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Theater Reviews

This article shared 4674 times since Wed Jun 30, 2010
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The Modern


Playwright: Kirk Lynn

At: Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan

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

Runs through: Aug. 8


There are jigsaw puzzle-games, where the players are challenged to guess the configuration of an already-fixed order, and there are scrabble-games, where the object is to impose new order on an array of randomly selected components. The activity proposed by playwright Kirk Lynn encompasses both of these elements, its premise, a script consisting of dialogue with no names affixed to the speeches, the number and identities of the characters to be decided by the performing company.

His is the kind of exercise that could have easily emerged a shrill, chaotic mess of interest—as games are, by their very purpose—to the participants, but not to spectators. Especially since the cast of this Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production totals 49 bodies ( reduced from the original projected count of 100 speaking roles ) packed into a not-overly roomy storefront loft. Add the furnishings mandated by its suburban domestic setting and it comes as no surprise that audience members are seated along the walls at wainscot level.

Our story centers around a party hosted by three slackerly young people in what may—or not—be an abandoned house, a sign on the door comprising the sole invitation until a guest reveals that she has been disseminating entry-leaflets at the local Big Box on the "bad" side of town. Music is also meant to serve as a lure, selected to attract a "crowd of diverse opinion" ( mostly those under 30, the playlist restricted to 1980 and after, with one stretch back to 1965 ) . To the disappointment of scavengers looking to raid the refrigerator, food is minimal, but the drink includes, beside the expected alcohol, a seemingly unlimited supply of milk bearing only slight resemblance to the breakfast variety.

The action that follows within this enclosed milieu is fundamentally that observed at any large and marginally regulated revel, but as the mood shifts between merriment and paranoia—how did a stranger sustain his gunshot wound? Is everyone present really a werewolf? Is the bathroom gross or what?—we begin to sense a progression to the ostensibly unstructured events. When, after 90 minutes, we discover ourselves to have witnessed a microcosmic illustration of the evolution from anarchy to community, our appreciation of the intelligence and discipline manifested upon Lynn's nebulous text by David Cromer and his ensemble is considerable. Cherrywood might be a dancing-dog oddity, but its dance goes to the very roots of theatre, and therein lies its value.


The Tallest Man

Playwright: Jim Lynch

At: The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark

Phone: 866-811-4111; $25-$27

Runs through: Aug. 1


The British Isles' long nights and chilly climate make for a wealth of folk superstitions associated with destructive spirits ( for a partial compendium, see Caryl Churchill's The Skriker ) . One of these is the bogey called only The Tall Man—a malevolent black-clad, red-bearded apparition stalking unwary mortals through the fields of western Ireland, his purpose the theft of their lives and souls.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with drawing parallels between parasitic phantoms and the more immediate scourges that beset the County Mayo village of Tourmakeady at the turn of the 19th century—ruthless English landlords, avaricious priests and ancient tribal prejudices. The problem with the play making its world premiere at the Artistic Home, however, is that author Jim Lynch ( who freely confesses to "no training as a playwright" ) has adopted as his model the post-Victorian literary styles of John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey—panoramic narratives blending a widely diverse array of themes and motifs. Thus, our dramatic universe encompasses not only lovers thwarted by social barriers and their own individual ambitions ( she wants to emigrate, he refuses to abandon his widowed mother ) , but also a pair of loutish bumpkins engaging in dumb-and-dumber drolleries and a young hothead vowing bloody revenge on the villains who would threaten his clan.

These abrupt shifts in tone might be forgivable—Shakespeare can be uneven, too—if Lynch did not compound his error by stacking trouble upon trouble in order to assure peril so dire as to require supernatural intervention. Just when we think things can't get worse, previously sympathetic characters are driven to commit immoral acts, creating ambivalence ultimately tipping us beyond discomfort into emotional detachment born of despair. But detachment is not what's wanted when the savior who rides to the rescue turns out be little more than a bigger, stronger, crueler thug.

The only redeeming factor in this well-meant, but nevertheless ill-conceived, project is the unflinching commitment exhibited by director John Mossman and a cast of hard-working players exhibiting talent far exceeding their material, as well as the evident expertise of the technical team, from Mike Mroch's pastoral scenic design and Christine Adaire's vowel-perfect dialect instruction to an uncredited fight choreographer's culturally accurate scuffles. Their industry renders the two hours of Lynch's replicative exercise a sufficiently entertaining summer's evening amusement.



King Phycus

Playwright: Tom Willmorth

At: Strange Tree Group at

The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter

Tickets: 773-598-8240;; $25

Runs through: July 31


King Phycus is the UR-Play Shakespeare never wrote. Or maybe the Sewer-Play, the early work from which greater plays ascended, offering bits of characters and pieces of plot from Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. You need not know Shakespeare well to enjoy King Phycus, but whether or not you enjoy the entire two hour-plus trip depends on your taste and tolerance for literary parody.

As parody goes, King Phycus is very good stuff. Without underlining anything, its mish-mash plot suggests Shakespeare's frequent soap opera silliness ( although his tragedies are more tightly plotted than his comedies and wild romances ) . In short, mythical English King Phycus retires and splits his kingdom between his two children, Hamlet and Juliet. At the same time, England is attacked by Roman legions under Brutus but is saved by native forces led by Romeo, who urges the Earl of Sandwich into battle saying, "Thou shalt be a hero, Sandwich!"

That pun, along with such famous Shakespeare routines as "Who's on lute, I-Know-Not's on tabor," suggest the verbal dexterity and delicious word play at the core of King Phycus, all rather brilliantly executed by a hard-working, sweat-inducing cast of six performing 30-some roles as playfully directed by Ira Amyx.

But a little literary parody usually goes a long way. Even with a deal on refillable cups of good ale, two hours ( plus intermission ) is too much of a good thing. Lacking depth of character or actual Shakespearian poetic language, King Phycus has only its own cleverness to drive it. Heretofore, Strange Tree Group has presented highly original works created by the troupe's artistic director with major imaginative assists from composers and designers. King Phycus is the first world premiere they've done by a non-company member, and is far more word-driven than previous Strange Tree choices. Two live instrumentalists are part of the performance although music is not intrinsic to King Phycus as it has been to several previous Strange Tree shows.

The physical production is appealing, the design team having turned the Building Stage space into a half-timbered gallery playhouse, cleverly working old shoes and plastic flatware into the design scheme, as well as Queen Elizabeth I and Abe Lincoln. The beautifully rendered lobby display materials and the program itself all sustain the elaborate mythology of King Phycus as an actual lost Shakespeare play with a scholarly pedigree. The costume and prop artists give a whole new meaning to thrift store design and the tired phrase, "I'll keep an eye out for you" in the Shakespearian tradition of mayhem and gore.

"Your sharp imaginations may ferment the cheesy imperfections of our show," intones the Prologue. Mayhap my imagination simply isn't sharp enough.

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