Book and Lyrics by Tom Mula, Music and Lyrics by Steve Rashid
Theater Wit at Bailiwick, 1229 Belmont
Phone: (773) 883-1090; $26
Runs through: Oct. 31
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BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
With his graying hair, pursed lips and eyes set in a perpetual state of squint, Tom Mula looks amazingly like President George W. Bush. Add to that a meticulously studied swagger walk, the red-tie power suit and the trademark Texan grammar hiccups and voila! You have an instant commander-in-chief clone.
But there's more to Mula than looking and acting the part. He along with composer/lyricist Steve Rashid have created a musical satire called W! that is much more gloves-off in its jabbing attacks than what its press materials describe as a 'good-natured send-up of President Bush.'
Set at a Republican fundraiser, Mula's Bush is visited and hounded by a great Ronald Keaton who takes on a number of roles ranging from a martini-swilling Supreme Justice Antonin Scalia to an embittered crew worker whose job has been outsourced. There's also an appearance by C. JaiPearson whose character helps push W!'s conclusion to an angry 'Fahrenheit 9/11' type of end.
On one hand, you're grateful that authors Mula and Rashid are unencumbered with their comedy attacks. Unlike many news media outlets that don't vigorously criticize the Bush administration, they are not cowed by 'liberal-bias' accusations and do not have any need to stay on the good side of the FCC to expand their media empires.
But the trouble with W! is that much of what the Bush administration has done in the past four years isn't that funny. While it's easy to laugh at Bush's misuse of the English language, it's hard to guffaw when Mula as Bush goes into a song like 'Thank God for the Queers.' 'They're scarier than the blacks,' Mula sings, gleefully noting how the Bush administration is using the wedge issue of gay marriage to fire up his conservative voter base.
Other numbers like 'Mayberry Machiavelli' describing Bush's scheming advisor Karl Rove, 'Weapons of Mass Distraction' on the color-coded Terror Alert system, or the corporate meddling in government agencies in 'Fox in the Henhouse' leave you with a disturbed outrage instead of a case of the giggles.
And with so many targets to hit, W! has a tough time tying all its tangential threats into a smooth fabric. The material can't escape a stop-and-start pacing despite the best efforts of talented director Steve Scott.
The creators of W! no doubt tapped into their outrage at the Bush administration as a creative outlet to create this musical satire. This will be therapeutic for some to laugh out their anger, but it will more likely stoke the anger of 'the choir' of Kerry supporters in attendance (fat chance of spotting an actual 'If you ain't fer us, yer' agin' us' Bush supporter in the audience).
W! isn't a show that will last the ages, but it is a serviceable one that serves its purpose leading up to a bitter election. Don't 'misunderestimate' the effectiveness of W!, but be realistic when considering the number of undecided voters who will truly hear its anti-Bush message.
A Clockwork Orange
Playwright: Anthony Burgess
At: Defiant Theatre at the Storefront,
66 E. Randolph St.
Phone: (312) 742-8497; $15
Runs through: Oct. 16
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
The Korean war introduced a chilling new word into the English language: 'brainwashing'—a pavlovian process by which an individual's entire cosmological orientation could be manipulated to whatever purpose its perpetrators desired. In response to the possibilities presented by this controversial method of indoctrination, Richard Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate in 1959 and Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, in 1962. More than 40 years later, the questions they pose continue to trouble us.
Director Christopher William Johnson has moved the play's setting from a futuristic projection of London to one of America, replete with DVD players, cell phones and other miracles of modern technology. Some things don't change, however. Sixteen-year-old Alex is the quintessential gang-banger, leading his band of 'droogs' (who speak a polyglot argot comprised of Russian, English and what might be Esperanto) in consumption of mind-bending drugs followed by assaults on anyone or anything in their path. Eventually arrested and sent to prison, he is selected for an experiment in aversion therapy designed to render him no longer a threat to his peers. But in a world comprised wholly of bullies and victims, switching sides does not guarantee a safe or speedy reintegration.
The 1971 film softened the author's pessimistic vision with cartoonish choreography and the 1994 Steppenwolf production with high-atmospheric motifs, but Defiant Theatre's characteristically physical approach to their material enables them to SHOW, rather than TELL us, the conflicting issues inherent in the debate, rendering its moral conflict unequivocally visceral. Yes, we are forced to witness images of shocking brutality (though the worst are only described), but never are they extraneous to the dramatic discussion they serve.
Burgess makes a sentimental case for allowing adolescent thugs to outgrow their destructive impulses, ignoring the problem of younger desperadoes taking their places in the cycle of Ultra-Violence. But if the psychological equivalent—however temporary—of lobotomy and castration is overly draconian, what IS the answer? Relocation camps? Hormone patches?
Defiant Theatre has announced this to be their swan song to Chicago. But while we may learn from other companies in the years to come, never will our lessons be urged on us with such immediacy.
How to Brandish a Weapon
Based on Writings of: Alanna Zartiz, Brett Neiman, Idris Goodwin, Jonathan Putman, Mark Handley, Melyshia Sargis, Rebecca H. Fox and Steve Bob Monk
Hermit Arts at Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston
Phone: (773) 539-7838; Suggested donation $15 or pay-what-you-can
Runs through: Oct. 9
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
'Oh those crazy kids! Doesn't the cast of Hermit Arts' How to Brandish a Weapon look just darling as they make funny faces, speak with silly voices and muss up their hair?'
These affirming thoughts may run through the minds of the cast's friends and family members. But for those encountering these performers for the first time, the answer is mostly a 'No.'
