Sunday, March 25, performances at the Theatre Building

The purpose of the Off Off Loop Theater Festival is to showcase the work of some of the city’s smaller theaters, which often gets lost among that of the hundreds of companies belonging to the League of Chicago Theaters. People often say it is the smaller theaters that take risks, that don’t have to please a subscription audience, that can experiment more freely than established theaters. But the truth is the small theaters run the gamut when it comes to risk taking–which is abundantly clear in the selection of pieces and theaters for this year’s festival. The Sunday matinee and evening shows range from a stylized farce about perversion to a crowd-pleasing Cole Porter revue.

The Sunday matinee program–which is now the Sunday evening show–starts with Famous Door Theatre Company’s Old Wives Tales by Ramona Wilde. It’s a strange play to see first, as its disturbing images are hard to shake. It is essentially a series of folktales gone very, very bad, and begins, after a long, uncomfortable blackout, with a disgusting old woman (Dan Rivkin) talking about the spare room she’s decided to rent out. Her perverted husband (Scott Kennedy) and cretin son (Scott Jones) both show up after years of absence to take the room. The three of them aggressively try to work through the anger, lies, and sexual frustrations that have built up between them. Whenever it gets to be too much for the old woman, she is reminded of a story, and everyone spins off into another tale. This original story of a dysfunctional family continues and eventually turns into the final tall tale.

Old Wives Tales is easily the most offensive piece of theater I have ever seen. It features spikes pounded up vampire’s butts, necrophilia, incest, child molestation–all done in high comic, almost commedia dell’arte style. It is horrifying, but absolutely riveting. Famous Door’s talented performers clearly enjoy their no-holds- barred mission statement and give the piece an exuberantly defiant treatment. The wildly padded and protruding costumes set up the brutal farce that follows, and an onstage drummer heightens the atmosphere of rough savagery. The cast exhibits a passion and precision not often seen on Chicago stages. Dan Rivkin is especially interesting to watch in his portrayal of the old woman; he keeps the story line going no matter how strangely we get from tale to tale.

Old Wives Tales burns abhorrent images into the memory, which may be precisely what Famous Door had in mind, but it’s unfortunate for Musical Repertorie Theatre. That group follows with highlights from its current show, The Drunkard, a revival of an old melodrama, with new music by Barry Manilow, and performed in period costumes by a squeaky-clean cast. Predictably, it tells the story of a nice, clean young man who is driven to ruin by demon alcohol. Manilow’s music is no improvement over the original script’s barroom ballads and old standards–with one stunning exception, “The Garbagecan Blues,” a down-and-dirty number that sizzles with the desperate seductiveness of life in the streets, and has just the right touch of irony and melancholy.

Most of the play’s highlights seem amateurish and silly, and the cast seems unable to achieve the needed sense of irony. I’ve heard it works much better at Kiku’s, where it’s running in its entirety. There the audience can get smashed as they watch, making the ironies crystal clear.

The next transition, from one morality play to another, is easy. Zebra Crossing’s Why the Lord Came to Sand Mountain is stylized story telling again, though the frame device here is a hillbilly woman. The story she tells is the simple and familiar one about the inherent goodness of poor, simple hill folk and the inherent greediness of the hypocritical, rich valley people. Director Marlene Zuccaro’s staging is eloquently simple, as is the acting of her cast. Doris Craig is delightful as the Lord, her sensuous movement and expressive face the picture of a beautiful, caring god who would be fun to party with. The slow pace of the play makes it tiresomely long, but it is still charming, and a nice change from the high-spirited pieces before it.

Last is definitely best in this quartet of plays. Quando Productions’ Otto, by Sean O’Meara and Michael Monaco, plays like an episode of television’s Monsters directed by John Waters. It is set in a “cheery suburban kitchen” that is actually a nightmare of stained cabinetry, broken dishes, and an overflowing sink. Its tale from the dark side is of the brassy owner of the kitchen, Mrs. Overlay, and her mousy neighbor, Mrs. Underbutt. As soon as Underbutt enters the room, bearing gifts of cookies and flowers to welcome the Overlays into the neighborhood, she becomes enmeshed in the macabre machinations of Mrs. Overlay and her mysterious, noisy son Otto.

Everything about this production is superb, from the dilapidated kitsch set to the horror lurking just beneath the hilariously bizarre humor. Director Betsey Cassell’s brilliance, however, is in her casting. The actresses play off each other perfectly–skinny Becky Netherland, eyes bugging out, becomes the all-too-easy victim of Frances Camberis’s sly, outspoken Mrs. Overlay. Camberis is Cassell’s Divine, and she is sidesplittingly funny. She even uses many of Divine’s facial expressions and mannerisms, though she has plenty of offbeat charisma of her own. Whether singing her lines like a Wagnerian opera star turned housewife, or slipping into guttural growling, she finds a way to make everything she says a disarming delight.

The Sunday evening show–which is now the Sunday matinee–is much more mainstream and predictable than the above program, though it still contains plenty of variety in content and style.

I had seen Cactus Theatre’s Spring Dance by Horton Foote in its original run and had found it slow paced and unrealistically serene, though the performances were strong. I was pleasantly surprised to find that their production of this play set in a mental institution has gained some of the edge it lacked. Some of the performers have trouble maintaining that edge, but the production certainly holds together better.

Mina Sama-No Theatre Company is up next with its world premiere of Waiting for Buddhat, written by company member Dan Kobayashi. The most exciting aspect of the work is the group itself, with its dedication to performing work of, with, and concerning Asian Americans. In a city as ethnically diverse as Chicago, it is shocking that this is our first Asian American group. Waiting for Buddhat, however, has a long way to go. It’s essentially a rehash of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, with bits of Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone thrown in. There are no surprises. The acting is uneven at best, the most lively work coming from Suzy Nakamura as a cute bimbo waitress. Still, the company’s dedication comes through the mediocrity, and one can see seeds being sown.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre looks back in time with its Gas Mask 101 by Arlene Cook, and proves that exciting, interesting theater doesn’t have to be new or original. It’s an unpretentious, funny slice of life that shows the strong bonds formed between some very different types of people during the process of growing up. This is college in the late 1960s and early ’70s–the times of windowpane acid, Flash Gordon film festivals, burning draft cards, and black lights. All of the characters are appealing and vulnerable, which is key to this coming-of-age story. The performers don’t seem to be acting at all, they are so natural and perfectly cast. Every detail is right.

Different Drummer Music Theatre’s Ladies is the most mainstream of the bunch. It’s pure entertainment, a musical revue with no speaking, no story, just song after lovely song performed by four ladies in black evening wear. Most of the songs are old standards, and the choreography is minimal. All four performers have competent singing voices, though only Lisa Woodruff has enough flair to make you sit up and take notice. Her rendition of “The Laziest Gal in Town”–gliding languidly about the stage, purring in her low, raspy voice–is the highlight. There isn’t much chemistry between the four, but that’s only really annoying when they sing “Friendship”; it seems awkward, cutesy, and a little forced. But Ladies will certainly make you hum as you leave the theater–a lovely close.