The two critics take on one musical with two simultaneous stories. Plus, J. picks the Goodman’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike and explains about Chekhov for anyone who might not have gotten the reference.
Plus, J. and K. describe the current building boom: new space for the Goodman’s educational programs, for Steppenwolf, for Writers Theater, even for tiny Factory Theater. Strawdog may be compelled to move, TimeLine hopes to move, the Actors’ Gym expands into the old Next Theatre, and the last one standing when the music stops is–probably wise.
J. and K. preview Chicago Theatre Week and its many bargain offerings in dance and opera as well as theater.
It takes a pair of Jews to find the very best Christmas shows. Jonathan and Kelly do not disappoint, mixing classics with newcomers and sincere celebrations of the season with the snarkiest possible takes on it. Whatever your attitude, you’ll find much to enjoy!
Jonathan’s in Japan en route to China, leaving me alone to drown in a sea of openings. A quick summation in baseball terms: two runs, two hits, one left on base.
The home runs
The Vandal at Steep Theatre is the Midwest premiere of Hamish Linklater’s first full-length play. It’s a debut any writer would envy. In a series of brief naturalistic scenes and with only three characters—a teenager, his father, and the middle-aged woman the teen befriends at a bus stop—Linklater’s characters explore nothing less than the meaning of life. And yet it’s anything but self-serious–in fact, much of the show is quite funny, especially a drawn-out metaphor involving Doritos and beer as the two ends of life’s spectrum of meaning. Anything more I say about this atmospheric piece will ruin its brief passage upon the stage: just go see Shade Murray’s production in which the always-excellent Kendra Thulin conveys every nuance of grief and loss while maintaining a flinty exterior the two men work hard to penetrate because it’s so obviously worthwhile to do so. ((Jack Miggins as the Boy and Alex Gilmor as the Man are both fine.) On Dan Stratton’s set consisting of a few boxes serving as a bus bench, a store counter and everything else, these three manage to conjure not only the physical setting in an urban desert between a hospital, a cemetery and a liquor store but the spiritual aridity it represents—and the possibilities that yet remain. See this exceptional piece of work, playing through November 8.
And still there’s something even better on another Chicago stage: Romulus, Gore Vidal’s 1962 adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor. The Oracle people can’t seem to put a foot wrong: if they do a show, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s perfectly acted, it’s political without being doctrinaire—and it’s free. This satire takes place on the final day before Rome falls to the Goths, and makes a powerful case that nothing better could happen in the world than for an empire—any empire—to fall. You can see how the German Durrenmatt would have felt that way in 1949; you can see how Vidal would have felt that way in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and most important you can see how it applies today, when America’s determination to maintain its world primacy costs life after life for no apparent purpose. Like The Vandal, this is a funny play with a serious purpose; like The Vandal, its director (here, Kasey Foster) has brought out the best from every member of a gifted company. Kevin Cox is particularly good as the titular emperor, who turns out to be the proverbial wise fool, and Jeremy Trager’s turn as Otto Rupf, the pants-maker who will save the world (don’t ask), keeps things rolling merrily along. A truly extraordinary experience, through November 22.
Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize and promptly collapsed into obscurity, perhaps because it hit too close to home in its examination of how badly our government operates. (Has Washington gotten the message yet, do you suppose? Try sending it again on November 4.) Imagine “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” without the positive outcome, and you’ve got the plot of Anderson’s play: a brand-new idealistic new Senator goes up against the forces of graft and corruption with the help of a seen-it-all dame inspired by his example. Only this time things don’t go quite as planned or hoped-for. Like much material of the same vintage, 1933’s Both Your Houses strikes our ears as wordy to the point of redundancy. (An audience used to ninety-minute dramas gets restless after Hour 2.) Though director James Bohnen specializes in this kind of battle of ideas, the production doesn’t crackle as it should. At the performance I saw David Darlow kept dropping his lines, and as his character is the moral center of the play any hesitation on his part undercuts the entire affair. An interesting evening but not what it could have been. Through November 9.
The Gravedigger at First Folio gets the jump on Halloween with this imagining of what happened to Frankenstein’s monster between the time he killed Mrs. Frankenstein and the moment he’s confronted by his creator somewhere in the frozen north. Director Alison C. Vesely secures strong performances from her foursome of actors, especially the always-fine Craig Spidle as a hermit who shelters the monster. But Joseph Zettelmaier’s whole play is just too damn earnest, with every character prating about love and redemption. It would have been twice as good if it had been half as long, but as it is we have plenty of time to notice that these people keep reassuring one another of their potential and virtue. Obviously Frankenstein is a moral tale, but I like my morals neat, without a lot of sentimental chaser. Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design is excellent, and the spooky Mayslake mansion a fine setting, but the evening is less than the sum of its parts. Through November 2.
Left on base
Smokefall is the Goodman’s remount of last year’s hit, written by flavor-of-the-month playwright Noah Haidle. This production did not enable me to gather the source of his appeal. Like The Gravedigger, it features a lot of people talking to each other about love rather than helping the audience experience or understand that emotion. When pre-term twins (Eric Slater and Guy Massey, superb as always) discuss the terrors of life from their safe location in utero, the play is witty and engaging; but nothing leads up to that moment and nothing issues forth from it. What exactly is supposed to be so great about this play I couldn’t tell you, and it’s a waste of actors Katherine Keberlein and Mike Nussbaum. If you want to make a play about how it’s hard but possible to live life to the fullest into old age, just do the story of Nussbaum’s life.
