I’ve seen lots of plays lately, as usual, and wanted to give you a little recap of a few to see, or not.
Lay Me Down Softly at Seanachai Theatre
Seanachai does an excellent job with this terrific Irish script by Billy Roche. It’s a tough story about a traveling roadshow that includes a fake bearded lady, carnival booths and fake boxing ring challenges. Every day is the same; only the towns change. The main story thread is about Dean, a boxer who can’t seem to win, and Junior, a once-champion who was forced to retire because of an injury. The bullying roadshow owner Theo and the cut man and boxers’ mentor Peadar are the other two male characters. Two women create really strong performances to anchor the play. The boxing ring set is handled with great care and almost seems to create a play within a play.
My Gapers Block colleague, Alice Singleton, reviewed it and adds some interesting insights.
Lay Me Down Softly runs until May 25 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Like Seanachai’s recent production of The Seafarer, which I reviewed in December, it’s a must-see. Oh, how I love those Irish playwrights.
Dorian at The House Theatre
Dorian is an adaptation of the great Oscar Wilde novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a visually interesting production that stresses the personal relationships among Dorian, his portraitist and friends and party people of today’s London. It’s the well-known story of Dorian–the man who didn’t age while his portrait did. House stages it in “promenade” style, which means most of the audience is mingling with the actors during the action, which can take place in the artist’s studio, at parties, galleries or performance spaces. I recommended it with a three-star review, and added this:
“This is not a play to attend because you love the writing of Oscar Wilde, notably in his fabulous plays like Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, all written in the 1890s. The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, is complex and challenging–and filled with smart, witty dialogue, but you won’t find much of that complexity or dialogue in Dorian.”
Dorian runs until May 18 at the Chopin Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My review here.
Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
at Theater Wit
This play has received excellent reviews, every one of them richly deserved. It’s smart and well written, warmly acted by a fine cast, and directed by Jeremy Wechsler. The script is by Madeleine George, a writer with Massachusetts and Brooklyn connections. It’s about relationships between friends and lovers and the financially stressed closing of the museum at a small northeastern college, which will leave the mammoths homeless.
Every cast member is excellent. The day I saw it, one of the major roles was played by a superb substitute, Penelope Walker. Laura Fisher, an old friend from Famous Door Theatre days, is outstanding in one of the other lead roles. A special treat is the performance by Steve Herson, who plays various characters including the museum caretaker, a reporter, citizens at a town hall meeting, and a board member reading the hilarious minutes of the meeting. In each case, his accent is different and perfect. Also the museum exhibits include prehistoric people in diorama exhibits who voice the concerns of museum visitors.
Seven Homeless Mammoths is a great treat and you shouldn’t miss it. It runs until May 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont.
Mud Blue Sky at A Red Orchid Theatre
This is a terrific show at Red Orchid, with great humor, warm relationships, and things you didn’t want to know about airplanes. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:
“Loneliness, regrets, friendship, humor, and a little maternal instinct season A Red Orchid Theatre’s new play, Mud Blue Sky. Director Shade Murray gets the most out of Marisa Wegrzyn’s fine script, which revolves around airport life. The tiny Red Orchid space on Wells Street is perfect for the claustrophobic story of three very mature flight attendant friends on a layover at a hotel near O’Hare.” Beth and Sam are still flying. Angie lost her job recently and now lives in a Chicago suburb. Angie misses flying and the others can’t wait to get away from it. That’s the story until they get acquainted with a young man named Jonathan, who helps them find some relaxation and entertainment.
My review is highly recommended at theatreinchicago.com. Mud Blue Sky has been playing to sold-out houses and it’s now extended until June 29.
Our Class at Remy Bumppo
Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek is a play about the Holocaust—set in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in the years leading up to World War II. The play was troubling and thought-provoking and my friends debated and disagreed about it afterwards.
The story begins in the schoolroom where members of “our class” study and play together. They are all friends, whether Jewish or gentile. Hints of anti-Semitism creep in to their school and their play from time to time and gradually increase. The key event is the 1941 massacre of virtually all the Jewish citizens—1,600 men, women and children–by their neighbors. The perpetrators are never accused, never held accountable. In the years that follow, various survivors lie about their role in the event, including one who hid and one who had converted to Christianity.
Despite the power of the first act, most of the second act is bogged down in excessive exposition. Too much detail kills the power of the first act. The play runs nearly three hours, with one intermission.
This is a risky sort of play for Remy Bumppo, which tends to produce superb quality Anglophile theater by great writers. Their regular ensemble is made up of talented and experienced Chicago actors. Our Class takes Remy Bumppo in a totally different, riskier direction and brings in some younger actors new to the company.
Reviews are virtually all “highly recommended” or four star. Our Class runs until May 11 at the Greenhouse Theatre Center.
