We review the world premiere of Shepsu Aakhu’s newest play Feral, about police shootings and the media circus which follows them, and then K. recommends The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum.
Politics and playwriting: we cross swords over two of Richard Nelson’s works, playing in rotating rep at Timeline—That Hopey Changey Thing and Sorry. Plus, Jonathan recommends The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker at Black Ensemble Theatre and Kelly recommends Softly Blue at MPAACT.
Or, why isn’t there anything to see in Chicago in the dead of winter?
Softly Blue, MPAACT at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: Agoraphobes in love are at the heart of Shepsu Aakhu’s play, which premiered at MPAACT some years ago and here experiences a gorgeous revival under the direction of Andrea J. Dymond. Though the premise sounds slightly comical, these two—a man grappling with what he regards as the death sentence of diabetes and a women overwhelmed by anxiety and depression—are serious as a heart attack when they try to connect honestly via Internet and phone. Like the bar-rats in The Iceman Cometh, they’re always going to go outside soon, and as in Iceman the audience hopes against hope that they will, until the ending breaks our hearts. Dymond makes powerful use of unseen singers to underscore the relationship’s ups and downs; and the two actors, Brandon Greenhouse and Demetria Thomas, go deep into the hearts of their characters and into our hearts.
Edgar & Annabel, The Poor Theatre at The Side Project through March 15: Sam Holcroft’s political thriller is also a play about performing, as the title characters turn out to be inventions designed to fool a Big Brother-like government into believing it’s eavesdropping on a placid suburban home instead of a safe-house used by a burgeoning rebellion. This is the Midwest premiere of a show from England’s National Theatre, but it plays flawlessly with American accents: no one who reads the papers will doubt that what’s portrayed—an oppressive government posing as the bastion of freedom—is relevant to strains in our own politics. Nor is the connection which evolves between “Annabel” and “Edgar” (Abbey Smith and Michael Medford, both excellent) a mere device in the service of a political message. Rather, it’s the true core of the play: if their bond can’t survive, neither can their struggle for freedom. And layered onto these political and personal meanings is an existential one, about how people perform their lives and come to be the thing they perform, whether they want to or not. Under Brad Akin’s direction, and with fine support from the rest of the cast, Medford and Smith make us care about every dimension of this multifaceted work. It’s unusual to see heart-pounding political suspense on stage—that’s moved largely to the movies, to the extent it hasn’t disappeared altogether—so that’s another reason to see this incisive portrait of the future we’re in the process of summoning. First-rate.
One Came Home, Lifeline Theatre through April 5: Lifeline’s stock in trade is stage adaptations of literature, and all the company’s strengths are on display in this world premiere version of an Edgar Award-winning and Newberry Honor novel by Amy Timberlake. We’re quickly immersed in the story of Georgie Burkhardt, a rebellious teenager in post-Civil War Wisconsin whose sharpshooting skills come in handy when she insists on following the trail of a sister everyone else believes has been murdered. As adapted by Jessica Wright Buha and directed by Lifeline stalwart Elise Kauzlaric, this is in no sense a “children’s show,” though the protagonist is a young adult. Georgie’s grief wars with her belief as her hostility to her sister’s beau turns to interest; these are all fully-rounded and fully-adult emotions, particularly as expressed by Ashley Darger, whose face changes expressions as readily as her character’s finger hits the trigger. And the overall production—including set and properties by Alan Donahue, costumes by Aly Renee Amidei and original music (folk-influenced and period-perfect) by John Szymanski—transform Lifeline’s challenging space into a world complete with fluttering pigeons, woodland refuges and happened-upon body parts. Want American history?—forget American Girl dolls; forget even “True Grit.” See One Came Home.
