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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.

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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.

Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf: the French Revolution meets the Kardashians

. . . while K. recommends About Face Theatre’s A Kid Like Jake at the Greenhouse Theater Center.jake1-1038x576

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WDCB Radio Review: The Apple Family Plays at Timeline Theatre

Politics and playwriting: we cross swords over two of Richard Nelson’s works, playing in rotating rep at Timeline—That Hopey Changey Thing and Sorry. Plus, Jonathan recommends The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker at Black Ensemble Theatre and Kelly recommends Softly Blue at MPAACT.

Reviews in brief: MPAACT’s Softly Blue, The Poor Theatre’s Edgar & Annabel and Lifeline Theatre’s One Came Home; plus honorable mentions for About Face, Black Ensemble, Chicago Slamworks and Porchlight

Or, why isn’t there anything to see in Chicago in the dead of winter?

K. sez:

Highly Recommended

Softly Blue, MPAACT at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: Agoraphobes in love are at the heart of Shepsu Aakhu’s play, which premiered at MPAACT some years ago and here experiences a gorgeous revival under the direction of Andrea J. Dymond. Though the premise sounds slightly comical, these two—a man grappling with what he regards as the death sentence of diabetes and a women overwhelmed by anxiety and depression—are serious as a heart attack when they try to connect honestly via Internet and phone. Like the bar-rats in The Iceman Cometh, they’re always going to go outside soon, and as in Iceman the audience hopes against hope that they will, until the ending breaks our hearts. Dymond makes powerful use of unseen singers to underscore the relationship’s ups and downs; and the two actors, Brandon Greenhouse and Demetria Thomas, go deep into the hearts of their characters and into our hearts.

Edgar & Annabel, The Poor Theatre at The Side Project through March 15: Sam Holcroft’s political thriller is also a play about performing, as the title characters turn out to be inventions designed to fool a Big Brother-like government into believing it’s eavesdropping on a placid suburban home instead of a safe-house used by a burgeoning rebellion. This is the Midwest premiere of a show from England’s National Theatre, but it plays flawlessly with American accents: no one who reads the papers will doubt that what’s portrayed—an oppressive government posing as the bastion of freedom—is relevant to strains in our own politics. Nor is the connection which evolves between “Annabel” and “Edgar” (Abbey Smith and Michael Medford, both excellent) a mere device in the service of a political message. Rather, it’s the true core of the play: if their bond can’t survive, neither can their struggle for freedom. And layered onto these political and personal meanings is an existential one, about how people perform their lives and come to be the thing they perform, whether they want to or not. Under Brad Akin’s direction, and with fine support from the rest of the cast, Medford and Smith make us care about every dimension of this multifaceted work. It’s unusual to see heart-pounding political suspense on stage—that’s moved largely to the movies, to the extent it hasn’t disappeared altogether—so that’s another reason to see this incisive portrait of the future we’re in the process of summoning. First-rate.

One Came Home, Lifeline Theatre through April 5: Lifeline’s stock in trade is stage adaptations of literature, and all the company’s strengths are on display in this world premiere version of an Edgar Award-winning and Newberry Honor novel by Amy Timberlake. We’re quickly immersed in the story of Georgie Burkhardt, a rebellious teenager in post-Civil War Wisconsin whose sharpshooting skills come in handy when she insists on following the trail of a sister everyone else believes has been murdered. As adapted by Jessica Wright Buha and directed by Lifeline stalwart Elise Kauzlaric, this is in no sense a “children’s show,” though the protagonist is a young adult. Georgie’s grief wars with her belief as her hostility to her sister’s beau turns to interest; these are all fully-rounded and fully-adult emotions, particularly as expressed by Ashley Darger, whose face changes expressions as readily as her character’s finger hits the trigger. And the overall production—including set and properties by Alan Donahue, costumes by Aly Renee Amidei and original music (folk-influenced and period-perfect) by John Szymanski—transform Lifeline’s challenging space into a world complete with fluttering pigeons, woodland refuges and happened-upon body parts. Want American history?—forget American Girl dolls; forget even “True Grit.” See One Came Home.

