My latest theater review is a book review, not a stage production. Author Alexis Greene, who has written many works on theater, has published a fascinating and well-researched book on Emily Mann, director and playwright. Born in Boston, Mann grew up in Chicago, where her historian father was on the faculty at the University of Chicago. It was there, as a student at the UofC Lab School, that young Emily learned to love theater, which consumed her life from that time on.
Her achievements as a playwright are most notable. Her “theater of testimony,” based on real-life events and extensive interviews with participants, as well as mountains of other research on those stories, has become an important theater genre. Many of her works have been produced in Chicago; my review notes many of them, including those I have reviewed.
Mann began her directing career at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1970s. I lived in western Wisconsin during those years and my husband and I were subscribers and fans of the Guthrie, but I was unaware that the Guthrie was a highly patriarchal organization. Very few plays by women had ever been produced there and Mann was the first woman to direct a play on the Guthrie mainstage. Greene’s description of this phase of Mann’s work includes the anecdote of an artistic director pushing Mann up against a wall and telling her she really wanted to be a housewife, not a director.
See my full review of Greene’s book.
The Danish prince and I go way back. As I was writing a review of a moving and well-acted performance of that great play last week, I started thinking about all the varieties of Hamlet that I have seen over decades of theater-going.
I saw college productions—and I read Hamlet in a memorable Shakespeare course at one of my alma maters, Harvard on the Rocks—the two-year University of Illinois in Chicago at Navy Pier. (Later it became a four-year university and moved to its current campus.)
The first Hamlet production that I remember vividly was during the 1963 opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We lived then in western Wisconsin and splurged to subscribe to the Guthrie for a number of seasons, until we moved to Illinois in 1969. That first season opened in the new semi-arena theater, directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. George Grizzard was featured as Hamlet. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was played by Jessica Tandy. Horatio, his loyal friend, was played by Graham Brown, a Black actor and original member of the Negro Ensemble Company. That was 58 years ago and that casting was not considered remarkable.
Done in modern dress and “despite the tennis rackets and umbrellas,“ Guthrie’s version was, in critic Dan Sullivan’s view, “in the best, nonacademic sense of the word, a traditional performance.” And it was memorable for a young theatergoer.
Since then, I’ve seen many Hamlets, both memorable and not-so memorable. These are some of the memorable ones.
The Wisdom Bridge production directed by Robert Falls, starring Aidan Quinn, was remounted at the Civic Opera Theatre in 1985. Falls’ Hamlet opened at Wisdom Bridge’s Evanston theater and moved downtown for a briefer second run. The production was notable for its modernistic touches, such as the use of technology and Quinn’s Hamlet spraying “To be or not to be” as graffiti on a wall. The late Del Close, a Chicago comedy icon, played Polonius.
The Stratford Festival in Canada staged Hamlet in 1994 in the arena-like theater space it used then for its more modestly staged productions. It was done in modern dress in a starkly minimalist style.
Kenneth Branagh’s filmed Hamlet in 1997 was screened at the now departed Fine Arts Theatre. Filmed on 70mm stock, it was the only complete Hamlet ever filmed and ran four hours with an intermission. It was set in the 19th century and was otherwise a traditional take on Hamlet.
At the Public Theater’s Newman Theater in New York in January 2000, director Andrei Serhan staged a controversial production, which included Hamlet over-imbibing and vomiting on stage. Liev Schreiber was a really effective Hamlet, because of or despite the director. I was sitting in an aisle seat midway up in the sharply raked theater. The most thrilling moment during the whole play came when Schreiber, meandering up the theater steps, sat down on the stair next to me to deliver a monologue. I didn’t breathe for a few minutes.
Another Hamlet film in 2000, directed by Michael Almereyda, didn’t win as much praise as Branagh’s did. But I liked the director’s concept and staging. Ethan Hawke played Hamlet, a film student; I remember him wearing a knit cap in many scenes. The setting is modern-day Manhattan and the battle is over the Denmark Corp., taken over by Hamlet’s uncle after doing away with his brother. Hotel Elsinore is the castle.
Court Theatre produced what director Charles Newell called an experimental Hamlet in February 2002 with Guy Adkins playing Hamlet. It was an odd and minimalist production with some quirky staging and design choices. Newell made major cuts in the script; running time was about half the full length.
Writers Theatre staged Hamlet at its Tudor Court space in 2012 with Scott Parkinson as Hamlet. Parkinson always seemed to me to fully inhabit his roles and he was stunning as the Dane in this modernist production.
The Gift Theatre, a tiny storefront in Jefferson Park, staged a stripped-down version of Hamlet in 2018, directed by Monty Cole. The production has “suggestions of classic elegance but contemporary hipster dress and props,” I wrote. Cole focused on Shakespeare’s language in his interpretation of the play.
