In Concert

Replacing the twenty-eight-year long-running hit show "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind", which was known for delivering thirty original plays in sixty minutes with an ever-changing cast, is a new troupe of high energy players each with their own personal gifts and comedic skills. In the same tradition, Neo Futurium now presents The Infinite Wrench. 

Greg Allen, the original founder of the name and style of such theater decided to revoke the use of the name and concept a few years after he left the troupe in 2011. The last performance of “Too Much Light” came on December 31st, 2016. The show, as most know, was a longtime late-night fixture in Chicago. All I know is that two of my best buddies in college spent four years with me honing exactly these type of skills, improvising and then writing/performing - John C Reilly and Phil Ridarelli. While John went off to make films fairly quickly after school, Phil worked hard for years with the original Neo Futurist members to turn "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" into the thoughtful, yet funny and exciting theater experience it was. “Too Much Light” went on to become the longest running theatre- production in Chicago’s history and became an iconic piece of our pop culture. Though the new show could very well be just as unique and exciting (and I do look forward to seeing what it will develop into), I’ll certainly miss Phil and some of those older members. 

That said, the new troupe has an energy all their own. The topics of the plays were more political in nature, which I liked. For example, one consisted of an actor writing DECENCY at one end of a thirty-foot-long chalkboard then drawing a LONG line to the words CHILD RAPE, finally drawing a line below the word CHILD RAPE that points to the word BREITBART, comparing the publication to that dark side of the spectrum, which was quite funny. 

The Infinite Wrench creates a team atmosphere, each guest receiving a name tag with a color upon walking into the theatre. Teams are decided by the color designated and get to decide the next play by yelling out their color when the actors say “Next” at the end of their sketch. Five stations each of different colors (red, blue, green, pink, and yellow) hold five plays that are randomly selected by the actor after running towards the color the actors hear first. But the overall goal is to complete thirty plays in sixty minutes, a timer set just after the actors explain the rules to the audience. 

Each play varies in content and could come in the form of monologues, musical numbers and/or group sketches, some being silly-funny (First Man on the Moon) while some poignant and some perhaps a bit nonsensical. The audience is warned by the actors that all plays, inspired by something they have experienced, might not be as funny when acted out as they may have been while writing them. If such is the case, the play is scrapped and a new one reworked into the next show though new plays are worked in weekly regardless. Each play introduced into the show is written by one of the performing actors.  

The Infinite Wrench has big shoes to fill in replacing such a popular Chicago theatre pastime that has actually created its own cult-like following. After watching the show in its opening weekend and seeing the highly-animated actors go to work and the material that was so well presented, but especially noting the positive crowd reaction, I am quite sure the Neo-Futurist tradition will carry on, seamlessly. 

I LOVE the way the actors involve the audience throughout the entire show. I have been asked onstage to play the piano, I have shouted out the word PINK at inappropriate moments to huge laughs. The Neo-Futurists offer a very special and freewheeling, uniquely Chicagoan, way of viewing theater. 

There are often performer antics taking place in the lobby before and after the show, and are low-priced snacks at the end of the Hall of Presidents entryway enroute to the theatre itself. 

Should this new, and very talented, cast keep the heart in what they’re doing, as did The Neo-Futurists in the past, The Infinite Wrench will continue to run for another twenty-eight years. The creative production team and actors include Kurt Chiang, Trevor Dawkins, Nick Hart, Jeewon Kim, Kirsten Riiber, Malic White, Ida Cuttler, Tif Harrison, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Lily Mooney and Leah Urzendowski Courser.  

Where does the name come from?

As mentioned on the Neo-Futurists home page for the show - The title of our show The Infinite Wrench is partly inspired by text from Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” (1914). Loy was briefly associated with the original Italian Futurists, and wrote her manifesto in response to some of the group’s establishing principles.

If you are disabled or have a hard time walking, please note the theatre is not wheelchair accessible and that climbing a flight of stairs is necessary to enter the theatre. However, they do honor accessibility requests and offer to assist the best they can. To find out more about making an accessibility request, click here.  

The price is right and even paying to get in is part of the fun. Tickets are just $9 plus a role of the dice that add an extra $2-$12. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. For more show information, click here

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

I thoroughly enjoyed the world premiere of Jesus the Jew: As Told by His Brother James. The play is the seventeenth work produced by Forum Productions. The one-man show by playwright William Spatz is very well-written and in my opinion contains some of the answers of the most important issues facing our society today with regards to antisemitism and the violence propagated against Christians and or Jewish Christians in this country and others around the world. 

 

Actor, Steven Strafford plays a modern-day professor of religious history who has just found out his brother John has been tortured and killed in an attack in Syria. He then travels back and forth in time to portray James, the brother of Jesus, one of the mainstays of his research. Strafford's performance is compelling and rich. 

