Category Archives: Asian theater

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.


New York, New York, It’s A Wonderful Town

The two of us, in New York for the American Theatre Critics’ Association conference, took every advantage of the change of scene.  We duel over Allegiance, about Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and then each reviews the shows s/he saw individually: K. enthuses over the musicals Hamilton and Spring Awakening and the black comedy Hand to God, while J. discusses An American In Paris, and two off-Broadway world premieres: Ripcord and DaDa Woof Papa Hot.  Chicagoans who plan to be in New York for the holidays won’t lack for things to see, and will have our expert guidance to assist them!


Review Roundup: A Thrilling “Parade” plus worthy work from Silk Road Rising, MPAACT and Lifeline

Sarah Bockel and Jim Deselm in BoHo Theatre’s production of Parade by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. 

Parade, BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit: “I’m going to see a musical about a lynching,” I said to my friends.  Small wonder I couldn’t find anyone interested in taking my extra ticket.  Their loss, because as directed by Linda Fortunato, Parade is a quintessentially American story told mostly through Jason Robert Brown’s powerful music and trenchant lyrics—an opera for people like me who don’t like opera.  The story, as rendered in a book by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame: who knew he could be so unsentimental and so smart?), details what happened to Leo Frank, a Northern Jew in Atlanta, when a young woman is found murdered in his factory in the earliest years of the 20th Century.  He’s convicted on essentially no evidence, and when the Governor of Georgia recognizes that and commutes Frank’s death sentence, the townsfolk drag Frank from prison and execute him themselves.

From the opening scene, set at the start of the Civil War, the text makes clear that for the people of Atlanta the War has never ended—the eponymous parade is a celebration of Confederate Memorial Day—and that they can’t resist the opportunity to avenge themselves on a Yankee.  Fortunato and music director Matt Deitchman bring this out with subtlety, but it’s the central message of the piece.  I clearly remember the assassination of JFK fifty years ago; so of course in 1913 the people of Atlanta are still remembering, and trying to come to terms with, its burning and their loss of the war.

The company performs the show’s difficult music with great facility, and though most are condemned to play loathsome characters none shrinks away from the required ugliness.  Jim Deselm gets surprisingly little to do as Frank, but whenever he’s given the opportunity he soars; and he’s more than matched by the excellent Sarah Bockel as his wife, a Southerner trying to reconcile her love for her homeland with her love for her husband.  A meditation on the persistence of hatred, BoHo Theatre’s Parade is a thought-provoking and thrilling work.  Through November 16 at Theater Wit on Belmont; get there during these final two weeks.

The Hundred Flowers Project at Silk Road Rising: Midway through this meta-theatrical work by Christopher Chen, I had to remind myself that normal people don’t see four plays a week and that therefore most members of the audience for this show will not also have seen House Theatre’s equally and similarly meta-theatrical Season on the Line.  So let’s presume you haven’t and that therefore the notion of a play about developing a play doesn’t feel like old hat.  In that case, you will find The Hundred Flowers Project under Joanie Schultz’s vigorous direction a challenging and exciting work, in which a group of young actors working to develop a script about the Chinese Cultural Revolution find themselves engaging in the same destructive group-think as the political figures they seek to portray.  Chen has a terrific ear for phony inclusiveness and for dictatorial behavior masquerading as consensus-building, and those political themes give heft and value to what might otherwise have been an exercise in actors’ being cleverly self-regarding.  Mia Park shines as the power-drunk director, and she’s ably supported by the rest of the cast.  Michael Stanfill’s video and projections design provide the perfect ominous note of nowhere-ness, of ideas and plans and even people disappearing into a rabbit hole of dishonest nonsense.   Well worth seeing; through November 23 at Silk Road Rising’s home in the Chicago Temple building downtown.

The Velveteen Rabbit at Lifeline Theatre: I hardly ever review children’s theater, and now we know why: I started crying about half an hour into the 50-minute length of The Velveteen Rabbit, and didn’t stop until I’d sniffled my way up the street and had a good howl in my car. Elise Kauzlaric’s adaptation of the Margery Williams book misses none of the pathos of this child’s love for his stuffed rabbit and the rabbit’s reciprocal desire to be “real”—a term which turns out to have more than one meaning. Amanda Link directs a small company led by Christopher Acevedo as The Boy and the utterly adorable Jamie Cahill as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the show’s end is happy enough for children—just not enough for hard-bitten theater critics. Jessica Kuehnau Wardell’s costume designs vividly demonstrate the rabbit’s passage from shiny new toy to beloved companion. Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through November 23.

