Plus, Jonathan recommends Endgame and King Lear at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
plus K. raves over Between Riverside and Crazy (her summer home), while J. celebrates Pride Films & Plays’ adaptive reuse of an abandoned space.
We can’t agree about Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight at Windy City Playhouse. Then K. thrusts upon you her opinions about Othello, An Iliad and Seascape at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, and J. parries that there are 240 theaters right here in the Chicago metro area and that the upcoming fall season will reward your attention.
J. and K. growl at each other over The Universal Wolf at Trap Door Theatre; K. waxes lyrical over Isadora Duncan & Martha Graham at the Chicago Dancing Festival and Tennessee Williams & William Brown at American Players Theatre; and J. blesses this year’s nominations for the Equity Jeff Awards.
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.
American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has always presented fine work, including the only perfect production of The Tempest I’ve ever experienced. But this is the first time I’ve seen such uniformly excellent shows, ranging from strong to out-and-out superb. New Artistic Director Brenda DeVita has reason to be proud of her inaugural season—and not only because her husband Jim delivers a tour-de-force in the one-man An Iliad.
Tim Kaine played the Poet in An Iliad at Court Theatre in Chicago, on a smoking battleground in his combat fatigues creating an indelible impression of the chronicler as a casualty of war. This production is completely different, with DeVita dressed in tweeds lecturing in what appears to be a high-school science classroom, complete with skeleton. But the piece, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed here by John Langs, is equally powerful: simultaneously a clear and engaging retelling of The Iliad and a sharply drawn portrait of the uselessness of combat. Cellist Alicia Storin plays the Muse who provides literal counterpoint to the Poet, complementing Josh Schmidt’s recorded sound design as it conveys the aural fog of war. But nothing can distract your ears or eyes from DeVita’s riveting, exhausting, utterly truthful performance. Don’t miss this production, whether you’ve seen the play before or not.
Langs likewise works directorial magic with Othello. Every other production I’ve seen has made me wonder why the play isn’t called Iago instead, as we spend most of the play in his company. But Langs and actor Chike Johnson here present an Othello worthy of the name: a character whose formidable presence makes Iago seem like an annoying insect buzzing around his head. Yet it’s the tragedy of Othello that he’s allergic to bee-stings, and thus can be destroyed by this lesser man. James Ridge mixes wit with fury to create a wonderfully unsettling Iago, whose loathing for Othello stems simply from the other’s great superiority. Like men who are “jealous for they’re jealous,” Iago is envious because he’s envious, and all his other excuses for hating the Moor are just that. Despite a few slips on opening night (Iago’s knife’s flying out of his hand into the audience, Bianca’s shoe doing the same), the entire ensemble handles itself well. An absorbing evening.
Edward Albee’s Seascape violated all expectations by being a comedy in which a couple of large green lizards encounter a couple of old white people on a beach. As the two married couples explain their cultures to one another (and fight among themselves), the effect is sweet and charming and thought-provoking all at once, with a tart undertone sustained by Albee’s typically cynical view that it’s impossible ever to know another person (or creature). Laura Gordon’s production is, in a word rarely evoked by Albee, delightful, with strong performances by all.
An Iliad and Seascape are performed in the divinely air-conditioned Touchstone Theatre. Othello is presented at the open-air Up-the-Hill Theatre, and it’s a testament to the production’s strength that the audience was fully engaged even before the sun went down and relieved the 90-plus-degree heat.
Even more impressive, though, was A Streetcar Named Desire, performed in the open air at 1 o’clock on a scorching day. The weather matched the play’s overheated setting, of course, but it still takes an amazing production to command total attention from an audience squinting against the sun and dripping in perspiration. This was such an exceptional production, directed by Chicago veteran William Brown and resting on the capable shoulders of Chicago actress Tracy Michelle Arnold as Blanche, whose every move and facial expression told you about the slow collapse of her life. The production highlighted playwright Tennessee Williams’s obsession with the line between illusion and delusion, as Blanche teeters between them. Stella (Cristina Panfilio, also Seascape‘s lizard-wife) represents reality, balancing loyalty to her sister with her love not only for Stanley but for their down-to-earth life together, one without gentility or any nostalgia for it. Eric Parks (the husband of Panfilio off- as well as onstage) makes a fine Stanley, resisting every temptation to imitate the over-familiar Brando approach, and it’s not his fault that there’s not actually much to his character: the role is less about acting than about exuding sexiness. (No wonder Brando aced it.) Tim Gittings is excellent as Mitch, bringing humor as well as humility to that nearly-thankless part. It was an extraordinary three hours, notwithstanding the glare and the heat and the mosquitoes, and if for some reason they’d chosen to start again I would have stayed for another three. The show only runs through September 5, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend; don’t miss it.
Othello plays through the first weekend in October, while Seascape and An Iliad continue through October 18. It’s well worth a 4-hour drive to see such consistently terrific work.
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.
Donterrio Johnson & Lorenzo Rush, Jr. in Ain’t Misbehavin’. Photo by Kelsey Jorissen.
Tom Jones at Northlight. The Jon Jory adaptation of Fielding’s novel is as sexy as the movie, and director William Brown makes sure we know it. As played by Sam Ashdown, Tom manages to be catnip to the ladies without coming off as a preening jerk, and everyone in support (a number of them, like Ashdown, working at Northlight for the first time) gets into the spirit of the era and Fielding’s parody of its pieties. Jory, known for his adaptations of Jane Austen, here adopts quite a different voice, but with no less success. Through February 23 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Saint Joan at ShawChicago. This concert reading of Shaw’s play, directed by Robert Scogin, is so vigorous and smart that you don’t miss little things like staging, set and costumes. A dozen Chicago theater veterans tear into Shaw’s arguments about religion and politics with energy, clarity and aplomb. Particularly distinguished are the two leads, Jhenai Mootz as Joan the Maid and Jonathan Nichols as the Bastard of Orleans. Even their enthusiasm is insufficient to keep the 3-plus hour play from drooping after intermission—apparently no one mentioned to Shaw that brevity is the soul of wit—but the production comes roaring back in the final scene, when all the players reunite in heaven. Through February 24 at the Ruth Page Theater on the Gold Coast.
Recommended with reservations:
Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porchlight. Unlike the refined jazz-lite tiptoeing its way into “Downton Abbey,” this is the real deal: the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, who learned his piano-playing trade in the brothels of New Orleans’s Storyville, is the apotheosis of 1920s jazz. And this all-music musical is the real deal, too, wasting no time on a trumped-up book and letting us learn the characters through what, and how, they sing. Pianist/conductor Austin Cook provides able stride-piano support to the five singers, and in that excellent group Donterrio Johnson stands out as flawless, especially in the stoner anthem “The Viper.” So what’s my problem?
Here ’tis, as Waller might say: Director Brenda Didier seems to think Waller’s bawdy lyrics and seductive music need to be underlined by having the actresses shake their boobs and the actors run their hands suggestively down their inseams. This is unnecessary and transforms a group of sophisticated entertainers into clowns. Moreover, it seems to be a contemporary example of the way white people have historically projected our libidos onto African-Americans, with a result to neither group’s credit.
Doubtless I’m the only critic in the city who has anything negative to say about this production, and I urge you not to deprive yourself. I just couldn’t help squirming. Through March 9 at Stage 773 on Belmont.
Rough Crossing at First Folio. The promotional material tells the tale: director Alison Vesely has confused Tom Stoppard with P.G. Wodehouse. While Rough Crossing takes place in the same milieu (life among the idiot privileged), the works are really quite different. Wodehouse is leisurely, a sort of slow-burn comedy, while Stoppard relies on lightning-fast repartee for his humor. Thus, the pace of the entire production is off, and a comedy without pace is—well, not a comedy. There are a few excellent individual performances: in particular, Alex Weisman manages to refresh a bit about stuttering which must first have been performed in the Mesozoic era. Through March 2 at the Mayslake Estate in Oakbrook.
The Tempest at City Lit. Shakespeare’s final play is about putting the world back in balance—returning the rightful king to his throne, uniting warring kingdoms, freeing slaves. When it’s instead directed as a love story between Prospero and his servant Ariel, as it is here by Sheldon Patinkin, the play itself falls out of balance. Even when other choices are correct—the incidental music by Kingsley Day is just about perfect, and Callie Johnson is a graceful and lovely Ariel, especially as garbed by costume designer Patricia Roeder—the production’s tilt toward an impossible central romance makes the whole thing feel futile. Through March 16 in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Bryn Mawr.
J. and K. consider a play about fathers and sons, the Holocaust and survivors’ guilt, and K. raves over Conor McPherson’s new play Port Authority at Writers Theatre (behind the bookstore) in Glencoe.
CORRECTION: J. was right: the music in Elegy is Bach not Beethoven. Like Schroeder in Peanuts, Kelly knows everything about Beethoven–for instance, that he was the first President of the United States. Apologies (& thanks for the correction) to Elegy cellist Bill Meyer.