Monday, December 10, 2018

This is the End?: Driven by a Fantastic Performance, Wendy Schmidt's 'Maker of Worlds' Opens Doors of Self-Perception -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Maker of Worlds
by Wendy Schmidt
directed by Jeri Frederickson
Three Cat Productions
at Berger Park Coach House, Chicago
Thru December 29

I guess I like things to make perfect sense.

Not so much in terms of entertainment and art, but in real life.

Where of course, there's a shitload of absurdity going on, and that's a kind word for it.

So it's rather logical that talented writers would choose reflect this inanity in contemporary plays, as does Wendy Schmidt--who happens to be a friend of mine--in a one-woman piece (in which she doesn't perform) called Maker of Worlds.

In the world premiere by Three Cat Productions, a truly terrific Amy Gorelow stars initially as Martha, who as I ultimately deduced, is God.

Or at least, a god.

Capable of making worlds, as conveyed by a mock cooking demonstration, she is haunted by a tempestuous affair (or at least, infatuation) with the mythological Jim Morrison, is contemptuous of a certain disgraced Illinois governor and when truly pissed off--be it by Sodom & Gomorroh or her accountant husband--seeks to wreak destruction on planet Earth.

But others get a say in the matter, including said husband, Warren, a capitalist pig also seen as something of a deity--who said reality and absurdity don't conflate?--whom Gorelow hilariously imbues with Sam Kinisonesque powder-keg cantankerousness.

Another god, Liz, attempts to quell Martha's ire with yoga instructor Zen, and--without wanting to reveal much more--let's just say the spirit of Mr. Mojo Risin' eventually breaks on through.

It's all quite creative and wonderfully enacted by Gorelow, so as to be soundly entertaining across roughly 70 minutes.

Especially as I'm somewhat familiar with Schmidt's worldview, even amid all the absurdity--a tad too much for me to truly embrace--there's enjoyable satire about uber-capitalism, male dominance, rock icons and, well, the world we've made.

The confusion Martha shares regarding the betrayal of a friend is also rather poignant.

So there's more than enough here to be worth your $20--or less through Goldstar--even if it doesn't all congeal perfectly.

Or, through my Doors of perception, completely sensibly.

After the performance we saw on Saturday, my friend Bob cited a couple of famously absurdist playwrights--Christopher Durang and Eugene Ionesco--of whose work he was reminded.

In some ways, comparisons to these paragons validated my sense that theatrical absurdity isn't my foremost cup of tea, as I didn't love Goodman Theater's 2015 production of Durang's Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

And despite high hopes, I also wasn't entirely enamored by Ionesco's Victims of Duty, seen in July at Red Orchid Theatre.

But I still loved seeing the latter show due simply to a remarkable performance by one of the world's best actors, Michael Shannon--along with a terrific cast--so although I didn't "get" all that was going on, it was still highly rewarding to absorb.

Something rather similar can be said about Maker of Worlds.

It's a bit complex, confusing and manic, but Gorelow is worth the price of admission--alone--and I assume a lack of acute understanding may well be part of the point.

So above and beyond my appreciation for a friend's creation, consider this a recommendation to get over to Berger Park before "The End" of December.

And when the music's over, turn out the lights. 

Performances of Maker of Worlds are Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 1:00 pm. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Lackluster Revue: Second City's 'Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo' Fails to Pack Much Punch -- Chicago Theater / Comedy Review

Sketch Comedy Review

Algorithm Nation or, The Static Quo
107th Mainstage Revue
The Second City, Chicago
Open Run

It's not usually my style, but I think I'll cut right to the chase.

I didn't much like the Second City's new mainstage revue, titled--curiously--Algorithm Nation or, The Static Quo.

Failing to understand, or appreciate, the repeated motif of algorithms controlling our lives, I didn't find the show particularly funny, insightful, illuminating or inspired.

I say this with alliteration but no glee, as I have great regard for Second City's history, legacy and veneration.

I am also greatly appreciative of being invited to see & review the 107th Mainstage Revue on its opening night.

The overall experience was first-rate, and locals and tourists should keep attending Second City on a somewhat regular basis. A fun night isn't just about LOL moments or thought-provoking skits.

But I'm simply reviewing the show, and while I have great admiration for the talents and personas of the writers and performers--Ryan Asher, Tyler Davis, Jeffrey Murdoch, Emma Pope, Nate Varrone, Kimberly Michelle Vaughn--I just found much of the material presented over two hours to be rather lackluster.

Asher, Davis, Murdoch and Vaughn were in the 106th Mainstage Revue, which I found a good bit better, though not as strong as Second City e.t.c.'s most recent revue or the still-running, all-female She The People.

So I know the comedic gifts of the Algorithm Nation cast are considerable, and beyond merely appreciating their efforts, there were some genuinely nice ideas.

