Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Kokandy Productions' Head Over Heels

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Head Over Heels. The book was by Jeff Whitty based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and it was adapted by James Magruder. The songs were by The Go-Go's. It was directed by Elizabeth Swanson and Derek Van Barham, music directed by Kyra Leigh, and choreographed by Breon Arzell. It was about the kingdom of Arcadia which had a “beat” that kept the rhythm of the land steady and communal, but one day a prophecy was foretold by the local Oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), that the beat would be demolished if all four parts of the prophecy came true! So they notified King Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) and told him the tactics he must use to prevent this catastrophe, but this plan was not suitable for the king who thought that if he simply moved the kingdom it would no longer lose its beat. In his mind it is a bonus that the journey will also move his daughters Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) and Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) away from the “unladylike” behavior that the prophecy foretold. However, his daughters continue to find themselves and who they love, no matter what their father says. This show is about love, identity, and overthrowing toxic power dynamics. This show is so important and beautiful because it recognizes different people's attractions and identities. It showed the intolerance that people can face, but it also showed the glee and fun of lots of different relationships. The focus wasn't on the tragedy, but on the joy. It has amazing performances and well thought-out song choices.

This is a great example of a good jukebox musical because the story is actually cohesive. Sometimes jukebox musicals can seem like a plot being thrown together around popular songs, but in this show each song seems grounded in the world and added to the plot instead of being “a break” from the plot. One of my favorite examples of this was “Beautiful.” The song explains the dynamic between the sisters and how Pamela feels superior to Philoclea. It also introduces Mopsa’s (Deanalís Resto) relationship with Pamela and how she seems to want to be more than friends but her current relationship was less than romantic. Having all of this information come through easily in one song is great storytelling and makes room for the central conflict while still giving enough exposition for that conflict to be fully understood. I feel like a lot of people who write jukebox musicals forget that many audience members don’t want to see a concert but want to see a story that intertwines the realm of musical theater with the realm of their favorite bands. I think that this is an example of someone giving us the best of both worlds: giving us the songs from The Go-Go's we love with a story that is new (despite being based on something very old) and interesting and makes sense together.

I really love this show's humor! It was clever and ridiculous--right up my alley. One moment that really cracked me up was the sheep. They seemed so clueless and adorable and the ensemble (Emily Barnash, Caitlin Dobbins, Britain Gebhardt, Connor Giles, Kaimana Neil, Roy Samra, Tiffany T. Taylor, and Marco Tzunux) really sold it, which made it 10 times better. I loved when one sheep (Gebhardt) was getting stuck in all of these places and running into walls repeatedly while all the rest of the sheep were doing a dance routine, which just added to the underdog humor element. There were a lot of blatant, and therefore hilarious, references and innuendos. One of my favorites was the prelude to the song "Vacation," sung by Mopsa, about her vacation to the isle of Lesbos, and it was funny how no one seemed to catch on that she was a lesbian, despite her choice of vacation destination. One of the funniest scenes for me was when Pamela is composing a poem about her ideal suitor and each rhyme that she can't think of has a rhyme that implies that she is attracted to girls. It was very funny and clever and I laughed a lot at it.

The characters in this show were witty and original takes on characters from The Arcadia. The shepherd Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop) was my favorite character. He was so intricate and hilarious, and the actor's voice was gorgeous. Everything about this character and this actor was just right in my opinion. He mixed adorable and awkward with being self-confident and committed. Whenever he was interacting with the oracle he was starstruck and didn't know how to behave, but I always trusted that he would be faithful to Philoclea. I liked how the relationship between Philoclea and Musidorus wasn't just a straight love story, but it showed how gender fluidities can play a role in relationships without being the most important part of them. I think gender is overrated anyway. I also really love the character of Pythio. I feel like some plays portray people who don’t conform to a certain gender as these carefree, responsibility-less people, but in this show Pythio is seen as not just "fabulous," fearless, and motivating but as a person with a family and a job and a real life. They are also not just a tragic story of someone who is discriminated against. Sure, they are an oracle, but they have a more complicated backstory than just a token. The role was performed beautifully with great personality and technique. I think this show does a great job of taking characters that have been flattened and re-humanizing them. In this play we see people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality, people who are figuring out their sexuality, and people returning to an old love with a new sexuality and identity. Having such a range of queer characters helps avoid stigmas and stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community.

People who would like this show are people who like queer representation in the foreground, joyful communal musicals, and fabulous dancing sheep. I think this is a very cohesive, funny, and electric show. I really loved it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of Firebrand Theatre's Queen of the Mist

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Queen of the Mist. The book, music, and lyrics were by Michael John LaChiusa and it was directed by Elizabeth Margolius. Music direction was by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster and orchestrations by Michael Starobin. It was about a woman named Anna Edson Taylor (Barbara E. Robertson) who couldn't pay her bills, so she was being run out of every town she lived in. She decided she wanted to make a name for herself, and what better way than do that than to hop on the trend of going over Niagara Falls! So she finds herself a manager, Frank Russell (Max J. Cervantes) who is skeptical at first but is won over by her charms. The show follows her master plan for surviving the falls and the aftermath of it, which is not what she expects. It is about self-motivation, how our choices effect others, and manipulation. This was a thought-provoking show. It made me think about what counts as a feminist story, how our rules for likable protagonists might be related to gender, and if relying on others is weak or necessary.

