Category Archives: women/feminism in theater

SAM

In Brief: A Phase at Broken Nose Theatre

K. sez:

When I was in my late 20s I wrote a novel about various adventures I’d had in my earlier 20s.  I was pleased with this accomplishment until another writer asked me, “What’s your book about?” Stumped, I blurted out, “She sleeps with a lot of people.”  “How nice for her,” she replied.  Needless to say, that novel is still in pristine manuscript form on the top shelf of my office closet.

Elise Spoerlein’s A Phase, now receiving its world premiere at Broken Nose Theatre, is my novel onstage.  Sam[antha], reeling from a painful breakup, sleeps with a lot of people til she realizes this doesn’t actually prove anything; end of play, as telegraphed by the title.  Along the way there’s a lot of witty dialogue between Sam and her mother, Sam and her best friend (appearing solely by text message), and Sam and her sex partners.  The dialogue is well-delivered, which is partly a tribute to Spenser Davis’s skill as a director and partly to the fact that the author also plays Sam.

Playwright Spoerlein has a fine ear and a strong comic touch; actress Spoerlein has appealing delivery and a commendable absence of vanity.  But none of this a play makes.  She should put A Phase on the top shelf of her office closet, and keep writing.

A Phase continues at The Den in Wicker Park through March 26.

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.

bodycourage

In brief: Body/Courage at Rivendell

K. sez:

Danielle Pinnock takes up the mantle of Anna Deavere Smith in this world premiere piece, produced by Rivendell in association with Waltzing Mechanics.  This one-woman show actually features dozens of people, first interviewed and now expertly portrayed by Pinnock under the direction of Megan Carney.  We follow her search for answers to questions about body image, media ideals and the connection between food maladies, on the one hand, and self-hatred and sexual abuse, on the other.  Pinnock is pitch-perfect in her renditions, particularly of her Jamaican grandmothers but also of men both gay and straight, women both cis- and transgender and people of every level of education and income.  If there’s a woman in the world who can’t identify with Pinnock’s struggles, I have yet to meet her.  Highly recommended.  It only runs through the end of the month and Rivendell is not huge, so get your tickets ASAP.

A Talent Competition Between the Critics over Goodman’s Another Word for Beauty

(K., of course, is Ms. Congeniality.)  Then J. recommends Le Switch at About Face Theatre.

What I Learned in Paris 5

In brief: Court’s Satchmo…, Congo Square’s What I Learned… and The Gilded Age at City Lit

K. sez:

Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.

What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.

Kelly Goes Solo on Domesticated at Steppenwolf

Not really solo: Gary serves as interlocutor as K. considers Bruce Norris’s latest peroration on the problems of privileged people (say three times fast). Is the playwright anti-feminist or merely a misanthrope? And why shouldn’t playwrights direct their own work? Then G. and K. jointly mourn the demise of Redmoon.

We start the new year with something “Beautiful”

. . . and totally fail to disagree. What Carole King hath put together, let no man put asunder!

Marjorie Prime at Writers a Prime Piece of Theater

The critics enthuse about extraordinary acting by Mary Ann Thebus and Kate Fry in the final production at Writers’ ancestral home at the back of the bookstore, and then talk about all the bricks-and-mortar action in the theater community: new homes not only for Writers but for Northlight, TimeLine, Griffin.

Good for Otto by David Rabe Gets Its World Premiere at the Gift Theatre

J. and K. praise the direction and acting of Good for Otto at the Gift but raise some questions about the text of this new David Rabe play.  Then K. picks For Her As A Piano at Pegasus Players and J. recommends the new musical Ride the Cyclone at Chicago Shakespeare.

East of Eden at Steppenwolf, Marvin’s Room at Shattered Globe

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J. and K. disagree about Steppenwolf’s production of East of Eden, written by Frank Galati and directed by Terry Kinney, and then K. and Gary assess the Shattered Globe revival of Marvin’s Room, directed by original dramaturg Sandy Shinner and written by the late Scott McPherson.

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