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.

Wonderful Town

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Jordan Brown (Wreck), Kristin Villanueva (Helen), Bri Sudia (Ruth) and Lauren Molina (Eileen)

 

Last year I went with a close friend to see a staging of “Carousel” at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. A rare Broadway turn for the famous venue, I was excited by the certain high-quality production values as well as a first viewing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

Oh the misogyny! I should have read the script before purchasing a ticket. I was not on critic duty that evening, just trying to enjoy a civilian evening at the theater. And I understand that the material was adapted in 1945 — certainly a different time for American gender relations. I can appreciate that perspective, but I’m just the wrong cat to indulge the sexist horror that is Billy Bigelow — in life and in death. While my pal wept at the production’s well-acted emotional denouement, I wanted to break the third wall for a serious feminist discussion with Julie Jordan.

So when I accepted an invitation to see and review “Wonderful Town,” the latest Mary Zimmerman-helmed production at the Goodman Theatre, I braced myself. The 1953 Tony Award-winner for Best Book of a Musical features 20 songs created by the legendary Leonard Bernstein. The music almost guaranteed to win, I scoffed at the brief plot synopsis. “Two sisters, one city, unlimited possibilities.”

Let me guess: another dated New York love story. Two female siblings, one beautiful and destined for great love, the other creative and intelligent but certainly a supporting character overlooked by the opposite gender. Each woman bound to be defined by male relationships.

I’m eating my prejudices as I type, washing down the cynicism with a refreshing glass of water. Because “Wonderful Town” was — and remains — a creation ahead of its time. Imagine if Lucy and Ethel were unmarried, career ambitious and in possession of more love and loyalty for one another than any man could equal. Think “Sex and the City,” post-WWII style (without the sex).

This is the story of elder sister Ruth, a budding fiction writer and reporter, and Eileen, an ingĂ©nue yearning for her big performance break. Director Zimmerman places the action in 1950s Greenwich Village rather the original Depression-era and it’s a great choice. Distant from post-1929 panic with its physical and cultural hunger, Set Designer Todd Rosenthal gives us a dreamlike, cotton candy land of artistic community. Yet the pieces remain functional and when necessary, convey the grime of a working class Big Apple.

What’s not grimy at all are the gorgeous costumes from Designer Ana Kuzamanic. The flounce and color are a perfect match for the rotating set. Even the frumpiest chorus characters are infused with enchanting whimsy.

It would be misleading however, to interpret all the fun shades and soft lighting as a statement of one-dimensional simplicity. No indeed. Ruth (Bri Sudia) and Eileen (Lauren Molina) are much more than their humble Midwestern roots and wide-eyed city freshness imply. They may wonder in song why oh why-o they ever left “Ohio,” but these gritty girls aren’t afraid of a little rejection, mansplaining or even jail time, in their determination to make it.

With delight it eventually dawned on me that Ruth is the main character of “Wonderful Town.” Infused with the power of the pen and far from man hungry, Ruth routinely sets her pride aside in the quest for a good story or better opportunity. I have already said that this work is ahead of its time. Spoiler alert: though she does end up paired with a partner, it’s one who needs her far more than she depends on him.

The soundtrack is delightful, no surprise given the Bernstein legend. Standouts include “One Hundred Easy Ways,” a humorous look at female empowerment as a detractor for the conventional man, and “Pass the Football,” a prescient treatise on celebrity culture.

At over two and a half hours with one brief intermission, “Wonderful Town” is on the longish side. However time flies with all the visual, audio and performance stimulus keeping the audience moving. It’s not a perfect show and there’s certainly some standard musical comedy deus ex machina to tidy the ending. That’s about the only convention viewers will find. Enjoy the precocious, lovely ride.

“Wonderful Town” runs through Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.