Where: Venus Cabaret Theater at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3741 N. Southport Ave.
When: through June 3
Tickets: $65 (includes appetizers and cake)
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Congratulations to the brand-new Venus Cabaret Theater for making its debut just in time to catch the recent wave of immersive theater productions. Completely redone to the tune of $1-million, the space that had been Cullen’s Bar now is a flexible 80-seat cafe and performance venue designed and built by Trent Zilmer (Z Design Build Group) with clean-lined interior décor by Dianne Green Moen and theatrical technology by Mike Ross and Matt Gajowniczek.
Part of the concept is to offer food and drink to complement each show, and in that respect director L. Walter Stearns picked a good opener: Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth’s (book) “Company.” The centerpiece of the ground-breaking 1970 adult musical is a 35th birthday party for Robert (David Sajewich), and the “Closed for a Private Party” sign outside the cabaret is just the start of the conceit that the audience has been invited to join Bobby’s friends in celebrating the occasion. We’re greeted by some of them individually, served meats and cheeses to nibble on before the festivities really get underway, and given slices of birthday cake after intermission.
Although it has a cast of 14, “Company” lends itself fairly well to the intimate setting, which combines Alan Donahue’s minimalist scenic design with video designer Liviu Pasare’s evocative projections of New York City on a handful of window-like screens. Dustin L. Derry’s lighting design and Robert Kuhn’s eclectic costumes, which are no more rooted in the original period than the cell phones, complete the visual picture.
The band is limited to music director/conductor/pianist Eugene Dizon, bass Dan Kristan, and reed player Cara Hartz, but that wouldn’t matter much if the sound were distributed better throughout the room. Unfortunately, the music is too loud at times, and I couldn’t hear the lyrics to some songs, most disappointingly the panicked Amy’s (Jenna Coker-Jones) “Getting Married Today.” (It’s also too bad that the program card on the tables doesn’t include a song list or the actors’ bios.)
The large cast does create blocking problems. There’s relatively little playing space, and Stearns hasn’t figured out how to use it as well as he could. Too often the actors are lined up conga-style and more-or-less march through the couple of aisles stretching across the room. The choreography by Aubrey Adams is constrained to say the least. Except for the projections, very little distinguishes one location from another, so sometimes it’s hard to figure out where we’re supposed to be, especially given the many scenes.
Indeed, something about the whole evening seems disjointed, and it’s not just that the spectrum of relationships is dated. The specific birthday party setting may be as much of a drawback as it is an asset. Most of the scenes, which aren’t chronological, take place at other locations, as Bobby contemplates the pros and cons in the marriages of the five couples who are his friends, as well as his affairs with three girlfriends. The party is revisited three times from different perspectives, but the structure gets a little lost in the shuffle.
The performances are somewhat uneven, too. The show examines various views on marriage as commitment-phobic Bobby contemplates is own feelings about relationships and being alive, but some of the characters don’t have distinctive enough personalities. For example, Derek Self’s Peter doesn’t look or sound like the former Ivy Leaguer he’s supposed to be, and as his Southern belle wife Susan, Nicole Arnold isn’t very convincing. Furthermore, it’s impossible to believe that they’re perceived as a perfect couple, so their divorce announcement has no impact.
For me, one standout is Allison Bell as April, Bobby’s self-described “dumb” flight attendant girlfriend. Her comic timing is brilliant and, coupled with her impossibly sweet smile, make her a joy to watch. At the aggressive end of the range of personalities, Heather Townsend is truly scary as Joanne, the acerbic, alcoholic older woman in Bobby’s life who is on her third husband. Her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is every bit as bitter and scathing as it should be.
As for Sajewich’s Bobby, he has his moments, but I find him rather distant and elusive. But maybe that’s intentional, because part of the point here is that his friends don’t know him as well as they think they do, nor does he know himself. “Company” is really all about trying to figure it out.