Jazz lovers reminisce, scheme and try to recapture their old friendship; can they? Chops examines. A world-premiere entrant in the Mamet-Scorcese milieu.
ShPIeL, a theater company which defines itself as “Performing Identity,” does exactly that with its world-premiere production of Angina Pectoris at Theatre Wit. The play opened in Tel Aviv soon after its opening in Chicago. What do the Critics think? Plus, Kelly recommends Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy at RedTwist.
MadKap Productions at the Skokie Theatre (a movie house turned into a legit stage) is giving Tony- and Pulitzer-Prizewinning musical Next to Normal a strong if far too brief production. Hard as it may be to imagine a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music provide this portrait of family dysfunction with honesty and poetry in equal measure. And under the direction of Andrew Park (music direction by Gary Powell), this version of the show is as moving and funny as the one I saw several years ago at Drury Lane Oakbrook, a bigger house with significantly greater resources. The performance (and especially the singing) of Whitney Morse as Diana, the mother whose illness threatens to wreck her family as well as her own life, suggests much bigger things in her future: she’s rueful but free of self-pity, funny without resorting to stereotype, and all-around engaging. Try to make time to see the show before it closes on September 27. And don’t be fooled by the faint air of community theater which somehow attaches to the location: this is the second show I’ve seen there, and the second one about which I’ve raved.
Meanwhile, BoHo Theatre presents Dogfight, a musical based on a film about Marines who while away their hours before deployment betting who can find the ugliest woman to date. From this unpromising source, playwright Peter Duchan constructs a love story: Eddie (the charming Garrett Lutz) chooses Rose (Emily Goldberg, both sweet and strong) as a joke and unexpectedly finds himself liking her. But before he can follow through, Rose has learned about the game and stormed away. Eventually he tracks her down and what ensues is as romantic as Before Sunrise: a final night spent together falling in love. The show manages to maintain the romance without falling into sentimentality, and to attract our sympathy for everyone on the stage: the Marines whose toughness conceals terror (but not very well) and the women they mistreat as casually as if they were pieces of gum to be chewed and spit out. The music and lyrics by Benu Pasek and Justin Paul suggest the mid-1960s but steer clear of falling into period pastiche, and the cast’s voices are up to the challenge. Kudos to director Peter Marston Sullivan and music director Ellen K. Morris. Through October 18 at Theatre Wit in Lakeview.
Grand Concourse (Steppenwolf; through August 30)
It probably says more about me than about Grand Concourse that the most wrenching moment in a play involving fatal illness, homelessness, betrayal and a loss of faith came when there was injury to a cat.
But plenty of people who saw Bibi Andersen describe a sexual encounter in Persona swear that they saw the sexual encounter itself, a tribute to the vividness of the writing and the truth of the performance. In the same way, Mariann Mayberry’s rendition of the cat story in Heidi Schreck’s text is so powerful that it feels as if we’re seeing the poor animal right in front of us. Thus my response isn’t Cat Lady idiosyncratic but generated by the play itself.
Grand Concourse tells the stories of Shelley (Mayberry), a nun who runs a soup kitchen, and Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout volunteering there. The two women are assisted by the janitor Oscar (Victor Almanzar) and visited constantly by the homeless Frog (originally Tim Hopper, now Francis Guinan), and the relationships among the four make up the action of the play.
Unfortunately, until the very end it isn’t clear whose play it is, which makes it hard to invest in the goings-on. Are we watching Emma grow beyond her self-absorption, or Shelley struggle with her faith? Either of these would make a fine focus, but trying to focus on both leaves us with an evening which, as my companion said, “was smart, it was well-written, it was well-performed; but it didn’t move me.” So the moment with the cat was the exception rather than the rule. Though director Yasen Peyankov and his troupe give the play all they’ve got, the play doesn’t have very much to offer in return.
This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro, Oracle. Opens August 21, runs through September 19
This Oracle production debuted at the Washington Park Refectory as part of Theater on the Lake’s second peripatetic summer. This House Believes . . . is Zachary Baker-Salmon’s dramatization of an actual televised debate which took place at the Cambridge Union in 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, speaking respectively for and against the title resolution. The company asks the audience to vote on the proposition before the debate begins and again after its conclusion, to determine whose arguments swayed the most votes.
Under Baker-Salmon’s direction the work is finely performed by Johnard Washington and Jeremy Clark as Baldwin and Buckley, supported by players representing the moderator and other attendees. It’s not clear whether their [scripted] interruptions of the speakers are intended to encourage unscripted contributions from members of the audience; in any case, there weren’t any such outbursts at the performance I saw.
