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.
Elizabeth Bennett, The Girl and Mr. Darcy in Adapt Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice at Adapt Theatre is a delight. even at 3-+ hours. Using the framing device of an awkward teenage girl (Laila Sauer) who resists reading the book, adapter Lane Flores and director Amanda Lautermilch create a version faithful to the original but with a youthful and contemporary feel. Aja Wiltshire is a lovely Elizabeth, with just the right balance of snark and sweetness, and Andrew Thorp makes persuasive Darcy’s transformation from pompous asshole to gentleman lover. And of course any shy young girl obsessed with music would find herself turning into Georgiana! Cassandra Laine and Melissa Reeves uphold the honor of the older generation as Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, each appalling in her own way, and Connor Konz takes a part that’s been done by A-listers like Alan Cumming and makes it his own: he could hardly be smarmier or more self-satisfied or more ludicrous. Some of the choices are a little strange—why is Mary wearing headgear and combat boots, again?—but others are terrific, like the weird instrument Mary insists on playing to Lizzy’s humiliation and the disapprobation of all.
If these names mean nothing to you, it’s time to get acquainted with Pride & Prejudice, and Adapt Theatre provides the close-to-ideal introduction. And if you know exactly who I’m talking about, prepare to spend an afternoon or evening smiling as you hear dialogue directly from the book spoken by people who clearly love Jane Austen as much as you do. And at $20 ($15 for students and seniors), you can’t beat the price! At the (tiny) side project in Rogers Park through April 10, unless we get lucky and they extend it.
Butler (which, come to think of it, could be called “Pride & Prejudice” itself!) is about as likely as a unicorn: a comedy about slavery and the Civil War. But a very smart script by Richard Strand, impeccable direction by Stuart Carden and especially the comic chops of the four-man company make both moving and hilarious this fictional re-telling of a real incident which helped turn the tide against the Fugitive Slave Act. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the outstanding —no, astonishing!—Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, when escaped slave Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola, whom I’ve somehow never seen before but can’t wait to see again) shows up demanding sanctuary. Their battle of wits, interspersed with commentary by Nate Burger as the General’s adjutant and high Confederate swanning by Tim Monsion as the officer sent to retrieve Mallory, is funny and profound and touching all at the same time. The most intense pleasure of the evening arises from Strand’s observation that these two apparent opposites—the black slave and the white general—are actually exactly alike. Northlight’s production runs through April 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Raven Theatre does a fine job with the Midwest premiere of Horton Foote’s The Old Friends, a sort of updating of The Little Foxes wherein a wealthy woman (or two) manipulates and bullies everyone around her. JoAnn Montemurro is particularly strong as the bully-in-chief, giving a vanity-free performance of a mean sloppy drunk, and director Michael Menendian brings out the best in others as well, especially marssie Mencotti, whose own drunk scene is a highlight of the production. But Foote ended the play rather than finishing it: there’s that telltale pause before the audience starts applauding, because we’re not sure the thing is over. The Old Friends is more action-filled and absorbing than many other Foote plays, which can verge on Chekhovian non-eventfulness; but the lack of resolution nearly invalidates everything that went before. Through the end of March at Raven’s home theater on the Edgewater/Rogers Park border.
Fans of PG Wodehouse will find plenty to like in First Folio’s Jeeves at Sea: Christian Gray and Jim McCance are back as the idiotic Bertie and the unflappable Jeeves, and the four supporting cast members raise such a hullabaloo that it was surprising how few of them there were at curtain call. Never mind the plot: Wodehouse is all about the style, and director Alison Vesely and her cast have it down pat. This version of the early-20th-Century English upper class is the perfect tonic if you’re feeling hung over after bingeing on Downton Abbey.
Refuge Theatre Project begins its sophomore season by knocking it out of the park with High Fidelity, a musical based on the Nick Hornby novel and the John Cusack film of the same name. Turning a second-story space in the West Loop into “the last real record store on earth,” the company under Christopher Pazdernik’s direction manages to convey the essence of slack while nonetheless singing and dancing their hearts out. Every word of the script (by David Lindsay-Abaire, who shows no sign of slumming here but gives it his considerable best), every lyric, every character has a perfect 90s period feel coupled with sharp comedy and a love story or four. Max DeTogne, who plays our anti-hero, is so good I’m gnashing my teeth at having missed him as Jesus Christ Superstar at Theo Ubique–he holds the whole show together with his hangdog charm. Get thee to 666 West Hubbard before the show closes at the end of February, and maybe if you just refuse to leave you can persuade the company to keep running the show–like, forever.
Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.
What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.
The world premiere of Aline Lathrop’s Merchild at 16th Street Theater tells the story of 8-year-old Adam, whose highest aspiration in life is to be Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” After his habit of wearing Ariel’s costume to dance on the beach leads to his near-drowning by a group of bullies, his liberal-minded parents determine that he needs to be re-educated to be a boy.
Lathrop has put her finger on a particularly sore spot in contemporary American culture, the contested intersection of gender fluidity and feminism. If a boy can know he’s “really” a girl, does that mean there’s a fixed meaning attaching to being a girl? And if so, what does that leave of the feminist notion that girls and women can be whatever they choose? To “cure” Adam of his predilection, must Mom (Lia Mortensen), a high-powered academic, stay home and bake cookies? Must his sister suddenly become bad at math? Or is a cure really what’s called for?
Ann Filmer foregrounds these questions in her production, which features strong performances by all concerned and especially by the remarkable Peyton Shaffer as Adam. (Shaffer is, in fact, a girl, which I didn’t realize til I looked in the program; what might one infer from this incidence of gender fluidity?) Nor does the piece shy away from the aspects of Adam’s situation which are truly troubling, like his effort to cut off his penis with an Xacto knife. Lathrop skillfully mixes fantasy (Adam-as-Ariel in romantic scenes with the Prince [Will Crouse], actually his sister’s boyfriend) with reality—right up until the end.
But that end is so ambiguous that the audience wasn’t sure the play was over: the gap before applause began had nothing to do with the quality of the production and everything to do with unresolved questions in the play. When Ariel renounces the Prince and life on land in the final scene, was that Adam renouncing his desire to be a girl? Or did he just drown himself? Yes, those alternatives—“just a phase” vs. “a condition whose treatment destroys its patients”—are at the heart of the social debate, but the playwright can’t really refuse to resolve them without crossing the line from being thought-provoking to being just plain bewildering.
A worthy near-miss. Through October 17 at the 16th Street, 6420 16th Street in Berwyn.
Grand Concourse (Steppenwolf; through August 30)
It probably says more about me than about Grand Concourse that the most wrenching moment in a play involving fatal illness, homelessness, betrayal and a loss of faith came when there was injury to a cat.
But plenty of people who saw Bibi Andersen describe a sexual encounter in Persona swear that they saw the sexual encounter itself, a tribute to the vividness of the writing and the truth of the performance. In the same way, Mariann Mayberry’s rendition of the cat story in Heidi Schreck’s text is so powerful that it feels as if we’re seeing the poor animal right in front of us. Thus my response isn’t Cat Lady idiosyncratic but generated by the play itself.
Grand Concourse tells the stories of Shelley (Mayberry), a nun who runs a soup kitchen, and Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout volunteering there. The two women are assisted by the janitor Oscar (Victor Almanzar) and visited constantly by the homeless Frog (originally Tim Hopper, now Francis Guinan), and the relationships among the four make up the action of the play.
Unfortunately, until the very end it isn’t clear whose play it is, which makes it hard to invest in the goings-on. Are we watching Emma grow beyond her self-absorption, or Shelley struggle with her faith? Either of these would make a fine focus, but trying to focus on both leaves us with an evening which, as my companion said, “was smart, it was well-written, it was well-performed; but it didn’t move me.” So the moment with the cat was the exception rather than the rule. Though director Yasen Peyankov and his troupe give the play all they’ve got, the play doesn’t have very much to offer in return.
This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro, Oracle. Opens August 21, runs through September 19
This Oracle production debuted at the Washington Park Refectory as part of Theater on the Lake’s second peripatetic summer. This House Believes . . . is Zachary Baker-Salmon’s dramatization of an actual televised debate which took place at the Cambridge Union in 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, speaking respectively for and against the title resolution. The company asks the audience to vote on the proposition before the debate begins and again after its conclusion, to determine whose arguments swayed the most votes.
Under Baker-Salmon’s direction the work is finely performed by Johnard Washington and Jeremy Clark as Baldwin and Buckley, supported by players representing the moderator and other attendees. It’s not clear whether their [scripted] interruptions of the speakers are intended to encourage unscripted contributions from members of the audience; in any case, there weren’t any such outbursts at the performance I saw.
Which is a shame. In at least one respect, 2015 is no different from 1965: no one is willing to address frankly the issues of power and inequality at the heart of America’s race problem. Thus, Baldwin and Buckley alike talk around the issue, more concerned with representing their positions than with explaining them. Buckley’s argument—that in fact black people were better off than they would have been if left un-enslaved in Africa—was more politically acceptable then than now, but not by much; so he talks all around it. Likewise, Baldwin can’t address the question directly because its answer is so self-evident; instead, he has to perform an exaggerated scholarly civility to make even his gentle hints palatable to an audience embodying white privilege in its most florid manifestation.