Redlined, Chicago Slam Works at Stage 773 through March 13: This is less a theater piece than an evening of sketch comedy alternating with slam-style poetry, about half of which works—not a terrible average for the medium. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting because I was confused by a headline describing Redlined as being “written and choreographed by the House Ensemble,” by which I thought was meant The House Theatre of Chicago. Rather, Chicago Slam Works is the group of interdisciplinary artists which makes its home at Stage 773. Don’t go confused and you won’t be disappointed by a grab-bag of scenes in which the Red Line serves as a metaphor for violence, gentrification and the state of race relations with equal parts naivete and witty observation. Particular kudos to Rashaad Hall for his nuanced performance: alone among the performers he’s identified simply as “Actor,” rather than “Poet/Actor” or “Actor/Hip Hop Artist,” and the skills which come with that designation are fully on display here.
A Kid Called Jake, About Face Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: This Chicago premiere of Daniel Pearle’s play receives a bang-up production from director Keira Fromm and her ensemble, particularly Katherine Keberlein as the mother of a 5-year-old boy who likes to dress like a princess. “Cross-gender behavior,” as it’s delicately styled here, is clearly in the wheelhouse of About Face, a self-described “celebrated center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and ally arts…to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity.” Interestingly, though, the play is much more a comment on First World Problems, as Upscale Mom and Dad agonize over getting little Jake into New York’s best private pre-schools. In this environment one shudders not at the prospect of a boy’s going trick-or-treating as Snow White but at the possibility that he might have to go to public school. If the play and production were intended to demonstrate the ordinariness of cross-gender behavior, such a rarefied atmosphere undermines that message, leaving my companion complaining at the end that while he understood the point of the play (parents should love children regardless of their gender orientation, and should not deny or attempt to influence that orientation), he didn’t understand the point of view: were we supposed to identify with these privileged people, or critique them, or ignore their privilege the way they ignore their son’s gender nonconformity? In any case, it’s well-spoken, even eloquent, preaching to the choir.
Sondheim on Sondheim, Porchlight Music Theater at Stage 773 through March 15: My favorite moment in this latest revue of Stephen Sondheim’s work came at the start of the second act, when the videotaped composer shows off a gilded box while addressing the audience directly: “And these are my fingernail clippings. I’m planning to give them to the Smithsonian.” I rejoiced that someone other than me had noticed the air of veneration growing a bit thick and incense-scented. Sondheim is a fine composer and lyricist, even an amazing one, and an evening of his music is bound to entertain, particularly where, as here, fine singers are gracefully directed (by Nick Bowling) and accompanied by an inspired pianist (music director Austin Cook, coiffed and shaved to resemble the composer). But we’ve already had Side by Side by Sondheim, Marry Me A Little, Putting It Together, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and the aspirationally-titled Moving On, not to mention the original musicals themselves: isn’t it, to coin a phrase, enough already? My friends who are musical theater professionals raved about this production, and perhaps my skepticism is the inevitable result of seeing something after a rave (which should be a lesson to me, as a congenital rave-er); but more likely it’s the result of my NOT being a musical theater professional but merely someone who loves the work. As long as there’s a very large in-group I guess it’s fine to stage an in-joke/homage; but could we now suspend eulogizing at least until the man is dead? If none of this resonates with you—if you can’t imagine having too much Sondheim—then by all means see Porchlight’s able production.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker, Black Ensemble Theater through March 15: The first straight play presented at BET after nearly twenty years of musical bio-plays (about Jackie Wilson, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and many others) is a fact-based courtroom drama about Walker, an African-American whose professional baseball career pre-dated that of Jackie Robinson by more than 50 years. In 1891 Walker, also a college-educated inventor and businessman, was accused of murdering a white man—and any Northerners who’d like to plume themselves on our lack of racism will get a rude shock as first-time playwright Ervin Gardner takes us through the hero’s trial in Syracuse, New York, featuring dismissive prosecutors, lying witnesses and observers with their own prejudices. The decision to address the audience as the jury is a flattering as well as an engaging one, but the indictment of America at large can’t be escaped. Director Jackie Taylor gets good performances out of her enormous cast (19 people playing 24 characters with the aid of facial hair generously applied), particularly Andre Teamer as Walker, struggling to retain his dignity as well as his life in the face of crushing opposition, and Nick Ferrin as his bulldog of a defense lawyer. The play is serviceable rather than brilliant, but the production (including film-style underscoring composed by the protean Taylor) will hold your attention and command your loyalties.
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.