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Upstairs and Downstairs at Steppenwolf

By Suzy Evans in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 1, 2009 5:30PM

From tumbling clowns to flying middle-aged men, the two shows playing at the Steppenwolf couldn’t be more different. One’s a comedic, musical improvisational concoction; the other is a deftly didactic story. Here’s our reviews of both shows.

2009_07_500_Clown.jpg 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal - Don’t be deterred by the world “clown” in the title. There are no elephants or clowns in the show - well not the stereotypical clowns from children’s nightmares. The red-eared, improvising, singing acrobats of 500 Clown (typically a group of three but this show has five) focus most of their shows on classic literature and then proceed to deconstruct these works in every which way. (Other shows include takes on Macbeth, Frankenstein and A Christmas Carol.) Bertolt Brecht’s Man is Man provides loose inspiration for Elephant Deal, but familiarity with the Brecht’s play is not a prerequisite. The basic “plot,” a term used loosely, is Madame Barker (a hilarious Molly Brennan) invites the audiences into her cabaret for the evening, but there is no story to tell. Each action jumps off from the previous action, and very quickly it becomes difficult to decipher the scripted elements from the improvisation whether the performers are repeating a song and dance number or flipping through the air. If you spend too much time trying to figure out what’s going on, you’ll miss the point. Just take it for what it is - a nonlinear progression about the way our actions and decisions motivate our lives - and if you can’t live without blatant narrative structure, just think of it as a nightclub act with some kick-ass jazz songs by composer John Fournier. We promise you’ll be humming the tunes for the rest of the night.

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal runs through July 11 at the Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater.

Adrian Danzig (top) and Paul Kalina (below) in 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

2009_07_UP.jpg Up - No, it’s not based on the new Pixar movie; however the main character’s name is Walter and he does use helium balloons to fly. (Both characters are inspired by real-life Larry Walters who took his own flight with balloons in the early 1980’s.) We meet Walter years after his heyday in the sky, but he still hasn’t gotten over his great lawn chair flight. He tells people he’s an inventor, but much to his wife’s chagrin, he spends his days dreaming of ways to go back up in the air. We feel sorry for Walter, but his discontent gets a little annoying. The more interesting story line follows Walter’s son Mikey and his foray into high school where he meets Maria, a new girl with a quirky charm that captivates Mikey. (She’s also pregnant at 16, which adds an interesting twist.) Maria lives with her crazy Aunt Chris (Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey), and these two young characters - played by promising young actors Jake Cohen and Rachel Brosnahan - plant a seed of hope for humanity. However, this hope quickly disappears, and we’re left to wonder if holding onto your desires makes you a dreamer or just crazy.

Up runs through August 23 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater.

Photo credit: Ian Barford (Walter) and Jake Cohen (Mikey) in Up at the Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow.