Theater madness: Report on my addiction

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December reviews: Stage and screen

December is always a busy month but this one is busier than usual for me because I’m working on an exciting new venture. I’ll tell you about it in a few weeks. For now, I want to give you my theater and movie favorites for the month.

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Photo by Johnny Knight

Fallen Angels at Remy Bumppo Theatre

This 1923 Noel Coward play is smart and funny, very funny, and slickly staged on Remy Bumppo’s space on the second floor at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The play and performance are delightful, partly because Coward does an interesting gender switch, unusual for the 1920s, with three outstanding female roles. My Gapers Block review tells all about it. Angels runs until January 10.

Ibsen’s Ghosts at Mary Arrchie Theatre

This very fine staging of the Ibsen play is a bit meta-theatrical and regularly breaks that famous fourth wall to interact with the audience. It’s hard for the audience not to feel that they’re interacting with the performers in this tiny space on second floor at Angel Island. (This is Mary Arrchie’s final season so do try to see one of their shows this year.) Ibsen’s Ghosts runs through December 20. My review begins this way:

“Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts takes the great Norwegian playwright’s scandalous 1881 play, shakes it up and spits it out in a witty contemporary form. And then punches you in the gut with its ending.”

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Photo by Michael Courier

Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph

Every Chicagoan knows the story of the thrill murder of young Bobby Franks by two University of Chicago students, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb. Victory Gardens retells the crime, its aftermath and the Leopold-Loeb trial in John  Logan’s 1986 script, written while he was a Northwestern University student. (Logan is known for his scripts for Hauptmann and Red, but has since become more famous as a screenwriter.) The two actors who play the criminals give excellent performances and veteran Chicago actor Keith Kupferer plays their attorney, Clarence Darrow, who saved them from execution. Never the Sinner closed this week. Here’s my review.

Agamemnon at Court Theatre

I liked last year’s Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre, but this year’s segment in the trilogy is a little flat and disappointing. The rhythm and performances in general are not as riveting. The actors performing as the chorus, however, are excellent, but they take up too much stage time and detract from the central plot. Agamemnon has now closed.

Some quick movie reviews

 Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s Greek satire (his adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata) designed to send a strong message about Chicago’s gun culture and gang warfare. It succeeds in dramatizing the Chicago murder crisis — more dead bodies than the deaths of special forces in Iraq. I found the two-hour film hugely entertaining, funny and wise — but messy and incoherent. It’s wildly uneven. I loved the Greek references and the dialogue in rhyming couplets. Although I liked it and will see it again, I could only gave it three stars out of five on my Letterboxd review. Chi-Raq has received some good and bad reviews, but see if for yourself. Unless you can’t handle vulgarity. Here’s the famous trailer.

 

Phoenix is a 98-minute film released in 2014 by German director Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss (the same pair responsible for the outstanding film Barbara). In Phoenix, Hoss stars as a woman disfigured in a Nazi concentration camp; she undergoes plastic surgery but looks quite different than her original self. When she finds her husband, he doesn’t recognize her but decides she looks enough like his dead wife that she can help him carry out a fraud scheme. The Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” is used hauntingly throughout the film and provides a stunningly perfect surprise ending. Phoenix is streaming on many services.

Inside Out, a Pixar film, is said to be suitable for children and it’s certainly not unsuitable, but it is very much a nuanced film that adults will like too. The story, briefly, is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s head and heart suffer from all the pangs and pains you can think of, missing her friends, her old house and her hockey team. The emotions that fight it out are embodied as Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust and are voiced by a fine set of actors.

My little grandsons were mesmerized by this 100-minute film (of course, they will watch anything on a screen, as their mother says) but my son and I thought everything but the basic story probably slipped by them. Still, it’s a good family film with beautiful animation.

Suffragette, a film about the fight for women’s voting rights in early 20th century England, was rather a disappointment. Too much attention paid to the individual angst suffered by the Carrie Mulligan character and others; not enough devoted to the suffrage question. (Or maybe I wanted to see a documentary.) Mulligan’s performance is good and Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as the chemist-activist. Meryl Streep does a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, overshadowed by her huge hat.