The Inside at MPAACT:As Executive Director Reginald Lawrence pointed out in his curtain speech, MPAACT has been producing the work of Lydia R. Diamond since before she was LYDIA DIAMOND, author of Stick Fly and Voyeurs de Venus as well as an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This early work, adapted from the poems of Nikki Giovanni and first done by the company 15 years ago, places Kristin E. Ellis alone on stage narrating an evening her character Emma spends at a party full of academic pretensions and not-very-concealed racism. While Ellis’s performance (under Deidre Searcy’s direction) is heartfelt and full of hairpin turns from comedy to pain and back again, the play itself runs out of steam about 2/3 of the way through. Not to be too literal-minded, but why doesn’t Emma just leave? Yes, she’s seeking approval from this roomful of cretins—seeking to be on ‘the inside’—but no one this smart would let herself be whipsawed in the ways described. Shepsu Aakhu’s set, featuring bottles and other tokens of her life suspended from the ceiling, provides just the right feeling of, well, suspense: when this night finally ends, what will have crashed down and what will remain? Through November 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue.

Strandline at A Red Orchid Theatre:Red Orchid never fails to offer superb acting but it might want to reconsider the number of times it chooses plays consisting of drunken Irish people yelling at each other. As anyone who’s ever been the only sober person at a party knows, listening to drunks can wear thin quickly; and though Abbie Spallen’s play (here in its U.S. premiere) intends to be unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, the work has neither the appropriately weighty mystery nor the sufficiently clear resolution to support its length. J.R. Sullivan directs the usual stellar cast, including AROT Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald, Dado and Natalie West. Perhaps the appeal of the piece was the number of roles it contains for women of a certain age, but even that novelty won’t sustain an audience for two acts. Through December 7 at the company’s home space in Old Town.


Our take on a Snake by the lake

The White Snake production photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.

How sharper than a serpent’s tongue are Kelly and Jonathan as they discuss The White Snake at Goodman Theatre, and Jonathan also recommends Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at Raven Theatre.

Kelly: In defense of Hedy Weiss

I don’t share Hedy Weiss’s opinion of the Silk Road Rising show Invasion! and I can understand how people found it offensive.


A number of the arguments against her take the form of a complaint that her response was “political” rather than “artistic.”  She encountered a political statement and responded to it politically: what could be more natural and, indeed, appropriate?  We’re supposed to respond politically to political statements–that’s what Brecht is all about.  If we don’t respond from our political as well as artistic viscera, then we’re admitting that theater has no political importance whatsoever–that it doesn’t matter what gets said on our stages because it’s only “artistic.”

I can’t imagine Jamil Khoury at Silk Road Rising believes that–in fact, I know he doesn’t, as he’s worked long and hard on a highly political series concerning the attempted construction of a mosque in the suburbs.   And I know that my own enthusiasm for many works is rooted in the match between their political perspective and my own.  Would I have stood up and cheered if Brecht’s The Mother had instead trumpeted the virtues of robber-baron capitalism, or if Odets’s Waiting for Lefty had argued that unions are the devil’s tool?  I doubt it.

It’s just that the only time we notice that art is political is when it disagrees with us.  I’m aware that “Birth of a Nation” is political because it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, a position to which I object.  But I think of “Philadelphia” as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie, because I already agree with its foundational political premise that people with AIDS shouldn’t be isolated or demonized.

Likewise, I found Invasion! a witty deconstruction of stereotypes and a thoughtful account of fractured identities because I agreed with its basic political premise that stereotypes are a useless way of encountering other people.  But if I didn’t agree with that premise–as apparently Hedy does not–then the political nature of the play would be in the foreground of my thinking about it, and my reaction–like Hedy’s–would be political.

By all means let’s have a conversation about the impact politics has on the day-to-day lives of theater artists.  But let’s not pretend that politics is only a factor when we disagree with it.  If theater or theater criticism is to be meaningful, it must at least occasionally step out of the comfortable consensus and argue for a minority viewpoint–even if that viewpoint is distasteful or insulting.

I happen to think that drag performance is as insulting to women as blackface performance is to African-Americans, and have written about this position rather extensively.  On each occasion I receive furious responses from those who believe drag is a privileged form of gay communication and thus that my position demonstrates that I’m a homophobe.  I’m not, and that remains true even if my position on drag offends a majority of gay people (which I doubt).  I would argue that likewise Hedy Weiss’s holding a minority view about the value of profiling doesn’t make her a racist.

Again: I understand that people may think it makes no difference whether someone is “really” a homophobe or a racist if that person holds political positions which are unacceptable to gay people or racial minorities.  But I believe it does make a difference: one of these things is a prejudice (that is, unconsidered) and the other an opinion (considered).

Moreover, I think Hedy has made a point we all should take seriously: that theater is not some sort of neutral zone where it doesn’t matter what gets said.  And if what gets said is political, what gets said back should be political, too.  Her censorious editors may not understand that, but all of us who think theater is an important player in society should.

American Players Theater at Spring Green: August 9, 2013 (Episode 5)

The DCs debate The Two Gentlemen of Verona and discuss the balance of the Spring Green season, including Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Dickens and Maugham.  Plus individual picks and our take on the Silk Road Rising/Invasion!/Hedy Weiss/Sun-Times controversy.