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Ken Payne

Ken Payne

Accidentally, Like A Martyr is a witty comedy drama now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre that packs a punch with its humor and charm but also with its intrigue. Taking place in a seedy gay bar on Manhattan's lower east side we meet a colorful group of regulars, are dosed with whimsical bar chat and are soon thrust into a compelling story that builds one's curiosity plenty as the show continues.

The set is cozy as the audience is seated around a fully functioning bar and often gets the feeling they too are patrons. Decorative Christmas lights are strung throughout and a vintage jukebox sits to one end. It's easy to lose oneself in the atmosphere alone and, once immersed with the character's variety of personalities, feel as though we are bonded with each.

Manned with a strong cast, we are exposed to some dynamite performances including Layne Manzer's as "Brendan" whose tough exterior can only shield his vulnerabilities for so long. Manzer showed a great range of versatility and raw intensity and is certainly someone to keep an eye on in the theatre scene. Steve Haggard also gave a stellar performance as "Mark" the grief-stricken lover desperately searching for a taste of the past. Accidentally, Like A Martyr also contains several terrific veteran  performers including Troy West, Doug Vickers and David Cerda, the mastermind behind Hell in a Handbag Productions, one of Chicago's funniest theatre companies.

Ensemble member Shade Murray directs this Chicago premiere wonderfully written by Grant James Varjas. This is a touching story of friendship, survival and soul searching. Accidentally, Like A Martyr is playing at A Red Orchid Theatre located at 1531 N Wells through March 1st. For tickets and/or more information visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org or call (312) 943-8722.  

Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was host to yet another spectacular Elvis Presley birthday celebration, The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular. This time celebrating birthday number 80, there was even a more special air around the theater. Fans filled the seats to capacity and sat back for a nostalgic trip to yesteryear when Elvis was king. Going through Elvis’ history in chronological order, we were able to experience a career first hand had by no other.

After warming up the crowd with a few numbers by The Blackwood Quartet, one of Elvis’ favorite gospel groups, Cody Ray Slaughter and Ryan Pelton took turns performing as Elvis from the mid-1950s through the movie years that spanned through 1968. Not only did the young Slaughter have all the early Elvis moves down to a science – arms swaying rhythmically about and feet immersed in fancy footwork to the beat, but his voice and subtle mannerisms were so dead on it made the illusion highly believable the moment you let your guard down.

It was nice to also hear so many songs that were not from the popular hits catalogue. With a nice selection from the movie King Creole (title track, “Hard Headed Woman”, “Trouble”, “Crawfish”), Viva Las Vegas (What’d I Say”, “C’mon Everybody”), G.I. Blues and a few other fave Presley films, we were met with a well-rounded Elvis spectacular that the truest of fans certainly enjoyed. We were also treated with the hits that made Elvis…well, Elvis. From “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Teddy Bear”, it was a true Elvis musical feast.

Not only was each performer backed by a full band complete with a horn section, but original Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana took to the stage to play along on the first few songs. And though the 83-year old legend may have lost a step or two, he sure hasn’t lost the beat. Also, performing backup vocals besides The Redwood Quartet were the Sweet Inspirations including the great Estelle Brown who sang with Elvis from 1969 through his untimely death in 1977. The absolute thrill to witness the performance of two Elvis bandmates was simply breathtaking.

After a brief intermission the show recreated an early 1970s Elvis concert. Here we hear the later Presley classics like “In the Ghetto”, “The Wonder of You” and opening number “See See Rider” brilliantly performed by Shawn Klush decked out in a white, high-collared jump suit. Almost like a second show in its own right, the hour-plus set was an energized one as Klush also gave an animated performance of “Suspicious Minds” before ending the show with the appropriate “American Trilogy” to the lowering of a giant American flag behind the performers.  

The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular was an amazing show despite a near tragedy when a stack of amplifiers fell onto the drummer’s leg (not D.J Fontana). After a few minute timeout, he was helped off stage while one of the guitarists filled in on the drums, but later returned after the intermission.  

This is a highly recommended show – a show that Elvis himself would be proud of.

