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Friday, October 26, 2007

Satyrnalia? Manos: The Rock Opera of Fate by the New Millennium Theatre Company

I am tragically behind in . . . well, being a human being. One could argue that this is partly attributable to the fact that we were quite the social butterflies last weekend. Instead, I like to blame the mountain of grading. But your gratification shall be delayed no longer! You will hear of Manos: The Rock Opera of Fate. It is the only plan of action of which the Master will approve.

Unfortunately, our story begins sadly. The National Pastime Theater in the old speakeasy is more or less at Irving Park and Broadway. It's not in Boys Town, it's not quite in Edgewater, and whatever some Chicago city sites claim, it's not in Wrigleyville. So it's this area of the city that I just don't know a ton about, but the job of choosing the restaurant fell to me.

The cast list for the evening included my Pal M, the FD, mi esposo M (natch), and our friends B the lovely G, who were driving a long, long way for some lumpy knees. The assembled company requested something not too expensive and not too loud. Tragically, Rick's Cafe on Sheridan and Irving Park seemed to meet our needs and not much else in the neighborhood did. We had what was one of the worst restaurant experiences of my life. It was certainly one of the most protracted restaurant experiences of my life, as we got there at 7:30 and very nearly had to leave before we got any food at all so that we could make our 10:30 show. Add in a passive-aggressive douche bag of a manager and, well, it seemed like the whole evening was going to be a kind of anxiety dream.

But! All was forgiven when we got to the show. The lobby of the NPT was quite crowded, first of all because the first show was being cleared and the set for M:TROOF was being assembled, and second of all because Torgo's knees were in the house. This would turn out to be confusing because this Torgo-about-town, jauntily sipping drinks among his public, would turn out not to be the Torgo, but merely a Torgo.

There were nonalcoholic beverages for sale in the lobby, and the helpful house manager pointed us toward alcoholic beverages in every direction. Given that we'd just had the dinner lasting longer than the Donner Party's journey, we were more in coffee mode. M and B thus headed to 7-Eleven to procure stimulants. I took the opportunity to peruse the wall of show art and head shots. The latter included one of Hal Warren, actor, director, writer, producer, fertilizer salesman, denture wearer.

In seeing the poster for Boomstick!, I was reminded that (a) Ooh! I really want that soundtrack if I can get it; (b) I'm very old and thus have already gone through two separate periods of Evil Dead love—one when I thought the first two movies were the scariest thing EVAH (special thanks to the FD for her baleful look and reassurance that I'm well and truly old when I made this admission to her) and a second when I learned to stop worrying and love Bruce Campbell faithfully and ironically; and (c) that I'm a FOOL for having already missed so many of New Millennium Theatre Company's highly delicious offerings.

Soon enough, our boys were back with coffee, soda, etc., and we were filing into the theater itself. There's no stage in the space (at least for this production), which is pretty large. There are chairs on risers along the east and north walls. There's one narrow exit from the "stage" on the west side of the north seats, and the main door to the space is in the south east corner.

The stage, such as it was for this production, was a black-draped proscenium about 15-feet high. This was set up at a NW-SW angle in about the middle of the floor, and all the props and costumes were set behind it. Flats were moved out to form the stage right vertical of this to suggest different interiors within "The Place, and various pieces of "furniture, were pushed through the center curtain. The "cars" for both the family and the "Make-Out Couple" were hinged plywood frames with rope handles on the inside so that they actors could carry them around.

The ceiling in the space is high, and there is a loft atop the south wall that is divided up into niches. Our story began with a spot illuminating one of these to reveal The Narrator. The Narrator, played by Chris Hauser, was a magnificent collision of 80s hair band awesomeness and every John Hughes character ever played by either Anthony Michael Hall or Jon Cryer. He had beautiful rock hair entirely held together by the bandana encircling his head and was, of course, shirtless beneath his black vest. He was also stringy and pasty and impressively weanie and pathetic looking, especially for someone who seems, in reality, to be a perfectly attractive, normal-looking person. His opening song was very much in the spirit of the off-the-rails DVDA version of "What Would Brian Boitano Do?", assuring us that we should have our fast-acting inhalers handy if we were allergic to awesome.