Chicago Shakespeare produced Hamlet in May 2019. It was a beautifully acted and staged modern-dress Hamlet. Along with a fine cast, Larry Yando played Polonius. Any play where you get to see Larry Yando is worth seeing.
Invictus Theatre, fall 2021. This terrific storefront production was the one that that got me started writing about my Hamlet journey.
What is it about Hamlet that makes this play so endlessly fascinating? Shakespeare wrote many other interesting plays—tragedies, comedies and history plays—that a theater fan can love. Hamlet is special because of the character himself. He is, as the late literary scholar Harold Bloom described, one of the first self-aware theatrical characters. Hamlet and the Falstaff of Henry IV, Bloom said, are the invention of the human, “the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.” Their “inwardness becomes the heart of light and of darkness” in ways that were more radical than any found in literature before Shakespeare. Bloom also observed that Hamlet was as ancient and important a hero as Achilles or Oedipus.
Not all today’s literary scholars agree with Bloom, of course. He was too dismissive of the need for diversity and moving beyond the Western canon of literature created by white men. But he deserves to be valued for his intense and thoughtful consideration of Shakespeare, in particular in his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he considers all 38 of the Bard’s plays and names 24 of them as masterpieces. In 2003, Bloom published Hamlet: A Poem Unlimited, in which he updated some of his observations on Hamlet from his Invention of the Human book.
That’s eleven Hamlets that I can remember and a lot of reading about Hamlet. In addition to Harold Bloom, I mentioned two interesting fictional takes on Hamlet in my recent review. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of William Shakespeare’s family and his son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11, most likely from the bubonic plague. Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, is told from a more peculiar viewpoint: that of the fetus in Gertrude’s (Trudy’s) womb as she and her husband’s brother Claude plot a murder. Nutshell is short and mischievously clever.
Now I can only sit back and wonder: When and where will my next Hamlet be? And what creative techniques and concepts will the next director use to shed new light on this immortal story?
This week I had a chance to revisit the most spectacular theater experience I’ve ever had. It took place on a weekend in February 2007. Over the course of two days, I saw all nine hours of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy on 19th century Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries. My New York friend Patricia and I hung around the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and visited neighborhood cafes in between going to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for many glorious hours of theater. This week Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated that monumental theatrical achievement.
I flew to New York after work on Friday and met Patricia for an early lunch on Saturday, saw Voyage, part one, then had an early dinner and saw Shipwreck, part 2. On Sunday, we saw a matinee of Salvage, part 3. We had a final dinner, at which we both were almost too exhausted to talk. I had bought copies of the scripts and read Voyage on the way home on Monday morning. I saved the playbill on my bookshelf along with the three volumes of scripts.
The trilogy was also done as a marathon on a few Saturdays when you could see all three plays in one day, from 11am to 11pm.
I’ve never forgotten that weekend and like most memorable theater experiences, the visuals are imprinted in my brain, to be brought out when some tangential memory nudges them. That’s what happened this week.
Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated the 14th anniversary of The Coast of Utopia’s U.S. premiere in November 2006 with a virtual discussion that was open to theater fans. Director Jack O’Brien, four cast members—and—in person from London—the playwright himself. I was on a Zoom call with Tom Stoppard! No, he didn’t know I was there—only the participants were on the Zoom screen. But it was an exhilarating moment.
The play has more than 70 characters, performed by 40 actors in the New York production. The cast size and complexity of the story explain why this magnificent historical work has been produced only three times: in London in 2002, in New York in 2006-07, Moscow in 2007 and Tokyo in 2009. (This article describes the daunting nature of the production.)
Scenic design for the trilogy was by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask with costumes by Catherine Zuber. The gorgeous musical score, very much like a film score, was by Michael Bennett.
The actors participating in the discussion were Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, who played Liubov and Varenka Bakunin, two sisters, in Voyage; Ethan Hawke, as their brother Michael Bakunin, a writer and student of philosophy; and Billy Crudup, who played Vissarion Belinsky, a noted literary critic and radical.
The actors discussed the production experience, which involved a year’s commitment, starting with nine months of rehearsal. (The typical rehearsal time for a modern play is four to six weeks). Cast members prepared by studying Russian history and literature and four of the actors (including Plimpton) made a trip to Russia. “We did endless research…. We had books, piles of books, and notebooks where we noted reactions and questions,” one of the actors commented.
Before seeing The Coast of Utopia, I had been preparing too by reading Russian history and cultural history (Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin and Karl Marx are among the characters in Utopia). Many of the characters, including Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, are drawn from history. The play’s title comes from a chapter in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s book, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1959), which is on my to-be-read list.
The cast compared the production—especially the occasional Saturday marathon performances—like going to camp. Meals were brought in and there were dressing rooms available for naps, Plimpton said. The intense rehearsal and performance schedule meant they spent almost all of their waking hours together at Lincoln Center Theaters for a year.