     

Almost as funny as it is tragic (that sounds so wrong), The Ruffians’ Burning Bluebeard, currently running at Theatre Wit, is a very unique live performance that everyone should experience. Bluebeard is an ensemble piece that recreates the stage performance that took place during the famous 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that claimed over 600 lives on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago.

The moment we enter the stage area, we are met with body bags that lie on a charred theater floor. It is a melancholy scene that sends chills up one’s spine. We soon are introduced to five stage performers and a theater manager who each tell their story of what they were doing at the time the fire struck. This happens in between the recreation of acts leading up to the tragedy. During this process we laugh and laugh some more. How can there be something funny found in something so disastrous? Masterfully, playwright Jay Torrence is able to infuse a dark humor throughout this tragic historical event. Each character delivers a knockout performance drawing laughs at will from the crowd one moment and bringing tears to one’s eyes the next.

One of the year’s best, this show is like no other.  Its vivid descriptiveness relates to the audience to the point you really feel you know the characters and are experiencing the tragedy along with them. Grim and morose is the story though comical are many of the surrounding facts such as the Mr. Bluebeard itself, the massively produced play with over four hundred cast members that was running at the time of the great fire. A play that hardly made any sense and depended on large visuals, an overload of song numbers (nine songs in first act alone) and dazzling acrobatics.

We are described beautifully the stunning details of the sixteen hundred seat Iroquois Theater, a majestic auditorium with no costs spared during its creation that was touted as fireproof just as the Titanic was called unsinkable nine years later. The sad truths are slowly released whereas mostly women and children were in attendance at this standing room only matinee performance, and that the theater was nearly escape proof once the fire erupted.  

Wonderfully directed by Halana Kays, Burning Bluebeard makes exceptional use of its limited space, successfully creating the illusion of a much larger scaled production. Ensemble members Pam Chermansky and author Jay Torrence lead the way delivering mesmerizing performances in this multi-talented and very colorful cast with Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters. And thanks to imaginative costume design, we have no problem believing we are present at a 1903 production.

In Burning Bluebeard we are treated to a rare flavor of theatre that is sure to leave a lasting impression. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014 18:00

Airline Highway Recognizes the "Invisibles"

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Airline Highway focuses on those who are mostly forgotten, unseen or unfortunately, even looked down upon by many. In this case the story revolves around a group of outcasts who inhabit The Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans that have come to call themselves “family”. Each comes with their own heartbreaking story or unfortunate set of life circumstances that has led their way to become motel dwellers. Mostly scratching and clawing for another day of food and/or shelter, audience members are face to face with a reality that is mostly hidden, or conciously forgotten, from our daily lives. We inevitably see the caring that is shared amongst each other in such a group and realize that a self-made family of “invisibles”, as they are referred to, have the same hopes, dreams and capacity for love, whether giving or receiving, as anyone else.

As one walks into the theatre they are first met with a highly impressive set that recreates an aging motel with brick façade complete with an office, large vintage stand up sign (perhaps 1950s) and a litter-filled parking lot that one could swear is actual concrete. We see a stairwell, several room doors, an abandoned Honda Civic and a backdrop of an evening sky. As the play progresses we are introduced to one colorful character after another – a laid back office manager, an enthusiastic hippie who considers himself a poet, a vibrant transvestite, an maturing hooker, a stripper who idealizes about having an office job and a handyman who is always trying to make a buck by offer to make repairs around the motel.