Arts & culture heat up Chiberia: 4 plays to see

Chicago had two days of almost-spring with temps above 40 last week but now winter is back in force. I just spent a few days in North Carolina, where their eight inches of snow melted very quickly. While I was there, we had three 60-degree/no-jacket days. Meanwhile, there have been lots of theater openings recently. Here are a few plays I’ve seen that you might enjoy too

In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer at Saint Sebastian Players

SSP-JRobertOppenheimer-GBYes, it’s talky and intellectual and it makes you think. Thinking might warm up your head. This three-hour play by the German writer Heinar Kipphardt leads us thru the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” being stripped of his security clearance. This production by the Saint Sebastian Players is very good, despite some actorly flaws. The main characters are portrayed very well and the pace is engrossing. The play runs until March 9. See my Gapers Block review here, along with ticket and location details.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porchlight Music Theatre

Porchlight_Rush-WassIn the mood for some stride piano playing, lively singing and dancing by five charismatic performers to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller? Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue by Porchlight Music Theatre, is terrific and I don’t even like musicals. It’s sure to win plenty of Jeff awards.

My Gapers Block review noted that this is Porchlight’s contribution to Black History Month:  a musical revue and tribute to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller and the Harlem Renaissance. “Fats himself would be proud of this production, performed at Stage 773 with an excellent live band led by über-pianist Austin Cook.” See my review for all the logistics and production details

Crime and Punishment at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

If you never managed to finish the Dostoyevsky book in high school or college, here’s your chance to gain a new appreciation for the character Raskolnikov and the theme of crime and guilt. Here’s how my Gapers Block review started: “Mary-Arrchie Theatre takes on a difficult task in staging this 2003 adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment. But with intelligent direction by Richard Cotovsky, this talented and respected off-Loop theater gives the audience a gripping 90 minutes. We meet Raskolnikov (a strong performance by Ed Porter), the poor, sickly, arrogant former law student who commits the crime, suffers guilt and psychological trauma and, finally, punishment.”

The script is the same one presented in 2003 by Writers Theatre in Glencoe on their tiny back-of-the-bookstore stage, with Scott Parkinson doing a superb job playing Raskolnikov. The novel was adapted into a play by two Chicago playwrights–Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus. The Mary-Arrchie play runs until March 16.

Judith: A Parting of the Body at Trap Door Theatre

judith1-1024x678Trap Door’s excellent production of Judith: A Parting of the Body by Howard Barker is a revisionist take on the biblical story of the Israelite widow who goes to the enemy camp to seduce General Holofernes. The language is poetic and sometimes vulgar. The three actors each play out their stories in an engrossing way.

You’ll remember the image, even if the story is not familiar. There are many famous versions of the painting often titled “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”; the one by Artemisia Gentileschi may be best known. But I have always liked the Caravaggio version best. You can see it on this Wikipedia page.

Judith has been extended so you can see it at Trap Door, the little theater space at the end of a gangway at 1650 W Cortland, until March 8.

Tribes at Steppenwolf Theatre

Tribes by Nina Raine recently ended its run at Steppenwolf. We saw it near the end of the run since we had to change our tickets from one of the deep-freeze days. The reviews of this play were mixed, varying from “somewhat ” to “highly recommended.” The story is about a family with one deaf son, who leaves the family cocoon and discovers the outside world and the deaf community. The theme isn’t new—the controversy over the benefits of sign language vs. lip-reading for the deaf–and it still demands our attention. I really wanted to like the play, but I found most of the characters unlikable and the play failed to keep me from checking my watch to see when I could leave.

And also . . . .

rapeofeuropaA film recommendation. In case you, like me, were disappointed in the reviews for The Monuments Men and decided not to see it, I’d like to recommend a good documentary that tells the story and even includes some of the real Monuments Men. The Rape of Europa, 2006, was written and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, with narration by Joan Allen. 117 minutes. Streaming on Netflix.

The film is drawn from the book of the same title by Lynn H Nicholas, who appears in the film; her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994. One of the co-producers is Robert M Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men, from which the current film is adapted.

An example of transitivity. Did you know that the song, “The St Louis Blues” got its name from a street, not from the Missouri city? Ann K Powers, the NPR music critic, posted a photo on her Facebook page of a memorial plaque in Bessemer, Alabama. The W C Handy song, “Pipeshop Blues” was also known as the “St Louis Blues” for St Louis Avenue, the street that ran through the Howard-Harrison Steel Company of Bessemer.

