Category Archives: Raven Theatre

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In brief: The Old Friends at Raven, First Folio’s Jeeves at Sea and High Fidelity by Refuge Theatre Project

K. sez:

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.

We Disagree Over Pilgrim’s Progress at A Red Orchid Theatre

Plus, K. recommends The Play About My Dad at Raven Theater, Gary promotes the Critics’ role in the Dual Duel competition at Comedy Sportz, and J. foreshadows upcoming conversations about New York theater and about holidays shows.

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Reviews in brief: Tiger at the Gates by Promethean Theater Ensemble and a pair of less successful works

K. sez:

Highly Recommended

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.

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Our take on a Snake by the lake

The White Snake production photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.

How sharper than a serpent’s tongue are Kelly and Jonathan as they discuss The White Snake at Goodman Theatre, and Jonathan also recommends Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at Raven Theatre.

Tim Parker and Owais Ahmed in First Floor Theater's production of THE RECKONING OF KIT AND LITTLE BOOTS by Nat Cassidy, directed by Gus Menary. Photo by Sid Branca.

Picks: First Floor’s Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, Raven’s Playboy of the Western World, TimeLine’s The How and The Why

Tim Parker and Owais Ahmed in First Floor Theater’s production of THE RECKONING OF KIT AND LITTLE BOOTS by Nat Cassidy, directed by Gus Menary. Photo by Sid Branca.

K. sez:

Recommended

The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, First Floor Theater.  The “Kit” in Nat Cassidy’s play is Christopher Marlowe, here haunted by the emperor Caligula, whose moniker (who knew?) means “Little Boots.”  In sharp comic exchanges punctuated by violence, these two characters (and other Caesars and Elizabethan playwrights) explore the use and abuse of power, the necessary but despised role of the spy, and the challenge of writing simultaneously for one’s own time and for the ages.  Director Gus Menary brings out the best in all the performers, but Owais Ahmed as Kit, Tim Parker as Caligula and Alfred Thomas as spymaster Francis Walsingham have particular depth and breadth.  A production both intellectual and visceral, whereas so often we have to choose one or the other.  Through March 2 at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown.

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(Leah Frires, Sam Hubbard, Martha Reddick and Lindsay Tornquist in The Playboy of the Western World at Raven Theatre)

The Playboy of the Western World, Raven Theatre.  Director Michael Menendian pulls out all the stops in Raven’s lively production of the Synge classic about a drifter lionized by a benighted Irish community because he killed his father—or did he?  There’s comedy and romance and then—as seems inevitable with Irish plays—an undertone of sadness.  But it doesn’t weigh down the production, invigorated as it is by David Woolley’s vigorous fight direction.  And Andrei Onegin’s set—a gorgeously run-down public house—transports us to turn-of-the-[20th]-Century back-of-beyond County Mayo before anyone says a word.  Through April 5 at the Raven Theatre on Clark Street in Edgewater.

The How and the Why, TimeLine Theatre.  Sarah Treem’s drama is simultaneously about the competition between a pair of female scientists (a professor and a graduate student) and about the content of their dispute, namely, the impact of evolutionary biology on feminism and vice-versa.  This healthy dose of intellectual content raises an otherwise pretty standard intra-gender battle into an exciting examination of what it really means to be a woman.  Under Keira Fromm’s direction, Janet Ulrich Brooks gives her usual fine performance, combining strength and intelligence with a generous dose of empathy, and Elizabeth Ledo more than holds her own.  Through April 6 at TimeLine on Wellington Avenue in Lakeview.

Not so much

Into the Woods, The Hypocrites.  There’s nothing wrong with Geoff Button’s inventive production—at least nothing that couldn’t easily be cured—and he’s assembled a strong cast to enact his clever notions.  The problem is the show itself, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s ponderous retelling of fairy tales whose purpose is to bear the news that fairy tales aren’t real and life doesn’t consist of happy endings.  Find me people who need to have that explained to them and I’ll send them to this show.  Its excess length and over-seriousness are here exacerbated by the over-amplification of the orchestra, so the words of many songs (especially those sung by the Witch) can’t be ascertained.  Or maybe that’s a blessing.  Through March 30 at the Mercury Theater on Southport in Wrigleyville.

Chicago’s Golden Soul, Black Ensemble Theatre.  This revival of Jackie Taylor’s jukebox musical shows the piece to be a concert rather than a play, as evidenced by the fact that no director is credited.  The music, arranged and directed by Robert Reddick, is superb, as is always the case with Black Ensemble shows.  And as always the text is labored and didactic.  Fortunately Mark Allan Davis’s choreography is top-notch and Evelyn Danner’s costumes gorgeous and period-perfect, not an easy combination when presenting the 1970s.  This show, too, is overlong, but any number of hours would be worth it for Lawrence Williams’s showstopping rendition of “Summertime.”  Running in rep with The Story of Curtis Mayfield through March 29 at the BET Center on Clark Street in Uptown.

Really not at all

The Pitchfork Disney, Interrobang Productions.  In one agonizing two-hour act, the characters in Philip Ridley’s pointlessly ugly play break each other’s fingers, eat cockroaches, describe cooking and eating a live garter snake, and generally make it difficult for the audience (or at least this member thereof) to keep from vomiting.  The apparent purpose of all this is to demonstrate that the outside world is as terrifying and disgusting as any inside world characters can create for themselves, and vice-versa.  I could have guessed that.  Through March 2 at the Athenaeum on Southport in Lakeview; if you hurry you can miss it.

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Community? Theater? Community Theater?

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!

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Raven Theatre’s Comfortable Trip to Bountiful

K. sez:

Millicent Hurley Spencer’s performance as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the elderly woman looking to go home one last time, is the rock on which director JoAnn Montemurro rests her fine production of The Trip to Bountiful.  I’m not usually a fan of playwright Horton Foote—he’s a little too traditional, a little too family-oriented, a little too Southern for me—and it takes a lot of discipline to direct his work without sliding into Hallmark or After-School Special territory.  But Montemurro, anchored in Spencer’s unsentimental performance, has us just where Foote wants us: rooting for Mrs. Watts, pitying her son in his barren marriage, despising her shallow daughter-in-law (played with luscious obnoxiousness by Eleanor Katz) and hoping the trip for which Mrs. Watts sacrifices so much turns out to be worth the effort.  The production certainly is.

The Trip to Bountiful runs Thursdays-Sundays through November 17 at the Raven on Clark Street in Rogers Park; tickets are $36, with student, senior, veteran and teacher discounts.