Chicago Theatre Review
Book ‘Em, Michaels
Corpus Delicti – Madkap Productions
Sometimes a play reads well on the page, offering just the right amount of drama and social commentary. Then, when it’s on its feet in an actual, full-scale production, its shortcomings become evident and sometimes outweigh its positive qualities. Such is the case with the staging of David Alex’s latest script. The prolific playwright has written many successful plays and this new thriller does show promise. Besides the tension that builds up to the inevitable crime Alex’s play touches on a variety of themes: the still prevalent mistreatment of minorities, ex-convicts and the homeless; the power and comfort to be found in great literature; how excessive religious zeal can turn harmful. The play’s title is derived from a legal phrase stipulating that before a person can be convicted of a crime it must be proven to have occurred in the first place, and this figures significantly in the plot.
In Alex’s play, twenty-something African American Albert Durante is trying to restart his life after being released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Unfortunately, few people support Al’s innocence. His sister won’t talk to him, a police detective named Michaels haunts his every step trying to prove his guilt and Al’s employer constantly reminds him that he’s working there on probation. Al’s number one fan, however, is his high school-age niece, Beatrice. Thanks to Albert, they both work in a tiny, run-down book repair shop for Contrapasso, a religious fanatic and mama’s boy who secretly deals in valuable stolen merchandise. Albert’s lone friend is Virgil, a homeless young veteran who’s obsessed with counting the freight cars on passing trains. After a heinous crime is committed Albert correctly suspects Contrapasso; but when Michaels is reluctant to believe his theory Albert must resort to more creative methods in order to achieve poetic justice.
Of the five actors in this cast, Michael Bullaro is the standout with his realistic, yet humorous portrayal of Virgil. While he could have easily drifted into caricature, Bullaro keeps an honest, measured hold on a character who’s established a caring relationship with another lonely human being. Combining small mannerisms and a unique vocal style, Bullaro creates this young, homeless man, whose fascination with stories, jokes and trivia unites Virgil and Albert to the very end.
As Albert, Matthew J. Lloyd begins the play on the right track, but his second act sails way over the top. The character has to deal with a very traumatic event, but Lloyd’s cautious, soft-spoken Albert suddenly evolves into an entirely different man and his journey is just too sudden to be believable. Lovely Destiny Strothers shows real promise as Beatrice, Albert’s
energetic young niece. The young actress is winsome and possesses a fine singing voice, as well. The problem is that the actress has filled Bea with so much enthusiasm in every moment that she’s difficult to take. It’s as if she’s chugged too many energy drinks or that all of her lines were written in caps. Still, as the only female in the cast, the actress provides a refreshing new voice and some needed warmth to an otherwise somber play.
John Norris plays Contrapasso as a stereotype, instead of as a real person. So cartoon-like that everything he says and does screams, “Villain,” Norris could use some subtly in his characterization, as well as a little variety in his line reading. Jeffrey M. Brown’s Michaels fares a little better. However, he sometimes chews his words or delivers his lines so quietly he can’t be understood. At other times the actor simply looks lost. As a result, Brown also comes off as one-dimensional, which may be partly the fault of the script.
The events that lead up to the crime that ends Act I are played so unrealistically as not to be believed. Then, the second act turns into a muddle of secret contrivances to implicate the bad guy and becomes a hurried race to the final curtain. Mr. Alex might have better success with this piece if he were to trim away some of the fat and condense the play into one of those long one-acts, that are so popular today.
One of the best elements of this production, besides Mr. Bullaro’s likable, believable character, is Robert D. Estrin’s realistically designed and executed set, atmospherically lit by Scott Pillsbury. This is the finest scenic and lighting design ever to grace the Greenhouse Upstairs Studio space. Director Wayne Mell, who did such a fine job directing “Clutter,” has pushed much of this production into melodrama. If this is the style of the piece then every actor needs to be on the same page. A more realistic, less heavy-handed approach and tighter pacing, however, would seem better suited to Alex’s story. Keeping the play and all of its characters honest and grounded would deeply affect the audience and leave it with a message.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 27-March 23 by MadKap Productions at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Greenhouse Theater box office by calling 773-404-7336 or by going to www.greenhousetheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.