"The TomKat Project": Size isn't everything, and if you can get your mind out of the gutter for a moment we can talk about why tiny budgets are not necessarily a drawback in the theater. Indeed, in the case of Brandon Ogborn's "TomKat Project," I would argue it is precisely a lack of money that makes the show so good. Throw too many bells and whistles at this thing and it would lose all of its zingy, small-scale, stripped-down charm.
Just how far can a clever director go working with little more than a trenchant script and a nimble ensemble? Look no further than the Playground Theater, where Elly Green has put together a clean, sharp work that reveals a deeply entertaining heart beating somewhere beyond its tawdry, gossipy origins. In the realm of fringe theater, this show is a near-perfect achievement.
Seriously funny but never a joke, Ogborn's script digs into the business of celebrity myth-making with an almost academic zeal. Why the collective fascination with the loony courtship and marriage of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and their even loonier divorce? Ogborn may not have answers, but that doesn't make his questions any less interesting. It is as if Susan Sontag were suddenly returned from the grave, only to find herself stuck with nothing to read but back issues of Us Weekly.
"The following scenes are based on rumor, gossip, hearsay, theory, fantasy, lies and when appropriate, the Internet," Ogborn announces before putting his cast through their paces to re-enact this strange, twisted tale. There is no set. Costumes consist of the barest of props; a baseball cap, a pair of sunglasses. The music cues (winningly deployed) come from the Cruise oeuvre: "Top Gun," "Jerry Maguire," "Eyes Wide Shut." Every so often, an ensemble member holds up a sign: "This dialogue is verbatim."
"The desire is to suggest, not re-create," Ogborn instructs in his stage directions, and his fellow performers (most of whom log their time on area stages doing sketch and improv) are exuberant co-conspirators in this quest, occupying that uncanny space between ridiculous and unerringly credible. Though only vaguely Cruise-like in appearance, Walt Delaney captures something essential about the man, leveraging a smile that is positively Cruisian in its display of dental work. (Julie Dahlinger doesn't quite have the same go-to trick for Holmes, but she is solid.)
The remaining four actors cycle through some 50 characters among them. It is an impressive, quick-change display of talent. It matters very little that Brianna Baker bears no meaningful resemblance to either Oprah Winfrey or Cruise attorney Bert Fields; she inhabits both with real skill and technique. This might be the best Winfrey impression I've seen, one that doesn't overplay its hand but perfectly embodies her vocal tics and regal self-regard. (Even when Ogborn puts words in her mouth, it sounds right. Regarding the Cruise-Holmes nuptials in Italy: "It wasn't that I was not invited. They only had a certain amount of guests they could invite and I was one more than they could invite.")
The show, in Ogborn's words, was created specifically as an "actor-driven event" — and it is — but as a study of celebrity gone kablooey, the script is a legit piece of intellectual "what-if?" that parses the weird, juicy machinations that might have led a possibly in-the-closet actor to romance a former teen star with dubious prospects. Were they just bored? If celebrity egos are defined by a never ending hunger, like that plant from "Little Shop of Horrors," then we, the grubby masses, are all too happy to dive down those Swarovski-lined gullets. Everybody wins; everybody loses.
Ogborn (who plays himself as the semi-detached observer and narrator) tries to come to terms with all of it — why the couple put themselves through this bizarre rom-com that would be no less weird if it were a random merging of their resumes. Because really, Maverick and Joey Potter? Ogborn offers both sides of the coin — that of an ominous path forged by a man controlled by neediness and Scientology, and an alternate reality in which a young opportunist looks to jump-start her flailing career by marrying the biggest, shortest movie star on the planet.
"This is unbelievable," Winfrey says during one of her interviews with Cruise, used verbatim. She's talking about the view from his Colorado home, but the words seem to reflect something deeper. Even Cruise himself is at a loss. "I know," he tells her. "I know."
Through May 29 at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $15 at brownpapertickets.com
"Kill Shakespeare": Director Anderson Lawfer calls this production a "living graphic novel," which is as good a description as any. Panels drawn by Andy Belanger for 2010's "Kill Shakespeare" (a jovially thunderous comic book mashup of Shakespearean characters by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery) are projected on screen, while actors at the back of the theater step to the microphone and deliver the dialogue.
It's not quite theater, but a dandy little enterprise all the same, and the ensemble of voice actors has a terrific amount of fun with the bombastic material — Steve Herson's Falstaff is a pip. If you ever imagined Shakespeare as a drunken hermit with the muscles of a gym rat, this is your show.
Through March 26 at Strawdog Theater, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets are $15 at 866-811-4111 or strawdog.org
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