Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold – Review

22 Nov

Sister C

Denise Fennell as Sister in Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. Photo by Claire Logue.

 

Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold

Written by: Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris & Marc Silva

Directed by: Marc Silva

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run Dates: Nov 12 – Dec 28, 2014

 

The holiday theater season is a cringe-worthy time for a critic. Or at least it is for this critic. Gone are the hard-hitting narratives, the risk-taking new works and the musicals that actually have something intriguing to say. Instead come mid-November, our stages are full of every incarnation of Christmas Carol known to mankind, musical reviews full of cheery standards and family friendly shows that try desperately to amuse the adults as well as the kiddies. It’s a time of year I could happily stay home and read a good book.

So, you can imagine my level of enthusiasm heading to the theater to see Stage’s annual production of their Sister’s Christmas Catechism holiday show. This year with the sub-title, The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, the show is described as an interactive, one woman mystery extravaganza starring a wise cracking tough nun. Hilarity will ensue, I was assured. Ugh was my thought.

But about 10 minutes into the show, something surprising happened. My ‘ugh’ turned to ‘aha’ as I realized that this was no low hanging fruit, overly obvious and dumbed down holiday comedy. And after 10 minutes when I still found myself regularly laughing at what was being created on stage, I settled in and delighted in the fun of it all.

A hybrid stand-up comedy/improvisational show, Sister’s Christmas Catechism, written by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris & Marc Silva, has a script and story of sorts, but is mostly dependent on the audience and the quick on her feet talent of the star to pull the whole thing off. Set on a stage dressed to look like the inside of a catholic schoolroom at Christmas time, with colourful photos of Jesus, posters that read “Smile, God Loves You” and the requisite tree and nativity scene, the show introduces us to Sister (the remarkably funny and talented Denise Fennell). Sounding more Jewish or at least from the Bronx with a familiar ‘Nu Yawk’ no nonsense accent, Sister, dressed in full traditional habit shows us early that there will be no fourth wall in this show.

Speaking directly to the audience as her ‘classroom’ for the evening, we’re told that we will have the promised Christmas party at some point, but first we need to do some Catholic learning – hence the catechism in the show’s title. The lesson takes the form of a series of questions lobbed by Sister at the audience where under Fennell’s quick tongue, excellent timing and right balance between acerbic and deprecating, religion of all stripes are gently but wryly mocked.  None more so however than Catholicism. From jabs at the nun as school disciplinarian, “the ruler is an effective teacher”, to deciding whether to let a Lutheran or Methodist audience member answer a question, “Methodist, you are closer to Catholic, you answer” to urging an audience member to get the details of the Blessed Mother’s life right, “C’mon we’re trying to show off Mary to the Jews in the audience, pay attention!”, Sister spares little in her send up of Catholic life and schooling.

This is not to say that there isn’t learning in the show.  Donovan et al cleverly disguise teaching us everything from the financial status of Mary’s parents (“so wealthy that they would be driving Lamborghinis today”) to how many orders of nuns there are in the world (over 12 thousand who often don’t agree on things and operate like “gangs”) to the Magi and whatever became of the gold offered to the Baby Jesus (dissected in CSI-like fashion in a wonderfully hilarious audience participation nativity scene). The lessons may be based in Catholic doctrine but the laughs they elicit are universal.

I didn’t get one of the prizes Sister gives out to audience members for correct answers (Happy Birthday Baby Jesus stickers, bookmarks, balloons etc.) My takeaway gift was far greater. Finally, a zany Christmas show with brains and heart that managed to beat the Scrooge out of this critic and leave me happily humming the ‘revamped for maximum religious impact’ carols Sister forced us to sing. Jingle Bells indeed.

 

RATING

For Catholics – Fun may be poked but it’s with enough reverence that offence is off the table. The night I saw the performance a large group of Catholics, including several priests, had bussed in to see the show. It wouldn’t be stretching it to say that they were laughing the loudest. SEE IT

For non-Catholics of every stripe – Sister starts the show by saying all are welcome and the structure and comedy ensure this is the case. Yes the jokes are mostly at the expense of Catholic doctrine but at no time is this exclusionary comedy. You will laugh with, at and in spite of the goings on and even learn a thing or two along the way. SEE IT

For the occasional theater goer – True there is no real plot or story here, but who cares when such a talented performer keeps you on your toes and laughing for two acts? Fennell is utterly irresistible as a wise-cracking nun who is as quick to tell stories of her sister eating a nativity Baby Jesus as she is in disciplining audience members for chewing gum. SEE IT

For theater junkies – Audience participation and interactive theater of this sort can be terribly indulgent and messy. Thanks to very clever writing, a tour de force performance by Fennell and Silva’s deft direction that never allows the audience the upper hand, this is a show worthy of your respect. Add in many unexpected and beautifully executed comedic moments and this is also show worthy of your laughter. SEE IT

 

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story Onstage – Review

19 Nov

Drity Dancing

Samuel Pergande(Johnny), Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Jenny Winton (Penny). Photo credit of Matthew Murphy.

