Feral at MPAACT: Beyond “Ripped from the headlines”

We review the world premiere of Shepsu Aakhu’s newest play Feral, about police shootings and the media circus which follows them, and then K. recommends The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum.

New York In Brief: 2 hits, 1 error, 1 man left on

K. sez:

The Hits

Call me parochial: the best thing I saw in New York, at the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre, was directed by one Chicagoan and co-starred another.  (And next up at Barrow Street are two more Chicago boys: The T.J. and Dave Show runs June 4-7).  The theater itself looks like something out of our own theater scene, located as it is in a still-working settlement house with the ladies’ room in the basement, to get to which you have to walk past a washer-dryer combo whose sign sternly instructs audience members not to use the machines without permission.  I guess New York audiences find free laundry irresistible, even if it means stripping down at intermission.

But on with the show: Lucy Prebble’s The Effect follows the fortunes of a man and woman testing an experimental drug which makes them feel like they’re in love.  So, are they, or is it just the drug, and does it make any difference?  Meanwhile, the two doctors supervising the experiment are themselves ex-lovers, and the play involves teasing out the various definitions of love as well as conventional and unconventional attitudes toward depression.  Under David Cromer’s direction, the play is sexy and funny and fast and loud, and also incredibly touching.  Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson are utterly believable as the young couple whose emotions are getting the better of them, and Kati Brazda and Steve Key (a member of the American Blues ensemble) gracefully portray the more complicated relationship of their middle-aged keepers.  Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections give us an extra shot of intimacy in the bedroom scenes without interfering with stage acting of the very highest quality.  Bravo!  Through September 4.

Equally exciting was Ivo Van Hove’s version of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  Van Hove, who won raves for his production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge earlier this year (and who has been Tony-nominated for both), has abandoned the conventional reading of the play as a parable of the 1950s witch-hunt for Communists and directed it as a straightforward account of religious fanaticism and the damage it can do in a community struggling with scarcity.  Where there’s not enough to go around, the director seems to say, people turn on one another.  Without over-stressing the matter, he makes clear this is a reading of contemporary society: costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the actors in a sort of suspended-period modern dress, with the accusing young girls in knee socks and kilts a la Catholic schoolgirls and the adults in shapeless sweaters and slacks.  And yet somehow this makes the play feel more like it’s taking place in 18th-Century Salem than any amount of bustles and knee-breeches.

Jan Verswyveld’s set and lighting and Philip Glass’s music combine to make the production eerie rather than didactic: we don’t exactly know what’s going on.  We understand the girls are lying but we also see that they’ve somehow unloosed forces beyond their, or our, control.  Ben Whishaw (as John Proctor) and Saoirse Ronan (as his schoolgirl lover and the accuser of his wife) produce suitable sexual heat, but the play really belongs to Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth, whose wifely virtues of loyalty and honesty are twined around her neck to destroy her.  She’s the kind of quiet that’s more penetrating than the showiest yell, and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Ciaran Hinds continues his streak of charismatic evil-doers as the willfully blind Deputy Governor who allows the entire situation to spin out of control.

I wonder if the Dutch Van Hove was able to see the play so clearly because the insane religiosity portrayed is so similar to that of the Dutch Reform church—from which, as it happens, Puritans borrowed much of their absolutist thinking.  Whatever the source of his insight, he’s taken a great play and made it a great new play.  Open run.

The Error

I am sorry to report that Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is a waste of an enormous amount of talent.  Apparently director and book-writer George C. Wolfe could not make himself comfortable with presenting the racist jokes and stereotypes of the original show, even at a remove of 100 years, and so instead of a musical he offers us a sort of living slide show about the struggles of black performers in early years of the 20th Century.  Despite having plenty of dramatic potential in the stories of two pairs of partners who achieved success together and then double-crossed each other, Wolfe wrote not a play but a textbook, and even Brian Stokes Mitchell’s plummy voice can’t conceal the fact.  Likewise, Wolfe glances at a subplot concerning the ingenue’s gunning for the diva’s position but makes nothing of it.  The moral of the story is: if you’re embarrassed by what you’re presenting, don’t present it; don’t (you should pardon the expression) whitewash it, or blackface it, or turn it into an historical pageant.

Before I saw the show, I was irate that Audra McDonald had not been nominated for a Tony; once I saw it, I could see why: she’s perfectly adequate as the self-regarding diva, and of course her voice is glorious, but the side-by-side comparison with ingenue Adrienne Warren was a little too close to life for comfort.  And Warren did receive a well-deserved Tony nomination: she’s tiny and has a magnificent voice and can dance up a storm and is going to be a huge star.  Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame) is charming as producer Aubrey Lyles, but Mitchell’s over-earnest portrayal of co-producer F.E. Miller gives him nothing to play against. Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle have more rapport, but their partnership peters out instead of being ripped apart.  That may be true to life, but it makes for lousy theater.