When I shared the image on my Facebook timeline, my economist son observed that this is an example of the mathematical concept of transitivity, which is

A relation among three elements. If it holds between the first and second elements and it also holds between the second and third, it must necessarily hold between the first and third.

Could this be four-part transitivity? The song was named after a street, which was named after a city, which was named after a French king and saint, Saint Louis himself, King Louis IX of France. So song, street, city, saint.

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On stage: Memories, heads, apocalypse prep

Comments on a few plays I’ve seen recently, including one full review.

 The Burden of Not Having a Tail: Apocalypse When?

burden-11x17Sideshow Theatre is presenting this one-woman show at Chicago Dramatists. It’s an entertaining 70 minutes about the prospects of an apocalypse. Woman, the lone character, is a “prepper” and the audience (that would be us) is there to learn from her experience to prepare ourselves.  There’s a sad thread to it (besides the grim one) about the death of her baby daughter.

All in all, the play fails to hold together as a play but I have to give the actor (Karie Miller), playwright (Carrie Barrett) and director (Megan Smith) props for a good try. It’s not easy to tell a dramatic story and hold a one-character play together. The successful ones I have seen are about the lives of riveting characters such as Clarence Darrow (by David Rintels from the Irving Stone biography) or Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (her story, I Am My Own Wife, was produced at Goodman Theatre in 2005). Or brilliantly written one-man plays, like Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

Read my review of The Burden of Not Having a Tail on Gapers Block. You can see it until August 4.

Big Lake, Big City: Chicago noir

If you think “comic noir” is not an oxymoron, then you’ll love the new play by Keith Huff at Lookingglass Theatre. Huff wrote the gripping two-character cop play, A Steady Rain, which was a hit here at Chicago Dramatists and then went to New York where Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman starred in it. That earned Huff his writing cred and he’s been writing for great TV dramas such as Mad Men and House of Cards, the recent Netflix streaming series that I wrote about in February.

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David Schwimmer directs this play about Chicago crime, with two hard-bitten police detectives (Philip R Smith and Danny Goldring), a guy who wants to go to Disneyland with a screwdriver embedded in his head (that’s right, he doesn’t make it through the metal detectors at O’Hare), and two morgue doctors who play golf with severed heads. Actually, heads get a lot of attention in this play and you can decide whether that’s symbolic or not. I left out the two corpses burned to a crisp while in flagrante delicto in a Lincoln Avenue motel and a dozen other delicious incidents.

The play has a lot of characters, a lot of plot threads and is probably more suited to TV, as a couple of critics have observed. Smith and Goldring are terrific as the two cops, and the acting and timing is very good. I suppose it’s not wholly successful as a theatrical exercise. However it’s really entertaining and stuffed with great Chicago jokes and references. My favorite scenic device is the Navy Pier Ferris wheel cab that I kept watching above me; it finally descended in one of the last scenes.

I recommend Big Lake Big City, although maybe not for out-of-town visitors. It runs until August 11 at Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works.

The Glass Menagerie: Memories in shards of glass

Mary Arrchie Theatre is presenting its distinctive version of the Tennessee Williams memory play in an extension at Theater Wit. It’s beautifully done and the acting makes you really appreciate Williams’ poetic language.

Tom, the poet, is played as a homeless man by Hans Fleischmann, who also directs. Tom wanders barefoot through a setting covered in glass shards. He’s the brother of delicate Laura and the son of Amanda (the southern belle who can’t believe the poverty of her current existence). There was something odd that I can’t quite put my finger on about Tom being played as a homeless man. The glass shards, of course, are reminiscent of Laura’s life with her glass menagerie and symbolic of their shattered lives. Basically, no one in the play accepts the reality of their own existence.

The play has a beautiful original score by Daniel Knox, which really enhanced the atmosphere.

I have seen The Glass Menagerie many times. My favorite still is the Court Theatre’s 2006 version, performed on an elevated set, mostly on the fire escape outside the Wingfield family flat in St. Louis. It captured the mood of Williams’ memory play beautifully, with fine acting in a minimalist setting. Jay Whittaker, an excellent Chicago actor who has left for other pastures, was a poetic Tom, longing for escape.

The Glass Menagerie runs until July 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont.