Attempting to tackle a slew of tough issues, Picture Imperfect is an emotional drama with good intention that raises awareness to the difficulties of...well, single motherhood, autism, drug abuse, gambling, abandonment, the hardships in dealing with Child Protective Services, spousal manipulationand eventually mental illness. Thoughall important issues, co-writing duo Joel Z. Cornfield and Richard James Zieman may have diluted their intended focus by planting too many different seeds in the garden. Still, as many subjects that are touched upon in its hour and forty-five minute duration, this story, partially inspired from true events, has its share of intense-filled moments, some stemming from sheer misfortune but most from a chain of poor decision making.
Cole is an autistic boy who expresses his thoughts with a paintbrush and canvas. His mother Mary is trying hard torebound from a string of unwise decisions that puts Cole's future into the hands of the Child Protective Services and, Eric, the eldest son, has all the athletic talent in the world but turns to a life of heroin abuse. George, the boys' gambling addicted father, has left four years ago where he has latched onto a stunning young beauty and convinces her to make pornographic videos for money. After his lengthy hiatus, George soon after returns to his family but with suspicious motives. With the threat of losing her son, Cole, to the system, Mary tries to recreate a healthy family environment. Our George and Mary here are about as far as they could be from the same named beloved couple in It's A Wonderful Life - rich in morale fiber, clean-nosed, thoughtful and family oriented. Perhaps the playwrights purposely played on such a disparity to demonstrate the immense contrast in character and circumstance - the results of love,understanding and sacrifice versus a selfishness to the point of destruction.
This is Dr. Joel Cornfield’s first contribution to the theatre is a tragedy piece but as the writer puts it, “There’s hope springing from tragedy.”
Barring a handful of passionate exchanges betweenmother and son and wife and estranged husband that get pretty penetrating, the two brightest spots in this play are Sarah Bright's demanding portrayal of Mary and Jamie McKinney's heartfelt performance as Eric. Alyssa mistress. The three are able to carry the cast to make this a respectable production along with its story that does just enough to keep it interesting. I do commend the writer's desire to bring to the table so many subjects that warrant concern and more awareness, but in this case slightly less may have been so much more.
Picture Imperfect is being performed at The Athenaeum Theatre through April 4th. For tickets and/or more show information call 773-935-6875 or visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org.
Kicking off their 25th anniversary season, Theatre at the Center makes a strong impression by presenting Ernest Thompson’s touching classic On Golden Pond. This 1979 Tony-Award winning play was later adapted for the big screen where it starred Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn and won an Oscar. On Golden Pond is a warm and moving story that deals with the challenges an elderly couple are going through during their twilight years and also focuses on a tempestuous relationship between father and daughter. It is also a story of reconciliation and rebirth.
Each year Norman and Ethel Thayer spend the summer at their quaint home on Golden Pond. Norman, pushing eighty-years-old is quite the curmudgeon and is still armed with a quick wit while Ethel, ten years his junior, finds all the little things in life wonderful. The pairing is super and utterly complementary to each other. While planning out his 80th birthday party, the often cranky Norman constantly speaks to Ethel as though it will be his last, which is taken with a grain of salt by his always optimistic wife. Norman’s memory is slowly fading and he has heart palpitations, which doesn’t help his outlook on the future. When his daughter, Chelsea, and her boyfriend, Billy Ray, come up to the lake house to join the party, we realize the tension that exists between father and daughter and slowly begin to understand that it stems from Norman’s desire to have had a son. Soon, Norman and Ethel’s summer is interrupted when Chelsea asks that Billy Ray’s thirteen-year-old son stay at the lake house for a month while they travel to Europe. Norman, who was reluctant at first on the idea, quickly bonds with the boy and we see a change of heart and a new attitude on life begin to manifest.
On Golden Pond is filled with many life lessons and we are better for having seen it.
Dennis Kelly is superb as Norman. The veteran actor is able convey a truckload of meaning in just a simple line. Equally as impressive is Ami Silvestre as Norman’s bouncy and vibrant counterpart, Ethel, Silvestre is so cute you just want to shrink her and tuck her away in your shirt pocket. But together the two are simply off the charts. Their playful zinging back and forth and the concern and love for each other they are able to display is not only believable it is magical. Norm Boucher also delivers in a key contributing role as Charlie, family friend and neighborhood mailman by boat.
