Tesseract Theatre Company steps into a romantic minefield just before Valentine's Day with its production of Samantha Macher's To the New Girl: Sound Advice for my
Former Husband's Wife or Mistress
. The sharply pointed show is a mostly humorous look at love from the perspective of women who've been left, in one way or another, by their spouse. 

In the often laugh-out-loud funny show, ten women share their reactions to, and ways of dealing with, the fact that their husband no longer prefers their company. The stories are deeply personal, sometimes embarrassing, and often teeming with anger and frustration, no matter how boldly or subtly it's articulated. Rejection, abandonment, lingering love, and profound emotions are present throughout, but these feelings are artfully conveyed with a predominantly light touch. 

Under the solid direction of Katie Palazolla, the ensemble defines each character's edges in quite believable fashion. The betrayal each character feels is at once universal and personal. Not all of the women are particularly likeable, and some will undoubtedly make you at least a bit uncomfortable; but most will make you laugh, along with the characters, at the comic ways they deal with their truth and address their future.

Palazzola keeps the pace quick and the transitions minimal, ensuring the audience stays engaged from piece to piece. The capable ensemble features Rae Stassi, Jan Niehoff, Elizabeth Rajchart, Taleesha Caturah, Charity Faith Hope, Marie Kelly, L'Oreal Stevenson, Bre Love, Ashley Netzhammer, and Dorothy LaBounty. The performances in To the New Girl are uniformly strong and each actor kept me interested and involved in their story. 

There are women who exude sympathy and recognition from the moment they step on the stage.  The woman who can't conceive and is determined to be a positive presence in her husband and his girlfriend's child's life. The young bride so reliant on her husband for her self-esteem that even a small temptation is devastating. The woman whose husband no longer recognizes her as his lover due to dementia and has found romance at his care facility. These stories pull at your heartstrings; each character's pain, insecurities, and fears are so apparent and fresh.

Then, there's the long-suffering Jewish grandmother who realizes her husband's much younger Irish Catholic "soul mate" has freed her to live for herself. The lothario junky's pregnant girlfriend, who simply wants to tell her daughter a better story. The teacher who's been replaced by the 18-year-old student she hired to walk her dog while she was out of town. While these stories are decidedly not original and somewhat too cleanly resolved, there's plenty of truth in them.

Finally, there are the women who may trigger "what would I do" moments for the audience. The not-so-naïve young fetishist who can't believe anyone else would accommodate her boyfriend's whims. The devout young wife of a minister who realizes her life will be significantly more comfortable if she negotiates terms for sharing her husband with his male lover. The successful woman offering a bonus to her nanny for her husband's philandering advances. The angry woman who wants to kill her husband's new mistress, claiming a motivation that's filled with mercy, not revenge. Though they may make you squirm, their stories are as affecting as the others. 

In terms of Macher's script, I prefer the stories where characters make definitive choices over the few that are too neatly resolved or feel good with their conclusion. It was too easy to get distracted during the few stories that felt overly clichéd or transparent, even when they were well performed. The set is simple, but comfortable, important considerations as the majority of the actors remain on stage, listening in on each successive story. Director Palazzola frames the show well, creating a final tableau that is compassionate, thoughtful, and noticeably absent a single character. 

What we're left with in To the New Girl, running through February 12, 2017 at Tesseract Theatre, is individual stories. With a significant yet familiar tale, each woman confronts contemporary notions of marriage, fidelity, love, and compromise, while supporting the other women without comment. Not all of the characters are likeable, not all of the stories are comforting, but at least a few are likely to tug at familiar heartbreak. Emotionally satisfying and funny, the cumulative effect is of a silent but substantial audience, teeming with stories of their own.  

 

The Year of the Bicycle, now playing at the Upstream Theater, is simply a masterpiece! It's by a young South African playwright, Joanna Evans, and it is a brilliant piece of writing.  In Upstream's production it is blessed with two equally brilliant performers: Magan Wiles and Eric J. Connors.

