Off the Cuff Review- STAGE KISS at Goodman Theatre

Hot Thespian Action

I’ve never been bananas over Sarah Ruhl.  Granted, I’ve only seen two of her plays staged (Eurydice and Orlando, at the Court earlier this year).  She manufactures a brand of whimsy that many go nuts for, one which I find sort of tiring and false.  Stage Kiss, the new Ruhl play enjoying a Goodman commission right now, is entirely different than anything I’ve seen by her.  It’s decently realistic and very ha-ha, screwball funny.  In fact, it seems like her personal love letter to the stage.

As you can read in plenty of interviews Ruhl has done in promotion for this show, the genesis of Stage Kiss was the idea of how weird it is that actors have to kiss for a living.  While in most workplaces kissing on the clock can bring in the sexual harassment lawsuits, in theatre smooching is par for the course.  Ruhl interviewed several actors and asked about how kissing another actor night after night made them feel about the other person.  It’s an interesting question that any young thespian has, and possibly why some join their high school drama club in the first place—but it’s a topic that isn’t really explored often.

Ruhl posits the question in a madcap farce that smacks of Noises Off!  A misled director helms a (fictional) creaky 1930s play that flopped on Broadway originally, but he hopes, with a few cuts and additions, he can make it sing.  The leads are two former lovers whose flame extinguished long ago.  But the repeated pseudo-love between them inspires truer feelings.  They change their lives to be together, but the line between reality and theatricality starts to clear up fast.

The cast does a great job, especially Jenny Bacon as She (the female lead) and Ross Lehman as the bumbling director.  The first act is spectacular and wickedly funny.  The second act, which takes a detour to Detroit (for realsies), is misguided.  Although the final moment between She and her husband is gorgeous, I think we could have gotten there faster.  The play, directed by Ruhl-buddy Jessica Thebus, could end at intermission and be an intriguing beast in itself.  Honestly, though, there are loads of laughs along the 2 hour journey so I can’t complain too much.

*** Stars

Running at the Goodman Theatre until June 5th.  http://www.goodmantheatre.org.

-Barry Eitel

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May 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

Exciting Stuff Over At Open Source

Hey all–

In case you are wondering what I work on when I’m not hullabalooing around town, take a peak at the Open Source Theatre Project blog at opensourcetheatreproject.wordpress.com.  We got a show, The Comfort Station Plays, coming up April 14th in Logan Square, and it is well worth a visit.  It is also free.

On the blog you can read some snippets of the plays, as well as see more info about the collective and the current project.

 

Enjoy!
-Barry

March 30, 2011 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

Quick Picks-CANDIDE at Goodman

You may have seen ads for the Goodman season opener on literally every taxi and bus in the city.  They’re mixing the artistry of Leonard Bernstein, Voltaire, and Mary Zimmerman for a new look at the enlightenment text which was transformed into an operetta in 1956.  The satire lampoons the philosophical treatment of optimism against all the garbage present in the world.  This holds true as much now as it did then.  The piece fails to match the extreme hype, however, getting sucked down by the heavy chunks of plot.  Candide, here played by the bright-eyed Geoff Packard, travels/is kidnapped/escapes to at least three continents and a myriad of locales.  There is a ton to cover, and one begins to wonder by intermission if Zimmerman was too faithful.

Act Two has a completely different energy, one that is much quicker and fascinating to watch.  The final moment is truly transformative theatre.  The brilliance doesn’t shine through in every cranny of the script or production, but it is peppered throughout the whole show.  The cast is delightful, with Goodman regular Larry Yando being particularly memorable.  Packard can gloss over some crucial moments in Candide’s struggle with optimism, but he keeps us plugged in for the whole night.  Most importantly, we walk out knowing a little more about the nature of happiness, and maybe understand a bit about humanity in general.

October 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm Leave a comment

The Reboot

Hello all.  I haven’t posted in awhile, not since last theatre season.  This season, though, is sure to bring lots more fun.  I have still written reviews at Chicago Theatre Blog, so steer your browser over there to read the bulk of my stuff.  But there will be more to come soon.

