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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Superfriends of Dorothy: Hamburger Mary's and Rogue-8

Last night was the last performance of Rogue-8 at Rogue Theater Company. I've had a yen to see this since I first saw it in the Reader theater listings, so we were late-night bound for Andersonville, where Swedes are Swedes, and gay people carry around their pet rats.

Andersonville is about parallel with the Telecommuniculturey Headquarters in terms of E/W coordinates, but it's a little over 150 blocks North. It's a great neighborhood with lots of bookstores (including the awesome Women and Children First), funky consignment shops, toy stores, and a lot of different dining options layered over a healthy base of Swedish cuisine (and I'm not just talking Ann Sather here).

The show starts at 11:00 PM, so I figured I'd take the crazy pony for a walk and then we'd head up around 8:30-ish and test our dining luck. I failed to anticipate that I would need a not inconsiderable amount of assistance putting on my shirt. It's this . . . thing . . . from Anthropologie that has an under tank top of very thin material and no finishing on the neckline or hemline, and that's attached (at the shoulder seams and at the shoulder seams only) to the same thin material that is a normal shirt in back, but the material in front is criss-crossed and twists in a knot at the bustline. There are about 27 different ways to put this shirt on wrong and only one right. Although it is inimical to his nature, M was kind enough to help me figure it out. It only took the two of us working together, with animals coaching from the sidelines, about 5 minutes. So we left a little late. Never trust a pink garment.

We arrived on North Clark shortly after 9:30 and began the hunt for food. We briefly considered Andies, which is a Mediterranean place, but decided to press on a bit further to see if there was something we preferred. And in fact there was. I'd read about Hamburger Mary's in Zagat, which informed me that the purple awning announced its gay-friendliness. I rather think its location that stretch of North Clark announces that, but have fun with your Masonic symbols, Zagat. It also pointed out that the "Little Lambs" menu indicated its kid-friendliness. I pass over the implication that children and gays are mortal enemies and move on to the interior.

Two things I've just learned about Hamburger Mary's: (1) It's a chain and the San Diego location's website has atrocious music and design by someone whose medium is technicolor vomit; (2) the Chicago location has only been open since June of this year. The interior design is very cool, kind of like Marche after it had kicked its coke habit. (Seriously, the design is worth a look; it's an awkward interface, but if you click on the myserious small white squares on the scrapbook page, you can also see the bar and a better shot of our wall, and so on.)

We were sitting along the pink and green North wall pictured in the scrapbook photo I linked to above. The pink, striped section was painted, but the green part is wallpaper (green polka-dots with large zinnias on it) that had been torn artfully along an irregular line. The west wall was painted in large gold and tan diamonds, and the East and South walls are windows with velvet tie-back curtains. The booths and table tops were various shades of purple and the floor was done in large terrazzo squares of rose and grey. The Virgin Mary, the ultimate in camp, features prominently in the decorations, but there are also deco World's Fair posters and so on. The ceiling is pressed tin, as are a series of inlaid panels on the wood bark, and the exposed ductwork is painted in a dull bronze. The lighting is relatively low, most of it being provided with beaded chandelier-ettes over the bar and red-shaded sconces on the wall. Up near the ceiling, there are several flat-screen TVs all showing music videos continuously. There's also a pretty sizeable outdoor seating area along the side street to the south. Other nice touches include the fact that the brightly colored plates are actually ceramic and the glasses are glass (although napkins and silverware are delivered in a red plastic pizza joint cup), so they don't take the diner theme too far with melmac and crap like that. Also, the checks are delivered in a red shoe.

The patrons skew queer, but there were a number of het couples as well. Most of the waitstaff seems to be gay (um . . . I mean I have no idea what anyone's actual orientation was, but there seemed to be a certain mandate to "play gay" akin to Ed Debevic's servers "playing asshole," if you take my meaning). Our waitress was loud and funny, often bursting into snippets of song. She was also a serious fag hag, which got annoying as the night wore on and she walked by our table, while holding something bound for us, to flirt with the two gay guys at the booth behind us. Actually she may have had some attention problems in general, as she ran outside at one point to canoodle a pet rat that a guy was walking (to her credit, she came in and announced "And now I will go wash"). Although she did immediately intercept the woman who came in with her dog in a bag, so I guess she had potential.

For drinks, I had the frozen slushie. It was good (despite giving me numerous cold headaches), although there was some confusion about what flavor this actually was. M had the Zipper Ripper, which was delicious in the very trashy way of drinks containing SoCO. We chose Mary Popper's Tini for our appetizer, and the olives were particularly awesome. Of course, I had a jalapeno popper incident whereby I bit into the rather phallic deep-fried jalapeno and ended up with a white creamy substance all over my chin. Ahem.

