Storefront Summer

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The big theater news of the 2011 summer have centered around the critical and popular success of the world premieres of About Face’s The Homosexuals and the Goodman’s Broadway-bound Chinglish, two shows that I admired but felt ambivalent about, and the polarized reaction to the Chicago debut of Will Eno’s quirky, moving Middletown at Steppenwolf which I liked a lot (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am President of the theater’s junior board and a Trustee).  But the storefront theater scene is hot and hopping as well; over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch the latest productions from two theater companies I’ve raved about on this blog over the years:  I’ve followed The New Colony since their Frat days and way before they won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, and have always loved their fearless, bungee-jumping-adrenalin-infused approach to new work;  Redtwist Theatre gave me one of my most indelible theatrical productions of the past two years with their searing and claustrophobic The Pillowman5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche from The New Colony and That Face from Redtwist Theatre, although I have some reservations on both, should be welcome alternatives to the usual Chicago summer diversions of Ravinia lawn picnics, Lake Michigan sailboat cruises, indistinguishable street fairs, and endless rooftop deck partying.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche not just has the most train-stopping, head-turning theatrical title this year, it also has one of the most unique narrative premises of the season. The widows of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein are having their annual quiche breakfast in 1956 when an atomic bomb is dropped on their unnamed town.  Really.  Well it seems like it takes only the fearful but somewhat arousing knowledge that they can be the only ones who have survived world annihilation (thanks to bunker-like protection applied to the meeting hall by the forward-thinking head of the facilities committee, Veronica “Vern” Schultz, played to butch-sexy perfection by Beth Stelling) to empower the “widows” to come out as the lesbians that they truly are.  Based on a sketch in last year’s Sketchbook X  (which I didn’t see) and expanded into a one-act play, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is mostly hilarious, wacky, good-naturedly bawdy, an easy night out at the theater (it’s such a crowd-pleaser that my theater buddy Joel who came with me to the performance already talked it up at the 4th of July barbecue he attended). And the climax of the piece is, to put it mildly, unexpected.  I must give props to the five performers for no-holds-barred performances and impeccable comedic timing.  I especially loved Mary Hollis Inboden as the mega-repressed President of the Society, whose every raised eyebrow, every inflection, every glare is full of double-entendres, wicked conniving, and mocking inferences.  It’s a juicy performance.   What is more impressive is that the cast “devised” the creation of the characters and the expanded narrative with writers Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder and director Sarah Gitenstein. 

However, I feel that 5 Lesbians’ sketch roots do come through.  It must have been a terrific sketch, but as a play, it’s fun and entertaining, yet innocuous.  I don’t think the coming-out revelations have as much impact in a full-length play as they would have had in the sketch version.  I also think that the latter part of the play feels very prolonged, with the whole childhood narrative from Dale, one of the officers, which leads to the, ahem, explosive climax, feeling a little bit inorganic to the rest of the show.  I’m all about crowd-pleasers, and I’m glad to see that New Colony’s audience is raucously engaged with the material. That’s all well and good.  But the performance last weekend also reminded me of the House Theater performances I went to several years ago, where I didn’t think crowd-pleasing (and overall preciousness, really) led to meaningful theater.  I am an admirer of the New Colony, so I’m really hopeful that the next shows will be more like their brilliant Calls to Blood, then, uhmm, The Sparrow.

“Crowd-pleaser” will never be used to describe Redtwist Theatre’s production of Polly Stenham’s That Face.  It’s dark, harrowing, and squirm-inducing (and disturbingly impressive that Stenham wrote the play in 2007 when she was 19).  It’s a portrait of a dysfunctional London family:  a drunken, delusional, emotionally-unstable mom, Martha, and her two kids: the 18 year-old son, Henry who has put his life on hold to take care of Martha after his father left her for Hong Kong and another woman, and 15 year-old Mia, who is generally ignored and pushed around by the mother-son tandem and has become quite the sadistic terror of her boarding school dorm.  I got to give Stanham credit for creating dramatically potent and, in some parts, engrossing theater, but I have to say that That Face is obviously, painfully, the work of a 19 year old.  She focuses on the sensational and gratuitous:  a brutal first scene where Mia and her friend Izzy drug and beat up a younger student in their dorm; scenes overflowing with the high-yuck factor of the borderline incestuous relationship of Martha and Henry, which includes, among its highlights (or more appropriately, lowlights), Martha incessantly pawing Henry when they are in bed together (and at one point, he’s wearing her lingerie).  Unfortunately, there really is no coherent character motivation:  why is Martha so unstable and dysfunctional? Ok, so her husband left her for another woman, but is that why she turns to her son instead, as sort of a male surrogate? It’s not clear what drives the relationship between the two.  Why did Henry take it upon himself to take care of her?  What is the backstory, the relationship between Henry and his parents?  And why is Martha so indifferent and alienated from Mia?  Martha says she’s always around, always interfering.  What’s so bad about that?  Is it because she’s “competing’ for Henry’s affections when Mia is around? Henry doesn’t look very overly-nurturing of Mia.  If an audience member has all these questions on why the characters in a play behave in certain ways (and the playwright isn’t Beckett or Ionesco), then there’s a problem.

As it has been with the past Redtwist productions I have been to, the forceful direction (by Michael Colucci) and the meticulous production design (by Andrew Jessop) are standouts.  The cast tries its darndest with the material:  Nick Vidal who plays Henry and Lindsay Leopold who plays Izzy, two up and coming Chicago actors I’ve been very impressed with before, turn in expectedly terrific performances.  Rae Gray is excellent as Mia – gangly, awkward, insecure, yet with forbidding streaks of emotional ruthlessness. I’m a little surprised by the muted nature of Jacqueline Grandt’s performance as Martha. It’s a larger-than-life role, and I expected more Bette Davis-meets-Godzilla diva insanity, not Meredith Baxter-in-a-Lifetime movie. Grandt is watchable, but I think is too mellow for a character that provokes the emotional conflicts of the play.  And she plays the last scene of That Face, written with very obvious homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, with, imho, a little too much normal, and not enough fierce or crazy.  And the play ends with a whimper, when it has been trying to catch our attention over two hours with its bangs.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is at the super atmospheric Dank Haus, 2nd Floor, 4740 N. Western Ave. until July 30.  That Face is at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, until August 14.

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