J. and K. square off over House Theatre’s theatrical in-joke adaptation of “Moby Dick.” Is the critic in the white suit Tom Wolfe, or the White Whale, or Chris Jones, or what? Plus, Jonathan talks about the big changes coming to Steppenwolf.
Jonathan’s in Japan en route to China, leaving me alone to drown in a sea of openings. A quick summation in baseball terms: two runs, two hits, one left on base.
The home runs
The Vandal at Steep Theatre is the Midwest premiere of Hamish Linklater’s first full-length play. It’s a debut any writer would envy. In a series of brief naturalistic scenes and with only three characters—a teenager, his father, and the middle-aged woman the teen befriends at a bus stop—Linklater’s characters explore nothing less than the meaning of life. And yet it’s anything but self-serious–in fact, much of the show is quite funny, especially a drawn-out metaphor involving Doritos and beer as the two ends of life’s spectrum of meaning. Anything more I say about this atmospheric piece will ruin its brief passage upon the stage: just go see Shade Murray’s production in which the always-excellent Kendra Thulin conveys every nuance of grief and loss while maintaining a flinty exterior the two men work hard to penetrate because it’s so obviously worthwhile to do so. ((Jack Miggins as the Boy and Alex Gilmor as the Man are both fine.) On Dan Stratton’s set consisting of a few boxes serving as a bus bench, a store counter and everything else, these three manage to conjure not only the physical setting in an urban desert between a hospital, a cemetery and a liquor store but the spiritual aridity it represents—and the possibilities that yet remain. See this exceptional piece of work, playing through November 8.
And still there’s something even better on another Chicago stage: Romulus, Gore Vidal’s 1962 adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor. The Oracle people can’t seem to put a foot wrong: if they do a show, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s perfectly acted, it’s political without being doctrinaire—and it’s free. This satire takes place on the final day before Rome falls to the Goths, and makes a powerful case that nothing better could happen in the world than for an empire—any empire—to fall. You can see how the German Durrenmatt would have felt that way in 1949; you can see how Vidal would have felt that way in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and most important you can see how it applies today, when America’s determination to maintain its world primacy costs life after life for no apparent purpose. Like The Vandal, this is a funny play with a serious purpose; like The Vandal, its director (here, Kasey Foster) has brought out the best from every member of a gifted company. Kevin Cox is particularly good as the titular emperor, who turns out to be the proverbial wise fool, and Jeremy Trager’s turn as Otto Rupf, the pants-maker who will save the world (don’t ask), keeps things rolling merrily along. A truly extraordinary experience, through November 22.
Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize and promptly collapsed into obscurity, perhaps because it hit too close to home in its examination of how badly our government operates. (Has Washington gotten the message yet, do you suppose? Try sending it again on November 4.) Imagine “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” without the positive outcome, and you’ve got the plot of Anderson’s play: a brand-new idealistic new Senator goes up against the forces of graft and corruption with the help of a seen-it-all dame inspired by his example. Only this time things don’t go quite as planned or hoped-for. Like much material of the same vintage, 1933′s Both Your Houses strikes our ears as wordy to the point of redundancy. (An audience used to ninety-minute dramas gets restless after Hour 2.) Though director James Bohnen specializes in this kind of battle of ideas, the production doesn’t crackle as it should. At the performance I saw David Darlow kept dropping his lines, and as his character is the moral center of the play any hesitation on his part undercuts the entire affair. An interesting evening but not what it could have been. Through November 9.
The Gravedigger at First Folio gets the jump on Halloween with this imagining of what happened to Frankenstein’s monster between the time he killed Mrs. Frankenstein and the moment he’s confronted by his creator somewhere in the frozen north. Director Alison C. Vesely secures strong performances from her foursome of actors, especially the always-fine Craig Spidle as a hermit who shelters the monster. But Joseph Zettelmaier’s whole play is just too damn earnest, with every character prating about love and redemption. It would have been twice as good if it had been half as long, but as it is we have plenty of time to notice that these people keep reassuring one another of their potential and virtue. Obviously Frankenstein is a moral tale, but I like my morals neat, without a lot of sentimental chaser. Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design is excellent, and the spooky Mayslake mansion a fine setting, but the evening is less than the sum of its parts. Through November 2.
Left on base
Smokefall is the Goodman’s remount of last year’s hit, written by flavor-of-the-month playwright Noah Haidle. This production did not enable me to gather the source of his appeal. Like The Gravedigger, it features a lot of people talking to each other about love rather than helping the audience experience or understand that emotion. When pre-term twins (Eric Slater and Guy Massey, superb as always) discuss the terrors of life from their safe location in utero, the play is witty and engaging; but nothing leads up to that moment and nothing issues forth from it. What exactly is supposed to be so great about this play I couldn’t tell you, and it’s a waste of actors Katherine Keberlein and Mike Nussbaum. If you want to make a play about how it’s hard but possible to live life to the fullest into old age, just do the story of Nussbaum’s life.
Jonathan and Kelly dispute the merits of Barbara Gaines’s production of King Lear, starring Larry Yando. Then K. recommends Rest by MacArthur genius grant recipient Samuel D. Hunter, at Victory Gardens, while J. chooses the Health Care plays at American Theatre Company.
Deanna Dunagan in the Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Death Tax by Lucas Hnath, directed by Heidi Stillman. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Kelly and Jonathan grapple with two plays by Lucas Hnath, a rising young playwright. Do they complement one another, or contradict one another? Is either one worth listening to? The same questions, of course, can be asked of the Dueling Critics!
