This week I’ve seen and reviewed two youth ensemble theater productions. I did that with some trepidation because I didn’t want them to be dreadful. It’s one thing if an adult production is dreadful and I have to write a bad review. But I really didn’t want to write a bad review when teenagers are involved. It turned out happily because both productions are outstanding, and in totally different ways.
American Theater Company’s Greensboro: A Requiem is an example of the serious, documentary theater created by ATC’s late lamented artist director, P.J. Paparelli. This youth ensemble production presents a play by Emily Mann, which tells the story of a 1979 event in which five protestors were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party.
Albany Park Theater Project’s Feast, originally mounted in 2010, is a lively, colorful series of scenarios about food in Chicago’s many immigrant communities, presented by a multiethnic group of 25 performers of high school age. Five just finished middle school and four will go on to college in the fall.
Both productions involve the young performers doing additional research to update or recreate the stories (in the case of Feast) or to travel to the scene of the event to interview participants and survivors. In each case, the research served to deepen the actors’ understanding of the issues portrayed in their productions.
Greensboro: A Requiem uses verbatim text from interviews, court transcripts and other documents to describe what happened on November 3, 1979, in the North Carolina city. The Communist Workers Party organized a group of mostly black textile workers to protest the Ku Klux Klan, which was then growing in influence. The protesters had a police permit for their march, but somehow the police conveniently managed to be out to lunch at the time of the march. A caravan of cars loaded with Klan and Nazi party members attacked the marchers and killed five of them.
The 11 Chicago Public High School juniors and seniors do an excellent job of creating the mood and portraying what has become known as the Greensboro massacre and its aftermath. Read about their production in my review here.
You can also read about the ensemble’s Kickstarter campaign that raised money for their travel to Greensboro.
This show runs through August 2 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. Tickets are free, but reservations are suggested (and a $25 donation will be requested).
Feast is a much less somber production, but underlying the joy of shopping (with a LINK card), cooking, eating and dancing are the real stories of the scarcity of food and its importance in tying the immigrant community to its home traditions. And of course food plays a glorious role in life and in family celebrations. See my review.
Feast continues in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre through August 16. The circular stage with a runway on each end is a perfect setting for the production. Music and costuming complete an authentic picture of the lives of the many immigrant communities represented.
Both of these productions provide an excellent and thought-provoking evening of theater. They will fill you with optimism about the future of Chicago and American theater.
Recently I reviewed the new Goodman Theatre production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play with many Chekhovian and other theatrical references. I thought it was very good but regretted the fact that Goodman has been promoting it as a slaphappy summer comedy. That means the audience members think they have to be entertained and therefore find every line absolutely hilarious. As I said in my review:
“Durang’s treatment certainly contains much wit and draws the fine line between comedy and tragedy, but the opening night audience’s raucous laughter throughout both acts weakened the poignancy of the characters’ stories. Really, this isn’t the Marx Brothers.”
The Goodman publicity team was offering actor interviews and I was asked if I would like to interview one of the lead actors. After seeing the play, I said, “No, I want to interview the actor who played Cassandra. I want to hear her story about how she created her character.” And so one morning last week, I went back to the Goodman Theatre with my tape recorder (my iPhone actually) and a set of questions to ask E. Faye Butler.
I don’t do interviews often, because they’re time consuming and can end up being bland if the subject is afraid of sounding undignified. But E Faye was fabulous. She’s a classically trained actor who also sings and has a powerful voice and a magnetic persona. She is smart, articulate and funny and was absolutely the best interview I’ve done. Turning her recorded interview into an interesting story was easy. At least I think it’s interesting and I hope you do.
Review: Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre
Last week I reviewed the new gritty British drama at Steep Theatre. It’s a US premiere of a play by Alistair McDowall, a new English playwright. Excellent play, directed by Robin Witt, with a group of six fine actors. The fascinating thing about Brilliant Adventures is that it starts out like one of those 1970s British working class films, but then devolves into sci-fi and fantasy. Really, it’s fascinating and it works.
As I said in my review, “It is a deeply classist play that explores the lives of those who live in Middlesbrough, a failed industrial city on the River Tees in northeast England.” The Steep playbill and the lobby exhibits do a good job of acquainting you with the environment and language of Middlesbrough.
Brilliant Adventures is an outstanding two hours of theater and I recommend it. You can see it through August 15. Steep is located on Berwyn, just east of the Berwyn Red Line station. You can also see my review here.
Review: Ring of Fire at the Mercury Theatre
I also had a chance to review the Johnny Cash musical tribute in its extension through the end of August. (I missed it when it first opened this spring.) I went with friends who are music lovers like me and fans of rock, blues, bluegrass and country). June Sawyers has written dozens of books about music and musicians. It was a treat to see the show with two music fans and discuss the music at intermission and afterwards.
We all agreed it’s a great piece of entertainment but we thought it lacked the depth that the tortured story of Johnny Cash’s life would have added. But no, it’s strictly a jukebox musical with about 30 songs by Cash and other songwriters performed by a talented group of seven musicians.
