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Performance Review:

"SIBLING REVELRY," Tellin’ Tales Theatre at Prop Thtr

BY LUCIA MAURO

Tekki Lomnicki, artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, is a dynamic catalyst for encouraging persons from all walks of life and levels of abilities to share their stories in a beautifully sculpted and witty theatrical fashion. Her troupe’s latest group show, "Sibling Revelry," at Prop Thtr features four solo artists illuminating and dissecting the bonds that exist between brothers and sisters – even if those ties grew out of antagonism, power trips or tragedy.

Overall, the writer-performers delve into painful emotional issues without resorting to a string of maudlin confessions on stage. Three out of the four – Diane Dorsey, Judith Harding and Lomnicki – have mastered the suggestive flow of solo artistry as they concisely provide us with evocative imagery and balance heartbreak with confident resolve. On the flip side, Julie Caffey’s interminable multidisciplinary segment takes 40 minutes of self-consciously experimental exposition to get across a rather basic message, which her fellow artists crisply achieve in half the time.

The most moving – albeit non-self-pitying – work on the program is actress Diane Dorsey’s "My Sister’s Song," a startlingly honest and tender reflection on her mentally disabled younger sibling, Marcia, who currently lives in an assisted-care facility. Dorsey – a very real actress with a rapid-fire range that never feels rushed --- gently frames the story in familiar children’s ditties, like "Happy Birthday" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Traveling in and out of time, she intricately reveals her own mother’s devotion to her daughter by insisting that Dorsey and her youngest sister include Marcia in all of their activities – as well as the unexpected violence inflicted on Marcia from a seemingly benign outsider. We also learn of the possible shocking cause of Marcia’s "impairment" in utero, as well as one family’s determination to protect this child regardless of unseen forces. At one point, Dorsey shares her own frustration at Marcia’s decreasing ability to formulate words – only to catch herself and soothingly give voice to a woman with less tangible life-giving gifts to share.

On the humorous, but no less profound side, is Judith Harding’s recreation of her brother’s penchant for pretending to say Mass at the age of 7 in "Tales from the Chalice." A deceptively simple reminiscence evolves into a seriously multitiered look at intolerance and chauvinism tempered with resounding themes of dedication to a cause and personal triumph.

Employing generous doses of Irish-Catholic humor, Harding recounts how her brother "Toss" (who, ironically, later became a member of the wine-making Christian Brothers, an order that is not allowed to say Mass) would use the family’s prized chalice from Ireland to conduct the ritual of the Eucharist. An ironing board doubled as an altar; a ping-pong paddle became a communion salver.

Conflict arises when Toss refuses to let Harding be an altar boy – for the simple reason that she’s a girl. The then-5-year-old Harding is crushed because she had her heart set on ringing the bells when the priest lifts the host – prompting a riotous segment in which she likens the fervent clanging to: "God is here, God is here! My God, God is really, really here!" When Toss allows a non-Christian neighborhood boy to ring the bells, his sister cannot recover from the perceived betrayal.

Harding – an engagingly sincere performer -- also addresses the perils of living in the shadow of her saint-like brother: "You try being the Messiah’s little sister." And she is especially clever at revealing hilariously delusional absurdities – like her father’s belief that his son is the family’s "ticket to heaven."

Lomnicki also focuses on her brother in "Wally," briskly directed by Chris Bruzzini. But her gruff, obscenity-spewing soccer-dad exists on the opposite end of the personality spectrum from Harding’s saintly sibling. Nevertheless, by the end of this no-holds-barred monologue, Wally is no cartoonish blow-hard. His revelations well up from a deep place of frustrated need and wounded self-esteem.

And, while Lomnicki can further tighten the writing (right now, it comes dangerously close to a repetitious rant), she has crafted a remarkably stinging role-reversal. Lomnicki, a little person, takes on the forthright persona of her straightforward brother sharing the pain of living in the shadow of his spunky older sister half his size. She talks about her own drive and passion for the stage in Wally’s colorful words. But Lomnicki is not in the spotlight; it’s really about her able-bodied brother’s paradoxical struggles with being invisible.

Wally also took on the role of protector for his small-framed sister and, later, for his younger brother Ed, who underwent serious eye surgery. Wally’s decidedly non-PC outbursts, delivered by Lomnicki in a nasally Chicago/Polish-American cadence, ultimately reveal the loneliness beneath the bravura. One of the monologue’s most tender moments is Wally’s childhood memory of his mother surprising him with a birthday cake in the shape of a pirate ship.

Lomnicki could easily have made fun of her loud-mouthed brother. Instead she sheds light on Wally’s own silent suffering and the monumental expectations foisted on him – and manages to make us laugh until we cry.

Julie Caffey’s over-ambitious "Underwater Football" – complete with an overhead projector and live video projections (mainly close-ups of her mouth as she speaks into a bowl filled with water) – could benefit from a sharper focus. Her potentially compelling story about how she and her embittered brother Jack restore their estranged father’s crumbling life and pack-rat-style home gets lost in under-rehearsed experimentation.

Caffey clogs her performance with too much extraneous material – like her complex family tree and her own coming-of-age issues. References to Herman Melville and the biblical story of Jonah add more impenetrable layers. Caffey’s casual delivery also meanders to a point where I questioned if she may have been winging it.

The multiple water motifs could work (especially the metaphor of non-communication via her deliberately indecipherable underwater speeches). But the symbolism wears thin and can be confusing. A keener awareness of the audience; of sharp pacing and delivery; and carefully chosen words could help transform this rambling lecture into a pungent vignette about acceptance, forgiveness and change.•

Tellin’ Tales Theatre’s production of "Sibling Revelry" runs through June 23 at Prop Thtr, 4225 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $15. Call 312-409-1025 or log onto www.tellintales.org.

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