Death Defying Acts at Saint Sebastian Players
Three short plays by three brilliant writers: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Unfortunately, they were all writing on their off days because the scripts in Death Defying Acts aren’t very good. The production is medium, with a few good performances. I really wanted to give this play a better review but I just couldn’t. The theater company decided to create a circusy atmosphere in the lobby and around the production, which was not a great idea. Here’s what I said about that in my Gapers Block review.
“One problem with the whole production is the overworked circus atmosphere. Yes, death-defying acts suggest a carnival with risky high-wire acts. Old circus posters decorate the lobby of the church-basement theater. Before the show opens, an old circus film, Here Comes the Circus, is projected across the stage floor. The crew is dressed in circus clown and aerialist costumes while making stage changes. But it’s a bit over the top, especially considering the lack of death-defying acts on stage.”
Death Defying Acts runs until May 18 at St Bonaventure Church, 1641 W Diversey. The theater space is in the basement; entry door on the west side of the church. Good news is that there’s free parking in the church lot.
And on screen, not stage
The Wind Rises returns. This wonderful Japanese animated film by the master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is scheduled for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Center, May 16-29. I wrote about this film when it opened recently. It’s beautiful, hand-drawn throughout, rich and complex in its use of Japanese history and mythology. If you didn’t see it before, you have another chance.
Othello at Siskel. The great and greatly flawed Orson Welles 1952 production of Shakespeare’s Othello has been running at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I saw it for the third time last night (the first time was when I was in college at the old Fine Arts cinema, the second a few years ago at the Music Box). The 1992 restoration made a lot of improvements in visual and sound quality. It’s a powerful film, with Welles starring as the Moor. It’s clear why his film presence was so huge; he dominates every scene with his size, voice and expression.
The play is really Iago’s, as Harold Bloom insists in his essay on Othello in his book, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. The actor who plays Iago in the film (Micheal Mac Liammoir, an Irish actor who founded the Gate Theatre),does a creditable job but can’t stand up to the Welles persona. Because he is Orson Welles, no matter what role he is playing.
A few things on my mind today, some of which you might want to think about too.
I’m fond of the fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market but I’m also a superfan of good bakeries. I discovered a new one today and you should try it. It’s Blue Sky Bakery at 3720 N Lincoln, just north of the Addison stop on the Brown line. Street parking should be pretty easy too. I bought some delicious berry scones and an apple-brie croissant baked in a muffin cup. Mmmm-mmm. Lots of delicious-looking cookies and cakes too.
There’s another reason why you should visit Blue Sky Bakery. They provide employment and training for homeless and at-risk youth. So those deliriously luscious baked goods are also helping bring about social change. CBS Channel 2 did a story on Blue Sky recently. Check it out.
Borders at Solti Park
I wrote about these intriguing figures earlier this week in my Art Around Town roundup. Here’s another photo.
Simpatico by Sam Shepard runs until September 15 at A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s a terrific show with a gripping first act so get a ticket if you possibly can. That may not be easy because (1) the play has gotten four-star reviews and (2) it’s showing in the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The theater describes it like this: “High society meets low life in the slippery netherworld of thoroughbred racing. This tragic-comedy explodes when a simple phone call threatens to undo years of blackmail and false identities.” The small tough cast features Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen. It’s sold out but a standby ticket line forms one hour before each performance.
The Mexican Girl by Jack Kerouac. I confess that every once in a while I look at the obituary page if I’m reading an actual newspaper, to see if anyone interesting or important died. One day last week, there was a gem of an obit. The woman who inspired the character Teresa or Terry in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road died at 92. The wonderful part is that she didn’t know the identity of the young man with whom she had a brief affair in 1947.
The short story, The Mexican Girl, was excerpted from the manuscript of On the Road and first published in The Paris Review in 1955. The review paid Kerouac $50 for the story. It was a big hit and resulted in the whole book being published by Viking Press in 1957. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading the story–it starts on page 74 of my edition of On the Road. If you can’t find yours, you can listen to an audio version of the story recorded in 2003.
Chicago street signs
Chicago has a lot of weird and amazing engineering achievements. Reversing the flow of the Chicago River, sending it downstate rather than into Lake Michigan. Raising the grade of the city and all its buildings by five feet to lift the city above the mud and sludge of the unpaved streets. My favorite bit of reengineering, however, happened in 1909, when all the streets in the city were renumbered with State and Madison as the zero point. State Street became zero for east-west streets and Madison for north-south streets.
Hear that, Manhattan? In Chicago, you know exactly where an address is going to be because you have memorized the arterial streets in each direction. Every good Chicagoan does that. You know if you are going to the 2700 block of Halsted Street that it will be a block south of Diversey, which is 2800. In New York, you have to ask what the cross street is because streets are haphazardly numbered as they were built in centuries past.
Patrick Reardon did a nice story on this in the Tribune this week. The story marked the occasion of officially naming the corner of State and Madison streets as Edward Brennan Way, in honor of the private citizen who devised the plan and fought for its acceptance by the City Council.
Two intriguing plays at two of my favorite small theaters: Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John at The Hypocrites and In a Garden at A Red Orchid Theatre. Both are still running; details below.