I don't want to give away much, especially the best routines, but Murdoch, Varrone, Asher and Pope were part of a sketch in which two longstanding local TV personalities look back on their career, only to cringe at what was once deemed acceptable (but shouldn't have been).

Davis and Williams repeatedly paired up well, once as an African-American couple visiting "woke" white liberal neighbors (Asher & Varrone), and later as a father and young daughter, as the latter experiences hardships in an otherwise all-white school.

Certainly, these two skits broached on racism, and a couple others referenced President Trump, but I don't think anything hit hard enough regarding contemporary realities.

As we walked back to the train, I said to my friend--who also was disappointed by the show--that it felt as if some Second City bigwigs had mandated to tread lightly on Trump material, for fear of offending and/or alienating those who support him.

In a way this is understandable, as both blue and red patrons equal green, but comedy without chutzpah--especially amid these times--just feels flaccid.

Or, perhaps, obvious targets are considered too obvious, and while I would perceive such a seemingly astute cast could insightfully broach the mistreatment of blacks, women, immigrants, Muslims, etc., etc., etc., maybe such hot-topicality is considered taboo.

But even when the sextet onstage--all dressed in black--did reference gun violence and children being thrown into cages, it came off somewhat rote.

And unfunny.

Truly the best part of Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo came when an audience member named Andrew was brought onstage.

His rapport, particularly with Varrone was charming, and suggests that a bit more crowd interaction might do this revue good.

If not actually adding Andrew on a permanent basis.

As noted above, going to Second City is always a delight, even just in seeing pictures of the famous alumni. And it's probably true that people who are now considered all-time pillars of comedy were in revues that missed the mark, as this one did.

Undeniably, making people laugh isn't easy, especially when coupled with trying to provide insights into a crazy world.

In pulling its punches in regards to the latter, the 107th Mainstage Revue of Second City Chicago didn't hit hard enough in attempting the former.

Or, in other words, despite estimable work by talented comedians, something about the algorithm just wasn't right. 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Imperfect Hilarity Ensues: 'The Play That Goes Wrong' Gets a Whole Lot Right -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Play That Goes Wrong
National Tour
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 16

As insinuated by its cheeky title, essentially stated in its onstage introduction and reflected by its prevailing vibe, The Play That Goes Wrong knows--whether in London, on Broadway or on tour in Chicago--what it is:

A show to see if you can't get tickets to Hamilton (or something else more demonstrably desirous).

Or a fallback plan if some kind of ticketing snafu ensues.

Yet while it will likely only be a "first choice" to those who prefer slapstick comedy to magnificent musicals or scintillating drama, The Play That Goes Wrong gets a whole lot right.


For a mirthful but largely inconsequential show like this doesn't succeed in London, New York and on tour across the UK and USA unless it's really good for what it is.

And although, yes, I clearly prefer Hamilton, other first-rate musicals, top-notch plays, great rock concerts and--even within a comedy realm--superlative stand-up comedians, variety is the spice of theater, entertainment and, of course, life.

Photos not necessarily of the current tour cast. 
So as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber and voluminous theatergoer, I welcomed and relished The Play That Goes Wrong as something different.

Within it's own vernacular, it doesn't feel all that unique, as the cheeky British humor reminds of Monty Python. And in traipsing in comedy and parody, it brought to mind recent-past theatrical works like The 39 Steps, Something Rotten, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder and Murder For Two

In finding my reviews of those four shows for the hyperlinks, I was reminded that I awarded each @@@@ on my 5@ scale, as I now have The Play That Goes Wrong.

This basically connotes a show that I truly enjoyed and was happy to see, but don't feel a great need to see again. And while I imagine anyone would enjoy the humor enough to make for a fine night of entertainment, the inherent lack of depth makes my recommendation somewhat less than emphatic.

But if British humor playing up Agatha Christie-type mysteries such as The Mousetrap sounds like your cup of tea, The Play That Goes Wrong should provide considerable delight.

I am not someone who laugh out loud all that much, and this show--with truly outstanding physical humor--prompted many LOL guffaws.

The show is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of London's Mischief Theatre Company, and the three of them starred in the West End production--which continues to run--and then on Broadway, where a nearly 2-year run ends in January.

Within The Play That Goes Wrong, the conceit is that the Comley University Drama Society is presenting a play called, The Murder at Haversham Manor.

In it, Inspector Carter (Chris Bean in the tour cast, which is excellent throughout) comes to investigate the murder of Charles Haversham (Jonathan Harris), with the latter's fiance Florence (Sandra Wilkinson), best friend Thomas (Robert Grove), brother Cecil (Max Bennett) and servant Perkins (Dennis Tyde) among the suspects.

All sorts of hijinks ensue, from scenery mishaps to mispronounced words to cast members being repeatedly injured and much other mayhem.

