I always say I prefer my theater (and films) to be grim and depressing. No happy-go-lucky musicals with egregious singing and dancing for me. But this week I’ve seen three marvelous plays that made me laugh and made me think. And what could be a better combination for an evening of theater with thoughtful friends?
The Rose Tattoo by Shattered Globe at Theater Wit
Tennessee Williams’ play about an insular Sicilian-American community on the Gulf Coast is melodramatic, tragic and funny. The rose tattoo of the title is an actual tattoo on the chest of Rosario, the husband of seamstress Serafina. We never meet Rosario because Serafina is widowed early in the play. She mourns him and prays to a statue of Mary and his ashes while trying to keep her teenaged daughter from growing up too fast. Shattered Globe’s production is performed in a small space at Theater Wit, but director Greg Vinkler and his actors make the most of the space and of Williams’ passionate plot and language.
My review for Gapers Block gave it four stars or “highly recommended” for the Theatre in Chicago site. The production runs until Feb. 28.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Theater Wit
This could be described as a play about The Simpsons, now in its 26th TV season. But it’s really about the world we may have to look forward to, if we don’t rebuild our infrastructure to protect the electric grid. Yes, it’s a post-electric play, taking place in a world of the future that you don’t even want to think about. The three acts show us a vision of the near future, seven years later and 75 years after that. My review appears in Gapers Block and also on Culture Vulture.
Yes, The Simpsons’ plots and characters tie the dystopian epic together. The clever storyline follows the episode from season 5, “Cape Feare,” which satirized the two film versions of Cape Fear in 1962 (Robert Mitchum) and 1991 (Robert De Niro).
The acting, scene design and costuming are all well done, with great creativity in the use of materials and funky lighting when there is no electricity. Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is spot on and the eight actors move from character to character with ease. The production is funny and thought-provoking. However, if you’re not at least a casual Simpsons viewer, you may be in the dark. You can see this until March 1.
Waiting for Godot at Court Theatre
This Samuel Beckett play is one of my very favorites and I never grow tired of seeing it reinterpreted by a new director and cast. Court Theatre’s production, directed by Ron OJ Parsons, is one of the best I’ve seen. One interesting aspect is that it’s performed by an all-African-American cast.
You remember the story. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), a bleak landscape, a leafless tree. They’re hanging out, waiting, of course, for Godot, who never appears and is never explained. In mid-first-act, along comes Pozzo, the plutocrat, and his silent slave Lucky, who is roped by the neck and occasionally whipped by Pozzo.
All four actors are outstanding and among Chicago’s finest. But Allen Gilmore, who plays Vladimir, is so graceful, verbally and physically, that he simply outshines the others. Also Anthony Lee Irons, who plays Lucky, is a joy to see perform his “thinking” monologue. He is brilliantly agile as the philosophical gibberish rolls off his tongue.
Here’s a video clip from the current Court production.
This production is perhaps a bit more physical than some I have seen. It’s a lively performance (lively isn’t usually a word I’d apply to Beckett). The play is about the significance and insignificance of life, about tomorrow and about hope. But it is also a music hall piece with a great deal of humor. And Beckett fully intended it to be funny. He loved vaudeville and silent film comedy and supposedly considered casting Buster Keaton as Gogo and Charlie Chaplin as Didi.
Brian Dennehy was once quoted as saying: “Godot is the greatest thing you can do in theater. It’s incredibly philosophical and deep and significant—and very, very funny.”
Some of the acting pairs who have played Didi and Gogo in the past make me yearn to see their performances. Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (with Billy Crudup as Lucky!).
Here’s a wonderful video that shows clips of Stewart and McKellen’s 2013 performance plus the two of them speaking about the play in an interview.
And one more thing: The Humans at American Theater Co.
I saw this play a month ago but haven’t had a chance to write about it here. The Humans by Stephen Karam is a world premiere and another excellent ATC production that lets us observe a family Thanksgiving dinner in real time, including crudités from Costco. The characters—adult children, parents, grandmother—all have a story. Love and lost love, laughter, illness, disability and aging issues. The production received almost unanimous four-star reviews, although I would have given it three stars if I had reviewed it. It runs through Sunday, Feb. 1, with two performances on each weekend day—so it would be a good alternative to that football thing on Sunday.
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Theater season never really ends in Chicago but there’s always a flurry of openings in September. Here are a few plays I’ve seen recently and recommend for your consideration.
Churchill by SoloChicago
Ronald Keaton, a journeyman Chicago actor, turns himself into the great British leader for this one-man show that’s continuing at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The run is so successful that it’s moving into the large downstairs mainstage space.