The character of Anna Edson Taylor was difficult to get behind for me. I understand a protagonist does not necessarily have to be a good person, but I felt like in this case Anna seemed to be trying to pass as a strong independent woman, but she kept having to restate to people that she was at one point married and they should call her Mrs. It seemed like she couldn't go on living without the approval of a man. Her choice to go over the falls in a barrel is in one way feminist because she is scientifically designing a barrel that can go over the falls without issue and proving a woman can do that. But she is also not being feminist because she is being coached through it by a man and she is doing it all for attention. She is also lowering her age so she can seem more appealing to the press. She is accepting how society is and catering to the ideals that society has made for women, but she still wants to be seen as feminist. She doesn't feel like she needs the help of other people, but she still takes it and doesn't acknowledge that she is taking it. Unlikable protagonists show that to be important you don't have to be a good person. It also helps you develop empathy for multiple types of people.

One of the most interesting scenes of the play to me was when we are introduced to the replacement Anna Edson Taylor (Neala Barron), who is touring with Anna's former manager Frank Russell with the original barrel. In the play Anna confronts her manager and meets this replacement. The replacement is more successful because she is willing to describe what it was like to be in the falls, whereas Anna wants to keep that to herself. It tells us that it is hard to keep any kind of private life when you are famous, and if you do, people don't take interest in you. The replacement isn't actually telling her own story, which shows us that sometimes the media and audience would rather have interesting lies than no information on a subject. I loved Neala Barron's performances in this show. Her voice is amazing and worked so well with both of her characters, the replacement Anna, and Anna's sister Jane. Jane and Anna's relationship was central to the show because Anna says that she loves Jane, but she also manipulates her into giving her help even though she says she doesn't need it and then isn't grateful for it. She also doesn't understand why her sister would be angry that Anna risked her life for a stunt. They had been very close when they were kids, so it seems like a matter of her sister being scared for her, not trying to tear her away from her dreams.

When you first walk into the theater, the atmosphere is very clear. It felt breezy and even seemed to smell of fresh water. It all contributed to the idea of the peaceful state that Anna went into when she went over the falls. That is an immersive environment for the audience to walk into. The set (by Lauren M Nichols) was also shaped like a barrel, which adds to the sense of immersion because you are in the barrel with her, like you were on the same journey through life. The actors would write important information on the back board, which added this collage of life aspect to the show and made it seem rounded out at the end.

People who would like this show are people who like barrel metaphors, complex protagonists, and sisterly love. I think this is a show with some really great performances that stretches your ideas of what a female protagonist can be.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of Teatro Vista and Collaboraction's La Havana Madrid

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called La Havana Madrid. It was by Sandra Delgado and it was directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Music direction was by Roberto Marin and Yendrys Cespedes. The choreographer was Wilfredo Rivera. It was about a club called La Havana Madrid (represented by Delgado) largely populated by the Latinx community. It was a place of community and reflection and safety for them where they could be themselves and find home in one another as they tell each other stories of where they came from, how they met the most important people in their lives, and finding their own passions. This show is about love, injustice, and finding hope. This is an amazing, hopeful, and truthful show that explores many sides of the Latinx experience and how the world around us has changed but also brings to light the ways it still needs to. This is a show that tells a very important story in an communal and new way.

This show is heavily fueled by music, which seems to symbolize elements of community. In each story that was told there would be some part of it that showed how music influenced their lives. I think that this is a great way to tie these stories together in a way that also relates to the setting. It also allows more audience involvement which can bring the audience closer to the stories being told. Sometimes in a show audience participation can seem forced, as if they put it in the show to make sure the audience was engaged, but it felt very natural and communal here. It also enhanced the story which oftentimes audience participation does not. One place this link between music and community was very clear was in Maria's (Ayssette Muñoz) story. She has just moved to the States and missed her parents and her home, so to get a taste of what she is missing she goes to La Havana Madrid. There she found she could express herself through dance and then she offers us her hand to dance with her.

All of the stories in this show were super important to tell and were performed beautifully. They showed varied aspects of Latinx experiences of immigration and life in the United States. One story that really stood out to me was Carlos’s (Victor Musoni). He talked about his path to activism which was very moving and well-performed. The image that really stuck with me was at the very end of his story and of the first act he is seen putting on a black beret while people chanted around him and he seemed to have found his place, the place he felt he was needed and belonged. Even though it is a moment of rebellion, it was very touching and powerful and sweet.

