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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sign Of Rain (Whiskey Rebellion Theatre Company GUEST REVIEWER CHRIS MATHEWS)

Well...

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

I awoke on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (observed) with a radiator hangover, somewhat regretful that I hadn’t answered Michelle Obama’s invitation to volunteer at a Literacy Fair for the day. Man, feeling pretty worthless about my contribution to the community.

Grumble-cursing the dehydrating nature of the elements which keep my apartment cozy and warm (and ignoring any notion that all the wine I drank last night has ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT) I flung my arm over to my nightstand to grapple for my smartphone. I had to check my email--I mean, I may not be volunteering today, but I’m still an AMERICAN.

But what’s this? A message from Anderson Lawfer? Inviting me to write for the Iews? Is this my chance to redeem my lack of community involvement? To reach outside myself, and put a little elbow grease into making the world a better place? To carry on Reverend King’s dream into 2011? Wow, that’s insulting to the legacy. No, of course not. He’s asking me to review a theatre show. I could have been handing out books to kids who don’t know how to read, or painting a school lunchroom. And I could have been doing that DURING THE DAY, and still been able to review the show at night, and feel really great about all the work I was doing out in the world. But this is what I get for being an inactivist.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DAY: A+

CHRIS’S MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DAY: F

But let’s not let the significance (and accompanying guilt) of the holiday eclipse the fact that when Andy Lawfer calls, you answer! And the answer is “YES!”

He gave me his digits.

I called them.

And then this is where things got really cool.

He proceeded to give me the details of my evening’s charge in a low, serious voice that made me feel like I was a spy setting out on an important, secretive mission. I think that this is actually because he was probably at his day-job where they frown upon his outside blogging ventures because they know where his real passions lie, and know that in the love contest between Iews and Day-Job, Day-Job just doesn’t light the coals. And so they are over-bearing and possessive, but only as a prideful mask of their jealousy, and sadness. We all need to cling to our integrity.

But really though, that guy should do more voice-over work, cause then everyone would feel like spies, which is a really cool feeling and makes me want to buy more products.

ANDY LAWFER’S SPY VOICE: A+

So then, after looking at the Google Maps to find out where the hell I was going to have to route myself to get to Prop Theatre, I discovered my journey would take me to a stop at Western Ave & Addison St. !!! That’s where there’s a POPEYE’S CHICKEN! I will eat there!

And so I did.

I got a 2 piece mild combo with mashed potatoes and a Pepsi.

It was delicious and filling, but otherwise entirely unremarkable.

Well, I guess the restrooms were clean, and that was a nice surprise.

POPEYE’S CHICKEN: B+


But let’s get to the point, shall we?

So I’m attending the debut work of a new band of gypsies who call themselves THE WHISKEY REBELLION as part of the annual fringe-luxe RHINOCEROUS THEATER FESTIVAL. I’m not sure what this name brings to my mind, nor what the intent is. I mean, I bet the intent is to sound like a cool name, which, I think they are succeeding at. But I don’t drink a lot of whiskey, and I haven’t been a part of too many rebellions, and I’m not sure if I can recall a 7th grade historical reference (wait, let me check the internet real quick)--Nope, yeah, totally a historical reference to the time George Washington had to put down a bunch of whiskey distillers for not paying an excise tax (what does that mean?), proving that the U.S. government had the beef to put down a violent uprising of tax evaders. Or maybe they’re calling upon the evaders themselves who felt like they were being unfairly targeted because they lived in Western Pennsylvania and preferred to drink whiskey rather than pay taxes on it. And so maybe it’s the spirit of the rebellion itself. Historians and Wikipedia cite this event as being a significant contributor towards the formation of the political parties which continue to fuckle our nation today. (The new Republican party eventually repealed the tax, branding themselves as guys who don’t like taxes.) Or maybe it’s alluding to the aftermath: ratification by the citizenry of the constitution and acknowledgement of the opportunities and responsibilities that government representation offered, recognition by the Federalists that a government for the people could be fairly challenged by the people. Hm.

But the rebels at one point tarred and feathered officials of the government who were sent to collect the tax.

... I’m not sure this is striking the proper tone for a theatre company.

THE WHISKEY REBELLION’S CHOICE OF NAME: ?


ANYWAY.