 

Jeremy, as James thanks the audience for coming whether they are Jews, Christians or Jewish Christians. This designation is very important especially in the political climate currently where all three groups are regularly singled out in some countries and sentenced to death by beheading if they do not renounce their Christian and/or Jewish ties. 

 

This play is of particular interest to me because I am a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew. That is a person who is Jewish by birth who continues to believe that Jesus was Jewish and was the Messiah sent to save the Jewish people and later the non-Jews from the belief that we are just helpless animal-like human beings in bodies which have no actual active spiritual life that continues after death of the human body. We also believe that God is a loving forgiving being that abhors killing of humans and animals, indeed cruelty to women and all living things. 

 

I was given a very complete three-year education in Jewish history and religious practices before completing my bat mitzvah and the only mention of Jesus, if any that I recall, was that Jesus was to be looked at as a Rabbi gone mad - a religious traitor to the Jewish people whose new ideas threatened to destroy Judaism rather than elevate it to new levels of generosity and higher spiritual intelligence. I have often wondered how the separation of Jesus' Jewish birth and the statement he made regarding incarnating in a human body specifically for the Jewish people turned into an entirely new religion called Christianity – a religion that proceeded to make a scapegoat of the Jews when Roman occupation and laws actually caused the killing of Jesus. I've also wondered how Christians and especially Catholics who - on the one hand - give great honor to Mary, Jesus' mother, seem to have completely forgotten the fact that Mary the Mother of God was a JEWISH woman named Miriam. And how can modern Christians continue to refer with reverence to the Gospels written by Jesus' disciples as inspired by God without recalling that ALL the disciples of Jesus were JEWISH?

 

James’ finally answers this question in the last hours of his life in the play when he is about to be put to death (after 30 years of leading Jewish Christians) for not renouncing his brother's and his own Jewish faith. 

 

The apostle Paul is well known among feminists for his damning letters stating that women should have no place in the new Church and should be subject to all the discrimination that Jesus himself stressed many times should end by interacting with women, healing them and insisting that they receive the same education his male apostles were receiving. During this council, the apostle Paul effectively overthrew James’ leadership by declaring a new law that if a Jewish person believed in Jesus they must stop all Jewish religious practices and laws or be sentenced to death.

 

Jeremy as James also made it clear that Mary was from a wealthy family and financially supported Jesus and, by extension, financially supported many of the apostles that followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene was NOT by any stretch of the sexist imagination a "prostitute" as many since have claimed. 

 

James states that Jesus and Mary were indeed married per the Jewish tradition and although it was not brought up in this play, their marriage gives some credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene, Jesus' legal wife, gave birth to a daughter after his death, directly continuing the spiritually royal bloodline of Jesus himself. It’s been said that she and her daughter were escorted to safety by her father and sailed to France to raise her daughter.

 

There is some humor in the play when James says, “Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”

 

The production team includes: Milo Blue (scenic design), Hailey Rakowiecki (costume design), David Trudeau (lighting design), Alex Kleiner (sound design), Ron Rude (production manager) and Sarah Knoke (stage manager). This team does a great job decorating the set with objects of art from both modern and ancient times. The interesting props keep one’s eyes busy looking at the beautiful colorful aspects of that historic period while keeping the audience firmly in the present with offstage interruptions by reporters seeking interviews with him and friends or family who are trying to help Jeremy stay calm and sane in the face of the news that his brother has been tortured first then killed. 

 

Jesus The Jew delivers the most important message of our time, that the division of Jews from Christians and the division of Jesus from his own Jewish followers and people came from a political move - a political document written to serve the Romans and the ambitions of one aggressive sect of new Christians/Jews led by the apostle Paul. 

 

My only complaint about the well-written and well-documented play is that it does not delve deep enough into the horrors and centuries of suffering that this rift initiated by the apostle Paul caused. Actually using the word “horror” is inadequate to describe the current situation for both Christians and Jewish Christians - the Holocaust or recent be-headings of Christians and Jewish Christians around the world and the suffering of women subject to the new rules of Bible thumping-Jew hating Christians who have been forced to follow their husband’s commands even under extreme abuse. 

 

James even acknowledges that as he gives his last sermon before he is put to death that there may not be any Jewish Christians left to hear his final pleas for a meaningful, literal and political reunion of the Jewish and Christian people. That strongly resonated with me because I am the ONLY Jewish Christian that I have ever met (other than my mother who had a similar late life realization) who sees Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and miracle maker of the highest order, the human incarnation of God on earth.

 

I highly recommend this compelling, well-paced and delicately handled theater piece for anyone who is interested in a more realistic view of daily life during Jesus' time, or is seeking similar comfort that Jewish Christians still actually exist. 

