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.
Or, why isn’t there anything to see in Chicago in the dead of winter?
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.
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.
J. and K. preview Chicago Theatre Week and its many bargain offerings in dance and opera as well as theater.
We discuss pop culture, Sophocles and Jonathan’s age as we attempt to parse the new show at Theater Wit.
They’re Southerners, they’re Italians—things are bound to be over the top!
My favorite of these four is the one intended for children, though whether it’s in fact suitable for children is another matter. Lions in Illyria is Robert Kauzlaric’s clever adaptation of Twelfth Night to the animal kingdom. It contains surprising insights into the original text: I had never before registered that Viola and Olivia are mirror images in more than name as both mourn brothers, the first genuinely and the second affectedly. Viola and Sebastian are the twin lions of the title; Olivia is a gazelle and Orsino (aptly) a peacock. These and all the other characters are played by the same four stunningly versatile actors under Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s impeccably clear direction: kudos to Bryan Bosque, Mykele Callicutt, Brandi Lee and Kate McDermott. But many audience members were 5 or under, and they didn’t seem to follow what was going on, though their parents were having a high old time. This show should be seen by every Brownie Scout troupe in the Chicago metropolitan area: it’s perfect for girls ages 7 to 11. Too much romance for boys, too much plot for younger children, too many morals drawn for older children. So this is a perfect show, lacking only its perfect audience.
Both Trap Door and the Side Project offer world premieres about torture and confinement. Each is appropriately agonizing but that doesn’t mean I recommend either. Cookie Play at Trap Door purports to be a parody of the national-security state in which we all now live: a pair of government agents seek the cooperation of a fugitive’s parents while the mother tries to pacify them with cookies and the father with agreement. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, the son is being tortured. But you can’t satirize a self-parody, and our government’s buzzwords and euphemisms have long since become risible. If you haven’t been reading the papers and need an education in what’s been done in your name since 2001, by all means see Cookie Play; otherwise skip it, though director Kate Hendrickson and her cast (especially Lyndsay Rose Kane as Mom the baker) bring out everything the text has to give, and more.
Meanwhile, in the equally claustrophobic Side Project space, Ronan Marra directs Push Button Murder, whose title gives you the whole story. A pair of soldiers sits in a bunker in Ohio and shoot down suspected terrorists elsewhere in the world. They cope with gallows humor and by quizzing each other on trivia until a mysterious government agent (sound familiar?) shows up—for what purpose, neither they nor we can be certain. Meanwhile, in alternate scenes which seem wholly unconnected to the bunker story, a pair of fired teachers considers revolutionary action. Then the soldiers take the government agent hostage and cover his mouth with duct tape as a sort of down payment on future torture. Again, if you’ve been living in your own bunker for the past 10 years, you might need to be told that we kill people remotely and then describe them as terrorists. Steve J. Spencer’s script tries to make this point new by connecting it to the de-funding of education but succeeds only in making it confusing and overcrowded. Again, the actors—especially Meredith Rae Lyons as the female soldier—do their best but they’re prisoners in a play which inflicts pain without gaining, or imparting, intelligence.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is something completely different: a blend of kitchen-sink realism and second-wave feminist fantasy. As in Judy Chicago’s installation “The Dinner Party,” Churchill summons women from history and myth to evoke forms of female power from Patient Griselda to Pope Joan. She then settles down to the actual story, which turns on the question whether a woman can be successful in business only by abandoning her child. Doubtless this was a fresh subject at some point but it’s the deadest of equines today. Director Mark Boergers has chosen to have his actresses strut across the stage in weirdly stylized (and offensively sexualized) ways which do credit to no one, but two performances rise above this handicap: Pamela May David as a bawdy Pope and Aislinn Kerchaert as a desperately needy adolescent confronted with equally unacceptable alternative models of womanhood. Be warned, though: the next person of any gender who mentions the concept of “having it all” will have all of my fist in his/her face.
From WDCB Radio, 90.9 FM: Jonathan and Kelly reflect on the year gone by as they prepare for their return to weekly reviewing in the new year.
Yes, that’s right: now you can hear us every single Sunday morning at 8 a.m. on WDCB’s newly-expanded The Arts Section hosted by Gary Zidek. All you have to do is be awake at 8 a.m.