It's a small piece, an hour and a quarter or so, but so filled with beauty! It is set in post-apartheid South Africa, and in a lovely, fragmented dream-like manner it follows the friendship of two children--a girl, Amelia, white and affluent; and a boy, Andile, poor and black.

The set is simplicity itself. The play is done in the round, and we see just a rectangular floor with a wispy cloud-scape on it. Taut floor-to-ceiling wires, perhaps a dozen, delimit the playing space.  In the center is a double-decker wheeled wooden cart that serves as a gurney, a gate, a dog-house, an airplane. Beyond that there is nothing but a ball of red yarn, a rag-and-string doll, a blanket and a few bicycle parts--a wheel, a seat, handle-bars. Yet with just this a world is created, a childhood springs to life.

We begin in silence -- except for the occasional ominous electronic beep of a hospital monitor. Amelia and Andile lie, top and bottom, on the gurney. Each is comatose; each has suffered a concussion. Amelia was injured in a wild and reckless bicycle ride. The circumstances of Andile's injury we find out only much later. Gradually we enter their shared coma dreams. They dream of -- and long for -- their past.

Throughout the performance the dream is supported by a wonderfully evocative soundscape created by David A. N. Jackson. He sits at the far side of the theater amidst a curious array of instruments and other objects from which he draws exquisitely appropriate sounds--gentle tones, the whir of a bicycle wheel, soft brushes, and--recurring every so often when we have almost forgotten it -- the beep of the hospital monitor. It reminds us of the mortal peril in which these two young people lie.

When they are only eight Andile follows his soccer ball into Amelia's yard. She is an odd, lonely imaginative girl who dreams of flying like Amelia Earhart. Andile too is alone. The two are drawn together.  Wiles and Conners are utterly convincing as children as they play and imagine and quarrel and reconcile. They ride her new bike, they fly an imaginary airplane, they play a little soccer. Wiles very convincingly portrays Amelia's yappy little dog, Pilot, of whom Andile is a little afraid. The script is so deeply perceptive and true to childhood's insecurities and needs and flights of fancy.

At one point they decide they need a little brother, so Andile makes one out of scraps of cloth and string. This doll becomes a friend--and a point of contention between them. Which of them gets to keep this beloved little brother overnight? Perhaps they could employ Solomon's solution: they could cut the doll in half.

We drift in and out of the coma -- in and out of the dream. Time passes. Each time we see them a little older. Each time there are new stresses on their friendship.

From time to time as the story progresses one or the other of the children strings red yarn from a ball up and down, around and among the wires at the edges of the playing area--then in and around the cart in the center.  Is this an emblem of the tightening bond between these friends? Does it hint at the zig-zag line of a hospital vital-signs chart?

I've watched the stunning talent of Magan Wiles since her under-graduate days at SLU thirteen years ago. She's always impressive, deeply focused, physically agile. Her face can be the very image of yearning. I was sorry to see her leave us for Los Angeles, but am so glad she's able to return occasionally. In The Year of the Bicycle she's at her very best.

Eric Connors is also a fine actor; here he matches Wiles in sheer commitment, focus and grace.

Michael Heil, who has done many fine sets for Upstream, in this case works as a minimalist, but there is nevertheless beauty here. Scenic artist Cameron Tesson contributes greatly to this beauty.

Laura Hanson's costumes seem so simple, yet they meet the conflicting demands of the play perfectly. How can one costume serve both in backyard play and on a hospital gurney? And from ages eight to eighteen? Ms. Hanson solves this problem quite deftly.

Tony Anselmo's lighting perfectly supports the ebbs and flows of this drifting piece. And Philip Boehm's direction is masterful. 

After their earnest but misguided venture into Tennessee Williams I am glad to see Upstream re-embracing their valuable mission with works like last fall's Suspended and now this truly memorable production of The Year of the Bicycle.

This U.S. premiere is a perfect production of a beautiful and poetic play.  It's the best theater I've seen in quite some time. The Year of the Bicycle continues through February 12 at the Kranzberg.

  

A young woman and recent immigrant to America who proudly displays a necklace of Iraq and the son of immigrants who purposefully downplays his religion and ethnicity are most decidedly an unlikely couple. Mustard Seed Theatre embraces this apparent dichotomy in their production of Yasmina's Necklace. The company has created an environment where similarity is subtly emphasized by design and cast the show with genuinely sympathetic actors.

Author and performance artist Rohina Malik was inspired to look to the Chicago's immigrant and refugee population and ask: what might happen if the son of immigrants met a proud female refugee? The result is Yasmina's Necklace, a contemporary love story brought to life in a compelling and satisfying production that artfully weaves multiple cultures connected through a common religion and universally shared values.

Sam and Yasmina are two attractive, young Muslim adults whose paths would likely never cross. Sam, named Abdul Samir at birth, is a divorced man working in the finance industry. A casual Muslim who questions his beliefs, he's all too aware that his given name may be hindering his success. Yasmina, a recent arrival to America, is an Iraqi refugee, artist, and political activist proud of her roots. A well-chaperoned date is arranged for the two by the local Imam at the request of Sam's parents. The parents and Yasmina's widowed father, along with the Imam, try to nudge the two together. Unfortunately, they don't seem to hit it off, although Sam appreciates Yasmina's paintings.

During their initial conversation, Sam learns that Yasmina wants to start a non-profit and suggests she contact his friend, a lawyer, for assistance. When he is compelled by the Imam to deliver the man's business card himself, Sam becomes more interested in helping with her cause. Slowly, the two find common ground and their attraction intensifies, but Yasmina is hesitant to start a relationship with Sam. She is still haunted by the scars of love and war she experienced in her homeland. Is it possible the two can breach their differences, let go of past emotional scars, and make a life together? 

Parvuna Sulaiman and Adam Flores are imminently watchable and wonderfully well cast as Yasmina and Sam. The two bring sensitivity and depth to their roles, fearlessly exploring cultural differences and cautiously finding delight in their budding relationship. They have strong chemistry, aided by intelligent, articulate personalities. Additionally, the desire to connect with equal respect and affection is a welcome aspect of each character's personality. Sulaiman and Flores skillfully and effortlessly embody these traits.

Chuck Winning turns in one of his best performances as Sam's Arabic father Ali. Ali is amiable and dignified, but clearly a comfortable and well-adjusted American. Maritza Motta Gonzalez, as Sam's Puerto Rican mother Sara, is at times hilariously meddling and over-protective of her only child. Amro Salama, as Yasmina's widowed father Musa, is clearly concerned for his daughter's happiness and security. He wants her to have a bright future with a truly caring partner, and the bond between Salama and Sulaiman is palpable from the stage to the back row. Ethan Joel Isaac, as Amir, and Jaime Zayas, as Imam Rafi, provide additional context that adds significant detail to the story. 

Director Deanna Jent once again shows insight and restraint, moving the story forward with motivated action and sharply defined characters. Malik's script, though a bit predictable in terms of the story arc, offers many lovely scenes for the ensemble and they flow together with ease. Each revelation unveils another facet of Yasmina and Sam's roots, reinforcing the idea that they both represent strong trees, an important theme that gains meaning throughout the show. Dent emphasizes the key themes without being heavy handed and ensures the romance has an opportunity to bloom naturally.

The show is filled with references to the traditions of Islam as well as Arabic and Hispanic culture. Kyra Bishop's spectacularly detailed set, created by scenic artist Emily Kay Rice, smartly reflects the families' commonalities. The painted archways at the back of the stage, evoking mid eastern architecture with an inspired use of glow-in-the-dark paint, are a singularly stunning and memorable touch that provides unexpected delight. The costumes by Jane Sullivan, props by Meg Brinkley, lighting by Michael Sullivan, and sound by Zoe Sullivan add texture and context, creating a world that's easily understood and accessible.

Yasmina's Necklace is a satisfying romance and an intimate look at the complexities of the Muslim American experience, particularly for recent non-white immigrants and their children. The story invites us in and provides the means to better understand this modern melting pot. The show is thoughtful and respectful, but most importantly, it is filled with hope and promise -- the ending scene brought tears of possibility to my eyes.

Mustard Seed Theatre has once again produced a thoroughly entertaining show that encourages audiences to broaden their perspective and to listen fully. Romantically realistic and uplifting, Yasmina's Necklace, running through February 12, 2017, is a touching and compelling light drama that embraces our common hopes, fears, and dreams with genuine warmth. 

 

Sister Martha has been called back to her church in Ireland from Nigeria to assist with the transfer of the closed property to a new owner. Larry O'Donnell, a small time thief with a drinking habit, has broken in to the sanctuary and stolen a valuable statue of Mary. So starts Little Thing, Big Thing, a rousing good creative collaboration between The Midnight Company and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble.

Larry's loaded the statue into his van and presumably comes back into the building to see if there's anything else worth stealing. Martha, who is secretly carrying a roll of film she's been asked to deliver to a Nigerian friend currently in Dublin, has just received a frightening call when she and Larry cross paths. The phone rings again and the two are forced to rely on instinct and reaction. It appears many people want the film Sister Martha is hiding, and some of those people are currently tracking her with the aim of securing the film at any cost. 

Larry and Martha hightail it away from the church while being chased by men with less than honorable intentions. And guns. The two-person show moves quickly, with all the hallmarks of an action-filled buddy comedy, including the laughs, but an ending that's ever after without much happy. The year is not clearly defined in the show, the musical score and Larry reference the Talking Heads circa 1985, Martha finds a Pussy Riot t-shirt in a secondhand store, still the situation feels alarmingly real and relevant.

The intriguing script, by Donal O'Kelly, is witty and fresh, if predictably familiar. Little Thing, Big Thing has the intrigue of a blockbuster spy movie, but in much cruder, often laugh out loud funny, circumstances. Instead of a new angle, we get global realism, awkward intimacy, and a simple message of hope. There's a multitude of interesting minor characters, although the introduction of the first one may catch you off guard. The sparse set enhances the less glamorous reality of Martha and Larry's circumstances.

In the play, smartly helmed by director Ellie Schwetye and complemented with live music by Jason Scroggins and Will Bonfiglio as Rachel Tibbetts and Joe Hanrahan expertly move between their primary roles and the minor characters. Though there's that moment's confusion at the first transition, the two create various characters without ever losing a grasp on the principle players, Martha and Larry. 

Tibbetts is earnest but steely as Sister Martha, with a warm, expressive laugh that changes her entire demeanor. She has more street smarts than she first reveals, with the posture and resolve of a seasoned woman of the cloth. Hanrahan's Larry O'Donnell is an honorable opportunist, at least to his way of thinking. He's also painfully hung over, fast and easy with the truth, and instinctively kindhearted. They need each other for different reasons, and their unaffected humor and easy chemistry creates sympathy that benefits the story.

Schwetye directs Little Thing, Big Thing with purpose and an ear to storytelling. She creates distinct areas, measured transitions, and pointed focus to provide just enough information for the audience to move with the actors. Schwetye astutely paces the show to provide moments for the audience to prepare for the next scene without losing necessary tension. A skilled support team assists the director and includes dialect coach Pamela Reckamp, who guides the actors through myriad accents, and costumer Jennifer "JC" Krajicek, who provides smart, practical designs. 

The space is striking, with curved edges, all painted white, that blur the transition from floor to walls to ceiling and a minimalist set. The video design by Michael Perkins shifts with each significant moment and scene via projections ranging from travelogue images to street maps to moody atmosphere. I only wish they were larger and projected directly to the wall. When complemented by the live accompaniment, the effect is enveloping, and the story captivates, inviting as much thought as laughter.

At its heart, Little Thing, Big Thing, The Midnight Company's production in collaboration with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble running through February 11, 2017, is about a leap of faith. Martha and Larry recognize and take necessary, if dangerous, chances once both make a commitment to do the right thing. The story is more gritty realism than escapist fun, however, and the things don't turn out as expected. Still, the ending gives one hope that the proverb is true: even the smallest pebble can have a big ripple effect.

