Mini-reviews from October stages

Here are brief reviews of plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. For details and ticket information on any of them, go to theatreinchicago.com and select Review Roundup.

 

Both Your Houses at Remy Bumppo

By Maxwell Anderson. See it thru November 9

This Maxwell Anderson play is a political charmer, set in 1932. The shenanigans involve the House of Representatives budget committee alternatively cutting expenditures or ensuring that members’ favorite pork projects are funded. A brand new Congressman tries to change everything. Anderson wrote it in frustration with the Hoover administration and its lack of response to the Depression. Remy Bumppo’s production sparkles with terrific performances and a lovely set on the second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Here’s their trailer.

 

Danny Casolaro Died for You at Timeline Theatre

By Dominic Orlando. See it thru December 21.

GB-Timeline-DannyThe names and events are vaguely familiar, if you were consuming political news in the 1980s and ’90s. Iran-contra. BCCI (“the world’s sleaziest bank,” according to a Time magazine cover). Bert Lance. The Church committee. Wackenhut Security. The CIA and Central American drug cartels. The Sandinistas. The Iran hostage crisis.

That’s how my Gapers Block review begins. The eponymous Danny is a freelance journalist who tries to put all those pieces together for a big story. The play is well acted and tensely performed. Timeline, which specializes in productions that explore history, does an excellent job, including putting the period in perspective through detailed lobby exhibits and playbill information.

 

Native Son at Court Theatre

By Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright. See it thru October 19.

nsb-nativesonNative Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is about Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago African-American man without education, money or hope. He gets a job for which he is ill-prepared, and commits murder by accident. The story is tense and disturbing. It’s also grim and depressing, because it’s describing an event 75 years in the past—and not enough change has taken place.

Nambi E. Kelley has written a spine-tingling adaptation, leaving the linear plot line of the novel behind and playing out Bigger’s story in a crisp 90-minute production. The cleverly designed setting of wooden stairs, poles and walkways by Regina Garcia really makes he play work. Seret Scott’s direction holds the story together and made me forget to miss Max, Bigger’s left-wing lawyer, whose character Kelley stripped out of her script.

Some reviewers consider Wright’s character of Bigger to be symbolic and unrealistic. I was part of a discussion group that met with playwright Kelley the night we saw the play. She told us that she had come to love and care about Bigger during the long writing process. That enabled us to care about him in her play. But the Chicago streets where black men, such as Jerod Haynes who plays Bigger, walk today are still mean streets, even though the nature of their danger has changed over the years.

 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Porchlight Music Theatre

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. See it thru November 9.

This marvelously bloody and brilliant story never fails to delight. No sappy, sugary musical here. The new Porchlight production directed by Michael Weber at Stage 773 gets very strong performances and creative staging from this talented company. In particular, the two leads, Rebecca Finnegan as the lively Mrs. Lovett and David Girolmo as the demon barber, are superb vocally and dramatically. A very young Miles Blim plays Toby with terrific charm; he’s a high school senior in Oak Park. An excellent five-person musical group led by Doug Peck provides the Sondheim music.

The clever script is loaded with quotable lines. As Mrs. Lovett ponders what to do with the detritus of Mr. Todd’s shaving services, she thinks aloud: “Business needs a lift / Debts to be erased / Think of it as thrift, as a gift / If you get my drift. / Seems an awful waste / I mean, with the price of meat what it is.

At the end of act one, Lovett and Todd perform a delightfully homicidal “A Little Priest.” The song includes my favorite passage, which I have used in a business context to describe the M&A environment. The demon barber advises her,

“The history of the world, my sweet–
is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”

The recent New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Sweeney Todd uses the same Christopher Bond adaptation; it’s excellent and is available online on pbs.org. The NY Phil version is presented concert style with costuming and some props with the performers on walkways amongst the orchestra. Its highlight is Emma Thompson’s great comedic turn as Mrs. Lovett.

Here’s a trailer of the Porchlight production.

 

Watch on the Rhine at The Artistic Home

By Lillian Hellman. See it thru November 16.

GB-WOTRJoshua,Bodo,FannyAnother play set against an historical landscape is Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, now on stage at The Artistic Home on Grand Avenue in Noble Square. The play, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country, at a time when most Americans did not believe that. Hellman sets up a compelling pre-war conflict between two characters, both Europeans, but visiting in the US. One is a fascist and the other is an anti-fascist freedom fighter. The performances in this production are excellent and Cody Estle’s direction, including three child actors, is up to the Artistic Home standards.

See my Gapers Block review for details.

 

 


Celebrating a Springsteen Birthday: How Can This Man Be 65?

Yes, my favorite rocker has turned 65 and his Chicago-area fans celebrated with words and music last weekend at Fitzgerald’s, the blues/jazz/rock club in Berwyn. A soldout crowd of 100 filled the comfy Sidecar music room. Musicians led by guitarist Bucky Halker played solos, duets and other configurations of Springsteen music, including some rarities. But they weren’t playing covers; they were reinterpreting Springsteen’s music in interesting ways. June Sawyers and I contributed “literary” readings about Springsteen.

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Other musicians were Don Stiernberg on mandolin, Al Rose on guitar, Andrea Bunch on keyboards and guitar, John Mead on guitar, and John Abbey on upright bass. Rose did a fiery version of “Spirit in the Night” and Halker’s “Racing in the Street” and “State Trooper” were other highlights.

June read historical and profile pieces about the birthday honoree. I read* an excerpt from his SXSW keynote speech and suggested to Bruce “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Retire.” The group played “John Henry” as the closer.

Photos by Kaitlynn Stanger.

 * If you’re interested in receiving my readings, please leave a comment on this site with your email. Let me know which reading you want, and I’ll be happy to send it along.

Birthday tribute setlist:

State Trooper
Ghost of Tom Joad
None But the Brave
This Hard Land
Stolen Car
Growin’ Up
For You
Fire
Racing in the Street
Factory
Born to Run
Youngstown
Hard Times
Spirit in the Night
She’s the One
Thunder Road
Nebraska
Atlantic City
John Henry


“David Bowie Is” is fabulous:

MCA-DavidBowiesignage

Signage at the MCA gallery entrance. Photo courtesy MCA.

The new David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary deserves its hype. It’s a comprehensive, expansive look at the career of a man who was a singer/songwriter, musician–and far more.  David Bowie is a painter, actor, writer, designer, composer–and most important, a man who knows how to develop and maintain a brand.

I reviewed the exhibit last week for Gapers Block, so take a look. My review also appears here on culturevulture.net.

Among the fascinating displays of Bowie’s art, designs, music and costumes is a large video display of his 1972 appearance on the BBC performing “Starman” wearing makeup and a colorful quilted fitted suit. His fans loved it and others were outraged–by his appearance as well as by what was seen as inappropriate behavior with his guitarist Mick Ronson. Here’s the same video. Don’t get excited. It’s not R rated, by any means. Great song, though.

Bowie hasn’t played a full concert since 2004 when he underwent emergency angioplasty after a concert in Germany. He often performed in Chicago during his touring years. One outstanding series of Bowie Chicago performances was the full month of August 1980 when he played the lead in the play, The Elephant Man, at the Blackstone Theatre. You can see a scene from that play in one exhibit area at the MCA.

Patrick Sisson’s article in the Reader tells about that month that Bowie called Chicago home…and describes some of the places he visited and people he spent time with while he was here.

Finally, here’s a video about the Bowie exhibit that’s a good visual intro. It’s an exhibit you should not miss.


September dramas: Serious, smart and sublime

Here are recaps of three plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. They’re all recommended and all still running so you have time to see them. I’ve been focused on the David Bowie Is exhibit this week and I’ll post my review of that soon.

King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare

GB-CST-KingLear

Ross Lehman and Larry Yando. Photo by Liz Lauren.

A four-star production of this Shakespearean masterpiece. The most four-star part of it is the performance by Larry Yando as King Lear. He’s one of Chicago’s finest actors and this is a performance that has “Jeff award” all over it. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins.

“King Lear, perhaps William Shakespeare’s most-revered play, is an existential tragedy. It’s a story of power and family lost, mind and health destroyed. But it’s also a retirement story and a family tragedy. It’s amazing how deeply and warmly current issues are treated in this 400-year-old masterpiece.

“Fathers mourn relationships with their children. Siblings fight over the estate before the parent dies. Old men suffer the tears and trauma of aging. And most profoundly, we see the onset of dementia in someone who has been a brilliant and powerful leader.”

Lear runs until November 9 at Chicago Shakes’ theater on Navy Pier.

Isaac’s Eye at Writers Theatre

NSBJ-IsaacsEye

Hooper and Grapey. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath is a smart, funny exercise in what-if. What if a young Isaac Newton and the older and less well-known scientist, the brilliant Robert Hooke, met and discovered they had similar and conflicting interests in color and light? The result is a mesmerizing two-hour play at Writers Theatre’s back-of-the-bookstore location in Glencoe. In this tiny space, you are literally right at the feet of the two great men as they bicker and compete, in modern dress and language. It’s a fascinating post-modern drama.

