Produced by The No Stakes Theater Project
Playing at Theater Wit
An Auspicious Beginning for New Directors
Despite the company’s name, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a crucial project for The No Stakes Theater Project, founded by Erin Shea Brady. It’s their first full production, mounted a year after their staged reading of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play, which won a Laurence Olivier Award. The No Stakes Theater Project’s mission is to provide directors with an opportunity to focus on the artistic side of their craft, without having to worry about managerial aspects such as scheduling and budgets. Their intention is to do this with a series of staged readings, which relieve directors of most responsibilities not related to coaching actors, and readings which show promise could grow to become mainstage shows. Brady’s inaugural full production demonstrates that she is already an excellent director, and has a keen sense of script selection.
Little Voice (Scarlet Sheppard) is a young woman living in northern England with her widowed mother, Mari Hoff (Rebecca Sohn). They are not compatible. While Mari drinks and parties heavily to eighties and early nineties rock, LV, as she is called, hardly ever goes outside or speaks, and obsessively listens to vinyl records of 50s and 60s female stars she inherited from her father. The two are in financial peril, and their electricity constantly blows out. Mari, however, has a desperate lifeline: she has recently begun hooking up with a talent scout for nightclubs, Ray Say (Will Casey), who by this wretched city’s standards, is quite wealthy.
In an attempt to drown out the sound of her mother and Ray having sex one night when the electricity goes out, LV sings to herself while mimicking Judy Garland’s voice. Ray is astounded. He’s never heard such good impressions before, and thinks he’s finally found a breakthrough performer. Mari is skeptical; she always thought LV’s interest in old-fashioned music was a ridiculous habit she picked up from her emotionally distant and possibly closeted father, and knows the girl is too introverted to ever go onstage. However, LV has in secret been seeing Billy (Johnathan Wallace), an electrician’s apprentice, and is starting to break out of her shell just a little. It takes some manipulation to even get her to sing enough to secure a single performance, but she does. However, this play is about both LV’s rise and fall, and her growing importance to Ray Say threatens her unbalanced mother.
Scarlet Sheppard’s impressions of Garland, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, and Édith Piaf really are quite amusing. She is also a marvelous actress; as much as a shrinking violet as LV is, Sheppard also makes clear her exasperation and growing awareness that she cannot go on living as she has. But the person on the promotional poster is Rebecca Sohn, whose deranged, comically grotesque Mari dominates the play’s dialogue. Seldom have I seen such a perfect combination of selfishness, resentment, desperation, vulgarity, cruelty, superiority, ignorance, and rage (I have a special place in my heart for such characters). And she’s funny. The most frequent target of Mari’s attention, besides LV, is her friend Sadie, played by marssie Mencotti as a dotty, basically good-hearted, but ineffectual old woman who apparently has no better people to be around or mooch off of. Johnathan Wallace’s Billy is a painfully shy stuttering nerd, but just the right person to reach out to LV, and Will Casey as Ray and Greg Mills as the Johnny Carson-mimicking nightclub owner Mr. Boo round off an immensely talented cast.
Brady has also assembled a fine team of designers. Grant Sabin’s realistic set design captures the drudgery of Mari and LV’s existence, and Moriah Lee Turner’s costumes, which include details like LV wearing her father’s shirts, clearly signal each character’s background. Late in the story is an inevitable electrical disaster, which presented a challenge Brady and her designers overcame beautifully. She also deserves credit for guiding the tone of this piece from comedic with touches of sweetness to something quite dark. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was classified as a comedy by the Olivier Awards, but that’s a very awkward fit. The show is hard to pin down, but in the No Stakes Theater Project’s hands, it is fascinating. Hopefully, their method will produce more successes like this one.
Reviewed August 14, 2015
For more information, see The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $34.50; to order, call 773-975-8150. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through September 5. Running time is two hours with one intermission.