Even though this show is about discrimination and injustice, it shows how these people still found joy in their lives even if the world was trying to tear them down. This brings in some more joyful and bittersweet moments in the show, which make for very complex story telling. Sometimes shows that are devised from many true stories that don't fully connect to each other can seem un-thought-through and preachy, but this show finds throughlines in the story and also does not just yell at the audience about how bad the world is and was. The characters talk about what they did to cope with hard times and then showed us how. Carpacho (Marvin Quijada) does a tutorial for us on how to play the stand-up bass and how much joy jazz and salsa brings him. This contrasts with stories of having to hide from immigration officers. The character seems to say this is how I got through the hardest times in my life and possibly it could help you with people not accepting you. This approach is a lot more enjoyable and enthralling to experience and was done very well throughout the show. The actual bandleader and bass player for the show, Roberto Marin, was who this story was about, and it shows how his path in life led him to sharing music with us. It was powerful to see a person who had struggled get to do what he loved and that he is still doing it to this day.

People who would like this show are people who like stories of community, memorable themes and images, and non-oppressive audience participation. I think this is a great show and is like nothing I've seen before. I really enjoyed it while it was also an informative and immersive experience that I would recommend. I really liked it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet

Monday, June 10, 2019

Review of Six at Chicago Shakespeare

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Six. It was by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and it was directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. It was choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. It is about the six wives of Henry VIII, who are putting on a concert to decide which one of them suffered the most during her marriage to him and therefore who will be the lead singer. It is about feminism, taking ownership of your own life story, and overcoming differences. I think this is a vocal masterpiece of a show. All the performers were brilliant and it was clever, fun, and uplifting with several gut-punching moments of truth.

Divorced.... Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks) is the first wife of Henry VIII. She was very loyal to him which is the main point of the song. Even though he was sleeping around, she still stayed loyal to him and didn't say a word. She has been such a good wife, but even though she has been the perfect wife to him, he still wants to get rid of her. And she says, "there is no way that you are going to kick me out because I'm an amazing person and there is no reason you would want to leave me". It is Beyonce's Lemonade collapsed into one song. It is very empowering and I love that she is showing her devotion at the same time that she is showing she can do better. I thought the performance was absolutely gorgeous. I loved the tone switches between heartfelt and furious, which I think is a relatable parallel. The other divorcée, Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), also has an amazing song that reminded me of "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea. It starts with a similar bass line and is very braggy in a badass way. It is also very empowering because she talks about not just the things she possesses as part of the divorce settlement, but things she is, like how hot she is and how powerful she is and how she can do what she wants because she is queen of her own castle. She really got the audience hyped up, which I think is important for such a braggy song. It might seem self-involved, but when she gets the audience involved, it shows that it is more of a group brag about female power. The performance was excellent, engaging, and was the perfect pick me up after a ballad.

Beheaded.... Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) and Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauley) seem to have a leg up on the suffering competition because he literally had them killed. Anne Boleyn's song, "Don't Lose Ur Head," was less empowering because it was very clearly targeted at Catherine of Aragon, trying to show that she was overreacting and should have just accepted how obvious it was that Henry preferred Anne. It is a very very catchy song though and reminds me of a mix of The Pipettes, Marina and the Diamonds, and Spice Girls, which are some pretty brilliant artists so it is bound to be catchy. I think bratty British pop is perfect for her because you can tell by the way she acted that she thinks she is entitled to quite a bit. She is trying to seem innocent, but can't hide that she is self-obsessed and scheming. This creates some really great levels, which the actor totally nailed, throughout the song. I really liked the haunting undertone in Katherine Howard's song "All You Wanna Do." The beginning of the song is very sexual and Britney-Spears-like, but as the song continues and as she tells us about more of her past lovers, she slowly starts to realize how jaded and depressed she is. She is being used by all of these men and she has lost her own self worth. That is a lot to convey in one song, especially an upbeat pop song, but it was done so beautifully and emotionally by Pauly. She had these shifts in the song where she would realize what was happening, but then seemed to become distracted almost mid-realization by the next guy. This entire song was super effective, and I feel like it was important to show that even though she was a very sex-positive figure, some of that was a defense mechanism from all of the early sexualization in her life. The breakdown at the end of the song really got to me. You could really see her falling apart on stage and begging for help, and it was really hard to watch this super confident woman fall apart like that, but I still think it is important to show.