Which is a shame. In at least one respect, 2015 is no different from 1965: no one is willing to address frankly the issues of power and inequality at the heart of America’s race problem. Thus, Baldwin and Buckley alike talk around the issue, more concerned with representing their positions than with explaining them. Buckley’s argument—that in fact black people were better off than they would have been if left un-enslaved in Africa—was more politically acceptable then than now, but not by much; so he talks all around it. Likewise, Baldwin can’t address the question directly because its answer is so self-evident; instead, he has to perform an exaggerated scholarly civility to make even his gentle hints palatable to an audience embodying white privilege in its most florid manifestation.
The actors were, respectively, believably smarmy and believably gracious, but their discussion went nowhere. The excess politeness, the talking around the issue, the pretense that this is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree, interferes with anybody’s actually grasping what’s going on. So all we get is a chance to feel superior to those poor fools from 50 years ago, when we’re actually not. Oracle gets an E for effort (and Earnestness), but fails to advance our understanding of an issue whose misunderstanding continues to tear the country apart.
Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, Windy City Playhouse (through October 4).
The curtain rises on a couple in bed. At the moment of climax, the woman screams out not something sexual but an ethnic slur. This sets in motion what purports to be the contemporary equivalent of Feydeau’s door-slamming farces, with two other couples (one gay, one straight) becoming involved in the argument between the original couple about the true meaning of what was said.
Peter Ackerman’s play, sharply directed by William Brown, never recovers from this initial bad premise. Ethnic slurs are NOT analogous to talking dirty, and any effort to make them so just trivializes their meaning and import. No wonder the whole middle of the play has us chasing the red herring of whether the woman’s partner is gay: that’s familiar territory for bedroom farces. But the resolution, which brings us back to the original ethnic-slur theme, is forced and uncomfortable—as well it should be.
Theater Wit’s Bad Jews demonstrated that there are ways it’s okay to make fun of anti-Semitism; Things You Shouldn’t Say . . . demonstrates there are ways it’s not.
Irish Theatre of Chicago follows Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole, and the Dueling Critics follow them. Plus, Kelly raves over Bad Jews at Theatre Wit.
We discuss pop culture, Sophocles and Jonathan’s age as we attempt to parse the new show at Theater Wit.
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.
Kelly Owens and Eustace Allen in Eclipse Theatre Company’s Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, directed by Steve Scott. Photo: Tim Knight.
K. sez: A good week in Chicago theater, especially for women!
Stage Left and Theatre Seven revive Principal Principle, their drama of teachers’ lives in a real Chicago Public School, Chinua Achebe Academy High School on the South Side. Playwright Joe Zarrow, a former English teacher himself, has made a tense comedy out of a group of archetypes: the teacher on the verge of retirement, the Teach for America newbie, the clueless principal and her latest educational fad, and a pair of veteran teachers, one of whom goes along to get along while the other rebels. Formulaic as it may sound, in Scott Bishop’s production every character is given her due and the key issue of race simmers in every interaction until it explodes. Through August 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont in Lakeview; well worth catching if you want to know something about Chicago’s schools beyond the slogans in the newspapers.
Black Ensemble Theater’s latest musical bio-pic (bio-play?) The Marvelous Marvelettes includes all the elements we’ve come to expect: outstanding musical impersonations, fine orchestration over-amplified and a rather too obviously expository book. But playwright Reginald Williams and director Rueben D. Echoles are skilled enough to bring some freshness to the formula. The device of having characters reflect on their younger selves is not new, but here the older Marvelettes (played by Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reed-Foster) convey a genuine love for each other as well as a reality-tinged nostalgia for what happened back in the day. Melody McCullough gives lead singer Gladys both sweetness and strength, and Alanna Taylor plays her rival Wanda with a fine bite and a comically accurate drunk act. You’ll leave humming the songs, and what more could you ask of a musical? Through September 7 at the BET Cultural Center on Clark in the East Ravenswood Historic District (a/k/a Uptown).
Eclipse Theatre continues its season of plays by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Lynn Nottage with Intimate Apparel, which received its Midwest premiere in 2005 at Steppenwolf. The piece, a modest drama set at the turn of the 20th Century about an African-American seamstress whose love of beauty contrasts strongly with her own plainness, has worn well. Dreading spinsterhood, Esther begins an epistolary romance with a black man laboring on the Panama Canal, even as she’s drawn to the Jewish man who shares her love of beautiful fabrics. Kelly Owens as Esther communicates every layer of her character with both subtlety and clarity, and receives strong support from the rest of the cast under Steve Scott’s sure direction. Owens’ interactions with Eustace Allen as the cloth dealer are especially lovely. And the play doesn’t make you want to kill yourself at the end, which distinguishes it from lots of other dramas chosen by Chicago theaters as light summer play-going. Try not to sit in the front row or you’ll miss the supertitles, which are flavorful if not essential. Through August 24 at the Athenaeum at Lincoln and Southport in west Lakeview.
Susan Jamshidi and Casey Searles in Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England.
(Photo credit: Charles Osgood.)
Kelly goes solo to review Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, playing through April 27 at Theater Wit.