New Centerstage Review Up

Other than the obligatory college performance of a Beckett play, I haven’t really seen much avant-garde or absurdist theater, and I’ve only read a few plays in the style. Generally, I enjoy the heck out of the wit and wordplay, and get annoyed by the bleak outlook. That proved to be true of the latest play I saw for Centerstage, Trap Door Theatre’s Smartphones. Here’s an excerpt from my press release:

Amelia (Géraldine Dulex) and Barbany (Chris Popio) arrive minutes apart in the living room of an absent host’s house, and they immediately start arguing about whether either of them has a key to said house. In the middle of this argument, Chantal (Jodi Kingsley) and Dagobert (Antonio Brunetti) arrive attached at the hip, and another round of arguments begins, this time concerning the number of maids employed by their host, Fede. The rest of the play is an hour-long series of similarly petty arguments and minor revelations, but every moment is entertaining.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Trap Door is on the second floor of a restaurant in the east part of Bucktown. Right by the Clybourn Metra stop, it’s this little corner of a couple restaurants, a bar, a flower shop, and a cafe. It’s a nice place for a pre-show meal or post-show drink. Enjoy!

New Centerstage Review Up

Go see this show! You know I don’t give unqualified recommendations often, so take ’em when they come. “Gotham City” is a show that catapults narrative dance out of its ballet-heavy history and into the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Deahr has matched up dance styles with the status of the groups that use them: gangs use hip-hop and the Brazilian fight-dance capoeira, the upper-crust tourist couple uses ballet, and the clowns let their anarchic spirit show in contemporary moves with commedia dell’arte overtones.

You can read the rest of the review here. Okay, I guess I have a few qualifications: the taming of the shrew was annoying and overdone for most of it, but had a slightly interesting twist toward the end; and the voiceover can get a little intrusive. For all y’all who aren’t into hip hop, be warned that this is modern dance and a modern soundtrack is used (but it’s a great soundtrack).

Apparently tickets are going fast, so check it out while you can!

New Centerstage Review Up

“Lisa, you just put another review up on Tuesday! What’s going on?” Well, what’s going on is I forgot to post about that one ages ago, when I actually wrote it, and this one today is actually much more recent. It’s summer, my brain is fried, etc.

Arcas Productions is brand-new, and bless ’em for their ambition. Making Beowulf your first production is a gutsy move, and while it doesn’t entirely pay off here, there are aspects that make the company worth looking out for in the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Director Jeff Lynch’s history is in dance, and it serves him well here. His performers are in constant motion, acting out the monologues delivered by various characters in a way that recalls how it may have been done back when poets told tales next to fires. The fight scenes between Beowulf and his enemies are well done, especially the last one, in which the whole cast comes together as the fearsome dragon.

You can read the rest of the review here.

New Centerstage Review Up

Red Tape Theatre’s motto is “Awake Now?” and the plays they put on are all about pushing us out of our comfort zone. I’ve seen two such shows now, and my main feeling on them is: I want to like them better. The acting, the sets, the sound design, the direction–it’s all there. But they are so self-serious! Again, I’ve only seen two shows, but just glancing at the rest of their season, it’s all doom and gloom. Nothing wrong with using theater to shake people up a bit; that’s an important use for it. But I have to be gripped by the story in order for that to work, and instead I’m sitting there wondering when I’m going to feel invested in what’s going on. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

As usual at Red Tape, the costumes (Izumi Inaba) and set design (Emily Guthrie) were a marvel of detail and atmosphere. The themes of small-town dreams, collective guilt, and American pride are clearly spelled out in this funerary tale, but the play tackles them more from the head than from the heart, and that’s where it falters.

You can read the rest of the review here.

New Centerstage Review Up

Gorilla Tango hosts a dizzying array of bare-bones theater troupes, which put on any number of energetic shows every year. Some of them are great, some of them not so much, but they’re always done with passion. And they’re cheap, too! I recommend Gorilla Tango in general. And I’ll recommend the latest show I saw there: a musical parody called Attend the Tale of Danny Tanner: A Full House Musical. The writers of the show said they wanted to cross the sitcom with Sweeney Todd, and that’s about right. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

It’s not spoiling anything to say that this is one bloody show. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Danny (Rob Speer) commemorates the anniversary of his wife’s death by finding and killing a drunk driver. Joey (Gorton) and Jesse (James Dolbeare) help him out in return for having a free place to stay, and the kids stay blissfully ignorant. That is, until Danny loses it one night during a Life Lessons moment and claims more than one victim.

