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Theater Review:

"THE COARSE ACTING SHOW," Shakespeare’s Motley Crew at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Any devotee of Chicago off-Loop theater will cry tears of laughter over the riotous truths arising from the gleeful and well-aimed satire Shakespeare’s Motley Crew applies to "The Coarse Acting Show" – a series of classic theater parodies selected from Michael Green’s 1964 book, "The Art of Coarse Acting." A grand collaborative effort uniting artists from well-known ensemble theaters across the city (including Roadworks, Strawdog and Stage Left), this omni-layered production reminds us all, in its deliberately clumsy way, of the immediacy and unpredictability that makes live theater so engaging.

"The Coarse Acting Show" is presented at the Athenaeum Theatre’s downstairs studio space as a 25th anniversary benefit for the fake Apocrypha Theatre Company -- complete with outlandish production histories, gushing bios and overblown mission statements. Arrive early just to peruse the imaginative background material written by Penny Penniston and Laura Jones Macknin. They write, for instance, "The Apocrypha performance tradition is a rich combination of theatrical forms, including improvisation, Folio Technique, Viewpoints, story theatre, Stanislavsky, Meisner, Myerhold, Le Coq, Anglican Mysticism, and Celtic dance – all stirred in that cauldron of theatrical ritual that arcs from rebellion to assent."

Previous productions include a Kabuki-style "Steel Magnolias," an all-female "Cyrano de Bergerac" and a ten-hour performance adaptation of "The Complete Works of Ogden Nash."

The "coarse actors" (typically older women still playing ingenues, young actors disguised as elderly men and actors with an uncontrollable desire to emote) proceed to tear through every theatrical genre with wonderfully clueless and egotistical abandon – dissembling and deconstructing dramatic tenets to the point of unfettered brilliance.
For the most part, though, Act One maintains a stylish and dead-serious commitment that crumbles in Act Two, which relies more on silly and redundant visual tricks than the smarter subtleties evident earlier in the show. Also, the excerpts chosen for the second half are not as cleverly written as the other three spoofs on the program.

"The Cherry Sisters," directed by Jeremy Wechsler with textured musical grace and audacious athleticism, is the most fully realized parody of the evening. From the "Dr. Zhivago" intro music to Halena Kays as "Babushka" furiously clanging her knitting needles to all the other Chekhovian landed gentry staring blankly ahead at their cruel fates, this segment stings with an exaggerated sort of truth.

The gorgeous and elegant Joey Honsa shocks everyone when, as the lovelorn Veruka, she opens her mouth to reveal a terrible speech impediment. Laura Jones Macknin, who plays a woman beyond ingenue roles, flits about the stage with an awkward, agitated and mock-flighty gait as the young Basha. Karin McKie as the matriarch Gnasha turns anguish into an art form, while Ed Stevens as the ancient butler Piles pulls off a tour de force involving a leaky samovar.

Although its pratfalls and broad humor seem a bit too obvious, the "Moby Dick" satire – directed with fearless gusto by Kimberly Senior – sent me into hysterics for its sheer goofiness. Kevin Heckman’s eager Starbuck returns with the stuffed hawk prop he used earlier in the Shakespeare segment. But, this time, the bird has a patch over its eye and joins in a robust chorus of "Amazing Grace."

William Sidney Parker deadpans his way through the thankless role of Queequeg – a name Nathan Vogt as vain leading man in the Ishmael role keeps confusing with Pequod, the ship’s moniker. And, as the obsessive Capt. Ahab, Michael Dailey shows his skill at physical humor as he gets tangled in his wooden leg – later tossing an anachronistic crutch inside the crooked jaws of the Great White Whale in the form of a two-part puppet that keeps separating. There’s even a coy wink to Joanne Akalaitis’ recent Diet Coke-inspired production of "Mary Stuart" at Court Theatre.

Director Steve Scott tightly focuses "All’s Well That Ends As You Like It" so that no one familiar gag grows redundant. Pulling from various Shakespearean conventions, this piece pokes fun at the improbable women-disguised-as-men plots; the put-upon messenger; and the over-literal habits of actors eager to illustrate sexual double entendres.

Parker brilliantly reduces, in a deliciously jaded manner, the Fool Testiculo to a series of obtuse and obscene references. Jonathan Nichols shows his razor-sharp versatility in multiple supporting roles and as chief scene changer – at one point leaving a tree in front of the King’s throne. In the role of the evil ruler Bronchio, Heckman – with his omnipresent taxidermied bird – riotously draws out every syllable of his grandiose lines.

Act Two opens with the Jane Austen parody, "Pride at Southanger Park," directed in a dark and sexually ridiculous manner by Shade Murray – especially via the tight and amply stuffed men’s trousers. This over-literal approach proves more distracting than enlightening and quickly grows tired. But it’s not all Murray’s fault. The writing tends to be flat, strained and repetitive. Most of the gags are restricted to missing or difficult props.

This downspiraling of creativity carries through to the final piece on the program: the Noel Cowardesque "Present Slaughter,"directed with an acerbic edge by Nick Bowling. Here the wealthy ex-couple from "Private Lives" literally ends up wallowing in blood. The routine simply goes on too long and is not very original: Nathan Vogt’s suave Oliver accidentally cuts his hand on a martini glass while Laura Scott Wade as his witty and free-spirited ex-wife Lavinia delivers bon mots in the midst of the carnage.

The actors anchor this clever charade with Apocrypha ensemble members clumsily conducting their fundraiser, together with Wade as the self-absorbed "celebrity" emcee, Suzanne Sebastian-Rogers, who stars opposite David Haselhoff in the sexy TV series, "Leather and Lace." These layered touches succeed at making the audience a viable part of the experience.

And, despite the flaws of the second act, "The Coarse Acting Show" reinforces the theater’s spontaneous allure – well-orchestrated warts and all.•

Shakespeare’s Motley Crew’s production of "The Coarse Acting Show" runs through December 16 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 312-902-1500 or log onto www.shakespearesmotley.org.

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