Sarah Bockel and Jim Deselm in BoHo Theatre’s production of Parade by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry.
Parade, BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit: “I’m going to see a musical about a lynching,” I said to my friends. Small wonder I couldn’t find anyone interested in taking my extra ticket. Their loss, because as directed by Linda Fortunato, Parade is a quintessentially American story told mostly through Jason Robert Brown’s powerful music and trenchant lyrics—an opera for people like me who don’t like opera. The story, as rendered in a book by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame: who knew he could be so unsentimental and so smart?), details what happened to Leo Frank, a Northern Jew in Atlanta, when a young woman is found murdered in his factory in the earliest years of the 20th Century. He’s convicted on essentially no evidence, and when the Governor of Georgia recognizes that and commutes Frank’s death sentence, the townsfolk drag Frank from prison and execute him themselves.
From the opening scene, set at the start of the Civil War, the text makes clear that for the people of Atlanta the War has never ended—the eponymous parade is a celebration of Confederate Memorial Day—and that they can’t resist the opportunity to avenge themselves on a Yankee. Fortunato and music director Matt Deitchman bring this out with subtlety, but it’s the central message of the piece. I clearly remember the assassination of JFK fifty years ago; so of course in 1913 the people of Atlanta are still remembering, and trying to come to terms with, its burning and their loss of the war.
The company performs the show’s difficult music with great facility, and though most are condemned to play loathsome characters none shrinks away from the required ugliness. Jim Deselm gets surprisingly little to do as Frank, but whenever he’s given the opportunity he soars; and he’s more than matched by the excellent Sarah Bockel as his wife, a Southerner trying to reconcile her love for her homeland with her love for her husband. A meditation on the persistence of hatred, BoHo Theatre’s Parade is a thought-provoking and thrilling work. Through November 16 at Theater Wit on Belmont; get there during these final two weeks.
The Hundred Flowers Project at Silk Road Rising: Midway through this meta-theatrical work by Christopher Chen, I had to remind myself that normal people don’t see four plays a week and that therefore most members of the audience for this show will not also have seen House Theatre’s equally and similarly meta-theatrical Season on the Line. So let’s presume you haven’t and that therefore the notion of a play about developing a play doesn’t feel like old hat. In that case, you will find The Hundred Flowers Project under Joanie Schultz’s vigorous direction a challenging and exciting work, in which a group of young actors working to develop a script about the Chinese Cultural Revolution find themselves engaging in the same destructive group-think as the political figures they seek to portray. Chen has a terrific ear for phony inclusiveness and for dictatorial behavior masquerading as consensus-building, and those political themes give heft and value to what might otherwise have been an exercise in actors’ being cleverly self-regarding. Mia Park shines as the power-drunk director, and she’s ably supported by the rest of the cast. Michael Stanfill’s video and projections design provide the perfect ominous note of nowhere-ness, of ideas and plans and even people disappearing into a rabbit hole of dishonest nonsense. Well worth seeing; through November 23 at Silk Road Rising’s home in the Chicago Temple building downtown.
The Velveteen Rabbit at Lifeline Theatre: I hardly ever review children’s theater, and now we know why: I started crying about half an hour into the 50-minute length of The Velveteen Rabbit, and didn’t stop until I’d sniffled my way up the street and had a good howl in my car. Elise Kauzlaric’s adaptation of the Margery Williams book misses none of the pathos of this child’s love for his stuffed rabbit and the rabbit’s reciprocal desire to be “real”—a term which turns out to have more than one meaning. Amanda Link directs a small company led by Christopher Acevedo as The Boy and the utterly adorable Jamie Cahill as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the show’s end is happy enough for children—just not enough for hard-bitten theater critics. Jessica Kuehnau Wardell’s costume designs vividly demonstrate the rabbit’s passage from shiny new toy to beloved companion. Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through November 23.
The Inside at MPAACT:As Executive Director Reginald Lawrence pointed out in his curtain speech, MPAACT has been producing the work of Lydia R. Diamond since before she was LYDIA DIAMOND, author of Stick Fly and Voyeurs de Venus as well as an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This early work, adapted from the poems of Nikki Giovanni and first done by the company 15 years ago, places Kristin E. Ellis alone on stage narrating an evening her character Emma spends at a party full of academic pretensions and not-very-concealed racism. While Ellis’s performance (under Deidre Searcy’s direction) is heartfelt and full of hairpin turns from comedy to pain and back again, the play itself runs out of steam about 2/3 of the way through. Not to be too literal-minded, but why doesn’t Emma just leave? Yes, she’s seeking approval from this roomful of cretins—seeking to be on ‘the inside’—but no one this smart would let herself be whipsawed in the ways described. Shepsu Aakhu’s set, featuring bottles and other tokens of her life suspended from the ceiling, provides just the right feeling of, well, suspense: when this night finally ends, what will have crashed down and what will remain? Through November 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue.
Strandline at A Red Orchid Theatre:Red Orchid never fails to offer superb acting but it might want to reconsider the number of times it chooses plays consisting of drunken Irish people yelling at each other. As anyone who’s ever been the only sober person at a party knows, listening to drunks can wear thin quickly; and though Abbie Spallen’s play (here in its U.S. premiere) intends to be unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, the work has neither the appropriately weighty mystery nor the sufficiently clear resolution to support its length. J.R. Sullivan directs the usual stellar cast, including AROT Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald, Dado and Natalie West. Perhaps the appeal of the piece was the number of roles it contains for women of a certain age, but even that novelty won’t sustain an audience for two acts. Through December 7 at the company’s home space in Old Town.
Sarah Hoch stars in Sweet Charity, MadKap Productions at the Skokie Theater. Photo by Kevin Mell.
The Coward (Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit) is cute. I realize how much that sounds like damning with faint praise, but two things interfere with a more enthusiastic assessment: Stage Left’s own history of producing political work, and an inherent weakness in Nick Jones’s script which parodies Restoration comedy–itself a satire of the affectations and delusions of the privileged class.
To take these in order: while The Coward is faintly political–its plot involves the surviving son of a lord who resists dueling as the waste of time, effort and blood that it is, and said son’s efforts to maintain his anti-dueling principles in the face of social pressure–it hardly measures up to the powerful work the company has done in the past. The Coward comforts the comfortable too much–we, the 21st Century audience, would never be so foolish!
More significantly, as a parody of a satire, The Coward puts us at double remove from the characters. This not only encourages the audience to feel itself above the [literal] fray but encourages the actors to ham it up. Ham is fine–especially that of Kate Black-Spence, as the vain ingenue, and Spenser David as one of the anti-hero’s chums–but I like some bread with my meal. But the thing looks spectacular: kudos to costume and effects designer Aly Renee Amidei for her gorgeous 18th-Century duds. Through October 5.
MadKap Productions makes an astonishingly assured debut with Sweet Charity, the first production of its first subscription season at the Skokie Theatre. Under Andrew Park’s direction, this show–an early effort from Neil Simon–moves almost fast enough to conceal what a clunker the script is. Charity Hope Valentine, a dance-hall hostess, dreams of getting out of that business and finding true love. She has a series of adventures which don’t coalesce into an actual plot until late in Act One, and finally resolve unhappily. There are a couple of good songs–“If They Could See Me Now,” “Hey Big Spender”–but the show is mostly known, and revered, for having launched Gwen Verdon on the world dancing Bob Fosse’s steps. Likewise, this production should mostly be known and appreciated for launching Sara Hoch on Chicago theater dancing Robin Lehtman’s steps. Actually, everyone’s dancing is really strong, and the voices are really exceptional under Gary Powell’s music direction.
Opening night featured some microphone-related catastrophe which caused squeaking and thumping every time Charity moved (that’s the risk with body mikes); and, in a space the size of an old high-school auditorium, I don’t understand why the cast needs to be miked at all. If the orchestra is too loud (and it sometimes is), quiet it down, and let the singers go au naturel. Yes, I know that’s not what that means. Through September 28 at the Skokie Theatre–take Lincoln Avenue north until it dead-ends; the theater, an old movie-house, will be to your right about 100 paces.
Tony Fitzpatrick is both a visual artist and a monologuist who’s about to leave his native Chicago for New Orleans, and his friend Stan Klein is a tri-a-loguist, by which I mean he has three personas each of which reflects on itself and the others. As woven together smoothly by adapter-director Ann Filmer (artistic director of 16th Street Theater), with hypnotic video by Kristin Reeves and guitar and vocals by John Rice and Anna Fermin, the men’s meditations on how Chicago has changed as they have aged (or is it they who have changed?), lumped together under the title The Midnight City, are generally charming and occasionally hilarious. Fitzpatrick particularly has the gift of the superb insult: he refers to unpleasant people as “guys who use Preparation H for Chap-Stick.” The show is custom-designed to make us miss Fitzpatrick now that he’s going and wonder why we haven’t paid more attention to him up until now. I predict–as does Stan–that Tony will be back. Meanwhile, catch The Midnight City in the Steppenwolf Garage through October 19.
The White Snake production photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.
How sharper than a serpent’s tongue are Kelly and Jonathan as they discuss The White Snake at Goodman Theatre, and Jonathan also recommends Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at Raven Theatre.
Celia (Joanne Dubach) and Randy (Andrew Goetten) plan their revenge and great escape in Jackalope’s The Killing of Michael X (photo courtesy of Jackalope Theatre).
Jonathan and Kelly duel over a world premiere about grief, adolescent angst and making a movie, presented by Jackalope Theatre. Then, Jonathan recommends A Crime in the Neighborhood, a page-to-stage adaptation at City Lit.