Revisiting Vonnegut’s Wacky But Relevant Satire, Happy Birthday, Wanda June

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.

Vonnegut’s premise, with a strong H/T to Homer’s Odyssey, is that Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell), a warrior and big-game hunter who disappeared eight years ago while hunting for diamonds in the Amazon rain forest, returns home. Harold was declared legally dead and now his wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has two suitors, much to the distress of their 12-year-old son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), who believes his father will return.

Et cetera. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Wise’s cast is uniformly strong, with O’Connell’s manic Harold standing out when he plays the Beast of Yugoslavia too. MacCluggage’s performance shows Harold how American society and the role of women have changed during his eight-year absence. Charlotte Wise is perkily smart as Wanda June; she alternates with Brie Zimmer in that role. The scenic design and sound effects are smashingly appropriate. (See full review for credits.)

Please read the full review here.

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On Wisconsin: A Visit to American Players Theatre and Taliesin

FLW’s view of the Wisconsin countryside. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

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.

Bird’s-eye view of the stage and seating at American Players Theatre. Image courtesy APT.

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.)

Madigan and Madden in a scene from Born Yesterday. Photo courtesy APT.

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.

DeVita and Lawrence in Blood Knot. Image courtesy APT.

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.

FLW’s bedroom. Photo by Jack Whaley, courtesy Taliesin Preservation.

Touring Taliesin

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.

Wood flooring in the Drafting Studio.

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.)

View of the theater and curtain designed by Wright. Photo courtesy Taliesin Preservation.

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.


On the Road: New York Theater, Off-Broadway That Is

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.

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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.


Summer Theater Thrives; Recent Reviews

Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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. Photo by Matthew Freer

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.

The Nance at Pride Films and Plays

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.


On stage in Chicago: My winter favorites

I’ve been writing a lot for Third Coast Review and neglecting my personal website. But a note to readers: Check out the Stages page of Third Coast Review for the latest reviews by our talented theater reviewers, as well as me. We don’t cover everything. We’re all volunteers so we have to measure out our time carefully. But you’ll see a wide range of reviews by writers with varied writing styles.

If you’ve followed my blog or my reviews, you’ll know that I like to see and review dramas that are serious and thought-provoking–or comedies that deal in black humor. However, other Third Coast Review writers like to cover the musicals and lighthearted comedies that I avoid. So come on over to Third Coast Review if you’d like a broader view of the theater world. Also Steve Prokopy, our lead film reviewer, reviews major releases as well as obscure, foreign films and arthouse releases every week. Check out Steve’s reviews on the Screens page.

You can get a recap of the week’s posts in our weekly newsletter, 3CR Highlights, which arrives in your mailbox every Thursday morning. Sign up in the lefthand column here to get your own copy or just let me know by email or comment below that you’d like to sign up.

Here are some of my favorite recent theater experiences.

 

An Experiment with an Air Pump at Timelime Theatre

This TimePieces Play Reading was a single-night offering this week by Timeline Theatre. The 1998 play by Shelagh Stephenson concerns science and reason and their conflict with intuition, set in two time periods 200 years apart. It reminded many of us of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. These free readings are open to subscribers and the public, so watch for the next one.

 

3cr-teatrovista1The Wolf at the End of the Block by Teatro Vista

A world premiere play by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, this is a thriller set in Chicago. The play addresses police and community issues. It’s the story of a Latino man who is beaten up by an off-duty cop–and tells his story to a TV reporter. See my full review. The Wolf runs thru March 5 at Victory Gardens Theater.

 

The Nether at A Red Orchid Theatres 

Jennifer Haley’s new play is set in a virtual world of the near future. It’s about a wealthy man who sets up a special “realm” called the Hideaway in the virtual world to entertain visitors with peculiar sexual interests. It’s well-written and directed with some good performances–marred a bit by peculiar staging. My review says it’s worth your time and thought. The Nether runs at A Red Orchid on Wells Street thru March 12.

 

Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theatre

I just saw this and haven’t finished my review yet. But I can tell you it’s an excellent production, very well-written, performed and staged. And it will leave you with plenty to discuss. Playwright Young Jean Lee also directs this production, which runs until March 19.

 

3cr-gloria-1Gloria at Goodman Theatre

You’ve probably heard about Gloria by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. It has received lots of publicity, lots of hype. The New York production was picked up and dropped as a package on to the Goodman stage. Gloria is a dark comedy about the publishing world and the ambition of its denizens. It may shock you. Actually, it should shock you. But it’s an engaging and provocative evening of theater, sure to generate conversation. Gloria continues thru February 19. My review.

 

A Disappearing Number at Timeline Theatre

This is how my review  of this excellent play opens: “A Disappearing Number is a multi-layered, complex story of love and math over the course of a century. Timeline Theatre’s new production of the script by Complicité is mesmerizing, sometimes mystifying, and definitely worth your time and attention. Even if the math makes your head hurt. It is a joyous intellectual brain-teaser.”

