Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre)

The Gift Theatre’s matchbox of a space provides some of the most innovative staging in the city. How in the hell the two brothers in ‘The Lonesome West’ went twelve rounds without barreling over into the audience is a miracle.

Night and Her Stars,’ now playing in the Jefferson Park space, transported the audience back into the 1950s and the Golden Age of Television, and the geriatric crowd on hand was more than willing to accept it.

Michael Patrick Thornton could’ve directed his thirteen member ensemble in my hall closet and they still wouldn’t have seemed cramped for space.

‘Night and Her Stars’ tells the story of the match-fixing scandals of the game show 21. But Richard Greenberg’s play is about much more than one controversial story. Mental health seemed to be prevalent in much of this play and in the performances, in addition to the glaring question television’s effect on the public and on the individual viewer. I like television, so naturally, I liked this play. I also like being hypocritical by blaming television for all the world’s ills, and the play satisfied that side of me too.

What can one say about Raymond Shoemaker? The guy is committed. As Herb Stempel, the obsessive, bipolar, Jewish knowledge junkie with illusions of a star-studded future as an actor, Ray chews up his scenes with an amusing and complex precision, nailing every moment with intensity. I’d pay fifty bucks to see this guy, in character, go toe to toe with IBM’s Watson in Jeopardy. It would be compelling entertainment. Stempel could not have cast more perfectly.

In addition to Shoemaker, the cast was full of kick-ass performances. No plays a jerk like Ed Flynn, and his turn as the Geritol sponsor was no exception. I was only disappointed that wasn’t on stage more.

Jay Worthington’s performance as a nervous, self-loathing prodigal son Charles Van Doren was incredibly compelling. Worthington captures a delicate balance between accomplished academic and father’s insecure pupil, his shy, nervous demeanor the perfect complement to Shoemaker’s aggressive obsession. If only there had been a third contestant, played, of course, by Dan Behrendt…

A special highlight came in the form of the American Chorus, an ensemble of actors that played various social groups and individual viewers, moving the story forward and providing the proper social context of the times. Thornton’s staging really took off during these moments.

This is also your last chance to see Lindsey Barlag before she becomes Lindsey Patrick Thornton later this spring, so don’t miss it! Barlag, one of RYCI’s Ten Women of Chicago Theatre, had the most memorable moment of the evening, with a cameo as a letter-writing housewife afflicted with a severe case of dermatillomania.

If you want to come down with a severe case of iluvathegiftheateromania, see ‘Night and Her Stars.’


-Michael Dice Jr.

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