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Scarlet Confessions: the Infamous and Innocent, a Musical Diary

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In their last collaboration, Hello Dali: From the Sublime to the Surreal, Michael Smith and Jamie O'Reilly examined art and its role in human expression through song and spoken word. Now the duo has returned with a new show that looks at love, passion, revelation, and compassion, portraying them as integral parts of human experience. That could be awfully pretentious, but under the skillful direction of Paul Amandes (who also helmed Dali), the show is a terrific, warm, intelligent, and utterly moving experience. In part that's because of the soaring voices assembled here. In addition to O'Reilly's powerful soprano and Smith's world-weary crooning and guitar picking, the show boasts the honey-soaked alto of Anne Hills (who contributes some lyrics and chimes in on banjo and harmonica as well) and the wry wit of Amandes (who's also a mean hand at the guitar). Al Ehrich's bass provides a steady beat. The songs include traditional numbers like "The Long Black Veil" and "Down by the Greenwood Sideo" interspersed with tales of retribution from Spoon River Anthology and accounts of the Marilyn Lemak trial. Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc" is set in counterpoint to the chaplain's anguished monologue from Shaw's Saint Joan. On the lighter side there's Smith's "Catholic School Heaven," in which his mother writes a letter excusing him from spending eternity in the decidedly grim version of paradise promised by the parochial school nuns. The show moves from personal passions and their occasionally not so healthy expression in the first act to a more poignant and universal awareness of the need for compassion--a journey from eros to agape, in a sense. A beautiful albeit disturbing Victorian shadow-puppet show about a jealous sister, a drowned sibling, and a creepy memorial provides an interlude between the two acts. But by the time we hear Smith's unbearably heartbreaking "Crazy Mary" and Phil Ochs's folkie classic "There but for Fortune," we've gained a visceral understanding that compassion is the soul's best offering--and if we could all express it more often, we'd be a much better race. Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, 773-871-3000. Through July 28: Thursdays-Fridays, 7:30 PM, Saturdays, 5:30 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 2:30 PM. $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Iwona Biederman.

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