Lookingglass Theatre’s Title and Deed—Chapter and Verse

On WDCB’s The Arts Section, the Critics consider the one-man show Title and Deed, and Jonathan reports on the Humana Festival and the American Theatre Critics’ Association’s playwriting prizes.

La Bete at Trap Door Theater: We Agree to Disagree

. . . and then Kelly raves over Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s Tiger at the Gates.

tigergateslogo

Reviews in brief: Tiger at the Gates by Promethean Theater Ensemble and a pair of less successful works

K. sez:

Highly Recommended

Tiger at the Gates, Promethean Theater Ensemble at the Athenaeum: Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 play is a re-telling of the start of the Trojan War from Troy’s perspective. The weight of the situation, and of the play, falls on Hector as he tries heroically to keep the war from starting. Clearly the playwright was responding to the lives wasted during World War I, which makes us somewhat more forgiving of the extent to which the play uncomfortably anticipates France’s anything-but-fighting posture as World War II loomed.

As directed by John Arthur Lewis, Tiger at the Gates (entitled in the original French The Trojan War Will Not Take Place) is so clear that after years of watching classical theater I understood for the first time the role of each player in the moves and counter-moves leading up to the Trojan War, and if that sounds trivial you’ve never tried to keep straight the relationships among Hector, Priam, Cassandra, Helen, Paris, Hecuba, Ulysses, Ajax, and on and on. But the production’s virtues extend beyond clarity: as embodied by Jared Dennis, Hector is all the warriors who have ever needed to remind the home front that war is something to be avoided if at all possible. Dick Cheney and other chicken-hawks, take note. This is a beautiful production without a wasted word or gesture; see it before it closes April 25.

Not So Much

Graveyard of Empires at 16th Street Theater: Elaine Romero’s play can’t quite decide who it’s about: the engineer whose erroneous source code caused a drone to misfire and kill his son; his estranged wife seeking peace in yoga while ignoring the violence all around her; the son who joins the army to prove himself to his father; the fellow soldier who accidentally kills him; or the soldier’s wife. By the end it seems like the father’s play, suggesting that Romero should go back and modify everything else accordingly. Dad’s is certainly the most interesting/ironic/tragic fate, because he has some agency; the others are mere pawns. His reconciliation with his wife is touching but unearned, and the play—even at 75 minutes—is a bit too long. Kevin Christopher Fox ably directs a cast of mixed abilities—veteran Joe Dempsey, as the father, is perfect but some of his castmates seem unclear on whether Graveyard is a magic-realist nightmare or a kitchen-sink melodrama. The production design, however—particularly Matt Kooi’s lighting—is excellent. This is the first of a Romero trilogy about the war in Afghanistan; perhaps she’ll get better with practice.

The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know at Raven Theatre: I have a friend who often remarks after an evening of theatrical upset, “Anguish, rage, tragedy—I get enough of that at home!” Raven’s awkwardly-titled world premiere makes that plaint literally true, as it explores the difficulty an adult son has in dealing with his aging and increasingly debilitated parents, something many audience members get enough of at home. If we learned more about the couple or the son, though, the familiarity of the material wouldn’t be a problem; but instead we get little snippets of self-disclosure, such as the mother’s saying, “This house is the only place I’ve ever felt safe.” Okay, tell me more—but playwright Todd Bauer doesn’t. Again, it’s not precisely clear whose play this is: the son, who’s fought his whole life for his parents’ approval despite a disability which interferes with his gait; the husband, who’s still living in his army days though the Korean War was some time ago; or the control-freak mother, who lives in such terror of her loved ones’ being injured that she injures them herself. We can see the ending coming a mile away and yet it takes forever to arrive. When you do new work, you risk clunkers like this.

The Diary of Anne Frank at Writers: Old Hat or Made New?

The Critics face off. Then Jonathan recommends Balm in Gilead at Griffin, and Kelly chooses The Good Book at Court.

The Gift Theatre Presents the World Premiere of The Royal Society of Antarctica

K. and J. discuss The Royal Society of Antarctica at the Gift Theatre, and Jonathan recommends the Garage Rep at Steppenwolf.

end-days-a-jpg-20150324

Windy City Playhouse triumphs with inaugural End Days

Tina Gluschenko and Keith Kupferer in Windy City Playhouse’s production of End Days.

K sez:

With a headline like that, a review is mostly unnecessary; but it’s worth noting that the producer of this fine evening in the theater is a brand-new Equity troupe in a brand-new luxury space. Those of us accustomed to seeing shows in converted jewelry stores and basement apartments will find Windy City’s elegance almost disconcerting, what with armchair seating, drink service, a comfortable bar/hangout space in the lobby (think Second City with an interior designer) and a completely flexible performance space whose wall-to-wall lighting grid currently sports Brian Sidney Bembridge’s splendid fever dream of contemporary American suburban life: American flags, pink bicycles and God knows what else.

And “God knows” is the relevant expression for Deborah Zoe Laufer’s warm-hearted comedy End Days, directed pitch-perfectly by Henry Godinez. (These Windy City people are not screwing around: the balance of the season includes direction by local heavies Chuck Smith, William Brown and Jessica Thebus, known—as is Godinez—for their work on such established stages as the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court and Writers’ Theatre.) End Days is the story of a dysfunctional family (Department of Redundancy Department) suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Enter neighbor Nelson (an utterly charming Stephen Cefalu Jr.), who doesn’t quite understand why wearing an Elvis suit doesn’t get him anywhere with daughter Rachel (Sari Sanchez, displaying full-blown adolescent angst). He ends up befriending her mother and father instead—quite an accomplishment, considering that Mom (the impeccable Tina Gluschenko) has switched suddenly and mysteriously from Jewish atheism to apocalyptic Christianity and spends her time in the company of a Jesus no one else can see, while Dad (Keith Kupferer, so vulnerable you want to rock him in your arms) lies on the couch not eating or showering. The benign influences of Nelson, Jesus and Stephen Hawking (both of the latter played by Steven Strafford, though I realized that only when I read the program) help improve family dynamics but it’s not until the foursome spends 24 hours together awaiting the end of the world that true healing occurs.