Kevin Earley and Jennie Sophia in the Goodman’s production of Brigadoon. Photo by Liz Lauren.
And so our heroes review the Goodman revival of Lerner & Loewe’s 1947 classic. Plus, Jonathan has his way with the Andrews Sisters—twice.
16th Street Theater presents the world premiere of THE GUN SHOW by EM Lewis, directed by Kevin Christopher Fox; now thru Aug 2; “Ellen and Juan Flashlight,” Juan Francisco Villa and author EM Lewis (seated). Photo by Anthony Aicardi.
Listen to 90.9 FM, WDCB, on Sunday morning at 8 a.m., wherein Jonathan and I spend our half of The Arts Section disagreeing about Brigadoon at the Goodman (and he’s wrong and I’m right!).
I’m also right that The Gun Show at 16th Street Theater is an extremely powerful monologue, with an interesting choice of monologist: a man to speak for the female playwright, who’s seated in the audience. The after-show conversation means the theater is walking its talk about starting a discussion on the subject, though I can’t agree that the solution is some imaginary middle ground between people who want to ban guns (of which I know none) and people who refuse to have them regulated at all. The sensible center is actually in the center, asking for reasonable regulation which everyone except the gun lobby can live with. As the sign outside the theater says, “You already have an opinion about guns.” The show is an opportunity to share it, and to have it challenged.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Nacho Duato’s Gnawa. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2005
Last night’s Hubbard Street Dance Chicago concert at the Harris Theater was 2/3 brilliant. Actually, it may have been 100% brilliant; one dance just went completely over my head. Performances continue through the weekend, so see for yourself.
Nacho Duato’s Gnawa featured a mix of music and an equally varied menu of homage to other choreographers, including one segment resembling Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain and one referring wittily to Martha Graham. You might think this would render the piece derivative but instead it seemed utterly organic, as if it had grown out of the dancers’ supple bodies. Other Duato works can seem joky or include too many solos when his strength is couples, but this piece didn’t have a weak moment whether there was one dancer on the stage or the entire corps. My companion and I would cheerfully have seen Gnawa again, immediately.
Instead, we saw William Forsythe’s Quintett, set to a segment of a hymn by Gavin Bryars—the same 13 bars, over and over again, with a tinnily-sung English text so difficult to hear that I thought it was in German. The choreography had its l moments but as someone who loves dance for the way it embodies movement, I couldn’t get beyond the intense annoyance evoked by the soundtrack. And I certainly didn’t get either the pure-movement or the thematic intention outlined in the program. Asked if I had any questions about the piece, I responded, “What the hell was that?” But I readily acknowledge this may be my failing.
The evening concluded with resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s The Impossible, a thrilling piece on the border between dance and theater featuring a clown figure in red shoes who represents either Satan or death, haunting and taunting an old arthritic man and wife by facing them with their younger selves. Story dances are hard–dance isn’t really the best medium for story-telling–but Cerrudo told his with clarity and beauty. And it’s no mean feat for athletic young people to portray their osteoporotic elders, but these dancers brilliantly brought to light the ravages of aging.
Hubbard Street’s dancing is so good that the only thing to critique is its choice of material; and even batting 2 for 3 is pretty good, a record any major-league hitter would envy.
By contrast, the Goodman’s latest offering strikes out completely. Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley is a contemporary setting of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust. West was commenting on the soullessness of 1930s Hollywood; Bockley aspires to do the same for this decade’s media environment. An out-of-work male programmer gets a job answering e-mail requests for advice in the guise of a woman, and his platitudes, land him atop a multi-platform empire in which nothing is real. Apparently the play is supposed to be a comedy, a social comment on social media, but I left wondering why anyone had bothered to write it. It’s obvious to us from the get-go that every character is despicable, so their discovering that fact seems more redundant than revelatory. There’s nothing the actors, however capable, can do with this material; the phrase “too clever by half” comes to mind. The show runs through June 22 but if I were you I’d get my Goodman fix some other way—go see The White Snake on the mainstage or wait for Brigadoon, coming at month’s end.
Finally, Piven Theatre Workshop’s production of Chekhov’s Ivanov can claim neither good material nor strong execution. The play is rarely done, and as usual that’s for good reason: an early work, its themes and situations are reiterated far more skillfully in Seagull and Uncle Vanya. By then, the playwright had figured out that it’s just tempting fate (and the audience) to have your characters yell “I’m so bored!” So were we, and it didn’t help that on opening night several of the actors weren’t yet off book. My companion insisted this was some sort of directorial choice, perhaps as a means to emphasize the artificiality of the characters’ behavior; but when Ivanov has to stop in the middle of his climactic speech to walk across the set and retrieve his script, the only choice being made was the one to open before the show was ready. Doubtless it will be readier before closing on June 29 but it will still be a play on which too much attention was lavished when someone bothered to read it.