Here’s a song from the show that was often performed by Johnny Cash but it was written by Geoff Mack (an Australian) and Hank Snow (who wrote the North American lyrics). I describe the lyrics as a tongue-twister travel itinerary. This is a Hank Snow version from 1965.
The Mercury Theatre is a comfortable venue with an excellent sound system. Ring of Fire is a pleasant evening of entertainment in the same way that Million Dollar Quartet is. But even that play is built around some narrative elements.
My Gapers Block review is posted now. You can read it here.
Last week I saw two masterpieces of 20th century theater by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright and leftwing political activist. (I‘m a fan on both counts.) The two shows were extremely different in production values but demonstrated the power of performance.
I attended Goodman Theatre’s The Little Foxes on opening night and reviewed it for Gapers Block. (My review also appears on culturevulture.net and berkshirefinearts.com, by the way.) It was an excellent production with a sumptuous set and gorgeous, richly detailed costuming, especially the women’s gowns. As I said in my review, the production “stars a galaxy of Chicago’s finest actors and surely resonates with some of the current discussions about racism, sexism, domestic abuse and income inequality.”
The venal Hubbard siblings (Regina, Oscar and Ben) who fight over the family legacy and the spoils of a new cotton mill are played by Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering and Larry Yando. John Judd plays Horace, Regina’s husband, and Mary Beth Fisher plays Oscar’s sweet and abused wife Birdie. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The nearly three-hour play (with two intermissions) is not only a visual treat; it’s gripping from beginning to end.
On Saturday afternoon, the Goodman presented an amazing one-time only event; a free performance of a reading of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, which is set in 1900 and was first produced in 1939. Another Part of the Forest is set in 1880 and was written in 1946. Both are set in a town in rural Alabama and are based on Hellman’s own family story.
The reading was held in a rehearsal room on the second floor of the theater and held probably 60 or 70 seats at the most. (Needless to say, it was a capacity crowd.)
It was a plain vanilla reading, not a staged reading where there is some blocking and action. The actors all had their scripts on paper and usually stood at music stands at the front of the stage area. When they weren’t reading, they sat on folding chairs at the rear.
The most significant thing about the reading is that the 12-member cast was fully equivalent to that in the fully staged production. The acting was superb with attention to accents, vocal intonations, gestures and expressions. Some of Chicago’s finest actors were here too (none of them from the cast of The Little Foxes). Deanna Dunagan (you saw her as the mother in August: Osage County) plays Lavinia Hubbard, the siblings’ mother, whose fading memory comes through in the end. The always superb Larry Neumann Jr. read the part of Marcus Hubbard, the father who made a lot of money during the recent war, trading with the enemy (the Union forces). That’s the real source of the siblings’ later wealth. Neumann is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times. He played the doctor in the legendary Famous Door production of the two-part Cider House Rules, Richard Nickel in Lookingglass’ production of They All Fell Down: The Richard Nickel Story; and Samuel Finkelbaum in Writers Theatre’s The Puppetmaster of Lodz.
John Hoogenakker gave an excellent reading as Ben, the younger version of the character played by Larry Yando. (You may have seen Hoogenakker on TV in Chicago Fire or Empire or in Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh or Other Desert Cities. Steppenwolf’s Tim Hopper (Marie Antoinette, The Night Alive, Russian Transport) played John Bagtry, Birdie’s brother and the young Regina’s sweetheart.
I thought perhaps Goodman would abbreviate Another Part of the Forest, but no, the full script was performed: almost three hours with two intermissions. The story was gripping from beginning to end and proved that great actors make you forget what they’re wearing or what the scenery behind them looks like.
The Little Foxes continues at the Goodman Theatre until June 7. Sorry you missed the prequel. Also you can find 1940s film versions of both plays.
Lillian Hellman’s South—It’s really about the economy
Hellman based these two plays on the stories of her southern family, so there are some economic parallels. My published review of The Little Foxes emphasizes the economic aspects of the story, which make the play richer than just a family melodrama, as it’s usually characterized. I wrote:
Hellman’s play is set in 1900 “when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn’t happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.”
Now I’m not an economist, but I do have one on call. However, as a resource here I’m going to call on a poet instead. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body, the stirring book-length verse narrative of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as the Hubbards would call it). Benet’s poem, published in 1927, characterizes the war as preparing the South for its future as part of industrial America, but his prediction is about 75 years off. After 372 pages of the romantic saga of the war, its soldiers, victims, fictional characters, and Abraham Lincoln’s death, Benet wrote this in his optimistic conclusion:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
Bury the whip, bury the branding bars,
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The last foray of aristocracy
Based not on dollars or initiative
Or any blood for what the blood was worth
But on a certain code, a manner of birth.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel,
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Out of John Brown’s strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grow,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
Rivet and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light….
Benet’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. It’s not really great literature, because it’s rather uneven and not a little melodramatic. But it’s a great way to read the Civil War story. The book is out of print, but you can buy copies online.
It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.
Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre
Remy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.
These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.
Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.
End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse
Yes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.
The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.
See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.
La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre
The talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.
The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.
Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.
La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.
The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre
After describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.
The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.
* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do. Theatreinchicago.com, a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.
The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre
This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.
The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.
The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.
In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.
All photos courtesy of the theater companies.