It is soon uncovered that the group is planning to throw a party for Miss Ruby, a near death elderly resident who once owned a famous strip club and has also taken her share of wrong turns in life. But this is no ordinary party –it is a funeral – a living funeral. It was Miss Ruby’s request to have a send off while still alive. As the party is being put together, we learn many revealing aspects about the past of each resident. We also see a family bond that rivals most. When Bait Boy returns to attend the party (now considered somewhat successful by the group’s standards), another dimension is added to the group’s dynamic. Adding to his questionable homecoming, Bait Boy, now “Greg”, brings his girlfriend’s sixteen year-old daughter who plans to interview the “subculture” for a high school paper. This is unsettling for some of the Hummingbird residents.

airline 2

Airline Highway can be funny at times and it is often moving. A slew of wonderful performances by K. Todd Freeman as “Sissy”, Kate Buddeke (“Tanya”), Caroline Neff (“Krista”), Scott Jaeck (“Wayne”) and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the eccentric and loveable “Francis” make this story as believable as it is enjoyable. It is hard not to appreciate every privilege we have experienced in life after seeing this production. Maybe it’s a few bad decisions or perhaps it’s a couple runs of bad luck, but in Airline Highway we see that anyone is susceptible to conditions that can make a life spiral downward. We also see displays of strength, love and courage. There are times we simply envy the closeness of the group and the protectiveness they have for each other.

Flowing at a pace that allows everything to develop with its own organic freshness, Airline highway is a delightful story that brings strong personal ties to the forefront and recognizes the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes, connected by blood or not.

Brilliantly directed by Joe Mantello, Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre through February 8th, 2015. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650. 

 

*Above photo: (left to right) Carloyn Braver and Carloine Neff

*Below photo: The cast of Airline Highway currently being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted)

zarkana-jugglingCirque du Soleil has innovated the circus as we once knew it and has transformed it into something that has become so more visual, musical and exciting than ever could have been imagined. While some Cirque shows are set to a particular theme such as the music of the Beatles or Michael Jackson or perhaps an epic Asian battle or even a water spectacular, Zarkana is different than most as it focuses on three ring circus acts that we grew up with, likely beneath a large tent.

Zarkana is performed center strip at Las Vegas’ Aria Resort and Casino inside a massive, and very beautiful theatre. Prior to the show, some of the 70-plus cast members from around the world are sprinkled throughout the venue interacting with people searching for their seats setting an exciting tone for what is about to come.

Each circus act brings out another gigantic set and bevy of creative costumes that are full of imagination with colors and movement that transcend the audience to another world for ninety minutes. Bringing to the forefront such fantastically traditional circus feats such as walking the high-wire, balancing acts, death-defying flying trapeze stunts and mind-boggling juggling, Cirque intensifies the experience of each with hypnotic music, amazing visuals and often incorporates its rich Vaudevillian humor.

Oohs and aahs are heard across the auditorium as acrobats fly overhead, performing maneuvers that can only be found in one’s deepest imaginings. Dream like motions are brilliantly blended with dangerous stunts that sometimes will have one on the end of their seat. An ingenious cast of characters are as colorful as they are funny. Zarkana is a show that can appeal to just about anyone’s sense of adventure.

Of the many acts performed, the Wheel of Death was probably one that caused the most amazement. The "wheel" is actually a largespace framebeam with hooped tracks at either end, within which the performers can stand. As the performers run around on either the inside or outside of the hoops, the whole apparatus rotates. The performers also perform balancing skills with the wheel in a stationary position. As the device spins faster and faster the stunts become more intense. Another stand out act was the Cyr Wheel. This is where acrobats rolled around the stage within large hoops while performing all kinds of mind-blowing tricks.

Each act was remarkable in its own right and opened one new world of imagination after the next. Whether an eight-year-old kid or a seventy-five year-old kid, Zarkana is certainly a sight to be seen and an experience you will not soon forget.

A Las Vegas show not to be missed, Zarkana has two performances each evening (7pm and 9:30pm) Friday through Tuesday. Tickets currently run between $69-$180 and can be purchased at 855.ZARKANA or by visiting http://www.aria.com/cirque/zarkana. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014 19:00

Sail On Titanic!

Griffin Theatre Company has taken on the feat of recreating the Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Launching this production in a much more intimate space at Theater Wit, the audience gets a real close up feel to the action and is able to capture the bevy of emotions delivered first hand. Scott Weinstein directs Griffin’s Titanic with intensity, giving this production a true feel of tragedy and humankind.