Died and Survived.... Jane Seymour's (Abby Mueller) song was called "Heart of Stone" and it was about how no matter how much garbage was hurled at her by Henry, she still loved him very very much and was going to stand by him even though it took a lot out of her. The most powerful section of the song for me was when she talked about her son and also about how if she hadn't had a son it might have made it so Henry wouldn't have stayed with her. It was very clear when she sang this that she had a lot of love for her son and realized how important he was to both of them, but she is devastated that she doesn't get to see him grow up. This song I would call a feat because Mueller made me cry within the first 15 seconds of this song. Her voice is so gorgeous and fits so well with this song. She made me feel the intention and the raw emotion behind the words of the song. Usually having a heart of stone means you are unfeeling, but in this song it means she is selfless and her heart can endure whatever it is hit with. Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) had a song, "I Don't Need Your Love," that is very soulful and hopeful. The first half of the song is a letter to Thomas, the love of her life, because Henry has chosen to marry her and she has no choice but to comply. It becomes wishful because if she could she would tell Henry she didn't need him and would leave, but she can't do that without signing a suicide note. It feels gratifying to hear that she did make it out and survived Henry and got to spend the rest of her life doing what she should have been able to do years ago. I thought it was a gorgeous song and you could hear in her voice how much she loved Thomas. Her wishing her life was different was heartbreaking and beautifully done.

People who would like this show are people who like empowering queens, Renaissance references, and group brags about female power. I think this is an amazing show. Every single artist in this show is insanely talented. It is very empowering. It is a musical that looks back on the past and shows how the situations these women were in are relevant today. It shows how even if the queens are not here now, women can take back their stories, apply them to their own lives, and re-envision and revise them. It was inspirational, and it was a blast.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Review of Falsettos (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Falsettos. The music and lyrics were by William Finn and the book was by Finn and James Lapine. It was choreographed by Spencer Liff and directed by Lapine. It was about a family in the 1970s and early 80s who are dealing with the effects of Marvin (Max von Essen), the father, leaving his wife, Trina (Eden Espinosa), and his son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs when I saw it), for his boyfriend Whizzer (Nick Adams). As the family falls apart he sees a psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), who eventually falls in love with Trina. It is about family, love, and acceptance. I think this is a powerful story and an amazing musical. I already loved this musical before I saw it, and the cast in several cases even exceeded my expectations. It was great!

The relationship between Whizzer and Marvin is very complicated because you really see how much they love each other but you can also see how toxic their relationship is, especially at the start of the play. Their first song together is "Thrill of First Love," where they are yelling at each other about various things that they don't like about each other. It shows that just because you come out of the closet, it doesn't mean you are going to be happy all they time. Gay relationships aren't perfect just because people finally have the right to love each other. Later in the show, Whizzer sings a song called "The Games I Play" reflecting on his past relationships. He basically says, "I know I do all these things I know aren't good for me or the people I'm with, but I do them anyway." He realizes he is a sex object, which we knew from "Thrill of First Love," when Marvin says, "I was rich, he was horny, he fit like a glove." He is coming to terms with so many things that he may have already known, but he just accepted that was his place in the world because that is the way every man he'd ever been with had treated him. Whizzer's next solo, "You Gotta Die Sometime," after he's been hospitalized, was absolutely gorgeous. He seemed so desperate and scared, which is something you haven't seen from Whizzer before because he's been so confident and cocky. It makes it extremely alarming to see him so scared. I thought that it was an absolutely heart-wrenching song. It is one of my favorites, and I thought it was amazingly performed here. The relationship between Marvin and Whizzer does get better the second time around because they both realize what they did wrong and how they really needed each other and made each other better people. After this relationship has started becoming something really meaningful, Whizzer is hospitalized. It makes every song where they are still falling in love with each other more heartbreaking because you see that they finally found each other again and were happy and something had to go wrong. The play does a good job of showing how terrible the relationship is, getting rid of it, and then showing how what they did wrong could be done right. This makes the fear that both of them have about losing each other more heartbreaking to watch.

Thatcher Jacobs played Jason phenomenally. He brought this angst to this role which is written into the role but doesn't always come across as clearly as it did in his portrayal. He seemed like a sad 40-year-old, not like a cranky 10-year-old, which is in keeping with how weird the adults find him. He was very sad, and rationally so. He is a very complex character and you could feel every emotion he was experiencing. It was such masterful acting. We also see him turn into a teenager, although he often acts more mature than a teenager would. In "Miracle of Judaism," he talks about what girls he wants to invite to his Bar Mitzvah. He talks about all the things he likes about them and how he thinks he shouldn't like the women that he does. He sings a reprise, "Another Miracle of Judaism," where he is instead asking God to keep Whizzer from dying. Throughout the play, he has become closer to Whizzer. The play is about how family doesn't have to always be blood relatives. At the Bar Mitzvah, Mendel (who is now his stepfather) calls Jason "son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel, and godchild to the lesbians next door," Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Caldwell). That seems to me to be the real miracle, that all these different people become a family, and Jason realizes that, which shows how much he's grown. I also really loved the relationship between Mendel and Jason because there is no specific power dynamic even though he is his stepfather. They just seem to love being together. You really see this in "Everyone Hates His Parents" and "Feel Alright" which are both songs that essentially say things will be better if you act like a human instead of worrying about things. During both of these songs they are dancing around, and Jason is being flipped around, and they are jumping off things and breaking things, and it is adorable.

