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enemy-of-the-people.JPGonce-on-this-island.jpgOne of the great things about our Chicago storefront theater scene is that it is more likely for you to see a gutsy, no-holds-barred re-imagining of a play or a musical, whether classic or contemporary, than to see a straightforward, literal production (so when you come across a memorable one, such as the last year’s exquisite Uncle Vanya from TUTA, you are wonderfully surprised).  For an audience member like me, it is always such a thrill to see what kinds of audacious tinkering, overhauling, or re-versioning our various theater companies are up to.  Of course, for every successful risk taken, there are many, many other visions that fall flat or go awry, which I think has to come with the territory.  I was able to catch two of the re-envisioned productions currently playing in Chicago over the past week and a half or so.  Red Tape Theatre, of whom I have heard great things about with regards to their production of Lope De Vega’s Dog in a Manger last year (which I unfortunately missed), is staging a “freely adapted” Enemy of the People, from the Henrik Ibsen play, re-set in 2009, in a Southern Illinois-like small town, with the main character of Dr. Thomas Stockmann turned into a woman, Dr. Tammy Stockman, and other characters’ genders and relationships re-assigned.  Porchlight Music Theatre is closing its season with the lovely Flaherty-Ahrens musical Once on this Island, which possesses one of my favorite musical theater scores ever, but without an island or fake palm tree in sight, having re-staged it as a tale told by immigrants living in a Brooklyn Heights-type neighborhood.  Although I admired Red Tape’s, director James Palmer’s, and adapter Robert L. Oakes’ sizable cojones in pulling apart Ibsen, I don’t think I totally bought into the new world they’ve created, and I wasn’t really supported by an overall performance level from the cast that put the H in histrionic.  I also felt the conceit that Porchlight used for Once on this Island came off as artificial at times, but I was entranced by an energetic, committedly lung-busting, always riveting, although not always tone-perfect, cast. Both are notable, although some concepts work better than others.

Did I prefer seeing this Enemy of the People than the Court Theater’s literal, and ultimately soporific, take on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck earlier this year?  Absolutely.  I prefer my Ibsen with loads of imagination, and a sprinkling of feverish passion on the side (such as the Mabou Mines’ wacky Dollhouse) rather than somber and self-involved.  Oakes’ version keeps the community versus individual conflict and the environmental consciousness from the original text, but tries to add more, actually a lot more, such as a highly stylized second act, that is initially intriguing but ultimately feels unsatisfying.  Oakes puts in tantalizing bits here and there, such as the way the community views women and gays, but which feel underdeveloped and inconsistent.  If the town’s view on women is as conservative as Tammy’s grandmother-in-law, Sandy, seems to indicate in some of her dialogue, then why does everyone seem to take the fact that Tammy is the family breadwinner and her husband Cliff is the baby-sitter/card-playing house-husband so matter-of-factly?  Why is the board president of the town newspaper and the head of the homeowner’s association, two very powerful and influential positions in a small town, a woman?  If the town is small-minded and discriminatory against gay people, as the ending seems to indicate, with Tammy’s gay cousin, Patrick, being fired from his schoolteacher job for acting “inappropriately” towards his students, then why was this character sashaying like Isaac Mizrahi in a sewing room, and unabashedly and publicly flirting with the closeted male newspaper editor, for most of the previous two hours?  In my view, more consistent character development is critical especially in such a loose adaptation where liberties are already being taken with the original material.

Palmer has a firm directorial hand, and keeps the action moving pretty well so you’re never making grocery lists up in your head at any time.  And he stages most of the second act (after the town meeting) as a highly theatrical, video-projecting, wow-inducing character-cleansing ceremony. It’s brave and admirable direction.  However, you don’t really feel prepared for it after a naturalistic first act and a passive second act start where the audience becomes part of a town hall meeting.  It also feels somewhat out-of-place, since I, for one, haven’t become fully invested in Tammy’s character, partly because of the writing, but also because Courtney Bennett plays her at hurricane level in the self-pontification department.  As an audience member, it’s challenging to relate with the way she feels “persecuted” by the town, because in the way she has acted in previous scenes, she can probably mud wrestle with all of the townspeople and win every round- easily.  It’s a pretty aggressive, low-sympathy performance.  This high-decibel acting is unfortunately present in most of the cast, so the performances that I like best are the quieter, more nuanced ones such as Vic May’s Cliff who seems like doormat-hubby on the surface, but displays strength of character in the later scenes.

I think the acting is uniformly good in Once on this Island, even if the singing is more consistent in its lung-power than in its perfect pitch.  And I really need the acting and singing to draw me in to the world created by Porchlight’s non-traditional staging.  The audience really needs to create the island-world in their minds since the design is more urban Junot Diaz/Oscar Wao with fruit stands, ledges, wire-mesh gates, hip-hoppy costumes than James Michener/South Pacific.  This is not a bad thing, since for the most part it works.  When it doesn’t, though, like when a bare, dingy mattress stands in for Ti Moune’s hut, or the wire-mesh gate is cheesily reinvented as a luxurious headboard in Daniel’s apparently splendid bedroom by attaching fake flowers to it, then you’re totally taken out of the moment and you feel like you’ve just suddenly gotten a flat tire in the middle of Lake Shore Drive while you were lost in the magnificent lake view. Although it is a little jarring at first, I really like Brenda Didier’s very urban, stepping- and street dance-inspired choreography which effectively illuminates the immigrant world the show is set in.

Melanie Brezill is as compelling here as Ti Moune as she was as Caroline’s daughter in last year’s brilliant, much-heralded Caroline, or Change at the Court.  I think she has both acting and vocal chops to spare, although I wished she would dial down the exuberance a little bit.  I also don’t understand Chris Jones’ comment that she was off-pitch in the performance he saw, well, I was in the same performance and there were wandering notes and struggling pitches, but they didn’t come from her.  Interesting.   Of course the showiest, most memorable roles belong to the gods/storytellers and the great Bethany Thomas (ok, people give her a show where she plays the lead already!) as Asaka, the god of the earth seen initially as a fruit vendor, and Luis Herrera, as Papa Gue, the god of death, seen initially as a handbag-snatching punk, certainly deliver, and dazzle continuously throughout the night.   Thomas, for one, blows the aluminum siding off the Theater Building’s roof once again (as she had in the past in Nine and The Life, for example) and gives the musical theater performance of the season. 

The rest of the cast ranged from very good (Jayson Brooks as Agwe, god of water, once again shows off his terrific musical abilities) to enthusiastic but adequate.  But the music is just so dreamy, from one of my all time favorites, “The Human Heart”, to “Mama Will Provide”, to the infectious “We Dance”, admirably performed by a four person, multi-skilling “orchestra” (or band maybe?) that this particular Once on this Island, flaws and all, still recommends itself as one of the must-go-to shows of the early summer season for both musical theater queens and straight-up (no pun intended) theater aficionados alike.

Enemy of the People is running at Red Tape’s unique performance space at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont, until May 30.  Once on this Island is at the Theater Building, 1225 W. Belmont, until June 28, by which date it’s roof will just be bare-bones, since Bethany Thomas is literally raising the roof and blowing it off night after enchanting night.

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