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Chicago by John Olson

Mark & Laura's Couples Advice Christmas Special
Gorilla Tango Theatre
Guest Reviewer: Richard Green

Also see John's review of Banana Shpeel

Mark and Laura's Couples Advice Christmas Special
(top) Ryan McChesney and Carrie Bain; (bottom) Adam Ziemkiewicz and Raymond Bruce Birkett III
Here's a show that's only 50 minutes long, by no means sumptuously staged, and yet I can easily recommend it, thanks to lots of charm and steady laughs. At the center of it all is the adorable Laura (Carrie Bain), pitiably trying to hold her little family together for one more Christmas.

I find myself thinking of this as one half of a hypothetical "wine pairing," the kind you might find at a nice restaurant or high-end chocolate shop. In this case, you could catch a Wednesday matinee of the latest animated re-make of A Christmas Carol (to exhaust all the possibilities of dazzling holiday spectacle) and then catch the Wednesday night show at the Gorilla Tango Theatre, which follows much of the familiar filigree of Christmas comedies while still maintaining a sweetly human touch. The balance and contrast between the two would tell you everything you need to remember (in secular terms, anyway) about the holiday season. And it's Mark & Laura's that glows with something a big extravaganza can never pull off: the quiet glow of a gentle, selfless love.

Mark & Laura's is not without some notable flaws—most of the conflicts on stage never really reach the boiling point—and half of the cast is saddled with roles that have been worn down by time to a blur. But all four actors acquit themselves well, especially Ms. Bain and Raymond Bruce Birkett III as her younger son. He's the would-be stand-up comic whose dim awareness of the fights raging around him adds refreshing vitality to the sometimes predictable story. Ms. Bain also gets a sweet monolog in the final half hour that redeems her husband and sons, made homespun by the awkward plucking of "Greensleeves" on guitar. It's all made winning by Ms. Bain and Mr. Birkett, and the eminently watchable ways they handle their same old family crises.

What to do with Ryan McChesney (as the hubristic father) or Adam Ziemkiewicz (as a latter-day Lance Loud)? Surely the relationship of an exasperated father and his flamboyantly gay son has moved beyond the old sitcom strategies of the 1970s by now, even in remote Kalamazoo, Michigan. And yet, here they are: a dad filled with consternation and embarrassment and a son who pricks at his father's annoyance whenever he can. Both men fly through the show with as much credibility and venom as the story allows, even when it degenerates into costume and wig humor. And still, Mr. Ziemkiewicz is blithely entertaining, looking for ways to unbalance Mr. McChesney (as the father who thinks he knows best) during their live cable-access TV show.

Mark & Laura often seems like a baggy-pants revue, with jokes that are either high or low (but usually low), and includes a few clever twists and turns that are perfectly suited to the characters. A question-and-answer session with the audience (the title characters pose as relationship experts on a local cable-access program) proves that Ms. Bain and her castmates are fast on their feet. And if it wasn't too much of a strain, that section could easily go on for twice its current length. Saying a show could stand to stretch its strongest scenes is almost unheard of, in this day and age.

Wednesday nights at 8:00pm through January 20, 2010, at 1919 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, a half block east of the Blue Line's Western Avenue stop. Street parking available. For more information call (773) 598-4549 or visit them online at www.gorillatango.com.

Cast
Mark Gibson: Ryan McChesney
Laura Gibson: Carrie Bain
Sean Gibson: Adam Ziemkiewicz
Mark Gibson Jr.: Raymond Bruce Birkett III

Crew
Stage Manager/Lighting Operator: Matthew Bonaccorso
Produced by Ryan McChesney


Photo: Carrie Bain

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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