One of my favorite Chicago actors and old friends, Marc Grapey, plays Hooke with the right amount of antipathy and snark. And Jürgen Hooper plays Newton, with geeky naivete matched by seething ambition. Elizabeth Ledo gives a smart performance as Newton’s girlfriend. The compelling addition to the play is LaShawn Banks as a narrator and dying man, who agrees to undergo Newton’s eye test. He is a constant and energizing presence on the tiny set, keeping the mood dynamic even when he is sort of “offstage.”

Isaac’s Eye runs until December 7 at Writers Theatre. I didn’t review it formally but I’m glad I didn’t miss it. You shouldn’t either.

Season on the Line at the House Theatre

GB-HouseTheatreSeasonontheLine

The man in the white suit is the critic. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I have to confess. I loved this play. This is the headline for my review: “House Theatre Plants a Big Wet Kiss on the Theater Industry.” It is loaded with theater jargon and literary references and the opening night audience of reviewers, Jeff Committee members, friends and relatives clearly loved it as much as I did.

Season on the Line, smartly written by House ensemble member Shawn Pfautsch,  is the story of a struggling mid-size theater company that decides to produce a new and inventive production of Melville’s Moby Dick as the culmination of an important season. We are treated to production meetings, rehearsals, after-parties and backstage gossip as the company gets ready to present its first show, The Great Gatsby (a success), and second show, Balm in Gilead (not a success). All the while, the artistic director, played with great intensity and possibly obsession by Thomas J Cox, is focused only on the great white whale. Yes, he’s Captain Ahab. He believes if he can produce a show that wins a four-star review from the influential theater critic, he will save the theater company.

The House Theatre, always an inventive and creative bunch, obviously has great fun with this. They advertise it as an “epic love letter to the American theater.” And it is. If you love theater, you’ll love it. It’s not for amateur theater-goers, however.

Season on the Line, which runs until October 26, is a 3-hour whale, plus two intermissions. That’s right, you’ll be in the theater for 3.5 hours. I loved every minute of it and if you read this far, you will too.

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Capsule reviews from Chicago stages

Theater season never really ends in Chicago but there’s always a flurry of openings in September. Here are a few plays I’ve seen recently and recommend for your consideration.

Churchill by SoloChicago

Ronald Keaton, a journeyman Chicago actor, turns himself into the great British leader for this one-man show that’s continuing at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The run is so successful that it’s moving into the large downstairs mainstage space.

Keaton has been a successful Chicago actor for years, performing comedy, drama and musicals, at suburban and city theaters, large and small. But he rarely has performed the leading or “hero” role, until now. He has created his own role, his own show and his own production company, as Chris Jones describes in this article about Keaton.

The show is excellent and Keaton takes us through Churchill’s life from childhood through his period as prime minister during World War II. The 135-minute show, performed with one intermission, runs through Sept. 21 and then Oct 3 to Nov. 9. Here’s a video clip of Keaton as Churchill.

The Whaleship Essex by Shattered Globe Theatre

Shattered Globe, which has a long and solid history among Chicago storefront and midsize theaters, is now staging a stirring tale of shipwreck and survival, based on an actual event that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Here’s how my Gapers Block review starts.GB-WhaleshipEssex-1

“Tales of the whale–the commercial treasure and leviathan of the sea–and the sailors who set out in wooden ships to hunt them, are endlessly fascinating. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick stands as one of the great adventure tales of world literature.

“A story that inspired Melville is being staged now by Shattered Globe Theatre in the exciting adventure/survival play, The Whaleship Essex by ensemble member Joe Forbrich. The two-hour-plus drama is staged with meticulous attention to nautical detail through the use of lighting, projections and simple wooden benches that serve as the whaleboats in which the whalemen leave the ship to capture whales. Or survive a shipwreck, as the case may be.”

There’s some excellent acting by this large cast, directed by Lou Contey. The acting and creative staging persuade us that the crew is indeed fighting to survive an attack by an enraged whale. Fortunately, a few seamen survived to write accounts of the Essex disaster. The Whaleship Essex continues at Theater Wit on Belmont through October 11.

The Arsonists at Strawdog Theatre

TheArsonistsMax Frisch’s 1953 radio play, The Fire Raisers, was adapted for the stage in 1958 and was understood as a metaphor for the rise of the Nazi Party and citizens’ inability to recognize evil. This 2007 adaptation by Alistair Beaton keeps the chilling symbolism of the arsonists who intend to start fires, political or residential.