We are all familiar with Titanic’s maiden voyage that where the luxury passenger liner launched from Southampton, UK and sank in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912 after hitting an iceberg on its way to New York City. In Peter Stone’s Titanic, we join the excitement prior to the ships fateful launch where the ship is boasted as the largest and fastest passenger sea vessel that also comes with the tag “indestructible”. Families, friends and crew members are giddy with enthusiasm and anticipation as projected so well in the show’s magnificent opening number “In Every Age”. After Titanic’s triumphant departure, we are taken to both the luxurious world of the ship as well as that of the lesser class. In its five day voyage, we are taken to ballroom extravaganzas, fine dining and also to the far less glamorous galleys and crew quarters.

All the while the good Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch look to steady the course but do so under the pressure of ship owner White Star Line to increase its speed in order to break the speed record to cross the Atlantic. Finally, on a dark and quiet night, lookout Frederick Fleet notified Murdoch of an iceberg due ahead, but it was too late to maneuver, the ship receiving a 300-foot gash in its side, doomed to sink in the frigid waters. In all the panic and commotion we learn that there are only enough lifeboats to save a third of the ship’s passengers. Ultimately only 700 or so of the Titanic’s 2224 passengers would survive, the rest condemned to a watery grave.

In Griffin’s Titanic, we get a real sense of devastation after what is at first denial (after all they are on an indestructible ship). We see the blame game shifted between architect, White Star Line and the Captain. It is an interesting dynamic as we see both unbridled selfishness and unselfishness between the passengers as some are intent on saving themselves while some are more interested in trying to help others.

The set, though simple, converts well from ship deck, to dining hall and living quarters, to ship exterior. The music is strong and heartfelt (also newly reworked). Many numbers are memorable, seizing the essence of the situation so very well such as “I Give You My Hand”, “To Be a Captain”, “I Have Danced” and “God Lift Me Up”. We also get a number of excellent acting performances in the large cast of twenty, making this a very solid production that has everything you would want in a musical tragedy.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Titanic is a high seas adventure you will not soon forget. It’s a big show in a smaller theatre. This warm and stunning production is being performed at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont) through December 7th and tickets are priced at a very worthwhile $39. For more information, you can visit www.griffintheatre.com. 

Monday, 27 October 2014 19:00

Trent Carlini Brings The King to Life

When you think of Las Vegas many things come to mind – gambling, bright lights, monstrous hotels and casinos to which one can easily get lost, glamorous showgirls, dry heated air, the Bellagio fountain, The Rat Pack, Bugsy Segal and Seigfried and Roy. But maybe the largest association one has with Vegas is none other than the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley himself. After flopping in Las Vegas during the 1950s (they just weren’t ready for rock n’ roll), Elvis returned with a vengeance in the late 1960s and had several highly successful years as a residency and touring act until his death on August 16th, 1977.

Since the King’s passing there have probably been more Elvis impersonators than one can count, and though most may go unnoticed, Trent Carlini does not. Formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton where Elvis performed with regularity, Carlini currently performs an amazingly inspired tribute at what is now called Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. Known as one of the best Elvis impersonators in the business, Carlini does not disappoint.

Set in the Shimmer Cabaret, a 350-seat theatre, fans are treated to a very intimate Elvis experience that is a true celebration of Elvis’ life and music. Trent Carlini packs an accurate, and highly entertaining, musical chronology into his 75-minute show that starts with Presley’s earliest hits like “Blue Suede Shoes” and keeps on rolling through the 1970s. Touching on the movie years, we hear classics like “Rock-A-Hula”, “G.I. Blues”, and of course “Viva Las Vegas”, before Carlini appears in that famous leather suit for some ’68 Comeback Special action. Carlini also dons Elvis’ legendary white suit for an emotionally stirring rendition of “If I Can Dream”.

“The King starring Trent Carlini” gives audience members a taste of Elvis Presley’s music in a way many thought could not be done. Carlini’s vocal ability to sound like Presley is haunting, his likeness almost uncanny at times, his movements right on and he even captures some of the late legend’s renowned charm whether it be in joking with the crowd or letting off a simple impish grin. Band members play along with Carlini but are not exposed until a few songs in, adding another dimension to the show. Expect a good amount of audience participation, as Carlini prods the crowd to sing along on occasion (or on their own!), invites the ladies to step up to the stage for a kiss, personally greets a good amount of the crowd during “Love Me Tender” and later passes out scarves to the adoring women in true King fashion.  

