Chicago Theatre Review
Dazed and Confused
The Sweeter Option – Strawdog Theatre
Can an audience leave the theatre thinking the show they saw is both good and bad? The latest production at Strawdog, it’s 100th in 27 years, is such an animal. It’s certainly well-acted, competently directed and inventively staged and produced. It’s just that the script, a world premiere by ensemble member John Henry Roberts, is kind of all over the place and, as such, is confusing and extremely difficult to follow.
Roberts’ homage to film noir and pulp fiction is set in and around Chicago during an era of leisure suits and gas station attendants. It’s a hot June in 1971. Tucker, a good-looking young repo man with questionable ethics, posing as a detective, becomes involved with a slew of other shady characters. The confusing plot jumps back and forth in time, making this play even harder to follow, but has to do with an insurance scam, a stolen rental car, embezzled money, a criminal, his wife and his mistress. There’s a whole bodybag full of Tarantino-inspired blood and violence and a couple of masked identities. Familiar Chicago area references, such as Montgomery Wards, Allstate, the Cubs, Wilmette, Sheridan Road and Milwaukee Avenue, help give this story some familiarity. However, audiences leaving the theatre can be heard asking each other what the play was all about?
Director Marti Lyons has made the most of this topsy-turvy script. She coaxes fine performances from her talented cast and stages this story economically, with intelligence and wisdom. Scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka, whose set for “Great Expectations” showcased her ability to create more from less, artfully meets the challenge of producing the multitude of locales demanded by this script. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of this production is watching Ms. Lyons’ indefatigable cast transforming each scene into the next, thanks to Ms. Iwanicka’s flexible, easily-manipulated, imaginatively-constructed set design. Amanda Herrmann’s period-perfect properties and set dressing (the gasoline pump is a real blast from the past) add texture to this production’s visual magic.
At the top of this cast as Irene is the magnificent, alluring young actress, Michaela Petro. Seductive and cat-like, Ms. Petro is an actor who commands attention easily, even while languishing ducktaped on a sofa. She fully understands the power she possesses in her well-trained voice and spellbinding glance. Sam Guinan-Nyhart transforms into a contemporary Sam Spade, with a scintillating look and a macho sensuality. If this had been a better-written script, the actor wouldn’t have to work quite as hard establishing and maintaining his ever-changing character. What Mr. Guinan-Nyhart manages to accomplish in 80 short minutes, however, is remarkable. Sarah Price is Joy, a feisty, fluffhead of a character, Emily Tate’s Carolyn is strong and manipulative and Jamie Vann makes Mac a ruthless, hardhearted ruffian, someone with whom no one would want to mess. Matt Farabee’s Cyril is sweet and refreshingly honest, especially alongside this pack of liars and swindlers, and Rudy Galvan creates Pete as a bully sporting more bravado than brains.
Bravo to this award-winning storefront theatre company, celebrating its 27th season, who consistently produce excellent plays that challenge both its artists and audiences. Unfortunately, this play isn’t an example of their best work because the script is such a confusion. The production is interesting, often exciting, features some fine acting and is supported by excellent production values, but the story is simply too muddled to follow. Perhaps one day rewrites will transform this film noir-style play into a clearer, more coherent drama. As it now plays, audiences are simply left dazed and confused.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 13-March 28 by Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-528-9696, by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.