 

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story Onstage

Written by: Eleanor Bergstein

Directed by: James Powell

Choregraphed by: Michelle Lynch with original chroeography by Kate Champion

Company: NETworks Presentations LLC

Run dates: November 18 – 23, 2014

 

Read my Houston Press review of Dirty Danicng – The Classic Story Onstage at

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2014/11/dirty_dancing_review.php

 

 

 

Late: A Cowboy Song – Houston Press Review

15 Nov

Cowboy

(l to r)  Sara Ornelas and Lindsay Ehrhardt as Red and Mary. Photo credit Rod Todd.

 

Late: A Cowboy Song

Written by: Sarah Ruhl

Directed by: Bree Bridger 

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella

Run dates: November 14 – 22, 2014

 

Check out my review of Mildred’s Umbrella’s production of Late: A Cowboy Song for Houston Press at

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2014/11/late_a_cowboy_song.php

 

The Pillowman – Review

25 Oct

Pillowman

Ariel (Trevor B. Cone)persuades Katurian (Aaron Echegaray) to cooperate with the investigation as Tupolski (Scott Holmes) Looks on. Photo Credit:  Scott McWhirter.

The Pillowman

Written by: Martin McDonagh

Directed by: Scott McWhirter

Company: Theatre Southwest

Run Dates: Oct. 24 – Nov. 15, 2014

“The first duty of a story writer is to tell a story”. This may seem obvious, but when uttered by the protagonist Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s 2003 award-winning play, The Pillowman, the articulation means far more than its tautological surface. Story, who tells it, for which reason and with what consequences is the thing being addressed in this darkly disturbing play, splendidly produced by Theatre Southwest.

Fans of McDonagh’s plays and movies have come to expect disquieting, squirm-worthy comedy/drama and breaths of unfresh air from his work. Plays such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997) The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) A Behanding in Spokane (2010) and movies like In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) all attempted to make us laugh at horrific situations and characters. But while The Pillowman has moments that force us to crack a smile in the face of horror, the play is a distinct left turn away from funny and towards the gravely discomforting.

Katurian (Aaron Echegaray) has been detained in an unnamed dictatorial country by two police officers, Ariel (Trevor B. Cone) and Topolski (Scott Holmes). Through their often sadistic and torture-ridden interrogation of him we learn that he is a writer of short stories which are often about the murder of or the murder by young children. In the next cell over is Michael (Sam Martinez), Katurian’s mentally challenged older brother who the cops claim to also be torturing. At first Katurian rejects any notion that his stories have effect or meaning beyond the page. “I’m not trying to say anything….I have nothing to grind,” he urges. But when the cops tell of copycat child murders based on his stories, Katurian is forced rethink his art and his purpose. Without giving too much away, let it be said that The Pillowman is mercifully far from a formulaic police procedural, instead using this set up to take several surreal twists and turns that at once thrill and disgust us.

Nor is there anything formulaic about Scott McWhirter’s wildly creative yet unsettlingly restrained direction. Upon entering the theater, we see Katurian blindfolded sitting worriedly in an interrogation room with a security camera pointed at him. We see what the camera sees via a live black and white, x-ray like image projected onto a scrim behind him. The effect wonderfully brings us into the feel of the play and is a clever nod indicating that what we see onstage can be reflected separately to provide a different or slightly skewed viewpoint. But McWhirter’s real brilliance in this show is the veil-lifting second act where the audience is given a glimpse at the circumstances that forged Katurian and his brother. Deeply upsetting, this part of the play’s arc could have easily lost its punch by overplaying the absurdist nature of the narrative. However, McWhirter reins the story in and with the help of John Baker’s terrifically eerie lighting and Trevor B. Cone’s cleverly contradictory sound design, provides a suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere for his cast to creep us out in. It’s a pin drop act and is one of the best iterations I’ve seen.