Keaton has been a successful Chicago actor for years, performing comedy, drama and musicals, at suburban and city theaters, large and small. But he rarely has performed the leading or “hero” role, until now. He has created his own role, his own show and his own production company, as Chris Jones describes in this article about Keaton.
The show is excellent and Keaton takes us through Churchill’s life from childhood through his period as prime minister during World War II. The 135-minute show, performed with one intermission, runs through Sept. 21 and then Oct 3 to Nov. 9. Here’s a video clip of Keaton as Churchill.
The Whaleship Essex by Shattered Globe Theatre
Shattered Globe, which has a long and solid history among Chicago storefront and midsize theaters, is now staging a stirring tale of shipwreck and survival, based on an actual event that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Here’s how my Gapers Block review starts.
“Tales of the whale–the commercial treasure and leviathan of the sea–and the sailors who set out in wooden ships to hunt them, are endlessly fascinating. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick stands as one of the great adventure tales of world literature.
“A story that inspired Melville is being staged now by Shattered Globe Theatre in the exciting adventure/survival play, The Whaleship Essex by ensemble member Joe Forbrich. The two-hour-plus drama is staged with meticulous attention to nautical detail through the use of lighting, projections and simple wooden benches that serve as the whaleboats in which the whalemen leave the ship to capture whales. Or survive a shipwreck, as the case may be.”
There’s some excellent acting by this large cast, directed by Lou Contey. The acting and creative staging persuade us that the crew is indeed fighting to survive an attack by an enraged whale. Fortunately, a few seamen survived to write accounts of the Essex disaster. The Whaleship Essex continues at Theater Wit on Belmont through October 11.
The Arsonists at Strawdog Theatre
Max Frisch’s 1953 radio play, The Fire Raisers, was adapted for the stage in 1958 and was understood as a metaphor for the rise of the Nazi Party and citizens’ inability to recognize evil. This 2007 adaptation by Alistair Beaton keeps the chilling symbolism of the arsonists who intend to start fires, political or residential.
Director Matt Hawkins does a fine job with Strawdog’s small cast, performing on a two-level stage in their second-storey venue. The chorus of firefighters serves to warn us of coming events as well as fight them when they occur. Time and place are ambiguous in The Arsonists, but it should set off warning bells for all sorts of evil occurrences or political skullduggery in the 21st century.
The Arsonists, 90 minutes with no intermission, runs through Sept. 27 at Strawdog on Broadway near Grace. And here’s a dining tip. Tutto Fresco Trattoria at 3829 N Broadway is a neighborhood jewel and just steps away from the theater.
King Lear at Chicago Shakes
I’m reviewing Chicago Shakespeare’s new production of King Lear, starring Larry Yando. Tonight is opening night, so I’ll post my review later this week.
Chicago theaters are opening new shows in January and February, so after a slow December, I’ll be reviewing lots of theater again. Here are a few current highlights.
Our Country’s Good
This play by Shattered Globe Theatre is being presented at Theater Wit on Belmont. The historical subject matter of the play—prisoners and their English soldier-captors in the new Australian penal colony in 1788—is fascinating. The play by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker also involves a play within a play performed by the convicts. Many interesting possibilities, but the play ultimately is a bit flat. I was disappointed because Shattered Globe usually does sterling work. My Gapers Block review notes some of the problems.
It’s possible that the director could take notes from some of the reviews and snap up the production, however. The show runs thru February 22, so if the subject matter interests you, check it out. (Image courtesy Shattered Globe Theatre.)
Mr Shaw Goes to Hollywood
This is a smart, funny play with lots of celebrity name-dropping and appearances by GBS and Clark Gable. I haven’t posted my Gapers Block review yet, so I won’t go into more reviewer details here. But I will tell you it’s by MadKap Productions at the second floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center thru February 16.
Update: here’s my Gapers Block review. I gave it a Recommended rating for theatreinchicago.com.
Blood on the Cat’s Neck
This was another sparkling production by Trap Door Theatre, pulling out crazy visual magic on their tiny stage. The play is closed now, but I will only say: Watch for the next Trap Door production. They do plays mainly by European playwrights and they always have a political/social edge reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.
Blood on the Cat’s Neck is by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German film innovator who died of a drug overdose at 36 in 1982, ten years after writing this play. Blood plays out in three parts; it’s part monologue, part short scenes, and it ends with a mad party scene. The character we follow with most interest is Phoebe Zeitgeist (played by Simina Contras), a vampire from another planet. She’s completely naked throughout, except for a hat, gloves, heels and glittery red lipstick. She has a fixed smile and repeats the other characters’ slogans and complaints, without seeming to know what they mean. The party scene ends with Phoebe doing what vampires do – to each character in turn. (Image courtesy Trap Door Theatre.)