Trina has a song where she sings about how she is "tired of all the happy men who rule the world, all the stupid, childish men who rule the world." This is followed by "March of the Falsettos," which seems to be Trina's view of the men around her; they are acting ridiculous, like toddlers, and running around in these little outfits with high pitched voices. I think this is a very relatable song for me and I like that they include the woman's perspective even though less than half the cast is female, and in act one Trina is the only woman. This show is written by two men and directed by one of them, which makes me happy to see the woman's opinion and feelings being represented in realistic ways. This show represents so many different stories at an important time in history, and I think it means a lot to a lot of different people for many different reasons. I think that is what makes this show so important and beautiful. Some plays follow one person's journey, but this play somehow manages to follow several different people's storylines in a way that is specific enough that you grow to love each of them.

People who would like this show are people who like important musicals that make you love every character, complex child characters, and brilliantly heartbreaking and frank laments. I absolutely loved this show. It is an amazing story. It is beautifully acted, and this is a gorgeous musical.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Review of Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hamlet. It was by William Shakespeare and it was directed by Barbara Gaines. It was about a young prince named Hamlet (Maurice Jones) whose father (Derrick Lee Weeden) had recently died and his mother, Gertrude (Karen Aldridge), had remarried his father's brother, Claudius (Tim Decker). It is about justice, loss, and recklessness. I thought Maurice Jones' portrayal of Hamlet was gorgeous and he brought a sense of reason for his actions and an intelligence and self-awareness that you don't always see in the character.

Rosencrantz (Alex Goodrich) and Guildenstern (Samuel Taylor) weren't what I expected. Usually in Hamlet they act as the comic relief trying to get Hamlet to laugh his depression away. But in this version they seemed much more sincere because they seemed to really care about Hamlet. Usually they seem pretty self-interested and are only there to visit Hamlet to gain something from the King, but in this one they seemed more genuinely interested in helping him. I think we miss a lot of the humor that is in this play because they are usually a main source of it. I know both these actors are very funny performers and have played comedic roles, so I was expecting them to be the comic relief. This version has more respect for those characters, which makes Hamlet seem more cruel when he alters the order they have from the King so that it results in their execution. It makes it seem like he may actually be crazy. Usually Hamlet is a gleeful crazy person, but in this version he seemed dangerously crazy in moments like the recorder moment. Usually that is him celebrating his victory, but in this version he seemed to be threatening Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like he was implying that he was going to shove the recorder somewhere they didn't want it to be shoved. It feels like a credible and physical threat. It shows you that he doesn't have any filter anymore and even people really trying to help him seem like a threat. He is paranoid.

I really liked the scene with Hamlet and Gertrude after the play within the play. Usually that scene is heartbreaking and scary because you can see Hamlet has the bulk of the power. He is usually screaming at her and she is just sitting there crying. But in this version, she has a weapon that Hamlet doesn't know about which changes the power dynamic. In this scene it does seem like she might actually kill him because she has shown so little interest in him throughout the play because she is infatuated with her new husband whom Hamlet despises. That shows you that she has a motive to kill him besides self-preservation, and it seems like she might actually do it. I thought this scene was very powerful because it made me feel sorry for Gertrude because you think she might try to kill her son but she can't see herself because she is blinded by incestuous love. It is both heartbreaking and terrifying, but in a different way than usual, because the power dynamic has shifted and you believe a mother is capable of killing her son.

I really liked the relationship between Horatio (Sean Allan Krill) and Hamlet. Usually that seems very brotherly, but in this one Horatio was more fatherly. I liked that because the lack of a father is Hamlet's biggest loss, so it was nice to see Horatio take on that role. I think that built more of an interesting relationship between them because Horatio was not just a buddy but someone Hamlet really relied on. Hamlet seems to project a self-sufficient character, but to see him actually relying on someone and not pushing everyone away makes Horatio seem more special. That makes Horatio seem to fuel a lot more of Hamlet's actions because of their father-son bond. Hamlet seems to have parallel motivations from Horatio and the Ghost of Hamlet's father, but Horatio seems to care a lot more about Hamlet's wellbeing. Horatio and the Ghost don't want the exact same thing, but they are both motivating Hamlet. The ghost is motivating him to get revenge and Horatio is motivating him not to go crazy while doing it.

People who would like this show are people who like new takes on classic characters, distressing but interesting family dynamics, and threatening recorders. I think this production had an amazing lead and some interesting new ideas about this story. I really liked it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Review of Teatro Vista's The Abuelas

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Abuelas. It was by Stephanie Alison Walker and it was directed by Ricardo Gutiérrez. It was about a woman named Gabriela (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) who was a cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was married to a man named Marty (Nate Santana) and they have a new baby. Her mother Soledad (Katie Barberi) is in the states visiting from Argentina to look after the child since the disappearance of their nanny. And on her birthday Soledad invited her friend Cesar (Esteban Schemberg), whom she met at church, over for dinner, but Cesar does not come alone. He brings his friend Carolina (Alba Guerra) who has a great admiration for Gabriela. Many major discoveries about Gabriela's past come to light. This is a sequel to The Madres, which was produced in Teatro Vista's last season and which was moving and well-performed. The Abuelas is about trauma, heritage, and unconditional love. This show was well-made stylistically, moving, and performed beautifully.

