"The House of Blue Leaves" Review- a physical comedy with social commentary

“The House of Blue Leaves”, a play by John Guare,  (1966),  which won the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Obie Award in 1971 for Best American Play, is currently in production  by The Raven Theatre Company at The Raven Theatre Center’s East Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 18, 2016. It’s a wildly funny rollickingly physical dark comedy directed by JoAnn Montemurro, starring Jon Steinhagen in the lead role of Artie, an unfaithful zookkeeper with big dreams; Kelli Strickland as his crazy wife Bananas; and Sarah Hayes as Artie’s opportunistic girlfriend, Bunny. Also appearing are Derek Herman as Artie and Bananas'  incendiary son, Ronnie; Noah Simon, as the couple's childhood  friend, Billy; and Jen Short as Billy’s girlfriend, Corrinna, who tries to conceal the fact that she is deaf. The remaining cast members are Kristen Williams, Sophia Menendian and Shariba Rivers, as a hilarious trio of home-invading nuns; Bob Gerics,  as a "white man"; and Conor Clark, as a policeman.

Sarah Hayes, Jon Steinhagen

The complicated and thoroughly authentic stage set depicts a chotchke-cluttered two room Queens apartment, circa the day Pope Paul 6th’ arrives for his historic two week visit to the U.S. in 1965. Front stage right is an Amateur Night hall where we first encounter Artie, singing cornball songs and playing the piano. In fact, there are two pianos on stage at all times and the scenes with Artie singing and playing are some of the funniest as well as the most poignant. Artie's  dream is to make it big in Holywood with the help of his childhood friend, Billy, now a big-shot producer. Bananas is clearly schizophrenic, and headed for an institution. Bunny, who lives downstairs, and wants to go to Hollywood, too, is determined to help put Bananas away and to gain both ends with the help of the Pope. Crazy son Ronnie, quashed in his own early efforts to get cast by Billy as Huck Finn, has unbeknownst to his parents, gone AWOL from Vietnam and ultimately sets off a bomb in the apartment.

Jon Steinhagen

The action is zany and almost ceaseless, but the dialogue, while loony, is also very smart and it’s hilarious. The play is, in fine, a deftly wrought and brilliantly engineered social commentary, a surreal expose of a time, a place, a way of being. Nuns rush in and out, out the windows and up on the roof. Bunny will have some kind of sex with Artie- (her full name IS Bunny Flingus, after all)-but she won’t cook for him.  Bananas is the sanest of them all, and the level of her antics is breathtaking. When one reflects upon the time period itself, not two years after Kennedy was assassinated, Vietnam’s looming presence, the unsettled upheavals of American youth, you can see the apartment building and it’s cast as a microcosm of the larger culture.

Kristen Williams, Sarah Hayes, Shariba Rivers, Jen Short, Sophia Menendian

This is not just the story of a desperately unhappily married zookeeper; it is the story of a whole cast of desperate people leading disparate lives. The Pope stands for the miracles we’ve all wished for- to transcend our stultifying habits- (as nuns or otherwise)- to achieve instant fame, celebrity and brand recognition, to be cured by a miracle. It also demonstrates a fearless comic genius to find the fun in insanity and sick-wife abandonment, to show us a nun stripped of her wimple by a bomb, to kill off the producer’s deaf girlfriend- played with awesome understatement and brilliant facial expression by Jen Short.

Shariba Rivers, Kristen Williams, Sophia Menendian, Jen Short

The cast was inspired all around- but Sarah Hayes, as Bunny, with her dead to rights Queens, New York accent, hideous costumes and amazing comedic physicality stole the show. This reviewer began to chuckle watching Bunny stuff newspaper into her white plastic go-go boots, and never stopped laughing until long after the ovation died down-and that’s when I began to reflect on the inherent tragedy.

Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, Jon Steinhagen

The material and performance are both top-notch. Don’t miss this!

 

For tickets to “The House of Blue Leaves”, and other great shows at The Raven, go to www.raventheatre.com

 

Photos courtesy of Tom McGrath

 

 

 

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