‘Pomona’ as a dark mobius strip of a story

 

Pomona at Steep Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Steep Theatre)
Pomona at Steep Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Steep Theatre)

3 stars

In the dark, dystopian world that young, British playwright Alistair McDowall creates, reality unexpectedly oozes into the science fiction thriller and then, just as suddenly leaches back out again.

This surrealistic play is a kind of mobius strip of a story. The non-linear plot pops back and forth between the present and the future. It kicks all logic deep into the murky  shadows that envelope Joe Schermoly’s nightmarish scenic design, and reality turns into an M.C. Escher-like staircase to nowhere.

McDowall’s play begins in a car driven by a verbose man named Zeppo (the always excellent Peter Moore) who goes to great lengths to describe the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to Ollie, his confused traveling companion.

Throughout his enthusiastic narration, as Zeppo devours a bag of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, we learn that Ollie, played with empathy by Amber Sallis, is meeting with Zeppo because she’s desperate to find her twin sister who disappeared. Ollie hasn’t contacted the police because her sister, who may or may not actually exist, might’ve been involved in some shady dealings.Read More

Following the Yellow Brick Road

 

The Scarecrow (Marya Grandy), The Tin Man (Joseph Anthony Byrd), Dorothy (Leryn Turlington), and The Cowardly Lion (Jose Antonio Garcia) join together in an adventure down the Yellow Brick Road. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
The Scarecrow (Marya Grandy), The Tin Man (Joseph Anthony Byrd), Dorothy (Leryn Turlington), and The Cowardly Lion (Jose Antonio Garcia) join together in an adventure down the Yellow Brick Road. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

 

4 stars

Since “The Wizard of Oz,” first delighted children and grownups back in 1939, L. Frank Baum’s glorious fantasy, has been a continual favorite whether on film, in print or live on stage, as it is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

This road story, directed with spirit by Brian Hill and imaginatively choreographed by Kenny Ingram, is about how friends help, comfort and support each other. It also shows how experiencing new places can delight and educate, but ultimately reminds the traveler that, in the end, there’s no place like home.

Living on a colorless Kansas farm with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry (played by Emily Rohm and Jared D.M. Grant), lovely Leryn Turlington winningly steps into the ruby slippers as Dorothy Gale.

After being threatened by grouchy Almira Gulch, portrayed by Chicago stage veteran Hollis Resnik, Dorothy runs away with her little dog Toto (played perfectly by Derby, the dog), meets clairvoyant Professor Marvel and is swept away to the Land of Oz by a powerful cyclone.

Earnest and charming, with a smile that lights up the stage, Turlington puts her own touching stamp on the soulful ballad “Over the Rainbow.”

On her travels through Oz, Dorothy meets Emily Rohm, transformed into a  glittering, pink Glinda, the Good Witch. Dorothy also makes friends with the local Munchkins played by Karla Boye, Timothy P. Foszcz, Jarod D.M. Grant, Haley Gustafson, Aalon Smith, Lauren Smith, Anthony Sullivan Jr. and Kaleb Van Rijswijck who advise her to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

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In ‘The Recommendation’ it is all about who you know

 

Michael Aaron Pogue as Izzy leads the audience into a scene of 'The Recommendation at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photos)
Michael Aaron Pogue as Izzy leads the audience into a scene of ‘The Recommendation at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

 Upon entering the theatre, an attendant gives the patron his ticket in the form of a congratulatory letter of acceptance to Brown University. Theatergoers are then plunged into the world of the play as they’re welcomed to a collegiate orientation by Iskinder Iodouku, nicknamed Izzy (beautifully played by Michael Aaron Pogue)

Jonathan Caren’s thought-provoking play is very interesting. It’s not about what you know but who you know and the favors that people will perform now in exchange for something later on.

Izzy also serves as the narrator of the story. He’s a good-looking African-American young man,whose father immigrated from Ethiopia and married a white American woman.

He is going to tell us about his friend, Aaron Feldman, when suddenly Izzy’s narration is interrupted by a cocky young man who bursts into the lobby clad only in a towel. Izzy introduces us to Aaron (played to perfection by Julian Hester), a handsome, self-entitled, young, white boy whose lawyer father is wealthy and well-connected.

And thus begins Caren’s timely story of power and white privilege in America.