The Narrator started out as a very good idea, very well executed. The focus returned to him at random intervals throughout the show as he powers his way through his Bears-themed case of Miller Light. Toward the end, the business with him did get a little drawn out and worn, but his balladeer bacon was saved during the big group medley ("One Day More" from Les Misérables brilliantly rewritten for one dysfunctional family, 2 Brides of Manos, one Torgo, one cop, and the Master) when the spot found him completely passed out during his bit.

Still, even if the gag got a little drawn out, this was a clever way of giving the rest of the cast and crew time to accomplish set and costume changes, etc. Furthermore, if any story needed some built-in coffee breaks for the purposes of sharing a group WTF?, it's Manos, and Hauser is a gem of a performer, gamely dismantling his costume while whaling away on an acoustic guitar (which is so totally a telecaster in his mind's eye) and improvising (at least I assume a lot of what he's doing is improvising) like a champ.

Other than these welcome interruptions by the narrator, the opera follows the plot storyline action stuff that happens in Manos pretty faithfully. There's a screen on top of the proscenium (a nice nod to the opera part) that serves a multitude of functions: When our family makes their first appearance, exciting driving!footage! from Manos itself plays across it giving a new twist on terrible rear projection; elsewhere it bears exciting fonts! and exclamation points! no doubt stealing jobs from the PAs who normally incite the live studio audience to frenzy. By the end, when the opera has wisely abandoned all pretense of following the movie in favor of one of what the literature assures is a dozen different endings, the Karaoke lyrics for the finale of Les Miz are projected.

In my meandering way of covering the musical content of the show, I may have inadvertently given the impression that M:TROOF is slapped together and improvised. Not so! The musical numbers range from mixtures of bouncy, recitative-adjacent trios for our family to "window songs" for Torgo, a flashy Andrew Lloyd Webber/Parker & Stone-worthy rock anthem for the Master himself, and a complex, beautifully executed harmony-heavy trio ("Great Manos, Hear My Prayers" for the wives.

The performance of the 2 parts of "Family Time" was a little rough, but the incredibly dark lyrics set against music that evokes the demented, teeth-grittingly cheerful theme from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians renders the performance almost irrelevant. The main issue with how "Family Time" came off is that Tory Crowe (who is unspeakably, jaw-droppingly brilliant as "Maggie") has a powerful, lovely voice, whereas Sean Harklerode (who clearly landed Hal Warren's plum role on the strength of his creepy, plasticine, Herb Putterman impression [this is a high compliment, in case my gentle reader has just fallen off the turnip truck]) isn't much of a singer. The actors and director wisely came to the conclusion that he should smarmily sing-talk his lines and embrace a kind of Thurston-Howell-on-Ecstasy style of delivery. This worked beautifully in the bigger group numbers, but the road was a little rough and rocky earlier on.

To be honest, the "Torgo Inside of Me," wasn't quite up to the snuff of some of the other material in the show. I suppose that's appropriate, though. The window song always snatches the Oscar from more deserving competitors, often within the same movie. In this case, "TIoM" is decidedly overshadowed by "I Said Manos, HEY HEY Manos" (aka "Manos! Fuck Yeah!") and "You Have Failed as Torgo." Really, it's dirty pool to compare the latter to anything else, because (a) it is brilliantly set to "Lily's Eyes," from The Secret Garden (Torgo is ZOMG eleventy funny if you're picturing him played by Mandy Patinkin) and (b) it takes place in Torgo's room, which is the most brilliant set ever devised. (I am torn between wanting to avoid spoilers and needing to share about this, so I will simply say KITTEN CALENDAR!)

The mix of originality and parody, silly and serious in the music is reflective of what makes M:TROOF so terrific. Writer/Directors Andy Grigg & Steven Attanasie not only get Manos, they get that real parody takes work and love and maybe the tiniest bit of pixie dust. This isn't some craptastic assembly of sight gags, it's a deft mixture of homage and satire much more akin to the original Airplane than to its degenerate (supposed) descendants.

That approach centers on Tory Crowe's 100% earnest, 1000% spot on performance as Maggie, the be-kerchiefed wife. Crowe can do no wrong. Her body language, her tone of voice, her jerky, eerily hinged movements are funny. every. time. I could listen to her begin every sentence "MuhIIIIKe!" until the last trumpet sounds.