There used to be ads in the New York subway system featuring a variety of ethnic types with the slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye.” Likewise, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Laufer’s End Days, though there’s an extra kick for those of us who are. Cheers to the Rubensteins, who founded Windy City Playhouse to fuse their urban-redevelopment skills with their love of theater. End Days runs til April 26; the next Windy City show, Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, opens in late May. It’s a bit out of the way at 3014 West Irving Park Road (and use the valet, as parking is tight); but well worth finding.

Two Trains Running at the Goodman; Two Mouths Running on The Arts Section

J. and K. assess the new production of August Wilson’s seminal Two Trains Running and then K. recommends The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists.

mecca

Reviews in brief: Chicago Dramatists’ Flawless “Mecca Tales” plus other less successful efforts

A hit! A palpable hit! The Mecca Tales

You know how we’re all supposed to have a conversation on race at Starbuck’s? Here’s a hint: try listening instead of talking. That’s the lesson I drew from Rohina Malik’s exquisite and thoughtful play The Mecca Tales, receiving its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists. Five women of wildly different backgrounds and personalities go on the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all devout Muslims; and as they discover things they never knew about themselves, we [non-Muslims] discover things we never knew about Islam and the people who practice it. It’s amazing what just listening—to dialogue as carefully wrought as Malik’s—can do.

Nor is The Mecca Tales some After School Special of lessons learned about tolerance. Rather, it’s the personal stories of these women in all their glorious contradiction and complexity—just like those in The Canterbury Tales—which make us understand that what seems foreign is often as familiar as what we see in the mirror. Under the direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith, the entire cast presents three-dimensional portraits; but two actors must be singled out. Morgan McCabe as Grace, the tour leader of the group, maintains an extraordinary balance between authority and vulnerability, while Derek Garza, who plays all of the men in these women’s lives, gets to show off his protean character skills. Evocative music written and performed by Coren Warden underscores the evening with perfect delicacy. See this play! It runs through April 12 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago Avenue in Chicago’s West Town.

Less successful

The Hammer Trinity, The House Theatre. The stagecraft is so amazing in this three-play exegesis of the Arthurian legends that I couldn’t help but wish authors Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews hadn’t gotten so involved in text and subtext. What begins as an interesting twist on Camelot in Part I grows increasingly labored in Part II as the authors pile on inapplicable political content and finally falls of its own weight in Part III with fruitless speculation about the nature of storytelling itself. This is ironic because storytelling, using all the mechanisms of theater, is what The House is so good at, and its dragons, foxes and charging steeds do more than illustrate the story: they embody it. And there’s not a weak performance in the 18-person cast (under author Allen’s direction), with particular kudos to JJ Phillips as Wilke Forsbrand (who dislocated his shoulder in the line of duty during the opening marathon) and Chris Mathews, who stepped in for him and was utterly persuasive and impassioned notwithstanding book in hand. But we’d be better off with more illusion and less allusion. See Part I; maybe see Part II (not necessarily on the same day: as a wise teacher once remarked, “The mind can only absorb what the tush can endure”). Consider Part III a noble but failed attempt and leave it in peace. Through May 3 at the Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division in Chicago’s West Town.

First Wives Club, Broadway in Chicago. This show has everything going for it and still doesn’t work. The charming movie from which it came isn’t improved by the addition of music, even snippets of great Motown. And the new songs written by the Motown trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland are mostly not very well crafted for a Broadway score, though there are a few kick-ass exceptions: “I’m not that kind of girl,” a bump-and-grind for one of the bimbos, er, extra-marital females, and “Payback’s a bitch,” a celebratory stomp for our heroines. It’s no accident that these successful songs are connected to great production numbers: what the show needs is more, more, more of those. Broadway legend Faith Prince is wasted in the Bette Midler role, and Carmen Cusack and Christine Sherrill suffer by comparison with Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn (and who wouldn’t?). But their voices are exceptional, and when they blend it’s a moment of delight in an evening which badly needs more. Through March 29 at the Oriental Theater, 24 West Randolph in the Loop.

Anne of Green Gables, Provision Theater. This adaptation of THE BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK OF ALL TIME (not that I’m prejudiced) gets a lot right but falls down in its insistence on putting heavy-handed morals in most scenes. Provision works from a Christian perspective but it needn’t boldface its lessons, particularly when adapting a book with such deep-rooted and effortless demonstrations of the value of faith. And the decision to demonstrate Anne’s youth by having the actress speak in a squeaky voice is simply annoying. The show, for children 6 and up (some of them clutching dolls with red braids), runs through April 19 at 1001 West Roosevelt Road in Chicago’s University Village neighborhood.

After Burnham Wood . . . Dunsinane at Chicago Shakespeare

The Critics dispute the meaning of Dunsinane, The National Theatre of Scotland/Royal Shakespeare Company “sequel” to Macbeth; whereupon K. recommends Macbeth itself at The Artistic Home.