On stage in Chicago: Mini-reviews

Some theater recommendations from my recent reviews and theater adventures in Chicago.

The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare

CST_TEMPEST_04_Prospero,CalibanYes, you’ve seen this play before but never with such magic and music. Chicago Shakes’ new production features music by the great Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The music is bluesy and has notes of vaudeville and medicine shows as well as early blues. The production is adapted and directed by Aaron Posner (Stupid Fucking Bird) and Teller of the magic duo Penn and Teller, and the magic is very impressive, including Ariel’s (Nate Dendy) sleight of hand and card tricks and an enchanting levitation scene. When Prospero speaks the famous line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” to his daughter Miranda and her lover Ferdinand, it gains a new poetry in his reading.

See my reviews here and here. The Tempest runs until November 8.

Geneva at Shaw Chicago

GB-Geneva CastShaw Chicago produces “concert readings” of the work of the great GBS. I wouldn’t call them staged readings because they’re not blocked; the actors are at their music stands with script books. But they are costumed, made up and superbly acted by the whole cast. This production is a rarely performed Shaw set in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. The premise of the play is that the leaders of Spain, Germany and Italy–the dangerous buffoons who brought you World War II–are called before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. The script is witty and surprisingly current. Geneva just closed, but watch for the next Shaw Chicago production. They perform at the Ruth Page Center on Dearborn Street.

See my review here.

Green Day’s American Idiot at The Hypocrites

NSB-American-IdiotCongratulations to the Hypocrites for acquiring the Chicago rights to the production based on the Green Day album about suburban teen angst after 9/11, including, of course, sex, drugs and punk rock. The New York production ran for 400+ performances in 2010-11 and got generally favorable reviews. The Hypocrites’ version is smaller scale but still powerful and uses the pop/punk music to advantage. It’s loud, raucous and fun. Jeanne Newman, one of my Gapers Block colleagues, reviewed the show and her review is here.

American Idiot runs at the Hypocrites’ new home at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through October 25. If you don’t own the album, borrow or download it so you can listen to the music before you see the show. You’ll enjoy it more if you already appreciate the music–and Green Day’s lyrics.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Court Theatre

This late August Wilson play, the tenth in his Century Cycle about his home neighborhood, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, is set in the earliest decade of the 20th century. It resonates with the misery of the African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves or who remembered slavery themselves and the trauma of the Middle Passage, when slaves were transported across the ocean. Goodman Theatre produced this play in its 2002-03 season and I remember having mixed feelings about it then.

This production features very strong acting, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the mystic Aunt Ester and Jerod Haynes as Citizen Barlow, a young man who wants to save himself, “cleanse his soul,” and seems to speak for Wilson. Act one is strong although it runs too long, and in act two, Aunt Ester prepares for a spiritual visit to the City of Bones (see them in the video clip).

Gem of the Ocean runs through October 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.  It has had generally favorable reviews (I didn’t review it).

Photos and video clips courtesy of the theater companies.

 

 

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On stage in Chicago: Dead cats and Irish playwrights

I’ve written about films and filmmakers a lot lately but I have seen a few interesting plays as well. Here are some quick reviews and links to my Gapers Block reviews.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Aston Rep

You can see this Martin McDonagh play through November 23. And it’s worth your time to head GB-LieutenantofInishmorenorth on Clark Street to Raven Theatre’s venue just north of Peterson. The setting is the island of Inishmore in Galway in 1993 and a little background in Irish history helps. I included some background in my review, in which I gave the play four stars—a highly recommended rating.

Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Four dead fellas, two dead cats … me hairstyle ruined! Did I miss anything?”
That’s the culmination of Martin McDonagh’s grisly black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now being crisply staged by Aston Rep at the Raven Theatre.

A Bright Room Called Day by Spartan Theatre Company

GB-Husz-Agnes-thumb-240x240-15953This early Tony Kushner play also runs through November 23 at CIC Theatre on Irving Park Road. I was eager to see this because I admire Kushner’s writing. And poetic language and intriguing political comments do illuminate this story, set in 1932-33 Berlin. It was the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Hitler’s National Socialism. Unfortunately, Kushner inserts 1982 interludes in which a contemporary woman castigates the Reagan administration and compares it to the Hitler era. I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan but this was more than a little overwrought. I also thought the two-act play ran too long at 2.5 hours. All in all, I couldn’t give this production more than two stars—somewhat recommended.

Nevertheless, you may find it interesting. The Berlin scenes and the developing political awareness of the artists who populate those scenes are compelling. The devil and the ghost character plus the strident 1982 commenter…not so much.

In my review, I commented, “there are usually reasons why a rarely performed play is rarely performed. A Bright Room Called Day is such an example. Even Shakespeare wrote a few turkeys.”

The Night Alive at Steppenwolf Theatre

This Conor McPherson play runs thru this weekend at Steppenwolf. You can see it through Sunday, November 16. I’ve rhapsodized before here and here about how much I like Irish playwrights and writers. Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson are two of my favorites. The Night Alive is a shining example.

The Night Alive is a lovely play about caring for others, about both good and bad people. There’s poetic language that would seem inappropriate if it wasn’t coming from Irish characters. The play is beautifully acted and sharply directed. If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, I can recommend this highly.

I didn’t write a formal review of this, but I will be reviewing McPherson’s Shining City in early December at the Irish Theatre of Chicago (formerly Seanachai Theatre).

Don Juan in Hell at Shaw Chicago

GB-George_Bernard_Shaw_1925-NobelShaw Chicago produces “reader theater” versions of plays by another great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and occasionally his compatriots. Some of the productions utilize costumes and makeup but the staging is always actors with their scripts on music stands. They produced an excellent version of Don Juan in Hell, a ~90-minute excerpt from Shaw’s Man and Superman. You can check out my review here: The Devil Wore Red Sneakers.

Watch for their future productions of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s Major Barbara.