The actresses and playwright of Dry Land at Rivendell are among our picks from the past year in Chicago theater.
Rivendell presents a vivid drama about DIY abortion, female friendship and chlorine-green hair, and we hail the arrival of the new generation of brilliant actresses. Plus, we critique the Tony Award nominations and tease out the Chicago connections therein.
Danielle Pinnock takes up the mantle of Anna Deavere Smith in this world premiere piece, produced by Rivendell in association with Waltzing Mechanics. This one-woman show actually features dozens of people, first interviewed and now expertly portrayed by Pinnock under the direction of Megan Carney. We follow her search for answers to questions about body image, media ideals and the connection between food maladies, on the one hand, and self-hatred and sexual abuse, on the other. Pinnock is pitch-perfect in her renditions, particularly of her Jamaican grandmothers but also of men both gay and straight, women both cis- and transgender and people of every level of education and income. If there’s a woman in the world who can’t identify with Pinnock’s struggles, I have yet to meet her. Highly recommended. It only runs through the end of the month and Rivendell is not huge, so get your tickets ASAP.
Plus, K. picks MadKap Productions’ Next to Normal at the Skokie Theatre, and Guardians at Mary-Arrchie, while J. picks The Producers at Knight Blue Performing Arts Company.
Richard Cotovsky in Profiles Theatre’s Hellcab by Will Kern; photo by Michael Brosilow.
The phrase “holiday show” generally suggests Dickens and his offspring: variously heartwarming and caustic, but in any case addressed directly to the meanings ascribed to the season. However, two current shows consider the holiday from unique angles, for which we should all be grateful. Profiles Theatre presents its third annual revival of Will Kern’s Hellcab, a one-man show with a cast of dozens. This 1992 piece, created by the late lamented Famous Door Theatre and originally intended only for a brief late-night run, presents the adventures of The Driver (the suitably weathered Rich Cotovsky) as he steers his cab throughout Chicago on Christmas Eve. A cornucopia of actors drop in for a single scene, portraying the fighting couple, the angel-winged accordionist, the amorous cougar and every other imaginable encounter on the mean-but-not-always streets. It’s a beautiful piece, ably directed by Eric Burgher, and its tiny bit of Christmas spirit is just the right amount. Through January 11 on the Profiles Mainstage, 4139 North Broadway. Tickets $35-$40.
If it strikes you as too early for Christmas, check out the Thanksgiving taking place onstage at the American Theater Company, presenting the world premiere of Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Roundabout Theater Company in New York commissioned this play and will mount it in the spring, but it will be hard-pressed to do a better job than director P.J. Paparelli has with this production. ATC has something of a hot hand right now: it presented the world premiere of Disgraced, which just opened on Broadway (I’m still kicking myself for having missed it), and has an ongoing relationship with Karam, who co-authored with Paparelli the succes d’estime columbinus. On a superbly evocative two-level set by David Ferguson, the troupe enacts in real time a first Thanksgiving at the Soho dump, er, duplex of a young couple faced with hosting her parents, sister and demented grandmother. The good news about the play is that it’s a pitch-perfect rendition of a family holiday; the bad news is that it’s a pitch-perfect, etc. You may want to wait until after your own Thanksgiving before sharing that of the Blake family; that way, instead of dreading what’s ahead of you, you can laugh at—and begin to understand—what’s behind. The production is anchored by three of Chicago’s finest veterans: Keith Kupferer as the troubled father, Hanna Dworkin as the put-on-a-happy-face mother, and Lance Baker as the boyfriend encountering his beloved’s family for the first time. If you don’t recognize your own family, perhaps you’re from Mars. Through December 21 at ATC, 1909 West Byron. Tickets $43-$48.
Not everything onstage is about the holidays, of course, not even if its author is Dickens.
Strawdog Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit Great Expectations is a perfect rendering of Gale Childs Daly’s remarkably clear and effective adaptation of that flopulous book about the damaging consequences of social climbing. Daly manages to retain Dickens’s voice with judiciously chosen passages read by the six actors who also play all he roles, while straightening out the tangled mess of plot woven by that paid-by-the-word Victorian. Director Jason Gerace’s production is comic where it can be, sincere where it needs to be, and unpretentious throughout. Mike Tepeli (reprising the role) gives Pip all his dimensions: asinine, touching, misguided, loving, while the rest of the company changes character with nothing more than a ruched-up skirt or scarf to help them communicate the changes. Great Expectations (unlike the aforementioned “holiday” shows) is suitable for children, provided they have decent attention spans; it runs 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Scheduled to run through December 13 (with the possibility of an extension) at Strawdog, 3829 North Broadway. Tickets are $28.
And finally, there are three pieces about war: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Women at War; Eclipse Theatre Company’s Mud, River, Stone and Spartan Theatre Company’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day.