But Manos wouldn't be Manos without Torgo, and again, Adam Rosowicz plays it relatively straight Torgo-y. His advanced TV Parkinson's is perfect, and he does not overplay the relentless toRgO VibRaTo. Some of the business of him trying to get up from the floor got a little protracted, but otherwise, he is magnificently pathetic and off putting.

Although most of the show avoids any fourth-wall shenanigans, the decision to have Nathan Sanford (the cop) embody the collective despair of the cast of the original movie was a good one. He enters his scenes with one leaden footstep after the other, barely able to summon the energy to hold aloft the tiny, flashing keychain that represents his squad car. By the time he arrives on the scene to disrupt the hilarious, obscenely loud and smacky make-out session for a third time, he is in tears over the violent death of his career. As he runs off stage, a spot travels up to the narrator who tearfully salutes him and says, "May we all find that kind of courage." Funny stuff, adroitly played.

The three wives, played by Leslie Kerrigan, Rebecca Gallagher, and Lisa Adams (who bravely doubles as "make-out girl") play extremely well off one another with Kerrigan as the straight woman (we cannot kill the child!), Gallagher as the grasping youngest wife (uh, yes, we can!), and Adams finding the schizophrenic happy medium. They're strong singers and, really, their number is damnably hummable. We were all gratified to see the nightgown fight so expertly enacted, too.

Adam Mack is a pleasingly imposing, strutting, porn-star-moustache-sporting Manos himself, and he's got a great bass-baritone voice that's put to excellent use. By the time the story gets to the master, he's rather an anticlimax, which I'm sure is deliberate, but there might have been a touch more characterization for him beyond terrific off-foley slapping of everyone in sight. As it is, there's a tendency for him to be upstaged by his magnificent Hell Hound, which sits in a glass case next to the flat for Torgo's room in the Set and Props Hall of Fame. I sooooo wish they were auctioning off the Hell Hound at the end of the production, because he would be mine. Oh yes, he would be mine.

I cannot in good conscience close this entry without bowing down before Matt Russell (at a considerable distance for reasons that will become clear momentarily). In the program, he is credited only as Make-Out Guy. That would surely be enough, because he wears his cardigan with style and his open-mouthed, tongue-standing-proud attacks on Adams will be featured in my nightmares for decades to come. However, we lucked into the surprise Labyrinth ending that featured him doing his David-Bowie-IS-Jareth-King-of-Goblins impression. This was a truly unspeakable privilege. No, I mean, really, I cannot speak of his outrageously stuffed dance belt without a lawyer present and a medical professional on hand.

Speaking of the end of things, the show's run ends tragically soon, so if are within a 500-mile radius and haven't yet seen this, run, do not walk, to the national pastime theatre. Seriously. I'm not above coercion.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as the Producer slash guy-who-built-the-hellhound...adoption is not out of the question...

Glad you enjoyed the show!

Chad Wise
Artistic Director
New Millennium Theatre Company
www.nmtchicago.org

12:20 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

WoooT! Let's talk!

Also, we're very interested a DVD with all 12 endings. I'm only sorry we got to see the show so late in its run.

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Ian M. Burton said...

Hey, I'm the other Torgo. Just dropping in to thank you for this review; it made my night even better to finally see somebody do this show justice. It's too bad you aren't writing for something bigger!

Also, after hanging with the cast after the show tonight, I thought I'd make a case for Sean, the guy who plays Michael; it's not that he CAN'T sing, it was a character choice. The writer/directors had that pegged as a requirement for the role since the show was just in the conceptual stages.

But yes, a better review has yet to be seen of this show. I hope you'll find the time to come back and see it again!

4:25 AM  
Blogger Matilda said...

I'm appalled at that Time Out review. Bitches! And you and me both wish I could write this up for some place where it would really get seen. Did the Reader not even review the show?

And thanks for the clarification on Sean/Michael. I suspected that might be the case.

Keep those lumpy knees real, friend.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Matilda,

Thanks so much for the extensive review! Glad to hear you enjoyed the show so much.

But I have to ask, what did you think of "Debbie"? You didn't mention her in your review.

Hey hey Manos,

Jackey Neyman

2:16 PM  

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