Set in the interior of the Thayer’s summer lake home, we get plenty of heartfelt moments and surprisingly a good share of laughs that really balances out the show. This insightful love story is rich and the characters are perfectly layered creating an all-around well-themed, highly entertaining play that anyone of any age is sure to enjoy.
A quick thirty or so minutes from downtown Chicago, On Golden Pond is being performed at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana) through March 29th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com or call 800-511-1552.
*Photo - Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre as Norman and Ethel Thayer
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.
Redletter is the latest creation by the Neo-Futurists, this piece written by ensemble member Lisa Buscani and directed by Jen Ellison. As Buscani puts it, “Everyone’s bemoaning about the ‘death of news’. But the news will never die, not as long as humans do newsworthy things.” That’s true…to a point as we see in Redletter when a news team covers a burrito.
Redletter hits on many media related issues such as how the rise of technology has affected the way news is delivered over the years, the mistakes in reporting and transferring the news along with the corrections that go unnoticed (if corrections are even made), the silly stories that have now become news, story oversaturation and the manipulation of media - it’s cause and effect. What you get in Redletter are samples of each while each issue is worthy of its own story and then some. As a viewer I felt a bit teased by the multiple issues brought to the table rather than watching a story that solely focuses on any of the above mentioned subjects. It’s mentioned at one point that a reporter is asked to make up the news leaving hope that corporate and government media manipulation would be addressed in depth, but instead the story jumps back to another questionable form of news delivery. Still, it’s nice to see attention paid to these unethical media practices that go unnoticed by many due to laziness, ignorance, complacency or simply the belief that our trusted news carriers would never purposely dupe the public. Kudos to Buscani for taking the initiative to tackle such a brave subject.
In true Neo-Futurist fashion we get a nice blend of witty humor and subject matter that we can take home and think about afterwards. Buscani is joined by ensemble members Bilal Dardai, Trevor Dawkins, Lindsay Muscato and Thea Lux who together combine for a very amusing cast, each contributing their own unique comic talent to collectively create a smart amalgam of absurd fun. Projections are plenty used in adding oomph to the show’s story including a comical montage of 1970s Robert Redford who Buscani sees as a real media man.
Trevor Dawkins steals much of the show with his genius transformation into his dad, an overly exaggerated portrayal of a hard-nosed CBS news man from the early 1980s who can be found partying at night in the clubs living it up with cocaine and Jack Daniels, but can also just as easily be found at his own “pity party”. Dawkins performance is as energetic as it is hilarious receiving one belly laugh after another from the crowd and in itself is a good enough reason the see Redletter: The News Done Medium Well.
The bottom line is this play has plenty of funny moments, and though Redletter might be trying to cram in too many issues at once with news and media, it does raise awareness to this important subject and makes us question what we deem as “news” and question the trust that we so often blindly put in the hands of “professional broadcasters and writers”.
Redletter is playing at The Neo-Futurarium through March 28th Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and tickets are very reasonable at just $20 ($10 for students and seniors). For tickets and/or more information visit www.neofuturists.org or call (773) 275-5255.
*Photo - Trevor Dawkins
Though Jackie Robinson is heralded as the first African-American baseball player to participate in the Major Leagues, more than a half of century earlier Moses Fleetwood Walker challenged the color barriers by integrating the game of professional baseball in the year 1884 when the Toledo Blue Stocking were admitted into the league.
As James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues puts it, "Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."
Moses Fleetwood Walker was much more than a baseball player. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author and a dedicated family man who achieved a wealth that was very uncommon for African-American men at such a time. Though that is interesting enough in itself, The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is the story of a black man put on trial for murder when most were still met by lynch mobs for their alleged crimes – especially to a white man. “Fleet” as he was frequently called by friends and family, was accused of stabbing a white man to death during an altercation outside a tavern. Alleging he was confronted and threatened by a mob of angry white men, he claimed has actions were in self-defense. Of course, the other side has a completely different story to tell and we are soon emerged in the trial of the decade that takes place in Syracuse, New York and is manned by an all white jury.