Julian Hester, left, and Michael Aaron Pogue in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)
Julian Hester, left, and Michael Aaron Pogue in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)

 

Through the double doors we’re ushered back several years to the college dormitory room where Aaron and Izzy first met. We learn many things about the two roomies, including that Aaron is planning to become a filmmaker while Izzy is hoping to eventually attend a good grad school to become a lawyer.

Aaron promises that his influential father, at his son’s insistence, will gladly write Izzy a glowing letter of recommendation to get him into UCLA.

Flash forward a couple years and the two guys have now graduated from Brown. Aaron has become the pampered assistant to a hotshot director and Izzy is enjoying his graduate work, thanks to Aaron’s father.

While Izzy relaxes beside the pool, Aaron goes on a beer run; however, he’s stopped by the police and arrested for having a suspended license.

Locked up in the jail’s holding cell, Aaron encounters Dwight, a buff, streetwise, black inmate who’s a repeat offender and really  knows the system. Dwight has connections of his own within the prison world and he tries to instruct Aaron how to survive the big house.

Aaron’s parents decide to teach him a lesson by refusing to post bail. After a rough night, Aaron promises his cellmate that once he’s released from jail, he’ll convince his influential father to help clear Dwight of his charges. All Dwight has to do is promise to protect the pretty white boy against the other inmates.

Thus begins another series of incidents in which one person promises a favor in exchange for something else in the future. It’s that old adage of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Julien Hester and Brian Keys in The Recommendation. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Julien Hester and Brian Keys in The Recommendation. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Windy City Playhouse has become one of Chicago’s go-to theatre for exciting, emotionally involving, immersive drama. Their long-running hit, “Southern Gothic,” continues at their new south Loop location.

But for this new drama, playwright Jonathan Caren worked together with artistic director Amy Rubenstein to transform his drama, originally written for a typical proscenium stage, into a totally immersive theatrical experience. And it’s a winner.

Directed with amazing skill and tempo by Jonathan Wilson, the production take place in different locales. The various settings are the handiwork of talented scenic designer Lauren Nigri and the result is simply extraordinary.

Such close proximity to the actors and the action totally draws the audience into the story. Sometimes the theatergoer becomes a casual participant in a scene, but more often he’s simply a fly on the wall observing and trying to predict what will happen next.

Julian Hester, left, Michael Aaron Pogue, center, and Brian Keys in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)
Julian Hester, left, Michael Aaron Pogue, center, and Brian Keys in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)

The play is occasionally funny. But, particularly as the story progresses, it grows darker, more intense and deeply disturbing.

The first act revs up to a traumatic climax while theatergoers share a darkened jail cell with Dwight and Aaron. Vicariously we sense the claustrophobia, desperation and unrelenting terror that Aaron is experiencing while imprisoned.

But the feeling of dread continues and grows throughout Act II, ratcheting up to a fever pitch until it finally explodes during the last scene that’s set in the steamy sauna of an affluent sporting club.

Windy City Playhouse’s riveting production of Caren’s explosive drama is an absolute must-see.  The play’s totally immersive, bringing every theatergoer into the story. No one simply sits back at a safe distance and observes.

Director Jonathan Wilson has maintained the drama’s realism by keeping his actors honest, involved and on top of every possible situation that might occur. Sometimes theatergoers are asked to stand; but more often than not, plenty of seating is provided within each of the many locales. Refreshments are occasionally offered to further enhance the theatrical experience.

Make sure you see “The Recommendation.” It’s one theatrical experience you’ll never forget.

DETAILS: “The Recommendation” is at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, through Sept. 22, 2019. For tickets and more information call (773-891-8985) or visit WindyCityPlayhouse.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Hell in a Handbag parody gives ‘Bad Seed’ a Drag vibe

 

L-R, David Cerda, Kristopher Bottrall and Ed Jones in Hell in a Handbag Productions’ world premiere parody The Drag Seed. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)
L-R, David Cerda, Kristopher Bottrall and Ed Jones in Hell in a Handbag Productions’ world premiere parody The Drag Seed. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)

 

4 stars

David Cerda has done it once again. The gifted performer and prolific playwright mines every ounce of humor from his  LGBTQ parodies of well-known TV and film classics like “The Golden Girls” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

This time around, Chicago’s Countess of Camp has loosely adapted “The Bad Seed,” that famous, b & w psychological horror-thriller film from the 1950’s about a seemingly perfect little girl who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to get what she wants.