Invisible Man at Court Theatre and on the page
Court Theatre presented Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man two years ago. The play was marvelous, compelling but confusing. I left feeling dissatisfied, wishing I had read the book before seeing the play. Now I’ve read the book (my book group had an excellent discussion on it) and I would love to see the play again. I think it would be more dramatic and meaningful.
Ellison is a lyrical writer, influenced by jazz as a musical form. He tells the story of a nameless young man who leaves a Southern black college to go to New York where he experiences northern racism and bigotry in the course of making a living and making human contact. He is a talented, even charismatic, speaker and becomes a spokesman for a white-led political organization called the Brotherhood where he is tasked to recruit in Harlem. Ellison was a Marxist for a while so the Brotherhood is probably patterned after the Communist party. The character makes us understand why he is invisible and how social and political racism affect him. The book is structured episodically and sometimes requires flipping back to reread an earlier section. Ellison’s writing is rewarding, however, and the book is a wonderful read.
Theatre in Chicago website
I want to recommend this website as a resource for Chicago theater-goers. It’s a very good way to find out what plays are showing now and what reviewers are saying. To see the compilations of reviews, go to the home page and select Review Round-Up in the left-hand column. My Gapers Block reviews are now appearing there.
There are sister sites in other cities: Minneapolis, Boston, DC, Seattle, LA, Atlanta and San Francisco. You can find links to those pages in the footer at theatreinchicago.com.
Read about the two plays I recommend here: The Seafarer runs until February 1. An Inspector Calls just closed.
It’s theater season again and I have three new reviews that you’ll be interested in. Plus a special tip on what to see in the future.
9 Circles at Sideshow Theatre
9 Circles takes us through the depths of Dante’s Inferno by telling the story of an Iraq war veteran who is accused of a terrible crime. The play presents a series of two-person scenes between the ex-soldier and a series of helpful or surreal professionals. The story moves from accusation to trial to execution. The play is gripping, intense and discussion-provoking. It’s a terrific performance by Andrew Goetten, who plays the ex-soldier, and by the other actors in multiple roles. You can read my Gapers Block review here.
The photo at left is the one I reference in the first paragraph of the review. The photo is from the @historyinpix Twitter page and titled “Soldier in Vietnam, 1965.” Click to enlarge it and read what the soldier has written on his helmet.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway at American Blues Theater
This is a lively musical biography but of course the underlying story is tragic. Hank Williams was a brilliant country-blues singer/songwriter in the 1940s and early 1950s. He influenced many performers who followed him and the play suggests how he was a link to the African-American blues musicians of the period. His life was cut short at the age of 29 because of his addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs. The ABT play does a good job of telling both the tragic story and making you happy to hear a healthy setlist of Williams’ songs. The band (Williams’ Drifting Cowboys) is made up of some excellent Chicago musicians and Matthew Brumlow as Hank comes close to channeling his image, his voice and musical style. Read my Gapers Block review here.
Photo by Johnny Knight; courtesy of American Blues Theater.
Other People’s Money at Shattered Globe Theatre
This is a witty and fast-moving play about corporate raiders in the late 1980s. You remember them, don’t you? Michael Milken, Victor Posner, Carl Icahn? The financial crisis of five years ago this month has brought other corporate names to the forefront. Jamie Dimon, Richard Fuld and Hank Paulson; companies like Lehmann Brothers, Bear Stearns and AIG. So the raiders and their takeovers seem a bit dated now. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and entertaining play and I recommend it. Ben Werling is terrific as Larry the Liquidator. Think of it, as I said in my Gapers Block review, as a drawing room comedy of the 1980s.
NT Live in HD
The Audience, a National Theater Live encore presentation
The National Theatre of London broadcasts live performances of some of its productions to theaters around the world, similar to the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts. NT Live broadcasts a live performance and several encores at the two Northwestern University theaters in Evanston, at the Music Box in Chicago and Renaissance Place in Highland Park.
Last week we saw the final broadcast of the commercial, West End production of The Audience by Peter Morgan. Helen Mirren stars as Elizabeth II of England and some talented actors as her various prime ministers over the years. The play is a series of scenes, in random, not chronological, order, in which Mirren ages or reverses her age with very quick changes of wig and costume. It’s brilliantly acted and riveting as it takes the viewers through historical events of Elizabeth’s long career. Her first audience was with Winston Churchill in 1952 and the latest with David Cameron in 2012.
Future NT Live productions this season are three Shakespearean tragedies: Othello, Hamlet and Coriolanus.
Mirren as Queen Elizabeth; photo copyright National Theatre Live.