One experience they all vividly remembered was when actor Richard Easton, who played Alexander Bakunin, the father of the Bakunin siblings, “died on stage” for seven minutes. It wasn’t part of the script, but the audience didn’t realize that at first. During a preview performance, Easton spoke a final line (it was “That is my last word” after an argument with Michael) and started to exit, only to crumple in a heap at side stage. He had a heart attack. When Hawke realized that the fall was serious, he asked the audience the classic question, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But a stagehand performed CPR. Easton was revived in the ambulance and underwent a procedure to fix a heart arrhythmia. The opening date was briefly delayed because Easton’s character was a pivotal part of Voyage.
Hawke remembered that Easton asked him to come to his hospital room to run lines. After that, Hawke said, “we were all in service to something larger than ourselves.”
The play begins in a Chekhovian way; Voyage is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin country estate 150 miles northwest of Moscow. The sisters and brother Michael all long to escape to the city. At one point, in the middle of Voyage, Michael, who is in Berlin studying philosophy and translating a history, is asked to come back to the estate because Alexander wants him to study “agriculture,” for which he has no fondness.
The storyline concerns philosophical and literary debates in pre-revolutionary Russia (and in Berlin and Paris) between 1833 and 1866. The actual Russian revolution, of course, was another half century in the future, but that didn’t hinder discussions about liberty and censorship. Shipwreck takes place in Russia, then in Germany and France; and Salvage is set among the intellectual and revolutionary community in Paris.
The most important character in the radical/intellectual theme is Alexander Herzen, who Stoppard defines as a “would-be revolutionary,” but is an important historical figure. One of the most moving scenes in Shipwreck is about an actual shipwreck on which Herzen’s young son, Kolya, was lost. His wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her mother-in-law who has taken her grandson Kolya on a trip to Paris. The scene where Herzen has to tell Natalie, his wife, that Kolya is not returning, is devastating.
Stoppard was asked what inspired him to write on the subject of the Russian intellectuals and radicals. He said he was moved by the status of the critic Belinsky in Paris, “where you could write anything you wanted and no one cared” whereas in Russia, “one could only read work like this at midnight.”
Stoppard was also asked when he knew he was writing three plays. It happened when I was writing the first, he said. And commenting on his own experience working with the Lincoln Center Theaters team, that nine months “was the most binding and bonding theater I’ve ever done.”
An audience member asked Stoppard whether we can learn anything for today from his work on radicals and revolutionaries. He responded that the strongest ideas in The Coast of Utopia are about families. That is the case also in his latest play, Leopoldstadt, about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna going through another type of wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. The family had escaped the pogroms in the East but the fates of the generations are impacted by communism and fascism over the years.
I recently read the script of Leopoldstadt (I had to draw a family tree chart to keep track of the family branches). So far it has been produced only in London in January 2020. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it most likely would be on stage in New York by now and scheduled for Chicago in a coming season. It is a profound and moving play with nearly 40 characters over distinct time periods from December 1899 to 1955. I look forward to seeing Leopoldstadt performed on stage, perhaps in 2022.
Near the end of the discussion, director O’Brien summed up our mutual yearning for an end to our life of physical distancing. “Here’s what the theater does. You have to be there…. You’re in a room of people who are giving their heart and soul to you. We have survived pandemics since Aeschylus and we’ll survive this.”
Update: You can now watch The Coast of Utopia discussion on YouTube but only through January 10.
This article was previously posted in Third Coast Review.
The House Theatre of Chicago just opened a new play that I have to recommend to my music-loving friends. It’s Verböten, the story of a kid punk band from Evanston, and how they managed to play a gig at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville in 1983. They all had family problems of one kind or another and found another family with their bandmates. Jason Narducy started the band at the age of 11. He and his friends rehearsed in the basement of a friend’s house. A year later, they played at the Cubby Bear–and there’s a grainy old video to prove it.
Narducy wrote music and lyrics for the play with the book by Brett Neveu, a well-known Chicago playwright. Narducy has been a musician ever since, playing with Liz Phair and Telekinesis. Today he plays bass with the Bob Mould Band and SuperChunk and fronts Split Single, a b and that has made two albums with a rotating cast of musicians.
You can see Verböten by House Theatre at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., through March 8. Tickets are $30-$50 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Student and industry same-day discounted tickets are $20, for all dates, based on availability.
Here’s my full review of the play at Third Cōoast Review.
My New York month is coming to an end—just one more week and I’ll be heading home. Mixed feelings, because I always love going home. And there is certainly lots of arts and culture to consume and review in Chicago. But there’s a certain something about New York. No other city can match it. So I hope to do this again in a year or two. Here’s what I’ve been doing since I last posted here.
Among the plays I’ve seen recently are three that I’ve reviewed for Third Coast Review.
Theater Highlights, Part 2
Sam Shepard’s True West, starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as the battling brothers, was a pleasure to see again with another set of players. I’ve seen this play many times–first in 1982, when Steppenwolf staged it with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise playing the lead roles. This New York production at the American Airlines Theatre was excellent—and I took a different theme from it this time. The American dream, perhaps exemplified by one brother’s hard work at developing and writing a screenplay, is turned on its head. His drifter brother manages to bullshit his way into a film contract by making up a story as he talks with a film producer. And, of course, it all ends in a battle of…toasters and toast.
Juno and the Paycock at Irish Repertory Theatre is the second in its Sean O’Casey season. This is the best known of the three plays and Irish Rep stages a terrific production, led by the theater’s co-founder, Ciarán O’Reilly, as the ne’er do well Captain Jack Boyle. The play is beautifully cast, mostly with Irish Rep regulars, and succeeds in threading the tragedy of the Irish Civil War beneath the humor and occasional sadness of a Dublin family.
King Lear (Cort Theatre on Broadway) starring Glenda Jackson as Lear was a highlight of my New York month. I saw the play in preview, since it won’t open until April 4. Therefore I can’t review it now, but will write a review later. I can say now that it is a four-star production; not only is Jackson a solid and satisfying Lear, but the cast is diverse and the staging and direction (by Sam Gold) are brilliant.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare’s newest play, is a world premiere being staged by Lincoln Center Theaters in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. My review was just posted today. The play is a farce, with lots of laugh lines, but it is a strange mix of reality and surrealism, laced with more pop culture references than I could keep track of. It’s an updated version of an earlier play, as I mention in my review, but I think it’s still not ready for prime time.
A unique theater resource in New York is the Theatre on Film and Tape archive (TOFT) at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (adjacent to the Lincoln Center theater building). TOFT records many of the plays and musicals produced on Broadway and off-Broadway. The archive is available to theater professionals, students or researchers with work- or study-related projects. You request viewing of a play by locating it on the TOFT website and calling to sign up for a viewing appointment. When you arrive, the films are cued up on a computer in the archive’s screening room. I’ve watched several plays there on two different occasions, including the 1988 and 2009 productions of Waiting for Godot. I’m hoping to get there once more this week.
Art at the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design
One of the important art exhibits on view in New York right now is Andy Warhol–from A to B and Back Again at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I saw a preview of the exhibit last fall, just before it opened, and I was happy to be here in time to see the exhibit before it closes March 31. It’s a huge exhibit, a retrospective of Warhol’s life in art, film and pop culture generally, beginning with his childhood in Pittsburgh. The exhibit will transfer to the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, with an October opening planned. Here’s my review of the Whitney exhibit.
The Museum of Arts and Design is a small museum located at 2 Columbus Circle, near 58th and Broadway. I particularly liked the exhibit titled The Future of Craft, Part One, on the third floor. The exhibit features many beautiful works in fabric art, both decorative and (sort of) wearable. On the second floor, there’s an exhibit of contemporary jewelry, titled Non-Stick Nostalgia. It’s all exquisitely displayed in unusual cases.
A special feature of the museum is the restaurant Robert on the ninth (and top) floor of the building. The restaurant has great views looking north toward Central Park and the upper west side. The food and service are excellent. We had a delightful brunch there on a Sunday.
This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.
The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep
My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.
I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.
I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.
Cold War, a love story over the decades
The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.) They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.
In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”
The Band’s Visit
I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.
And more ….
Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.
Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known play didn’t get a very good review from Clive Barnes when it opened off-off Broadway in 1970. But the legendary New York Times reviewer called it “inspired idiocy” and said “There was not much I found to admire in the play, but a surprising amount to love.” Happy Birthday, Wanda June isn’t performed very often. The last evidence I can find of its staging in Chicago was a 1991 production by a company called Bad Rep Theater Company. But I had the good fortune to find it playing last week at an off-Broadway venue near Times Square called the Duke on 42nd Street. Actually, I was there before, in 2004, when Chicago Shakes transferred its bloody Rose Rage (an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, V and VI condensed and staged in a Victorian slaughterhouse) to the Duke.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a wacky satire on American culture and our obsessions with guns and warfare. Vonnegut was inspired to write it after rereading Homer’s Odyssey during a Great Books series. His first 1960 version was titled Penelope and he rewrote it years later with the title Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The title character appears only in dream sequences; she’s in heaven playing shuffleboard, having been run over by an ice cream truck.
While I was writing my review, I remembered a play called Penelope that riffed on the same story (warrior comes home from the wars after many years; finds his wife’s suitors hanging around) staged by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012. The play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and directed by Amy Morton was memorably manic. The four suitors, hanging around an empty swimming pool, all clad in Speedos (which should never be worn by men over 18), were four notable Chicago actors: Scott Jaeck, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts and Ian Barford.
