Barney the Elf

A bawdy piece of holiday fun that also uses laughter to make incisive political observations, “Barney the Elf” is back onstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Directed by Tommy Rivera-Vega, who also guided the 2016 incarnation, the colorful show is more than meets the eye and ear. The plot summary, as it were, provides cheeky, consistent cover for a production that has been meticulously updated since its second Obama term debut.

The third annual musical comedy production from Other Theatre is written (and rewritten) by Brian Renaud, with lyrics by Renaud and Emily Schmidt. Press materials broadly describe the work in traditional holiday terms, with a nod to some modern twists: “After Santa Claus retires, his wicked son begins a not-so-jolly reign as the new head of Christmas. The North Pole begins to crumble under his bigoted rule, and Barney the Elf is forced to leave his home for being different from the others…he embarks on a fabulous journey of self-discovery (or is it elf-discovery?) that lands him in one of Chicago’s hottest drag bars.”

That’s a big story to tell in 90 minutes — the production’s running time. “Barney the Elf” moves fast, literally and figuratively, taking the audience on an emotional journey from Barney’s life as a sheltered, one-dimensional holiday spirit through his metamorphosis into a more complex citizen of the world.

The absolute silliness that drives much of the action, song and dance onstage can be taken and left there for theater patrons looking for a bit of joyful escapism. The dialogue is sharp and punctuated with up-to-the-minute pop cultural references. And despite the frightening topical issues addressed in the 2017 script — xeno and homophobia, diplomatic isolationism, income inequality and class warfare — “Barney the Elf” is careful never to take itself too seriously.

It’s quite clear that Santa Junior (played with marvelous gusto by Jaron Bellar) is a fictional stand-in for the mercenary, divisive and unfortunately all-too-real Donald Trump. But those looking for a respite from politics can just as easily locate elements of traditional holiday villains like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter, the human humbug of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thus, before the first word of banter is uttered, we know how the story ends. We already know who wins. Spoiler alert: it’s not Junior. And that’s a nice serving of theatrical comfort food as the country faces so many issues with uncertain outcomes.

I’ve already highlighted Jaron Bellar’s fantastic turn as Santa Junior. It is not easy playing the villain in a production like this. The temptation to chew scenery and twist the metaphorical mustache can be too much for the most talented actors to resist. But Bellar’s Junior is the man we love to hate, even as we can’t help but admire his trendy red suit, vocal chops and ability to execute a high kick. With much moxie, Bellar brings to mind a young Jim Carrey’s charm, comedic timing and legendary flexibility.

The rest of the cast is more than equal to Bellar. Roy Samra’s Barney is appropriately wide-eyed, rosy cheeked, full of love and hope. Samra is also gifted with a magnificent singing voice. Unfortunately, there were times during Tuesday’s night’s premiere when that beautiful voice was difficult to hear.

An unwise creative decision was rendered to leave the performers unmiked. In the intimate downstairs theater setting of the 2017 production, that may have seemed like a good choice in the rehearsal abstract. However in the presence of a raucous audience — as Tuesday night’s premiere observers certainly were — vocal nuances and dialogue were occasionally lost. There is still time to address this before the show’s December 30 conclusion. I hope that the producers and Rivera-Vega give it some consideration.

Maggie Cain is a wonderful Mrs. Claus, a character who begins the show obeying the voices of men before reasserting her own. This transition is neatly and comically summarized in a send-up of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” Cain sings it with the dramatic zeal of a North Pole woman with her own complex story to tell.

Rounding out the big four of “Barney the Elf’s” 2017 cast, Dixie Lynn Cartwright brings much more than glamorous, enviable drag to the stage. She also offers a lovely tenor and modulated, dramatic gravity. In the program distributed with my ticket, I learned that Cartwright hosts her own monthly show at Berlin in Boystown. Attendance is on my 2018 artistic priority list.

Other Theatre’s 2017 rendition of its holiday staple deserves space on lists both naughty and nice. “Barney the Elf” is worthwhile and effervescent with hints of social justice awareness. The production proves that being woke can be funny business.

“Barney the Elf” runs through December 30 at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Other Theatre website.

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Her America

her-america
Kate Buddeke

In less than five minutes, it’s clear who Lori is talking to and what is in the trunk. The morning after taking in Greenhouse Theater Center’s world premiere of “Her America,” I’m still wondering if that makes a difference. I think it does.

If that seems an ambivalent reaction to playwright Brett Neveu’s latest work, it’s one in keeping with the source material. Even the press release describing the production is full of questions. Lori, played by Jeff Award-winning actress Kate Buddeke (Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Airline Highway”), confronts “where it all went astray. Was it the day she married Dan? The morning a stranger from her past reappeared? Or the night she put a secret in the trunk, changing her family forever?”

The aforementioned “secret” is the conferee of what amounts to a 75-minute monologue from a conflicted Lori. The lifelong resident of on undefined patch of earth in Middle America, the character earned her high school education, married young and is without a career. She details a lonely childhood full of religious judgment, shyness and mystery. Lori doesn’t know who fathered her, and that seems to be important to what we learn is a needy string of dependent relationships with men.

Despite her predilection, onstage and off, to live as a quiet island, Lori displays a curious lack of agency as she expands upon her spoken autobiography. Nothing is ever her fault, as typified by her repeated angry shouts toward the trunk. Imploring an unseen figure to “Say you’re sorry!” for the sad, injured state of affairs that has Lori creeping through her basement, digging through artifacts and hiding from the hounds upstairs.

It becomes very clear that Lori is a habitual hider, literally as well as metaphorically. There’s every reason to suspect that Lori’s often bipolar reflections on the course of her existence is the most she’s ever said at one time. And while she ultimately shirks responsibility for her own unhappiness, it’s equally apparent that it’s she who’s manipulated four lives. She exhibits no obvious guilt, just a lot of ignorance and self-pity.

Is this interesting? Kind of. Neveu’s script has some insightful observations about the smallness that overtakes the intellectually uncurious. Lori’s world isn’t much bigger than her couch, yard, husband and childhood friend. She describes drinking, bonfires and TV as her circle’s pursuits and it’s never occurred to the character to want or search for more.

Kate Buddeke is a talented actress who digs her teeth into the extended soliloquy of rural rage and regret. She’s well directed by Linda Gillum, and Scenic Designer Grant Sabin knows how to conjure a cellar that veritably screams “poor white trash” at the audience. Moreover, the one dramatic, forceful life choice that Lori actually makes (even an affair is made to sound like natural, casual happenstance), conjures urgent sociopolitical considerations of women’s health, financial independence and the tension between public and private morality.

“Her America” flirts with consequence but at the end of Buddeke’s energetic performance, theatergoers may find the work forgettable. Like the hole at the bottom of Lori’s steamer trunk. Because the only voice we hear, the only person we see, takes away so little from the experience herself. Lori goes nowhere, a metaphor driven home by her protracted basement cowering. And even if the stagnation is sometimes inventive, sluggishness itself rarely makes a lasting impression.

Only the night after the production’s press opening, the Greenhouse Theater’s Downstairs Mainstage housed no more than a dozen ticketholders. The material’s apathy is already affecting attendance. It’s too bad. Buddeke’s talent deserves better.

“Her America” runs through February 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theater website.

Love and Information

love

Toward the middle of Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information,” the 19th season opener for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, a woman who is either hearing impaired, or attempting to communicate with someone who cannot hear, carries a box of Whitman Sampler chocolates. As she runs through the ASL gestures for “I love you,” actress and Bumppo Artistic Associate Linda Gillum pleads with her eyes. Understand me. It’s a lovely scene.

The Whitman’s Sampler is a handy metaphor for the play as a whole, another piece of fresh, interesting work from one of the best mid-size theater operations in Chicago. Directed by Shawn Douglass, the production is a study, per press materials, of “the ways in which the desire for information both distances and unites us.”

Douglass leverages a flawless cast of 10 to slip into the skin of 125 characters, each one part of a vignette that underscores the myriad ways in which knowing and not knowing cause pain and pleasure in human relationships. This might sound quite busy, and indeed Theater 3 at the Greenhouse Theater Center is hardly cavernous. Yet toward the end of the production’s opening night, I found myself comparing it with the recent Broadway in Chicago mounting of “Dirty Dancing – the Classic Story on Stage.”

That big budget effort was an awkward, vertigo-inducing attempt to leave out nothing at all from the beloved film that serves as its base. It just didn’t work. “Love and Information” has arguably more scenes than any stage production I’ve ever audited and yet, it’s a bullseye. Why is that? Because of the oh so light touch, the lack of wink-wink knowingness, the sheer poetry of the source material. A Whitman’s Sampler replaced with the finest, most delicate truffles.

Remy Bumppo’s Producing Artistic Director Nick Sandys observes of the play, “There are no settings, speech headings, or character descriptions in the text. All of those decisions… must come from the director and the design team.” And what a wonderful bunch of arrangements Douglass and his staff have made. It doesn’t hurt one iota that he’s assembled a beautiful cast with the ability to, quite literally, become different people in the blink of an eye. And we believe it.

In addition to Gillum’s work, which I have enjoyed across several seasons of Bumppo theater, I can’t say enough about the talents of yet another Artistic Associate, David Darlow. To watch him move through “Love and Information” is to laugh, have your heart broken, to feel everything in the course of the production’s one hour, 40-minute run time. Although he just one man in an immensely capable ensemble, it’s hard to move your eyes away when he’s on stage. Totally vulnerable yet commanding — the Darlow brand.

This show is different. Fans of linear plot, of context, of narrative arc might find themselves frustrated. I urge these theatergoers to try to get past it. As Sandys suggested before the first curtain rise, “take the ride.” Although one might not connect with every scene, you’ll find yourself nodding your head in silent agreement often. Who among us hasn’t been on the receiving end of pleas from a loved one — share with me, open yourself to me — only to feel the sting of rejection and regret when that data proved to be more than the listener really wanted?

If I have any quibble with the production, it’s this: that one hour, 40-minute running time has no intermission. While I completely understand the decision not to interrupt the “story,” the theater does serve beverages. Make sure you’ve visited the restroom before the curtain rises.

But really, that’s all I’ve got for criticism. “Love and Information” is another Remy Bumppo winner.

“Love and Information” runs through November 1 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Remy Bumppo website.

A Kid Like Jake (February 17, 2015)

(Source:Michael Brosilow)

A blizzardy Sunday afternoon is a tough time to get pumped for traveling via public transportation to a play opening. This is the situation in which I found myself last weekend en route to About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “A Kid Like Jake” at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Despite six years of reviewing Windy City productions for EDGE Media Network, somehow I’d never been exposed to the work of About Face. The promise of novelty was enough to get me to bundle up, trudge outside and hope for the best.

My goodness. “A Kid Like Jake” is worth braving the elements and then some. And now that I’ve popped my About Face cherry, I can’t wait to see what the company has in store next.

About Face is committed to an ambitious mission: “to create exceptional, innovative and adventurous plays to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity, and to challenge and entertain audiences in Chicago, across the country and around the world.” For many artistic companies, the tension between fomenting sociopolitical change and developing quality material often leads to compromise at one end of the spectrum. The result is often preachy but dull, or energetic but vacuous.

The About Face team knew what it was doing when it selected “A Kid Like Jake,” playwright Daniel Pearle’s “contemporary dramedy about parenting, gender and fitting in (per press materials).” Directed with a patient, even hand by Keira Fromm, “Jake” is a painfully riveting experience in which there are no villains. Everyone means well and yet there’s plenty of hurt to go around. It’s transfixing reality brought to life by a cast that understands the gravity of the material and its goal.

What’s so interesting about the script — involving a never seen but omnipresent four-year-old Jake, a precocious boy with a passion for the Disney Princesses and skirts – is its intended audience. Pearle appears to be speaking to the presumably converted: the well-heeled, moneyed, liberal arts educated parents who believe they’ve opened all vistas to their precious ones. There is nothing he or she can’t study, experiment with or become — with no judgment. Right?

Well maybe. Harried stay-at-home mom Alex (Katherine Keberlein) gave up a meandering law career to be young Jake’s everything. As Alex and her psychologist husband Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) struggle to expand their family, Alex’s commitment turns into an obsession with getting Jake into one of Manhattan’s top, competitive kindergarten programs.

On the advice of family friend and education expert Judy (Cindy Gold), Alex seeks to highlight that what makes Jake special. But how comfortable is she really with the idea that her intelligent, emotional son is showing early signs of gender identity anxiety? Is Alex enlightened enough to answer the question, “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” without experiencing identity threats of her own?

Keberlein, who wowed audiences including this critic, in Goodman Theatre’s recent “Smokefall,” knows from playing conflicted, guilt-ridden, stressed mothers. She is a master at using her face to add unspoken torment to already emotional dialogue. While her Alex frequently comes off as spoiled and unlikeable, it’s a testament to Keberlein’s work in the last scene that the audience is left with the impression that we, like she with Jake, may have never understood at all.

Lindner plays Greg as a patient, loving semi-doormat on the surface. But once again, all is not as it seems. Greg is more than capable of breaking a damaging silence and reversing Alex’s spin when needed. Linder weaves this nuance with fluidity. He never sacrifices the character’s steadiness even as he lets Alex know with certainty that they have collectively taken a wrong turn.

Gold rounds out the big three of “A Kid Like Jake,” as Judy, a compassionate child advocate and family friend who eventually bears the brunt of Alex’s unraveling. The role could easily function as a supporting character with not much story of her own. However owing to Gold’s terrific, measured delivery, we receive intriguing hints into Judy’s particular connection with the child. Remarkable work.

At one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, the production is a long stretch without a break. But to experience the voyeuristic work of family implosion is to lose oneself completely in its emotional, uncertain denouement. The work offers no easy answers. Because there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions to raising a happy, healthy human being in the 21st Century. Why can’t a boy be princess indeed?

 

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