We grapple with this world premiere; plus K. picks The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theatre and J. picks Carlyle at the Goodman.
The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theater affectionately skewers the title institution while giving serious consideration to the value of literature and witty lines to the characters discussing it. Playwright Karen Zacarias captures deftly the territoriality often exhibited by club members when confronted with outsiders, as well as the ongoing tension about what (and whether!) to read. An audience talk-back after the play had everyone deeply engaged in the play’s central question—“What is literature?”—even if most people wound up agreeing with the character who argued that being educated requires being open to high culture and pop culture alike.
Though Zacarias’s book group violates stereotypes by being co-ed, director Kevin Christopher Fox’s perfect pitch for this essentially female institution nonetheless came as something of a surprise. Artistic Director Ann Filmer plays the group’s founder (or so the character claims) with just the right blend of overbearing-ness and insecurity, and she’s ably supported by the others, especially Jesse Dornan as the club-crasher who turns the group on its ear and its members on each other through nothing more than his desire to belong.
If you’ve ever been in a book group (particularly one that went sour) you should see this, and if you haven’t you’ll see this and congratulate yourself on your foresight. It’s selling well enough that they announced an extension on opening night, so don’t delay—it’s not like you have to read the book first!
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.
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.
16th Street Theater presents the world premiere of THE GUN SHOW by EM Lewis, directed by Kevin Christopher Fox; now thru Aug 2; “Ellen and Juan Flashlight,” Juan Francisco Villa and author EM Lewis (seated). Photo by Anthony Aicardi.
Listen to 90.9 FM, WDCB, on Sunday morning at 8 a.m., wherein Jonathan and I spend our half of The Arts Section disagreeing about Brigadoon at the Goodman (and he’s wrong and I’m right!).
I’m also right that The Gun Show at 16th Street Theater is an extremely powerful monologue, with an interesting choice of monologist: a man to speak for the female playwright, who’s seated in the audience. The after-show conversation means the theater is walking its talk about starting a discussion on the subject, though I can’t agree that the solution is some imaginary middle ground between people who want to ban guns (of which I know none) and people who refuse to have them regulated at all. The sensible center is actually in the center, asking for reasonable regulation which everyone except the gun lobby can live with. As the sign outside the theater says, “You already have an opinion about guns.” The show is an opportunity to share it, and to have it challenged.
Note: please comment on this post by going to the “About” page–there’s a comment form at the bottom. Sorry for the extra click.
K. sez: I was struck by a piece I just received from 16th Street Theater in which Ann Filmer describes the theater’s gestation:
I had just moved to Berwyn with the belief that every community should have its own theater.
That’s a worthy sentiment, but I must admit I thought: Really? First, is that what every community needs, its own theater? Isn’t it possible it needs a nightclub, or a coffeehouse, or a library, or a grocery store? And second, is that what every theater’s about? Somehow I doubt that the founders of Steppenwolf sat in that storied church basement and said to one another, “We’re here because Highland Park should have its own theater.” In fact they couldn’t have thought that or they wouldn’t have moved, first to Boys’ Town and then to North and Halsted, two communities as different from each other as they are from Highland Park and which might or might not (to return to the first point) have needed theaters rather than, say, affordable housing or some non-big box retailing.
And then there’s the fact that until at least twenty years into the off-Loop theater movement, professionals working their hearts out in church basements and storefronts were desperate NOT to have their work confused with “community theater,” a term of derision suggesting salesmen directing lawyers and science teachers in revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, and yes, I was the lawyer in question. “Community” was a euphemism for “amateur,” and that was the last thing anyone struggling for a Tribune review would want said about him/her/it.
Maybe now that Chicago is acknowledged as a center of professional theater we can afford to talk about theater as a component of or a service to the community. Or maybe we’ve all just spent too much time trying to justify support of the arts by describing their contributions to the wider community. Or maybe the idea that “every community should have its own theater” was bound to develop in Chicago, where people identify themselves so thoroughly with their neighborhoods. We may not introduce ourselves anymore by naming our parish, but I nonetheless regard myself as an Edgewaterian, and take great pride in the neighborhood’s complement of 5 theaters in a 10-block radius.
(And should every community have five of its own theaters? Or is it just that they cluster, like kitchen-supply stores or dry-goods warehouses?)