For the main meal, we both opted for Buffy (The Hamburger Slayer) (like DUH), although I got a buffalo patty and fries and M went for regular beef and onion rings. Most excellent burgers and both the fries and the rings were cracklicious. M would have liked to try one of the twinkie-based desserts, but we ended up not having time (partly due to our late arrival, but also due in large part to the fact that the waitress was not very interested in our table).

We hoofed our way back South on Clark and made it to the theater a little more than five minutes before curtain. I was immediately struck by the contrast to the production of Assassins by Open Eye Theatre. The lobby of Rogue theater is attractive and comfortable. There's a shelf full of books and a few couches for early arrivals who might want to lounge around a bit, reading and taking advantage of the coffee and miniature candy bars. There was also a postcard rack holding material for Rogue as well as a few other theater companies, and various other pieces of good-looking (though not necessarily terribly expensive) advertising hanging around. The front-of-house were friendly and helpful (despite our late arrival).

As we sat down with our programs and voting device (ooooooh, toys!), I flipped through the program. The cover was a nice faux-comic-book cover design in relatively high-quality color. The inside looked like it had been done on a basic inkjet or consumer laser printer. It was copyedited, attention had been paid to formatting and layout, and it contained ample information on the production, players, theater company, and upcoming shows without being some bloated, disorganized piece of crap. In other words, I walked away from this very small theater company, which has only been in existence for 4 years, with a tangible reminder of their professionalism and a pleasant evening at the theater. They really ought to run a clinic or something.

The theater itself is a very small black box, much wider than it is deep. The back wall was exposed brick, and wings had been constructed with a combination of plywood and curtains. The back of the stage right wing seemed to lead out of the theater and behind the box office. At stage left, the actors frequently made use of an actual exit from the building as well, although there was a wing area upstage of this. The stage has a regrettable support pole downstage left, but otherwise, it's not bad in terms of size or layout.

Rogue-8 is an original work by Dan Telfer (erm, the website is not great to say the least, and information confirming that he is the Rogue-8 playwright and director was difficult to unearth), and it deserved the Reader's coveted "R." This production, which is technically Rogue-8 #1: Rogue-8 versus the Unseen Hand, is structured basically like an episode of the Superfriends or the 1960s TV version of Batman; the premise is that late-night radio announcer is telling the stories of Rogue-8 the only the most loyal of audience members (he drives all others away by telling bizarre, yet boring stories at the outset before launching into the top-secret tales.

The announcer, played expertly by Lloyd Young III, sets each scene (obviating the need for any real sets), stops the action at pivotal moments to augment the cliff-hangery goodness, and also directed the audience when it came time to vote on plot twists. (One of the fun things about seeing the last performance was the fact that they added in a little narration so that we got to how both options played out. It seemed a little hard on the actors, who probably hadn't gotten a ton of rehearsal time at switching gears in this way, but we certainly appreciated it.) Telfer seems to have struck a good balance regarding the use of this device. For example, at the top of the show, the narrator introduces three of the eight characters in short establishing scenes (IN the city at a DRINKING esTABlishment; YET anOTHER drinking esTABlishment; In another type of DRINKING esTABlishment enTIRELY!), which is just enough to let the joke reach maximum funnyness without it getting tedious. Similarly, there are three points at which the audience is allowed to choose the direction of events: Two are funny but silly the third has more real impact, and the narration implies that audience choice during the run will influence how things play out in future installments (Issue #2 opens in October).

Apart from the framing convention, the rest of the play shows an obvious love for comic books and superheroes in general. The deft hand Telfer has in choosing how much narration to employ also serves the script well in terms of injecting genuine fondness into what is ultimately a parody of both the medium and its fandom. The group has been assembled from posters to a comic book message board by "Gamma Raymond," who has identified the 8 as the most likely to have actual superpowers. As the characters arrive at the first meeting, each steps to center stage and announces his/her superidentity and e-mail address.

Gamma Raymond (Chip Aucoin) is a clear Cyclops (Los Hombres de Equis, natch) analog, and a well-done send up he is. He's the leader by virtue of having gathered them all, but his qualifications are immediately in question. His superpower is hyperacute vision, which renders him blind without his billion-dollar goggles. He is well-meaning, prefers a democratic approach, and is ultimately a ween. (In fact, he is the first to be put out of commission when the Unseen Hand charms him out of both wedding ring and goggles.) Aucoin plays him with a nice mix of self-effacing deference and enthusiasm, but I don't think he ever really owned the dialogue (the sense that he was speaking lines was pretty strong). I think he could have used some help in technical acting basics. He spoke very rapidly and didn't always project, making him difficult to understand at times (the theater's acoustics are not great).

Antibiotica and the Eel of the Deep (Elizabeth Hope Kohart and Scott Cupper, respectively) also had science-derived powers (she can affect organic material at the molecular level, he manipulates electricity and is slowly devolving into an electric eel). Although they seem somewhat derived from the Fantastic 4, much of their backstory was only hinted at. From what we learned in Issue #1, they are the only two in the group with any crime-fighting experience, she is definitely the hero, he the sidekick, and someone is extorting mochas from her.