Most of it is funny, some of it outright hilarious.

And leaving out any other specifics, I would dub The Play That Goes Wrong a really good show that often feels terrific.

If somehow the mystery at the core of the play-within-the-play was itself brilliant, the whole affair would rise significantly--from fun-yet-fleeting to truly phenomenal.

As it stands, you will laugh, you will smile, you will appreciate inspired gags and abundant talent onstage--plus some terrific ad hoc humor, unless some heckling wasn't by "a plant"--and you will have a good time at The Play That Goes Wrong, even if you don't think too much during or after it.

And that should sound all right to just about anyone.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Holy Salacious: A Few Years Down the Road, 'The Book of Mormon' Retains Its Vulgar Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Mormon
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 2

It wasn't that long ago--2011 to be exact--when The Book of Mormon was the hottest show on Broadway, and seemingly among the hottest in quite some time.

I paid a pretty good aftermarket buck to see it in August 2011, though considerably less than what Hamilton in New York still regularly goes for on Stubhub, let alone what Hamilton was fetching during its first year on Broadway.

Or most face value tix for Springsteen on Broadway, for that matter.

So I don't think of Book of Mormon--famously created by the brains behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez--as the latest, hottest thing anymore.

But the truth is, it still seems to sell out every performance on Broadway, and remains a hot ticket on yet another National Tour that brought it to Chicago's Oriental Theater (soon to be rechristened the Nederlander).

Images not entirely of the current tour cast.
I loved it on Broadway, and then again in Chicago in 2012 and 2013--it did a 10-month "sit down" run--but though it doesn't feel like all that much time has passed, I felt like seeing it again.

So, for Thursday evening, I was able to get a bargain-priced single seat in the Orchestra section, just 10 rows from the stage.

And with the caveat that it just isn't as magnificent a musical as Hamilton, and some of the other pinnacles of the genre, it remains a brilliant delight--and quite strong in the current production, even with a standby for one of the leads.

Though I didn't precisely recall every moment, I entered rather aware of--and appreciative of, rather than squeamish about--all the ribald debauchery that would unfold.

I am not Mormon, Christian nor observantly religious, but even if I were, I'd like to think I'd feel well teased, but not inordinately offended.

Adding a bit of unease as Mormon missionaries--led by the stately Elder Price (standby Robert Colvin was really good) and the disheveled Elder Cunningham (a terrific Connor Peirson)--find themselves amid a remote Ugandan tribe with murderous warlords in their midst, was the recent story of John Allen Chau, the American Christian missionary killed in trying to illegally venture onto North Sentinel Island.

Whatever I may think of individuals of any faith going to great lengths to convert those who did not invite or encourage their entreaties, I certainly don't wish them harm--although Chau was supposedly putting the remote islanders at some risk of disease--and in its sly way, The Book of Mormon suggests that it's possible for good to come from unexpected interactions.

But though I couldn't help but onsider the choices, intentions and plight of Chau--and similarities to The Book of Mormon narrative--it did in a way help me appreciate the depth of the musical beyond its often derisive and raunchy humor.

Among other aspects, it's a rather nice coming-of-age story about the nebbishy Arthur Cunningham, who finds connection with others can come from not necessarily following a prescribed path.

At least not to a T.

And with Kayla Pecchioni completely winning as the young tribeswoman, Nabulungi, her chemistry with Peirson provided much of the joy in encountering this touring production.

The current 2-week run in Chicago has now ended, but if the tour comes to your town, know that it continues to represent the original Broadway production quite well.

With ticket stub having an EXPLICIT LANGUAGE advisory, be forewarned that nothing is sacred, with body parts, secretions, rape, mutilation and more not only mentioned but sung about with crude glee.

And it's far from just Mormonism that gets mocked. If you're devoutly religious, without a sense of self-aware humor about the truth that everyone isn't, by all means stay away.

But The Book of Mormon is far from South Park on-stage.

The Playbill doesn't include a song list so I'll be sparing, but beyond the bawdiness--the hilarity was a bit diluted by having seen TBOM three prior times, but the silliness and satire are quite inspired--there are several superb musical moments, all well delivered by the talented cast.

The standby, Colvin--in for Kevin Clay--was terrific on "I Believe," as was Pecchioni in paying homage to a major Mormon city in Utah.

Whatever luster might be off The Book of Mormon simply due to time and Hamilton, etc., the Oriental was seemingly packed for the entire Chicago run, and it was reiterated to me that the show's strengths go well beyond it being a hot-buzz hoot.

It shouldn't be the best Broadway musical you'll ever see, but The Book of Mormon well-merited its original hype, remains faithful in its production quality years down the road and--for those who don't mind a bit of dirty, sacriligious humor--it really is quite terrific.

Or so I believe.