Jazz lovers reminisce, scheme and try to recapture their old friendship; can they? Chops examines. A world-premiere entrant in the Mamet-Scorcese milieu.
ShPIeL, a theater company which defines itself as “Performing Identity,” does exactly that with its world-premiere production of Angina Pectoris at Theatre Wit. The play opened in Tel Aviv soon after its opening in Chicago. What do the Critics think? Plus, Kelly recommends Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy at RedTwist.
We discuss pop culture, Sophocles and Jonathan’s age as we attempt to parse the new show at Theater Wit.
Kelly Owens and Eustace Allen in Eclipse Theatre Company’s Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, directed by Steve Scott. Photo: Tim Knight.
K. sez: A good week in Chicago theater, especially for women!
Stage Left and Theatre Seven revive Principal Principle, their drama of teachers’ lives in a real Chicago Public School, Chinua Achebe Academy High School on the South Side. Playwright Joe Zarrow, a former English teacher himself, has made a tense comedy out of a group of archetypes: the teacher on the verge of retirement, the Teach for America newbie, the clueless principal and her latest educational fad, and a pair of veteran teachers, one of whom goes along to get along while the other rebels. Formulaic as it may sound, in Scott Bishop’s production every character is given her due and the key issue of race simmers in every interaction until it explodes. Through August 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont in Lakeview; well worth catching if you want to know something about Chicago’s schools beyond the slogans in the newspapers.
Black Ensemble Theater’s latest musical bio-pic (bio-play?) The Marvelous Marvelettes includes all the elements we’ve come to expect: outstanding musical impersonations, fine orchestration over-amplified and a rather too obviously expository book. But playwright Reginald Williams and director Rueben D. Echoles are skilled enough to bring some freshness to the formula. The device of having characters reflect on their younger selves is not new, but here the older Marvelettes (played by Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reed-Foster) convey a genuine love for each other as well as a reality-tinged nostalgia for what happened back in the day. Melody McCullough gives lead singer Gladys both sweetness and strength, and Alanna Taylor plays her rival Wanda with a fine bite and a comically accurate drunk act. You’ll leave humming the songs, and what more could you ask of a musical? Through September 7 at the BET Cultural Center on Clark in the East Ravenswood Historic District (a/k/a Uptown).
Eclipse Theatre continues its season of plays by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Lynn Nottage with Intimate Apparel, which received its Midwest premiere in 2005 at Steppenwolf. The piece, a modest drama set at the turn of the 20th Century about an African-American seamstress whose love of beauty contrasts strongly with her own plainness, has worn well. Dreading spinsterhood, Esther begins an epistolary romance with a black man laboring on the Panama Canal, even as she’s drawn to the Jewish man who shares her love of beautiful fabrics. Kelly Owens as Esther communicates every layer of her character with both subtlety and clarity, and receives strong support from the rest of the cast under Steve Scott’s sure direction. Owens’ interactions with Eustace Allen as the cloth dealer are especially lovely. And the play doesn’t make you want to kill yourself at the end, which distinguishes it from lots of other dramas chosen by Chicago theaters as light summer play-going. Try not to sit in the front row or you’ll miss the supertitles, which are flavorful if not essential. Through August 24 at the Athenaeum at Lincoln and Southport in west Lakeview.
Susan Jamshidi and Casey Searles in Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England.
(Photo credit: Charles Osgood.)
Kelly goes solo to review Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, playing through April 27 at Theater Wit.
Kate Fry, Mark L. Montgomery, Scott Parkinson and Sean Fortunato in Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre; photo Michael Brosilow
Here’s the main reason theater critics are useful: because we see five or six shows in a row, we’re in a position to pick out the ones which are truly superior, as opposed to the ones which are merely okay. The overall quality of Chicago theater is so high that you’re likely to have an acceptable experience wherever you go. But if you only go to the theater once a week (or once a month or, God forbid, once a year), you don’t want to settle for merely acceptable. That’s where I come in.
Of the six shows I’ve seen this week (pardon me while I pass out on my keyboard), two are truly superior: Kimberly Senior’s production of Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre and Karen Kessler’s U.S. premiere of Solstice by Zinnie Harris.
Hedda Gabler: Kate Fry is never less than excellent, whether she’s doing a musical like A Minister’s Wife or managing Tom Stoppard’s impossible rhythms in Arcadia, but her Hedda Gabler is still a revelation. The intelligence she brings to every role is honed here to a cutting edge, and her slight coldness is amped up so from the minute she walks onstage you know this woman is bent on destruction—whether of herself or someone else doesn’t much matter. I saw Martha Plimpton do Hedda at Steppenwolf a dozen years ago, and she was duly intimidating, but the source of her rage at the world was never clear—it was like a Scandinavian version of “The Bad Seed.” Under Senior’s direction, we experience the play instead as a companion piece to A Doll’s House: faced with equally oppressive conventional expectations, Nora leaves and lives; Hedda stays and dies.