Through the magic of their plots, characters and language, Mr. Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights and poets remain bristlingly relevant. And so does Vonnegut. I recently reread and reviewed his early novel, Player Piano, a story about a society in which humanity had become superfluous. And although Wanda June is hardly a perfect play, you will find it rousingly roisterous and more than a little relevant. Here’s part of my review of Wanda June, which you can read in its entirety over on Third Coast Review.
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If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut reader, Happy Birthday, Wanda June will sound familiar. I was sure I had read it long ago when I was devouring everything he wrote. But no, I never read Wanda June. It’s not a novel; it’s one of Vonnegut’s short list of plays and the only one most people have heard of, because it also was a 1971 film.
But if you’re in New York, or can get there by November 29, you have the chance to see this wacky dark satire of American culture and America’s propensity for war and death, filtered through Vonnegut’s mad genius lens. Wheelhouse Theater Company is presenting Wanda June, smartly directed by Jeffrey Wise, at the Duke on 42nd Street, a cozy compact theater venue tucked in among the Times Square chaos.
Et cetera. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.
Please read the full review here.
Spring Green is an arts center in nearby south central Wisconsin that’s easily accessible to Chicagoans interested in theater and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In a long weekend, you can see classic theater at the American Players Theatre (APT) on a hilltop in Spring Green and tour Taliesin, the home, studio and school built, rebuilt and rebuilt again by Frank Lloyd Wright, his apprentices and family. (This article was previously posted at thirdcoastreview.com.)
I was in Spring Green last week for the annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association and, as is our custom, we crammed as many plays as possible into the four-plus days. The conference was expertly organized by Madison ATCA members. Discussions included association-focused business plus panels and speakers on topics such as producing period comedy today, racial equity in theater, podcasting and legal/ethical issues in criticism. We also spent an afternoon on a private tour of Taliesin. First, a recap of some of the plays we saw. There are many theater connections between Chicago and APT, as you might imagine.
American Players Theatre
At the Hill Theatre, you’re seated in a natural bowl on the hillside. To reach it from parking and picnic grounds below, you walk up a hill through the woods on a gravel path. There’s also shuttle service to the hilltop. Your theater companions are hordes of mosquitoes, so the theater sets up “spray stations” around the grounds.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Set in 1870, As You Like Itis a totally delightful and quite traditional rendition of this happy-ending play, directed by James Bohnen. (Bohnen was longtime artistic director and cofounder of Remy Bumppo Theatre. He now also runs Arcadia Books in Spring Green, a fine indie bookstore and cafe.) Melisa Pereyra is a charming Rosalind and her friend Celia (Andrea San Miguel), her admirable sidekick. After Rosalind is banished by Duke Frederick, she and Celia head to the forest of Arden in disguise. Many scenes and many characters later, disguises are removed and several couples are happily joined in marriage.
An interesting casting choice is Chicago actor Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques (a role usually played by a male). At the end, Madame Jaques declines to return to court and makes her own way. During a later discussion, someone suggested that Madame Jaques represents one of those 19th century woman travelers. (As dramatized in the play On the Verge or the Geography of Learning by Eric Overmyer.)
The settings on the Hill Theatre stage are simple and built on the gray frame structure that holds the theater’s sound and lighting equipment. (Actors in Hill Theatre are never amplified because the company prefers natural sound. Thus the company doesn’t stage musicals.)
Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin
You probably know the story of Billie Dawn, the “dizzy blonde” who really isn’t, and her thuggish boyfriend. Remy Bumppo Theatre staged an excellent version in 2017. APT’s production brightened our Saturday night, starring Colleen Madden as Billie, David Daniel as Harry Brock and Reese Madigan as Paul Verrall, the journalist who becomes Billie’s tutor and more. Direction by APT artistic director Brenda DeVita was spot-on and each actor kept the pace and the sparkling dialogue.
Set in a luxury suite in Washington DC in 1946, Nathan Stuber’s scenic design adds black and metallic art deco ornament and furnishings to the Hill Theatre backdrop. Fabio Roblini’s costume designs, especially for Billie, are exquisite and timeless.
Haven’t seen Born Yesterday lately? Get a DVD of the 1950 film, starring Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford. Holliday won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance.
At the Touchstone Theatre.The Touchstone, opened in 2009, is located about halfway up the hill and it’s enclosed, air-conditioned and sans mosquitoes. Both venues have raked seating, so sightlines are excellent no matter where your seat is.
Blood Knot by Athol Fugard
Fugard’s 1961 play, set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during apartheid, tells the story of two brothers who live together in a shack in the “colored” section. They have the same mother but different fathers. Zachariah (Gavin Lawrence) works for an oppressive white boss and comes home each evening to soak his aching feet and eat a meal prepared by his at-home brother, Morris (Jim DeVita). Zach is dark-skinned and Morris is a light-skinned man who can “pass” for white and apparently has in the past. Chicago’s Ron OJ Parson directs this slow-burner of a play. Act one sets up the story of Zach’s desire to meet a woman and Morris helps him meet a newspaper “pen pal.” (Yes, that’s how people met before OKCupid and Tinder.)
