Monday, June 25, 2007

Thumbs Akimbo

Theatre Review
Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago

Written by Eric Thomas Roach

Directed by Scott Oken

God Guns and Gold

Written by Scott Oken

Directed by Jennifer Pompa

The Factory Theater at The Prop Theater

One thing I always tell my writing students is not to write characters that are well-known celebrities or politicians. There's a few reasons for this. One - It's lazy. Usually what they come up with are pale imitations of one-note caricatures already popularized by SNL or MadTV. It keeps them from digging a little deeper and developing original characters. Two - it saddles an actor with having to create and sustain a convincing portrayal. Three- the audience is more likely to be focused on the success or failure of the portrayal than on the story being told.

So, the good news about Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago is that this isn't much of a problem. Scott Pasko and Chas Vrba do an excellent job at giving life to Siskel and Ebert, respectively. Together, they effectively recreate that Holmes and Watson chemistry of the originals. The play is populated with Chicago celebrities with hit or miss results, mostly hits. The twenty cast members do a rather remarkable job of blasting us through the Chicago landscape like a Trolley Tour Guide hopped up on goofballs.

Where the production falters is in a lack of confidence in the script and story. The script itself richochets all over the place with segments that do absolutely nothing to forward the story - for example, a commercial for dental dams comes out of nowhere, isn't funny enough to stand on its own and doesn't add anything. Some scenes are done with huge vaudevillian strokes, including rimshots, harkening Abbott and Costello routines.

The play opens with a very slick video-taped Bond movie credits sequence with Siskel and Ebert filling in for Bond and giant, sexy silhouetted models dancing about Chicago landmarks, like The Bean. If the rest of the production and story had embraced this hybrid with deadpan seriousness instead of splintering off into multiple styles and storylines desperately seeking laughs, then I think the show would have been more successful. There are beaucoup movie references, mostly in the form of quotes, and, for some reason, a lift from the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The only connection I can see to that is that the two characters who perform it later die offstage. Again, one of many strays way too far from the concept of Bond meets Film Critics.

As it is, it plays a lot like a company Christmas party where the employees do a skit making fun of their bosses. In this case, the company is the City of Chicago and the bosses are all the local celebrities. And the skit goes on way too long. Some of the strongest moments come from Siskel and Ebert's relationship, but the play doesn't have the courage to mine that. It just swings crazily from joke to joke. Siskel has a nice monologue at the end about what it means to review films, to be a teacher to others and to be a student of the films they watch. I would like to have seen more of that. Instead of off-the-cuff rattling of movie quotes in their dialogue, I would like to have seen them use what they learned from films to combat the villains.

Roger Ebert was there on opening night. It was very amazingly cool of him to just show up unnannounced. The play affectionately and respectfully portrays Gene and Roger, albeit younger, healthier versions of them. He gave the cast a thumbs up from his car as he drove off. Oprah, on the other hand, may want to skip this for another viewing of The Color Purple.

The Factory Theater does an interesting thing by opening the show with a ten-minute serial called God Guns and Gold. It's over-the-top camp fits in the Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago mold.It was fun and it was also brief. The plan, apparently, is to do parts two and three over the course of the Siskel and Ebert run. I'm not exactly sure how that's supposed to work. I can't imagine someone paying to see Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago two more times just to see how the ten-minute serial turns out. Kudos for trying something different, though.