Director Matt Hawkins does a fine job with Strawdog’s small cast, performing on a two-level stage in their second-storey venue. The chorus of firefighters serves to warn us of coming events as well as fight them when they occur. Time and place are ambiguous in The Arsonists, but it should set off warning bells for all sorts of evil occurrences or political skullduggery in the 21st century.

The Arsonists, 90 minutes with no intermission, runs through Sept. 27 at Strawdog on Broadway near Grace. And here’s a dining tip. Tutto Fresco Trattoria at 3829 N Broadway is a neighborhood jewel and just steps away from the theater.

King Lear at Chicago Shakes

I’m reviewing Chicago Shakespeare’s new production of King Lear, starring Larry Yando. Tonight is opening night, so I’ll post my review later this week.

 

 

 

 


Doubles and doppelgängers on page and screen

Did you ever think you might have a double, someone identical to you but unrelated? A doppelgänger, that is, or “double goer” in German, a lookalike or alternate self. The term has ominous portents in some traditions and the concept has appeared in various cultural forms many times over the centuries.

Two current films, both based on novels, explore the idea of the double or doppelgänger. They are both fascinating films and generated a great discussion at a film group meeting this week. (These films are available on DVD or streaming on Amazon Instant Video or Netflix.)

The films and the books from which they are adapted are:

Enemy directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, adapted from The Double, the 2002 novel by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, who died in 2010. (The original title translates as The Duplicated Man.)

The Double directed by Richard Ayaode and starring Jesse Eisenberg, adapted from the 1846 novella, The Double, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Both films stand on their own as distinctive works of art. There’s no need to read the books to appreciate them. But both books are excellent and well worth reading.  The Saramago book is one of his best.

Both films tell the story of men who suddenly discover that another person looks and sounds exactly like him. The double seems to be trying to take over his life, or is he really? They raise questions of duality and identity, of psychic bifurcation. They follow the general plot lines of the original novels fairly closely but the endings vary dramatically.

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Enemy is set in a contemporary but dystopic-looking Toronto. Skyline scans are tinted a murky sepia tone; Brutalist concrete architecture is featured; spiders and their webs are a recurring theme. (Note: there are no spiders in the Saramago book.) Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a college history professor who we see teaching about dictatorships and totalarianism. By chance he sees an actor who looks exactly like him on a DVD he’s watching. He researches the actor and finds out his name and address from a production company. When he goes to the actor’s agency to find out more about him, the security guard thinks he’s the actor. When he calls the actor’s home, his wife mistakes Adam’s voice for her husband’s.

Now believing that he really has a double, Adam contacts Anthony; eventually they get together and discover they are identical, even to scars, moles and birthdays. I will not tell you the rest of the plot, but Anthony and Adam’s girlfriend are killed in a car accident. It may be that Adam will take over Anthony’s life, or at least his wife invites him to do that. The film has a scary and bizarre ending. The book’s ending, in which a third double phones Adam to request a meeting, was also quite intriguing.

In The Double, Jesse Eisenberg is Simon James, a minor functionary in a government bureaucracy set in an indeterminate time and place. The locations and exteriors are Kafkaesque, and seem to be in an industrial European city. Office and computer equipment looks like it’s from the 1950s or ‘60s. One day a new employee joins the department and the director, played by Wallace Shawn, thinks he will be the best employee ever. His name is James Simon and he is identical to Simon James, which no one else seems to notice. James, however, is brash and charismatic, whereas Simon is timid and bumbling. (Mood, setting, plot and characters follow the Dostoyevsky story closely.)

Although Simon befriends James, the latter gradually takes over Simon’s life, his job, his love interest (Mia Wasikowska), even his apartment. The ending suggests that James is Simon’s alternate self, and he has to dispose of him. The film’s ending is somewhat ambiguous and different from Dostoyevsky’s more defined ending.

Both films are well done; I would rate both as three stars out of four. Both Gyllenhaal and Eisenberg do excellent jobs of being the same person, but not quite. They do appear together in the same scenes but usually not together in the same scene with a third person. The film group had a spirited argument about self and identity and whether Adam/Anthony and Simon/James were “one bifurcated psyche,” as Gyllenhaal says in an interview. (I agreed about Simon/James but not about Adam/Anthony. I chose to suspend disbelief and accept that there could be an exact duplicate or doppelgänger.)

Film group members suggested other fine movies that deal with duality/identity/doubles, such as Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, 2002), Mullholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991). In a 2013 film, The Face Of Love (Arle Posin), a widow falls in love with a man who seems to be her late husband’s double.