Look, let’s be honest about what you’re going to see here. You don’t go to one of these festival things expecting to have your mind blown by a newfound re-invention of theatricality, or to be shaken to your emotional core in a way that’s going to make you finally pick up the phone and call your dad. I mean, if that happens, Great. I dare not say that such experiences are precluded by the nature of the thing itself. But attendance of a “festival” is an investment in voices that might matter tomorrow. You’re going to see some (typically) young theatricians sharpening their skill sets and learning their vocabulary. Maybe you’ll get to see some “risk-taking” or “experimentation” that you’re not going to see elsewhere--and some of that’s gonna work and some of it WON’T. And maybe there’s some intellectual stimulation up for grabs by participating in such a process, by listening to the ideas that are being batted around. But at best you should simply hope to just not come out HATING the fact that you just spent your time there.

So by that measure, SIGN OF RAIN wins.

The show opens with a pastoral little folk song that reminded me of the score to “The Princess Bride,” which is never a bad thing. The ensemble sings about how they’re going to take our gold, and I think something about how they’ll rip apart our limbs once we’ve died. Okay. It’s pretty clear this play is going to be some kind of downer. But here’s the only note I have (actors love giving each other notes): I just kinda wished they were smiling. I think this would have welcomed me into the story in a warm way, help to “set me up to knock me down.” Cause if you start the play with it already being a downer, and then the play’s a downer, I didn’t really go anywhere. But if you “trick” me into thinking things might not end up all bad, I might be sad when they do. Anyway, that’s all I got on that one.

So THENNNN, there’s like a little puppet show introduction of our main character, Bly, telling a bedtime story to her little sister (dexterously marionetted by Alexandria Frenkel). Here’s when we learn some things! One of the things we learn is there are RAINCROWS who will punish THIEVES! It’s a pretty exciting fairy tale that also involves a golden potato! We also learn that Bly and her sister share a magic gold amulet that plays music when you open it, and that Bly’s sister is a little frail. I really enjoyed the fact that the Bly puppet had a Princess Leia haircut.

Then the real journey begins! Bly steals away (note theft, remember the Raincrows?) on a locomotive bound for the open freedom of the West! She meets another stowaway named Lee (played with urchiney affection by Courtney Kearney), and they start to bond over their poverty and mischief. But it soon becomes clear that Bly might not be running toward the West so much as running from the East. Hmmm... what happened back there, Bly? And remember the Raincrows? Why are they haunting you? HM??? It also becomes clear that that magic gold amulet Bly is wearing gives her special premonitory powers--and everybody wants to hold it LOTR-style. And didn’t those guys earlier say they were going to take our gold??? And remember the Raincrows???

And you know, some stuff happens, I don’t wanna give anything away, but it’s a pretty enjoyable ride even though ultimately the story evokes a sadface. The scenes are broken up and interspersed with songs that are pretty lovely. Jordan Stacey does a good job of singing and playing guitar on them--and sometimes he plays his guitar like a drum--WHAT!??? The modest little set design is pleasing to look at, and complimentary to the action.

You know, another part of the “festival experience” is seeing what creative folks are able to do within the limitations of budget and resources. And let me just say, these guys are succeeding. The show is well-designed and inventive in that handmade kinda way. There’s some pretty cool projectionist work that creates neat little special effects in answer to some of the script’s more demanding visual imagery. Like RAINCROWS. (What the hell even are those?) Again, don’t expect some kinda gd magic show, but y’know, good job.

THEN, there’s Dana Dardai, who, in my opinion, has “it.” She plays the violin and leads the Raincrow chorus. She does not take this responsibility lightly. She is “invested.” I mean, I’m not slighting any of the others, they’re all in it and great, but Ms. Dardai is selling it. And she plays the accordion. Always impressive to see someone who’s actually spent the time to learn that weird thing. In that way that’s simultaneously impressed by the skill and quizzical of that skill’s development.

The script is a pretty good poetical little yarn. Jessica Wright was brave to have her crippled character declare, “I’m lame,” and other characters to ask, “Why are you lame?” Man, that could have backfired. But it didn’t. So, kudos!

And I guess I should say that the whole ordeal was well-helmed by director Aileen McGroddy. Way to be smart about what you can do and what you can’t.

Overall, if I were you, I’d look forward to the work of THE WHISKEY REBELLION. They clearly seem interested in things other than American History and alcohol-fueled dissent. Interdisciplinary, ensemble-esque type stuff, which I heard Aristotle said was important once.

SIGN OF RAIN: A


-Chris Mathews

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