The play is set in two time periods, 100 years apart, and the main thread is the story of the brilliant Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is also told in the recent film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was a decent, if uninspired, film. You’ll find the play much more provocative and challenging. It runs thru April 9.

 

3cr-earthquakes-robotEarthquakes in London at Steep Theatre

I’ve become a big fan of the writing of Mike Bartlett, who wrote King Charles III and Cock,  both staged recently in Chicago, as well as Earthquakes in London. This is a chaotic, immersive play built around issues of climate change, as well as family relationships. Jonathan Berry’s direction and staging make great use of video projections and pop music. And there’s a robot and a polar bear. I strongly recommend this and you have until March 4 to see it for yourself.

 

 


A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck

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Waveland Avenue wall at Wrigley Field, November 7, 2016. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16

It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.

This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.

But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.

The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.

Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.

Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”

Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.

My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.

Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.

The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.

So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.

Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.

Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.

Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)

Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre

Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company

Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre

Man in the Ring at Court Theatre

The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago

2666 at Goodman Theatre

The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre

American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions


Don’t cry over Hamilton. Lots of great theater in Chicago

So you didn’t get tickets to the great behemoth from Broadway…or you have to wait five or six months to use your tickets? If you’re a theater fan, take advantage of all the great shows that have recently opened on stages large and small. I’ve been having a great time checking out the new productions. Here are my favorites so far.

The Last Wife at Timeline Theatre

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AnJi White as Kate and Caroline Heffernan as Bess.

This is the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Wait, don’t check her Wikipedia page yet. The new Timeline production will give you some insights, both fact and fantasy, into her life as a feminist before her time. Kate was a woman of intellect and strength who carried out a sort of “school for queens” in Henry’s household. She was grooming his two daughters, Mary and Bess, for their ascensions to the throne. That’s right. Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen.

The play by Kate Hennig, a Canadian theater artist and playwright, premiered last year at Stratford, Ontario, and this is its first US production. It’s a very good production indeed with fine acting and a crisp, smart script, plus modern dress and decidedly modern language. The Last Wife runs into December. Here’s my review.

Man in the Ring at Court Theatre

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Gilmore (center) and ensemble.

Don’t avoid this play because you think it’s about boxing and you hate boxing. Well, yes, it is about boxing but so much more. It’s about one moment that changed the life of the great Emile Griffith, a talented hat designer, entertainer, bisexual and an impressive fighter. You won’t see any punches in this play. Charles Newell’s direction, plus stage design and lighting, reimagine the fight scenes. Body percussion is used very cleverly to simulate fights and create tension. But brain damage and “dementia pugilistica” are part of the story.

Man in the Ring is a moving, even haunting journey through the life of one man, played as his older self by Allen Gilmore, one of Chicago’s finest actors, and as the young fighter by Kamal Angelo Bolden.

The play has a very short run for some reason. It just opened last weekend and closes October 16. Check out my review and then call the box office.

Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre

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Smith and Walker.

Yes, this is another reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya. It’s getting so Chekhov is reimagined almost as often as Shakespeare (and the Russian’s oeuvre is much smaller, so how far can this go?). This is Aaron Posner’s retelling of the Uncle Vanya story in modern dress and language, set at someone’s country home somewhere east of here. If you saw Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre last year, you will immediately want to see this too. Bird was a retelling of The Seagull and it was delightfully smart and funny (my 2015 review). Life Sucks (an accurate summary of any Chekhov play) is warmer and sweeter but equally delightful.

My review describes the play like this.

Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition.

The Lookingglass production and staging are excellent and the performances are terrific, especially those by Chicago favorites such as Philip R. Smith, Barbara Robertson plus Eddie Jemison, Penelope Walker and Chaon Cross. The play runs thru November 6.

Wiens and Viol in True West.

Wiens and Viol in True West.

True West at Shattered Globe Theatre

Sam Shepard is one of my favorite playwrights and Steppenwolf Theatre has staged some masterful productions of his work, including their seminal production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I remember that production vividly so I went into this performance with some trepidation. But Shattered Globe does an excellent job in staging this violent and vivid play and almost grabs the Shepard dynamite. Lee is the older, bolder, meaner brother and Austin is the quieter writer — and then both brothers change.

The story of two brothers of course reminded me of my own two sons. There’s a different dynamic in a family, I think, when there are more than two brothers. So my review begins this way.

Anyone who had rowdy brothers or raised a pair of sons will feel a chill of recognition at some point during Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play of brotherly rivalry.

The duality of emotion lies in wait in every aspect of our tense two hours with brothers Lee (Joseph Wiens) and Austin (Kevin Viol). They compete and collaborate, love and hate, drink and work, reminisce and prevaricate.

True West runs until October 22 at Theater Wit on Belmont.