Bruce Norris’s The Qualms at Steppenwolf: An Honest Examination of Relationships or just the Comedy of Cruelty?

The cast of The Qualms, written by ensemble member Bruce Norris and directed by Pam MacKinnon.  Casting includes ensemble member Kate Arrington with Owais Ahmed, Karen Aldridge, Diane Davis, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Keith Kupferer, David Pasquesi, Paul Oakley Stovall and Greg Stuhr.  (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Jonathan and Kelly strongly disagree about the new Steppenwolf show: J. approves, while K. has Qualms.  Also: K recommends Men Should Weep at Griffin: nothing like a 1940s Scottish melodrama to liven up your summer!



Men Should Weep, and Audiences Will: Griffin Revives Mid-Century Scottish Melodrama

Griffin Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of MEN SHOULD WEEP by Ena Lamont Stewart, directed by Robin Witt. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

 K. sez:

From the rash of openings, you wouldn’t think it was the middle of July.  Jonathan and I dueled over Brigadoon on WDCB this past Sunday, and will square off over The Qualms on our Friday podcast.  I’ve seen three or five other pieces, but only one worth drawing attention to:

Men Should Weep, receiving its Chicago premiere at Griffin Theatre, is a fine if really depressing play from the 1940s set in the Glasgow slums.  Notwithstanding the Scottish setting, it’s indistinguishable from the stereotyped Irish play, complete with infuriated women, drunken useless men, poverty, domestic violence–and, in this case, tuberculosis and rickets.  Director Robin Witt secures fine performances from her cast and Ena Lamont Stewart’s play is an absorbing proto-feminist piece.  It’s hardly light summer fare, though, so wait to see it til the next time it rains.  That should be any minute now.  Griffin is performing at the Raven Theatre complex on North Clark Street at the Edgewater-Rogers Park border while it continues to build out its permanent home in an abandoned firehouse.  This production demonstrates once again how worthy the troupe is of a good home.


Brigadoon, Political Correctness and the Holocaust: J. and K. stray far afield in the heather on WDCB Radio

Kevin Earley and Jennie Sophia in the Goodman’s production of Brigadoon.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

And so our heroes review the Goodman revival of Lerner & Loewe’s 1947 classic.  Plus, Jonathan has his way with the Andrews Sisters—twice.


Listen Sunday morning for our debate about Brigadoon, and preliminary thoughts about The Gun Show

16th Street Theater presents the world premiere of THE GUN SHOW by EM Lewis, directed by Kevin Christopher Fox; now thru Aug 2; “Ellen and Juan Flashlight,” Juan Francisco Villa and author EM Lewis (seated).  Photo by Anthony Aicardi.

Listen to 90.9 FM, WDCB, on Sunday morning at 8 a.m., wherein Jonathan and I spend our half of The Arts Section disagreeing about Brigadoon at the Goodman (and he’s wrong and I’m right!).

I’m also right that The Gun Show at 16th Street Theater is an extremely powerful monologue, with an interesting choice of monologist: a man to speak for the female playwright, who’s seated in the audience. The after-show conversation means the theater is walking its talk about starting a discussion on the subject, though I can’t agree that the solution is some imaginary middle ground between people who want to ban guns (of which I know none) and people who refuse to have them regulated at all. The sensible center is actually in the center, asking for reasonable regulation which everyone except the gun lobby can live with. As the sign outside the theater says, “You already have an opinion about guns.” The show is an opportunity to share it, and to have it challenged.


Another contender in the summer-theater sweepstakes; plus, return of the native

K. sez:

Door County, downstate and northwest-ish Indiana have a new competitor in the free-for-all which constitutes summer theater in the Chicago area: the Three Oaks Festival, which will set up shop in several locations around what real-estate salesmen call ‘Harbor Country’—southwest Michigan in the vicinity of New Buffalo.  Its season consists of transplants from the past year in Chicago, including Blair Thomas & Co.’s A Piano with Three Tales; Dennis Watkins’ The Magic Parlour; a staged reading of TimeLine Theatre’s The Normal Heart; David Lutken in Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie; Jackalope Theatre’s Exit Strategy; and Seanachaí Theatre Company’s Hughie.

