Nothing Special Productions’ ‘My Kinda Town’ needs less dildo, more bromance

Ok, let’s just get this out of the way: Brian Blankenship’s play, My Kinda Town (which is receiving its world premiere by Nothing Special Productions), simply needs work.

But there’s potential.

It starts off as an Odd Couple-esque comedy set in Chicago about two best friends — Tony (Joe Bianco), a struggling musical theatre actor, and Drew (Brian Davenport), a down-on-his-luck writer — who bicker, belittle, and, ultimately, lean on each other for support. Bianco and Davenport have perfect chemistry; their scenes together demonstrate moments of comedic gold. And when Tony’s overbearing-yet-well-meaning mother (Joanna Riopelle) drops in for an unexpected visit, the setup is there for the taking.

But then all this artificial wacky nonsense hijacks the thing. In particular, the set of events that concludes the overlong first act — which involves a man inexplicably dressed in pantyhose while getting flogged by a giant dildo — is simply preposterous, even for a wannabe farce. And, without giving too much away (if I haven’t already), the reaction by the main characters to a major event (someone dies; there I said it) is so selfishly subdued, it nearly undermines any emotional investment I had in them.

At intermission you’re left wondering: how the hell will this show ever regain its footing?

But, remarkably, it eventually does, and by the last few scenes the play that I wanted to see comes back into focus.

Overall, I wish I could forget all the interior clutter and focus on the play’s core bromance between Tony and Drew. We don’t need giant rubber dongs when we have two gifted performers in Bianco and Davenport who can mine a laugh with a simple exchange.

Also, this was my first visit to The Den Theatre — what a cool space.

“My Kinda Town” plays through March 17 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee More info here >;

Nothing Special Productions’ chaotic ‘LET X’ just doesn’t add up

Let X = one confounding play
Let Y = one confused audience member
Therefore, (X + Y) / (a talented cast desperately trying to hold things together) = one major headache

Maybe I’m just stupid. I mean, I’ve never been good at math. But Gwydion Suilebhan’s 90 minute play takes us so deep inside his head and through so many layers, I was lost 5 minutes into it and never dug myself out of the equation.

Oh, but it’s ok because the playwright, who’s played by an actor (not to be confused with another actor who also plays the playwright), stands up in the audience to, essentially, apologize for the play’s confusifying structure.

So, we’re all cool, right? I mean, if we acknowledge the play’s a mess within the play, that makes it ok, right?

I mean, I’m not a playwright, but I think it’s a warning sign if the characters in your play keep helplessly yelling out “Wait, I’m confused!”

Honey, we all are.

I appreciated the uniqueness of the idea: a playwright has lost control of the script — and his life — so he tries to re-write it; but if you just let things go, it’ll work itself out in the end. It’s just that there are so many metaphors and what-nots going on here: the playwright’s life is going off the rails, and his alter-ego, naturally, is a train conductor; his wife is a mathematician who runs around with a calculator predicting things like the arrival of trains; the blending of onstage and offstage worlds; the twisting of reality through an artist’s vision; the loss of control; a “Sliding Doors” moment of “What if I got on that train right now with that girl? Would my life be different?”

But, by the end of the play, I was just confused. Too many ideas and none of them focused or, more importantly, presented in a way that made me care what’s going on. And while the cast is filled with talent, they resort to yelling and running about to keep up with the chaotic material. It’s exhausting.

That said, I look forward to Nothing Special Productions’ next effort. They always keep us on our toes! And they were recently named the “Best Off-Loop Theatre Company” by the Chicago Reader‘s readers and community.

“LET X” plays through July 20, Mondays through Wednesdays, at Strawdog Theatre’s space, 3829 N Broadway St. More info here >

‘Nightmare in Paradise 2: Another Nightmare in Paradise…in 3-D!’

Competing for the longest title in the silly Halloween play category is Nothing Special Productions, with their wacky spoof play, Nightmare in Paradise 2: Another Nightmare in Paradise…in 3-D!, written and directed by Brian Rohde.

Here’s the plot (generously lifted from their website): Dennis (Toph Enany) and Christine (Jenn Danielle Miller) have just returned home from a rather poorly planned honeymoon. Taking action for his mistake, Dennis tries to make amends by bringing his new wife to Hawaii for a second honeymoon. Upon arrival they meet a mysterious Bellhop (Scott Sawa) who, after drugging them to sleep, traps them in his nightmare kingdom where the only way to stay alive, is to stay awake…while dreaming…or they’ll be fed to the Bellhop’s singing midgetaur, Lonnie (Jason Grimm).

Sounds ridiculous? Well of course it is. And entirely delightful. Rhode has set the tone just right: fast-paced, lighthearted, irreverent with just the right touch of camp. There are also a few jaunty musical numbers, written by Brian “Butterscotch” Blankenship and performed by Grimm (of performance group Smith and Grimm) as the singing midetaur, sporting a costume design you’ll have to see to believe. The infectious energy starts to dissipate near the end as the plot veers off track to meet the hasty conclusion, but that’s just a minor gripe.

So, Nothing Special Productions has demonstrated their ability to reinvent Shakespeare, tackle a tricky black parable comedy, and now, pull off some Halloween camp. Pretty soon, they’ll have to change their name to Kinda Special Productions.

Performances run tonight and just one more weekend in the second floor of Trace Bar in Wrigleyville, and it’s prefect pre-bar entertainment — the show’s over by 8 p.m., and you’ll have started your night off with a laugh.

“Nightmare in Paradise 2: Another Nightmare in Paradise…in 3-D!” is performed at Trace Bar (3714 North Clark Street, Chicago IL, 60613) in Wrigleyville tonight (Sunday, Oct. 24) at 7 p.m. and then Friday and Saturday next weekend at 7 p.m. with a special Oct. 31 Halloween performance at 8 p.m. Wear your costume on the 31st and get in free! Party immediately following Halloween’s performance. There is a suggested donation of $15 for each performance and the show is 21 and over. More info here >

Upcoming theatre-y things

Time to get my big boy theatre pants on and strap myself in for the next five days:

Theatre-y thing #1: This evening I’m speaking with up-and-coming playwright Dana Lynn Formby — whose play, Inherit the Whole, proved a powerful kick start for Mortar Theatre‘s first season — about her latest work, Corazon de Manzana, which will receive a reading at Victory Gardens’ studio space Nov. 8. Keep an eye out for that interview.

Theatre-y thing #2: Tomorrow (Wednesday), I’m crossing the street from my office at the Prudential building to check out dance group Sankai Juku at Harris Theatre — “one of the most important Butoh dance companies in the world,” says the theatre’s website. Since my reference point for Butoh dance is about as defined as my understanding of football or Farmville, I’ll take their word for it. It looks amazing, anyway.

Theatre-y thing #3: Thursday, I’m seeing the much-anticipated Robert Falls-helmed production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Goodman. Buzz has already been very strong, and the cast looks divine. Can’t wait!

Theatre-y things #4 and #5: Friday and Saturday, it’s a camp Halloween spooktacular, starting with Musical of the Living Dead! at The Cowardly Scarecrow Theatre Company (they offer a splatter section, which I may take them up on), followed by Nightmare in Paradise 2: Another Nightmare in Paradise… in 3D! (love the title) at Nothing Special Productions.

Check back for my thoughts on the above!

The world is apparently ending. Let’s dance!

The cast of Nothing Special Productions’ “The Armageddon Dance Party”

What would you do if the world was apparently ending? Make out in a stairwell? Repent? Eat bags of Doritos and Crunch ‘N’ Munch in the nude?

In David L. Williams’ dark comedy, The Armageddon Dance Party, you do just what the title suggests — invite some friends, friends of friends and a stranger or two, turn up the Talking Heads and throw a boozy dance party.