Direction this strong can often tease out strong performances from less than stellar performers, but there’s little need for that here. Echegaray’s Katurian is a bundle of stammers, hesitation and mumbles expertly conjured and perfectly timed in the face of interrogation. As Katurian’s outrage at incarceration grows followed by horror at what he may have unleashed, Echegaray allows the subtleties of his portrayal to fluidly develop with the circumstances. It’s a remarkably natural performance in the most unnatural of plays. But even more notable is Echegaray’s story-telling prowess as Katurian. Armed with some of McDonagh’s most bleakly brilliant writing in the form of Katurian’s short stories, Echegaray recites several of the dark, murderous takes during the play. Actually recite is too narrowing word. Echegaray dives full body into these stories bringing them vividly to life and ensuring that we can’t take our eyes or ears off him.

That is until our eyes and ears get locked on the equally talented Martinez as Michael. Playing mentally challenged…is…well….a challenge. One that can so easily dip into caricature or hackney portrayal. Instead, Martinez gives us an utterly believable and beautifully crafted character full of ticks and twitches and child-like affectations in a man size body. Michael is a dichotomy of pathetic innocence and unacceptable behavior and Martinez expertly evokes both in his performance. As Michael and Katurian take on the bulk of the play together, it is a joy to watch these two talented actors play off each other and do such justice to the script.

Even with all this praise to toss around, it’s almost impossible to be a critic without at least one quibble creeping in and here it’s laid at McDonagh’s feet. The third and final act in this 90 minute play is simply too long. By the time Katurian and Michael are reunited in the police station, McDonagh has done everything he can to wind us up and light the fuse. We know we are going to be told what happened and why. We are ready and willing to go there no matter how awful it may be. And yes the payoff is good. But McDonagh ambles here too long with dialogue and redundancy, taking a bit of the thrill out of the conclusion. Perhaps he should have taken Katurian’s advice and dispensed with the padding here and just told the story.

RATING

For the squeamish -Don’t. Just don’t. SKIP IT

For thrill seekers – Unlike some of McDonagh’s plays, this one isn’t a violent thrill ride. Instead it’s far more psychological and heady in nature. But put away your need for gore and there is no doubt your sense of darkness will be tickled. SEE IT

For the occasional theater goer – This is a fantastic production all around, however the disturbing nature of the story and what may feel like an elusive moral point to the whole thing might make this one a show you sit out on. SKIP IT

For theater junkies – Should you see this production for the outstanding direction, some incredibly strong performances, killer lighting and sound design or McDonagh’s darkly interesting script? How about yes to all of it? SEE IT

Marie Antoinette – Review

23 Oct

MA

Emily Neves as Marie Antoinette. Photo Credit: Amitava Sarkar.

 

Marie Antoinette

Written by: David Adjmi

Directed by: Leslie Swackhammer

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run Dates: October 8 – November 9, 2014

 

How’s this for a theater recipe? Take one part Paris Hilton (OMG/I’m SO much hotter than you), another part Hillary Clinton circa mid 90’s (the decisive and powerful woman often pulling the strings of her ruling husband) and mix in a dash of Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods (the smartest dumb woman in the room) if Elle could also drop F-bombs like a Jersey Shore gal. Now put her in a play that mashes up Baz Luhrmann/MTV-style short, visually assaulting scenes set to thumping club music with uber surrealist anthropomorphism (in the guise of a talking sheep) and a healthy dose of Shakespearean tragedy at its darkest. What you get is Stages Theatre’s wildly inventive production of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette. It might sound like one gigantic hot mess on paper, but against the odds and in many instances by the skin of its teeth, Adjmi’s play in Leslie Swackhammer’s astonishingly talented directorial hands, fizzes and pops and ultimately claws  its way into our full enjoyment.

Marie’s story is that of legend. A naïve Austrian royal married off by her mother at fourteen to the King of France as a political manoeuver. Drowning in luxury at Versailles, Marie reacts to her less than ideal husband, strange new home and stunted educational and emotional maturity by engaging in the ultimate and never-ending shopping spree, much to the increasing ire of the starving French people. When the revolution finally comes and the people oust the monarchy in favour of a seemingly more democratic rule, it is Marie that they detest the most and it is she that suffers most greatly for her excesses and insensitivity to their plight. It’s her head they want and ultimately her head they get.