Also presenting erstwhile Chicago shows you wish you hadn’t missed, and also in peripatetic mode, is the venerable Theater on the Lake, which continues to produce even as the Park District renovates its home space.  (That’s the meaning of the discouraging “See you next year!” sign in front of the Fullerton facility—presumably that’s the same next year during which the Cubs will win the pennant.)  On tap: Stage Left’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, July 9-13 and Theo Ubique’s A Cole Porter Songbook, July 23-27, both at Berger Park, 6205 North Sheridan Road; the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, July 30-August 3 at the Washington Park Refectory, 5531 S. Russell Dr.; and Strawdog’s Great Expectations, August 6-10 back up at Berger Park.


In brief: Second City e.t.c., Profiles and LiveWire

K. sez:

I generally prefer the work of Second City e.t.c. to the work on the mainstage. Why is that? Yes, the mainstage people are all preoccupied with auditioning for Saturday Night Live; but the e.t.c. people are all preoccupied with auditioning for the mainstage, so the caution and self-consciousness level should be about the same. It isn’t, though: e.t.c. is routinely looser and therefore closer to its comic improv roots than the main company. That’s true in its new review Apes of Wrath, but it’s not otherwise one of the troupe’s best efforts. The three women—Carisa Barreca playing against dizzy-blonde type, Brooke Breit displaying real acting chops, and Punam Patel in the tradition of fat chicks who make fun of themselves before other people can—are excellent, regardless of their material. The men are less distinctive—two of them even look alike—and thus more dependent on comic opportunities which the script rarely provides. But Eddie Mujica has incredible physical-comic skills which form the foundation of running jokes about robots and meth addicts (don’t ask). Director Jen Ellison keeps up the pace.
Often I leave Profiles Theatre wanting to kill myself, regardless of the quality of the play. Chalk this up to the company’s generally masculinist sensibility and close collaboration with Neil LaBute. But Annapurna is a gratifying exception to this rule. Company member Eric Burgher takes his first turn in the director’s chair, and does an impeccable job of bringing out the raw emotion in Sharr White’s script about a long-divorced couple trying to reconcile their memories, if not their relationship. That description makes the play sound kitchen-sink ordinary, which it’s completely not: there is indeed a kitchen sink, but it’s crawling with ants. Husband Ulysses, played with growling truth by Darrell Cox, is living in a revoltingly filthy mountain hut far from everything, barely bothering to get dressed. (Certificate of Profilian authenticity: we see Cox’s tush.) Urbane Wife Lia Mortensen (likewise utterly honest) arrives without notice in search of some resolution of their long-ago relationship. She arms herself with Lysol and the battle is joined. Any more description would ruin the delicately-wrought structure of Annapurna; suffice it to say the interactions are beautifully layered and the end is hopeful and life-affirming. I enjoyed it so much I almost felt guilty. This Midwest premiere (the show opened off-Broadway only last month) runs through July 20 at the theater’s Alley space on North Broadway. It’s a fine showcase for the work of two of our finest veteran actors: see it. And never fear: Profiles returns to type (and to Neil LaBute) on August 28, opening its new season with the playwright’s Reasons to be Happy.
There are some witty lines in Partners at LiveWire, and director Kendra Miller does what she can with Dorothy Fortenberry’s play about two couples—one gay, one straight—and their lives, which interlock because Ezra (from couple #1) and Clare (from couple #2) are best friends from college and partners in a food-truck business they haven’t yet managed to get off the ground. The play suffers from too many themes and not enough plot: it’s obvious from the beginning that Clare is dragging her heels about the business and that Ezra will eventually confront her about it. Meanwhile there are intense discussions about marriage equality, monogamy, adult acne and the libido-suppressing effects of reflux medicine; until suddenly late in Act I the play turns out to be about money—its inaccessibility to Ezra, its marriage-altering potential for Clare, its meaning to their respective life partners. Money is a great topic but you can’t write a play about it by wandering around til you light on the subject accidentally. And the gay best friend is a pretty hoary device by now, though Will Von Vogt does his best with it. Through July 20 at the Den on Milwaukee Avenue.