Honorable Mention

Redlined, Chicago Slam Works at Stage 773 through March 13: This is less a theater piece than an evening of sketch comedy alternating with slam-style poetry, about half of which works—not a terrible average for the medium. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting because I was confused by a headline describing Redlined as being “written and choreographed by the House Ensemble,” by which I thought was meant The House Theatre of Chicago. Rather, Chicago Slam Works is the group of interdisciplinary artists which makes its home at Stage 773. Don’t go confused and you won’t be disappointed by a grab-bag of scenes in which the Red Line serves as a metaphor for violence, gentrification and the state of race relations with equal parts naivete and witty observation. Particular kudos to Rashaad Hall for his nuanced performance: alone among the performers he’s identified simply as “Actor,” rather than “Poet/Actor” or “Actor/Hip Hop Artist,” and the skills which come with that designation are fully on display here.

A Kid Called Jake, About Face Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: This Chicago premiere of Daniel Pearle’s play receives a bang-up production from director Keira Fromm and her ensemble, particularly Katherine Keberlein as the mother of a 5-year-old boy who likes to dress like a princess. “Cross-gender behavior,” as it’s delicately styled here, is clearly in the wheelhouse of About Face, a self-described “celebrated center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and ally arts…to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity.” Interestingly, though, the play is much more a comment on First World Problems, as Upscale Mom and Dad agonize over getting little Jake into New York’s best private pre-schools. In this environment one shudders not at the prospect of a boy’s going trick-or-treating as Snow White but at the possibility that he might have to go to public school. If the play and production were intended to demonstrate the ordinariness of cross-gender behavior, such a rarefied atmosphere undermines that message, leaving my companion complaining at the end that while he understood the point of the play (parents should love children regardless of their gender orientation, and should not deny or attempt to influence that orientation), he didn’t understand the point of view: were we supposed to identify with these privileged people, or critique them, or ignore their privilege the way they ignore their son’s gender nonconformity? In any case, it’s well-spoken, even eloquent, preaching to the choir.

Sondheim on Sondheim, Porchlight Music Theater at Stage 773 through March 15: My favorite moment in this latest revue of Stephen Sondheim’s work came at the start of the second act, when the videotaped composer shows off a gilded box while addressing the audience directly: “And these are my fingernail clippings. I’m planning to give them to the Smithsonian.” I rejoiced that someone other than me had noticed the air of veneration growing a bit thick and incense-scented. Sondheim is a fine composer and lyricist, even an amazing one, and an evening of his music is bound to entertain, particularly where, as here, fine singers are gracefully directed (by Nick Bowling) and accompanied by an inspired pianist (music director Austin Cook, coiffed and shaved to resemble the composer). But we’ve already had Side by Side by Sondheim, Marry Me A Little, Putting It Together, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and the aspirationally-titled Moving On, not to mention the original musicals themselves: isn’t it, to coin a phrase, enough already? My friends who are musical theater professionals raved about this production, and perhaps my skepticism is the inevitable result of seeing something after a rave (which should be a lesson to me, as a congenital rave-er); but more likely it’s the result of my NOT being a musical theater professional but merely someone who loves the work. As long as there’s a very large in-group I guess it’s fine to stage an in-joke/homage; but could we now suspend eulogizing at least until the man is dead? If none of this resonates with you—if you can’t imagine having too much Sondheim—then by all means see Porchlight’s able production.

The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker, Black Ensemble Theater through March 15: The first straight play presented at BET after nearly twenty years of musical bio-plays (about Jackie Wilson, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and many others) is a fact-based courtroom drama about Walker, an African-American whose professional baseball career pre-dated that of Jackie Robinson by more than 50 years. In 1891 Walker, also a college-educated inventor and businessman, was accused of murdering a white man—and any Northerners who’d like to plume themselves on our lack of racism will get a rude shock as first-time playwright Ervin Gardner takes us through the hero’s trial in Syracuse, New York, featuring dismissive prosecutors, lying witnesses and observers with their own prejudices. The decision to address the audience as the jury is a flattering as well as an engaging one, but the indictment of America at large can’t be escaped. Director Jackie Taylor gets good performances out of her enormous cast (19 people playing 24 characters with the aid of facial hair generously applied), particularly Andre Teamer as Walker, struggling to retain his dignity as well as his life in the face of crushing opposition, and Nick Ferrin as his bulldog of a defense lawyer. The play is serviceable rather than brilliant, but the production (including film-style underscoring composed by the protean Taylor) will hold your attention and command your loyalties.

West Side Story at Drury Lane Oakbrook: the Dueling Critics Stick to Their Own Kind

Chicago Theatre Week: What’s Playing February 12-22

J. and K. preview Chicago Theatre Week and its many bargain offerings in dance and opera as well as theater.