Category Archives: race/racism in theater

We keep Company at Writers Theatre . . .

plus K. raves over Between Riverside and Crazy (her summer home), while J. celebrates Pride Films & Plays’ adaptive reuse of an abandoned space.

 

New York Report, plus a pair of local picks

K. holds forth on shows in New York (hint: the best one had the most Chicago connections) and also recommends TimeLine’s Chimerica, while J. picks Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Northlight.

Feral at MPAACT: Beyond “Ripped from the headlines”

We review the world premiere of Shepsu Aakhu’s newest play Feral, about police shootings and the media circus which follows them, and then K. recommends The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum.

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.

The Mirror Has Seven Faces: Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts at Steppenwolf

We grapple with this world premiere; plus K. picks The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theatre and J. picks Carlyle at the Goodman.

Mosque Alert at Silk Road Rising: Play or Debate? Duel!

Plus J. recommends Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, and has to be forcibly restrained from singing himself.

 

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In brief: Adapt Theatre’s Pride & Prejudice at the side project; Butler at Northlight

Elizabeth Bennett, The Girl and Mr. Darcy in Adapt Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice.

K. sez:

Pride and Prejudice at Adapt Theatre is a delight. even at 3-+ hours.  Using the framing device of an awkward teenage girl (Laila Sauer) who resists reading the book, adapter Lane Flores and director Amanda Lautermilch create a version faithful to the original but with a youthful and contemporary feel.  Aja Wiltshire is a lovely Elizabeth, with just the right balance of snark and sweetness, and Andrew Thorp makes persuasive Darcy’s transformation from pompous asshole to gentleman lover.  And of course any shy young girl obsessed with music would find herself turning into Georgiana!  Cassandra Laine and Melissa Reeves uphold the honor of the older generation as Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, each appalling in her own way, and Connor Konz takes a part that’s been done by A-listers like Alan Cumming and makes it his own: he could hardly be smarmier or more self-satisfied or more ludicrous.  Some of the choices are a little strange—why is Mary wearing headgear and combat boots, again?—but others are terrific, like the weird instrument Mary insists on playing to Lizzy’s humiliation and the disapprobation of all.

If these names mean nothing to you, it’s time to get acquainted with Pride & Prejudice, and Adapt Theatre provides the close-to-ideal introduction.  And if you know exactly who I’m talking about, prepare to spend an afternoon or evening smiling as you hear dialogue directly from the book spoken by people who clearly love Jane Austen as much as you do.  And at $20 ($15 for students and seniors), you can’t beat the price!  At the (tiny) side project in Rogers Park through April 10, unless we get lucky and they extend it.

Butler (which, come to think of it, could be called “Pride & Prejudice” itself!) is about as likely as a unicorn: a comedy about slavery and the Civil War.  But a very smart script by Richard Strand, impeccable direction by Stuart Carden and especially the comic chops of the four-man company make both moving and hilarious this fictional re-telling of a real incident which helped turn the tide against the Fugitive Slave Act. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the outstanding —no, astonishing!—Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, when escaped slave Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola, whom I’ve somehow never seen before but can’t wait to see again) shows up demanding sanctuary.  Their battle of wits,    interspersed with commentary by Nate Burger as the General’s adjutant and high Confederate swanning by Tim Monsion as the officer sent to retrieve Mallory, is funny and profound and touching all at the same time.  The most intense pleasure of the evening arises from Strand’s observation that these two apparent opposites—the black slave and the white general—are    actually exactly alike.  Northlight’s production runs through April 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

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.

Othello

In brief: Othello at Chicago Shakespeare

K. sez:

Chicago Shakespeare’s celebration of the Bard’s quadracentenary begins with a misfire.  Othello as directed by Jonathan Munby is a classic example of a big bad concept mugging a defenseless script.  Munby’s decision to set the play among contemporary khaki-clad GIs adds nothing to our understanding of the play and interferes with our seeing it—sometimes literally, as when the huge boxes representing various portions of the army camp are moved around so they upstage the actors.  Amidst all this pushing and shoving and singing of hip-hop, there’s little sign of the play as an interaction among interesting characters nor as an indictment of racism.

There’s an occasional strong scene—the first one in which Iago (the otherwise misdirected Michael Milligan) shares his suspicions with Othello (James Vincent Meredith, who deserves to lead a better production than this); the drunk scene of Michael Cassio (Luigi Sottile); the final encounter between Othello and Desdemona (Bethany Jillard).  But whenever there are more than two people on the stage there’s a complete collapse of focus, the sure sign of a director too busy with his concept to bother with his actors.  And there’s so much foreshadowing that it becomes comic, as each actor proclaims “honest Iago” with such force the set nearly falls over.  The fact that Iago is able to fool Othello and the rest is not supposed to be funny: it’s the source of the play’s tragedy.

If you’re interested in the play, wait until spring when you’ll find the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix, which notwithstanding its innovative hip-hop rendition is far truer to the original than this.