As her unfortunate husband, Sean Fortunato is suitably mystified by his furiously unhappy bride, while Scott Parkinson plays her bitchy confidante to the hilt. Mark L. Montgomery is a passionate ex-lover, but the moment when he’s goaded by Hedda into his drunken downfall is the one beat in the production which doesn’t quite work. One minute he’s being upright and reformed; the next he’s hell-bent for debauchery, and it’s not clear just what Hedda said to produce the volte-face. It’s the one misstep in an otherwise superlative evening. Jack Magaw’s scenic design (complete with looming portrait of General Gabler, who’s more alive in death than Hedda gets to be in life) and especially Rachel Laritz’s costume design bring us fully into the period without choking us on detail, so as director Senior intends this 19th-Century play feels completely contemporary.
Solstice: Zinnie Harris’s new play is set in an unnamed city described in the program as “Someplace not unlike here.” It’s an utterly desolate environment: someone has just killed and skinned a bride in full view of the entire town, which is divided between the privileged powerful and our protagonists. The dispute seems to be about religion, but soon it comes to be about itself: you killed my friend so I’ll kill yours, ad infinitum (and ad nauseum). The adolescents Sida and Adie find each other in various hideouts in the countryside, while Adie’s parents huddle in front of a wall of icons in their home which has been stripped bare of almost everything else. Somehow director Kessler manages to make brand new this old story of the pointless destructiveness of war: we keep hoping against hope that some reason will reveal itself for the suffering the characters experience and inflict.
As the teenagers, Andrew Cutler and Sarah Price are believably everything: reckless, idealistic, horny, gentle and vicious. Adie’s mother and father, played by Red Orchid ensemble members Kirsten Fitzgerald and Larry Grimm, provide two different and equally authoritative versions of the moral center of the play—though, as we know, the center cannot hold. Solstice is as visceral as Hedda Gabler is cerebral, and just as powerful. Again, the production design creates an environment strange enough to support the plot but familiar enough to keep us from deciding that these events couldn’t happen here; kudos to Joey Wade and Aaron O’Neill (set) and Karen Kawa (costumes).
What else is playing?
Sweet Smell of Success, Kolkandy Productions at Theatre Wit: It’s strange enough to musicalize Alexander McKendrick’s noir classic about a destructive Hollywood gossip columnist and the press agent who sells his soul for the man’s attention. To do so with Marvin Hamlisch—Mr. The-Way-We-Were ultimate romantic—writing the music is out-and-out bizarre. Unsurprising that the only really good songs in the piece are love songs; the rest is dissonant without managing to quite capture the ugliness of the source material. The Kokandy production, directed by John D. Glover, features fine voices but some of the worst choreography ever, all jazz hands and backs turned to the audience.
Our Country’s Good, Shattered Globe at Theatre Wit: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about putting on a play in an Australian penal colony benefits from director Roger Smart’s decision to have its many roles performed by a small group of actors who change clothes and personas in full view of the audience. This choice highlights the author’s metafictional intentions without taking us too far away from the immediate dramatic situation pitting civilization against brutality. The play’s intellectual content is liberally leavened with sex, but unfortunately the central relationship seems less sexy than dutiful, almost obligatory.
Out Loud, eta Creative Arts Foundation. Olivia Dawson and Ray Proctor’s new play covers some pretty well-trod terrain: the straight woman and her gay best friend, sharing their joys and fears and frustrations as they seek love and success. The wrinkle is that this particular pair is black. The subject matter may indeed be new to eta’s audience, which skews elderly and which has been nourished for forty years on inspirational stories of the civil rights generation; but it’s not new to anyone who’s watched “Will & Grace.” Watson Swift and Melanie Loren are appealing as the leads, and Nakia Allen and (especially) David Guiden show considerable range as they play all the other parts, but there’s nothing here challenging enough, either intellectually or emotionally, to raise the show above the level of a sitcom.
J. and K. hold a Dixie cup up to the flood of holiday shows inundating Chicago theatre.
The Rashomon story—one in which what occurs depends on who’s narrating—originated with a contested account of rape, and it returns to its roots in this world premiere production. Barbara Lhota’s play Warped posits a rape-or-was-it committed by two police officers-or-both-or-one when they give an intoxicated-or-was-she woman a ride home from a violent-or-was-it encounter with a boyfriend-or-was-he.
Director Jason A. Fleece and his cast resist the temptation to put thumbs on the scale of any one interpretation, and leave us with questions rather than answers about what constitutes truth, and what constitutes rape. The company‘s “Partnership for Action” with Rape Victim Advocates seems almost defensive, given the production’s studied neutrality about whether the alleged victim is telling the truth. But the honesty of the two men also comes into question, and we become aware that each of the pair of female detectives assigned to the case has her own prejudices to overcome.
All the performances are strong, with exceptional turns from Kate Black-Spence as the alleged victim and Stage Left/Babes With Blades ensemble member Lisa Herceg as the senior detective. And kudos to scenic designer Stephen Carmody, lighting designer John Kohn III, sound designer Adam Smith and properties master Joshua Hurley for creating a persuasive police car and a bedroom which faces first this way and then that—and then the other—as the increasingly complex story unfolds.
Warped continues Thursdays through Sundays at Stage Left just through next weekend (October 6) at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont. Tickets are $25-$27. This Sunday (September 29) will feature a post-show discussion of unreliable witnesses in the legal system with Professor Jeffrey Urdangen of Northwestern’s law school.