Celebrate the week by going to the theater: Three reviews

Celebrations are in order! This is a landmark week for all Americans, especially those who might want to choose their own home or their own life partners without discrimination or for those who might ever get sick and need health care. Like, all of us.

To celebrate, you might want to go to the theater. And I have some recommendations.

Moby Dick at Lookingglass Theatre

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Three Fates, as dead fish

I have seen the legend of the great white whale in many forms on stage and screen and read the book twice (once in college). The new production of Moby Dick at Lookingglass is one of the best, perhaps the best, I’ve seen. The staging is very creative and the acting is excellent. Most important, director David Catlin’s script, which he adapted from Herman Melville’s novel, is strong and cohesive and manages to tell the whole story economically. The source of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal hatred of Moby Dick, the habits and practices of the crew of a whaling ship, and even what life is like at sea. The friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg is sensitively told and the characters of Ahab and Starbuck take on reality.

My Gapers Block review also noted some of the other recent Moby Dick portrayals. I gave the play four stars, a “highly recommended” review. It runs two-and-three-quarter hours with two intermissions. It’s been extended and you can see it through August 28.

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The Who and the What at Victory Gardens

This is a smart, funny play about a conservative Pakistani-American family and their attempts to come to grips with modern realities. Father Afzal is a widower, still grieving the loss of his wife and trying to do what’s best for his two daughters. Zarina, the older sister, past 30 and unmarried, is writing a novel about “gender politics.” If she gets over her writer’s block, the story she tells will be explosive in their conservative community. Ron O J Parsons, the director, has crafted a thought-provoking and moving play. Here’s my review. (Link added 6/29/15.)

The Who and the What, by Ayad Akhtar, runs just under two hours with one intermission. It continues at Victory Gardens through July 12.

All Our Tragic at The Hypocrites

The Hypocrites have remounted their compilation of all 32 extant Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, deftly adapted by Sean Graney. It’s funny, poignant, slapstick, bloody … and really, it’s a theatrical experience not to be missed. You can binge on the 12-hour experience—but think of it as nine hours of theater and many food and relaxation breaks. I reviewed it last year.

All Our Tragic runs Saturdays and Sundays through August 9.

And also …. Chicago Dramatists Scene Shop Showcase

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Scene Shop Showcase that Chicago Dramatists holds twice a year to give a glimpse at new plays in progress. Scenes (about 10 minutes each) were shown from 10 plays by 10 playwrights. Chicago Dramatists is “the playwrights’ theatre” and they offer playwriting classes and present new plays in their Saturday Series of readings.

My friend Debbie Dodge invited me to attend the showcase. Her scene, “Ashes to Ashes,” was about siblings deciding how to handle a parent’s ashes. “Cut: A Restoration Drama,” by Brenda Kilianski, raised the circumcision question and controversially compared it to female genital mutilation. It’s amazing how much drama can be packed into 10 minutes.

The scenes are staged readings with some props and blocking. Many of the playwrights, actors and directors are Equity members. The scenes were performed on the Chicago Dramatists’ main stage, which was set for the show then in production.

The next Scene Shop Showcase will be in December. It’s open to the public and the cost is a suggested $5 donation.


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

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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

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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

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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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