How one see’s Marie’s story is a matter of perspective. Was she an unsavvy and innocent victim of her fate or was she the epitome of selfishness that got what she deserved. Adjmi wants us to believe a bit of both, though it’s clear that his affections outweigh his derision for his main character. Marie Antoinette paints for us a character we can both love and be disgusted by. She is a woman who pays little attention to her son while at the same time whining over the grave damage her own absent mother caused her. She’s a woman who shows great character in turning down an affair because she believes in the sanctity of marriage, but is as quick to tell her husband that she never really loved him. These shades of grey in character study are nothing new and certainly not in the discussion of Marie Antoinette. What makes it work so superbly here is Adjmi’s combination of highbrow/lowbrow, using modern and period piece language to highlight the dichotomy. Marie is just as likely to spew expletives or pronounce, “Intellectuals – blech”  as she is to wax beautifully about being in a ‘canard’ or musing philosophically about her value as a person.

But no matter the amount of delightful brain gymnastics Adjmi gives us, this is a show that relies heavily on a strong creative vision to inject freshness into what is ultimately a well-trod story.  When it comes to vision, Swackhammer and her production team have it in bucketfuls. Set on Ryan McGettigan’s minimal stage beautifully adorned with huge abstract neon doodles and repro Ghost chairs, Swackhammer moves her cast around with casual ease that juxtaposes beautifully against Barry Doss’s gorgeous and ornate costumes. As the pounding dance music suggests, this is not a fussy production and Swackhammer makes sure that the cool vibe never diminishes regardless of the seriousness of the action or dialogue on stage. This is a play that is just as moody and surreal when a talking sheep strikes up an important relationship with Marie (trust me – it took me some time to buy into it, but it works) as it is during the brilliantly staged palace coup that has the rebels literally tearing up the stage in an incredibly genius and simple piece of direction and set design.

The cast reacts to the unique script and production with effervescence and energy all around. Mitchell Greco has the difficult task of playing Louis as a kind of feckless savant child/man more interested in playing with clocks than with his wife or even France for that matter. It’s a terribly unlikeable and annoying character mold, but Greco brings a sweetness to the role that gives the audience a chance to root for him. Emily Neves as Marie is a study in range. This is a character that runs the gamut from bratty spoiled girl to feisty wife and Queen to beaten down woman with nothing else to lose. Neves is more than up to the task. She doesn’t so much change character as effortlessly slips into the changing situations her character finds herself in. Neves takes us on Marie’s journey and when the final moment comes, we are riveted.

We are also relieved. As the final moment in this play, and the entire second act for that matter tends to drag on a bit long. We know where the story is going but it’s as though Adjmi punishes us just a bit for it by keeping us waiting through one too many scenes of imprisonment or dream sequences. While the effect is not quite shift around in your seat frustration, there is no doubt the production would pack a much stronger punch with a good edit nearing the conclusion. Like the talking sheep says to Marie, we all just need to wake up from this dream a little sooner. Again, trust me. It works.

 

RATING

For the pearl-clutchy – This is not your Marie Antoinette. The music is loud, the swearing profuse and the surreal elements will probably not jive with your idea of a period piece. SKIP IT

For those that want a little rock and roll with your history – The modern cadence, the club music, the music video style staging all serve to freshen and make cool this tragic tale. It’s not modernism for shock sake, rather a blessedly unique take on a story that really didn’t need to be told again. Plus did I mention the sheep? SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Yes, this is a decidedly different kind of production than the safe narrative theater you may be used to. But this show has humour, energy a story that is easy to follow, a terrific cast, costumes that will make you gasp and a set that while minimal is arresting at times. What’s not to like? SEE IT

For theater junkies – The show is in need of a second act edit and contains some dialogue that feels a bit too try-hard and cliché  (“I feel like a bird flapping my wings against the inside of a cage”). But forgive what amounts to minor indiscretions in order to delight in the vision of this production. Even for junkies like you, it’s sometimes hard to discern exactly what a director was going for. Not here. Yes the performances are strong, but it’s Swackhammer’s work that should be your draw here. SEE IT

Red Death – Thoughts

21 Oct

Red Death

(l to R) Karen Schlag  and Christie Stryk  in Red Death. Photo credit VJ Arizpe.

 

Red Death

Written by: Lisa D’Amour

Directed by: Jennifer Decker

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella

Run Dates: October 9-25, 2014

 

For a critic, coming to a show late in the run is fraught with challenges. Firstly, how not to expose yourself to your colleague’s reviews (check!). Then what to do about your own thoughts? With only four more performances left in Mildred’s Umbrella’s production of Lisa D’Amour’s Red Death, does one take a day to craft a comprehensive review or instead offer up musings in the hope that their timeliness will be of use to audiences yet to see the show? In this case, I opt for usefulness as opposed to pretty prose. Especially considering when it comes to this play, I’m not altogether sure anything comprehensive can be said. Which brings me to my first point:

 

Huh?

