Holiday reviews: A play or three to end your year

It’s almost the end of the year and I don’t want you to miss these three plays now on stage in Chicago. Plus notes on a fourth play and a film recommendation.

The Clean House by Remy Bumppo Theatre

cleanhouse_poster_250x386You may have seen Sarah Ruhl’s smart, funny play The Clean House in its first production at the Goodman Theatre in 2006. Even if you did, you might want to see it again by Remy Bumppo, a theater company that always thrills me with its attention to language and diction. In this case, some of the language is Portuguese and Spanish (which I understand un poquito), but the actors always help you along with the sense of what they’re saying in another language.

This play is about cleaning houses, and a lot more than that. It’s a commentary on how we love and care for each other and Ann Filmer’s direction enhances its great humor and charm.

Running time is 100 minutes with one intermission; thru January 11.

Pericles by Chicago Shakespeare

CST_PericlesPericles is one of Shakespeare’s plays that isn’t produced often, but Chicago Shakes has done a great job in staging it to bring out its best parts and subdue its lesser aspects. David Bell’s direction is excellent and the staging, costumes and music are superb. My Gapers Block review calls it a “lush, celebratory production.”

The play has a fine crew of actors, led by Canada’s Ben Carlson in the lead with grand support from Chicago stalwarts Sean Fortunato, Kevin Gudahl, Lisa Berry, Ora Jones and the always delightful Ross Lehman.

It runs 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. My review notes that the first act is too long, but the production is worth your time. You can see it thru January 18.

Shining City by the Irish Theatre Company

GB-ShiningCity-2This is one of those minimalist, slightly claustrophobic productions that makes you feel that you’re peering over the shoulders of the characters whose life traumas you’re watching. The staging of this Conor McPherson play in the small Den Theatre space enhances that mood. It’s set in the office of an ex-priest, now-therapist, who is feeling his way through his own life as well as that of his patient.

Beautifully acted, with a special performance by Brad Armacost in the role of John, the patient. In his long monologue, he unburdens his soul and guilt to the therapist. You will be on the edge of your seat, lest you miss a word. Warning: there are ghosts in this play.

This 100-minute, five-scene production runs thru January 4. See my review.

Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre

GB-Iphigenia-CourtThis was a rather low-key production by Court Theatre of the tale of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so that the winds would blow and send his fleet to attack Troy and bring back “that whore, Helen.” My review of this quote and of the play, which is now closed. Those bloody tales in which human fates rest on the whims of the gods and goddesses never fail to be interesting. However, this play has nowhere near the power of Court’s production, twice mounted, of An Iliad, which I noted in my review.

And on screen: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya at the Gene Siskel Film Center

kaguyathumbThis is a new and exquisite entry in the collection of superb work by Japan’s Studio Ghibli, known for its beautiful hand-drawn animated films. I mentioned the work of Studio Ghibli when I reviewed The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki last spring. This new film is by Isao Takahata, drawn in subtle, almost water-color delicacy and black brush-stroke detail. It tells the story of a tiny baby girl adopted by a woodcutter and his wife when he finds her in a bamboo plant. She is an enchanted child and the film, based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale, tells the story of her growth, love and loss.

Runs thru December 30 at the Siskel Film Center–137 minutes. You can see it with Japanese subtitles (my preference) or voiced in English; the Siskel schedule tells which showings are which.

(All photos courtesy of the theater companies.)

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On stage in Chicago: Dead cats and Irish playwrights

I’ve written about films and filmmakers a lot lately but I have seen a few interesting plays as well. Here are some quick reviews and links to my Gapers Block reviews.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Aston Rep

You can see this Martin McDonagh play through November 23. And it’s worth your time to head GB-LieutenantofInishmorenorth on Clark Street to Raven Theatre’s venue just north of Peterson. The setting is the island of Inishmore in Galway in 1993 and a little background in Irish history helps. I included some background in my review, in which I gave the play four stars—a highly recommended rating.

Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Four dead fellas, two dead cats … me hairstyle ruined! Did I miss anything?”
That’s the culmination of Martin McDonagh’s grisly black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now being crisply staged by Aston Rep at the Raven Theatre.

A Bright Room Called Day by Spartan Theatre Company

GB-Husz-Agnes-thumb-240x240-15953This early Tony Kushner play also runs through November 23 at CIC Theatre on Irving Park Road. I was eager to see this because I admire Kushner’s writing. And poetic language and intriguing political comments do illuminate this story, set in 1932-33 Berlin. It was the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Hitler’s National Socialism. Unfortunately, Kushner inserts 1982 interludes in which a contemporary woman castigates the Reagan administration and compares it to the Hitler era. I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan but this was more than a little overwrought. I also thought the two-act play ran too long at 2.5 hours. All in all, I couldn’t give this production more than two stars—somewhat recommended.

Nevertheless, you may find it interesting. The Berlin scenes and the developing political awareness of the artists who populate those scenes are compelling. The devil and the ghost character plus the strident 1982 commenter…not so much.

In my review, I commented, “there are usually reasons why a rarely performed play is rarely performed. A Bright Room Called Day is such an example. Even Shakespeare wrote a few turkeys.”

The Night Alive at Steppenwolf Theatre

This Conor McPherson play runs thru this weekend at Steppenwolf. You can see it through Sunday, November 16. I’ve rhapsodized before here and here about how much I like Irish playwrights and writers. Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson are two of my favorites. The Night Alive is a shining example.

The Night Alive is a lovely play about caring for others, about both good and bad people. There’s poetic language that would seem inappropriate if it wasn’t coming from Irish characters. The play is beautifully acted and sharply directed. If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, I can recommend this highly.

I didn’t write a formal review of this, but I will be reviewing McPherson’s Shining City in early December at the Irish Theatre of Chicago (formerly Seanachai Theatre).

Don Juan in Hell at Shaw Chicago

GB-George_Bernard_Shaw_1925-NobelShaw Chicago produces “reader theater” versions of plays by another great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and occasionally his compatriots. Some of the productions utilize costumes and makeup but the staging is always actors with their scripts on music stands. They produced an excellent version of Don Juan in Hell, a ~90-minute excerpt from Shaw’s Man and Superman. You can check out my review here: The Devil Wore Red Sneakers.

Watch for their future productions of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s Major Barbara.