It’s certainly tempting to think that community roots account for theaters which spend lots of time, money and energy to create 45-seat houses guaranteed to inhibit if not prevent growth. Why would you bother, unless you’re responding to a deep-seated need to find, and feel at, home? And being at home means that you post signs in the window thanking the officers on the beat for their service, and attend meetings at the Alderman’s office about creating a cultural plan and—well, you know: participate in community.
But is that really what all of you are doing? Just to call out my own neighborhood: Steep, Rivendell, Redtwist, City Lit, Raven, what does “community” mean to you? Are you where you are because you chose a community, or are you pursuing an artistic mission to which location is irrelevant, or did you just luck out on a place with low rent? And what about the cluster of theaters in Wicker Park—the ones sharing the Den or colonizing the Flatiron Building? Are you guys Wicker Parkians in your soul or is it just the space you happened to find?
And then there’s the special case of Redmoon, which is so involved with community that it moves every couple of years to escape any gentrification it might have helped cause and to reach out to another underserved neighborhood. Is it Johnny Appleseed, planting theaters which will survive its moving on? And does it make a difference that Redmoon invites the community not just to attend shows but to build puppets and create holiday extravaganzas?
I’m an art-for-art’s-sake girl—all those studies about the economic activity spurred by the arts don’t demonstrate the superiority of the arts to any other form of concentrated commerce. In any case, theater is a communications art form, and people don’t communicate with one another because of something else—we communicate because we’re human beings. But what is being communicated, and by whom, and to whom, is a question we need to keep on answering.
So will somebody please answer? Eager to hear from y’all. (Or, as we say in my neighborhood, “youse.”) Happy New Year!
(Kirsten D’Aurelio as April, Scott Alan Luke as Czar, Daniel J. Bryant as Hoody, Krenee A. Tolson as D and Ryan Czerwonko as Est in Broken Fences. Photo by Anthony Aicardi.)
If good fences make good neighbors, as the poet said, you can imagine what kind of neighbors can be found in the run-down East Garfield Park setting of Steven Simoncic’s Broken Fences. When a white couple moves into the neighborhood, their black neighbors move rapidly from puzzlement to concern to barely-controlled hostility.
The playwright has perfect pitch for clashing sensibilities wherever they arise, whether in an uncomprehended ritual of welcome or at the newly-opened Starbuck’s. And he makes the struggles of long-time residents Hoody and D (Daniel J. Bryant and Krenee A. Tolson) as wrenching as they should be: why should poor people face impossible property tax bills because rich people move in next door?
Simoncic and directors Ann Filmer and Ilesa Duncan are also not afraid to interrogate the motives of the newcomers, especially the wife April (Kirsten D’Aurelio), who combines unconscious condescension with a Sesame-Street understanding of diversity which can’t accommodate theft by the neighbors or junkies in the backyard. Though her evolution is a bit forced–her awkward and apologetic outreach turns into offensive territoriality literally overnight–April’s volte-face ratchets up the squirm-inducing nature of the cross-racial interaction to the highest possible pitch, which is where it belongs.
Wisely, the playwright injects significant humor into the proceedings, both in the form of the suburban friends of the white couple and, especially, Hoody’s brother Marz (Eric Lynch), whose unblushing opportunism allows him to say what everyone else is too decorous to mention: that “selling out” (literally and figuratively) is the best, or only, revenge.
Broken Fences made me acutely uncomfortable–and that’s the highest recommendation I could possibly give a production grappling with this difficult subject. It’s much truer to life than Act II of Bruce Norris’ acclaimed Clybourne Park, which purports to address the same issue, and much more even-handed. What Broken Fences manages to portray is the usually hidden face of institutional racism: a system in which no amount of good will can compensate for the economic fact that my gain is your loss.
Broken Fences is the “conversation about race” people are always claiming to want. Once you see it, you’ll know why the discussion never takes place: getting new ideas is always painful, and people rarely volunteer for discomfort.
Broken Fences plays at 7:30 Thursday and Friday evenings, and at 5:00 and 8:30 Saturdays, through October 26 at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. Tickets are $18.
J. and K. review the musical drama Next to Normal at Drury Lane Oakbrook, and pass along good news about the Hypocrites, 16th Street Theatre, Roche Schulfer, Chicago Shakespeare–and, of course, Jonathan himself.