"Funeral Wedding: The Alvin Play"
The shows devised by Strange Tree Group have such a distinct sense of style; they exist within a genre all their own in Chicago, blending low-grade gothic impulses with a playful sense of mirth and eccentricity. Much of this is due to the influence of Emily Schwartz, who is both the company's artistic director and its primary playwright. I don't think it's an overstatement to say Schwartz is doing for theater what Bryan Fuller (creator of the short-lived ABC series "Pushing Daisies" and the recent "Mockingbird Lane") is doing for television.
In lesser hands, this sort of thing can feel twee. Or the effort too pronounced. Schwartz is a savvy creator of worlds, however, and there is an intelligence at work in her plays that keeps some of that quirkiness at bay. Not all of it, certainly. Her characters do tend to be lost souls with a prickly self-awareness about their strange circumstances. And Schwartz is careful to work with directors (Jess McLeod in this case) who understand how to realize the detailed physical environments she envisions.
First staged in 2006 and since reworked, "Funeral Wedding: The Alvin Play" is remounted with a keen sense of the paralysis that might accompany a melancholic young man who has locked himself away in the attic of his family home. His knowledge of a grisly crime has driven him into seclusion, but there is something more keeping him in this self-imposed exile.
Not that the play explores this as much as I would like. Surrounded by discarded knickknacks and stacks of books, suitcases and an assortment of lamps, Alvin (Daniel Behrendt as a perfectly pseudo-Victorian emo) is a man untroubled by the presence of the mandolin-playing roommate who may or may not be a hallucination. Also, he is right to fear what lives under his bed. His emotional life is spent avoiding unpleasant memories while also keeping his family on the other side of the tiny attic door, although they find a way to barge into his upstairs sanctuary anyway.
"I will not be bribed, father!" he says with indignation when an attempt is made to lure him downstairs. "Then what about guilted?" his father replies happily, and you get a sense of what's ailing this family (as well as a sense of Schwartz's humor).
The production falls adrift at times, particularly in the middle — the dysfunctional family issues and the murder mystery at the story's center don't quite generate the right kind of narrative momentum. Yet I found it impossible not to get lost within this little world, where every prop, costume and sardonic sidelong glance helps to generate the feeling that you're watching a storybook fairy tale brought to life.
Through Nov. 17 at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets are $25 at 773-598-8240 strangetree.org
"Music From a Sparkling Planet"
Local TV celebrities don't exist much these days, with the exception of someone like Rich Koz (suffering a heart attack this week — get well, Rich) who has played horror movie host Svengoolie for generations.
In playwright Douglas Carter Beane's fictitious Philly setting, that '70s-era icon is a woman named Tamara Tomorrow, clad in a futuristic silver lame jumpsuit and go-go boots. Armed with a toy ray gun and a gift for comedic improv, she is the show between the show, introducing episodes of "Speed Racer" and "Astro Boy" and becoming a local fixture along the way.
Some 30 years later, three of her fans decide to track her down. Their search (which is the less interesting side of the equation) is interspersed with flashbacks to the heyday of Tamara Tomorrow, played by Lisa Savegnago with a mix of sexy charisma (family-friendly cleavage!) and a real sense of loneliness. It's a terrific and complex performance that Andrew J. Pond (as the station producer with whom she becomes entangled) matches note for note. There's a nice inside-showbiz feel to those scenes, of local TV idiosyncrasies and tacky '70s details. Also, I'm pretty sure Pond's male bouffant is the real deal, not a wig. Perfect.
One note: On the night I attended, an Irish step-dancing class took place one floor up, and the pounding could be heard throughout the entire performance. I'm sensitive to the Athenaeum's need to generate revenue, but it shouldn't come at the cost to a theater company.
Through Nov. 18 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $25 at 773-935-6875 or athenaeumtheatre.org.
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