 

Jesus the Jew: As Told by his Brother James is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through March 26th. For more information on this show, click here.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Two girlfriends grow up in Mississippi, one wants to be a hairdresser to the stars and the other a singing star in her own right. An opportunity to run their own beauty shop binds the two friends together for life, and helps a South Side Chicago neighborhood maintain a sense of community and safety, even a little glamour, that is until Starbucks and other corporations start moving into the neighborhood. Beautifully directed, A Wonder in My Soul is the heartfelt journey of two best friends who have shared a beauty salon for over three decades.

 

Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams) play the two close friends and both do an amazing job with long speeches that could be coming out of the mouths of preachers. The audience even lets out a few, “go girls”, and “praise Gods” as if we are sitting in a church. In a way, their beauty shop, which once served some celebrity visitors, has stood for forty years as a type of church to the women of the neighborhood. A place where they can talk and be themselves where their best customer, a rich woman who prefers to be called “First Lady” (a fantastic Linda Bright Clay), who spends at least three afternoons a week just trying new hairdos to hang out at the salon to have company and help each other with daily troubles. 

 

Marcus Gardley's script creates very familiar and real characters, and utilizes the beautiful singing voices of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) in a way that vitalizes and makes real the talents and determination underneath the tough facade of these hard working, loving women. 

 

This play is about change and gentrification, and growth and strength. Change isn't always but a bad thing but A Wonder in My Soul pulls back the curtain on how gentrification affects this "family" of women and their whole neighborhood that tries to save the salon. Is it fair that the neighborhood rallies to save the community staple only for a Starbucks to ultimately knock them down as easily as a cannon ball would a bowling pin? No. But the way each woman chooses to go on with her life and keep the bitterness from affecting the wonder in their souls is truly inspiring. 

 

Highly recommended for satisfying, humorous and heartwarming performances, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the down, but not out, captain of her sinking ship.

 

Williams speeches about life and the value of struggling to keep some history and classiness intact in the neighborhood, which is being brought down by violence and greed, ripple through the audience with a deep resonance and truthfulness that the talented actor brings to all her stage work.

 

A Wonder in My Soul is being performed at Victory Gardens Theater through March 12th. Go to www.VictoryGardens.org for more show information.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Wow! Get ready to be entertained and blown away by two men, with eighteen, yes eighteen, costume changes in a 105-minute play with lead mother figure Bertha Bumiller played by Anthony Whitaker in drag and Grant Drager playing most of the younger male and female characters (Arles, Didi, Stanley, Charlene, Jodi, Petey, Vera and Dixie). These two talents make for one hilarious and yet, at times, disturbing piece of theater now that Trump is President and the animal and human cruelty is perpetrated against each person who loves in the “the third smallest town in Texas”, a dump “where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never died.”

 

As announced on the local radio show the winning school essays include “Human Rights—Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry”. And so begins Deep in the Heart of Tuna, the latest in the “Tuna” series, currently running at Pride Arts Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

 

I was unaware that adapter Ed Howard and original author-performers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna) had revived this new play from pieces of the trilogy above though it didn't affect my understanding of the hard lives these people live while having little money to keep up with their neighbors. People wearing third generation hand me downs and living on a farm-like house where the youngest and most sensitive son has ten dogs and a few kitty cats literally following him to school and back until he can find them adoption homes.  

 

I found the staging and lighting brilliant with audience members on both sides of the intimate theater performing space, putting us right in Bertha’s kitchen. Adding the finishing touch, are the costumes and wigs which are truly amazing and used to their ultimate. When I found that neither actor had a dresser to help them make these quick changes, I was even more impressed. Still knowing there were only two cast members, they played the men and women so touchingly and realistically funny, I could have sworn there was a cast of five people or more hidden in the wings. 

 

The town of Tuna can sometimes be a scary place where the "smut snatchers" a local anti-porn group try to expose the dirty words in Dickens Christmas Carol, including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman", because you know, "Merry Gentlemen" is a little too close to gay gentleman in Tuna, Texas. 

 

The smut snatchers are busy cutting apart the children’s' Christmas pageant, which they have worked on for months. It is eventually canceled by the local school official and local government because the school does not have the funds to pay its electric bill, despite pleas to let the children perform, in part because one child needs this performance to complete his reform school probation and leave town without a criminal record (for painting over street signs). The lights are shut off and the show does not go on. At the same time a Christmas Phantom is on the loose in the neighborhood destroying outdoor holiday displays. There’s a lot going on in this small town. 

 

Anthony Whitaker's multilayered characterization of the mother figure as she struggles to make ends meet in this piece reminds me so much of my dear friend Louie Anderson's spectacular mother characterization in his new hit show "Baskets". 

 

Grant Drager, a newcomer to the New American Folk Theatre ensemble, plays the rest of the male and female characters with mind blowing accuracy and such poignancy. For his outstanding work in this two-man show, Drager really is deserving of a Jeff Award, as well as Whitaker.