With each period of Elvis’ life, Carlini sports the proper attire from Presley’s Lansky collection to his well-known jumpsuits (complete with karate demonstrations). We get a little history lesson along the way though the main focus is on the music, as it should be in a tribute show. Pumping out the Elvis faves like “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” (one of Carlini’s self-proclaimed top choices), “Burning Love”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “The Wonder of You”, fans leave the theater feeling as though they got their full dose of Elvis-mania. The show concludes on an apropos note with Carlini’s powerful version of “American Trilogy” that really gets the goose bumps going. Carlini hits the song’s final note with precision and might – a note that so many other tribute artists substitute with a lower octave.

There is a huge variety of shows to see in Las Vegas, but this is one that should be on your must see list, Elvis fan or not. It is a show for all ages and one that anyone who likes to rock can enjoy. “The King starring Trent Carlini” is completely entertaining and thoroughly engaging. Trent is one of the best in the business and what better place than to relive, or get a taste of, the musical performance of Elvis Presley.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”   

Granted, fans of the Evil Dead films starring our favorite B-list star, Bruce Campbell, will certainly enjoy this stage version more than most, having already consumed a taste for the unconventional humor that made the trilogy such a big cult following success.  Still, though maybe not for everyone, Evil Dead the Musical, is a raucous night of deadpan deliveries, inappropriate slapstick, splattering bodily fluids, sexual innuendos, campy stereotypes and jokes so bad you can help but laugh. All the elements of a winning production.

When over-the-top S-Mart store manager Ash takes to the woods to stay in an unoccupied cabin with a couple friends and his annoying sister, we get an immediate sense that this story will not end well. As, expected, all hell breaks loose once the foursome realize spirits of the dead inhabit the cabin and surrounding woods – and they’re not happy. Ash stumbles upon The Book of the Dead, or Necronomicon, and frantically searches its flesh made pages for some answers. One hilariously spirit enters after another to claim their lives and Ash has no choice but to resort to superhero mode in order to prevent a full on bloody massacre. If you are familiar with the Evil Dead film franchise, there is no more need for story description. If you are not, the plot is pretty simple – defeat evil or die.

evil-dead-tour-2014-0310-jpg-20140924Though some moments are overly laden with campiness to the point of plain silliness, the brunt of the show’s humor is right on. Many of the props, including a three foot high bridge that seems to be the only way in and out of the woods, are very comical in their own right. Each character contributes their share of funny moments and then some, especially Creg Sclavi who is exceptional as “Scott”. David Sajewich takes on the tough assignment of “Ash”, but takes the role and runs with it to the point one forgets to keep comparing him to Bruce Campbell.

The show is filled with corny songs like “Look Who’s Evil Now” as one character becomes possessed after another but really hits its stride with its cheesy special effects and one-liners. From graphic limb dismemberment to the splattering blood that makes its way across the theatre’s first few rows (yes, the “splatter zone”), there is more than enough in this show to entertain and deliver one hell of a funny adventure.

Evil Dead the Musical is playing at the Chicago Playhouse through just October 12th, so be sure to fit this one in on your calendar. For tickets and/or more info visit www. http://broadwayinchicago.com/ or www. http://www.evildeadthemusical.com/.              

I just love a good whodunit. Who killed who, how and why – the suspects, the accusers, the whole shebang. The Game’s Afoot, currently running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, is just that – murder, suspense and also plenty of laughs.

The Game’s Afoot by Ken Ludwig, author of “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo”, is a very engaging mystery/comedy that revolves around William Gillette, an actor best known for his on stage portrayal of the famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. We are taken back to Christmas Eve, 1936, where Gillette hosts a dinner party for some of the cast members in his latest production. It’s a wintry night as the guests arrive throughout the early evening to Gillette’s Connecticut mansion. Soon after guests acquaint themselves with each other, a murder takes place and Gillette calls himself into action as his Sherlock Holmes character in order to solve the mystery. Hilarity ensues as everyone becomes a suspect, including Gillette himself.

