being in love with Frank. But I think she actually rocks the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By," which she sings during Frank and Beth's vows. It is so heartbreaking and she sings it beautifully. It is not like I think the unrequited love part was unimportant of not effective, or didn't add to the story. I just think they should have given Mary more to do than just be in love with someone. I wanted to know about her backstory and her career. Charley sings a song called "Franklin Shepard, Inc." that is basically Charley's side of the story, talking about how Frank is just a corporation instead of being an actual person who writes music with him. The song is super fast and there are a lot of sounds mixed in with the talking. And everything is so rapid fire that your brain doesn't fully hear that somebody went "brringgg" instead of saying an actual word. I think Crowle did a great job with this with making the repetition in this song still interesting and funny each time.

Both of Frank's wives, Gussie (Keely Vasquez) and Beth, had their hearts broken by him. Something that I liked about that is that they didn't just go off crying. They actually had complex feelings about it. Beth sings a song, the first "Not a Day Goes By," which is the second chronologically, where they are in divorce court and Frank asks if she still loves him. And she says, "Of course I do. There is not a single day that I don't love you, but you have hurt me so many times that this is not going to work out." She seems to be singing it angrily and fiercely, which is a great contrast to the reprise, where she is saying her vows to Frank. It shows you love is hard and complicated. You continue to love the person you love even though it is not the healthy option. And Beth eventually realizes that even though she loves Frank, she shouldn't be with him if it isn't good for them anymore. The contrast between the songs shows you that love can be very scary but it can also be beautiful. And then there is Gussie. She is not sad and confused. She was very direct and asked Frank "Are you in love with this person?" And he said yes, and she was like, "Ok. Goodbye. You're a jerk." It might just be because she has been through so many divorces before and she is used to the feeling of it. This is her most sympathetic moment because at that point you don't know that she was the other woman in Beth's case. I think it is interesting how the sympathy you have have for Gussie decreases as the play goes on. Your sympathy for a lot of the other characters either stays the same or increases. Except for Frank who wobbles around. He could seem like a good person in one scene and in the next scene he could be acting insanely selfishly. Frank is a kind of an anti-hero. He has so many flaws, but you still want the best for him because that will be the best outcome for the people around him who you think are better people.

People who would like this show are people who like heartbreaking unrequited love ballads, corporation people, and typewriter songs. I think people will have a lot of fun at this show. I enjoyed the great performances and the amazing score. I liked it.

Photos: Michael Courier

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review of Nice Girl at Raven Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Nice Girl. It was by Melissa Ross and it was directed by Lauren Shouse. It was about a woman named Josephine (Lucy Carapetyan) who was in her late thirties living with her mom, Francine (Lynne Baker), in a suburb of Boston in the 80s. And she was feeling pretty crappy about her life because she felt like she had wasted it. She feels like she needs to find someone to be with and find some friends. She becomes friends with a girl from work named Sherry (Stella Martin) who is a lot more free spirited and takes on Josephine as a project to teach her how to have more fun and attract men. Josephine reunites with a friend from high school, Donny (Benjamin Sprunger), who is going through a separation with his wife and works at the butcher shop. But her mom isn't too happy about it and is still treating her like a teenager. It's about getting older, mother-daughter relationships, and self image. I was really pulled into the story and it had talented actors. I really liked it.

I think the friendship between Josephine and Sherry is very sweet because they both have something they can give each other. Josephine can give Sherry a listening ear, and Sherry can help Josephine on her quest to be a more exciting person. I really loved the scene where Sherry was helping Josephine get ready for her date. It was the first time Sherry met Francine, who was not very pleased to see her, especially in such a revealing top. Sherry was doing Josephine's hair, and she wins over Francine by talking about Frank Sinatra. I thought Sherry was a hilarious character; she had all these insane stories that she didn't seem to know were crazy. But she is also a really sad person. She's been betrayed so many times and she doesn't get to spend much time with her kid. She is disappointed in herself and she wants another chance with another guy, but it is very hard for her. I think she is a really interesting character who should have her own spinoff series. I don't think she is a bad influence. It is weird because she doesn't make a lot of smart decisions, but she knows how to have a good time and is learning to be confident in herself and Josephine really needs that. She is also a very caring person. She ends up being a really good friend who is willing to give up something she wants for her friend.

Francine and Josephine had a very difficult relationship. Francine thought that Josephine was "the nice girl" and wanted to keep her that way. It is a very teenage drama about a 30 year old. That was a very new concept, and I really liked that. Francine doesn't want her daughter to have any fun or go out to any clubs even though she is a grownup. Francine is also claiming to be very sick, but her daughter doesn't believe her anymore. Josephine is still trying to help her, but her mom doesn't realize that this wasn't really Josephine's plan for her own life. The sad thing is that they seem to really love each other; they just have a difficult relationship because they aren't the same kind of person. Or at least Josephine doesn't want to be like her mother, even though she might kind of be like her. She's mad at her mom because she feels like her mom is taking advantage of her. Francine wishes that her daughter would spend more time with her and confide in her, but she doesn't know how to express that to her now. She keeps talking about ice cream, and that's not something that appeals to Josephine every night now because she is a grownup. So Francine ends up nagging her almost, and then Josephine ends up resenting her. And when Sherry has a problem, Francine is able to do for her what she should be doing for Josephine, which is comforting her and helping her when she needs it. Francine can be the mom Josephine wants her to be, but just not for Josephine because their relationship is too damaged.

