Saturday, June 08, 2013

Despite Strong Performances, 'Reverb' Lacks Resonance -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A play by Leslye Headland
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Redtwist Theatre
Thru June 23

The archetype of the churlish, tortured and/or torturing--either to one's self or others--rock star has existed ever since there were rock stars.

Or even long before, if you want to lump Mozart, Poe, Van Gogh and the like in with Elvis, Brian Wilson, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, et al.

Leslye Headland's 2009 play, Reverb, now in its Chicago premiere at the stellar Redtwist Theatre, isn't oppressive as it aims to investigate the line between genius and madness, artistic beauty and interpersonal viciousness, but despite terrific performances from the 6-person cast, it doesn't seem to break much new, or truly compelling, ground.

Without giving anything essential away, Dorian (broodingly played by Peter Oyloe) is a talented musician in an unsigned band, who has written a few great solo songs, primarily about June (a superb Mary Williamson), who is his ex-girlfriend, muse and--as played out with brutal force onstage--punching bag.

The play takes place in Los Angeles and Headland none too obliquely drops in references to Phil Spector
(a genius turned murderer), Brian Wilson (a genius turned emotional cripple), Ian Curtis (the Joy Division singer who committed suicide), Jeff Buckley (another gifted singer gone too soon) and others. And in Jonathan Berry's production, a Jimi Hendrix poster is quite prominent in the scenery.

The narrative weaves around Dorian's infantile and violent interactions with June, as well as tempestuous relationships with his once wild, now born again and timid sister Lydia (Brittany Burch) and bandmates Hank and Shayne (Nick Vidal, Chris Chmelik).

I don't think I will be ruining anything to share that Dorian's troubles, as well as those of June and Lydia, have roots in abusive parental relationships.

But while Headland sets up reasons to be empathetic toward her central character and those he clings to (and vice versa), she also instills Dorian with substance abuse issues and a general boorishness that is supposedly offset by musical brilliance, although we only hear brief snippets.

Redtwist, where I have seen superb takes on Martin McDonagh plays and, last fall, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, has subtitled Reverb in its promotional materials as "A darkly comic, brutal dissection of the destructive force of wrath."

Candidly, except for the self-aggrandizing character of Ivy (Ashley Neal), a music blogger and wanna-be industry insider, I didn't find too much comic about Reverb.

Nor would I have described it as dissecting "wrath."

Without meaning to dismiss the way psychological factors can affect us all, Dorian comes across as more of a crabby asshole who hits June largely because she lets him--and even persuades him. Thus, it's hard to accept him, nor certainly embrace him, as a temperamental genius out-of-control due to forces beyond his control.

Reverb is the type of savage, hyperdramatic play I've more commonly seen at another of Chicago's great storefront theaters, Profiles.

But while the intense action is never unwatchable and Oyloe, Burch, Neal and particularly Williamson deliver terrific performances, Reverb just doesn't feel all that special. Some of the rock-world and L.A.-scene references are fun, but many come off as trite and may be obscure for an audience comprised largely of older folks.

I went because of an excellent review by the Tribune's Chris Jones, and Redtwist cites a number of other positive notices. So if you're planning on going to see Reverb, I certainly won't tell you not to, but as I was watching it, I couldn't help but think that this is a show I really wouldn't recommend to anyone I know.

It isn't terrible, and Redtwist can be lauded for trying something different, but for me Reverb really never strikes a resounding chord.

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