You can read the rest of the review here. You do have to be comfortable with Michelle cussing up a storm, and with someone meeting a messy end every other scene. But the lyrics are clever, the performances enthusiastic, and the run time an hour. Enjoy!

Non-Equity Jeff Awards Announced

Okay, one more theater-related thing this week, and then no more til my next (potentially controversial!) review. Last week the Jeff Committee announced nominees for the Non-Equity Jeff Awards (the Tonys of Chicago), so I checked out the list to see if anything looked familiar. And lo!

Opus” — Redtwist Theatre (for Play, Director, Ensemble, Sound Design, Artistic Specialization)

A Behanding in Spokane” — Profiles Theatre (Supporting Actor)

One Flea Spare” — Eclipse Theatre Company (Supporting Actor)

Under the Blue Sky” — Steep Theatre Company (Supporting Actress)

We Live Here” — Theatre Seven of Chicago (New Work, Artistic Specialization)

Cyrano” — The House Theatre of Chicago (New Adaptation, Original Incidental Music, Costume Design, Fight Design)

The Spirit Play” — The Strange Tree Group (Original Incidental Music, Artistic Specialization)

The Sea” — Theatre Mir (Sound Design)

For my money: Opus was one of my favorite shows last year and definitely deserves Director or Play. I would not give it Artistic Specialization (it was nominated for Music Coach); one of the actors never once did vibrato on her viola!

Caroline Neff, yes, should of course win Supporting Actress for Under the Blue Sky. We Live Here was another one of my favorites and deserves a win for New Work (and Cyd Blakewell, who was also great in last year’s MilkMilkLemonade, was a standout here).

Cyrano was terrific, and the fight scenes were breathtaking. I did like the music in The Spirit Play.

Hey, eight nominated shows! Not bad. And I agree with most of the nominations for those shows. Even better. Some of the nominated shows are still running, so check them out while you still can.

In a Forest of Comments, Dark and Deep

Well, that was interesting. As you may have seen on Facebook, one of my quickie posts promoting my latest theater review on Centerstage caught the eye of the playwright for that show. Neil LaBute, a nationally known playwright, screenwriter, and film director, somehow found my personal blog and responded to my criticism of his characterization of women in his works. (I was able to confirm with someone who knows his email address that it really was him writing in, and not a random Internet LaButist.)

I know this isn’t an original thought, but what a strange place the Internet is! Connecting people who would never meet in real life, and allowing for real-time interaction. Usually when I have an “oh, Internet!” moment, I’m smiling at a friend of a friend offering travel advice, or a total stranger sharing an experience that relates to one of mine. Having an “oh, Internet!” moment when a major contemporary playwright is sniping away at me is quite a different thing.

He’s done this before, with another young woman critic. He wrote a frame for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2010 Taming of the Shrew, and Caitlin Montanye Parrish reviewed it for Time Out Chicago. He took to the comments with great gusto, others joined in, and it was quite a long thread. Sadly, TOC seems to have taken down the comments on that post, which is way too bad. Still, there is evidence out there of the storm, and one blog post even copy/pasted the comment that started it all.

Now, before I get in trouble for writing another “hyperbolic” (LaBute’s term for my writing) sentence, let me say that I was going to point out that his misogyny continues apace because he only tore down my (lady) review and not anyone else’s (dude) review. But no worries, he hates all the haters, not just women. Such growth! (Or maybe he continues to hate TOC after that 2010 dustup, I don’t know.)

So okay, he goes after all his critics because, like many artists, he sees critics as the enemy. Some critics are dicks, sure, just like some artists are dicks. But most of us work real hard to be thoughtful in our reviews. As I mentioned in the comments of that post, the post-show conversation is a place for productive conversation, not petty bickering.

