FROM FAMILY DRAMA TO A DRAG SHOW
The emotions run equally deep in these two very disparate shows
Talk about opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. It would be difficult to think of two more disparate shows than Julie Jensen’s play, “Winter,” now in its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre, and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” the hit jukebox musical ( based on the 1994 Australian film) that is serving as the inaugural production at Pride Films & Plays’ new two- stage home ( formerly Profiles Theatre) in Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood.
“Winter” is the latest entry in what might someday be a collection of the growing number of “Alzheimer’s spectrum” plays ( and that is not meant to be glib, for “King Lear” would easily qualify as the initial entry in any such volume).
“Priscilla” would easily qualify for entry into an anthology of Broadway’s many “pride” stories, from “La Cage aux Folles” to “Hairspray” and “Kinky Boots.”
Here is a closer look at each production.
Co- directed by Megan Carney and Mark Ulrich ( and inspired by Margaret Pabst Battin’s 2005 book “Ending Life: Ethics and the Way to Die”), the fictional “Winter” is framed by the familiar trope of estranged siblings returning to visit their parents’ home for Thanksgiving. The dinner takes place offstage; what we see is the living room/ office area. And what we witness is the panic, anger and periodic disorientation of Annis ( the always compelling and emotionally vivid Barbara E. Robertson), a retired poet and professor in late middle age who is keenly aware that she is losing her mental faculties and intent on ending her life at the time of her own choosing.
Annis believes her husband of many years, Robeck ( Dan Flannery), will abide by their pact “to go together.” But Robeck, an experimental scientist trying desperately to hold on to his career despite being pushed out by his lab ( a situation Jensen has captured to perfection), is far from ready. Meanwhile, the couple’s sons — married, well- to- do investment banker Roddy ( Sean Cooper) and his younger, single, more bohemian brother Evan ( Steve Haggard) — differ dramatically in how they want to deal with the situation. ( The brothers’ scenes together are ideally charged and winningly played by both actors.) And Annis must turn for help to her granddaughter, LD ( Martasia Jones) — a free- thinking ( and perhaps not entirely altruistic) young woman whose mother just happened to have suffered from serious mental health issues.
Elvia Moreno’s set makes the most of Rivendell’s intimate space, and Michael Mahlum’s lighting winningly captures Annis’ terrifying “episodes” in this unsparing if somewhat belief- stretching story that has all too many real- life parallels.
Part of the fun in watching “Priscilla” is to see how cleverly co- directors Derek Van Barham and David Zak, along with choreographer Jon Martinez and their design team, have managed to shoehorn a grand- scale musical into a storefront space and how they home in on the personal relationships, never sacrificing the required glitz and big production numbers.
The story takes us Down Under as two dancing, lipsynching drag queens — Tick ( Jordan Phelps) and Adam ( Luke Meierdiercks) — and Bernadette ( Honey West), a transgender woman who, in earlier days, was quite the star, rent a bus and leave the relatively safe confines of Sydney for the long ride to Alice Springs, a town in the remote Australian desert. The club where they are to perform their drag show is run by Marion ( Britt- Marie Sivertsen), Tick’s welcoming ex- wife — a choreographer who also happens to be the mother of Benji, their 10- year- old son, whom Tick very much wants to get to know. The trip is more than eventful and marked by several painful encounters with homophobia as well as certifiable eccentrics.
Awash in spangles, sparkles and wigs ( costume designer John Nasca had his work cut out for him), the large cast sings and dances up a storm, with a trio of divas — Jill Sesson, Tuesdai B. Perry and Rebecca Coleman — strutting with style. There is some zany sex comedy by way of a ping- pong ball act performed by Cynthia ( Maiko Terazawa). And there is a crazy romance between Bernadette ( West brings a certain old- school romance to the proceedings) and Cynthia’s oddball husband, Bob ( John Cardone). Along with all the camp and cattiness ( courtesy of the show’s book by Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott), there also is heart. Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @ HedyWeissCritic