The pen pal sends her photo (she is a white woman) and later says she plans to visit Port Elizabeth and wants to meet Zach. The two brothers, who have engaged in role-playing games since they were children, embark on a plan. In act two, the games ratchet up to an explosive level. This is a intense play about an era of a different sort of racism than the racism we live with now.
Both actors deliver powerful performances, but there has been controversy over the casting. In early productions of the play, Fugard, who is white, played Morris. And DeVita is white. The optics of the casting selection are tainted because it was made by his wife, artistic director Brenda DeVita. Director Parson came on later but apparently he concurs with the decision.
The controversy is addressed in this article in American Theatre magazine. These questions of representation and appropriation have been roiling the theater world recently. APT has decided to expand the conversation with a special “pay what you like” performance of Blood Knotat 12noon on Sunday, August 12. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion to explore the issues in the play, including the casting.
Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco
Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist play is the story of King Berenger (APT veteran James Ridge), who is told by his first wife, Queen Marguerite, and his doctor that he has only hours to live. His current wife, Queen Marie (the lovely Cassia Thompson) does everything she can to keep him alive. His kingdom is crumbling around him, he has lost all his powers, the birth rate is zero, and by the way, he’s 400 years old. The Doctor (James Pribyl) tells the king, “In three days you lost all the wars you ever won.” Every action in the play is announced by the Guard (Chicago actor Casey Hoekstra), usually to ridiculous extremes.
Marguerite is played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, who also plays Jaques in As You Like It. Arnold and Thompson are both beguiling in their parts but I thought Ridge’s characterization was weak. (We saw him again that night in Born Yesterday, where he plays Senator Hedges.) Exit the King (the only APT production we saw that runs under two hours) is a witty and moving meditation on death and mortality. APT’s production is uneven, but worth seeing if you visit Spring Green.
Our three-hour tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate included his former home, studio and school. (More info below about tour options, prices, etc.) I was in two different groups for the tour—first of the Hillside School, Studio and Theater and second of the house known as Taliesin 3. The two groups were led by capable and knowledgeable docents Kyle Adams and Jill McDermott.
The school was built in 1902 to replace the one his aunts had built in 1887. The building features the Assembly Hall, a typically spacious Wright area with a high ceiling, dark and light contrasts in the woodwork and ceiling framing. Built-in furniture pieces were added later. The Drafting Room, in use today by architects and apprentices, has an interesting striped wood flooring, left over from FLW’s design for the Johnson family Racine house, Wingspread.
In the theater, Taliesin’s apprentices and staff would perform plays, musical and literary events and view performances by guests. The colorful theater curtain was designed by Wright and made by the apprentices.
The original house was mostly destroyed by the 1914 fire, an event that included the murders of Wright’s lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney (both had left their spouses to be together), and her children, by a Taliesin workman. Later fires destroyed parts of the house, thus the terminology, Taliesin 3. Half of the extensive house was built for agricultural purposes and functioned originally as animal sheds. The house features many FLW touches, such as bands of windows that frame the grand view of the rolling hills, river and countryside. At one point, the Wisconsin electric company installed electric poles and lines across the land. Wright was incensed and demanded they be removed, because they spoiled his view. (They were eventually replaced by underground wiring.)
Want to learn more? If you’re interested in learning more about the development and history of Taliesin, there are many FLW biographies, of course. But I recommend The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman (2006, Harper Collins, 690pp). The authors, a sociologist and an architect, tracked down and interviewed dozens of the apprentices who worked with Wright at Taliesin. Their stories are epic but detailed in the everyday activities, tragedies and scandals at Taliesin, where Wright, a genius, egotist, misogynist, racist and anti-Semite, ruled with an iron hand. He couldn’t manage money and was greatly influenced by his third wife, Olgivanna, who was a devotee of the Greek-Armenian spiritualist, Georgi Gurdjieff. The book is rich in detail, gossipy, well-researched and annotated, and impossible to put down.
Tourist tips for visiting Spring Green
Try to plan your trip when the weather is not hot and humid. If I go to APT again, I will choose a time in late September or October. Sitting in the Hill Theatre when the temperature is in the high 80s and very humid and you are covered with insect repellent and persistent mosquitoes is not my idea of comfort. And in midsummer, the sun is out until well into the first act, so there’s not much relief from the heat. I know the Greeks invented outdoor theater, but they didn’t have electricity and air-conditioning. I’ll take my theater inside, with AC and no bugs, thank you. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re miserable and bug-swatting.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring water or other beverages, bug spray if you don’t like DEET, and something to fan with.
