The actresses and playwright of Dry Land at Rivendell are among our picks from the past year in Chicago theater.
On WDCB on Sunday, we discuss the US premiere of Simon Stephens’ play at Steep, and then K. recommends the two plays she saw at American Players Theatre up in Spring Green, WI.
Two productions showcasing up-and-coming actors occupy our attention this week: The Hairy Ape at Oracle Theatre (which we both love) and Steep Theatre’s Posh (which K. recommends).
Posh: The characters in Laura Wade’s play, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre, are so revolting they should cause you to run screaming from the theater; and yet this is a production everyone should see. A group of elite English college students gathers in the private room of a small-town pub for the annual meeting of the Riot Club. The club’s organizing principle, if there is one, is that members should demonstrate their superiority by wreaking the maximum destruction on every environment. One thinks that the first rule of the Riot Club should be that nobody talks about the Riot Club, but in fact they talk about it constantly (in lieu of any actual conversation) until they’ve whipped themselves into a completely pointless frenzy. Wade has created as savage a portrait of the English upper crust as The Ruling Class, without a drop of the charm Peter O’Toole brought to that earlier yowl against the toffs.
So why see it? Because under Jonathan Berry’s direction, we’re introduced to an extraordinary company of young actors, as unforgettable and full of promise as the ones who appeared in TimeLine’s The History Boys (another English school play, as it happens). If you want to see the future of Chicago theater in [violent] action, sinking its teeth into powerful writing and conjuring up an alien world until you can almost taste it, you want to see Posh. Through February 27: get tickets now, as the theater is minute and mine will not be the only rave.
The Consultant: Unfortunately Heidi Schreck’s play lacks sufficient heft to be an appropriate farewell to the Signal Ensemble, which ends its distinguished 13-year run after this show. But Ronan Marra’s direction gets everything there is to get from the slight script, which lands a stunningly awkward graduate student (Ariel Begley, effervescent in her character’s determined wrongness) in the office of an advertising firm circling the drain. She’s supposed to coach one employee through his presentation stage fright but ends up instead as the office confidante. If it weren’t for the title you wouldn’t think this was her play, but it’s not anyone else’s play either: not the employee being coached (Ben Chang, who manages to turn a caricature into a person), though he has central-character potential; not the lovesick receptionist or the vapid middle manager she fancies. Everyone deserves better material, including the audience. Through February 20.
The world premiere of Hamish Linklater’s play The Cheats at Steep Theatre shows a writer with a good ear, a director (Joanie Schultz) who knows how to extend a tense situation to make it snap back with maximum force in the audience’s face, and a fine group of actors wholly inhabiting their characters. But this apparent homage to “Rear Window” nonetheless fails to satisfy.
John and Anne live across the street from Jonathan and his wife, and John has taken to watching/spying on the other couple whenever he goes out on the balcony for a cigarette. Just as his speculations about the neighbors reach a fever pitch, Jonathan shows up at the door to engage them in history’s most awkward visit: without apparent purpose, but full of menace. When John goes out, Jonathan threatens Anne with a secret he knows about her, but as soon as Anne leaves the two men begin exchanging secrets of their own. As the awkwardness ripens into hostility and then violence, all is revealed; end of play.
The theme seems to be something along the lines of, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, or perhaps don’t speculate about other people’s secrets unless you’re prepared to have your own revealed. Or perhaps it’s just a meditation on the impossibility of marriage. There’s a bit of each but when it was all over I didn’t know what conclusion to draw: that we are all being watched all the time, and though it seems like a harmless pastime it’s anything but? That we should stay disconnected from our neighbors lest they do something life-damaging to us?
The play’s appeal is readily apparent: three meaty roles, and Peter Moore, Kendra Thulin and Brad Akin make the most of them. But without a clearer moral stance, the author turns the audience into the very voyeurs he condemns. Perhaps that was his point, but I didn’t find it an enriching one.
Plus, J. rejoices at the extension of Lookingglass’s Moby Dick while K. recommends Free Street Theater’s new work about the undocumented young people known as the Dreamers.
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.
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.
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K. sez: I was struck by a piece I just received from 16th Street Theater in which Ann Filmer describes the theater’s gestation:
I had just moved to Berwyn with the belief that every community should have its own theater.
That’s a worthy sentiment, but I must admit I thought: Really? First, is that what every community needs, its own theater? Isn’t it possible it needs a nightclub, or a coffeehouse, or a library, or a grocery store? And second, is that what every theater’s about? Somehow I doubt that the founders of Steppenwolf sat in that storied church basement and said to one another, “We’re here because Highland Park should have its own theater.” In fact they couldn’t have thought that or they wouldn’t have moved, first to Boys’ Town and then to North and Halsted, two communities as different from each other as they are from Highland Park and which might or might not (to return to the first point) have needed theaters rather than, say, affordable housing or some non-big box retailing.
And then there’s the fact that until at least twenty years into the off-Loop theater movement, professionals working their hearts out in church basements and storefronts were desperate NOT to have their work confused with “community theater,” a term of derision suggesting salesmen directing lawyers and science teachers in revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, and yes, I was the lawyer in question. “Community” was a euphemism for “amateur,” and that was the last thing anyone struggling for a Tribune review would want said about him/her/it.
Maybe now that Chicago is acknowledged as a center of professional theater we can afford to talk about theater as a component of or a service to the community. Or maybe we’ve all just spent too much time trying to justify support of the arts by describing their contributions to the wider community. Or maybe the idea that “every community should have its own theater” was bound to develop in Chicago, where people identify themselves so thoroughly with their neighborhoods. We may not introduce ourselves anymore by naming our parish, but I nonetheless regard myself as an Edgewaterian, and take great pride in the neighborhood’s complement of 5 theaters in a 10-block radius.
(And should every community have five of its own theaters? Or is it just that they cluster, like kitchen-supply stores or dry-goods warehouses?)
It’s certainly tempting to think that community roots account for theaters which spend lots of time, money and energy to create 45-seat houses guaranteed to inhibit if not prevent growth. Why would you bother, unless you’re responding to a deep-seated need to find, and feel at, home? And being at home means that you post signs in the window thanking the officers on the beat for their service, and attend meetings at the Alderman’s office about creating a cultural plan and—well, you know: participate in community.
But is that really what all of you are doing? Just to call out my own neighborhood: Steep, Rivendell, Redtwist, City Lit, Raven, what does “community” mean to you? Are you where you are because you chose a community, or are you pursuing an artistic mission to which location is irrelevant, or did you just luck out on a place with low rent? And what about the cluster of theaters in Wicker Park—the ones sharing the Den or colonizing the Flatiron Building? Are you guys Wicker Parkians in your soul or is it just the space you happened to find?
And then there’s the special case of Redmoon, which is so involved with community that it moves every couple of years to escape any gentrification it might have helped cause and to reach out to another underserved neighborhood. Is it Johnny Appleseed, planting theaters which will survive its moving on? And does it make a difference that Redmoon invites the community not just to attend shows but to build puppets and create holiday extravaganzas?
I’m an art-for-art’s-sake girl—all those studies about the economic activity spurred by the arts don’t demonstrate the superiority of the arts to any other form of concentrated commerce. In any case, theater is a communications art form, and people don’t communicate with one another because of something else—we communicate because we’re human beings. But what is being communicated, and by whom, and to whom, is a question we need to keep on answering.
So will somebody please answer? Eager to hear from y’all. (Or, as we say in my neighborhood, “youse.”) Happy New Year!