 

Though many of the characters are run-of-the-mill, low-income Southern folks with seemingly good hearts, at times, the extreme stereotype Texas hard core right wingers are also demonstrated in the play. It's mind boggling that the small-mindedness of the latter mentioned characters of this tiny town exist in real life, boasting about and bringing forth soul crushing ideas along with anti-gay sentiments and anti-animal rights, i.e. and "Tuna" takes a few good shots. A great line that represents that type of mentality in this play is when Didi, who runs the local gun shop for her mother, says, "If we don't have a gun (or poison) to kill what you want, that thing is supernatural!" This show can make great but serious fun of that particular group on a few occasions though it mainly celebrates small town warmth, kindness and simplicity. Though "Tuna" often pokes fun of small town life in the South, it is done with affection, actually endearing us to several of the characters even more so.  

 

This satire of rural life is highly recommended for two of the most versatile and thought provoking performances in this play about a dysfunctional family and the small town problems that arise. Directed by Derek Van Barham, New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna is being performed at Pride Arts Center through March 5th. For show information or tickets, click here. Y'all hurry now!

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

The Bodyguard, The Musical begins with a bang!  Literally, the unexpected sound of gunshots combined with great strobe lighting effects made me (along with most of the audience) scream with delight and jump out of our seats!

 

I enjoyed this show from beginning to end with a strong starring lead in Deborah Cox and a very strong supporting cast of actors and dancers. I am a fan, though not a cult fan, of the 1992 movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. Although I wasn't a Whitney Houston music fan per say, I have admired her amazing and formidable vocal talent as much as anyone else who has ever heard her sing. 

 

If you haven’t seen the movie from which this musical is based, it is the story of a successful music icon (Rachel Marron) who receives a string of death threats from an obsessed fan leading to the hiring of a bodyguard, Frank Farmer, who is taken on by the singer and her staff with a reluctant acquiescence at first. Frank comes with some baggage, but the former secret service man is good at what he does – very good. Frank quickly takes over security detail for the star and her ten-year-old son Fletcher. As the story progresses, the threats become more and more bizarre, the danger ever-increasing.  

 

I agree with the choice not to write any songs for Kevin Costner's character, played with super cool Costner-esque aloofness by Judson Mills, probably because it was just too hard to try to create any material for him that could compare with the huge and much beloved hits Whitney produced on the soundtrack for the film like “Greatest Love of All”, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, “Run to You”, “Saving All My Love”, and “One Moment in Time”. 

 

Ironically, since that time Kevin Costner has become a professional singer/musician with his band Kevin Costner and Modern West, and although his band has played to audiences both large and small around the world - this is a fact many might not know. 

 

Yes, Judson seemed a little stiff in the role but I feel like he did his best to project a strong silent sexy type written for the subtlety of film then translated to a very large theater stage. There were a lot of pregnant pauses in his speech, but I think the writers could have added more humor and dialogue to his role as Frank Farmer to even out the fact that it is a musical in which he is the lead and does not get to sing. There was one really good laugh - not sure of it was intentional - but as we see Rachel slip out of the bed after her first night with Frank and he lays there still asleep, she immediately begins singing these lines from Whitney’s hit “All the Man That I Need”: 

 

“He fills me up 

He gives me love 

More love than I've ever seen 

He's all I've got” 

 

Rachel Marron played by Deborah Cox was absolutely spot on with the Whitney Houston songs thanks to her incredible voice. I really could have listened to her and Jasmin Richardson who played Rachel's little sister Nikki Marron sing Houston's hit all night, as they are both such amazing vocalists. Douglas Baldeo also does an incredible job as Rachel’s son, Fletcher. Baldeo has an amazing future ahead of him, the child actor displaying boundless vocal range and dancing his way into the hearts of theatre goers. One of the play's most touching moments centered around a beautiful rendition of "Jesus Loves Me" performed by Cox, Richardson and Baldeo when Farmer hid the family at his father's cabin in the country.

 

It was a fun and entertaining idea to use the film as the basis for this musical. The whole point of Frank Farmer's entrance and brief love affair in the movie was to teach Rachel that she is undervaluing her own well-being and safety by refusing to let a bodyguard change her way of life.

 

Frank Farmer is the sexy, masculine protective glass picture frame through which we get to admire, to actually magnify Rachel’s great beauty and talent. It is realized just how important protection is needed of a woman so gifted to her family and to the public - her adoring fans. 

 

Kevin Costner fought to get Houston cast in the role at a time when an interracial relationship was a much more risqué subject. Thanks to his persistence we have the classic that exists today and its current stage version.

 

Every time I heard Deborah Cox' wonderful voice ring out with Houston's trademark magnificence, I wished the real Whitney Houston had found a "bodyguard" to watch over her own short life. It is a tragic spin that a strong, down to earth man like Frank Farmer may have protected her and kept her from the fast track of drugs and non-stop pressure to produce hits. Whitney Houston might still be with us today.

