J. and K. growl at each other over The Universal Wolf at Trap Door Theatre; K. waxes lyrical over Isadora Duncan & Martha Graham at the Chicago Dancing Festival and Tennessee Williams & William Brown at American Players Theatre; and J. blesses this year’s nominations for the Equity Jeff Awards.
Grand Concourse (Steppenwolf; through August 30)
It probably says more about me than about Grand Concourse that the most wrenching moment in a play involving fatal illness, homelessness, betrayal and a loss of faith came when there was injury to a cat.
But plenty of people who saw Bibi Andersen describe a sexual encounter in Persona swear that they saw the sexual encounter itself, a tribute to the vividness of the writing and the truth of the performance. In the same way, Mariann Mayberry’s rendition of the cat story in Heidi Schreck’s text is so powerful that it feels as if we’re seeing the poor animal right in front of us. Thus my response isn’t Cat Lady idiosyncratic but generated by the play itself.
Grand Concourse tells the stories of Shelley (Mayberry), a nun who runs a soup kitchen, and Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout volunteering there. The two women are assisted by the janitor Oscar (Victor Almanzar) and visited constantly by the homeless Frog (originally Tim Hopper, now Francis Guinan), and the relationships among the four make up the action of the play.
Unfortunately, until the very end it isn’t clear whose play it is, which makes it hard to invest in the goings-on. Are we watching Emma grow beyond her self-absorption, or Shelley struggle with her faith? Either of these would make a fine focus, but trying to focus on both leaves us with an evening which, as my companion said, “was smart, it was well-written, it was well-performed; but it didn’t move me.” So the moment with the cat was the exception rather than the rule. Though director Yasen Peyankov and his troupe give the play all they’ve got, the play doesn’t have very much to offer in return.
This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro, Oracle. Opens August 21, runs through September 19
This Oracle production debuted at the Washington Park Refectory as part of Theater on the Lake’s second peripatetic summer. This House Believes . . . is Zachary Baker-Salmon’s dramatization of an actual televised debate which took place at the Cambridge Union in 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, speaking respectively for and against the title resolution. The company asks the audience to vote on the proposition before the debate begins and again after its conclusion, to determine whose arguments swayed the most votes.
Under Baker-Salmon’s direction the work is finely performed by Johnard Washington and Jeremy Clark as Baldwin and Buckley, supported by players representing the moderator and other attendees. It’s not clear whether their [scripted] interruptions of the speakers are intended to encourage unscripted contributions from members of the audience; in any case, there weren’t any such outbursts at the performance I saw.
Which is a shame. In at least one respect, 2015 is no different from 1965: no one is willing to address frankly the issues of power and inequality at the heart of America’s race problem. Thus, Baldwin and Buckley alike talk around the issue, more concerned with representing their positions than with explaining them. Buckley’s argument—that in fact black people were better off than they would have been if left un-enslaved in Africa—was more politically acceptable then than now, but not by much; so he talks all around it. Likewise, Baldwin can’t address the question directly because its answer is so self-evident; instead, he has to perform an exaggerated scholarly civility to make even his gentle hints palatable to an audience embodying white privilege in its most florid manifestation.
The actors were, respectively, believably smarmy and believably gracious, but their discussion went nowhere. The excess politeness, the talking around the issue, the pretense that this is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree, interferes with anybody’s actually grasping what’s going on. So all we get is a chance to feel superior to those poor fools from 50 years ago, when we’re actually not. Oracle gets an E for effort (and Earnestness), but fails to advance our understanding of an issue whose misunderstanding continues to tear the country apart.
Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, Windy City Playhouse (through October 4).
The curtain rises on a couple in bed. At the moment of climax, the woman screams out not something sexual but an ethnic slur. This sets in motion what purports to be the contemporary equivalent of Feydeau’s door-slamming farces, with two other couples (one gay, one straight) becoming involved in the argument between the original couple about the true meaning of what was said.
Peter Ackerman’s play, sharply directed by William Brown, never recovers from this initial bad premise. Ethnic slurs are NOT analogous to talking dirty, and any effort to make them so just trivializes their meaning and import. No wonder the whole middle of the play has us chasing the red herring of whether the woman’s partner is gay: that’s familiar territory for bedroom farces. But the resolution, which brings us back to the original ethnic-slur theme, is forced and uncomfortable—as well it should be.
Theater Wit’s Bad Jews demonstrated that there are ways it’s okay to make fun of anti-Semitism; Things You Shouldn’t Say . . . demonstrates there are ways it’s not.
We puzzle over the new musical at the New Colony. J. perceives Tchaikovsky’s influence while K. senses some Dostoevsky. Plus, J. previews another new musical, October Sky at the Marriott, with a score influenced by roots music.
American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has always presented fine work, including the only perfect production of The Tempest I’ve ever experienced. But this is the first time I’ve seen such uniformly excellent shows, ranging from strong to out-and-out superb. New Artistic Director Brenda DeVita has reason to be proud of her inaugural season—and not only because her husband Jim delivers a tour-de-force in the one-man An Iliad.