October 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm Leave a comment

GIRLS VS. BOYS Could Use More War

REVIEW: Girls vs. Boys

Book and lyrics by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen

Music by Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen

Directed by Nathan Allen

The House Theatre

* * (out of 4)

So young, so shirtless

When I first read the description for the House’s newest musical Girls vs. Boys, I was led to believe there would be an actual battle of the sexes on-stage.  I’m talking blood, grenades, and air raids.  The actual show, detailing the lives of some teenagers, is closer to Pat Benatar than Patton.  Guns are pointed, but they are just metaphors for those other (decidedly less deadly) weapons, our words.  In a valiant attempt to become a manifesto for a generation, Girls vs. Boys comes off as broad and safe.  An actual body count might have pushed this musical into new territory, but, alas, way more hearts are broken than bones.

Girls vs. Boys was the result of The American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern this past summer. The book and lyrics were penned by House heroes Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen and the show was composed by Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen.  The show revolves around all those teenage things we see in movies and TV: crazy parties, drugs, ADD, sex, all that good stuff.  The problem with the show is that it doesn’t add anything new to the genre.  Kids are young and crazy, we get it.

The ensemble here is pretty strong (especially the emotional heart of the piece, Tyler Ravelson), and the energy is the required nutty level.  Collette Pollard’s sleek set includes a built in mosh pit for a cheaper ticket, but when I went the “moshers” looked like they were at a Spoon concert.  However, the cast is clearly having a great time, which carries over to everyone in the audience.

I’m not sure this qualifies for a cult musical, because I can’t imagine anyone but the House putting it on.  The music, lyrics, and plots mesh together alright in the Chopin, but nothing from the show weasels into your consciousness like Spring Awakening—you won’t be humming these songs weeks later.  The show is fine on the surface, but staying-power requires an intriguing core that drives everything forward, be it unique yet relatable stories, fantastic music, or (ideally) both.

Teenage girls throwing comically-large cartoon bombs at boys could be the answer.  I’m just saying.

Barry Eitel

May 17, 2010 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Raven’s TWELVE ANGRY MEN Gets Mad

REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men

Written by Reginald Rose

Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas

Raven Theatre

* * * (out of 4)

I enjoy a bunch of sweaty ornery men stuck together in an enclosed space as much as the next guy.  Reginald Rose’s 1954 12 Angry Men supplies all of that.  The drama was originally penned for the small screen during the golden age of television.  It works incredibly well on-stage, becoming a staple of theatres of all sorts around the country.  Although often community or high school theatre fare, Raven Theatre decided to give the American classic a full treatment, under the steady direction of A. Todd Douglas.  While occasionally stumbling on itself, the sparky production is as volatile as a sweltering July day.

Rose got the inspiration for the play from a real-life scenario that is rife with drama—the jury room.  Twelve men enter the room, each bringing their own opinions, prejudices, and desires to the table, and they must decide the fate of young man on trial for murder.  The play is fiercely compelling because every man is forced to make decisions; no one is allowed to wallow in uncertainty.  The play starts with a near unanimous vote for guilty with one dissenter (Juror #8, a smooth C.L. Brown), who just wants to stir up a little discussion before they send a teenager to his death.  During this discussion, truths are questioned, ties are loosened, engagements are missed, and pretty much everyone gets angry.

Although the Raven production captures the temper, it comes across as unbalanced.  About half of the actors are spectacular, and the other half are wacky and cartoonish.  Some of the actors seem to struggle with Rose’s hard-boiled 1950s language.  The fast-paced, New York City style doesn’t sit well with everybody.  Some can encapsulate Rose’s language brilliantly, especially Edward Diaz as the no-nonsense Juror #7.   Brown also does a good job navigating the play, his calm composure compensates for the fact that he seems to be the youngest of the bunch.  Juror #1 is the foreman and faced with leading the pack, and Kenneth Johnson does an excellent job as diplomat.  Other great performances are given by the older men of the bunch, J.J. McCormick, Leonard Kraft, and Don Loftus.

And then there are the actors who shoot over the top.  Bryson Engelen, for example, plays the uptight Juror #4, but he overplays the nerdiness and comes across as a caricature.  Reginald Vaughn also overacts his interpretation of Juror #10, who, in Vaughn’s defense, is oddly written.  Number 10 is extremely prejudiced, but is unspecific about his bigotry.  He is disgusted by the defendant’s ethnic and social background, but we never learn if the defendant is black, Irish, or any other maligned group.  Vaughn has a powerful monologue in the second half where his hatred spouts out, but his target is generalized and hazy.

Douglas’ staging works well considering the limitations.  There’s only so much you can do with a bunch of guys arguing around a table.  Most of the movement feels organic, although there are a few stand-up/sit-down/stand-up moments.  He utilizes Kelly Dailey’s cool 1950’s set very well.  Raven’s production explores the heated moments that happens behind close doors, and it is plenty angry.

More info here.

–Barry Eitel

March 10, 2010 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

WILSON WANTS IT ALL, but doesn’t get it

REVIEW

WILSON WANTS IT ALL

The House Theatre of Chicago

Co-written by Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich

Directed by Michael Rohd

Through March 26th

* * (out of 4)

You don’t usually see a whole lot of suits at House productions.  You’re much more likely to see stuff bought at Old Navy, cowboy outfits, giant ice-witch costumes, pretty much anything that says ‘whimsy’ or ‘young adult fiction.’  But currently you’ll see plenty of business clothes on display at the Chopin, home of the House Theatre’s production of Wilson Wants it All.  It shows they are growing up.  The new outfits match the more mature themes and ideas that run through the show.  The House is getting political.  Unfortunately, Wilson is subject to some growing pains.  Compared to other shows out right now that deeply explore intricate and complicated sociopolitical issues, such as TimeLine’s Master Harold…and the Boys or Return to Haifa at Next, Wilson doesn’t past muster.  It looks really cool and has some fun moments, but writer and director team Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich fail to cover any thought-provoking territory or make relevant points with this rather impotent Wilson.

Orwell, anyone?

The plot is sort of a mashup of The Parent Trap and The Manchurian Candidate.  Set in the not-too-distant future of 2040, the play follows Hope (Rebekah Ward-Hays), the daughter of a beloved senator who was assassinated on the day she was born in early 2010.  It would be an understatement to say that there is quite a bit of hype surrounding the woman and her possible political career.  With all this hype comes pressure to perform, and Hope finds an easy way out when she meets Ruth (Leslie Frame), a jobless 30-year-old who, huh, looks exactly like Hope.  All of this is orchestrated by Wilson (an appropriately slippery John Henry Roberts), who is sort of Carl Rove, sort of Rahm Emanuel.  He wants to continue the senator’s dynasty through Hope or Ruth, but is scared to enter the race himself.

All of this is played against a manic America, where all the problems we’re seeing today have just gotten worse.  Overpopulation and unemployment lead to some proposing state-mandated sterilization through a microchip embedded in the body.  I’m not sure of this was intended, but the discussions presented in the play smack of the pro-life/pro-choice debates.

The show succeeds in presenting an intelligent view of the future, one that is extrapolated from our own than totally invented.  Cell phones and computers have become smaller and even more integrated into our world.  Scenic designer Collette Pollard, video artist Lucas Merino, and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic’s work beautifully details this broken empire of an America.   One of the scariest ideas contained in the play is advertisements that follow people around and constantly remind a person where they can find the nearest Laundromat or burger joint.  Unfortunately, this brilliant thought is only presented once or twice, than slid under the rug.

And here is where I’m going to inject my own politic (feel free to skip over).  I’ve always been the political realm is supposed to be sort of noisy and loud, that kinda goes along with democracy.  Not that I believe in pundits taking cheap shots at everything or pointless political speechifying, but Wilson seems to focus primarily on a message of everyone getting along and playing nice.  Also, I think economics needs to be brought to the discussion a lot more.  By the end, all out civil war might be avoided, but no real issues are solved or even discussed further.

Proclaiming that “politics muddles actual issues” is too small a payoff for watching a two-hour-plus production.  I applaud the House for trying something more current events-focused while keeping their crazy, experimental aesthetic.  But when you produce something overtly political, you’re throwing your hat into the ring with some heavy contenders (Brecht, Churchill, Odets, Kushner).  For a play to really strike a chord, it cannot generalize or rehash tropes.  Wilson Wants it All, for all it’s technical wizardry and zippy staging, just doesn’t resonate.

Ticket information here.

February 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm 1 comment

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