The Game’s Afoot is anchored with a fine cast, most notably Derek Hasenstab as the energetic and always deducing, William Gillette, and Angela Ingersoll as the vivacious Daria Chase. Hasenstab recalls, “I love William Gillette and I like Ken Ludwig’s writing. He writes fun stuff for the actors to play with.” Rod Thomas also makes a splash as Gillette’s longtime friend, Felix Geisel.

Incidentally, Gillette is based on an actual person. Gillette wrote the stage version of Sherlock Holmes back in the late 1800s, adding to the character the pipe and deerstalker cap. Hasenstab adds, “He was an eccentric person. He built a castle in Connecticut, he was an inventor and he loved keeping up with the technology of the day.”

The show is set in the inside the living room of Gillette’s mansion and is quite jaw-dropping once exposed as it is lavishly rich and has murder mystery written all over it. Snow constantly falls behind its large windows giving the desired effect of a winter storm, while an entire wall spins back and forth from fireplace and mantle to cocktail bar with the pull of a lever – a sconce near the living room’s entrance way.

The show has some pretty funny moments but is really consistently humor rich from beginning to end, at the same time presenting a compelling enough mystery to entertain on its own. The characters are quirky and likeable – more so as you get to know them, and one kind of gets the feeling that they are part of the dinner party even though they might be rows away from the stage.

The Game’s Afoot is simply fun. If you, like myself, enjoy whodunits, you’ll really find this show a treat.

For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.

Ravinia plays host to so many memorable concerts throughout the year, but one of the most unforgettable came last Tuesday night when The Beach Boys shared the stage with the legendary Temptations. Amply called “Surf and Soul” audience members were able to take in some of the most celebrated classics in music history under the stars.

Taking the stage first were the Temptations led by Bruce Williamson and the band’s only original member, Otis Williams. Dressed in matching, brightly colored suits the band clapped, spun and added some fancy footwork to such favorites as “Treat Her Like A Lady”, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “Just My Imagination” and “My Girl”. Gracing the crowd with smooth harmonies and romantic lyrics, the Temptations still had women swooning as they probably did some fifty years ago.

After a healthy set of soulful bliss, The Beach Boys then came out to perform headed by original members Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. Fun videos of 1960s nostalgia and band footage were displayed on each side of the stage throughout the show while The Beach Boys launched into an array of their famous surf hits. Strangely however, Brian Wilson seemed to be shunned from such footage barring a few quick shots were it was nearly impossible to exclude him. Obviously missing was Brian and Carl Wilson, but the band still managed to pull off a highly efficient performance taking on such songs (most Mike Love driven hits) as “”Do It Again”, “Sloop John B”, “Surfin’ USA”, “Catch A Wave”, “Be True To Your School”, “409” and “I Get Around”. Also thrown into the set, and maybe a bit unnecessarily, was Mike Love’s solo project number “Pisces Brothers”. The band did venture into a few Brian Wilson led songs with the touring musicians handling his high vocal range quite nicely – the same goes for the terrific harmonies in each song.

The Beach Boys played two songs from Pet Sounds – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”, the latter of which the band got creative with the jumbo screens to allow the late Carl Wilson sing the lead (as only it should be) while they gently played and sang harmonies underneath. Ending on a high note, Love and gang jumped into the band’s last big hit “Kokomo” from the late 1980s and their ever so popular anthem “Good Vibrations”.

Not to be a band that walks away from challenges, Mike Love was greeted with a bucket of ice water over his head in support of ALS awareness to put the finishing touches on a fully enjoyable experience.

Overall, though at times a bit sad to be reminded of our mortality and the inevitable aging process we all must endure, both bands were thoroughly entertaining, tight and most of all – fun. I can only hope both will return to Ravinia in 2015. Surf’s still up, boys! 

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