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.

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Reviews from the Chicago theater scene: The good and not so good

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

NSB_travestiesRemy 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.

My review in Gapers Block has also been posted on culturevulture.net and on berkshirefinearts.com.

End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-EndDaysYes, 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

NSB-trapdoorLaBeteThe 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

GB-UpstairsConciergeAfter 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.

And also…. 

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. 


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.)


Mini-reviews from October stages

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.

GB-Timeline-DannyThe 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.

nsb-nativesonNative 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.

GB-WOTRJoshua,Bodo,FannyAnother 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.

 

 


May Playbill: Fighters, painters, mammoths and more

I’ve seen lots of plays lately, as usual, and wanted to give you a little recap of a few to see, or not.

Lay Me Down Softly at Seanachai Theatre

Seanachai does an excellent job with this terrific Irish script by Billy Roche. It’s a tough story about a traveling roadshow that includes a fake bearded lady, carnival booths and fake boxing ring challenges. Every day is the same; only the towns change. The main story thread is about Dean, a boxer who can’t seem to win, and Junior, a once-champion who was forced to retire because of an injury. The bullying roadshow owner Theo and the cut man and boxers’ mentor Peadar are the other two male characters. Two women create really strong performances to anchor the play. The boxing ring set is handled with great care and almost seems to create a play within a play.

My Gapers Block colleague, Alice Singleton, reviewed it and adds some interesting insights.

Lay Me Down Softly runs until May 25 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Like Seanachai’s recent production of The Seafarer, which I reviewed in December, it’s a must-see. Oh, how I love those Irish playwrights.

Dorian at The House Theatre

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Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Dorian is an adaptation of the great Oscar Wilde novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a visually interesting production that stresses the personal relationships among Dorian, his portraitist and friends and party people of today’s London. It’s the well-known story of Dorian–the man who didn’t age while his portrait did. House stages it in “promenade” style, which means most of the audience is mingling with the actors during the action, which can take place in the artist’s studio, at parties, galleries or performance spaces. I recommended it with a three-star review, and added this:

“This is not a play to attend because you love the writing of Oscar Wilde, notably in his fabulous plays like Lady Windermere’s FanA Woman of No ImportanceSaloméAn Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, all written in the 1890s. The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, is complex and challenging–and filled with smart, witty dialogue, but you won’t find much of that complexity or dialogue in Dorian.”

Dorian runs until May 18 at the Chopin Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My review here.

Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
at Theater Wit

This play has received excellent reviews, every one of them richly deserved. It’s smart and well written, warmly acted by a fine cast, and directed by Jeremy Wechsler. The script is by Madeleine George, a writer with Massachusetts and Brooklyn connections. It’s about relationships between friends and lovers and the financially stressed closing of the museum at a small northeastern college, which will leave the mammoths homeless.

Every cast member is excellent. The day I saw it, one of the major roles was played by a superb substitute, Penelope Walker. Laura Fisher, an old friend from Famous Door Theatre days, is outstanding in one of the other lead roles. A special treat is the performance by Steve Herson, who plays various characters including the museum caretaker, a reporter, citizens at a town hall meeting, and a board member reading the hilarious minutes of the meeting. In each case, his accent is different and perfect. Also the museum exhibits include prehistoric people in diorama exhibits who voice the concerns of museum visitors.

Seven Homeless Mammoths is a great treat and you shouldn’t miss it. It runs until May 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont.

 Mud Blue Sky at A Red Orchid Theatre

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Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This is a terrific show at Red Orchid, with great humor, warm relationships, and things you didn’t want to know about airplanes. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Loneliness, regrets, friendship, humor, and a little maternal instinct season A Red Orchid Theatre’s new play, Mud Blue Sky. Director Shade Murray gets the most out of Marisa Wegrzyn’s fine script, which revolves around airport life. The tiny Red Orchid space on Wells Street is perfect for the claustrophobic story of three very mature flight attendant friends on a layover at a hotel near O’Hare.” Beth and Sam are still flying. Angie lost her job recently and now lives in a Chicago suburb. Angie misses flying and the others can’t wait to get away from it. That’s the story until they get acquainted with a young man named Jonathan, who helps them find some relaxation and entertainment.