Tim Kaine played the Poet in An Iliad at Court Theatre in Chicago, on a smoking battleground in his combat fatigues creating an indelible impression of the chronicler as a casualty of war. This production is completely different, with DeVita dressed in tweeds lecturing in what appears to be a high-school science classroom, complete with skeleton. But the piece, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed here by John Langs, is equally powerful: simultaneously a clear and engaging retelling of The Iliad and a sharply drawn portrait of the uselessness of combat. Cellist Alicia Storin plays the Muse who provides literal counterpoint to the Poet, complementing Josh Schmidt’s recorded sound design as it conveys the aural fog of war. But nothing can distract your ears or eyes from DeVita’s riveting, exhausting, utterly truthful performance. Don’t miss this production, whether you’ve seen the play before or not.
Langs likewise works directorial magic with Othello. Every other production I’ve seen has made me wonder why the play isn’t called Iago instead, as we spend most of the play in his company. But Langs and actor Chike Johnson here present an Othello worthy of the name: a character whose formidable presence makes Iago seem like an annoying insect buzzing around his head. Yet it’s the tragedy of Othello that he’s allergic to bee-stings, and thus can be destroyed by this lesser man. James Ridge mixes wit with fury to create a wonderfully unsettling Iago, whose loathing for Othello stems simply from the other’s great superiority. Like men who are “jealous for they’re jealous,” Iago is envious because he’s envious, and all his other excuses for hating the Moor are just that. Despite a few slips on opening night (Iago’s knife’s flying out of his hand into the audience, Bianca’s shoe doing the same), the entire ensemble handles itself well. An absorbing evening.
Edward Albee’s Seascape violated all expectations by being a comedy in which a couple of large green lizards encounter a couple of old white people on a beach. As the two married couples explain their cultures to one another (and fight among themselves), the effect is sweet and charming and thought-provoking all at once, with a tart undertone sustained by Albee’s typically cynical view that it’s impossible ever to know another person (or creature). Laura Gordon’s production is, in a word rarely evoked by Albee, delightful, with strong performances by all.
An Iliad and Seascape are performed in the divinely air-conditioned Touchstone Theatre. Othello is presented at the open-air Up-the-Hill Theatre, and it’s a testament to the production’s strength that the audience was fully engaged even before the sun went down and relieved the 90-plus-degree heat.
Even more impressive, though, was A Streetcar Named Desire, performed in the open air at 1 o’clock on a scorching day. The weather matched the play’s overheated setting, of course, but it still takes an amazing production to command total attention from an audience squinting against the sun and dripping in perspiration. This was such an exceptional production, directed by Chicago veteran William Brown and resting on the capable shoulders of Chicago actress Tracy Michelle Arnold as Blanche, whose every move and facial expression told you about the slow collapse of her life. The production highlighted playwright Tennessee Williams’s obsession with the line between illusion and delusion, as Blanche teeters between them. Stella (Cristina Panfilio, also Seascape‘s lizard-wife) represents reality, balancing loyalty to her sister with her love not only for Stanley but for their down-to-earth life together, one without gentility or any nostalgia for it. Eric Parks (the husband of Panfilio off- as well as onstage) makes a fine Stanley, resisting every temptation to imitate the over-familiar Brando approach, and it’s not his fault that there’s not actually much to his character: the role is less about acting than about exuding sexiness. (No wonder Brando aced it.) Tim Gittings is excellent as Mitch, bringing humor as well as humility to that nearly-thankless part. It was an extraordinary three hours, notwithstanding the glare and the heat and the mosquitoes, and if for some reason they’d chosen to start again I would have stayed for another three. The show only runs through September 5, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend; don’t miss it.
Othello plays through the first weekend in October, while Seascape and An Iliad continue through October 18. It’s well worth a 4-hour drive to see such consistently terrific work.
Plus, J. rejoices at the extension of Lookingglass’s Moby Dick while K. recommends Free Street Theater’s new work about the undocumented young people known as the Dreamers.
We’re head over heels for this circus-flavored touring company of Pippin; plus, K. recommends The Poor Theatre’s Take Me Back (though she misplaces it in Logan Square when it’s actually in Wicker Park) and J. remembers three members of the founding generation of Chicago theater.
Lookingglass’s tale of the white whale renders the critics speechful.
The two critics take on one musical with two simultaneous stories. Plus, J. picks the Goodman’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike and explains about Chekhov for anyone who might not have gotten the reference.
The DCs puzzle out the meaning of Suzan-Lori Parks’ play about a man who makes his living impersonating President Lincoln at Fords Theatre. Plus, J. recommends Matawan at the Ruckus (shark attacks) while K. recommends Good People at Red Twist (stabs from the past).
It’s not the Hitchcock film but does it work on its own Daphne DuMaurier Conor McPherson terms? Listen to the critics squawk. Plus, K. recommends Liberty City at Eta Creative Arts, a tour de force by a young actress.