In Cerda’s gender-bending, mannered melodrama, the perfect little girl has been changed into Carson, the perfect little boy. This child, however, likes to wear outlandish wigs and dress in girl’s clothing. And, since it’s 2019, Carson also prefers to use non-binary pronouns (they, their, them).

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‘Head Over Heels’ has got the beat!

 

Cast of 'Head Over Heels,' a Kokandy Productions show at Theater Wit. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Cast of ‘Head Over Heels,’ a Kokandy Productions show at Theater Wit. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

Whoever would’ve imagined that a new, surprisingly entertaining musical comedy, based upon a lengthy 16th century poem by Sir Philip Sidney, conceived and fashioned into a script by Jeff Whitty, and adapted for the Broadway stage by James Magruder, would evolve into a toe-tapping jukebox musical?

With a score adapted from the songs of popular 80’s girl band, The Go-Go’s, this perky show  feels not only original but groundbreaking. And, in many ways, it is. The musical follows in the footsteps of other unlikely tune-filled Broadway hits such as “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Debuting in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the show ran for a month in San Francisco but its next stop was a dazzling 2018 Broadway production that just closed this past January.

Kokandy Productions is making theatrical history by presenting one of the first regional stagings of this musical, one that’s bound to become a cutting-edge new standard in theatres around the country.

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A Touching, Tragic Tale

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)

 3 1/2 stars

First of all be warned. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch, may not appeal to every taste. Audiences who attend this four-time, 2014 Tony Award-winning musical should be comfortable with in-your-face performances, deafening rock music, blinding concert lighting and 95 minutes of adult humor and a brazenly bold backstory.

The theatergoer who considers Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe the hallmarks of the American musical probably won’t love a show that’s this garish and loud. However, younger, less conservative audiences, as well as the many devotees of this cult musical, will find everything to love about Theo Ubique’s finale to their first season, now playing in Evanston through July 28.

The show began as a modest little rock musical that told the story of Hedwig Schmidt, a young, queer, glam, rock singer who underwent gender reassignment surgery.

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The hidden agenda of ‘Four Places’

 

Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in 'Four Places' at The Den Theatre.' (Michael Brosilow photo)
Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in ‘Four Places’ at The Den Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Theatergoers who prefer their dramas as real and affecting as everyday life should run to see this extraordinary production, now in its final performances at the Den Theatre.

Joel Drake  Johnson’s 80-minute one-act which plays out in real time, speaks to every member of the audience, but particularly to those between ages 40 and 65.

Smartly and perceptively directed by Lia Mortensen, a fine actor, herself,  she expertly guided a gifted, four member ensemble as they breathe life into their characters and avoid artificial schmaltz.

Eleven years ago Johnson’s heartbreaking, emotionally stunning play premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. This revival production is every bit as poignant and passionate as the original. What makes the play particularly powerful is the intimacy of the Den’s upstairs 2B Studio venue. The actors are never more than a few feet from the audience, allowing this compelling, sometimes caustic, characters to reach into the hearts of its audience.

The story is about a bitter confrontation and intervention between a mother and her two middle-aged children.

Peggy and her widowed daughter, Ellen, have a weekly lunch date at the same local eatery. They’re always seated in Barb’s section, a chatty waitress who has a special, protective fondness for Peggy.

On this particular day, the dynamics change when Peggy’s 40-year-old son, Warren, unexpectedly joins them. From the beginning of the play, something unspoken between the two siblings creates a tension that you can cut with a knife.

As the hour unfolds, the audience gradually discovers the secrets and lies that these family members have kept hidden, and they learn what this mediation is all about.

The four places of the title are the car, the restaurant, the waiting room of the eatery and diner’s restroom, all wonderfully and modestly created by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, assisted by Milo Bue.

Melissa Schlesinger’s detailed sound design along with Josh Prisching’s area lighting perfectly help delineate each of the four locales.

The cast is absolutely magnificent. Every actor in this ensemble production belongs to Actor’s Equity. Affiliation in this professional guild often guarantees a stellar production, and this staging is no exception. Each of these  actors has performed at every major Chicago area theatre.

Meg Thalken, the senior member of this brilliant ensemble, is sheer perfection as Peggy. With her upswept hair and her handbag clutched in a death grip, Thalken is completely believable as this complicated, conflicted mother.