Motherhood is a very prominent theme in this play. All of the mother characters have very different ways of going about it. For example, Soledad tries very hard to micromanage her daughter because she believes that she knows what’s best, but her own daughter, Gabriela, parents very freely--possibly because of the way that she grew up. As the play progresses, Gabriela starts to notice that she doesn’t want to be this prodigy that her mother sculpted; she wants to find herself and stop lying to herself. This storyline was very impactful and it translated into this wall of tension that added a lot to the party scene because it kept coming up and down. They wanted to click and work well together, and sometimes they did, but very quickly they were at each other's throats. The possible reason for that comes to light later in the play, but I found the mother-daughter relationship to be one of the most enthralling relationships in the play even before I knew the reason.

The ghost story in the play at first seemed very out of place. At first it was like a loose piece of string holding the two plays--The Abuelas and The Madres--together, but the revelation of who certain characters really were added a lot. The interactions with the ghost became more and more effective and emotional until it came to this great conclusion where the wall between the two worlds broke down and we got to see real interactions. Those interactions may not have really happened, but they needed to happen for the play and for Gabriela. This was emphasized by the startlingly subtle set which looked like a prison as well as Gabriela's home.

The arguments were dealt with very well in this show. They were not repetitive and each time a character would make a new discovery. The moments that were most effective for me were those between Gabriela and her husband Marty because of the moments where it would get so passionate that things would slip out. They use this method a lot in plays and sometimes it seems inorganic, but the actors here were so strong that their relationships, the argument, and their technique seemed very natural. The arguments had a very nice staggered build to them. They don't go from zero to a hundred; they build gradually up and shrink down in a believable way.

People who would like this show are people who like walls of tension, familial ghost stories, and micromanaging mothers. I think this is a very effective show. It has beautiful performances, a compelling script, and strong character relationships. Even though the story is about finding yourself, it was obvious they spent a lot of time developing the relationships between the characters. I think that people should definitely go see this show. I really liked it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Review of Broken Nose Theatre's Girl in the Red Corner

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Girl in the Red Corner. It was by Stephen Spotswood and it was directed by Elizabeth Laidlaw. Fight choreography was by John Tovar. It was about a woman named Halo (Elise Marie Davis) who had recently gotten out of a relationship and wanted to do something new for herself. She decides to take up mixed martial arts with a recovering addict, Gina (August N. Forman). While she explores this new interest, there are a lot of troubles in her family, like her teen niece's rebellion, her mother Terry's (Michelle Courvais) financial problems and drinking, and her sister Brinn (Kim Boler) and brother-in-law Warren's (Mark West) marriage. This is a well-performed, well-choreographed, well-directed, and well-written show. I have never seen anything like it before. It was thrilling and also thought-provoking. I loved it,

I enjoyed that the fights were not just to simulate violence in this show. They would illustrate internal battles. Whenever Halo is having issues within her family, it is shown as her beating up her family but not in a I-want-to kill-my-family kind of way. It was in a this-is-the-way-I-process-my-emotions kind of way. The climactic fight scene used this tactic by Halo starting to fight with one person, played by the same actor as her mother. And as it progressed, she faces other fighters, also played by the actors who played her family. She realized she had to fight her own family to resolve her own problems. It is an interesting way of taking the idea of family conflict and making it literal in a figurative setting. We can see her fighting her family, when in the reality of the show she is fighting with her MMA opponent and her understanding of her own limits. This is what makes this show different from other fighting shows. It is more focused on family and more about life than fighting, though it connects the two.

I thought it was interesting how this play seemed to be reminiscent of a person's everyday life. Scenes went in cycles: work-home-training, work-home-training. Her work is telemarketing for an internet provider, where she is harassed by people she calls. During one of these scenes Halo delivers a fantastically desperate monologue that was beautifully performed. Home--back with her indecisive, paint-shade-obsessed mother--is another load on her back each day. And training is where she can let all that go, even if it is challenging and her relationship with her trainer is at first quite tense. The cycle adds to the effect of Halo seeming like a real person, which in another wrestling show that I really like, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is not so much focused on. That play is more about the drama and the fighting and the damage. That story is more heightened, mystical, and poetic, and this one was more down-to-earth and relatable. I do like both versions of the story, but I had never seen it done in this way before so that was exciting and interesting.

People who would like this show are people who like literal family conflicts, relatable wrestling, and paint-shade-obsessed mothers. I think this is a really well-done show with great actors. It added something new to the wrestling play genre and it was very enjoyable. I really liked it.