 

Highly recommended as a fun date show and must see for any Whitney Houston fans. The Bodyguard is being performed at Oriental Theatre through February 12th. For more information on this exciting show, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

As I found my seat in the very intimate forty-seat or so Red Curtain Theater in First Congregational Church House to see Robert Harling's popular American classic Steel Magnolias, made popular by the movie starring Julia Roberts, I was very drawn in immediately by Mark Boergers' set design which places audience members on both sides of the action facing each other, so close you feel you are waiting for your own hair appointment in the super friendly and inclusive Truvy's Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana.

 

Directed by Artistic Director Mark Boergers, all six members of this truly ensemble piece get an equal chance to shine and show the particular strengths and challenges each of these extraordinary women are facing. The multi-racial casting was extremely effective and believable. Each of these women, some rich, some poor, some single and some married, or about to be, really work together in an organic and wonderful way to create a world any woman can identify with at every stage of her life.  

 

Usually, I point out members of the cast who stand out but in this case ALL of the cast stand out, some with their biting humor like Nicholia Q. Aguirre as Clairee, whose late husband was mayor of Chinquapin, and Meg Elliott as Ousier who owns an outstanding sense of comic timing! Lucy Sandy as Truvy, the owner is a calm yet very funny, motherly anchor of the beauty salon she built in her own garage to support her husband. 

 

Brooklyn Hebert is lovely in the role of Shelby who is getting her hair done for her wedding day as the play opens. Natalie Sallee plays Shelby's mother M'Lynn really brings home the tears as the danger of diabetes threatens her daughter's happy, yet fragile, life dealing with the disease before and after childbirth. As the young Annelle, a young new beautician who has arrived recently in this small town with an abusive, perhaps criminal, boyfriend who deserts her Nikkia Tyler is very effective also, as we see her clinging to these new friendships and her newfound trust in God, and the church - while literally on the verge of homelessness.

 

Although Harling’s script is considered a flawless classic, these six strong characters in such a small, realistic, almost threadbare set take the show to new levels of humor and sensitivity, which leave one wondering why the Hollywood film itself wasn't cast multi-racially as well. 

 

I highly endorse this bright, new production to anyone who has seen or not seen and enjoyed the film or play before, as this ensemble directed by Mark Boergers offers up a refreshing and fulfilling vision of the original play that women and the men who love them can all identify with easily. Along with this excellent cast of trained actors the audience can learn firsthand about being strong as steel when necessary and laughing like children when it seems like all that's left to do is cry.  

 

The Arc Theatre’s Steel Magnolias is being performed at the Red Curtain Theater at the First Congregational Church House in Evanston through February 12th. For tickets and more show info, click here.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

I was a "psychonaut librarian” as a child without even knowing it. My grandparents’ house was only two blocks from the beautifully built, stunning Coral Gables Library in South Miami, Florida.

 

I spent all my spare time there, drinking in the smell of library books and wisdom. Each new book I read seemed to open a new world for me. First, they were fantasy worlds, like The Phantom Tollbooth, later I began to read more and more about psychology and self-help, each time hoping that the book in my hands would offer an insight into having the happy, successful dreamy life I imagined lay ahead.  Yes, I was a shy, gentle book nerd, and I felt often that reading was the answer to all my problems. 

 

Sean Kelly's "Psychonaut Librarians", now in a world premiere with The New Colony is a funny, delightful poetically phrased tale about a mother and daughter and their fellow book worm friends discovering magical worlds at the library. 

 

Librarian Hester, played with both warmth and biting wit by David Cerda (Artistic Director of the hugely popular campy Hell in a Handbag Productions), is trying to save her daughter Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins) from giving up on her dreams and into society's constant fear creating machine. Hester a single mother to Jane, greets her with the single revealing question about her ex, "How is Daddy? Still suffocatingly small-minded?".

 

Hester has developed a potion that allows her to go all the way into the fantasy world of reading into a place she calls "Anyverse" where anything can happen and dreams do not die without a fight. 

 

Hester shares the potion with her grown daughter one night and while in the Anyverse Jane meets a lover named Dewey, played with much joy by Matt Farabee, a handsome Christ-like figure of love and innocence.  

 

In each other's arms Jane finds true love. They dance and fly through the Anyverse on a beautifully lit, ever changing, yet intimate, stage. Dewey tells Jane the ultimate romantic verse, "{In Jane) I found what I did not even know I was looking for and in finding her, I found myself," Jane stares into his loving, smiling face and states that this meeting is one of the "perfect moments” that she will add to her sadly short list of perfect moments. 

 

But of course, as in "real" life, the enjoyment of freedom of life and love in the Anyverse is threatened by an evil force called The Sandman played with the proper amount of military, know it all, fear inducing power by Jack McCabe.

 

The Sandman has the ability to literally suck the soul out of each human by drawing out their worst fears and causing them to act on them instead of holding fast to positive thinking. 

 

Despite their obviously great and perfect matching Dewey flip flops helplessly from loving adoration to murderous hatred for Jane in an instant and begins to strangle Jane each time The Sandman makes him insecure about her love by sending him negative subconscious suggestions. 

 

Jane's mother Hester sees this pattern of abuse and danger to her daughter and makes the ultimate sacrifice by chasing the Sandman away with the promise that she will not ALLOW her daughter to awaken from the dreary, fear filled thought patterns of everyday earth "reality" into the Anyverse ...ever again. 

 

When Jane is awakened from the Anyverse by her mother and is forced to part with Dewey, Jane becomes bitter about life and retreats from taking chances, creativity, or really falling in love and trying new things to follow the strict societal mores dictated by The Sandman about choosing work and security above joyous spontaneity.

 

Sadly, this division leads Jane to become estranged from her own loving, creative mother and the library itself, a symbol of the power of imagination - for 20 years.

 

Jane is inexplicably drawn to the library on the eve of her mother's retirement, where Hester’s fellow Psychonaut Librarians have arranged a "potion" party to enter the Anyverse all together. 

 

Hester's fellow librarians, the stiff-necked Emmerick (Michael Peters) and hopeful, brainy free spirit, Rosemary (Morgan McNaught) and the library's "security guy" (Carlos Olmedo), who also ends up drinking the spiked punch, are all played with excellent comic timing, and their scenes are some of the funniest and most clever dialogue in the show. 

 

This hopeful, desperate for magic crew of psychonauts enter the Anyverse together and immediately each is tested by the dreams, or rather nightmares, of their own worst fears of failure.

 

There are puppets used to represent the fearful dreams and perfected in a clever bit where the puppets are used to represent the characters’ abilities to walk through walls or make themselves small enough to escape a demon dream through a crack in a solid wall. Hester makes a great sacrifice to help rescue them all. 

 

The great thing is that each character, no matter how weak their "punches or kicks' may be, are forced to physically take a stand and fight! Each character must really wrestle and fight to defeat their bad dreams and thought patterns. 

 

In the end, Jane returns to the library without her lover Dewey - but with a newfound belief in the power of magic, and the existence of magic itself. Magic that is ALIVE right there alongside her in the library of life - and the reality of alternate positive realms, exciting realities beyond her own. 

 

Director Krissy Vanderwarker does the best she can on a limited budget to create a romantic pacing and lovely, magical choreography for Jane and Dewey that transitions well into the more comical present day or fantasy scenes. 

 

Kelly's script has gone thru many cuts over the years but is approaching a more perfect balance between what is both a supernatural love story and an "Universal" love story that boldly, yet sensitively, declares the existence of an alternate reality based entirely on love. 

 

The line, "I found what I did not even know I was looking for!  And in finding her, I found myself" kept haunting me after the show ended, as did several of the poetic speeches delivered by Jane to Dewey while sharing flowing descriptions of the deliciousness of their loving, soaring, literally "flying" in each other's arms new love... in words. These scenes were very well written and sometimes seemed like they belonged in an entirely different show. 

 

The character of Dewey, with his shoulder length dirty blonde hair, casual hoody, sandals and all-encompassing smile is best interpreted as a Christ figure, a non-sexual person, a teacher and guru of unconditional love living forever in the Anyverse. Dewey was not supposed to become a human man whose sexual partnership in the "real" world or like a Prince in a fairy tale whose marriage to Jane would effortlessly make her life into an adventure or positivity and magic. 

 

The playwright makes it clear to the end that the daily decision to hold tightly to and fight for her own dreams is up to Jane herself, which is as it should be.

 

Before the show began, the artistic director came out and mentioned how MANY scripts they have been receiving as of late, eluding to the election of Trump (The Sandman himself?), from new writers and how EAGER artists now are to have their words HEARD.

 

I highly recommend this funny, romantic, hopeful show for audiences of any age. “Psychonaut Librarians” would also make a valuable children's theater piece.

 

"Your soul is not living inside your body; your body is living inside your soul.” 

 

For heart weary adult Democrats like myself who are literally praying for a magical happy ending to what appears to be a complete takeover of millions of American minds by the evil Sandman, “Psychonaut Librarians” offered me a wonderful evening of hope, encouragement and rainbow lit entertainment. 

 

New Colony’s “Psychonaut Librarians” is playing at Den Theatre through February 12th. For more show information of to purchase tickets, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!” 

 

Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.

 

Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!

 

Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”

 

He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?"  Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!" 

 

Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?

 

Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!

 

Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that! 

 

Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself. 

 

In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet. 

 

Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.

 

In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not. 

 

We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside. 

 

Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.

 

The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke. 

 

Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time". 

 

As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.

 

The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

 

It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own! 

 

Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Are you old enough to remember Saturday morning cartoons? I mean when there was no other place or time on TV to watch three hours of children's cartoon TV shows? Well, if you are, like me, you'll remember the "Scooby Doo" show whose lead character was a talking dog who rolled with the teenage mystery solvers from Mystery Inc. 