Listen: anybody should be able to write a backstage show; take 42nd Street or All About Eve as your model, and Bob’s your uncle.  But if at the same time you feel constrained to stick to the facts, and/or you’re afraid that presenting accurate history will require sacrificing the hard-won dignity of your performers, then you can’t do the job.

Savion Glover’s choreography is okay, and the dancing is the best part of the show; but here, mistakenly, is where the show’s creators chose to be true to history.  Percussive dancing has come a long way since 1921, and I was looking for something more innovative.  The dancers are good (McDonald gamely tapping with the rest, though she’s pregnant) but the result is leaden.

Now: will somebody please take all these gifted people and write a show for them?  Open run.

One Man Left On

Frank Langella is nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Father, a play by the Frenchman Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Doug Hughes, and he deserves the accolade.  Often a shameless over-the-top ham, here Langella restrains himself and presents a painfully honest portrait of a man struggling with dementia.  (Kathryn Erbe of the Steppenwolf ensemble does the best she can with the thankless role of the daughter who cares for him even though he doesn’t care for her.)  But the play is unrelievedly dark, and the playwright doesn’t bother to tie up ends he’s deliberately loosened in earlier scenes.  During leaps back and forth in time,  Erbe tells her father that she’s moving to London and then asks why he keeps mentioning London but later seems actually to have gone to London; so who’s confused here, and to what purpose?  The device of using multiple actors to portray the same characters (to evoke Langella’s character’s confusion) is somewhat more successful but it’s not enough to sustain interest.  And, after a near-perfect portrayal of his character’s deterioration, in the final scene Langella wails “I want my mommy!”—which feels gratuitous, inauthentic, a bridge too far.  But for the most part Langella is at his very considerable best, and he’s the only reason to see The Father.  Tickets currently on sale through June 12; presumably the show will extend if Langella wins the Tony.

Dry Land at Rivendell: Anything But Dry

Rivendell presents a vivid drama about DIY abortion, female friendship and chlorine-green hair, and we hail the arrival of the new generation of brilliant actresses.  Plus, we critique the Tony Award nominations and tease out the Chicago connections therein.

Sender: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for Millennials?

We’re not sure if it’s a comedy or a drama, but we agree that the world-premiere production of Ike Holter’s play at A Red Orchid Theatre is great work.  Michael Shannon’s troupe delivers, even without Shannon.

The Mirror Has Seven Faces: Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts at Steppenwolf

We grapple with this world premiere; plus K. picks The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theatre and J. picks Carlyle at the Goodman.

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In brief: The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theater

K. sez:

The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theater affectionately skewers the title institution while giving serious consideration to the value of literature and witty lines to the characters discussing it.  Playwright Karen Zacarias captures deftly the territoriality often exhibited by club members when confronted with outsiders, as well as the ongoing tension about what (and whether!) to read.  An audience talk-back after the play had everyone deeply engaged in the play’s central question—“What is literature?”—even if most people wound up agreeing with the character who argued that being educated requires being open to high culture and pop culture alike.

Though Zacarias’s book group violates stereotypes by being co-ed, director Kevin Christopher Fox’s perfect pitch for this essentially female institution nonetheless came as something of a surprise.  Artistic Director Ann Filmer plays the group’s founder (or so the character claims) with just the right blend of overbearing-ness and insecurity, and she’s ably supported by the others, especially Jesse Dornan as the club-crasher who turns the group on its ear and its members on each other through nothing more than his desire to belong.

If you’ve ever been in a book group (particularly one that went sour) you should see this, and if you haven’t you’ll see this and congratulate yourself on your foresight. It’s selling well enough that they announced an extension on opening night, so don’t delay—it’s not like you have to read the book first!

Brecht’s Life of Galileo at Remy Bumppo: Puzzling It Out

We talk about the contemporary implications of Galileo’s work as interpreted by Brecht and adapted by David Hare and directed by Nick Sandys at Remy Bumppo, and with that many cooks in the kitchen who can be surprised it’s a bit of an olio?  Plus a survey of the coming Shakespeare 400 celebrations, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

Mosque Alert at Silk Road Rising: Play or Debate? Duel!

Plus J. recommends Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, and has to be forcibly restrained from singing himself.

 

Experiments with History and Gender in Cor Theatre’s Christina, The Girl King

We don’t agree on what the play is about, and that’s only the beginning!  K. raves over Butler at Northlight while Jonathan recommends The Matchmaker (the proto-Hello, Dolly) at the Goodman.

Arcadia at Writers’ Theatre: Vintage Wine in a New Bottle

We review Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and the horse it rode in on, namely Writers’ Theatre’s new Jeanne Gang-designed home.  Then K., suffering from an excess of enthusiasm, recommends two shows in Rogers Park: Rent at Theo Ubique and Pride & Prejudice at Adapt Theatre, while  J. restricts himself to a single pick: After All The Terrible Things I Do (a/k/a his autobiography) at About Face.