Rivendell’s Women at War, written by company member Megan Carney and directed by Artistic Director Tara Mallen, speaks in the voices of real women who’ve served over the past twenty years. Perhaps most surprising to those of us who are safely civilian is the pride the soldiers, sailors, airmen (their term) and marines take in their service, notwithstanding the sacrifices and adjustments that service requires. The women’s patriotism is a multi-layered thing, and one of the pleasures of the evening is watching their different attitudes begin to converge and their fiercely individual reasons for joining up begin to meld into an equally fierce sense of comradeship and community. Their struggles to be recognized as full partners, while they’re deployed or when they come home, are more familiar but no less moving, and the final moment—in which the names of all the soldier-contributors are spoken by the actors—is truly poignant. Through December 6 at Rivendell, 5779 North Ridge. Tickets $32-$35, with $10 discounts for students, seniors, veterans and military personnel.
Mud, River, Stone by Lynn Nottage, concluding Eclipse Theatre Company’s season of her work, offers a completely different perspective on the business of war. A pair of privileged African-Americans decide to seek their roots in South East Africa and find themselves lost in the jungle. They take refuge at a once-grand hotel and find it anything but: no food, no heat, no telephone service. There is, however, plenty of alcohol, and by the time it’s been sufficiently abused by others at the hotel the Americans find themselves among hostages in a civil war about which they know nothing and care less. Nottage undercuts some of the tension by constructing the play in flashback, so we know the protagonists survive; but as her primary point seems to be that the survival of one individual is no more important than that of any other, her choice of structure helps compel the audience to pay more attention to the Africans than we might otherwise. Like much of the playwright’s work, Mud, River, Stone highlights the impossibility of communication—especially but not exclusively of the cross-cultural sort—and under Andrea J. Dymond’s direction every member of the cast demonstrates with great skill how people talk past each other until they become so desperate they give up on language and use violence instead. AnJi White is particularly fine as the American wife, who combines smarts with so much snobby shortsightedness that her brains do her no good at all. Through December 14 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport. Tickets $28.
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day treats war as a hideous necessity rather than the grim joke it seems to be for Nottage. Set simultaneously in the early 1930s and in the early 1980s, it chronicles the impact of Hitler’s rise on a group of intellectuals in Berlin and draws parallels between their refusal to acknowledge the need for action and Ronald Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. In Spartan Theatre Company’s flawless rendition, this fever-dream of a play succeeds in evoking contemporary life and our need to acknowledge and act on the issues of our time, whether domestic spying or climate change or collapsing democracy. Director Laura Elleseg never lets the parallels get heavy-handed, instead presenting a phenomenally sharp and clear and current version of a play blessedly written before Tony Kushner started reading his notices and learned he was a genius. It’s only playing through this weekend (November 23); do. not. miss. it. At the Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1422 West Irving Park Road; tickets $15-$20.
Chicago’s permanent avant-garde theatre troupe celebrates 25 years with a world premiere chamber opera by Matt Test.
Kelly and Jonathan wring each other’s neck over Rung, a world premiere opera at Curious Theatre Branch, and Kelly recommends Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.
Katherine Keberlein and Anne Joy in Hallie Gordon’s production of Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. (Photo: Joe Mazza)
Eat Your Heart Out by Courtney Baron, now receiving its Midwest premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, tracks the intersecting paths of half a dozen characters, all making semi-futile efforts to defeat loneliness and four of them concerned with the motherhood variation on this theme. Divorced social worker Nance (Katherine Keberlein) and her teenaged daughter Evie (Anne Joy) fight about Evie’s excess weight, making it a surrogate for every one of their disappointments and resentments and losses. Nance meanwhile is charged with evaluating the suitability of Alice (Mary Cross) and Gabe (Michael Szeles) to be adoptive parents, in a home visit which moves precipitously from awkward to disappointing to resentful to explosively hostile—and, ultimately, lost. As these events unfold, Nance’s blind date (Charlie Strater) and Evie’s wished-for boyfriend (Andrew Goetten) get hit with the shrapnel.
The subject matter is powerful to begin with, and Baron’s ear for contemporary speech and director Hallie Gordon’s seamless integration of multiple stories combine to make this production of Eat . . . into an experience best described as “Tear Your Heart Out.” While these characters are all privileged and would be easy to dismiss as suffering from “First World Problems,” they are so fully embodied by their actors that we don’t even think about that til the piece—running at a breakneck 95 intermission-free minutes—is over.
First among equals in the cast is Keberlein, who uses her icy blonde beauty to convey Nance’s hard exterior while face, voice and carriage reveal her vulnerability. Joy could not look less like her—which is the whole point—but renders pitch-perfectly Evie’s adolescent version of the same mix of emotions. By the time the evening ended with Evie’s repeating over and over, “I just really need my mom,” I felt exactly the same way.
The production’s only weakness is its set design, which uses several door frames to delineate four playing areas on the tiny Rivendell stage. The audience is obliged to crane necks around these obstacles, and though I understand the idea—life is full of barriers to seeing one another clearly—it’s one that isn’t particularly well-served by preventing the audience from seeing these exceptionally fine performers.
Eat Your Heart Out runs through the end of June at Rivendell, on Ridge Avenue just north of Hollywood in Edgewater.
Mary Beth Fisher in Luna Gale at the Goodman Theatre.
J. and K. reflect on the Goodman’s new Rebecca Gilman play, Jonathan mentions Chicago Theatre Week and Kelly recommends Rasheeda Speaking at Rivendell.
About new plays at Profiles, Rivendell, Steep and Trap Door, K. sez:
There’s some vibe in the air about injury to children. Not only is it the subject of the Goodman’s Luna Gale (of which more in our duel on Friday), but both Profiles and Steep have chosen to do new plays on the subject. Query whether we’ve projected onto children our fears that society is out of control and we’re being damaged by it; but for whatever reason, this is the topic du jour.
Gidion’s Knot at Profiles is the Midwest Premiere of Johnna Adams’s poorly-named but sharply-drawn play about a confrontation between a parent and a teacher over the death of a child. As directed by Joe Jahraus (who last year directed another play about a teacher with a dead student), the play rings every conceivable change on the, yes, knot of emotions accompanying such a death, including—especially!—guilt, even when it’s not clear what there is to be guilty for. Laura Hooper as the terrified young teacher and Amy J. Carle as her nemesis are so genuine in their clashes that you expect the classroom (perfectly designed by Katie-Bell Springman down to the sayings on the wall) to catch fire at any moment. A sobering but worthwhile look at the unknowability of other people in general and children in particular as they navigate a threatening world by becoming threats themselves.
Steep Theatre presents strangers, babies, also a Midwest premiere and the Chicago debut for Scottish playwright Linda McLean. This episodic account of the life of May (the appealing Sasha Gioppo), a young wife so tender she tries to save a baby bird, gradually reveals a past stained by uncontrollable rage and a present distorted by unsalveable guilt. Director Brad Akin wrings out every bit of subtext the play offers and the actors can convey, but McLean’s loose ends still show, such that the final line of the play didn’t seem like a final line at all. No pat conclusion is required but when the point of a play is to follow a character’s arc it’s best if that arc reaches its destination, rather than disappearing into the mist like Finian’s Rainbow. strangers, babies is utterly absorbing for its 90-minute length, but it leaves you wanting some resolution.
Rasheeda Speaking at Rivendell addresses more directly the notion that society is out of whack and individuals out of control. This world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson is oddly reminiscent of Volpone, the classic account of the trickster tricked, as it follows the interactions of two physician’s assistants who fool and betray each other even as they profess their friendship. The fact that one (Tara Mallen) is white and the other (Ora Jones) is black means that Rasheeda Speaking is a play about racism, but the plot takes several turns which up-end or refute expectations about who’s doing what to whom. Johnson’s nuanced work is directed by Sandy Shinner with perfect pitch for both its comedy and its drama, and the result is so thought-provoking that my companion walked three extra blocks in the polar vortex so we could continue to discuss exactly what happened and why. Ably acted by all involved, the play really rests on Jones’s quicksilver changes of mood and/or personality. She’s perfectly upsetting on a subject about which we could all use a little upset. And, in addition to being a show about racism, it’s a show about performance—oh, wait, those are the same thing. Not to be missed.
In a quite different vein from this realistic trio is Trap Door Theatre’s production of Judith, an adaptation of the Biblical story of the widow who secured the Israelites’ victory in battle by seducing and then beheading Assyrian General Holofernes. This version of the story is subtitled “A Parting from the Body,” and emphasizes the parallels between sex and death, or at least the ways in which the ecstasies of one can be substituted for the contemplation of the other. Director Zeljko Djukic’s production is very physical and sensual, and Kevin Cox and Nicole Wiesner are well-matched as the antagonists; but the text sounds like a conversation in a college dorm room: “I am obsessed with death.”–“Then let’s have sex.” That analysis obviously does an injustice to the complexity of playwright Howard Barker’s meditation on loyalty and betrayal, love and hostility, and any number of other paired concerns; but the stentorian pronouncements make it nearly impossible to take those concerns seriously. Ordinarily Trap Door’s productions are able to bridge cultural gaps: the company’s specialty is translation in the broadest sense of the term, including not only language but assumptions and style. Here, though, it is confronted with an English playwright who writes English-language dialogue as though it were badly rendered from the original Hindustani, and this creates a barrier too great to overcome even for a troupe as talented and thoughtful as Trap Door.