Donny and Josephine have this really adorably awkward relationship. They both bond over feeling like failures, which might not be the best premise for a relationship. They are both pretty desperate for attention and for love. He starts to win you over when he talks about making dinner for her sometime. But he has a lot of secrets. He also seems scared to be alone because he was married for a really long time. And now that he is dating again, he is kind of terrified to make anything official in case his wife wants to get back together, which is really sad. But he keeps leading Josephine on and telling her things that mean a lot to her, but don't mean the same thing to him. I think he is a really complicated and strange character. You don't get to know a lot about him until near the end of the play. He is an interesting character because at first he just seems like the "prize" the lead character is going to get, and in a lot of movies and plays that role is a woman. The trope is usually somebody seeing the "prize" and being like, "I'll never be able to be with them" but then at the end they get together and you usually don't learn anything about the "prize." In this play, you actually get to learn the dark things about the "prize," and not just view this person as an object.

People who would like this show are people who like complicated "prizes," obliviously insane stories, and ice cream with your mom. I think people should go see this show. I liked how it played with the high school drama idea and turned it into something new. I really liked it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review of Hinter at Steep Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hinter. It was by Calamity West and it was directed by Brad DeFabo Akin. It was about the Gruber family--Andres (Jim Poole), Cazillia (Melissa Riemer), and their daughter Viktoria Gabriel (Eunice Woods) and granddaughter Elsa--who lived on a farm in Bavaria. They were murdered one night and their neighbors Frieda (Lauren Sivak) and Klara (Sigrid Sutter) came over to see what had happened to them and discovered them. They call in Inspector Herzog (Peter Moore) from Berlin and people start to seem more suspicious and the audience discovers secrets about the family and their relationships with each other and their neighbors. I thought this play was absolutely fascinating. I love murder mysteries, and I loved watching this one unfold on stage. It was suspenseful, eerie, and occasionally humorous.

I think it is interesting how this show works backwards. You see everyone finding the bodies first before looking at the actuality of the time leading up to their deaths. I think that is really cool because it lets you theorize before you get more information. I also really liked how you get to see all of these meaningful relationships between women: some are friendships, some are romantic, and some are parent-child. But you really got to see into each one. They all had meaning to them, and they all had a backstory with each other. This play is focused on the female relationships. The relationship between Elizabeth (Sasha Smith) and Klara is very complicated. There isn't a single word to describe it. They are romantic with each other and they want to protect each other, but Elizabeth did something that really hurt Klara which they don't talk about for a long time, which exposes the flaw in their relationship. Viktoria's relationship with her mother is also very complicated because she loves her mother, but her mother has stood by her father's side even when she found out about the terrible ways he has behaved. Maria (Aurora Adachi-Winter) and Frieda are the beacons of light for Viktoria because they are offering her a way out. But there is an itching suspicion that I have that they might have ulterior motives. Just because this play talks a lot about female relationships, that doesn't mean they idealize them. I think it is really awesome how many layers they showed in each of these relationships, even though this play isn't super long. The writer and director don't cram the play with facts and action, they find a way to make everything make sense but also keep a bit of the mystery in the relationships. They don't tell you everything, but you have enough to understand the characters.

It is not that the men don't have significant parts, it is just that the play is more focused on the women's relationships and builds them up to something instead of them just being there, like happens in some plays. The men all seem like outsiders, even though some of them live in the area. The inspector, however, is a complete outsider. He is from Berlin, doesn't know anyone, didn't know any of the people who died, and is therefore not very respectful of the bodies. The postman, George Siegl, (Alex Gillmor) just sees them a few days a week. Lorenz (Nate Whelden), Viktoria's admirer, didn't use to be an outsider, but he has come back from the war a changed man, and not in the healthiest way. Andres lives in the house with the family, but he is sort of an outsider because he has done terrible things. He is blatantly disobeying the rules of how a family should behave toward each other. In this play, men are the outsiders, and women have this ring of connections.

I like how this play takes normal everyday occurrences and puts more meaning to them. In both acts of this play, people eat Viktoria's bread. In the first act, Frieda, Elizabeth, and Klara are hungry so they decide to eat some of it. And they start talking about how terrible the bread always was. In the second act, which happens earlier in time, Klara eats the bread and acts like it is good. She covers up her true feelings about it. Viktoria seems to be challenging everyone who eats her bread to tell her it is terrible. I think that the bread that Viktoria makes seems like it could be a metaphor for secrecy then. All these women are trying pretend that nothing is the matter even though something definitely is. Even when someone is challenging them to tell the truth, it feels impossible to because they feel like not admitting that anything is wrong is probably what Viktoria wants. It is sad because she is not specifically asking for help, but she still wants it. There's a really great moment in the play where Frieda is talking to Maria about Viktoria's escape plan. And she says that you can't help people if they don't ask for it. And Maria says, "Yes you can. You absolutely can." I think that is a beautiful moment that shows how Viktoria might want to be helped and be able to be helped even though she feels like she can't ask for it. It is really sad that when she decides to pull the trigger on a big decision she doesn't get to make it. That's what makes this play so compelling and depressing is they way that you already know the ending of her story but you are still hoping that maybe something will work out.

