The House Theatre of Chicago roles out a slightly-gothic world premiere by Kara Davidson, directed by Shade Murray and with fascinating puppets by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. If you thought P&J stood for peanut butter and jelly, you’d better think again. Davidson’s historical research is impeccable, with every character in the play–human and puppet–rooted in the actual history of Punch and Judy shows in England. Kelly and Jonathan are fascinated!
We’re not sure if it’s a comedy or a drama, but we agree that the world-premiere production of Ike Holter’s play at A Red Orchid Theatre is great work. Michael Shannon’s troupe delivers, even without Shannon.
Plus, K. recommends The Play About My Dad at Raven Theater, Gary promotes the Critics’ role in the Dual Duel competition at Comedy Sportz, and J. foreshadows upcoming conversations about New York theater and about holidays shows.
Jonathan’s in Japan en route to China, leaving me alone to drown in a sea of openings. A quick summation in baseball terms: two runs, two hits, one left on base.
The home runs
The Vandal at Steep Theatre is the Midwest premiere of Hamish Linklater’s first full-length play. It’s a debut any writer would envy. In a series of brief naturalistic scenes and with only three characters—a teenager, his father, and the middle-aged woman the teen befriends at a bus stop—Linklater’s characters explore nothing less than the meaning of life. And yet it’s anything but self-serious–in fact, much of the show is quite funny, especially a drawn-out metaphor involving Doritos and beer as the two ends of life’s spectrum of meaning. Anything more I say about this atmospheric piece will ruin its brief passage upon the stage: just go see Shade Murray’s production in which the always-excellent Kendra Thulin conveys every nuance of grief and loss while maintaining a flinty exterior the two men work hard to penetrate because it’s so obviously worthwhile to do so. ((Jack Miggins as the Boy and Alex Gilmor as the Man are both fine.) On Dan Stratton’s set consisting of a few boxes serving as a bus bench, a store counter and everything else, these three manage to conjure not only the physical setting in an urban desert between a hospital, a cemetery and a liquor store but the spiritual aridity it represents—and the possibilities that yet remain. See this exceptional piece of work, playing through November 8.
And still there’s something even better on another Chicago stage: Romulus, Gore Vidal’s 1962 adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor. The Oracle people can’t seem to put a foot wrong: if they do a show, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s perfectly acted, it’s political without being doctrinaire—and it’s free. This satire takes place on the final day before Rome falls to the Goths, and makes a powerful case that nothing better could happen in the world than for an empire—any empire—to fall. You can see how the German Durrenmatt would have felt that way in 1949; you can see how Vidal would have felt that way in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and most important you can see how it applies today, when America’s determination to maintain its world primacy costs life after life for no apparent purpose. Like The Vandal, this is a funny play with a serious purpose; like The Vandal, its director (here, Kasey Foster) has brought out the best from every member of a gifted company. Kevin Cox is particularly good as the titular emperor, who turns out to be the proverbial wise fool, and Jeremy Trager’s turn as Otto Rupf, the pants-maker who will save the world (don’t ask), keeps things rolling merrily along. A truly extraordinary experience, through November 22.
Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize and promptly collapsed into obscurity, perhaps because it hit too close to home in its examination of how badly our government operates. (Has Washington gotten the message yet, do you suppose? Try sending it again on November 4.) Imagine “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” without the positive outcome, and you’ve got the plot of Anderson’s play: a brand-new idealistic new Senator goes up against the forces of graft and corruption with the help of a seen-it-all dame inspired by his example. Only this time things don’t go quite as planned or hoped-for. Like much material of the same vintage, 1933’s Both Your Houses strikes our ears as wordy to the point of redundancy. (An audience used to ninety-minute dramas gets restless after Hour 2.) Though director James Bohnen specializes in this kind of battle of ideas, the production doesn’t crackle as it should. At the performance I saw David Darlow kept dropping his lines, and as his character is the moral center of the play any hesitation on his part undercuts the entire affair. An interesting evening but not what it could have been. Through November 9.
The Gravedigger at First Folio gets the jump on Halloween with this imagining of what happened to Frankenstein’s monster between the time he killed Mrs. Frankenstein and the moment he’s confronted by his creator somewhere in the frozen north. Director Alison C. Vesely secures strong performances from her foursome of actors, especially the always-fine Craig Spidle as a hermit who shelters the monster. But Joseph Zettelmaier’s whole play is just too damn earnest, with every character prating about love and redemption. It would have been twice as good if it had been half as long, but as it is we have plenty of time to notice that these people keep reassuring one another of their potential and virtue. Obviously Frankenstein is a moral tale, but I like my morals neat, without a lot of sentimental chaser. Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design is excellent, and the spooky Mayslake mansion a fine setting, but the evening is less than the sum of its parts. Through November 2.
Left on base
Smokefall is the Goodman’s remount of last year’s hit, written by flavor-of-the-month playwright Noah Haidle. This production did not enable me to gather the source of his appeal. Like The Gravedigger, it features a lot of people talking to each other about love rather than helping the audience experience or understand that emotion. When pre-term twins (Eric Slater and Guy Massey, superb as always) discuss the terrors of life from their safe location in utero, the play is witty and engaging; but nothing leads up to that moment and nothing issues forth from it. What exactly is supposed to be so great about this play I couldn’t tell you, and it’s a waste of actors Katherine Keberlein and Mike Nussbaum. If you want to make a play about how it’s hard but possible to live life to the fullest into old age, just do the story of Nussbaum’s life.
Natalie West and Matt Farabee in Mud Blue Sky by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Shade Murray at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
I truly cannot say enough positive things about the new show at A Red Orchid Theatre, Mud Blue Sky by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Shade Murray. As is always the case with Red Orchid, the casting and the resulting acting are impeccable. But in this case, their taste in plays measures up to their skill in presenting them, making this comedy-drama about facing the future an utter delight.
I had preconceptions about the play when I read it was about a young man who spends an evening with three flight attendants, but happily Wegrzyn blows right past the stereotypes to present the flight attendants as women of a certain age concerned about retirement, their children and what they’ve made of their lives. Likewise Jonathan, the drug-selling young man, is much more interested in talking to the women and drawing their fully-clothed likenesses than in a possible sexual encounter. Matt Farabee makes believable every layer of Jonathan’s complex biography, and his relationship with the eldest of the women (played with utter and unaffected truth by Natalie West) is a thing of beauty. Mireka Girten and Kirsten Fitzgerald round out the cast, and in this well-balanced play each has a scene of her own, and each knocks it out of the park.
I’d almost forgotten what it feels like to be moved to tears in the theatre. Thanks to Murray and his Red Orchid crew, I was reminded on Monday night.
Mud Blue Sky runs through May 25 in the Red Orchid space in Old Town (if the word “space” can be said to apply to a 35-seat house); get your tix now.