Category Archives: Podcast

The best of 2016 in Chicago theater

The actresses and playwright of Dry Land at Rivendell are among our picks from the past year in Chicago theater.

The House does a dark take on Punch & Judy but it lights up J. & K.

The House Theatre of Chicago roles out a slightly-gothic world premiere by Kara Davidson, directed by Shade Murray and with fascinating puppets by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. If you thought P&J stood for peanut butter and jelly, you’d better think again. Davidson’s historical research is impeccable, with every character in the play–human and puppet–rooted in the actual history of Punch and Judy shows in England. Kelly and Jonathan are fascinated!

New York In Brief: 2 hits, 1 error, 1 man left on

K. sez:

The Hits

Call me parochial: the best thing I saw in New York, at the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre, was directed by one Chicagoan and co-starred another.  (And next up at Barrow Street are two more Chicago boys: The T.J. and Dave Show runs June 4-7).  The theater itself looks like something out of our own theater scene, located as it is in a still-working settlement house with the ladies’ room in the basement, to get to which you have to walk past a washer-dryer combo whose sign sternly instructs audience members not to use the machines without permission.  I guess New York audiences find free laundry irresistible, even if it means stripping down at intermission.

But on with the show: Lucy Prebble’s The Effect follows the fortunes of a man and woman testing an experimental drug which makes them feel like they’re in love.  So, are they, or is it just the drug, and does it make any difference?  Meanwhile, the two doctors supervising the experiment are themselves ex-lovers, and the play involves teasing out the various definitions of love as well as conventional and unconventional attitudes toward depression.  Under David Cromer’s direction, the play is sexy and funny and fast and loud, and also incredibly touching.  Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson are utterly believable as the young couple whose emotions are getting the better of them, and Kati Brazda and Steve Key (a member of the American Blues ensemble) gracefully portray the more complicated relationship of their middle-aged keepers.  Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections give us an extra shot of intimacy in the bedroom scenes without interfering with stage acting of the very highest quality.  Bravo!  Through September 4.

Equally exciting was Ivo Van Hove’s version of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  Van Hove, who won raves for his production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge earlier this year (and who has been Tony-nominated for both), has abandoned the conventional reading of the play as a parable of the 1950s witch-hunt for Communists and directed it as a straightforward account of religious fanaticism and the damage it can do in a community struggling with scarcity.  Where there’s not enough to go around, the director seems to say, people turn on one another.  Without over-stressing the matter, he makes clear this is a reading of contemporary society: costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the actors in a sort of suspended-period modern dress, with the accusing young girls in knee socks and kilts a la Catholic schoolgirls and the adults in shapeless sweaters and slacks.  And yet somehow this makes the play feel more like it’s taking place in 18th-Century Salem than any amount of bustles and knee-breeches.

Jan Verswyveld’s set and lighting and Philip Glass’s music combine to make the production eerie rather than didactic: we don’t exactly know what’s going on.  We understand the girls are lying but we also see that they’ve somehow unloosed forces beyond their, or our, control.  Ben Whishaw (as John Proctor) and Saoirse Ronan (as his schoolgirl lover and the accuser of his wife) produce suitable sexual heat, but the play really belongs to Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth, whose wifely virtues of loyalty and honesty are twined around her neck to destroy her.  She’s the kind of quiet that’s more penetrating than the showiest yell, and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Ciaran Hinds continues his streak of charismatic evil-doers as the willfully blind Deputy Governor who allows the entire situation to spin out of control.

I wonder if the Dutch Van Hove was able to see the play so clearly because the insane religiosity portrayed is so similar to that of the Dutch Reform church—from which, as it happens, Puritans borrowed much of their absolutist thinking.  Whatever the source of his insight, he’s taken a great play and made it a great new play.  Open run.

The Error

I am sorry to report that Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is a waste of an enormous amount of talent.  Apparently director and book-writer George C. Wolfe could not make himself comfortable with presenting the racist jokes and stereotypes of the original show, even at a remove of 100 years, and so instead of a musical he offers us a sort of living slide show about the struggles of black performers in early years of the 20th Century.  Despite having plenty of dramatic potential in the stories of two pairs of partners who achieved success together and then double-crossed each other, Wolfe wrote not a play but a textbook, and even Brian Stokes Mitchell’s plummy voice can’t conceal the fact.  Likewise, Wolfe glances at a subplot concerning the ingenue’s gunning for the diva’s position but makes nothing of it.  The moral of the story is: if you’re embarrassed by what you’re presenting, don’t present it; don’t (you should pardon the expression) whitewash it, or blackface it, or turn it into an historical pageant.

Before I saw the show, I was irate that Audra McDonald had not been nominated for a Tony; once I saw it, I could see why: she’s perfectly adequate as the self-regarding diva, and of course her voice is glorious, but the side-by-side comparison with ingenue Adrienne Warren was a little too close to life for comfort.  And Warren did receive a well-deserved Tony nomination: she’s tiny and has a magnificent voice and can dance up a storm and is going to be a huge star.  Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame) is charming as producer Aubrey Lyles, but Mitchell’s over-earnest portrayal of co-producer F.E. Miller gives him nothing to play against. Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle have more rapport, but their partnership peters out instead of being ripped apart.  That may be true to life, but it makes for lousy theater.