Antibiotica draws some of the clumsier dialogue in the script, and Kohart handled it well overall. Eel, in contrast, has much of the sly comedy that requires great timing, and Cupper is definitely up to the task (because of his devolution, he is constantly battling dry skin with a misting bottle---that was just funny every time). Superficially, Antibiotica is a humorless, bullying character and the Eel is pure comic relief. But kudos are due, again, to Telfer for making them a married duo and allowing them to play a lot of affection with one another that keeps either from being completely cliched. Also, it sounds silly, but the hints about their backstory were genuinely intriguing in good serial style.

Tilt (Amanda Lanier) seemed part Kara Thrace, part Wolverine, part Col. John "Hannibal" Smith. Her power is the ability to nauseate with her hands (a power she controls with massive black goalie gloves, and my . . . er . . . hat is really off to Lanier for the fact that she was able to manage them AND chomp a cigar throughout the performance). Both M and I were pretty sure that we were missing the joke on which this character was based, but Lanier's gravel-voiced, sexy-butch performance was highly enjoyable nonetheless (her wailing about the loss of her Starlight My Little Pony touched me DEEPLY).

The Chernobyl Cherub (Jenifer Henry) seems to be an amalgam of most of the irritating junior leaguers that somehow attach themselves to real superheroes. Her power is seeing light in the darkest of places (which confers amusingly vague ability to locate objects) and, oh yeah, did we mention flight? Henry's performance was a little uneven at the start, but she absolutely shone in a few long, difficult monologues. She can make my mix tape anytime.

The Unnoticeable Girl (Leslie Frame) is the best of Season 1 Willow, even though her look seemed to be tragically based on a blonde Fred "GAG" Burkel. I think everyone can see where the gag would go with a superhero with this name, but as with most things in this, both acting and writing kept things quirky and enjoyable throughout. Unnoticeable Girl is primarily paired with The Legalizer (Hayley L. Rice) in this installment. This is another strategic combination. The Legalizer's real power is concentrated in her briefcase, which is capable of producing the legal documentation appropriate to any occasion (the briefcase is also the Phlebotenum in Jar C as it has been stolen by the Unseen Hand before the show starts). It's a somewhat dubous schtick (and Rice's performance was the most uneven in the cast), but these two as a duo makes the most of it. I'll be interested to see how the Legalizer plays out in the future.

Rounding out the crew is Single Gay Man (Ashland Thomas). He (along with Tilt and Antibiotica) is one of the three characters who gets an establishing monologue at the beginning of the show. Getting a handle on the alter ego is always tricky (Just ask Brendan Routh who failed expensively), and Thomas suffered from some of the same line-reading problems as Aucoin at the very top of the show. Single Gay Man's powers are only in effect when he wears the sunglasses he found, and what those powers are, exactly, is saved up for a reveal relatively late in the show. As he, Tilt, the Legalizer, and Unnoticeable Girl are supposed to be following the others to the site of the mission, he confides that he is not sure that he likes who the glasses make him. Tilt baits him (SHENNANIGANS!) until he agrees to demonstrate his ability to psychologically kill someone.

The glasses are something along the lines of earlyish Elton John, and they turn Single Gay Man into a complete, sniping queen. Yeah, it's completely predictable, and the content of the monologue is pretty much what you might think, but like the other standard-issue elements, it works because the script and the actors make it work.

And, doh! I almost forgot the Supervillain, the Unseen Hand (Nicholas Ward), which I guess is appropriate. (It also might be the teensiest reflection that the plot of the show, which runs just 50 minutes, is not overly plot-ish; but the action is sacrficed to setting up the character stories, so I'm very willing to allow it.) The order of the day for this character was overpowering, slightly oily charm. Ward delivered in spades (I couldn't help thinking that I recognized him from something else, which may just be part of his success). And as with the other characters, the script provided a tantalizing little somethin' somethin' for the future. A face turn is not completely out of the question.

The mission statement for the theater says: "Rogue was formed in the summer of 2002 by a few malcontents cast off by their former theatre company. Several shared values brought them together -- a love of actors telling good stories, an enjoyment of outsider status, and a belief that theater should be accesible to everybody and should be spelled with an ER. The misfits settled on the name Rogue and chose to focus on two things: their plays would be about rebels and outcasts, and they'd make sure they kept a gender baalance -- including as many women onstage and behind the scenes as men . . . Rogue produces plays where the actors and the text are the focus. You probably won't ever see a helicopter or a crashing chandalier on the Rogue stage. What you will see are smart, literate plays about rogues, rebels, misfits, and outcasts performed by actors who like what they do." And despite this lengthy entry, I really couldn't have said it better myself.

Here's to October and Issue #2.

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Anonymous Dan Telfer said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Hope to see you at Issue #2!

5:09 PM  

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