Photos: Austin D. Oie

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review of A Doll's House, Part 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called A Doll's House, Part 2. It was by Lucas Hnath and it was directed by Robin Witt. It is the second chapter to A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. It focuses on the aftermath of Nora's (Sandra Marquez) disappearance and how it affected her husband, Torvald (Yasen Peyankov), her daughter, Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper), and her maid Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson). Nora has returned because she needs a divorce (which she thought she already had) to avoid charges of fraud. It is about coming back to your past, abandonment, and what counts as selfishness. I think this is a troubling way to look at A Doll's House and Nora's decision but it is an interesting addition to the conversation about Ibsen's play.

The audience had a different configuration than you would normally see at Steppenwolf; there were audience members on the stage. They were in groups of twelve and six, separated by railings from the stage. It reminded me of either a courthouse or opera house, jury boxes or opera boxes. If it is a courthouse, it explores the idea of the divorce as a legal proceeding and the audience as the jury judging Torvald and Nora. If it is an opera house, it is a callback to the original controversial production of A Doll's House. It was controversial because of the idea that a woman had the right to leave her husband or have a life of her own not centered around a man. You are watching the audience's reaction to the play.

In the first play, Nora leaves her kids as well as her husband, which was very controversial at the time of the the play and still today. Neither play is talking about parents leaving their children; they are only addressing mothers leaving their children. I don't think that anyone should necessarily leave their families unless it is for the greater good. But it troubles me that Nora is judged for leaving her family where a man might not be. I think the playwright is showing Nora as selfish because she is presented as a hyperfeminist crazy lady stereotype and all the other characters are trying to show her how much she hurt them. That makes the audience lose sight of what may have been Torvald's faults. She had to abandon her children to have a fulfilling life, but it is the fault of society not her. Society at that time said that if you are a woman you can have children and take care of them and be a housewife or you can be a woman who never settles down and has a career. Now if a woman says they want kids and a career, they just have to do both. Men have always been able to do both, but it is harder for mothers (because they are traditionally asked to do the bulk of the actual parenting) and women in the workplace (because they don't get paid as much, are harassed more, and usually don't get as many promotions and job offers because of their gender). Society doesn't say that women can't have children and a job anymore, but the truth of it is that it is going to be more difficult in both areas for a woman.

My issue with this show is that it doesn't seem to have a lot of heart. It seems almost to be an essay on stage. It seemed to be people talking, not people living or feeling. I know that all of these actors are phenomenal, and they can show you a lot of range of emotion, but I didn't see that much in this case so I assume that might be on purpose. The stage was also undecorated, besides a box of kleenex and bottles of water, which makes it seem unrealistic, which gives the play a general feeling. It doesn't set a tone or specify time or place. It is sort of a blank canvass that the story doesn't fill because it doesn't seem like much of a story. It seems more like a collection of statements.

People who would like this show are people who like revisiting old work, thinking about how "the place of a woman" has changed and not changed over time, and kleenex. I think this type of show would appeal to people who like less active theater that is thought-provoking rather than emotion-provoking.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review of Red Tape Theatre's In the Blood

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called In the Blood. It was written by Suzan-Lori Parks and it was directed by Chika Ike. It was about a woman named Hester (Jyreika Guest) who had five children who she called her treasures: Jabber (Max Thomas), Trouble (Casey Chapman), Bully (Kiayla Ryann), Beauty (Emilie Modaff), and Baby (Richard Costes). They lived together under a bridge because they could not afford a real house. Each of her children has a different father and as the play progresses we learn the true unromanticized version of how these children came to be. We meet each of the fathers, or women connected to the fathers, who are each played by the same actor as their children. I think this is a really impactful, gorgeously acted play with tons of metaphors to interpret and break down. I loved it.

Hester tells her five children a story about how all of them came to be. It was about how she was a beautiful princess and she had so many people who wanted to marry her that she decided to marry them all. And each of them gave her a child with a different strength and that is how she got the names for each of the children. Each of the actors did a phenomenal job distinguishing the child characters from their adult characters. They also didn't overemphasize the youth of the children. They had behaviors we see in children without making them clichés. I loved all the children, and at some points I would forget that they were played by the same people who played the adult roles because I was so immersed in the performances of the child characters. It exemplifies why Hester loves her children so much because they are so pure compared to the corrupt society around them. It feels like she has to protect them from becoming like her, and it is heartbreaking when we think that she can't.

This show is saying that in our society people are cruel to the poor even though they act like they care. The welfare woman's (Ryann) entire job was to care, but in reality she didn't. She just pretended to care because she was paid for it. She even takes advantage of Hester for her own gain. She gains pleasure, fulfillment for her husband, a relaxed back, and cheap labor on a dress. The show seems to be saying that rich and middle class people like to keep the poor at a distance so they can feel more powerful, important, and successful than others. The Reverend talks about how the world romanticizes the poor, but only the distant poor, because we want to think that the poor near us are poor because they have made wrong decisions. Hester has a lot of children, all by different fathers, and falls for people too quickly, is illiterate, and easily fooled. The point of the play is to shed light on issues like how race, sexuality, and gender relates to poverty. It is not just personal decisions that lead to poverty.