There have been several articles recently on the current interest in doubles or doppelgängers. I particularly like this quote from a Slate article: “Any story constructed around the theme of the double—one of the most ancient in literature, which plays on the human fascination with identity and belonging, repetition and uniqueness—lives and dies by its ending.” Here we have four works of art, two on page and two on screen, and four endings.

Saramago’s novel and Villeneuve’s film open with this statement:

“Chaos is order waiting to be deciphered.”

After seeing both films and rereading both books, I would say chaos still waits to be deciphered. And that’s what makes life intriguing. There’s a surprise around every corner.

 

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A long tragic Sunday—Binge theater

It was a sunny warm summer Sunday, and a holiday weekend. Most people would spend their time outside, hiking, biking, on the beach, at a family picnic. I spent 12 hours inside a mostly darkened theater, having one of the most captivating theatrical experiences of my life.

 All Our Tragic at The Hypocrites

Yes, it was my All Our Tragic binge day at The Hypocrites. Some people binge on Orange Is the New Black. I’ve binged on three plays a day at theater festivals and at the six-hour production of Gatz, a reading of The Great Gatsby. This time I binged on 12 hours of Greek tragedy, including uncounted beheadings, stabbings, poisonings, horse stompings and ritual sacrifice. It was exhilarating.

(Actually, Chicago Magazine did total them. See the Death by Numbers chart. There were 63 murders and gallons of blood.)

If you consume or read about theater, you know that All Our Tragic is the latest production created by the very creative and passionate Sean Graney, founder and former artistic director of The Hypocrites. All Our Tragic is actually a four-act play adapted from all 32 surviving Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Graney has mashed them up into four parts titled Physics, Politics, Patriotics and Poetics.

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All Our Tragic is tragic, yes, and involves lots of murders, yes, and blood, yes. But it’s also a bit loopy, with marvelously crazy costumes, lots of pop culture references, and anachronistic musical interludes by the Odd Jobs. Three women (sort of the chorus in a Greek play) dressed as waiters, maids or nurses, play stringed instruments and sing songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah,” and “Hard Times.”

There are some excellent performances among the cast of 23 (14 actors, 3 Odd Jobs, and six Neo-Titans or fighters). Walter Briggs goes from wide-eyed innocent Herakles to general and king Agamemnon. The talented and versatile Zeke Sulkes plays Aegeus, the king with goat feet, as well as Kreon and others. Luce Metrius is really fine as Jason and Achilles. Christine Stulik, Erin Barlow and Dana Omar stand out among the seven sisters (think of the Pleiades) armed with lethal umbrellas.

Those should be familiar characters, even if you haven’t seen many classic Greek plays. You’ll remember these stories from reading about Greek mythology and Greek heroes. (Herakles carries an illustrated book of the Greek heroes because he wants to be one.)

It’s really only nine hours of theater, broken up with intermissions and food breaks. The show is the first production at The Hypocrites’ new space on Milwaukee Avenue at street level below the Den Theatre. You don’t need to leave the theater because snacks are served at all breaks with lunch and dinner meal breaks. Coffee, water and a cash bar are available. The food is vegan, Middle Eastern and delicious. Dinner break is an hour and there are many restaurants nearby, in case you want to leave the theater.

The Greek marathon goes on from 11am to 11pm Saturdays and Sundays through October 5. You can also see each play separately on Friday nights and some Mondays. But the immersive experience is mesmerizing and worth giving up a day of your life. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t fully engaged. I was never bored or checking the time on my smartphone. The full house audience Sunday also came to stay and be fascinated by the Hypocrites’ tragic bash.

This post is sort of a wandering commentary about what it’s like to spend a long tragic Sunday with The Hypocrites. I haven’t tried to write this as a review because there have been plenty of those already, including this amazing one by two of my Gapers Block colleagues, who did team coverage of All Our Tragic.

My rating for All Our Tragic: 4 stars.

My Name Is Asher Lev at Timeline Theatre

GB-AsherLevThis weekend I also saw and reviewed the excellent new Timeline play, My Name Is Asher Lev, at Stage 773 on Belmont. This is the story about the young Hasidic man in Brooklyn who is torn between his family and religion and his passion to be a painter. The play is written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the best-selling 1972 novel about the Brooklyn Hasidic community by author and rabbi Chaim Potok.

Director Kimberly Senior has done a terrific job of working with the three actors, two of whom play many parts, and creating a strong and compelling whole. Here’s my review in Gapers Block.

My rating for My Name Is Asher Lev: 4 stars.

 

Suggestion for theater-lovers 

 See the Theatre in Chicago website for compilations of current plays. It’s a great resource.

 

 

 

 


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