LaBute didn’t fight fair–pretty much every comment was undermining and defensive, rather than engaged and interested in the other commenters’ positions. That’s too bad, because the discussion could have been a lot more interesting for everyone involved. But he picked a fight on the Internet, and that’s a losing proposition. So I let him have the last word–on every thread–since that seemed to be really important to him.

It was a funny little interlude in the life of this blog and a reminder that people with Google Alerts on their name can turn up where you least expect them.

New Centerstage Review Up

Ugh, Neil LaBute, ugh. He’s often described as “edgy” or “controversial,” and as is often true with other artists described in those terms, that translates to “nasty” and “boring.” I didn’t intend to take on the American premiere of his latest, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, but I didn’t read my editor’s schedule closely enough and found myself reviewing it last Thursday. (I should add that I did my best to go in with an open mind and see this production for what it was, rather than what I expected it to be.) There’s no question that LaBute can write decent dialogue and quickly take an audience to new depths of discomfort, and that’s a talent. But to do so without once writing a convincing female character is hackish. And to claim that you want to explore issues of truth and intimacy in your play, but then making your play clearly take sides and pass moral judgments, is dishonest.

Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Cox is wonderful as a man who knows his place in the world and likes to opine on how others should live in it. Lowe is good too, but she has much less to work with, and there’s the crux of the problem. Betty is an incoherent character, a cheap assemblage of all the things men hate women for supposedly being: snobbish, slutty, unfaithful, bitchy, ambitious.

You can read the rest of the review here. I’m in the minority here in the theater world; LaBute is still quite the popular figure. Chris Jones loves him (although I think Jones and I have had opposite reactions to every single play we’ve both happened to review, so that’s not too surprising).

It’s too bad Profiles is so enamored of LaBute as to make him a resident playwright, because they have a talented group of people working there who could spend their time on plays that explore the breadth and depth of the human condition rather than LaBute’s sour misanthropy disguised as controversial profundity.

New Centerstage Review Up

I was thrilled to find that Steep Theatre’s The Receptionist was a reasonable 75 minutes with no intermission. I have a friend who works as a stage manager, and she’s said that she doesn’t understand plays that have intermissions. The actors don’t need them, the crew doesn’t need them, and she doesn’t think the audience does either. I agree! For the most part, playwrights can say what they need to say in an intermission-less 80 minutes or less. Far too often, the energy dissipates completely by the time it picks back up, and that’s a huge loss.

Anyway, this was a great ensemble piece, although I appreciated Caroline Neff a little more than the other actors, as usual. She’s so good! Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

“The mood is set before the show even starts: Muzak versions of Top 40 hits play while the audience settles in, and the perfect set design (Stephen Harold Carmody) replicates every small office lobby in the country, effectively establishing a sense of malaise with a few inspirational posters and a sad potted plant. Then the titular receptionist enters and starts transferring calls to voicemail while chatting with the staff, and office workers in the audience might wonder if they went to the theater or just never left work for the day.”

You can read the rest of the review here. The play is definitely worth a trip up to Andersonville.

New Centerstage Review Up

I’ve had this problem before–what do I say in a review when the play was fine, was okay? Especially when much of the fault lies with the script rather than with the performances. Last week I saw The Sea at Theater Wit, and most of the performances were spot-on, and the sound effects were good, and the direction had it rolling along nicely. But the script wants to be about nine different things and only partially succeeds at two of them. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

The artistic notes on Theater Mir’s “The Sea,” as well as those on the original production from 1973, make much of the play’s examination of the dangers of xenophobia and fearing the unknown, and while that is an interesting subject, it doesn’t seem to be the actual focus of the play. This confusion shows on stage, as the play is never sure if it wants to be a comedy or a drama, and the actors are forced to walk that shaky line with uneven results.

You can read the rest of the review here. Also, I couldn’t tell how much of it was the part and how much of it was the actor, but Brett Schneider could have played an actual alien for all the sense he made as a character.

So no, I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you only have room in your budget for one play this month, but I’m not sorry I saw it. And the bit with the ladies rehearsing for their theatrical presentation was great stuff.