Plus, Jonathan recommends Endgame and King Lear at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
We duel over Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street at Eclipse, and then J. recommends Bite: A Pucking Queer Cabaret (a deconstructed Midsummer Night’s Dream) at Mary’s Attic while K. chooses an actual Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one at First Folio.
Plus, we preview summer theater at Theater on the Lake, First Folio, Oak Park Festival, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, etc., etc. and highlight some free music, dance and film available
We talk about the contemporary implications of Galileo’s work as interpreted by Brecht and adapted by David Hare and directed by Nick Sandys at Remy Bumppo, and with that many cooks in the kitchen who can be surprised it’s a bit of an olio? Plus a survey of the coming Shakespeare 400 celebrations, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
Plus, we preview Mosque Alert, soon to tread the boards at Silk Road Rising.
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.
The critics swoon over the magic-by-Teller, music-by-Tom-Waits, dance-by-Pilobolus Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare starring Larry Yando, and then J. recommends Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at Remy Bumppo.
We can’t agree about Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight at Windy City Playhouse. Then K. thrusts upon you her opinions about Othello, An Iliad and Seascape at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, and J. parries that there are 240 theaters right here in the Chicago metro area and that the upcoming fall season will reward your attention.
American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has always presented fine work, including the only perfect production of The Tempest I’ve ever experienced. But this is the first time I’ve seen such uniformly excellent shows, ranging from strong to out-and-out superb. New Artistic Director Brenda DeVita has reason to be proud of her inaugural season—and not only because her husband Jim delivers a tour-de-force in the one-man An Iliad.
Tim Kaine played the Poet in An Iliad at Court Theatre in Chicago, on a smoking battleground in his combat fatigues creating an indelible impression of the chronicler as a casualty of war. This production is completely different, with DeVita dressed in tweeds lecturing in what appears to be a high-school science classroom, complete with skeleton. But the piece, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed here by John Langs, is equally powerful: simultaneously a clear and engaging retelling of The Iliad and a sharply drawn portrait of the uselessness of combat. Cellist Alicia Storin plays the Muse who provides literal counterpoint to the Poet, complementing Josh Schmidt’s recorded sound design as it conveys the aural fog of war. But nothing can distract your ears or eyes from DeVita’s riveting, exhausting, utterly truthful performance. Don’t miss this production, whether you’ve seen the play before or not.
Langs likewise works directorial magic with Othello. Every other production I’ve seen has made me wonder why the play isn’t called Iago instead, as we spend most of the play in his company. But Langs and actor Chike Johnson here present an Othello worthy of the name: a character whose formidable presence makes Iago seem like an annoying insect buzzing around his head. Yet it’s the tragedy of Othello that he’s allergic to bee-stings, and thus can be destroyed by this lesser man. James Ridge mixes wit with fury to create a wonderfully unsettling Iago, whose loathing for Othello stems simply from the other’s great superiority. Like men who are “jealous for they’re jealous,” Iago is envious because he’s envious, and all his other excuses for hating the Moor are just that. Despite a few slips on opening night (Iago’s knife’s flying out of his hand into the audience, Bianca’s shoe doing the same), the entire ensemble handles itself well. An absorbing evening.
Edward Albee’s Seascape violated all expectations by being a comedy in which a couple of large green lizards encounter a couple of old white people on a beach. As the two married couples explain their cultures to one another (and fight among themselves), the effect is sweet and charming and thought-provoking all at once, with a tart undertone sustained by Albee’s typically cynical view that it’s impossible ever to know another person (or creature). Laura Gordon’s production is, in a word rarely evoked by Albee, delightful, with strong performances by all.
An Iliad and Seascape are performed in the divinely air-conditioned Touchstone Theatre. Othello is presented at the open-air Up-the-Hill Theatre, and it’s a testament to the production’s strength that the audience was fully engaged even before the sun went down and relieved the 90-plus-degree heat.
Even more impressive, though, was A Streetcar Named Desire, performed in the open air at 1 o’clock on a scorching day. The weather matched the play’s overheated setting, of course, but it still takes an amazing production to command total attention from an audience squinting against the sun and dripping in perspiration. This was such an exceptional production, directed by Chicago veteran William Brown and resting on the capable shoulders of Chicago actress Tracy Michelle Arnold as Blanche, whose every move and facial expression told you about the slow collapse of her life. The production highlighted playwright Tennessee Williams’s obsession with the line between illusion and delusion, as Blanche teeters between them. Stella (Cristina Panfilio, also Seascape‘s lizard-wife) represents reality, balancing loyalty to her sister with her love not only for Stanley but for their down-to-earth life together, one without gentility or any nostalgia for it. Eric Parks (the husband of Panfilio off- as well as onstage) makes a fine Stanley, resisting every temptation to imitate the over-familiar Brando approach, and it’s not his fault that there’s not actually much to his character: the role is less about acting than about exuding sexiness. (No wonder Brando aced it.) Tim Gittings is excellent as Mitch, bringing humor as well as humility to that nearly-thankless part. It was an extraordinary three hours, notwithstanding the glare and the heat and the mosquitoes, and if for some reason they’d chosen to start again I would have stayed for another three. The show only runs through September 5, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend; don’t miss it.
Othello plays through the first weekend in October, while Seascape and An Iliad continue through October 18. It’s well worth a 4-hour drive to see such consistently terrific work.
Tina Gluschenko and Keith Kupferer in Windy City Playhouse’s production of End Days.
With a headline like that, a review is mostly unnecessary; but it’s worth noting that the producer of this fine evening in the theater is a brand-new Equity troupe in a brand-new luxury space. Those of us accustomed to seeing shows in converted jewelry stores and basement apartments will find Windy City’s elegance almost disconcerting, what with armchair seating, drink service, a comfortable bar/hangout space in the lobby (think Second City with an interior designer) and a completely flexible performance space whose wall-to-wall lighting grid currently sports Brian Sidney Bembridge’s splendid fever dream of contemporary American suburban life: American flags, pink bicycles and God knows what else.
And “God knows” is the relevant expression for Deborah Zoe Laufer’s warm-hearted comedy End Days, directed pitch-perfectly by Henry Godinez. (These Windy City people are not screwing around: the balance of the season includes direction by local heavies Chuck Smith, William Brown and Jessica Thebus, known—as is Godinez—for their work on such established stages as the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court and Writers’ Theatre.) End Days is the story of a dysfunctional family (Department of Redundancy Department) suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Enter neighbor Nelson (an utterly charming Stephen Cefalu Jr.), who doesn’t quite understand why wearing an Elvis suit doesn’t get him anywhere with daughter Rachel (Sari Sanchez, displaying full-blown adolescent angst). He ends up befriending her mother and father instead—quite an accomplishment, considering that Mom (the impeccable Tina Gluschenko) has switched suddenly and mysteriously from Jewish atheism to apocalyptic Christianity and spends her time in the company of a Jesus no one else can see, while Dad (Keith Kupferer, so vulnerable you want to rock him in your arms) lies on the couch not eating or showering. The benign influences of Nelson, Jesus and Stephen Hawking (both of the latter played by Steven Strafford, though I realized that only when I read the program) help improve family dynamics but it’s not until the foursome spends 24 hours together awaiting the end of the world that true healing occurs.
There used to be ads in the New York subway system featuring a variety of ethnic types with the slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye.” Likewise, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Laufer’s End Days, though there’s an extra kick for those of us who are. Cheers to the Rubensteins, who founded Windy City Playhouse to fuse their urban-redevelopment skills with their love of theater. End Days runs til April 26; the next Windy City show, Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, opens in late May. It’s a bit out of the way at 3014 West Irving Park Road (and use the valet, as parking is tight); but well worth finding.