Come for the Honeymoon, Stay for the Bears

Kodeski at stand - True Life Tales

Co-creator/performer David Kodeski [Rehearsal photo by Melinda Evans]

True Life Tales from the Honeymoon Capital of the World (Some of Which Are True) created by David Kodeski and Naomi Ashley

Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL

Reviewed by Lorel Janiszewski October 21, 2015

Until further notice, you have just one more weekend to enjoy True Life Tales from the Honeymoon Capital of the World (Some of Which Are True) at Chicago’s Stage 733 theatre—a cozy house that provides the perfect home for the production’s simple and genuinely amusing stories, songs and slides.

True Life Tales begins with co-creator and performer David Kodeski’s description of the history of Niagara Falls, the natural wonder, from its prehistoric beginnings, to its emergence as a “holy trinity of geography,” through its commercialization and industrialization, to the settling of its nearby namesake town with a population of immigrants. All of this Kodeski delivers in rhythmic phrases of a few words each, accompanied by swelling, increasingly insistent live musical accompaniment.

Kodeski then shifts the narrative focus from sweeping to intimate. The natural wonder of the falls recedes completely and gives way to the wonders, or perhaps wonderment, of one man’s hometown memories.

This is, after all, not a documentary but a personal piece. Most of this self-described “blue collar gothic spoken word folk opera” is about the inhabitants of Niagara Falls, a town consisting of working class people in ill-repaired homes, families with 6 kids plus, and a lot of antisocial behavior. Kodeski’s affectionate-yet-detached delivery is skillful and almost serene as he evenhandedly reports his community’s fair share of nudity, sex, alcoholism, an acid trip, arson, mail theft, and even untimely death.

Except for his summer masquerading as a bear and one visit to his hometown in his adult life, the stories Kodeski relates are those of his childhood, rolled out humorously and anecdotally, in no particular chronological order. All of the tropes and legends of small-town living are there: the “fast” girl from a large Italian family who teaches him how to smoke cigarettes and pot, the lovers’ lane, the family with no mother (TV dinners for lunch!), the crackpots and stoners, even a mailman who goes postal.

For those who grew up, well, as children, and had an ear to the ground during those impressionable years, Kodeski’s tales will most likely stir memories of life before Social Networks, and of how information—and misinformation—were spread on a more close-up-and-personal basis.

Naomi Ashley - True Life Tales

Co-creator/performer Naomi Ashley [Rehearsal photo by Melinda Evans]

Kodeski provides sentimentality and firsthand observations, while singer-songwriter and co-creator Naomi Ashley steps in intermittently to sum up his vignettes with emotional insights and longings. Accompanying herself on guitar, Ashley’s softly straightforward alto voice suits her heartfelt, carefully chosen poetry and simple tunes. Lyrically and melodically she presents like a stripped-down version Aimee Mann or Shawn Colvin, her emotions protected only by brave hindsight and her unique brand of wry optimism. Ashley’s original songs, “Niagara Falls,” “Bits and Pieces” and “It Only Lasts So Long” illustrate her deft blend of imagery and philosophy.

True Life Tales 4, musicians

Musicians (l to r) Naomi Ashley (guitar/vocals), Cathie Van Wert (violin/vocals), Heather Riordan (accordian), Paul Bivans (drums), Michael Krayniak (bass) [Rehearsal photo by Melinda Evans]

The other musicians, Heather Riordan, Cathie Van Wert, Michael Karyniak and Paul Bivans are billed as “some of Chicago’s most seasoned roots musicians [with] over 80 years of experience playing for a variety of bands” and it shows. Conjuring up a broad range of styles and moods, from documentary soundtrack to vaudevillian to rock, they complement Kodeski’s spoken word, often reinforcing the tone, adding humor, sometimes boosting the energy, and occasionally going against the grain to add tension.

One of the most vibrant examples of the ensemble combining to make a unique theatrical moment was when Kodeski remembers an acid-tripping friend finding God in The Who’s album Tommy: Ashley and violinist Van Wert supply the “See me, Feel me” lyrics and all becomes exponentially funny and magical.

The success of Kodeski’s storytelling was in direct proportion to his connections—with the audience, the talented veteran onstage musicians, and his emotional stake in the events. The evening’s most engaging tale was that of his summer working at Fantasy Island, performing as one of the three bears in three shabby/menacing shows a day of an attempt to capitalize on the success of Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree—only this time there was a self-important-professional-actress Goldilocks involved. Here, Kodeski gets the most palpable audience reaction as he invokes the sweaty, stinky, treacherous, and eventually laconic nature of his first show-biz job. Here, we witness his initial fresh-faced enthusiasm evolve into resentment, thugism, then Gatorade- and marijuana-induced ennui.

Kodeski with Lisa Barcy's collage

Lisa Barcy’s collages add dimension to the drama. [Rehearsal photo by Melinda Evans]

With Kodeski a bit too tethered to his reading stand and manuscript, director Edward Thomas-Herrera wisely keeps the staging to a minimum. He has chosen to allow Kodeski’s words and Ashley’s songs speak for themselves in this seamless production. Meanwhile Lisa Barcy’s childlike original collages visually echo the material, and the onstage band reinforces a feeling of warm camaraderie and collaboration. Perhaps that’s how the word “honeymoon” got into the title.

Performances of True Life Tales from the Honeymoon Capital of the World (Some of Which Are True) continue through October 24: Fri/Sat at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25, $10 for students. All performances take place at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL.

For theatre information, visit Stage 773’s box office online.

To purchase tickets online, click here.