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Wednesday, 01 July 2015 00:00

"American Smoothie" More Sour Than Sweet

Underscore Theatre Company proudly presents the second annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, featuring 13 world-premiere musicals by local artists. These musicals showcase Chicago’s emerging musical theatre artists. Chicago is home to musical theatre creators, giving the artists a safety net to fall back into when they make risky decisions and experiment with the performing arts. There was a disclaimer in the program. It stated that if theatregoers were to see a musical, it may not be any good. After all, musicals are risky business and very challenging.

Brian is an IT technician at the corporate headquarters of American Smoothie. He feels like his coworkers do not appreciate him and all the work he does for them. Poor Brian arrives to work every morning with demands such as, “Help me open this document!” or “Fix my computer!” He looks forward to speaking with Brie, his coworker, because he has eyes for her. Speaking to Brie is easier said than done and there are too many obstacles in the way. First, Brian’s inability to make a situation light and not-awkward, and second, Chad. Chad is Brian’s worst nightmare. Chad has loads of personality, always bright, and is a charitable human. Everyone at work has a large personality. Brian’s boss, Jerry, is very eccentric. Coworker, Samantha, has a bird fetish. Coal, Brian’s roommate and best friend, is a dedicated puppet game show host. Throw all these characters together in a play, things are bound to go wrong.

That was the shortest summary I could muster, skipping all the ridiculous details, without straying too far. This script went in so many directions, I could barely keep up. Although it was very creative and somewhat comical, the holes in the plot and the weak presence on stage was more apparent. It seems as if the cast missed out on bonding experiences and went straight into rehearsing. It made for rigid and timid presences on stage.  

However, some characters are worth noting. Brian (Brian Elliot) and Samantha (Cami Rene Philgreen) possess very strong voices. Chad (Jonathan Wilson) and Jerry (Michael Palmenderi) provide comic relief from a very confusing script. The ideas were great, but they didn’t blend and left me very confused.

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival will be presented June 30 - July 19, 2015 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Tickets are available at www.cmtf.org

Published in Theatre Reviews

In Irish Theatre of Chicago’s newest production “The White Road”, performed at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park, we get exactly what we are hoping for – an intense adventure that pits man against nature at its most vicious form. Based on the true heroics of Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, “The White Road” tells the story of yet another incredible undertaking where all hope lies solely in one’s will to survive.

Setting sail from South Georgia on December 5th, 1914, Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica expedition triumphantly leaves shore aboard The Endurance with a crew of twenty-eight with the intent on crossing the Antarctica continent from one coast to the other by way of the South Pole. Hopes are high and excitement is in the air as the crew embarks on a journey never before accomplished.  

Said Shackleton beforehand, "After the conquest of the South Pole by [Roald] Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under [Robert Falcon] Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeying - the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea". 

As history tells, it was a plight that was never meant to be.

Upon approaching Antarctica they are met with pack ice that surrounds their sea vessel threatening to sink it. Completely alone and hundreds of miles away from any form of civilization, this is where one of the greatest tales of survival begins.  

In the two-hour-plus play, we meet a variety of characters that make up this memorable crew – and we like them all. From a nature photographer who keeps the camera rolling at all costs to life and limb, to an enthusiastic stowaway boy starved for adventure, to a whaler/banjo-plucker who lifts the men's spirits with song, we don’t just see a nameless crew, instead we really get to know a unique and diverse lot of individuals. Piven ensemble member Paul Dunckel’s performance of the fearless expedition leader makes Shackleton highly likeable, as the wise and self-sacrificing explorer. Dunckel leads this talented cast with the constitution and perseverance one would associate with an expedition leader, whereas he can convincingly make the tough decisions whilst his loyal troops still rally behind him.

Along with Dunckel, Irish Theatre Company ensemble members Kevin Theis and Matthew Isler are accompanied by Nicholas Bailey, Steve Herson, Neal Starbird, Michael McKeogh, Joseph Stearns, Stephen Walker and Gage Wallace, comprising this fine cast that generates a whirlwind of strong performances.   

Making this play even more entertaining is the way the set is used to put us aboard The Endurance smack dab in the middle of the frozen, glacier-filled waters. Sound effects are strategically used in tandem with projections to successfully create storm effects while creative choreography takes us on a deadly hike through icy mountains.

This is one of those true incredible adventure stories that are long forgotten by most that, thanks to storytellers like The Irish Theatre of Chicago, we now get to experience and share in the surprisingly unbelievable depth of human spirit brought on by fantastic circumstances.