The actors were, respectively, believably smarmy and believably gracious, but their discussion went nowhere. The excess politeness, the talking around the issue, the pretense that this is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree, interferes with anybody’s actually grasping what’s going on. So all we get is a chance to feel superior to those poor fools from 50 years ago, when we’re actually not. Oracle gets an E for effort (and Earnestness), but fails to advance our understanding of an issue whose misunderstanding continues to tear the country apart.
Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, Windy City Playhouse (through October 4).
The curtain rises on a couple in bed. At the moment of climax, the woman screams out not something sexual but an ethnic slur. This sets in motion what purports to be the contemporary equivalent of Feydeau’s door-slamming farces, with two other couples (one gay, one straight) becoming involved in the argument between the original couple about the true meaning of what was said.
Peter Ackerman’s play, sharply directed by William Brown, never recovers from this initial bad premise. Ethnic slurs are NOT analogous to talking dirty, and any effort to make them so just trivializes their meaning and import. No wonder the whole middle of the play has us chasing the red herring of whether the woman’s partner is gay: that’s familiar territory for bedroom farces. But the resolution, which brings us back to the original ethnic-slur theme, is forced and uncomfortable—as well it should be.
Theater Wit’s Bad Jews demonstrated that there are ways it’s okay to make fun of anti-Semitism; Things You Shouldn’t Say . . . demonstrates there are ways it’s not.
Tiger at the Gates, Promethean Theater Ensemble at the Athenaeum: Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 play is a re-telling of the start of the Trojan War from Troy’s perspective. The weight of the situation, and of the play, falls on Hector as he tries heroically to keep the war from starting. Clearly the playwright was responding to the lives wasted during World War I, which makes us somewhat more forgiving of the extent to which the play uncomfortably anticipates France’s anything-but-fighting posture as World War II loomed.
As directed by John Arthur Lewis, Tiger at the Gates (entitled in the original French The Trojan War Will Not Take Place) is so clear that after years of watching classical theater I understood for the first time the role of each player in the moves and counter-moves leading up to the Trojan War, and if that sounds trivial you’ve never tried to keep straight the relationships among Hector, Priam, Cassandra, Helen, Paris, Hecuba, Ulysses, Ajax, and on and on. But the production’s virtues extend beyond clarity: as embodied by Jared Dennis, Hector is all the warriors who have ever needed to remind the home front that war is something to be avoided if at all possible. Dick Cheney and other chicken-hawks, take note. This is a beautiful production without a wasted word or gesture; see it before it closes April 25.
Not So Much
Graveyard of Empires at 16th Street Theater: Elaine Romero’s play can’t quite decide who it’s about: the engineer whose erroneous source code caused a drone to misfire and kill his son; his estranged wife seeking peace in yoga while ignoring the violence all around her; the son who joins the army to prove himself to his father; the fellow soldier who accidentally kills him; or the soldier’s wife. By the end it seems like the father’s play, suggesting that Romero should go back and modify everything else accordingly. Dad’s is certainly the most interesting/ironic/tragic fate, because he has some agency; the others are mere pawns. His reconciliation with his wife is touching but unearned, and the play—even at 75 minutes—is a bit too long. Kevin Christopher Fox ably directs a cast of mixed abilities—veteran Joe Dempsey, as the father, is perfect but some of his castmates seem unclear on whether Graveyard is a magic-realist nightmare or a kitchen-sink melodrama. The production design, however—particularly Matt Kooi’s lighting—is excellent. This is the first of a Romero trilogy about the war in Afghanistan; perhaps she’ll get better with practice.
The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know at Raven Theatre: I have a friend who often remarks after an evening of theatrical upset, “Anguish, rage, tragedy—I get enough of that at home!” Raven’s awkwardly-titled world premiere makes that plaint literally true, as it explores the difficulty an adult son has in dealing with his aging and increasingly debilitated parents, something many audience members get enough of at home. If we learned more about the couple or the son, though, the familiarity of the material wouldn’t be a problem; but instead we get little snippets of self-disclosure, such as the mother’s saying, “This house is the only place I’ve ever felt safe.” Okay, tell me more—but playwright Todd Bauer doesn’t. Again, it’s not precisely clear whose play this is: the son, who’s fought his whole life for his parents’ approval despite a disability which interferes with his gait; the husband, who’s still living in his army days though the Korean War was some time ago; or the control-freak mother, who lives in such terror of her loved ones’ being injured that she injures them herself. We can see the ending coming a mile away and yet it takes forever to arrive. When you do new work, you risk clunkers like this.
Tina Gluschenko and Keith Kupferer in Windy City Playhouse’s production of End Days.
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.
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.
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.