We talk about Oracle Theatre’s new production Good Friday.
We talk about Oracle Theatre’s new production Good Friday.
Two productions showcasing up-and-coming actors occupy our attention this week: The Hairy Ape at Oracle Theatre (which we both love) and Steep Theatre’s Posh (which K. recommends).
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.
The DCs puzzle out the meaning of Suzan-Lori Parks’ play about a man who makes his living impersonating President Lincoln at Fords Theatre. Plus, J. recommends Matawan at the Ruckus (shark attacks) while K. recommends Good People at Red Twist (stabs from the past).
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. agree on this one but you won’t be bored. By the way: look immediately left of this line. That’s our “Subscribe” button. Please hit it to have us appear miraculously every week in your email or RSS feed. Thanks!
J. and K. hold a Dixie cup up to the flood of holiday shows inundating Chicago theatre.
Jonathan and Kelly dissect a non-linear impressionistic account of the life of cryptographer (and gay icon) Alan Turing. We also have individual picks, plus some news about local celebs returning home and home-town performers making it big in New York. And don’t forget to scoot down the right-hand column and sign up for e-mail delivery of our podcasts every Friday morning!