To order theater tickets, see the calendar for the full list of plays and order online or call 608-588-2361. Ticket prices range from $51 to $86, depending on day and location. Here’s a helpful page of tips from APT.
To tour Taliesin, see tour options and make reservations here. Tickets are $54 each for the two-hour House or Highlights tours, $22 for the one-hour Studio and Theater tour, and $90 for the four-hour Estate tour. Other tours are available too. At the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, you’ll find a gift shop and the Riverview Terrace Café, serving produce grown at Taliesin.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be walking on uneven ground and old stone paths. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, water and something to fan with. At Taliesin, most interior spaces are not air-conditioned.
I feel guilty about neglecting this personal blog, but as I’ve said before, I’m doing all my writing over at Third Coast Review, mostly on the Stages page, but also in Lit (new review of a Chicago novel about the early days of Chicago electric blues) and Art (a couple of posts like this one on the Century of Progress homes on the beach in Indiana).
The article below is a recap of my visit to New York last week—mainly for a theater critics conference. The schedule provided plenty of time for great theater, and I took advantage of that by seeing four interesting off-Broadway productions. But no Broadway musicals. If you’re interested in Dear Evan Hanson or Come From Away, you’ll have to go elsewhere. But I did have one Broadway regret.
That was the show I didn’t see. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—I’ve seen him in concert dozens of times, but I thought the tickets to his Springsteen on Broadway show were too expensive. I was able to buy tickets for those off-Broadway plays and pay for dinner too for the price of one Springsteen ticket. (The Walter Kerr Theetre where Springsteen is performing was right around the corner from my hotel.)
Here’s a recap of my theater week, highlighted by two excellent dramas at Lincoln Center, a madcap take on Shakespeare, and a thoughtful new play about mother-son relations. And I even squeezed in a delightful children’s theater production.
After the Blast by Zoe Kazan at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
After the Blast, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is a dystopian tale of a world after environmental catastrophe. Everything is frozen. It’s nuclear winter. The characters are mostly scientists, who talk matter of factly about when they will get to go “upstairs”—that is, above ground, again. (The answer is not very damn soon.) Their work is finding ways to sustain humanity below ground as well as to prepare for “rehabitation” of the earth at some distant future time. (One of the scientists admits that they let it leak that rehabitation might be sooner to give people some hope.)
Oliver (William Jackson Harper) and Anna (Cristin Milioti) are settled in below ground. Their contemporary home is Ikea-store simple and well-designed, but their only connection to nature is through images on a projection screen that becomes a “window” in their apartment. People use substances like marijuana to help them cope. They also can “sim”—simulate experiences above ground. If you want to visit the mountains or seashore or see penguins in a zoo, you can “sim” it.
Their friends Carrie (Eboni Booth) and Sam (Davis Pegram) are having a baby and Oliver and Anna yearn to have a child too. Propagation is tightly controlled and Anna is preparing to apply for her fertility treatment, but she has been rejected before, partly because of her depressed state of mind.
Oliver brings home a helper robot to help her prepare for her next fertility interview. Anna’s role is to train the robot in movement and speech, so that the robot can be assigned later to a disabled person who needs support. At first Anna rejects the robot, but gradually she gives in and begins to work with it. The robot responds, becomes Arthur, and Arthur and Anna develop a strong, affectionate relationship. Milioti’s performance as friend and mentor to Arthur is sweet and believable. (Arthur and Oliver even have a conversation about Anna.) Anna passes her next interview and Oliver and Anna may be on the road to becoming parents.Or not. (I pondered whether there is some parallel between training a robot and raising a child.)
After the Blast is s warm, humane story that is terrifying in its implications. The nuanced direction and performances are excellent. It continues at the Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center’s “greenhouse”) through November 19.
Measure for Measure by Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater
Perhaps you’ve seen Elevator Repair Service in Chicago. They performed their six-hour masterpiece reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in a play titled Gatz—in 2006 at the MCA theater. More recently, they brought their dramedy of a Supreme Court case titled Arguendo to the MCA theater in 2014.
Measure for Measure is less successful than the other two ERS plays, but it is refreshing in its approach to the Shakespearean canon. The play is done in modern dress, set at some indeterminate modern time and performed on a set furnished with several rectangular office tables and a dozen chairs—plus six or eight early 1900s-era “candlestick” telephones. The action proceeds at breakneck speed, with actors often speaking so fast you can’t understand them. But most often, the text itself is rolling up the wall and across the ceiling of the set. (It’s performed in the Public’s third-floor LuEsther Theater and runs through November 12.)