 

 

Like a bespoke garment, Lynn Nottage's period drama Intimate Apparel is a masterfully tailored piece of theater, its construction precise and its flourishes expertly applied. New Jewish Theatre's excellent production brings this lovely, personal story to life with hope, heartbreak, and perseverance.

Set in 1905, the bittersweet romance touches on race, religion, and era. Esther is an African-American seamstress living in a boarding house run by the persistently meddling matchmaker Mrs. Dickson. She spends her days at her sewing machine, fashioning intimate garments for women, visiting with her friend Mayme, and occasionally venturing into Mr. Marks' fabric store for supplies. 

Marks, a kindly Jewish gentleman, appreciates Esther and sees beauty and grace in her that others miss. The two have a genuine romantic connection, but their racial and religious differences, as well as the period, keep them from reaching out to each other. Their discussions about fabric and thread and Marks' missing button are sensual and filled with unspoken longing. The interplay between the actors, particularly the touches both near and accidental, is delicate and tenuous; a beautiful juxtaposition to the way the rest of the world views the two characters.

Other girls marry and move out from under Mrs. Dickson's roof and watch, but the 35 year-old Esther seems a permanent fixture. That is, until she begins a correspondence George, a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal with Esther's childhood friend. The two develop strong feelings during their exchange, though Esther, who cannot read or write, gets help penning her letters from her fashion forward white client, Mrs. Van Buren. An eventual proposal, offered before the two meet in person, surprises everyone almost as much as Esther's acceptance, but the resulting marriage is not the fairytale ending she imagined.

Jacqueline Thompson is absolutely captivating as Esther, easily and expressively handling the character's many facets, and allowing us to feel her life in the moment. Her character is generally reserved, but when she flashes her true feelings she brings a passion that's firmly rooted in her core. Thompson's scenes with Mayme, a vibrant and at times brilliantly animated Andrea Purnell, show two very different women bonding and laughing. They remain true to each other even through disappointment, anger, and pain.

Jim Butz is awkwardly kind and hesitant as Mr. Marks, his eyes filled with genuine emotion when he looks at Esther. A man as devoted to his faith as he is to the artistry and beauty of fabric and the clothier's craft, Butz matches Thompson in temperament and both share a quiet depth. His reactions are at times nearly imperceptible, yet perfectly measured and drawn.

The supporting cast includes the always-compelling Linda Kennedy, as a regal and commanding Mrs. Dickson. She's kindhearted in her way, but a savvy businesswoman to the core. Chauncy Thomas, as George, is by turns charming, charismatic, and brutal. Julie Layton, as Mrs. Van Buren, keeps a few surprises hidden under gilded corsets that are a touch risqué for her status, while Purnell cajoles, convinces, and rationalizes with panache as Mayme. The ensemble finds layers of interest in their characters, creating a satisfying and intriguing, if sometimes heartbreaking, story. 

Director Gary Wayne Barker guides Intimate Apparel with a solid concept and a firm grasp of the style, attitudes, and customs of the period. While Esther and Mr. Marks differences are not necessarily announced, there is no question that their attraction, with its inherent religious and racial realities, will never be openly acknowledged. Barker manages the tension precisely, ensuring the audience cares about both Esther and Marks while feeling emotionally satisfied by the romance.

The set, props, costumes, sound, and lighting are decadent icing on this multilayered confection set in the Gilded Age. Scenic co-designer and change artist Peter Spack, along with co-designer and props master Margery Spack, transform the space into a stunning collection of ornate jewelry boxes, each opening and closing to reveal their story. The corsets and costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, convey much about each character and the era. Finally, lighting designer Sean Savoie, sound designer Amanda Were, and dialect coach Landon Tate Boyle ensure that every detail has just the right sparkle, tone, and affectation.

Like a couture dress made from luxurious fabrics, the show is a finely wrought production. There's a certain opulence that even the more reticent Esther and Mr. Marks subtly embody, and the delightful supporting ensemble each have an opportunity to shine. The New Jewish Theatre's production of Intimate Apparel, running through February 12, 2017, delivers a richly adorned, nostalgically romantic, and touching story. 

 

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