Here are brief reviews of plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. For details and ticket information on any of them, go to theatreinchicago.com and select Review Roundup.
Both Your Houses at Remy Bumppo
By Maxwell Anderson. See it thru November 9
This Maxwell Anderson play is a political charmer, set in 1932. The shenanigans involve the House of Representatives budget committee alternatively cutting expenditures or ensuring that members’ favorite pork projects are funded. A brand new Congressman tries to change everything. Anderson wrote it in frustration with the Hoover administration and its lack of response to the Depression. Remy Bumppo’s production sparkles with terrific performances and a lovely set on the second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Here’s their trailer.
Danny Casolaro Died for You at Timeline Theatre
By Dominic Orlando. See it thru December 21.
The names and events are vaguely familiar, if you were consuming political news in the 1980s and ’90s. Iran-contra. BCCI (“the world’s sleaziest bank,” according to a Time magazine cover). Bert Lance. The Church committee. Wackenhut Security. The CIA and Central American drug cartels. The Sandinistas. The Iran hostage crisis.
That’s how my Gapers Block review begins. The eponymous Danny is a freelance journalist who tries to put all those pieces together for a big story. The play is well acted and tensely performed. Timeline, which specializes in productions that explore history, does an excellent job, including putting the period in perspective through detailed lobby exhibits and playbill information.
Native Son at Court Theatre
By Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright. See it thru October 19.
Native Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is about Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago African-American man without education, money or hope. He gets a job for which he is ill-prepared, and commits murder by accident. The story is tense and disturbing. It’s also grim and depressing, because it’s describing an event 75 years in the past—and not enough change has taken place.
Nambi E. Kelley has written a spine-tingling adaptation, leaving the linear plot line of the novel behind and playing out Bigger’s story in a crisp 90-minute production. The cleverly designed setting of wooden stairs, poles and walkways by Regina Garcia really makes he play work. Seret Scott’s direction holds the story together and made me forget to miss Max, Bigger’s left-wing lawyer, whose character Kelley stripped out of her script.
Some reviewers consider Wright’s character of Bigger to be symbolic and unrealistic. I was part of a discussion group that met with playwright Kelley the night we saw the play. She told us that she had come to love and care about Bigger during the long writing process. That enabled us to care about him in her play. But the Chicago streets where black men, such as Jerod Haynes who plays Bigger, walk today are still mean streets, even though the nature of their danger has changed over the years.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Porchlight Music Theatre
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. See it thru November 9.
This marvelously bloody and brilliant story never fails to delight. No sappy, sugary musical here. The new Porchlight production directed by Michael Weber at Stage 773 gets very strong performances and creative staging from this talented company. In particular, the two leads, Rebecca Finnegan as the lively Mrs. Lovett and David Girolmo as the demon barber, are superb vocally and dramatically. A very young Miles Blim plays Toby with terrific charm; he’s a high school senior in Oak Park. An excellent five-person musical group led by Doug Peck provides the Sondheim music.
The clever script is loaded with quotable lines. As Mrs. Lovett ponders what to do with the detritus of Mr. Todd’s shaving services, she thinks aloud: “Business needs a lift / Debts to be erased / Think of it as thrift, as a gift / If you get my drift. / Seems an awful waste / I mean, with the price of meat what it is.
At the end of act one, Lovett and Todd perform a delightfully homicidal “A Little Priest.” The song includes my favorite passage, which I have used in a business context to describe the M&A environment. The demon barber advises her,
“The history of the world, my sweet–
is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”
The recent New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Sweeney Todd uses the same Christopher Bond adaptation; it’s excellent and is available online on pbs.org. The NY Phil version is presented concert style with costuming and some props with the performers on walkways amongst the orchestra. Its highlight is Emma Thompson’s great comedic turn as Mrs. Lovett.
Here’s a trailer of the Porchlight production.
Watch on the Rhine at The Artistic Home
By Lillian Hellman. See it thru November 16.
Another play set against an historical landscape is Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, now on stage at The Artistic Home on Grand Avenue in Noble Square. The play, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country, at a time when most Americans did not believe that. Hellman sets up a compelling pre-war conflict between two characters, both Europeans, but visiting in the US. One is a fascist and the other is an anti-fascist freedom fighter. The performances in this production are excellent and Cody Estle’s direction, including three child actors, is up to the Artistic Home standards.
See my Gapers Block review for details.
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
Yes, 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
In 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
Trap 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 . . . .
A 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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