September dramas: Serious, smart and sublime

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

King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare


Ross Lehman and Larry Yando. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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

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

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

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

Isaac’s Eye at Writers Theatre


Hooper and Grapey. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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

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

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

Season on the Line at the House Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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What’s showing? Not for the faint of heart

This is an excellent theater season in Chicago. Both the mainstream and storefront theaters are doing interesting new plays and presenting inventive takes on old material. And there’s always the bizarre and quirky film to talk about, for instance….

seanpenn2This Must Be the Place. This is an extraordinarily rewarding film if I can interest you in the plot and the techniques – and if you can tolerate ambiguity. It’s written and directed by the Italian Paolo Sorrentino. Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a rich rock star, retired in Dublin, who seems to have lost interest in life and has nothing to think about except when to sell his 30,000 shares of Tesco. His wife of 35 years, played by Frances McDormand, is charming and vital and totally in love with him. Penn, by the way, throughout most of the film, is made up with the bizarre red, black and white makeup and long black messy hair patterned after Robert Smith of the Cure. And one plot element (two teenagers commit suicide, perhaps because of the depressing lyrics of Cheyenne’s songs) is also patterned after Smith’s career.

When his father, a Holocaust survivor, dies in New York, Cheyenne goes home and gets involved in a search for the Auschwitz camp guard with whom his father was obsessed. The film then becomes an American road trip as Cheyenne travels across country tracking down clues and eventually finds the man – with the ultimate help of Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter. I’m leaving out a lot of detail that makes this plot somewhat more rational. (One critic called it “a fascinating mess, but one worth your time.”)

Sorrentino’s direction has a lot of jump cuts and oddly composed scenes but the cinematography is beautiful and his dialogue is often poetic and intense. Penn is brilliant as Cheyenne; he has totally remade himself and his voice to become the depressed aging performer.

Oh and there’s music. David Byrne, who makes a cameo appearance in the film as himself and an old friend of Cheyenne’s, composed the original music with Will Oldham. The film title is also the name of the song from the Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues. Byrne and Talking Heads and other artists perform “This Must Be the Place” frequently throughout the film. (Turn on the subtitles on your DVD player to find out who is singing what at any moment.)

The film was released in 2011 and was recently released on DVD. I watched it twice. You might too.

The Birthday Party. This early play by Harold Pinter is now at Steppenwolf Theatre and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It’s not that I don’t like Pinter. But early reviews were mostly negative and I had heard from two acquaintances that it was “terrible.” Maybe it improved since opening night. I thought it was well paced and had some good performances, two of them appropriately menacing. The scary birthday party has disastrous consequences … and a Pinteresque ambiguous ending. The play is in three acts and (unusual for me) did not seem too long. I usually think everything needs editing but this party did not.

The cast is directed by Austin Pendleton and made up of some fine Chicago actors including John Mahoney, Francis Guinan, Marc Grapey (don’t miss his clever bio in the playbill), Ian Barford, Moira Harris, and her daughter, Sophia Sinise. It’s a play where everything is not always what it seems, which makes it gripping from beginning to end. The Birthday Party runs thru April 18.


denthtr-cityCity of Dreadful Night. The last time I commented on a Den Theatre play, it had already closed and that’s the case with this noir knockout. Sorry – you should have been watching out for this clever storefront company, as I recommended recently.

City of Dreadful Night is a four-character thriller by Don Nigro. It’s set during the Cold War and the four characters end the play sitting in a diner that resembles the scene in Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. (See that at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nigro has written about 300 plays, several of them about or inspired by artists and their paintings.) Brisk dialogue, a bit Mametesque, and good acting. It’s a 90-minute one act that moves along briskly.

Several other small theater companies also perform at The Den Theatre location. Check them out.  These small companies are the lifeblood of Chicago theater.

Julius Caesar is the current play at Chicago Shakespeare. It’s not my favorite Shakespeare but I liked the visual style and setting of this production. It’s a contemporary political drama – that’s probably an irresistible approach for a director and serves to demonstrate how Shakespeare can explore human character flaws in any era. Before the play starts, the scene is the Roman Forum, populated by sellers of hot dogs and political buttons, Roman citizens taking photos with their smartphones, and a banner promoting Julius Caesar’s website: The play is well acted and its scenes of strife bring life to the conspiracy against Caesar.

An essay in the Chicago Shakespeare playbill points out that the play was relevant to the American Republic from the beginning – in its “neoclassical constitution and the gargantuan neo-Roman buildings that would give it palpable form.” And we have also inherited the “irreconcilable conflicts that provoke its violence.” Just as Caesar was considered by his enemies to be an illegitimate leader, some American presidents have been the subject of polarized opinion about their right to lead. In the Civil War era, supporters of slavery would not recognize Lincoln’s leadership, just as today a certain wingnut fringe persists in denying President Obama’s citizenship. And my very rightwing father despised FDR and thought his third and fourth terms were illegitimate and illegal. (They would be today because of the 22nd Amendment.)

Julius Caesar runs through March 24. See it if for its visually stunning presentation and reminders of how political conspiracy can infect the body politic.

Folk and funk at the Symphony Center. Wednesday night’s concert featured Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio in a fabulous one-hour set on the symphony stage, followed by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell performing songs from their recent album, Old Yellow Moon. The Thompson set was amazing and he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest guitarists ever. (For some reason, he slipped from #19 in 2003 to #59 in 2011 on the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists, living and not. That confirms my view that the list is made up by one person after a long day without coffee. Just start with Jimi Hendrix as #1 and then shuffle the cards for the rest.)

The Thompson trio played songs such as “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” the beautiful “Salford Sunday” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You.” Harris and Crowell played a fine acoustic set with their seven-piece band and then Thompson joined them on stage for another number. Greg Kot’s review in the Tribune gives a good description of the concert – and of Thompson’s playing wizardry.

I know most people were at the concert to see the marvelous Emmylou. She was fine and her songs with Crowell were well done. But I was there to see Richard Thompson Electric. And he was.

What’s next on Nancy’s calendar? Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theatre, Coriolanus at The Hypocrites, and an overview of the Picasso and Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute.