Two productions showcasing up-and-coming actors occupy our attention this week: The Hairy Ape at Oracle Theatre (which we both love) and Steep Theatre’s Posh (which K. recommends).
Danielle Pinnock takes up the mantle of Anna Deavere Smith in this world premiere piece, produced by Rivendell in association with Waltzing Mechanics. This one-woman show actually features dozens of people, first interviewed and now expertly portrayed by Pinnock under the direction of Megan Carney. We follow her search for answers to questions about body image, media ideals and the connection between food maladies, on the one hand, and self-hatred and sexual abuse, on the other. Pinnock is pitch-perfect in her renditions, particularly of her Jamaican grandmothers but also of men both gay and straight, women both cis- and transgender and people of every level of education and income. If there’s a woman in the world who can’t identify with Pinnock’s struggles, I have yet to meet her. Highly recommended. It only runs through the end of the month and Rivendell is not huge, so get your tickets ASAP.
Raven Theatre does a fine job with the Midwest premiere of Horton Foote’s The Old Friends, a sort of updating of The Little Foxes wherein a wealthy woman (or two) manipulates and bullies everyone around her. JoAnn Montemurro is particularly strong as the bully-in-chief, giving a vanity-free performance of a mean sloppy drunk, and director Michael Menendian brings out the best in others as well, especially marssie Mencotti, whose own drunk scene is a highlight of the production. But Foote ended the play rather than finishing it: there’s that telltale pause before the audience starts applauding, because we’re not sure the thing is over. The Old Friends is more action-filled and absorbing than many other Foote plays, which can verge on Chekhovian non-eventfulness; but the lack of resolution nearly invalidates everything that went before. Through the end of March at Raven’s home theater on the Edgewater/Rogers Park border.
Fans of PG Wodehouse will find plenty to like in First Folio’s Jeeves at Sea: Christian Gray and Jim McCance are back as the idiotic Bertie and the unflappable Jeeves, and the four supporting cast members raise such a hullabaloo that it was surprising how few of them there were at curtain call. Never mind the plot: Wodehouse is all about the style, and director Alison Vesely and her cast have it down pat. This version of the early-20th-Century English upper class is the perfect tonic if you’re feeling hung over after bingeing on Downton Abbey.
Refuge Theatre Project begins its sophomore season by knocking it out of the park with High Fidelity, a musical based on the Nick Hornby novel and the John Cusack film of the same name. Turning a second-story space in the West Loop into “the last real record store on earth,” the company under Christopher Pazdernik’s direction manages to convey the essence of slack while nonetheless singing and dancing their hearts out. Every word of the script (by David Lindsay-Abaire, who shows no sign of slumming here but gives it his considerable best), every lyric, every character has a perfect 90s period feel coupled with sharp comedy and a love story or four. Max DeTogne, who plays our anti-hero, is so good I’m gnashing my teeth at having missed him as Jesus Christ Superstar at Theo Ubique–he holds the whole show together with his hangdog charm. Get thee to 666 West Hubbard before the show closes at the end of February, and maybe if you just refuse to leave you can persuade the company to keep running the show–like, forever.
(K., of course, is Ms. Congeniality.) Then J. recommends Le Switch at About Face Theatre.
It’s a [political] party when J. and K. review Christopher Chen’s satire (parody? burlesque?) of how race is handled in American politics. Plus, J. previews Chicago Theater Week, which will offer tickets at $15 and $30 (and even less!) for most shows playing February 11-21.
Posh: The characters in Laura Wade’s play, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre, are so revolting they should cause you to run screaming from the theater; and yet this is a production everyone should see. A group of elite English college students gathers in the private room of a small-town pub for the annual meeting of the Riot Club. The club’s organizing principle, if there is one, is that members should demonstrate their superiority by wreaking the maximum destruction on every environment. One thinks that the first rule of the Riot Club should be that nobody talks about the Riot Club, but in fact they talk about it constantly (in lieu of any actual conversation) until they’ve whipped themselves into a completely pointless frenzy. Wade has created as savage a portrait of the English upper crust as The Ruling Class, without a drop of the charm Peter O’Toole brought to that earlier yowl against the toffs.
So why see it? Because under Jonathan Berry’s direction, we’re introduced to an extraordinary company of young actors, as unforgettable and full of promise as the ones who appeared in TimeLine’s The History Boys (another English school play, as it happens). If you want to see the future of Chicago theater in [violent] action, sinking its teeth into powerful writing and conjuring up an alien world until you can almost taste it, you want to see Posh. Through February 27: get tickets now, as the theater is minute and mine will not be the only rave.
The Consultant: Unfortunately Heidi Schreck’s play lacks sufficient heft to be an appropriate farewell to the Signal Ensemble, which ends its distinguished 13-year run after this show. But Ronan Marra’s direction gets everything there is to get from the slight script, which lands a stunningly awkward graduate student (Ariel Begley, effervescent in her character’s determined wrongness) in the office of an advertising firm circling the drain. She’s supposed to coach one employee through his presentation stage fright but ends up instead as the office confidante. If it weren’t for the title you wouldn’t think this was her play, but it’s not anyone else’s play either: not the employee being coached (Ben Chang, who manages to turn a caricature into a person), though he has central-character potential; not the lovesick receptionist or the vapid middle manager she fancies. Everyone deserves better material, including the audience. Through February 20.
Plus, K. recommends another family drama, No Wake by Route 66 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, and J. acknowledges the bumper crop of brilliant female directors currently working around town, including Joanie Schulz (Bruise Easy) and Kimberly Senior (No Wake).
Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.
What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.
Not really solo: Gary serves as interlocutor as K. considers Bruce Norris’s latest peroration on the problems of privileged people (say three times fast). Is the playwright anti-feminist or merely a misanthrope? And why shouldn’t playwrights direct their own work? Then G. and K. jointly mourn the demise of Redmoon.
. . . and totally fail to disagree. What Carole King hath put together, let no man put asunder!