Nothing Special Productions demonstrated their ability to stage intense, bold dramas with The Rise and Fall of the Mad King of Scotland earlier this summer. Now, they’re represented by a clever, if long-winded, analysis of humans facing extension with Dance Party.

The setup is simple: a couple (Conor Burke and Anne E. Thompson, who’s giving a remarkable debut performance) learn the world is ending. They know it’s true because their friend (Jeff Kuryszwith) told them so. He wears a blazer and has a fancy British accent, so he must know what he’s talking about. The couple (I lost the program, so please pardon the lack of character names) decides to throw a party.

Soon, petty dramas unfold between partygoers (one couple decides to break up moments before the impending world doom, another fights over who’s the better kisser), major philosophical questions are raised (“When we all die, who will mourn for us?”) and copulation commences (I counted three times that a pair ran offstage to get it on one final time). As they each face their own mortality, the party goes off the tracks. Insecurities flare up into physical arguments, and long lists of things they will miss (music — specifically punk rock) and won’t miss (traffic jams, racism, NASCAR) are shared. Someone gets stabbed in the neck with a wine opener.

It’s amazing what we turn into when faced with death at our doorstep.

This is a smart (if overly speechifying) play, and the young cast (most of whom are making their Chicago debut) keeps up with the material quite well. I do have problems with basic elements of the play’s setup (televisions and cell phones seem nonexistent in the world of this play, even though it suggests it takes place in a typical, modern city setting), and the ending is WAY out there. I dislike the Gorilla Tango space for numerous reasons, but director Jack Dugan Carpenter has found a way to use it effectively. In fact, this is the most strongly directed piece I’ve seen at this venue.

“The Armageddon Dance Party” plays at the Gorilla Tango Theatre (1919 N. Milwaukee Ave.) Mondays August 2, 9, 16 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. More information here >

‘The scottish play’ gets a powerful, minimalist reworking

Show of hands for anyone who wants to spend a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in a dark theatre watching some musty Shakespeare?

Ok, yeah, I’m sure there’s a few of you who would. But for the rest of us…

In all honesty, I was kicking myself for accepting the invite to this show. Going into a sunny theatre when I knew my friends were out on a beach firing up the grill made my heart hurt a little bit. And when the audience was just me and six other people, I began to feel even more sorry for the cast, who got a double-whammy of performing on a beautiful day for an audience of seven.

However, the show started, and I quickly forgot about all of that. Powerful acting, smart direction, and a story steeped in rage and greed all came together to make it an afternoon of compelling theatre well worth the sacrifice.

The Rise and Fall of the Mad King of Scotland is a streamlined version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth produced by Nothing Special Productions — a newish Elgin-based group. Mikey Laird, who adapted and directed the piece, has reworked the nearly three-hour show into a taut, one hour, 45 minute afternoon told by six actors and minimal props in a black-box setting. It’s briskly-paced. It holds your interest (which, to be honest, is a challenge for me whenever Shakespeare’s involved). The actors intensely stare in your eye as they confidently navigate the bard’s dense wordplay. It’s nearly impossible not to be engaged.

Brian Rohde plays “mad king” Macbeth with fearlessness and maniacal greed as he claws his way to power through deception and murder. As his wife, the one who sets the gears turning in Macbeth’s head, Celeste Burns is stunning. Lady Macbeth is a deceptively tricky character. She could easily be seen as a heartless manipulator, set to claim her throne next to her husband, but we come to learn she has a strong conscious that ultimately is her undoing. And Burns radiates all these complex facets through her artfully phrased performance. The dashing Matt Drake also makes a strong impact as doomed King Duncan, and later Macduff, who suspects Macbeth of regicide. Conor Burke, Daniel Vuillaume and Melanie Kibbler round out this skilled cast. Fight choreography by Stephen Wisegarver provides for a gripping final standoff between Macduff and Macbeth.

Support good theatre and new talent. Go see it.

“The Rise and Fall of the Mad King of Scotland” plays through June 13 at The Artistic Home, located at 3914 N Clark St., playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $15 for general and $10 for students/seniors/industry tickets.


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