Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
The Gift Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's recent review of The Last Living Gun

Ben Veatch, Alexandra Main, Watson Swift,
Julia Rowley, and Emjoy Gavino

Photo by Joe Mazza / Brave Lux
As part of its 2023-2024 season, The Gift Theatre is offering a revival Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Under the direction of guest artists Devon de Mayo and Peter Andersen, the cast turns in strong, very watchable performances, and there are touching moments of humanity, though the play itself is somewhat relentless.

In the press materials, The Gift's Co-Artistic Directors Brittany Burch, Emjoy Gavino (who also stars in the title role, known as LV), and Jennifer Glasse speak to Cartwright's interest in abuse and exploitation of the artist, certainly a theme that resonates in the midst of the writers and actors strikes that are only now coming to a seeming resolution. The three also emphasize how funny the play is. This does not come across as clearly, though it doesn't seem to be the fault of the production, but of the play itself.

There's certainly plenty of raunchy fun, courtesy of the drunken Mari Hoff (Alexandra Main), LV's mother, who'll flirt with anything with a pulse. And there's a quieter humor in the awkward interactions between LV and Billy (Martel Manning). But whether it's because some things have not aged well in the last 30 years, or they weren't particularly entertaining in the first place, much of the text simply comes across as painful, rather than painfully funny.

Mari's inability to keep on her feet and her bullying of both LV and her nearly equally wordless friend Sadie (Julia Rowley) are bleak, rather than black humor. And it's especially troubling that the only moment of sympathy the play seems to have for this character takes the form of an extended, brutally misogynist, ageist rant that loses much of its pathos because it is sandwiched in between two of her own most awful moments. No person deserves the abuse she receives in that moment, but the play seems intent on challenging the audience's conviction on that point.

The shortcomings of the play are frustrating precisely because the production is very good. Hannah Clark's scenic design uses the space at Filament with great skill to set the audience down right in the middle of the squalor of the Hoff household. Clark crowds a perfectly out-of-fashion couch downstage right and piles board games, magazines, and period-specific clutter all around it. Just upstage is a battered refrigerator and a harrowing series of strung-together small appliances. Upstage left, raised several feet above the stage is LV's cramped but neat room, with a cozy afghan spread across the twin bed and a crate of her treasured records waiting next to her suitcase turntable. Below this on the main level of the house is the pink phone with its extended cord, a hamper, and a hundred other nameless items one would find scattered around an ill-kept house.

Gabrielle Strong's lighting design, paired with Forrest Gregor's sound, keeps the audience constantly (and appropriately) on edge as the world sizzles and goes dark as power outage after power outage descends on the characters when the heightened emotion all becomes too much. kClare McKelaston's costumes also perfectly capture the vibe of people clinging to days past and people who are hiding under layers and within utilitarian uniforms. McKelaston demonstrates impressive range with Mari's late-'80s cougar wear, Sadie's clashing, age-inappropriate teen look, and Mr. Boo's darkly flashy suits.

Given how hard to take the play itself can be, the cast deserves considerable credit for conjuring up real, watchable people. Alexandra Main is positively heroic as Mari. The performance must be exhausting, and without ever shying away from how awful the character is, Main preserves a core of humanity such that the audience feels for her even when she is at her most savage.

In a role that is more or less the polar opposite, Julia Rowley is remarkably expressive as Sadie, who rarely has the opportunity to say anything but "Okay." Rowley's facial expressions and body language speak volumes and infuse much of the humor into the play. Nearer the end, she is also genuinely moving as she manages, in a small way, to connect with LV. Similarly, Watson Swift elevates the role of Mr. Boo, the club owner/hypeman.

Ben Veatch is wonderfully loathsome as the slimy, manipulative Ray Say. It's laudable that he and Main collaborate to allow Ray to be hardly trying at all to remain in Mari's good graces, trusting that her naked desperation do the heavy lifting to make it believable that he hangs around long enough to get his hooks into LV. Veatch also takes full advantage to display his acting chops in the scene where he manipulates LV into agreeing to a second performance.

Emjoy Gavino is stunning as LV herself. Certainly, she nails the "gimmick" of the role, conjuring Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, et al., with eerie fidelity. But she is also vulnerable, smitten, fierce, and fiercely liberated, as the role demands. Gavino and Martel Manning (Billy) establish a really lovely rapport in what is ultimately a fairly thin romantic subplot.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs through October 15, 2023, at Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-283-7071.