Playwright Ervin Gardner is able to use actual court transcripts to bring this remarkable story to life. And though some of the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges in places, the story is compelling enough to keep us on our toes. The direction by Jackie Taylor is strong and really capitalizes on key moments while Nick Ferrin, as Fleetwood Walker’s sharp-as-a-tack defense attorney, puts on a brilliant performance displaying a wit, passion and even charm, characteristic of the hero we can’t help but cheer for.
In the Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker we get a glimpse of late nineteenth century racial tensions and see both liberal and racist views. In this powerful courtroom drama we also get a rich lesson in humankind as the play goes beyond the color of one’s skin and identifies people as individuals.
After hosting a handful of very well done musicals (“One Hit Wonders”, “The Marvelettes”), it is still a nice change of pace to see The Black Ensemble Theater go back to the biography drama though the house band provides a nice touch adding the perfect, mood enhancing background music.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is not just engaging throughout, it is also an important story in our rich American history that most probably have never even heard. Playing at The Black Ensemble Theater through March 15th, this is a show to keep on your radar. The Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark Street in Chicago. For tickets and/or more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org.
*Photo - Nick Ferrin (Harrison Hoyt), Casey Hayes (A.C. Hancock), Andre Teamer (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Leslie Collins (Arabella Walker)
Get ready for men dressed lavishly in drag, big laughs and plenty of high-flying dance action. Kicking off their 40th season in fabulous fashion, Marriott Theatre presents the smash hit musical La Cage aux Folles, a comedy that can be as touching as it is glamorous.
In this musical that debuted on Broadway in 1983, longtime life partners Georges and Albin run the glitzy St. Tropez nightclub where dazzling all male revues are regularly performed. Georges is the club’s master of ceremonies while his “wife” Albin is the star performer “Zaza”. But when Georges’ son Jean-Michel surprisingly announces that he plans to marry the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician bent on shutting down the so-called “filth” in his district, their lives take a hectic turn – and the chaos begins. In Jean-Michel’s efforts to impress his fiancé’s visiting parents, he requests for Albin to make himself scarce and proceeds to “un-gay” his father’s home in order to also appear conservative. Naturally, this is upsetting and hurtful to Albin though a reluctant Georges insists it is just for one night and that it will be something they can laugh over for years to come. However, once Jean-Michel’s fiancé arrives with her parents nothing goes as planned and the pandemonium really begins.
Throughout this very funny theatre-in-the-round production we encounter numerous song and dance numbers superbly choreographed by Melissa Zaremba, most notably its big opener “We Are What We Are” where the audience gets blitzed with drag dancers pulling off a series of colorful costume changes. We meet a variety of characters including a take charge whip-wielding diva and can only be impressed with the St. Tropez dancers’ precision and flexibility. However, while we enjoy stunning costumes, overdone makeup and overly exaggerated female characteristics, at times we wonder if women are celebrated or parodied.
David Hess as Georges and Gene Weygandt as Albin truly light up the stage. The chemistry between the two is dynamic and projects a real sense of love and admiration for one another. Their closeness can easily be envied by so many, displaying a sincerity that is truthfully touching, uplifting and lasting. Hess and Weygandt stalwartly captain the helm of this humorous but moving story that tells us to never be ashamed of who we are.
Brian Bohr puts out an adequate performance as Jean-Michel but the show’s real support comes from Joseph Anthony Byrd who is charming as Jacob, the couple’s butler who wants to be recognized as the maid and also desires a spot in La Cage. Always a pleasure to see Larry Adams perform, the Chicago acting veteran is entertaining as ever in this time a limited role as waiter M. Renaud.
La Cage aux Folles is a well-directed show that is as fun yet tender and should not be missed. La Cage is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through March 22nd. For tickets and/or more information visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.
White Guy on the Bus is a powerful and very well-acted drama that asks several questions about modern day racism. In this highly provocative piece by Bruce Graham, we are met with race issues and opinions based on life’s experiences coming from both sides of the fence. We see how perception of race can be altered as one’s life situation changes or after impactful events occur. In this world premiere taking place at Northlight Theatre, award-winning Graham may have unleashed his best work to date.
