We duel over Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street at Eclipse, and then J. recommends Bite: A Pucking Queer Cabaret (a deconstructed Midsummer Night’s Dream) at Mary’s Attic while K. chooses an actual Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one at First Folio.
Plus, we preview summer theater at Theater on the Lake, First Folio, Oak Park Festival, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, etc., etc. and highlight some free music, dance and film available
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.
J. and K. preview Chicago Theatre Week and its many bargain offerings in dance and opera as well as theater.
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.
J. and K. take to the airwaves with host Gary Zidek of The Arts Section on WDCB, 90.9 FM, for an overview of drama under the stars and in the heat throughout the Midwest.
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.