Listen: anybody should be able to write a backstage show; take 42nd Street or All About Eve as your model, and Bob’s your uncle.  But if at the same time you feel constrained to stick to the facts, and/or you’re afraid that presenting accurate history will require sacrificing the hard-won dignity of your performers, then you can’t do the job.

Savion Glover’s choreography is okay, and the dancing is the best part of the show; but here, mistakenly, is where the show’s creators chose to be true to history.  Percussive dancing has come a long way since 1921, and I was looking for something more innovative.  The dancers are good (McDonald gamely tapping with the rest, though she’s pregnant) but the result is leaden.

Now: will somebody please take all these gifted people and write a show for them?  Open run.

One Man Left On

Frank Langella is nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Father, a play by the Frenchman Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Doug Hughes, and he deserves the accolade.  Often a shameless over-the-top ham, here Langella restrains himself and presents a painfully honest portrait of a man struggling with dementia.  (Kathryn Erbe of the Steppenwolf ensemble does the best she can with the thankless role of the daughter who cares for him even though he doesn’t care for her.)  But the play is unrelievedly dark, and the playwright doesn’t bother to tie up ends he’s deliberately loosened in earlier scenes.  During leaps back and forth in time,  Erbe tells her father that she’s moving to London and then asks why he keeps mentioning London but later seems actually to have gone to London; so who’s confused here, and to what purpose?  The device of using multiple actors to portray the same characters (to evoke Langella’s character’s confusion) is somewhat more successful but it’s not enough to sustain interest.  And, after a near-perfect portrayal of his character’s deterioration, in the final scene Langella wails “I want my mommy!”—which feels gratuitous, inauthentic, a bridge too far.  But for the most part Langella is at his very considerable best, and he’s the only reason to see The Father.  Tickets currently on sale through June 12; presumably the show will extend if Langella wins the Tony.

Savannah Quinn Hoover as Mimi and Patrick Rooney as Roger in Theo Ubique's production of Rent.  Photo by Adam Veness

In Brief: Rent at Theo Ubique

Savannah Quinn Hoover as Mimi and Patrick Rooney as Roger in Theo Ubique’s production of Rent.  Photo by Adam Veness.

 

The first time I saw Rent I was underwhelmed; that’s because I didn’t see it done by Theo Ubique.  Now I understand what all the noise has been about: the gorgeous choral harmonies of Jonathan Larson’s score make its La Boheme-inspired story of freezing artists and wannabes resonate with those of us who aren’t freezing.  Director Scott Weinstein, Choreographer Daniel Spagnuolo and—especially—music director and pianist Jeremy Ramey make the lives of the downtrodden a treat for eye and ear.

The show is flawlessly cast: Matt Edmonds as Mark, who spends the show documenting everything with his video camera instead of experiencing it, has the perfect imperfect face and a voice which makes melody out of even Larson’s least melodic songs, including the title number.  Patrick Rooney as Roger, sulking in his tent like a contemporary Achilles, has the classic floppy-haired tragic romantic look, and is complemented wonderfully by Savannah Hoover’s Mimi.  And Aubrey McGrath deserves a special acknowledgment: he plays drag-queen Angel, a part written for a Latino actor, with such life-giving energy that any and all prejudices—for or against drag queens; for or against casting against ethnic type—simply melt away.  Without naming every single member of the cast, I can’t do justice to its quality: suffice it to say, go.

Through May 1 at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park.

In brief: Strawdog’s In A Word and Steppenwolf’s The Flick

K. sez:

If women playwrights are neglected nationally (and I have no doubt they are), they’re nonetheless making a strong showing on Chicago stages.

In A Word at Strawdog

Lauren Yee’s 85-minute world premiere throws us into the miserable world of Fiona and Guy (Mary Winn Heider and John Ferrick), a married couple whose child was kidnapped two years before.  Fiona is still preoccupied—whether excessively or appropriately, depending on who you ask—with the details of the abduction and presumed death, while Guy is trying to move on.  The son appears in flashback, portrayed by Gabe Franken, who also performs every other role including the kidnapper, the detective, the school principal and Guy’s best friend.  To convey the stuck condition of the couple, especially Fiona, Yee uses staccato and repetition of words and  phrases—“get what’s coming to them,” “difficult” as a euphemism for the most profound problems.  The incantatory nature of the dialogue also illustrates the universal point that guilt and secrecy keep people stuck whereas the truth will—or at least, may—set them free.  Jess McLeod’s clever staging turns the single set into the half-dozen locations the characters occupy.  More important, her direction of the actors assures that we feel every incident as if it were happening to us.  A slightly hopeful ending doesn’t keep the situation from being, well, difficult, but it’s also genuine and thoughtful and moving.  Heider in particular is so good it’s hard to remember that she’s acting.  In A Word closes March 19; don’t let it pass you by.

The Flick at Steppenwolf

Annie Baker won the Pulitzer, the Obie and the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwriting Prize for this slice of life set in a movie theater which has seen better days.  It, too, has three main characters and it, too, explores the errors and betrayals which make intimacy so difficult.  But there the resemblance ends, as Baker and director Dexter Bullard use 3 hours and 10 minutes to make their points.  Bullard secures stunning performances from all concerned–Travis Turner as the college-age movie-lover turned theater janitor, Danny McCarthy as the old hand who trains him and Caroline Neff sometimes allied with one and sometimes with the other.  Three is an inherently unstable number in relationships, and Baker captures this in scene after scene—after scene, after scene.  The dialogue is wonderfully heard, and resonates as natural speech; but the fact that mopping up a movie theater is a Sisyphean task is clear long before Baker stops reminding us of it.  Moreover, it appears she couldn’t think of an ending—or rather, she thought of one and then added several more just in case.  The first act is completely absorbing and Jack Magaw’s scenic design is a thing of beauty: you sit down in your theater seat only to find yourself facing rows of theater seats.  And the actors are impeccable–Neff’s wild hip-hop dance alone is worth the price of admission.  At Steppenwolf through May 8.

roseandeddie

In brief: musicals from unlikely sources at MadKap and BoHo

K. sez:

MadKap Productions at the Skokie Theatre (a movie house turned into a legit stage) is giving Tony- and Pulitzer-Prizewinning musical Next to Normal a strong if far too brief production.  Hard as it may be to imagine a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music provide this portrait of family dysfunction with honesty and poetry in equal measure.  And under the direction of Andrew Park (music direction by Gary Powell), this version of the show is as moving and funny as the one I saw several years ago at Drury Lane Oakbrook, a bigger house with significantly greater resources.  The performance (and especially the singing) of Whitney Morse as Diana, the mother whose illness threatens to wreck her family as well as her own life, suggests much bigger things in her future: she’s rueful but free of self-pity, funny without resorting to stereotype, and all-around engaging.  Try to make time to see the show before it closes on September 27.  And don’t be fooled by the faint air of community theater which somehow attaches to the location: this is the second show I’ve seen there, and the second one about which I’ve raved.

Meanwhile, BoHo Theatre presents Dogfight, a musical based on a film about Marines who while away their hours before deployment betting who can find the ugliest woman to date.  From this unpromising source, playwright Peter Duchan constructs a love story: Eddie (the charming Garrett Lutz) chooses Rose (Emily Goldberg, both sweet and strong) as a joke and unexpectedly finds himself liking her.  But before he can follow through, Rose has learned about the game and stormed away.  Eventually he tracks her down and what ensues is as romantic as Before Sunrise: a final night spent together falling in love.  The show manages to maintain the romance without falling into sentimentality, and to attract our sympathy for everyone on the stage: the Marines whose toughness conceals terror (but not very well) and the women they mistreat as casually as if they were pieces of gum to be chewed and spit out.  The music and lyrics by Benu Pasek and Justin Paul suggest the mid-1960s but steer clear of falling into period pastiche, and the cast’s voices are up to the challenge.  Kudos to director Peter Marston Sullivan and music director Ellen K. Morris.   Through October 18 at Theatre Wit in Lakeview.

Deanna Dunagan

1 playwright, 2 plays, 2 critics: Death Tax at Lookingglass, Isaac’s Eye at Writers

 

Deanna Dunagan in the Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Death Tax by Lucas Hnath, directed by Heidi Stillman. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Kelly and Jonathan grapple with two plays by Lucas Hnath, a rising young playwright.  Do they complement one another, or contradict one another?  Is either one worth listening to?  The same questions, of course, can be asked of the Dueling Critics!

And Jonathan eulogizes Sheldon Patinkin.

WomenBewareA

Two Pence Theatre offers a production 400 years in the making, Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women

Beware the woman with the ukulele above, Loretta Rezos as Livia with Maggie Scrantom as not-quite-innocent Isabella, in Women Beware Women (photo courtesy of Two Pence Theatre Company).


Jonathan and Kelly sample incest, adultery and power in Women Beware Women, a Jacobean battle-of-the-sexes at Two Pence Theatre. Plus, Kelly recommends C. S. Lewis On Stage at Provision Theatre.

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Dueling Critics go On the Town at Marriott Theatre

Jeff Smith, Max Clayton and Seth Danner (left to right) as three gobs with a guidebook, hitting the streets of the Big Apple in “On the Town” (photo courtesy of the Marriott Theatre).

Old Tar Jonathan and Salty Kelly discuss On the Town at the Marriott Theatre, a tale of three gobs and their gals, and Kelly recommends Stupid F++king Bird at Sideshow Theatre.

coraline

Coraline: Is it children’s theater or isn’t it? And which Dueling Critic is more childish?

Jonathan and Kelly disagree about Coraline, a musical based on the Neil Gaiman fantasy novel produced by Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater in Edgewater.  Then J. evaluates the latest Sean Graney extravaganza, All Our Tragic based on ALL of the extant Greek dramas.