My review is highly recommended at theatreinchicago.com. Mud Blue Sky has been playing to sold-out houses and it’s now extended until June 29.

Our Class at Remy Bumppo

Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek is a play about the Holocaust—set in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in the years leading up to World War II. The play was troubling and thought-provoking and my friends debated and disagreed about it  afterwards.

The story begins in the schoolroom where members of “our class” study and play together. They are all friends, whether Jewish or gentile. Hints of anti-Semitism creep in to their school and their play from time to time and gradually increase. The key event is the 1941 massacre of virtually all the Jewish citizens—1,600 men, women and children–by their neighbors. The perpetrators are never accused, never held accountable. In the years that follow, various survivors lie about their role in the event, including one who hid and one who had converted to Christianity.

Despite the power of the first act, most of the second act is bogged down in excessive exposition. Too much detail kills the power of the first act. The play runs nearly three hours, with one intermission.

This is a risky sort of play for Remy Bumppo, which tends to produce superb quality Anglophile theater by great writers. Their regular ensemble is made up of talented and experienced Chicago actors. Our Class takes Remy Bumppo in a totally different, riskier direction and brings in some younger actors new to the company.

Reviews are virtually all “highly recommended” or four star. Our Class runs until May 11 at the Greenhouse Theatre Center.

Death Defying Acts at Saint Sebastian Players

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Photo by John C Oster.

Three short plays by three brilliant writers: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Unfortunately, they were all writing on their off days because the scripts in Death Defying Acts aren’t very good. The production is medium, with a few good performances. I really wanted to give this play a better review but I just couldn’t. The theater company decided to create a circusy atmosphere in the lobby and around the production, which was not a great idea. Here’s what I said about that in my Gapers Block review.

“One problem with the whole production is the overworked circus atmosphere. Yes, death-defying acts suggest a carnival with risky high-wire acts. Old circus posters decorate the lobby of the church-basement theater. Before the show opens, an old circus film, Here Comes the Circus, is projected across the stage floor. The crew is dressed in circus clown and aerialist costumes while making stage changes. But it’s a bit over the top, especially considering the lack of death-defying acts on stage.”

Death Defying Acts runs until May 18 at St Bonaventure Church, 1641 W Diversey. The theater space is in the basement; entry door on the west side of the church. Good news is that there’s free parking in the church lot.

And on screen, not stage

The Wind Rises returns. This wonderful Japanese animated film by the master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is scheduled for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Center, May 16-29. I wrote about this film when it opened recently. It’s beautiful, hand-drawn throughout, rich and complex in its use of Japanese history and mythology. If you didn’t see it before, you have another chance.

orsonwelles-siskel

Photo courtesy Siskel Film Center.

Othello at Siskel. The great and greatly flawed Orson Welles 1952 production of Shakespeare’s Othello has been running at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I saw it for the third time last night (the first time was when I was in college at the old Fine Arts cinema, the second a few years ago at the Music Box). The 1992 restoration made a lot of improvements in visual and sound quality. It’s a powerful film, with Welles starring as the Moor. It’s clear why his film presence was so huge; he dominates every scene with his size, voice and expression.

The play is really Iago’s, as Harold Bloom insists in his essay on Othello in his book, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. The actor who plays Iago in the film (Micheal Mac Liammoir, an Irish actor who founded the Gate Theatre),does a creditable job but can’t stand up to the Welles persona. Because he is Orson Welles, no matter what role he is playing.

 

 


Theater feast: Four plays in four days and more

Whether I’m reviewing for Gapers Block or not, I revel in seeing a lot of plays. On one recent weekend, I went to the theater four nights in a row. And then more the next week. Here’s a recap of my recent theater feast. Most of these plays are still showing, so get thee to a theater!

