Jonathan waxes Scrooge-like about holiday offerings while Kelly takes her inner child out for an excursion. Grab your insulin and dive in!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
J. and K. hold a Dixie cup up to the flood of holiday shows inundating Chicago theatre.
Ned Weeks (David Cromer, left) comforts his dying lover Felix Turner (Patrick Andrews) in TimeLine Theatre’s production of THE NORMAL HEART by Larry Kramer, directed by Nick Bowling, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, October 26 – December 22, 2013. Photo by Lara Goetsch.
J. and K. consider whether a play about the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s has any remaining resonance in the early 20-teens. Then K. recommends When Good Broccoli Goes Bad, a musical for children and their parents playing at the DuSable Museum for one public performance only: 3 pm Sunday 11/17.