There are some plays you understand but don’t necessarily enjoy (I’m talking to you Godot). Then there are plays you don’t fully grasp but the experience is so fantastical you barely care (much of Robert Lepage’s work.) Then there are plays where not only do you not completely get what the playwright is going for, but the enjoyment of the ride waxes and wanes. D’Amour’s Red Death falls into this latter category.

We know going in that the inspiration for the play comes from Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic fantasy, The Masque of the Red Death and it’s quite obvious that hints of Kafka, Vonnegut, Bradbury et al are all at work in the concept.  Director Jennifer Decker even has her main character casually reading Kafka in a beach scene in case we didn’t clue in. But whereas those inspirational stories offer up moral compasses, ethical quandaries and warnings to be heeded, Red Death seems content to simply be cryptic.

Jane Whithers (Christie Guidry-Stryk) is on a quest to find the “origin of evil, the root of denial and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death”. She’s been charged with this task by an unseeable ‘panel’ that operates outside of federal law and uses any means necessary to get information and instill dread. Jane apparently is supposed to kill childhood acquaintance, Prospero (Jon Harvey) with whom she shares a horrific past. But in nonlinear fashion we also are shown that Jane herself is a target of the panel, either for her own murderous indiscretions or as some sort of master plan that is as ambiguous and frankly uninteresting as a bad X-Files episode.

D’Amour gives us very little to latch onto intellectually in her script. We see the mystery and thriller elements. Will Jane kill her mark? Who else will she take down in the process? How does she know Prospero in the first place? We are given some reprieve from the confusion by the absurdist situations and hints of dark comedy along the way. Of note is the inclusion Prospero’s daughter (Bree Bridger) who makes the term beach slut seem an understatement. But with no way to tunnel down into what it might all mean (Everyone is evil? Everyone is targeted? Our lives are all determined by evil forces? If so, yawn) Red Death becomes a very surface skimming experience that mistakes nebulous existentialism with heady narrative.

 

However,

 Thanks to Jodi Bobrovsky’s chillingly moody set that seems a cross between wood-slatted sunshine and the shattering of glass, Greg Starbird’s in your face lighting that paints each of the seven short scenes in a distinct wash of colour and Decker’s direction that teases out a few notable performances, Red Death manages to hold our attention more than it should.

Sure, we don’t really get the point, and no, we really don’t much care if Jane is the avenger or redeemer. But as the lights go down in between each small scene and yet another cleverly juxtaposed atmospheric song with sunshine in the lyrics comes on (Good Day Sunshine, Sunny Side of the Street, You are My Sunshine) we can’t help but be mildly intrigued by what will come next.

 

Especially…..

 If the anticipation doesn’t flow from the story itself, it certainly does from some of the performances. Rod Todd as Jane’s father gets only one small scene in the play, but utterly steals the show with his fumbly naiveté and fatherly worry about his daughter. As the panel detective sent to investigate Jane, Ronald Reeder makes us laugh again and again by simply perfecting the timing of the word, OK. Karen Schlag as Connie, Prospero’s wife, is an eerie simulacrum of nerves gone awry that wonderfully takes up all the oxygen in the theater when she is on stage.

 

Finally.

My litmus test for a play such as this relies on if I’m still thinking about it or trying to figure it out post curtain. Are there nuggets there to be mined that are worth the effort? If there are, I haven’t found them. Nor was in intrigued enough to spend much time looking.

Should Decker have played up the absurdist elements more, given us a creepier tale or given more room for the humour? Perhaps. But I fear that pushing envelopes in this manner would only have been putting cover-up on a poorly made up face.

Instead I will offer kudos to the production team for doing their best to keep my attention in what I found to be a frustratingly flawed play.

Devil Dog Six – Review

6 Oct

DevilDogSix560

(l to R) Sam Flash), Travis Ammons , Sammi Sicinski , Cheryl Tanner , Jarred Tettey and  Bradley Winkler. Photo credit: Paige Kiliany

 

Devil Dog Six

Written by: Fengar Gael

Directed by: David Rainey

Company: The Landing Theatre Company

Run Dates: October 3 – 20, 2014

 

Read my review of Devil Dog Six at Houston Press at http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2014/10/devil_dog_six.php

 

 

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