The Fundamentals

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Armando Riesco (Lorenzo) and ensemble members Alan Wilder (Abe) and Alana Arenas (Millie)

As we exited Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre after Tuesday night’s press opening of “The Fundamentals,” my partner Bob remarked that he was reminded of the 1998 film “Wild Things.” Naturally I demanded further clarification because on the surface, the Steppenwolf-commissioned world premiere of playwright Erika Sheffer’s latest work would seem to have little connection with the soft core, Denise Richards skin flick. Bob explained that the two stories share a common problem — “too many twists.”

As I thought about the unlikely comparison, another similarity rose to the surface. “Wild Things” boasted a high wattage cornucopia of talent: Bill Murray, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and the aforementioned Richards. “The Fundamentals” is crafted by an A-list playwright and acted by true stars of the Chicago stage including Steppenwolf ensemble members Alana Arenas (Millie), Caroline Neff (Stellan) and Alan Wilder (Abe). And yet for all the promise offered by the metaphorical opening credits, both works fall kind of flat, victims of overextended cleverness — “too many twists.”

The first act of the two hour and 15 minute production (with one intermission) is full of promise. Press materials describe the plot as the story of Millie, “a smart, resourceful young mother who works as a housekeeper in one of New York’s premier luxury hotels. When an opportunity to move into management gives her the chance to leave behind her blue collar life, Millie must decide how much, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice.”

An often sharp look at the dehumanizing, dream crushing effects of swimming with corporate sharks, “The Fundamentals” is a character study of compromise. Millie, as inhabited by the flawless Arenas, is given a relatable introduction. We all know someone like her, or perhaps recognize the character in ourselves: a devoted wife and mother keenly aware of the tradeoffs she’s made, chafing from an acute case of frustrated ambition. She is everyone’s reliable friend and co-worker, seething with latent anger that must find an outlet.

As the narrative progresses into the second act, Millie wades into moral murk that should open new dimensions and create suspense. However Sheffer overstuffs the script and the result is a different kind of murk that alienates the audience from the characters. Everyone is so busy scheming and double-crossing each other, it becomes impossible to root for anyone.

Case in point (with minimal spoilers): the trusting and friendly relationship between Millie and her longtime supervisor Abe is incomprehensibly degraded beyond recognition. Abe is far from a roadblock to Millie’s success and has in fact been a champion. The decision to abruptly transition him into tormentor smacks of deus ex machina overkill.

Rather than serve the story, the focus on corporate America is lost to a confusing explosion of infighting. It’s kind of impossible to pity characters or bemoan their fates with a creeping suspicion they all belong in the same jail cell. There are no winners here, but about 90 minutes into convoluted and repeated backstabs, it’s difficult to care.

All that said, Erika Sheffer’s gift for sharp dialogue remains evident, particularly during the first act. The author of another celebrated Steppenwolf production, 2012’s “Russian Transport,” Sheffer writes complicated exchanges that ring with organic truth. Getting to know Millie through conversations with her superiors and troubled, but loving husband Lorenzo (Armando Riesco) is an enjoyable build. Then Sheffer throws everyone off the narrative rails.

What a shame. With a cast such as this, it seems superfluous to observe that for all of its flaws, “The Fundamentals” is brilliantly acted. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Alana Arenas perform in a multitude of diverse productions and the actress never steps wrong. When a production fails to work, it’s not for her lack of effort. Riesco and Audrey Francis, as corporate robot Eliza, are standouts as well.

Scenic Designer Collette Pollard turns in some good work here. The smallish Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre stage feels like a cavernous hotel basement, believably conjuring the grimy Big Apple waiting for the characters as they commute to and from the office.

However in the end, we’re back at “Wild Things.” Like “The Fundamentals,” so many promising individual elements add up to a high-profile, memorable misstep.

“The Fundamentals” runs through December 23 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.

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Methtacular

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Steven Strafford

Steven Strafford, the creator of one-man show “Methacular,” has left an indelible 2016 imprint on the Chicago theater market — and this critic. I had the pleasure of seeing him inhabit the role of dastardly, but ultimately redeemable editor Chick Clark in the Goodman Theatre’s smash musical production “Wonderful Town” earlier this fall. In that guise, Strafford was all lovely song and dance in a welcome early 20th Century meditation on foiled patriarchy.

Where “Wonderful Town” contained cotton candy set pieces and a mostly wholesome view of New York City in the 1950s, Stafford’s autobiographical work in “Methtacular,” is, shall we say, a departure? Very unfortunately, the show just concluded a limited two-night engagement as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s LookOut Series. However, this past weekend was not the first Chicago mounting of the work and perhaps if theatergoers ask Strafford very nicely, it won’t be the last.

Press materials describe “Methtacular” as follows: “Through comedy, songs, and plenty of honest storytelling, Strafford brings audiences on a journey through the chemical highs, devastating lows, and ultimate redemption from his drug addled, sex crazed life.”

Seemingly against rational logic, “Methtacular” is exactly the triumph over tragedy night of good fun a battered American electorate needs. It’s true. I feel personally fortunate to have seen the show last Friday night. A mere three days after the once improbable triumph of Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton to become our nation’s President-elect, I felt I might never laugh again.

Like so many other shell-shocked and concerned citizens, I spent the previous 72 hours in withdrawal, afraid for the future of our democracy and so many of its demographics: the LGBTQ community, Muslims, immigrants in general, women. Pretty much everyone.

“Methacular” is a jolt of honesty, self-deprecation and entertainment that offers hope, even where the emotion ought to be in short supply. As Strafford wastes no time telling a rapt cabaret audience, he was a capital “M” mess before he grew into the celebrated and acclaimed performer Chicago knows today. Once upon a time he was a virginal Jersey boy, a budding performer new to our Midwestern shores. A young man who found himself lost in a drug clouded world of bathhouses, physical danger, deception and crime.

By all accounts during the 75-minute show, we ought to be speaking of Strafford in the past tense. One such testimonial is offered by Steven’s mother through a series of poignant, heartbreaking video clips. There is much to take seriously about the helpless experience of watching a loved one kill themselves in slow motion.

Yet the poignancy is a conduit to redemption. Strafford and his Director Adam Fitzgerald take great pains to step in all the ugliness — to bring the audience to an uncomfortable climax. And yet Strafford’s winning stage presence, his song, humor and visible health give away the ending right from the start. He is more than ok. He’s thriving. It’s fine to let loose and laugh at the absurdity of near death.

And there are plenty of laughs to subvert the darkness. Strafford directly engages the audience — with eye contact and by literally including members in some of the sketches. The performer brings something special to this stunning and entertaining confession. He knows that we know what it’s like to struggle with addiction, or to watch the disease take hold of a friend or a family member. It’s a heartbreakingly universal experience and yet through pain, there is always, forever, humor.

As we approach a time of great economic, social and judicial insecurity, “Methacular” doesn’t offer any easy answers. As Strafford says toward the end of the show, he’s not sure why he stayed in New Jersey and got sober at last. He “just did.” It’s as arbitrary an admission as it is inspiring. Perhaps it’s true of human nature that invariably, we get sick of being stuck and isolated. And we can laugh at ourselves on the path to enlightenment.

“Methtacular” ran through November 12 at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.

No Matter What Happens at the Polls, the Trumpists Already Won

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“Whichever nominee of our two major political parties comes away the victor (because spoiler alert Jill Stein and Gary Johnson: it won’t be either of you), there’s a group amongst the 2016 campaign madness that’s succeeded beyond its wildest expectations – and our collective revulsion. The venerable New York Times devoted front page space to this cohort today. To wit: Donald Trump’s Extremist Supporters Feel Like Winners Either Way.

Because really, even if Trump is drubbed at the ballot box, it’s kind of hard to recork a popped bottle of (until recently) simmering racism and misogyny. And pop it these “special” interests did with a little help from the vilest human ever to receive a nomination for the nation’s highest office. Let’s take a look at some of the Trumpists key accomplishments…”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Can an App Make a #NeverTrump Impact on November 8?

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“Of all the compelling storylines involved in the buildup to November 8, one of them is the potential effect third-party candidates will have on final vote tallies in various states. The #ImWithHer crowd in say, California, which is trending solidly blue, probably isn’t sweating much. However liberals in Utah might be concerned about Evan McMullin, an independent conservative. The candidate is currently polling at 28 percent in the Beehive State, a definite threat to both Trump and Clinton.

I’d heard rumors of such systems in existence during previous national elections, but a tip from a friend and an article in Vox earlier this week made me aware of an app whereby Third-party Voters are “Trading Votes” with Clinton Voters to Defeat Trump.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

2016′s Emotional Ride Far from Over

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“During the 10th inning of Game 7, the tears continued flowing but they became those of disbelief and possibility. That 17-minute rain delay no longer a trial, but suddenly and apparently the emotional reset button the team and its fans needed. And when a smiling Kris Bryant threw that final out to Anthony Rizzo, before falling to the ground, the weeping of Cubs Nation, and this fan, took a different form. The best kind of shocking blow had been delivered. 108 years, goats, black cats, controversial foul balls, errors in the field, bad trades, Tribune Company mismanagement. None of it mattered anymore. We could drop the heavy load and pick up the lighter, more joyous “burden” of winners. All together.

Though there are so many more who could not make the journey, and legions who sacrificed personal inclination to adult responsibility, five million pilgrims converged upon downtown Chicago to celebrate a miracle on Friday morning. The last great sports epic had written itself a happy ending and we were all invited. The city, the team, and millions of exuberant sojourners had about 36 hours to execute the seventh largest gathering in human history. But we did it. Because they did it.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

Fun Home

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“Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, kicks off a limited Broadway in Chicago engagement this week, and in so many ways, it smashes the musical theater mold. The morning after, I’m still trying to synthesize it all. As Martha Stewart is famous for saying, “That’s a good thing.”

For starters, the work is an adaptation of Allison Bechdel’s 2006 best-selling graphic memoir of the same name. Visuals are therefore a huge feature of the print work as well as the complex stage iteration. Dialogue and song are just two-thirds of the equation more profoundly than the typical Broadway production. Bechdel’s drawings are brought to life in a very conscious way that invites the audience to assume the role of voyeur. It’s an intimate experience that immediately creates a bond between the artist, source material and audience.

We’ve all consumed variations of the tried and true coming of age story, but in this regard, “Fun Home” is also quite different. We very much take the journey with Bechdel, as she views herself and her small-town Pennsylvania family through the eyes of memory at three different life stages: as an idealistic child who worships her creative, but distant father, a college freshman dealing with all the complexity of coming out of the closet in the late 20th Century, and a 40-something adult woman with a hindsight perspective.

Except it’s very clear that mature Allison still wrestles with demons and questions from the past. She presents no omniscient authority. Everything is up for examination and discussion. Considering the work’s genesis as a graphic novel and its tangled subject matter, it would have been easy for the musical component of the stage version to feel forced or arbitrarily shoe-horned. However like Bechdel’s haunting, beautiful drawings, Jeanine Tesori’s score is both gentle and thoughtful, while packing serious emotional punches. And catchy too.

A personal favorite is “Come to the Fun Home,” a peppy, dancey number performed by the young Bechdel children, Rachel and her two little brothers, John and Christian. The song is part of a make-believe commercial devised by the kids to promote the funeral parlor their father operates when he’s not teaching high school English, restoring antique homes and grappling with his own closeted homosexuality. Exuberant and lively, it still cannot escape the observer that the number occurs in a place of constant, revolving death. Alessandra Baldacchino, who plays the part of young Allison, is a real talent. Beautiful singing voice, genuine dramatic gifts.

In fact without exception, the cast of Broadway in Chicago’s “Fun Home” is well chosen. With quality dialogue and song handed to them, the performers embrace tragicomedy without stereotype. My companion for the evening was particularly impressed with Kate Shindle, who portrays adult Allison with the deft complexity required of serving as the dramatic fulcrum on top of which the narrative finds balance.

When the work won the Tony for Best Score in 2015, another mold was broken. Book author Lisa Kron and Tesori made history as the first female writing team to take home the trophy. That’s fitting because while “Fun Home” contains male characters — Allison’s father Bruce (the terrific Robert Petkoff) and his revolving cast of furtive lovers — this is a decidedly female story. Bechdel matriarch Helen (the diminutive but powerful Susan Moniz) is a complex portrait of devotion and conflict, a gifted artist in her own right who grapples with a lifetime of betrayal and secrets. And Allison’s first lover Joan (Karen Eilbacher) is the confident, empowering ideal of an LGBTQ community gaining 20th Century strength.

The musical, with raw, poetic language, sexual situations and honest engagement with death, is decidedly adult. Even then it may present a challenge to sensitive audiences. “My Fair Lady” this is not. As I said, multiple Broadway stereotypes are tested and shattered. But wow. It’s worth it. Fresh, haunting and full of sensory experience, “Fun Home” is one to see.

“Fun Home” runs through Nov. 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.