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey at Remy Bumppo Theatre at Greenhouse Theatre Center; through November 10.

The Jane Austen play gets a delightful, charming and funny presentation by the reliably solid Remy Bumppo. The set is used wisely; costumes are simple and elegant. Outstanding performances by Sarah Price as Catherine Morland and Greg Mathew Anderson double cast as Valancourt and Henry Tilney are supported by a uniformly excellent cast.  It’s particularly fun to see Catherine’s love of books and her reader’s imagination translated into stage action. Thoroughly enjoyable.

 The Wheel

Zinnie Harris’ The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre; through November 10.

The reviews of this play are mixed to say the least. Of nine reviews, only one is highly recommended; the others are somewhat recommended or recommended. One of my neighbors warned me it was “dreadful.” So of course I went to the theater with low expectations … and was wowed.

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1973,_MiNr_1852

1973 German stamp commemorating Berliner Ensemble production;  Wikimedia Commons

The play is directed by Tina Landau and stars Joan Allen, an original Steppenwolf ensemble member. And yes, it’s a sprawling mess as Beatriz (Allen) leaves northern Spain to wander the world from war to war, from century to century, with two children in tow, trying to find their parents. Sound a little familiar? Yes, it’s Brechtian and a little reminiscent of his masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children, written about the Thirty Years War.

There’s some magical realism, of course, and the events of the play make us ask moral and ethical questions of ourselves. The dialog is clever and evocative and the occasional music by the actors themselves adds a great deal. Plus it’s always a pleasure to see Yasen Peyankov on stage. Tim Hopper and LaShawn Banks also do excellent jobs, as do the two children. At the end, Beatriz is back in Spain, but the wheel keeps turning and she finds herself facing the same problems. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play.

The Goddess

Paddy Chayefsky’s The Goddess at The Artistic Home; through November 17

thegoddess1958poster

1958 movie poster

My Gapers Block review of The Goddess was just posted. The play concerns the childhood, dramatic rise and fall of a doomed blonde movie star. Chayefsky says he wasn’t writing it about Marilyn Monroe but it might have been Kim Stanley. The play is a bit choppy but the performances are excellent. The costumes are gorgeous and worth the price of the ticket alone. Artistic Home, at 1376 W. Grand Ave., helps Chicago deserve its rep as the home of great storefront theater. The 1958 movie starred Kim Stanley and Lloyd Bridges.

The Balcony and 12 Nights

Jean Genet’s The Balcony at Trap Door Theatre; closed October 12. Not Exactly Shakespeare’s 12 Nights at The Hypocrites; closed October 6.

These are two of my very favorite small theaters. Both are amazingly inventive. I always look forward to their productions.

balcony_web

The Balcony cover design

Trap Door comes out of the legacy of European Repertory Theatre, the late lamented theater of the 1990s. For both ensembles, many of its members are or were European born or trained. I still remember how the ERC production of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon sent shivers up my spine. Trap Door chooses European classic and contemporary scripts and performs them with great wit and panache in a tiny space. The Balcony, set in a brothel and making fun of politics and society, is a great example of their work.

The Hypocrites is reliably crazy, quirky and never boring. Sean Graney, the former artistic director, created and directed 12 Nights out of Shakespeare and a few other sources. His work is literate, witty and imaginative. The new artistic director, Halena Kays, is a worthy successor. Her production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of Author was imaginative and riveting.

What’s up next

Next week I’m reviewing two openings:

  • Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at Eclectic Theatre
  • Good Thing by Jessica Goldberg at Poor Theatre

I’m taking my grandson James to see William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, part of Steppenwolf’s young adult series, this weekend. More on that later.

I want to see Killer Angels, a Civil War play by Michael Shaara, at Lifeline Theater through November 24.

And Trevor by Nick Jones is a dark comedy about a chimp. It’s at A Red Orchid Theatre through December 1.