I have a lot of theories about who might have killed everyone, but I don't want to spoil anything. So you can click here if you want to see my theories.

People who would like this show are people who like Bavarian murder mysteries, complex relationships among women, and secrecy bread. I think that people should definitely go see this show. It is a really great story with compelling characters. I'm still theorizing about this play and it was a lot of fun in a creepy way. I loved it.

Photos: Gregg Gilman

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review of The House Theatre of Chicago's Hatfield & McCoy

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hatfield & McCoy. It was by Shawn Pfautsch; the original songs were by Pfautsch and Matt Kahler. It was directed by Matt Hawkins. It was about two families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, who were both from the South. They had had a feud ever since the Hatfields had killed Asa "Harmon" McCoy (Cody Proctor) because he was a Union soldier. When Rose Anna McCoy (Haley Bolithon) and Johnse Hatfield (Kyle Whalen) fall in love, their families become pitted against each other even more than before. It is about devotion to family, forbidden love, and violence. I think this is an absolutely fascinating and breathtaking show. I really liked it.

This is a romanticized version of the relationship between Rose Anna and Johnse. The real version was they met, they liked each other, he impregnated her, abandoned her, and then married her cousin. But I like this version a lot better. It would have been cool if they'd kept the part where she rides a horse, while pregnant, in the dark mountains to warn him about a McCoy attack. (He STILL married the cousin.) Then they could have used the House Theatre's puppet skills! Rose Anna and Johnse seem to be dumb in love at the beginning but by the end you see all the ways they do connect and you start to think it is real love. This is a lot like Romeo and Juliet because they fall in love over dancing together. I think you actually get to see even more depth to Rose Anna and Johnse's relationship, because they don't spend so much time talking about how beautiful the other is. They seem to be actively trying to get everyone to get along, but Romeo and Juliet conceal their love instead of using it for good. Rose Anna and Johnse sang a song together that was a version of the morning lark/nightingale debate that Romeo and Juliet have. I thought it was a really sweet rendition of it. They seemed to be singing it to each other, which I thought was very nice. It was just a genuine and adorable song. I also really like how they had Rose Anna sing Romeo's part of the balcony scene and how she was admiring him from afar instead of the other way around.

I think the violence in this play was really effective. There were so many guns you couldn't keep track. It made this story not just a love story, but gave it some action. It wasn't just for the heck of it; it moved the story forward a lot of the time. It is definitely trying to say that violence is not the answer, but the choreography (by Hawkins) of the violence makes it really mesmerizing. The people who were using the most amount of violence were always in the wrong, and that was clear, but they were complicated characters, not just villains. I feel like Devil Anse Hatfield (Robert D. Hardaway) was a very violent but sympathetic character. You could see he loved his family, but he wouldn't put anything else above that. And he only seems to care about his own family, and will do what he has to do to keep them safe, and he's also paranoid about it. He's not selfish; he's clannish. He thinks that his family is most important, and even when he is faced with someone who thinks family should be first, like Sarah McCoy (Stacy Stoltz), he has sympathy with her but not enough to change his behavior and spare her family. The first time Devil Anse actually loses someone, he uses violence to mourn them. And that leads to more mourning and more violence. It is an endless cycle of violence and death and loss.

Even though the families have a feud that has been going on for a really long time, they share a lot of the same interests. They both love folk music. They both think family comes first. They both believe in God, but they have slightly different ways of approaching religion. And neither family was good at managing their children or at family planning. The McCoy boys--Tolbert (Tommy Malouf), Pharmer (Royen Kent), and Bud (Ethan Peterson when I saw it)--and the Hatfield girls--Victory (Jenni M. Hadley), Ellie (Tia Pinson), and Grace (Ann Delaney)--are always running wild; they always seem to have a gun or a knife. They could have done a three brides for three brothers situation there, but the brides would have killed the brothers. It was interesting that the McCoys seemed more refined in general with their plays and their no-nonsense father (Anish Jethmalani) and sweet mother, but they had the most unpredictable family member, "Squirrel Huntin" Sam McCoy (Bradley Grant Smith). Sam never stopped being drunk, but he seemed to also care about family, which was sad because he couldn't help them. And when he tried to help them it was drastic. Levicy Hatfield (Marika Mashburn) also seems to drink her problems away, but she never gets the opportunity to do anything as drastic as Sam did.

People who would like this show are people who like forbidden love stories, drunk uncles, and loads of guns. I think this is an awesome show. It is a compelling, romantic, and complicated story. I really liked it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow