Jonathan waxes Scrooge-like about holiday offerings while Kelly takes her inner child out for an excursion. Grab your insulin and dive in!
I generally prefer the work of Second City e.t.c. to the work on the mainstage. Why is that? Yes, the mainstage people are all preoccupied with auditioning for Saturday Night Live; but the e.t.c. people are all preoccupied with auditioning for the mainstage, so the caution and self-consciousness level should be about the same. It isn’t, though: e.t.c. is routinely looser and therefore closer to its comic improv roots than the main company. That’s true in its new review Apes of Wrath, but it’s not otherwise one of the troupe’s best efforts. The three women—Carisa Barreca playing against dizzy-blonde type, Brooke Breit displaying real acting chops, and Punam Patel in the tradition of fat chicks who make fun of themselves before other people can—are excellent, regardless of their material. The men are less distinctive—two of them even look alike—and thus more dependent on comic opportunities which the script rarely provides. But Eddie Mujica has incredible physical-comic skills which form the foundation of running jokes about robots and meth addicts (don’t ask). Director Jen Ellison keeps up the pace.
Often I leave Profiles Theatre wanting to kill myself, regardless of the quality of the play. Chalk this up to the company’s generally masculinist sensibility and close collaboration with Neil LaBute. But Annapurna is a gratifying exception to this rule. Company member Eric Burgher takes his first turn in the director’s chair, and does an impeccable job of bringing out the raw emotion in Sharr White’s script about a long-divorced couple trying to reconcile their memories, if not their relationship. That description makes the play sound kitchen-sink ordinary, which it’s completely not: there is indeed a kitchen sink, but it’s crawling with ants. Husband Ulysses, played with growling truth by Darrell Cox, is living in a revoltingly filthy mountain hut far from everything, barely bothering to get dressed. (Certificate of Profilian authenticity: we see Cox’s tush.) Urbane Wife Lia Mortensen (likewise utterly honest) arrives without notice in search of some resolution of their long-ago relationship. She arms herself with Lysol and the battle is joined. Any more description would ruin the delicately-wrought structure of Annapurna; suffice it to say the interactions are beautifully layered and the end is hopeful and life-affirming. I enjoyed it so much I almost felt guilty. This Midwest premiere (the show opened off-Broadway only last month) runs through July 20 at the theater’s Alley space on North Broadway. It’s a fine showcase for the work of two of our finest veteran actors: see it. And never fear: Profiles returns to type (and to Neil LaBute) on August 28, opening its new season with the playwright’s Reasons to be Happy.
There are some witty lines in Partners at LiveWire, and director Kendra Miller does what she can with Dorothy Fortenberry’s play about two couples—one gay, one straight—and their lives, which interlock because Ezra (from couple #1) and Clare (from couple #2) are best friends from college and partners in a food-truck business they haven’t yet managed to get off the ground. The play suffers from too many themes and not enough plot: it’s obvious from the beginning that Clare is dragging her heels about the business and that Ezra will eventually confront her about it. Meanwhile there are intense discussions about marriage equality, monogamy, adult acne and the libido-suppressing effects of reflux medicine; until suddenly late in Act I the play turns out to be about money—its inaccessibility to Ezra, its marriage-altering potential for Clare, its meaning to their respective life partners. Money is a great topic but you can’t write a play about it by wandering around til you light on the subject accidentally. And the gay best friend is a pretty hoary device by now, though Will Von Vogt does his best with it. Through July 20 at the Den on Milwaukee Avenue.
About new plays at Profiles, Rivendell, Steep and Trap Door, K. sez:
There’s some vibe in the air about injury to children. Not only is it the subject of the Goodman’s Luna Gale (of which more in our duel on Friday), but both Profiles and Steep have chosen to do new plays on the subject. Query whether we’ve projected onto children our fears that society is out of control and we’re being damaged by it; but for whatever reason, this is the topic du jour.
Gidion’s Knot at Profiles is the Midwest Premiere of Johnna Adams’s poorly-named but sharply-drawn play about a confrontation between a parent and a teacher over the death of a child. As directed by Joe Jahraus (who last year directed another play about a teacher with a dead student), the play rings every conceivable change on the, yes, knot of emotions accompanying such a death, including—especially!—guilt, even when it’s not clear what there is to be guilty for. Laura Hooper as the terrified young teacher and Amy J. Carle as her nemesis are so genuine in their clashes that you expect the classroom (perfectly designed by Katie-Bell Springman down to the sayings on the wall) to catch fire at any moment. A sobering but worthwhile look at the unknowability of other people in general and children in particular as they navigate a threatening world by becoming threats themselves.
Steep Theatre presents strangers, babies, also a Midwest premiere and the Chicago debut for Scottish playwright Linda McLean. This episodic account of the life of May (the appealing Sasha Gioppo), a young wife so tender she tries to save a baby bird, gradually reveals a past stained by uncontrollable rage and a present distorted by unsalveable guilt. Director Brad Akin wrings out every bit of subtext the play offers and the actors can convey, but McLean’s loose ends still show, such that the final line of the play didn’t seem like a final line at all. No pat conclusion is required but when the point of a play is to follow a character’s arc it’s best if that arc reaches its destination, rather than disappearing into the mist like Finian’s Rainbow. strangers, babies is utterly absorbing for its 90-minute length, but it leaves you wanting some resolution.
Rasheeda Speaking at Rivendell addresses more directly the notion that society is out of whack and individuals out of control. This world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson is oddly reminiscent of Volpone, the classic account of the trickster tricked, as it follows the interactions of two physician’s assistants who fool and betray each other even as they profess their friendship. The fact that one (Tara Mallen) is white and the other (Ora Jones) is black means that Rasheeda Speaking is a play about racism, but the plot takes several turns which up-end or refute expectations about who’s doing what to whom. Johnson’s nuanced work is directed by Sandy Shinner with perfect pitch for both its comedy and its drama, and the result is so thought-provoking that my companion walked three extra blocks in the polar vortex so we could continue to discuss exactly what happened and why. Ably acted by all involved, the play really rests on Jones’s quicksilver changes of mood and/or personality. She’s perfectly upsetting on a subject about which we could all use a little upset. And, in addition to being a show about racism, it’s a show about performance—oh, wait, those are the same thing. Not to be missed.
In a quite different vein from this realistic trio is Trap Door Theatre’s production of Judith, an adaptation of the Biblical story of the widow who secured the Israelites’ victory in battle by seducing and then beheading Assyrian General Holofernes. This version of the story is subtitled “A Parting from the Body,” and emphasizes the parallels between sex and death, or at least the ways in which the ecstasies of one can be substituted for the contemplation of the other. Director Zeljko Djukic’s production is very physical and sensual, and Kevin Cox and Nicole Wiesner are well-matched as the antagonists; but the text sounds like a conversation in a college dorm room: “I am obsessed with death.”–“Then let’s have sex.” That analysis obviously does an injustice to the complexity of playwright Howard Barker’s meditation on loyalty and betrayal, love and hostility, and any number of other paired concerns; but the stentorian pronouncements make it nearly impossible to take those concerns seriously. Ordinarily Trap Door’s productions are able to bridge cultural gaps: the company’s specialty is translation in the broadest sense of the term, including not only language but assumptions and style. Here, though, it is confronted with an English playwright who writes English-language dialogue as though it were badly rendered from the original Hindustani, and this creates a barrier too great to overcome even for a troupe as talented and thoughtful as Trap Door.
Mick Weber as Sid Silver/Meyer Levin and John Byrnes manipulating a marionette Anne Frank in Compulsion at Next Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
J. and K. tangle over the true story of a man whose obsession with Anne Frank’s diary nearly destroyed him. Plus, they highlight local theatre actresses on tv and K. recommends John Judd in Wrecks at Profiles Theatre.
but exactly what you’d expect from John Judd. (K. sez) Wrecks at Profiles Theatre, a one-act monologue by a man enduring his wife’s wake, seems to be going nowhere until suddenly it’s crashing into a place you’d never suspect, just like the nearly-fatal car accident the character recounts early in the play.
It’s always a privilege to watch John Judd on the stage: without fail he is not merely persuasive but absolutely truthful. Here, under the direction of Jason Gerace, he takes what could have been an ordinary character and lets you know from the first moment that he’s anything but, without telegraphing the surprise the playwright has spring-loaded into the text.
LaBute’s work is always smart, rarely uplifting, and this piece is no exception, but there’s no hint of the misogyny for which he’s so frequently (if not justly) indicted. Through Judd’s compelling performance, Wrecks becomes an investigation of morality itself.
At Profiles’ Alley Stage, 4147 N. Broadway, through November 17. Truly not be be missed.