 

In "Skooby Don't" written by David Cerda, Artistic Director of the wonderful Hell In a Handbag Production Company, every hysterical aspect of the original show is poked at, like the fact that Scooby and his pal Shaggy both look and act like stoners the whole time and that the whole gang runs screaming in fear every time they finally confronted a ghost/monster.

 

But Cerda as always, takes a funny satire and turns it into a touching and even educational LGBTQ production that leaves the whole audience with something interesting and uplifting to ponder over long after they've left the theater. 

 

In order to stay safe of copyright laws the characters names have been slightly changed to even funnier names. Daphne is called Daffy played delightfully by ensemble member Elizabeth Lesinsky, smart and sassy Velma is now Velva (or “Vulva”) also very funnily played by Caitlin Jackson. I recently reviewed Ms. Jackson in her role as Bette Midler and she has an AMAZING singing voice as well. Fred is Fredd with two D’s, Shaggy becomes Scaggy and Scooby Doo trades in his “C” for a “K,” becoming Skooby and instead becomes “Don’t”. Cerda even jokes at one point about the subtle changes.

 

When Velva decides to take the whole gang to her aunt's house for a reunion vacation her aunt turns out to be Cher! Cher played by ensemble member Ed Jones is joined by two famous contemporary house guests Caitlyn Jenner (Chazie Bly), Kris Jenner (Cerda) and Cher’s disgruntled bellboy/son Chaz (Caitlin Boho). With this wild cast of characters only Cerda could put together, it doesn’t take long before a zany mystery ensues and the gang quickly becomes detectives.

 

This quartet of famous faces was absolutely a collection the funniest bits in the whole show. Ed Jones makes the BEST, funniest, tongue to lip touching Cher I have ever seen! David Cerda as Kris Jenner and Chazie Bly as Caitlynn Jenner have all the gestures and voice patterns down pat while Caitlin Boho who plays a plump, unshaven Chaz, had me laughing out loud with almost every single line she delivered. 

 

Kudos and credit must go to their AMAZING costumer Kate Setzer Kamphausen and Hell in a Handbag's wig master Keith Ryan because their makeup and hair fit EVERY character to a tee! 

 

People ask me why I enjoy Cerda's characters so much, enough to go to every production they put on without question and the reason is simple. They are always brilliantly funny. Add the fact that if these men and women can do such a great job of playing full on "dress up" and do it with such care and relish, it always makes me feel that SOMEONE else understands how hard it is to be a woman!

 

Cerda's characters don't make fun of women, they celebrate women and men of all kinds, sizes and shapes and even though they have to wear a lot of makeup, wigs and six inch heels they do it because they ENJOY doing all the things they associate with being women. David Cerda has a wonderful and blessed knack for creating female characters in his plays, even those beautiful women with "resting bitch face" - like his very popular Joan Crawford - to be  worthy of love and respect by the end of each show.

 

The entire cast including the supporting roles were dynamite. Cerda, Jones and Lesinsky just seems to get funnier and funnier with each production, this time capturing the precise essence of the vain and ditzy Daffy. In Skooby Don’t, Cerda puts forth yet another all-around stellar ensemble, perfectly casting the Mystery Gang and guest characters. 

 

I highly recommend this fun, campy yet sympathetic piece, which is kind of like a transgender Halloween party! Skooby Don’t is currently being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville. For tickets, showtimes and more show information, visit www.Handbag productions.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews

As soon as you enter the beautiful set that designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, has created for “Life Sucks", you are tip-toeing through what feels like a real forest of delicately lit white birch trees in the light of early evening in Autumn. 

 

The action then proceeds mostly on the front porch, and dining room/kitchen of a quaint country style house, complete with a small dock and row boat mired in mud, to indicate this is the log cabin style home of someone wealthy enough to live on a lake but not doing well enough any longer to afford a real boat, which turns out to be true.  

 

The seven characters enter the stage with house lights up and immediately break the fourth wall by letting the audience know a few things about the play, it has four acts with one intermission, and asking insightful questions like, "Do you think people in a hundred years will care how hard we worked?" Which immediately reminded me of the old joke, "What's the opposite of a nymphomaniac?" with the punchline, "a workaholic."

 

The next question, for the cast only, has them throwing out an enticing list of their "favorite things" ..."the feel of ice cubes swirling around in a heavy crystal drink glass filled with brandy...and what comes after", "a beautiful sunset over the water" and the adorable, "Kittens!" And once more for emphasis, "KITTENS!" and lest we think this is going to be a saccharine sweet play i.e. "The Sound of Music" - "the feeling of anticipation when you know that you are about to have an orgasm".

 

Ensemble member Andrew White directs deftly with a light hand, keeping the pace of the play moving in an enjoyable way and flowing from act to act naturally, sensually, without the feeling of rushing.