Unmatched pair: Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, and Tyrant at Sideshow Theatre

Tyrant SideshowThings may be dysfunctional in the writers’ room, as conceived by Neil Simon in Laughter on the 23rd Floor (upper photo, courtesy of Eclectic Full Contact Theatre), but the world is downright dystopian in the world premiere of Tyrant, by Kathleen Akerly (lower photo, courtesy of Sideshow Theatre). The DC saw different shows this week and offer their opinions.




In brief: Kelly reviews Godspell, The Golf Ball and Orville & Wilbur Did It

K. sez:

I can’t quite account for the fascination certain Jews (including me) have with the Greek Bible (a/k/a the New Testament) but I’m grateful that it’s shared by Stephen Schwartz because its legacy is Godspell, now receiving a glorious production at the Marriott Theatre. Director-choreographer Matt Raftery strikes just the right balance between updating this quintessentially 1970s Flower Child musical and leaving it in its original period. He also doesn’t hesitate to deploy his 10-person cast in wildly inventive, not to say utterly over-the-top, production numbers featuring every move and prop conceivable, up to and including gold Hula Hoops. Brian Bohr makes a fine not-too-fey Rabbi Joshua (a/k/a Jesus), and Devin DeSantis is suitably tortured as Judas. Finally, music director Ryan T. Nelson allows the cast to use their considerable individual and collective voices, resulting in a gorgeous sound which contrasts favorably with the original cast album, on which shaky or off-key singing gets pride of place as representing authenticity. It was a surprise to see empty seats at this spectacular show, but it may be that the Jews who are such stalwart patrons of most theaters are avoiding Godspell on doctrinal grounds. Don’t make that mistake: see this rousing show before it closes August 10.

The New Colony specializes in world premieres devised by its company, and its new one—Orville and Wilbur Did It!—is a particularly successful example of the genre. Despite the name, this is distinctly NOT a children’s show; it’s a contemporary adult comedy about a troupe of actors doing a children’s show on a seemingly endless tour of the nation’s grammar schools. As they fight, f**k and fumble their lines, we find ourselves actually caring about this collection of B- or C-list performers. The songs (by playwright David Zellnik and Eric Svejcaror) for the eponymoous show are both funny and tuneful, and the company does a great job of demonstrating the strained quality of most performances for kids. Director Andrew Hobgood could give lessons in comic pacing, and in a strong ensemble the work of Joey Romaine (in a fuzzy blue bird suit that sets off his wild red hair) and Josh Odor (playing the most desperate and least sober of the gang) stands out. Through July 20 at the Signal Ensemble space on Berenice in North Center; a perfect confection for a summer night.


Author-director Kestutis Nakas, who also stars in The Golf Ball, is right that Anton Chekhov is about ready for some form of updating: a century-plus after he wrote his plays, it may be possible to begin treating him like Shakespeare, with pieces presented out of original period and original location. Unfortunately, Nakas’s adaptation of Seagull is not the modern treatment we’ve been waiting for. This inaugural production of The Bridge, a new theatre in Bridgeport, is a disaster from first to last. The text renders Chekhov’s subtle use of repetition and solipsistic monologues as a simple bore, like being trapped at a party with a bunch of recent but unsuccessful analysands, and the company—consisting mostly of Nakas’s students at Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts—is not skilled enough to rise above it. A truly unfortunate debut.


It’s Divine, Dear: On WDCB’s The Arts Section we review The Diviners by the Organic Theater at the Greenhouse