Ivywild: Part Carnival, Part History Lesson
Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John, the new play by the ever-audacious The Hypocrites http://www.the-hypocrites.com, is part carnival, part Chicago history lesson, and it is a delightful 90 minutes of fact mixed with fantasy. The play is written by Jay Torrence and directed by The Hypocrites’ artistic director, Halena Kays.
When you walk into the lower-level performance space at Chopin Theatre, you know you are in for some fun. The set is a carousel with swings, made of faux antique materials, and light bulbs are festooned everywhere. Platform pieces move around and provide performance space. Before the performance begins, two audience members are asked to don white pinafore dresses so they can participate in simulated rides in the amusement park. The audience, seated close to the action as usual in this space, feels like part of the show. (Photo courtesy of The Hypocrites. Clockwise from bottom left: Ryan Walters as Kenna, Anthony Courser as Princess, Jay Torrence as Bathhouse John, Tien Doman as The Amusement and Kurt Chiang as little Walt.)
Torrence plays “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, the First Ward Alderman of Chicago during the 1890s, when the 20-square block area around Cermak and Michigan was the levee district, populated by saloons, brothels, gambling houses and plenty of corruption to fund it. Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, the precinct captain and later the second First Ward Alderman, is played by Ryan Walters. (Until redistricting in 1923, each Chicago ward had two aldermen.) The two amass great wealth through the levee district businesses, political corruption and general debauchery.
Ivywild is the amusement park and zoo that Bathhouse John actually built on a tract of land near Colorado Springs, where he has bought a second home. Coughlin meets young Walt Colburn (Kurt Chiang) there and makes him his personal assistant. Colorado, at that time, was home to hundreds of tuberculosis sanatoriums, where patients from all over the country would go to seek relief. Those are the factual threads that are woven throughout the play.
The other characters are Anthony Courser as Princess, an alcoholic elephant in a pink tutu with a deformed trunk, and a fantastical symbolic character named “The Amusement,” a lovely tubercular mime on a respirator, played by Tien Doman. (All the cast members also perform with the NEo-Futurists http://neofuturists.org, where Kays formerly directed. This connection suggests we might see some interesting future possibilities for these two innovative companies.)
The playbill includes a timeline of the Ivywild/First Ward Chicago story. Even if you know that period of Chicago history or read the timeline before the play starts, you may find it hard to follow the non-linear thread of the story. But no matter. Just enjoy the flow. Accept the fact that Princess may address the audience and tell the story of how she lost her trunk. (“The elevator door chopped off my nose.”)
Torrence’s Bathhouse John as a song and dance man—a pol who sees himself as a poet and songwriter, as well as the creator of a grand amusement park. His sartorial flamboyance was legendary. Hinky Dink Kenna was more conservative in dress and demeanor, and tries to push his partner to return to Chicago and pay attention to First Ward business. This Chicago duo suggests how Chicago won its reputation as a center for crime and corruption, even before the arrival of Al Capone.
Ivywild runs through June 16, so please be sure to see it. The Hypocrites perform at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St. Shows are at 7:30 pm Monday, Friday and Saturday and at 3pm Sunday.
A Gazebo Among the Lemon Trees
A Red Orchid Theatre http://www.aredorchidtheatre.org is presenting In a Garden by Howard Korder, a fast-moving and smartly written play in nine scenes spanning 15 years from 1989 to 2004. The play portrays the frustration of an ambitious American architect (played by Larry Grimm) proposing a design for a fictitious Middle Eastern country named Aquaat, which might be Iraq.
Director Lou Contey keeps the action moving well, with quick scene changes made by a stage assistant, veiled and silent — the only woman who appears. Broadcast news snippets between scenes set the time line. The tiny Red Orchid space is the office of the minister of culture (a strong performance by Rom Borkhardor), a man enamored of American pop culture and American architects. The architect and the minister develop an uneasy friendship over the years–but the play, which starts out like a satire with many clever lines about truth and beauty, becomes darker as the scenes progress. (Photo courtesy of A Red Orchid Theatre. Left, Borkhardor as the minister, and Larry Grimm as the architect.)
The architect has not had a successful career; he has several proposed and unbuilt projects in different countries and the minister refers to him as a second-tier architect. He is desperate to see one of his designs built, which may explain why he suffers through years of ambiguity and misdirection from his client (or patron, as the minister prefers). It’s never clear who is making the decisions or if in fact a decision will ever be made to build the gazebo in a peaceful garden of lemon trees so desired by the minister.
In the final scene in 2004, everything has changed: the space, the architect’s professional goals and the minister’s status. The gazebo was finally built, but now is gone. The lemon trees remain – to be enjoyed by the office’s new occupant: an American army officer.
In a Garden runs through Sunday, May 19, so you still have a chance to see it. Shows are at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3pm Sunday. A Red Orchid Theatre performs at 1531 N. Wells St.
Slightly different versions of these reviews appear at gapersblock.com, a Chicago website, on the A/C or Arts page.