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Theater Review:

"THE BALL OF JUSTICE" at Strawdog Theatre


Although Strawdog Theatre does not shy away from off-the-wall plays, "The Ball of Justice" – its wacky late-night sequel to "Return to the Howard Bowl" – crashes right through any traditionally erected brick partitions. That’s not to say it breaks the proverbial fourth wall and brings the audience wholeheartedly into its maniacal fold.

This is certainly the kind of goofily nostalgic show that would appeal to Rogers Park and Wrigleyville residents with fond memories of the now-closed Howard Bowl and the charmingly tacky Rainbo Roller Rink, which happens to still be in business. And its pulsating hip-hop rhythms no doubt keep the beer buzz whirring for late-night patrons looking for some mindless but high-energy entertainment. Judging from the capacity crowds at a recent Friday-night performance in Strawdog’s new psychedelic bar-studio, "The Ball of Justice" seems to have attracted a following.

But, aside from Doug Nagel’s infectious rap-infused score, this 90-minute Brunswick-themed comedy ultimately bowls too many humor-challenged gutter balls, thanks in large part to Adam Joyce’s surprisingly flat and emotionally erratic script.

Nagel and Joyce – who exhibit agile acting, dancing and vocal skills – also star as Def D and AJ Dove (a.k.a. the Kingpinz), Rogers Park bowler-rappers who come back to the neighborhood after a stint in the PBA only to discover that the Howard Bowl has been torched. They track down their allies, including the ultra-funky Superfly who has moved from the fast lanes into the death-defying oval of the Rainbo Roller Rink. While there, they meet up with their old girlfriends – the dippy Smootie Pie and Le B Smoov – and discover that the evil Dan Stuckie is behind the Howard Bowl’s violent demise.

Now this Stuckie fellow is dressed like Gene Simmons and appears to have supernatural powers. He controls the titular Ball of Justice – a bowling ball that guarantees a strike with every roll. Since the action has moved to Rainbo, bowlers must don roller skates. So Stuckie has assembled the Joliet Justice League – guys dressed like superheroes on roller skates – to annihilate the champion Kingpinz in the rink. Also in the enemy camp are bungling video fiends Bagman and Guttapunk; while the pimpified Disco Dolemyte joins forces with the Kingpinz.

Nagel and Joyce have essentially plastered a comic strip onto Strawdog’s tiny stage, but they have not created any wittily fractured or deliciously demented characters. Furthermore, they’ve metaphorically decked out J.R.R. Tolkien in K.I.S.S. garb and surrounded the famous author of "The Ring" with slacker mo-fo’s, Marvel Comics figures and caricatures from black-sploitation flicks. Yet the creative team never effectively melds these iconic ideas into an engagingly sinister satire. Only the music manages to pull the audience into "The Ball of Justice’s" diabolical and delirious world.

Director Patrick T. Wilkes has admirably assembled some of the hottest off-Loop actors – including Michael Dobbs, Stacy Parker, Kyle Hamman, Mike Dailey and Anita Deely -- whose stamina and zany intensity keep the action at a rollicking pitch. But even they can’t reign in this jittery "Ball," which bounces uncontrollably across genres – from pop-culture superheroes to hip-hop’s homeboy sub-culture.•

"The Ball of Justice" runs Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. through Aug. 4 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 773-528-9696.

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