K. holds forth on shows in New York (hint: the best one had the most Chicago connections) and also recommends TimeLine’s Chimerica, while J. picks Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Northlight.
We don’t agree on what the play is about, and that’s only the beginning! K. raves over Butler at Northlight while Jonathan recommends The Matchmaker (the proto-Hello, Dolly) at the Goodman.
Elizabeth Bennett, The Girl and Mr. Darcy in Adapt Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice at Adapt Theatre is a delight. even at 3-+ hours. Using the framing device of an awkward teenage girl (Laila Sauer) who resists reading the book, adapter Lane Flores and director Amanda Lautermilch create a version faithful to the original but with a youthful and contemporary feel. Aja Wiltshire is a lovely Elizabeth, with just the right balance of snark and sweetness, and Andrew Thorp makes persuasive Darcy’s transformation from pompous asshole to gentleman lover. And of course any shy young girl obsessed with music would find herself turning into Georgiana! Cassandra Laine and Melissa Reeves uphold the honor of the older generation as Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, each appalling in her own way, and Connor Konz takes a part that’s been done by A-listers like Alan Cumming and makes it his own: he could hardly be smarmier or more self-satisfied or more ludicrous. Some of the choices are a little strange—why is Mary wearing headgear and combat boots, again?—but others are terrific, like the weird instrument Mary insists on playing to Lizzy’s humiliation and the disapprobation of all.
If these names mean nothing to you, it’s time to get acquainted with Pride & Prejudice, and Adapt Theatre provides the close-to-ideal introduction. And if you know exactly who I’m talking about, prepare to spend an afternoon or evening smiling as you hear dialogue directly from the book spoken by people who clearly love Jane Austen as much as you do. And at $20 ($15 for students and seniors), you can’t beat the price! At the (tiny) side project in Rogers Park through April 10, unless we get lucky and they extend it.
Butler (which, come to think of it, could be called “Pride & Prejudice” itself!) is about as likely as a unicorn: a comedy about slavery and the Civil War. But a very smart script by Richard Strand, impeccable direction by Stuart Carden and especially the comic chops of the four-man company make both moving and hilarious this fictional re-telling of a real incident which helped turn the tide against the Fugitive Slave Act. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the outstanding —no, astonishing!—Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, when escaped slave Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola, whom I’ve somehow never seen before but can’t wait to see again) shows up demanding sanctuary. Their battle of wits, interspersed with commentary by Nate Burger as the General’s adjutant and high Confederate swanning by Tim Monsion as the officer sent to retrieve Mallory, is funny and profound and touching all at the same time. The most intense pleasure of the evening arises from Strand’s observation that these two apparent opposites—the black slave and the white general—are actually exactly alike. Northlight’s production runs through April 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
The critics enthuse about extraordinary acting by Mary Ann Thebus and Kate Fry in the final production at Writers’ ancestral home at the back of the bookstore, and then talk about all the bricks-and-mortar action in the theater community: new homes not only for Writers but for Northlight, TimeLine, Griffin.
Plus J. recommends Charm by Northlight at the Steppenwolf Garage.
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.
Space on the mainstage of an Equity theater in Chicago is a scarce resource; so when a single playwright gets two such opportunities within one four-month period it’s reasonable to ask, “What’s the big deal about Amy Herzog?”
There’s no question she’s considered a big deal in New York: her play 4000 Miles, now at Northlight, had its world premiere at Lincoln Center and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, while Belleville (onstage earlier this year at Steppenwolf) received a pair of Drama Desk nominations for its inaugural production at the well-respected New York Theatre Workshop. But after having seen both plays, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.
Herzog has a fine ear for the over-analytical therapy-speak of privileged young people and is especially good at portraying them getting stoned with unlikely companions—their grandmother, say, or their Afro-French landlord. And she also has a knack for creating fish-out-of-water situations: the bride in Belleville whose lifelong ambition to go to Paris reveals itself as an albatross when she ends up living there, or the “mountain man” protagonist of 4000 Miles, who brings his crunchy-granola Seattle sensibility to his grandmother’s Greenwich Village rent-controlled apartment.
But then there’s the little task of making something happen in these situations. What happens in Belleville is predictable from the get-go, while what happens in 4000 Miles is pretty much nothing. Young Leo has cycled cross-country, experiencing the death of his friend and riding companion en route; but has he come to New York to reconcile with his girlfriend, to hide out and recover behind the skirts of his grandma, or to escape his family’s disapproval of his not-quite-avowed desire to sleep with his [adopted] sister? We don’t know at the beginning and we still don’t know at the end, because the play actually doesn’t end—it just stops.
Fine performances from all concerned—particularly Mary Ann Thebus as the grandmother—and individual scenes sensitively directed by Kimberly Senior can’t turn this series of sketches of life among the parlor pinks into a play.
Note: the Dueling Critics both had reservations about Belleville; this review of 4000 Miles is by Kelly alone.