Scott Shepherd, who played the lead in Gatz, is cast as the Duke (and masquerades as a friar). The bad guy, Angelo, who takes over the kingdom when the Duke departs, is wickedly played by Pete Simpson. Claudio (Greig Sargeant) is wrongfully imprisoned and his sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads with Angelo for his release. She becomes entangled in two different tricks that are part of the play’s intricate plot. The “bed trick,” wherein Angelo is fooled into thinking he has slept with Isabella, and the “head trick,” wherein the head of the wrong prisoner is brought to Angelo as proof of execution. Various actors portray jailers, executioners and other functionaries in madcap fashion and sometimes silly costumes.
Measure for Measure (or M4M) is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays and it isn’t often performed. My brief description of the plot indicates why. I’ve read MFM and I have seen it at least once. I think that going to see M4M without any knowledge of the play might make it hard to follow. But I applaud ERS and the Public Theater for commissioning the play. And I definitely look forward to the next production by Elevator Repair Service.
Junk by Ayad Akhtar at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
Junk is Akhtar’s latest play, which opened last week at Lincoln Center. I saw the play in its last preview performance. It is spectacularly staged and performed, on a set divided into six to eight honey-combed cells on two levels. The scenes are short and the dialogue is smart and snappy. I’m sure we’ll see it in Chicago soon. One of Akhtar’s plays, The Invisible Hand, is currently running in an outstanding production at Steep Theatre. Goodman Theatre presented Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced in 2015.
Junk refers to the 1980s high-yielding junk bonds used in the practice of corporate raiders taking over companies, often by using the company’s own assets to do so, then stripping the company of its remaining financial, real estate and equipment assets, and firing employees to make the company more profitable—and sometimes to just plain kill it. The plot and characters closely resemble the Michael Milken/Ivan Boesky scandal, although of course, the playbill specifies that the play is a fictionalized account and the characters are “stitched together and never anything other than fiction.”
The Milken-type character is Robert Merkin, played a little too blandly by Steven Pasquale. The large cast is made up of an array of investors, lawyers, an ambitious journalist, a Guiliani-type prosecutor who runs for mayor, and the doomed president of an old manufacturing company targeted by Merkin. The Boesky-type investor character is believably fleshed out by Joey Slotnick, a Chicago actor and member of the Lookingglass ensemble.
The story may remind you of a Chicago production of Other People’s Money, staged by Shattered Globe in 2013. Instead of Robert Merkin, we had Larry the Liquidator, played here by Ben Werling and in the 1991 film by Danny DeVito. The plot is similar but Junk is much more sophisticated, both in staging and script.
The Junk production was first staged in Los Angeles and the New York set is identical to the LA version. Director Doug Hughes and scenic designer John Lee Beatty moved the LA production to New York. My question: will a certain Chicago theater pick up the production and move it unchanged to a Chicago stage? That has happened recently with a couple of successful New York productions. Junk is scheduled to run at the Beaumont until January 7. I’d bet we’ll see it here in the 2018-19 theater season.
The Treasurer by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizon
David Cromer directs this rather low-key story about a middle-aged man, The Son (Peter Friedman) and his widowed mother Ida (the great Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan), who has spent all her funds and is inching toward dementia. The Treasurer is so designated by his two brothers, who ask him to watch out for their mother’s finances, while they fund her move to a luxury retirement center, rather than a more modest home in keeping with her financial status. “But I’m a Beaverbrook person,” she says. “That’s where all my friends are.”
The story is carried out mostly by telephone conversation. Son with brothers, son with mother. We see Ida reaching out for human contact in scenes with retail store clerks as she tries to buy purple pants, new pillows ($700 each or two for $1200) and a new smartphone.
Posner uses a narrative technique where the character narrates what he is doing to us, the audience, without physically doing it. The play opens with a monologue by The Son (the Treasurer) who tells us he is riding his bike and knows that he will go to hell. That prediction ties in to the ending of the play, but I didn’t think the ending fit with the whole tenor of the play.
The set is designed with angled walls, so often a character is unseen (in another room or space), represented by a disembodied voice. I like the way scene changes are handled in this 90-minute play. Crew members simply walk on stage with a new prop or piece of furniture. While other action is proceeding, they get ready for the next scene. It’s naturalistic and practical and fits with the style of the play. The Treasurer closed November 5.
My Perfect Pet by Jeff Eisenberg at the Playroom Theater
This original play is about a young girl who hopes to get a puppy for her 10th birthday. It takes a while for her to prove to her parents that she really is ready for a puppy but when the puppy does arrives, it’s a perfect surprise. Two college students portray the two sisters and a new graduate portrays their friend Josh (and the puppy). The parents are portrayed by two talented actors.
My Perfect Pet is perfectly adorable and runs just over an hour. The many small children in the audience (recommended for ages 4 to 9) were delighted too and bounced around in their seats to the tuneful music. My Perfect Pet runs on Saturdays through November 18.
Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.
Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre
Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.
Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum
Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.
Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre
Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre
My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.
How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre
This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.
There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community. Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.