And Jonathan eulogizes Sheldon Patinkin.
The company of The Whaleship Essex prepares to harpoon or be harpooned in the Shattered Globe production of Joe Forbrich’s play, directed by Lou Contey.
Jonathan and Kelly buckle on their swashes to critique The Whaleship Essex, Shattered Globe’s almost-world premiere of a play about the facts which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Is the production inspiring as well? Only the duelists know for sure!
Then Jonathan recommends Fail/Safe at Strawdog and Kelly recommends Jane Eyre at Lifeline, though in fact each seconds the other’s recommendation.
Sarah Hoch stars in Sweet Charity, MadKap Productions at the Skokie Theater. Photo by Kevin Mell.
The Coward (Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit) is cute. I realize how much that sounds like damning with faint praise, but two things interfere with a more enthusiastic assessment: Stage Left’s own history of producing political work, and an inherent weakness in Nick Jones’s script which parodies Restoration comedy–itself a satire of the affectations and delusions of the privileged class.
To take these in order: while The Coward is faintly political–its plot involves the surviving son of a lord who resists dueling as the waste of time, effort and blood that it is, and said son’s efforts to maintain his anti-dueling principles in the face of social pressure–it hardly measures up to the powerful work the company has done in the past. The Coward comforts the comfortable too much–we, the 21st Century audience, would never be so foolish!
More significantly, as a parody of a satire, The Coward puts us at double remove from the characters. This not only encourages the audience to feel itself above the [literal] fray but encourages the actors to ham it up. Ham is fine–especially that of Kate Black-Spence, as the vain ingenue, and Spenser David as one of the anti-hero’s chums–but I like some bread with my meal. But the thing looks spectacular: kudos to costume and effects designer Aly Renee Amidei for her gorgeous 18th-Century duds. Through October 5.
MadKap Productions makes an astonishingly assured debut with Sweet Charity, the first production of its first subscription season at the Skokie Theatre. Under Andrew Park’s direction, this show–an early effort from Neil Simon–moves almost fast enough to conceal what a clunker the script is. Charity Hope Valentine, a dance-hall hostess, dreams of getting out of that business and finding true love. She has a series of adventures which don’t coalesce into an actual plot until late in Act One, and finally resolve unhappily. There are a couple of good songs–”If They Could See Me Now,” “Hey Big Spender”–but the show is mostly known, and revered, for having launched Gwen Verdon on the world dancing Bob Fosse’s steps. Likewise, this production should mostly be known and appreciated for launching Sara Hoch on Chicago theater dancing Robin Lehtman’s steps. Actually, everyone’s dancing is really strong, and the voices are really exceptional under Gary Powell’s music direction.
Opening night featured some microphone-related catastrophe which caused squeaking and thumping every time Charity moved (that’s the risk with body mikes); and, in a space the size of an old high-school auditorium, I don’t understand why the cast needs to be miked at all. If the orchestra is too loud (and it sometimes is), quiet it down, and let the singers go au naturel. Yes, I know that’s not what that means. Through September 28 at the Skokie Theatre–take Lincoln Avenue north until it dead-ends; the theater, an old movie-house, will be to your right about 100 paces.
Tony Fitzpatrick is both a visual artist and a monologuist who’s about to leave his native Chicago for New Orleans, and his friend Stan Klein is a tri-a-loguist, by which I mean he has three personas each of which reflects on itself and the others. As woven together smoothly by adapter-director Ann Filmer (artistic director of 16th Street Theater), with hypnotic video by Kristin Reeves and guitar and vocals by John Rice and Anna Fermin, the men’s meditations on how Chicago has changed as they have aged (or is it they who have changed?), lumped together under the title The Midnight City, are generally charming and occasionally hilarious. Fitzpatrick particularly has the gift of the superb insult: he refers to unpleasant people as “guys who use Preparation H for Chap-Stick.” The show is custom-designed to make us miss Fitzpatrick now that he’s going and wonder why we haven’t paid more attention to him up until now. I predict–as does Stan–that Tony will be back. Meanwhile, catch The Midnight City in the Steppenwolf Garage through October 19.
Beware the woman with the ukulele above, Loretta Rezos as Livia with Maggie Scrantom as not-quite-innocent Isabella, in Women Beware Women (photo courtesy of Two Pence Theatre Company).
Jonathan and Kelly sample incest, adultery and power in Women Beware Women, a Jacobean battle-of-the-sexes at Two Pence Theatre. Plus, Kelly recommends C. S. Lewis On Stage at Provision Theatre.
Jeff Smith, Max Clayton and Seth Danner (left to right) as three gobs with a guidebook, hitting the streets of the Big Apple in “On the Town” (photo courtesy of the Marriott Theatre).
Old Tar Jonathan and Salty Kelly discuss On the Town at the Marriott Theatre, a tale of three gobs and their gals, and Kelly recommends Stupid F++king Bird at Sideshow Theatre.
Kimberly Logan and Lauren Jones in Witch Slap, Babes With Blades performing at the Raven Theatre.
Here’s the link to our latest duel, wherein Jonathan fails to be charmed by the new Babes With Blades play and Kelly comes flying to its defense, broomstick in hand. Also, Jonathan talks about All Our Tragic, the Hypocrites’ version of the 32 extant Greek dramas mashed into a single show. All right, a single show which lasts for 12 hours; but there are bathroom breaks!