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Theater Reviews

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13 Dead Husbands. Photo by Peter Coombs. Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. Photos by New Leaf Theater. Bear Force One.



13 Dead Husbands

Playwright: Tom Horan

At: Sansculottes Theater Company at

Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph

Phone: 312-742-8497; $15-$20

Through March 30


Getting the right amount of French whimsy into a comedy can be as difficult as whipping up the perfect soufflé. Too much and it comes off as saccharine. Too little and it just comes off as weak.

Sansculottes Theater Company's dourly titled world premiere 13 Dead Husbands largely succeeds in bringing French whimsy to the stage, though there are moments when it deflates in the duration.

Contrary to its title, 13 Dead Husbands is actually an airy fairy tale. Playwright Tom Horan goes out of his way to make it stereotypically and affectionately French.

The principal male characters spend most of their time philosophizing at outdoor cafes ( a few wear berets ) and speak wiz verry Freanch accentz. The fact that the hero sells balloons ( only red ones ) and that the live musical accompaniment includes toy pianos and xylophones makes 13 Dead Husbands a deliberate homage to the imagery of the iconic French film The Red Balloon and Yann Tiersen's eclectic movie score to Amelie.

The plot is certainly whimsical enough. Dee-Dee ( Sarah Goeden ) is the most beautiful widow in the world and also happens to be one of the deadliest. Each of Dee-Dee's 12 amazingly talented husbands died a horrific death on their wedding nights, some say because there were photographed with a cursed camera.

When Marcel ( Brad Smith ) discovers Dee-Dee is living in Paris, powerful men pursue her despite the legendary curse. But when Dee-Dee takes a shine to lowly balloon seller Jean-Pierre ( Kevin V. Smith ) , everyone ( including the dead husbands ) argue if the curse can or should be broken.

For the most part, 13 Dead Husbands is filled with charm and loads of clever theatricality. Matthew Gawryk's set and lighting designs ingeniously incorporates Bernie McGovern's clever shadow puppetry. Watching pigeons summarize the story and the grisly deaths of two husbands in shadow is a pleasure. The moments of live musical accompaniment when the actors ( mostly the dead husbands ) take up instruments and play along is also loads of fun.

The entire cast is a delight, though one wonders why the very cute Goeden doesn't affect a French accent. Other than this inconsistency, the whole cast shows off their comic chops and musician skills quite well.

What prevents 13 Dead Husbands from being a neatly wrapped package of Francophilia is some lags in Horan's writing and some unsteady directing by Dan Kerr-Hobert. A few more judicial snips and some restructuring in the writing would certainly help, as would less running about ( or extra wacky inventiveness ) in the pedestrian chase scenes.

If you can get past the sometimes flabby pacing and overexplained plotting, 13 Dead Husbands makes for a clever and mostly enjoyable evening—especially if you like your stereotypes to be distinctively French.


The Caretaker

Playwright: Harold Pinter

At: Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company at

Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan

Phone: 773-871-0442; $18-$22

Runs through: April 12


In every city the world over, you will see men like the drifter who occupies the center of our play: no matter what their actual age, they are old. No matter what their actual family relations, they are without kin. They are always on the verge of putting their lives in order—after they retrieve the necessary identification papers. After they find shoes fit for walking. After the winter weather breaks. And so forth. But one day, a stranger offers this scruffy itinerant a bed, money, and a job. Then another stranger offers him a home, with steady employment. But can our sundowner abandon his lifetime of sullen procrastination?

Just as important is the challenge of persuading an audience to listen to the whining complaints of a chronically outraged malcontent, not for mere minutes as in sketch-comedy revues like Beyond The Fringe, but for the nearly two hours of Harold Pinter's career-making 1960 play. Make no mistake, the man calling himself Davies ( which might even be his real name ) is no cuddly avuncular foozle—street predators are not kept at bay by pleasant conversation. Indeed, his xenophobic self-pitying rants are so repellent that we wonder, along with their perpetrator, what motivates his two benefactors to tolerate them.

The Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company has invoked this brand of paranoid menace so many times over its 22-year history that it comes as a surprise that they waited this long to add The Caretaker to their canon. Especially since the truculent Davies comprises a character that founding member Richard Cotovksy was born to play. With hair and beard flaring out in full Yosemite Sam mode, he dominates the stage with every twitch of facial expression ( known in theatrical jargon as 'eyebrow acting' ) , carefully-varied phrase and split-second flash of vulnerability.

Director Hans Fleischmann is not about to reduce Pinter's complex dynamic to a star turn. At no time do Dan Kuhlman's cruelly playful Mick and Todd Lahrman's patient Aston recede into the background—the scene where we learn the source of the latter's phlegmatic temperament has lost none of its horror to time—but instead contribute to a swiftly-moving ( none of that 'Pinter Pause' affectation in THIS show ) storefront-circuit production that could be preserved in a time capsule as a definitive example of ensemble performance.


Girl in the

Goldfish Bowl

Playwright: Morris Panych

At: New Leaf Theatre at the

Lincoln Park Cultural Center

Phone: 773-516-3546; $15

Runs through: April 5


British Columbia, Canada, 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ten year old Iris' goldfish dies precipitating—in Iris' mind—her parents' marital rift, friction with a border in the family home and the possibility of global calamity. The girl befriends a total stranger, an odd fellow, a misfit not fully mentally competent and quite possibly an escaped prisoner, whom Iris believes is her goldfish become human. Against all realistic logic, the family lets the stranger stay. This stylistic twisting of reason and probability places Girl in the Goldfish Bowl into the dramatic realm of magic realism, as does the precocity of Iris herself, especially her sexual awareness, and the cluelessness of her parents. It's framed as a memory play recalled by an adult Iris. 'These were the last days of my childhood,' she says, 'when you stop being happy and you remember when you used to be.'

Morris Panych's play certainly is literate and clever and sometimes whimsical, by turns funny and sad. But there's very little that places it in 1962 besides a few casual references and props, and the fact that the border, Miss Rose, still seduces World War II vets. There is, in short, little sense of specific time or why it's important. The links to the Cuban Crisis are tenuous and superficial at best. Centered on a girl and the socially maladroit and naive fish man, Mr. Lawrence, Girl in the Goldfish Bowl comes across as a weird blend of Whistle Down the Wind, Being There and Ed Grimley. It's entertaining, but you don't fully invest with the characters or the great stretches the play's situations demand. It's smart, but too arch for its own good.

New Leaf Theatre consistently has presented intelligent fare in small but physically dynamic stagings. The company also has searched for worthwhile plays that are not on the radar of most American theaters. Girl in the Goldfish Bowl fits the template but doesn't succeed as well, perhaps because the characters are too wildly improbable for realism, or perhaps because director Gregory Peters doesn't go far enough with the most whimsical aspects of the work ( the magic parts of magic realism ) . As this is a new work for me, it's difficult to assess precisely why it doesn't completely click.

The production looks good in Michelle Lilly O'Brien's detailed household set, and the performances are assured. Kaitlin Byrd brings wistful energy to Iris and John Wehrman ( Mr. Lawrence ) convincingly plays his second weirdo in a row ( having just played an adolescent misfit at Circle Theatre ) . Among supporting roles, Erin Shelton is a looker ( costumed by Rachel Sypniewski ) as caustic seductress Miss Rose. Their efforts make the play charming if not completely disarming.

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