At first Peggy seems innocent, although she’s suspicious as to why Warren is suddenly joining Ellen and herself for lunch. It’s a weekday and her son should be in school teaching, but, for some vague reason, Warren has invited himself along.

As information unfolds and emotions peeled away, Peggy remains a sympathetic character, an aging woman fiercely trying to hang on to her dignity and independence.

Amy Montgomery is superb as Ellen. Together with the always masterful Bruch Thomas Reed, as Warren, these two siblings plot, palter, bitterly plead and run the gamut of emotions, from guilt to indignation as they pry information from their mother and attempt to sensitively reveal their plans for her future.

The bumpy road to their hidden agenda digs deeply, exposing buried secrets dealing with aging, disease, alcoholism, pent-up resentments and coping with the inevitable.

Rebekah Ward is both clever and comical as Barb the busybody waitress who’s just a little too familiar with her customers.

One of the highlights of this production is the long car ride during which very little is said, but the faces of these three actors speak volumes.

The Den Theatre’s excellent revival of Joel Drake Johnson’s poignant one-act drama is sometimes searing, often humorous and ultimately heartbreaking.

The show, the Den Theatre’s return to producing its own plays and musicals, is a must-see.

DETAILS: “Four Places” continues through June 30, 2019 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. Running time: 80 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 or visit The Den theatre.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheaterInChicago.

 

‘Sweet Texas Reckoning’ has racism and homophobia plus a happy ending

 

Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)
Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)

2 1/2 stars

The word that keeps coming to mind, while watching Traci Godfrey’s story about a family reunion in Texas, is “cliched.” The hour-and-forty-five minutes spent with these four characters offers glimmers of brilliance but ultimately feels like a special Pride Month movie on the Lifetime Channel.

Had this “dramedy” been written by a playwright who could offer some honest, new insights into what makes people tick, especially in small, conservative towns, it would’ve been a far more honest portrayal. There’s a germ of a good idea here. But, in the hands of Horton Foote, Preston Jones or Tennessee Williams, this story wouldn’t be nearly as banal and stereotyped.

Set in the conservative, southeastern town of Sealy, Texas, Godfrey’s play is about a woman who for decades, has been drowning her guilt, bigotry and lies in her secret stash of bourbon.

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Playing It the company way

Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
4 stars
The bouncy overture winds down, the curtain rises and we find a young man in coveralls descending from above in the Music Theater Work’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young window washer, is discovered reading Shepherd Mead’s tongue-in-cheek instructional book of the same name, while dangling from scaffolding above Madison Avenue.
Narrated for this production by NPR news quiz host, Peter Sagal, the book progresses chapter-by-chapter, charting the recommended course for Ponty’s rise to power in the business world.
Now, bear in mind that this how-to manual, a 1952 best-seller by Shepherd Mead, subtitled “The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune,” was written as a parody of the popular self-help books of that era. Between this book’s unfailing advice and Finch’s pluck and pizzazz, this likable kid is undoubtedly destined to rise to the top…or is he?
It’s hard to believe that this show which set a new standard for musical comedy satire, is almost 60 years old now. The hummable score by Frank Loesser (“Guys & Dolls,” “Most Happy Fellow”) features a libretto by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, adapted from Mead’s humorous book of the same name.
The musical has a field day lampooning the seeming ease with which an entry level employee can rise to the top of the corporate ladder. A film preserving the performances of most of the original cast was released in 1967. This 1962 Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, earning additional Tony Award nominations and wins.
Throughout the play, whenever it seems the darkest, the young, eager beaver aligns with precisely the right people to learn from and suck up to, as well as the easiest loopholes to infiltrate, in order to reach the top. And when all those elements are out of reach, Ponty employs his considerable boyish charm, ultimately helping him to achieve success.

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‘August Rush’ not ready for prime time

The cast of August Rush at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Luaren photo)
The cast of August Rush at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Luaren photo)

2  1/2 Stars

There’s no denying that John Doyle is a gifted genius. The artistic director of Classic Stage Company in New York City, Doyle has won awards for his productions of beautiful “Passion,” “Carmen Jones” and “The Visit.”

He’s primarily known for his much-acclaimed, pared down productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” where, in addition to acting, singing and dancing, the reduced cast also provided all the musical accompaniment.

His latest production, adapted from a popular 2007 film of the same name, is now enjoying a pre-Broadway tryout at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora where Doyle has simplified the story and amped up the musical component with mixed results.

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