But let's not blame everything on the performing sextet. Much should be pinned on the eight contributing authors who cooked up such vague and half-baked material.
Described as 'A Live Action Collage,' How to Brandish a Weapon aims to be an exploration of the nature of violence. What we get instead is a tangential look at violent Hollywood escapism and surface explanations to violent urges (overly pat answers include fear and prejudice). Flatulence jokes and juvenile parody lyrics listing violent acts to the tune of 'My Favorite Things' do not add much sophistication to the show.
Saddled with such awkward material, directors Jonathan Putman and Idris Goodwin never succeed at finding a good comedic flow to the sketches. The linking violent/cutesy transitions also come off as sloppy (crumpled-up paper fight anyone?).
Still, the directors do devise some interesting visual touches, like the silhouetted actors who give voice to inanimate violent objects like a bullying baseball bat and a calculating freezer. The inclusion of percussionist/Foley artist Michael Haeflinger is a bonus, though his presence makes you long for better slapstick and physical humor.
The cast does its best with the clunky scenarios. They even inspire a string of chuckles and a loud guffaw here and there.
In a misguided sketch on auditioning movie mascots, Khanisha Foster stands out as a conspiracy theorist hermit. She also dishes up plenty of sass personifying a frying pan in a domestic dispute.
Mariah Neuroth is fun as the tough guy billy club lamenting his retirement by today's thugs. The dead pan humor of Rebecca H. Fox also enlivens the proceedings.
Otherwise, How to Brandish a Weapon doesn't live up to its comedic and dramatic potential. It never shakes its amateurish aura of skits that were created for a high school assembly. Too bad we all can't be appreciative friends and doting family members.
Stage Door Jonny
By Jonathan Abarbanel
Once again, Bailiwick Repertory is NOT honoring Stage Door Jonny with its coveted Trailblazer Award. Jonny can't begin to tell you how much this hurts, for Jonny blazed innumerable trails down dark alleys, back streets, shadowy gangways and waterfront warehouses. And Jonny has waited at the stage doors of theaters where angels—and city inspectors—fear to tread. All for naught, apparently. David Zak, next time you're horny don't call Jonny!
Instead, Bailiwick will give its 2004 Trailblazer Awards to legendary writer and dragster Charles Busch; to poet and editor Aldo Alvarez; to Gay Games organizer Kevin Boyer of Third Coast Marketing; to theater executives and life partner Rick Boynton and Criss Henderson; to writer/performer C.C. Carter; and to the co-founders of Women and Children First Bookstore, Linda Bubon and Ann Christopherson. The Trailblazer Awards will be dished—oops, dished out—Oct. 11 at the Mercury Theater with fancy doings, entertainment, eats, wine, a silent auction, etc. (773) 883-1090; $50-$75. FYI: many gentle readers may not know that Charles Busch is a graduate of Northwestern University, and began his career in Chicago performing at gay clubs such as the old Le Pub.
A new producing entity calling itself Wilde Nites will bring Whoopi Goldberg to the Chicago Theatre for one performance, Oct. 1. What's a bit different is that Wilde Nites, which is based in Boston, states its purpose as 'bringing world-renowned artists to the gay and lesbian community and their friends and allies in Boston, Washington and Chicago.' The Whoopi Goldberg whoop-de-doo is the very first Wilde Nites event. But for the life of dear little Jonny, he can't figure out what's particularly GLBT about bringing Whoopi to Chicago, promoting the appearance in straight and gay media alike, and selling tickets—$35-$75—to everyone. It's not like Whoopi's never been here. And there's no word that Wilde Nites will donate any of the proceeds to local GLBT interests.
The City of Chicago will rock to a global beat Sept. 17-23 as the Department of Cultural Affairs presents the sixth annual World Music Festival, offering traditional and contemporary music from diverse cultures around the earth. Events are scheduled all over at museums, parks, clubs, theaters, bookstores, etc. with the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Daley Center Picasso sculpture among the venues. While some events are pay-per-ticket, quite a few events are free and open to the public such as those under the Picasso. Call the World Music Festival Hotline, (312) 742-1938 or www.cityofchicago.org/WorldMusic/
The inimitable dives—oops, divas—Alexandra Billings and Honey West will star in a more-or-less legitimate work of musical theater, Diva Diaries, opening Sept. 25 at the Lakeshore Theater (Broadway at Belmont) for a run through Jan. 2. This means that La Billings once again will be postponing her long-promised move to LaLaLand. Their gain, our loss. Or something like that.
Diva Diaries is an original musical about the lives of three drag queens—quelle surprise!—seen both old and young. What age do ya' think Billings and West play??!! They will be joined by co-artists Berwick Haynes, Jay L. Johnson, Paul Tomak and Ty Perry. The score includes original songs, plus hits of the 1970s-1990s. Shades of The Baton. For ticket info: (773) 472-3492; $42.50-$45.50. Diva Diaries is being marketed by Broadway in Chicago, the first time the organization has gone Off-Loop. Despite the drag performers and theme, the producers and Broadway in Chicago clearly think there's a mainstream market for this song-and-dance show.
Many readers probably think that porn behemoth Matthew Rush is the only Big Gay Thing ever to emerge from Columbus, Ohio, but they would be mistaken. Even as Jonny writes this, the forces of GLBT theater have achieved critical mass in Columbus during the Sept. 9-18 second biennial Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival, an event that has drawn theater companies from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, New Orleans, Orlando, Provincetown, Philadelphia, Austin, Boston, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis and more. Chicago is represented at the Festival by Theatre Entropy for the second time, and also by solo performer Jamie Black.