Chaos to classics: Theater mini-reviews

These days I’m doing most of my writing over at Third Coast Review. Check out our new site if you haven’t been there lately and sign up for our weekly newsletter (in the lefthand column) or the new-post feed (below the Events column on the right). We have lots of good content on the Chicago arts and culture scene. Even though I’m spending a lot of time as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review, I intend to maintain Nancy Bishop’s Journal as my personal blog, so forgive my occasional delays in posting. Today I want to tell you about some terrific theater that’s going on in Chicago right now–and a few that I want to remember.

Arcadia at Writers Theatre thru May 1

3CR-arcadia-oldTom Stoppard’s masterpiece of conversation and complexity about chaos theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem and English gardens. The play is an excellent choice for Writers to open their new theater venue in Glencoe, designed by Studio Gang Architects. My review comments: “Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that tracks characters from two eras, sometimes in the same scene at the same time, is a complex play interlaced with many intellectual games. The story, not a linear narrative, involves the clash between the rational and the romantic in art and science, as well as in life. Also important is the design of gardens, specifically the gardens of Sidley Park, the country house in Derbyshire, where the play is set.”

The new theater is stunning on the outside but disappointingly bland inside. That may change as more funds are spent on its completion. The main theater space is much larger than the previous venue and has excellent sightlines. But there was one problem. Several people I’ve talked to who attended the opening or another performance complained, as I did, about acoustics. When actors were performing with their backs to us, it was often difficult to hear them. It’s not clear whether this is a problem with the actors, which the director can address, or the acoustics of the venue itself.

The Life of Galileo at  Remy Bumppo Theatre thru May 1

Another intellectual tour de force, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is set in the past but foretells the contemporary debates over faith and science. Shawn Douglass, who plays Galileo, my review notes, “convinces us he is a real man of pluses and minuses, not a cardboard historical figure. We live with him through the wrenching changes in his life, through his delight at making discoveries and teaching about them, his conflicts with the church about the Ptolemaic vs. Copernican views of the universe; and his miseries as an underpaid teacher. Most painfully, we watch him recant his beliefs in scientific truth so that he can continue his work, even though circumscribed by the edicts of the church. (He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest.)”

It’s beautifully acted, staged and directed, I highly recommend this Remy Bumppo production.

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf Theatre thru May 29

This new play by Tracy Letts explores the life of one sort-of ordinary woman by showing scenes from her life played by six different actors. Letts’ concept is based on the fact that each of us sees ourselves as different people throughout our lives. My review is not quite finished but I’ll add a link here when it’s posted over at

Updated 4/20: My review of Mary Page Marlowe is live now. My summary is not as positive as most others. I gave it a “somewhat recommended” on The play is well written with smart dialogue; many of the 11 scenes are successful. But the parts don’t add up to a gesamtkunstwerk, as my German-born art history professor used to say. It’s not a coherent, successful total work of art. It’s still worth seeing, however, because a Tracy Letts play is always worth seeing. I still can’t help it wonder if it would have worked better with a single actor playing the adult versions of MPM. If you see it, tell me what you think..

New Country by Fair Trade Productions at The Den Theatre thru May 14 

3CR-newcountry-justin,unclejimNot a classic theater masterpiece, but a helluva lot of fun, this fast-paced comedy shows us a few hours in the life of a famous country music star and his retinue. To quote my review:  “The play is set in a Nashville hotel room on the night of the bachelor party for country music star Justin (played by Michael Monroe Goodman, a musician-actor who starred in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire, and in Million Dollar Quartet). Justin is young, successful and arrogant and he doesn’t hesitate to let his managers know who’s boss. His beloved pig-farmer Uncle Jim arrives to join the celebration, full of country jokes, and accompanied by his blow-up sex toy, Wanda June.” You dan see whe this is going.

Blood Wedding at Lookingglass Theatre thru April 24

Director Daniel Ostling’s staging of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play has a few good performances but overall the production does not capture the mood that I think Lorca intended. This is partly because, as my review notes, “The original setting for Lorca’s script is rural Spain and his characters include mysterious figures such as the Moon and Death. Ostling’s decision to set his production in the more-realistic Depression-era U.S. diminishes the mythic nature of Lorca’s story. The subdued presentation, quite different from Lookingglass’ usual physical dramas, does not redeem it.” Nevertheless, this play is not often produced, so if you like Lorca’s writing, you still have a weekend to catch this show.

Gone, but not forgotten:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Court Theatre

3CR-LongDay-FisherYulinEugene O’Neill wrote this sad and beautiful drama, modeled after his own family drama, in the 1940s but it was not published or produced until after his death in 1953. My review commented: “If O’Neill is the master of dysfunctional family plays, then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterpiece of the genre. Recognized as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, the play won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1957.” The Court production was beautifully acted and staged. Mary Beth Fisher and Harris Yulin played Mr. and Mrs. Tyrone. If you attended, your 3.5 hours was well spent theater time.

In a Little World of Our Own by Irish Theatre

The Gary Mitchell script is a political thriller, a day and night in the life of a Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The play is set in the late 1990s, just before the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, when an uneasy peace reigned in Belfast. Behind the family drama of three brothers is the political story of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) fighters against the advocates of nonviolence. Matthew Isler gave an outstanding performance as a UDA hard man, always ready for a fight.

A Loss of Roses at Raven Theatre

William Inge’s play is not as  sensually exciting as Picnic or as emotionally riveting as Come Back, Little Sheba, but the playwright does have a way of writing about solitary female characters. Raven’s production was well acted and directed, a quiet story of small town America in the 1930s, as my review said.

All photos courtesy of the respective theater companies.

One Comment on “Chaos to classics: Theater mini-reviews”

  1. melindapower says:

    Thanks for the comments. I saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Painful to watch, and I’m glad I did and I agree the production was great, but I don’t think I will see it again. I saw the Galileo production at the Goodman before they moved with Brian Dennehy (sp). One of the best plays I’ve ever seen.


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