 

So many directors charged with productions that exceed two hours or are under ninety minutes with no intermission seem to be rushing the actor’s monologues and dialogue. In some cases you can imagine them standing offstage tapping their feet saying, "Pick up the pace people!", which can actually ruin the show, but Andrew White does just the opposite, calming the audience into actually receiving the message this play is trying to deliver. 

  

“Life Sucks” is an updated version of the Checkov play "Uncle Vanya" and every single one of the seven characters really holds their own throughout.

 

Eddie Jemison best known for his work from "Ocean's Eleven", "Waitress" and "Hung" is proof that dynamite comes in small packages as he takes on the role of the middle aged, depressed Vanya. 

 

The entire cast sprinkle the play with so many humorous Yiddish slang terms with adorable ease like the term "ferkocta" which means crazy in the head, or Vanya declaring over and over that Ella is his "beshert" and soulmate, meaning a person's destined love or a love that was meant to be, a love of heavenly creation. All the while Vanya’s pathos as his obsession with The Professor's beautiful, young wife Ella grows out of control. This leads to a hysterical attack on The Professors life as he describes in a monologue how vile, disgusting and unnatural it is to him that she (Ella) should be with such an "old man".  

 

The Professor is played perfectly by Jim Ortlieb (Billy Elliot) whose great monologue about how even small signs of aging in a man can ultimately ruin a perfectly good relationship is fantastic. We rarely hear the male point of view on this.

 

The Professor describes while comically, yet realistically, sliding and crawling down the front steps of the cabin in complete exhaustion after a fight with his young wife Ella - how a man sees in the mirror one day. He now sees his soft belly or some new wrinkles or gray hair and feels insecure leading him to take it out on his partner and she in turn becomes more insecure herself - resulting in more fighting and insecurity or his worst fear of all as she "becomes disengaged" from him entirely.

 

Chaon Cross as Ella is excellent as the young Master's Degree student who "married the smartest Professor in the whole college" and is hit on by every middle aged loser in this small town. Cross delivers a great monologue ala - don't hate me because I'm beautiful because my brilliant husband turned out to be an aging, ego-maniacal alcoholic. 

 

Ella asks the audience flat out how many of them want to sleep with her with no strings attached by a show of hands, then asks how many are dying to sleep with someone other than whom they are with - and it is a well delivered, very funny and telling moment for the audience. 

 

Danielle Zuckerman as Sonia seems to be the opposite of Ella. She is The Professors' only daughter and honestly describes how in her family, "It's like everyone is hard-wired to upset everyone else. Like we each have a bunch of buttons on our back that each one of us knows how to push." 

 

Sonia knows she is not beautiful, or even pretty, she knows that her weight and height, glasses and curly hair are never featured in the magazines she reads and Zuckerman gives a great, breath of fresh air feeling to the entire production that it inherently needs. In one scene with Ella she admits to actually "hating" Ella for her beauty and attractiveness to ALL the nearby men and Ella forces her to "slap her right in the face" which Sonia does. After the "enjoyable" catharsis of the slap in the face they pour rum and Cokes together and begin to bond as both stepmother and friends. 

 

Another great scene between Sonia and Dr. Aster, a middle-aged Lothario who wants to change the world - but only talks about it, occurs when Sonia tries to tell the doctor she has a crush on him. When she realizes Dr. Aster is 'in love" with Ella too, she delivers a great monologue after his exit about how she talked with him about "mystical butterflies' when she really wanted to say, "Take me upstairs and f-ck me, f-ck me so well and so hard the whole universe stops to watch ... and the stars stop in their orbits and her whole body finally understands what it is to be truly alive...but instead I talked about mystical butterflies."

 

Ensemble member, Philip R. Smith, best known for his roles in "High Fidelity" and “Since You've Been Gone" is very funny in the role of Dr. Aster, an admitted alcoholic who rambles on about the very real dangers of climate change and other depressing subjects that remind us these characters are living in the present day.

 

Another example of the timeliness and universality of this play is when at one point an audience member is asked what his deepest, darkest fear is and he answered without hesitation, "Donald Trump", which got a huge laugh.

 

Penelope Walker plays "Pickles", a lesbian (who ALSO flirts with Ella). Pickles is a neighbor and friend of Sonia's late mother who wanted to be a real artist but ended up crafting what looked like leg warmers for the birch trees to wear and hand puppets made of yarn. Walker is funny and upbeat as the character whose age we can't quite tell, the free-spirited loser we all love who would never say life sucks even if hers does.

 

At the end of the show, Vanya and the cast break the fourth wall for the last time and confront the entire audience with the question, "Does life suck?" Some people shouted “yes”, or “no”, I shouted “sometimes”. Then Vanya called specifically out to the woman sitting two seats away from me (his wife) and asked her, she poignantly answered, "No it does not suck because life is beautiful – there is even beauty in its pain." I had to agree with her. 

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Life Sucks is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through November 6th – www.Lookingglasstheatre.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
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