I should note that though this is a wonderful story taken from the pages of early 20th century history, if you are thinking of bring a young adult, be aware that there is a scene containing as a crew member streaks across the deck of the ship. 

Fittingly directed by ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric and written by Karen Tarjan, the world premiere run of “The White Road” is being performed at The Den Theatre through June 13th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.irishtheatreofchicago.org

Published in Theatre Reviews

As Samuel Beckett once stated, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. ... Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh anymore.” Unhappiness and the complete surrender to misery is found aplenty in Beckett’s Endgame now being performed at The Den Theatre and though humor can be found in the dialogue and in the mundane actions of its characters, we can’t help being overwhelmed by the story’s hopelessness.    

The set is almost too good – the interior of a nightmarish, dilapidated house complete with a water-stained ceiling, worn, dirt-filled walls that are peeling, boarded up windows and bottles of urine lined up in the rear of the living room. The characters are as dilapidated and bizarre as the house. It is a dwelling of utter neglect – something you might imagine that has gone terribly wrong in the B.J. Gigglesnort hotel or perhaps a home you might expect the family from Texas Chainsaw massacre to live in. Director Halena Kays explains, “Our design team is full of long-time collaborators who will create an absurdist landscape that will involve and heighten the audience’s experience with this classic.” Not only is the set visually lush in itself but the theatre is decorated with hanging lighted picture boxes, a seating area that closer resembles a birthday party and carnival-like assortments scattered throughout the floor.

This one act, four character tragicomedy stars Kurt Ehrmann as the aging “Hamm” who is blind and cannot use his legs. He is bound to a makeshift wheelchair comprised of a beat up sitting chair atop a wooden cart with wheels that he obsessively insists be placed in the center of the room. He whistles for his caregiver “Clov” (Brian Shaw) to whom he barks one order after another and in his despair of existence is always asking if it is time for his next painkiller. “Clov” too is broken down, a creature of compulsive routine. When asked by “Hamm”, who recognizes the verbal abuse he so often dishes out, why he doesn’t leave, “Clov’s” response is simply “Where would I go?” It’s hopelessness at its best.

Ehrmann skillfully rips into one soliloquy after the next with rampant passion and we laugh at his anguish yet are haunted by his words at the same time. “Hamm” often speaks with his parents who appear from two garbage cans while “Clov” uses a kaleidoscope to check the on goings by the sea through a small, exposed portion of window that he can only access by hobbling awkwardly up his stepladder. In all, we see a frightening story of two decrepit men who have completely lost touch with anything normal about life who are trapped with each other and feed on pain and bleakness. And, in true Beckett fashion, we somehow find humor in that.

The Hypocrites production of Endgame is playing at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park through April 4th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.the-hypocrites.com.

*Photo - (left to right) Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough in The Hypocrites production of ENDGAME by Samuel Beckett, directed by Halena Kays.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

  

Published in Theatre Reviews
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 19:00

One Flea Spare at Den Theatre

Four strangers are quarantined together as the Black Plague sweeps through London. They must struggle through personal and social prejudices as they try to survive being cooped up together for weeks. Fear of contamination and imminent death from the agonizing plague, hope of escape, and sexual strain haunts their daily confinement. Will the fittest survive not only the plague, but each other?

Director Jeffrey Clark Stokes has brought a team of newcomers and old hands returning to the stage to create his directorial debut. The highlight of the cast is Caroline Phillips, the young actress playing Morse, a strange girl who sneaks into the boarded-up house and has a profound effect on the wealthy owners’ lives. Her belief in each moment is governed with a direct simplicity and a strong voice, bringing bewitching contrasts of innocence and depravity to this ravaged setting.

A fresh look at a small space, the audience is in effect taken into the quarantined room and has the chance to experience the ghastly confinement through all-around, staggered seating, bringing actors and audience close together. Stripping away any semblance of presentation, a tension-filled realism is achieved as these family-like relationships tauten and wind around themselves.

A brilliant score by DePaul student David Samba ushers us into this hellish house utilizing murmuring winds, groans and repetitive dripping and tapping. The score emphasizes Wallace’s poetic wordplay and grotesque imagery, which startles, horrifies, and repulses even as it invites a closer look into the physical agonies of life in the Black Plague era.

Ghost Light Productions’ One Flea Spare runs July 13-25 at 7:30pm at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave, in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. The show runs 2:10 with a 10 minute intermission. Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.

Twitter@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews