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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Theater Reviews
2004-08-18

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Tale Eats Snake

Playwrights: See review

At: the side project at The Side Studio, 1520 W. Jarvis

Phone: (773) 973-2150; $15

Runs through: Aug. 28

BY RICK REED

Looking for innovation? Looking for smart, thought-provoking theater? Looking for sharp writing, crisp direction, and layered, textured performances? While all of those things might or might not be found at local giants like the Steppenwolf or the Goodman, these same elements are now on display at a tiny storefront that barely seats a couple dozen people … and for only $15.

The best theater bargain in town is Tale Eats Snake, a collection of nine one-acts by a diverse and eclectic mix of writers and directors. Although the evening runs a little long, you'll find some of the best and brightest creativity here in this barebones production, both on stage and behind the scenes.

The first play, Pastoralized (by Kiff Scholl) is a sharply etched (and laugh-out-loud funny) portrait of a couple of cave men, who slowly reveal their passionate relationship, how their jobs aren't just foraging, grunting, and banging rocks together, and an exposure to a questionably straight couple who are intrigued and repelled by their passion.

The laughs pretty much end there, but not the emotional and intellectual engagement. Dovekillers (by Laura Lewis-Barr) is the riveting story of a blood-covered couple that has entered a twilight zone hell, from which they may never escape, doomed to repeat their prosaic (yet murderous) ends again and again. Staring Contest, or the Enemy in Orange (by Bilal Dardail) deftly combines paranoia, terrorism, and a very suspicious goldfish in its story or two cousins and how one of them may or may not be succumbing to a kind of insanity brought on by the treacherous world we now live in. Cotton (by Robert Fieldsteel) is a sharp, economical look at a couple in the far East, and how the husband's failure to win over some Asian clients might bare a scary resemblance to Gone With the Wind, which his wife has holed up in the hotel to reread. Echoes of the Twilight Zone again sound with Little Green Man (by Dominic Orlando), the story of an extraterrestrial visitor and his interrogator. This story races along and keeps us guessing as to its true dark heart. Expatriates (by Myles Weber) presents a haunting portrait of some Americans in the diplomatic corps, a couple of pampered Brits, and the dangers they face living in the Middle East. Its climax reveals a closeted gay couple at its center … and a shocking denouement. But the best piece of the evening belongs to Sean Graney, who penned The Final Lonely Moments of a Suicide Bomber. This piece is outstanding (with great performances by Krista Foster, Ricardo Gamboa, Veronica Sheaffer, Jennifer Shin, and Austin Work) in its ability to economically portray the inner thoughts of a committed, misguided young man as he drives a van loaded with explosives into a public building. It movingly illustrates the human component of such an atrocity and holds us rapt with how terrorism impacts the innocent. This piece alone is worth the price of admission.

Anatomy Of Revenge

Playwright: Michael Rougas

At: Bailiwick Repertory at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Phone: (773) 833-1090; $25

Runs through: Sept. 19

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

An author whose experience is largely restricted to film and television might be forgiven having written a screenplay for presentation at a theater festival. But what works cinematically does not always translate successfully to the restricted environment of live performance.

The first act of Michael Rougas' story introduces us to Roger Lang, a mild-mannered artist fond of painting male nudes. Struggling to cope with personal turmoil—chiefly, his rejection of a substance-abusing lover—he does what gay men living in West Hollywood traditionally do, which is to shop for sex among strangers. One night, his carry-out date beats him up—a crime eliciting police response less intense than its victim deems adequate.

In Act Two, our wronged citizen has acquired a gun, two guard dogs and an obsession with his attacker, now serving a jail sentence. In the further pursuit of justice, Roger will conspire with hardened convicts, bribe prison guards, hire contract killers, and will, himself, physically mutilate his quarry before finally forcing the latter to a deadly game of Russian Roulette. In short, he will mount a campaign for revenge so elaborately outrageous that we can hardly believe it's really happening.

And that's the problem. If we ARE to be convinced that Roger is now a vigilante capable of premeditated violence, his fury must display all the lurid excess we associate with that narrative genre—agonized screams, floods of blood, film-noir lighting—so that WE become as frightened of this madman as his prey. But if we are to interpret the scenario as a fantasy occurring in Roger's mind, its dramatic universe must be exaggerated in the OPPOSITE direction, the action rendered patently artificial as a hint that we are not to take its hero's unpleasant transformation seriously.

Whatever the decision, a more abrupt change from the tone of the preceding scenes than is evident in this production is necessary if we are to acknowledge the playwright's aim to be a deliberately invoked conceit and not simply sloppy writing. An epilogue eventually clears up the mystery, but after so much playing time devoted to what COULD turn out to be 'only a dream', it's not enough to placate us.

Dealer's Choice

Playwright: Patrick Marber

At: Steep Theatre, 3902 N. Sheridan Rd.