The people who are "helping" Hester manipulate Hester because they know she loves her children more than she loves herself, so they can take sexual advantage of her. Consent is especially complicated in these situations where someone is being willingly manipulated; Hester thinks that she will get what she needs for her and her family if she just does what the "nice" rich man says and doesn't question him. She is literally being f-ed over by society. It is the most visceral way to get across the notion that Hester is being taken advantage of. And a lot is added to visceral reaction by the gorgeous performance of Jyreika Guest. It beautifully combines desperation with power and generosity with pain.

People who would like this show are people who like dark metaphors, compelling child characters, and revealing hard truths. I think this show takes a really beautiful and poetic approach to a very ugly subject. It has a versatile cast, a compelling script, and focused and effective direction. I loved it.

Photos: Austin D. Oie

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of About Face Theatre's Dada Woof Papa Hot

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Dada Woof Papa Hot. It was by Peter Parnell and it was directed by Keira Fromm. It is about a gay couple in New York, Alan (Bruch Reed) and Rob (Benjamin Sprunger), who were raising their first child. Rob feels very comfortable being a parent, but Alan doesn't feel very connected to his daughter. He says he wants to find a way to make their connection stronger, but instead he mostly seems to try to find a way that it is not his fault and he doesn't have to work at it. They become friends with another couple who have just had a second child, Jason (Shane Kenyon) and Scott (Jos N. Banks). They seem to be very happy and young and put together, but end up having some darker secrets. Alan and Rob's longtime friends Michael (Keith Kupferer) and Serena (Lily Mojekwu) also are having some issues in their marriage. It's about parenthood, the meaning of unconditional love, and the complexity of relationships. I think this is a really moving show that makes you think a lot about parenting and what it means to be a good parent.

The relationships in this show are very complicated because of infidelity, differences in the preferred upbringing of children, and misconceptions about the other partner's intentions. There are infidelities in each couple with some interlocking storylines. I noticed the theme of the more committed parent staying committed to the family and not cheating, whereas the more disconnected parent seems to want to forget about responsibility, cheat, and forget they had a child in the first place. The people who are having affairs seem to be looking for people who have the same issues as them. It seems like they are looking for another parent to have an affair with, because they think they understand the issues, but that just ends up ruining more families. Not all the affairs have the same outcome. Scott has dealt with Jason's crap too much and is done with cleaning up his messes and letting him fulfill his needs elsewhere. His mistake was agreeing to have a family with this guy who didn't seem to want to have a family. Jason was very good with the kids, but after he had done what the kids needed him to do he didn't want to deal his husband's needs. He wanted to find someone who would just meet his needs, someone he can be selfish with. I feel like Scott saw a family and Jason just saw kids, which led to the end of the family. Alan and Rob also had a difficult relationship, but their contract was stricter so the affair was more of a betrayal. Because they feel their child will suffer if they split up, they decide to do what is best for the kid and in that way they end up restoring their relationship, loving each other, and finding their spark again. It is also because Alan finally realizes he needs to connect with his kid and not just make excuses. I felt less hopeful for Michael and Serena because they still don't seem to agree about parenting, babysitting, or the way their relationship should be, which is basically the core of every parenting partnership.

Society seems to think of every parenting couple as a mother and a father. Even if technically by gender both are fathers in these gay couples, I found myself thinking about the more nurturing parents as motherly, and the parents who were having a more difficult time connecting with their children as the fathers. That was definitely true about the straight couple, but I also applied it to the gay couples. Society has influenced us to think that women raise children and men provide financial support. But this play breaks those molds and shows that the most nurturing gay parent sometimes has to do both because they are the people who understand how life works and what their kids need to succeed. It is not because a parent is working outside the home that they are disconnected from their kids. In this case it is because both of the less connected parents thought they would like to have children because they were an artist and writer who like making things, but then they discover it is more than just creating and you don't have as as much creative freedom as you hoped. Both of the gay couples show two nearly opposite sides on the spectrum of adulthood. One is the nurturing breadwinner who thinks they know what they need to teach another person and make a functioning person in society. The other is a person who is focused on making a name for themselves, spontaneity, and themselves. This play made me think about the reasons people classify certain behaviors as motherly or fatherly. Nurturing and commitment should be universal parenting tools, and both parents should take responsibility to know what they are doing, no matter what their gender.

People who would like this show are people who like explorations of parenting, complicated pursuits of happiness, and beautifully acted relationships. I really liked this show. It was well-written and made me think a lot about my own unconscious prejudices and assumptions about gender, relationships, and parenthood.

Photos: Michael Brosilow