Francis Guinan leads a very strong cast in this gripping story that mostly takes place in an upper class suburb. Ray (Guinan) is a successful “numbers guy” who makes the rich richer while his wife, Roz, has declined to teach in a privileged suburban school to work in one that is predominantly black in a tough neighborhood. We see a successful family whose son, Christopher, has recently become engaged to Molly. It doesn’t take long before Roz and Molly are engaged in tension-filled debates on race issues and socioeconomic divide – Roz who often speaks from her experiences of working with inner city school kids and Molly who has led a mostly sheltered life and appears to get most of her opinions from college. As the story continues we see that perspective changes with circumstance. And we soon wonder why Ray ditches his Mercedes to take round trip busses through the inner city on Saturdays. As Ray does this he befriends Shatique, a young black single mother who visits her brother in jail each Saturday.
White Guy on the Bus goes from engaging to intense with little warning. As the story progresses so does its intrigue. Guinan is commanding in a lights out performance as a man who is faced with heavy challenges while Mary Beth Fisher is also impressive in her role as Roz, organically delivering her lines to perfection. Patrice D. McClain makes her Northight debut and is very impressive as Shatique, a role that demands much expression and inner conflict. Also putting out a strong acting performance is Jordan Brown as Christopher in his return to Northlight (Sense and Sensibility).
This is a story that raises curiosity from the get go and builds interest with a sure-footed steady pace all the way to its climactic ending. Artistic Director BJ Jones does a stellar job in this play’s direction quickly moving the story back and forth without big scene changes.
White Guy on the Bus is a terrific piece of Chicago theatre that will certainly stick with you afterwards and perhaps have you questioning your own perspectives towards race issues. White Man on the Bus is playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 28th. For tickets and/or more information call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org.
*Photo - Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan in White Man on the Bus
"Breeze it, Buzz it
Easy does, it
Turn off the juice, boy"
But the juice is not turned off in this keyed up production.
If you are looking for high-energy dance numbers performed with grace and precision, powerful harmonies engulfed in beauty and emotion, a story of tragedy, hope and passion, and, a whole lot of "Cool" - then look no further than "West Side Story", now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace through March 29th.
For those of you who do not know the story – a brief synopsis. It’s the early 1960’s in New York where local gang, The Jets, are not taking kindly to the newly populating Puerto Ricans, who now have an outfit of their own – The Sharks, led by "Bernardo". Following along the lines of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two gangs attend a community dance where former Jet leader, "Tony" instantly becomes lovesick with "Bernardo’s" sister, "Maria" who expresses the feeling to be mutual. Hopelessly in love, the two realize they must break past the hate-filled racial barriers set up, and maintained, by others if they are to find happiness together.
Directed by Rachel Rockwell, the production grabs audience members instantly and does not let go from its opening scene where Jets leader by proxy, "Riff", leads his gang in a spirited version of "Jets Song" ("When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way – from your first cigarette to your last dying day…" you know the words). Each number is choreographed with style and exquisiteness, encompassing the perfect sassiness, aggression or idealism when called upon. While intensity prevails in such numbers as "Dance at the Gym" and "America" we are also taken to dreamlike bliss in "Somewhere" and "One Hand, One Heart".
As talented as the dancing is the singing. Jim DeSelm ("Tony") and Christina Nieves ("Maria") demonstrate operatic vocal range, delivering each note with meticulousness accuracy and command. The two shine throughout the entire production but really leave a lasting impression in their duet, "Tonight". Taking nothing away from the many amazing performers that make up the Jets and Sharks, Michelle Arevena ("Anita") also deserves a special nod. Arevena makes for a highly entertaining "Anita" with her dazzling footwork and gifted vocals.
Jets leader by proxy, "Riff" (Rhett Guter), and head Shark, "Bernardo (Lucas Segovia) lead one of the production’s most memorable scenes as the two gangs engage in a rumble below the highway. Matt Hawkins, who reproduces the choreography, does an extraordinary job in combining ballet and modern dance with street fight moves, turning the stage into a spectacle of fast action, vicious turns and yet, the refinement and poise found in "Swan Lake". The entire cast is a well-oiled machine that take on one stunning scene after another.
"West Side Story" is one highlight after another. This particular production stays true to the essence of the original and is a slam-dunk when it comes to entertainment value. For more information on show times, visitwww.BroadwayInChicago.comor wwwBroadwayWestSideStory.com.
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.