Phone: (312) 458-0722; $15

Runs through: Sept. 1

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

In the first act of Patrick Marber's play, we meet our heroes preparing for a showdown: phlegmatic Sweeney, optimistic Mugsy, restless Frankie, stern father Stephen and sullen son Carl. We hear about Sweeney's estranged wife and young daughter, Mugsy's plan to convert a building currently housing a public latrine into a diner, and Frankie's discontent with his rootless lifestyle. More significantly, we witness the tensions between Carl, feebly struggling for independence from Stephen's crippling control. Then in act two, after we've had the opportunity to assess each man's strengths and weaknesses, Marber gives us our showdown.

LITERALLY, a showdown. The field of combat in Dealer's Choice is the weekly poker game orchestrated by restaurant-owner Stephen, his staff's compulsory participation concealing its true purpose of allowing Daddy to check up on his offspring. But this time, the dynamic is disrupted by the introduction of a stranger whose only goal is winning and who pursues his objective with ruthless efficiency.

A reliable literary premise mandates that wherever persons are seated around a table laden with cards and greenbacks, high drama will ensue. The mechanics of Poker being low on physical action, its rules so varied as to be virtually incomprehensible to any but the players themselves, and the fate of other people's money only marginally interesting to spectators, Marber laces his text with plenty of comical by-play—Mugsy's habit of caroling 'deeee-MONDS!' whenever that suit appears, for example. But our affection for these putzers is the factor ensuring our involvement in the psychological stratagems underlying the game's progress.

Under the deft direction of G.J. Cederquist and the expert dialect instruction of Martin Aistrope, the ensemble for this Steep Theatre production—Jim Poole, Peter Moore, Alex Gillmor, John Luzar, Erik Schnitger, and Brendan Melanson—make the most of their intimate storefront space to engage us immediately, never allowing our attention to falter even as the warfare escalates to anarchic proportions, the tide of battle rendered comprehensible to theatergoing sharks and pikers alike. The key to success, after all, is not who holds the lucky cards, but what you do with what you're dealt. And he who needs a poker game to teach him that will always go home with pockets empty.

The Pavilion

Playwright: Craig Wright

At: Gift Theatre at Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

Phone: (773) 871-3000; $20-$25

Runs through: Sept. 5

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

We are greeted, à la Our Town, by a host clad in suspenders and too-short necktie, who proceeds to speak to us gently of the cosmos, using phrases such as 'shelter for the Human Project' and 'a drop in the pool of listening minds'. And if that's not enough to make you search the auditorium for the exit signs, be patient—there's more of the same in the next two hours.

The occasion is the Pine City High School Class of 1984's twentieth reunion at the Pavilion, a lakeside summerhouse scheduled to be torched to make way for a music amphitheater following this one last event. The subjects under scrutiny are the former 'cutest senior couple', Peter and Kari. Reunion dramas mandating post-baccalaureate reversals of fortune, we are unsurprised to learn that the ink was barely dry on their graduation certificates before the former done the latter wrong. But tonight, despite Kari's bitterness/ protests/ misgivings/ tantrums, Peter's apologies will engender forgiveness, resolution and an end to (yawn) years of guilt and estrangement.

An author arguing with himself is a polemic prejudiced from its very inception. Craig Wright's bias is reflected in the tin-eared dialogue he puts into the mouths of all his characters but Peter, who is never anything but articulate and eloquent. By contrast, Kari still talks like the teenager of two decades earlier, with limited vocabulary and shrill emotionalism making for such declarations as 'Because of YOU, my entire UNIVERSE is ruined FOREVER!' And our Narrator, in addition to delivering professorial pronouncements on the organisms squirming under Wright's microscope, portrays a bevy of likewise arrested-adolescent partygoers who remind us why we avoid these kinds of social rites.

The results put us in a position rather like that of the listener sitting at the bar next to the guy who HAS to tell us about HIS ex-wife. We know that 20 years is plenty of time for people to Get On With Their Lives, just as we know that alumni from the Class of '84 are unlikely to dance to a song from 1959, but it's Wright's story and we can only wait for him to exhaust his own attempts at self-justification.

Critics' Picks

500 Clown Macbeth. 500 Clown at Lookkinglass, through Aug. 29. (Reed)

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Steppenwolf, through Aug. 29. Incomparable Steppenwolf vet Laurie Metcalf stars in Terrence McNally's trenchant and often funny observation on the yearning for connection in singles. What more could you want? (Reed)

Fun While It Lasted, Live Bait, through Sept. 4 (extended). (Abarbanel)

Pyrates, Defiant Theatre at Chopin, through Aug. 21. (Barnidge)

By Abarbanel, Barnidge and Reed

Dance for Life returns

Hundreds of dance connoisseurs and philanthropists will have the opportunity to indulge in the delight of dance while doing their part to fight HIV/AIDS. Hosted by Dean Richards, Dance for Life brings together six of Chicago's premiere dance companies to raise awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS prevention and care services.

Now celebrating its 13th year, Dance for Life is the largest performance-based AIDS fundraising event in the Midwest and Chicago's premiere dance benefit, having raised more than $2 million for HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs. Proceeds from this year's performance will benefit the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Chicago House, Project VIDA and the Dance for Life Fund.

Call (312) 922-5812, www.aidschicago.org .


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