Lotsa theater in Chicago: Part 2

A few days ago, I posted an article compiling several plays I’ve seen recently. However, I’ve been busy lately, so here’s another bunch. Don’t miss the trailer below for Arguendo, the March production by Elevator Repair Service at the MCA Stage. It’s gone, but still being staged in other cities. You might want to chase it down after you see this.

Water by the Spoonful at Court Theatre

water-spoonfulQuiara Alegría Hudes’ play tells several stories of lost souls seeking to find themselves, find redemption or simply a cure for a crack habit. Three of the characters are family members: Elliott, an Iraq war veteran; his cousin, Yazmin, who has an adjunct academic job and seems to speak with the author’s voice; and Odessa, his estranged mother. Odessa moderates a global chat room for recovering addicts.

The chat room concept made the play seem very ‘90s although I know chat rooms still exist. When I tried to find some, they all seemed to be about sex, so the chat room vehicle seemed a little weak. But those scenes demonstrate the value for troubled souls being able to reach out and talk to others without recriminations.

Water is directed by Henry Godinez. Scene and projection design is by the very talented John Boesche, whose projections have embellished Chicago productions for many years. But the jagged hole in the front center of the stage was a little too literal in creating the abyss into which characters might fall.

Water by the Spoonful is touching, thought-provoking and beautifully staged. Its run ends April 6.

Russian Transport at Steppenwolf Theatre

russian-transportThe tough comedy/drama Russian Transport is directed by Yasen Peyankov, who has been one of my favorite Chicago theater artists since I first saw him in shows at the late great European Repertory Company in the 1980s and ’90s. I still get chills thinking about their production of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon.

Russian Transport is the story of a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn who work hard to get along and are joined by Boris, a relative who arrives from Russia. Misha, the father, runs a fairly successful car service out of his home office. His wife Diana (Boris’ sister) keeps tight control on the family cash. Alex and Mira are their children; Mira is still in high school; Alex goes to college part-time, and works a couple of part-time jobs, including driving for his father. They think Boris will need help finding a job and getting set up in America, but it turns out Boris already has a thriving business—which involves young women arriving from eastern Europe. He is by turns friendly, charming and menacing to his niece and nephew. Steppenwolf ensemble members Tim Hopper as Boris and Mariann Mayberry as Diana play roles quite different from their usual style. Both are excellent as are the other three actors.

The play has had mixed reviews but my friends and I thought it was excellent and worth your time and thought. It runs through May 11 in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theater.

More on European Rep. As an aside, this 1987 article from the Chicago Reader is a good overview of European Rep as well as an indictment for the lack of funding for theater in Chicago and the US.

 Thinner Than Water at The Gift Theatre

gift-storefrontThe headline for my Gapers Block review of this fine play is “not just another dysfunctional family.” Here’s an excerpt from the opening of my review:

“Is blood thinner than water, rather than, as the proverb would have it, thicker? Gift Theatre’s new play Thinner Than Water by Melissa Ross makes us ponder this question as water washes over the family members metaphorically as well as realistically…. So many opportunities for family dissension. But the recipe for a hyper-dysfunctional family might start like this: Take one distant and unloving father and three mothers–and add one child from each. As Thinner Than Water opens, the three half-siblings are arguing about who will handle details of their father’s terminal illness.”

Thinner Than Water has strong performances from all its cast members and John Gawlik’s direction makes it the high-quality production we have come to expect from Gift Theatre. You can catch it at this Jefferson Park storefront until May 25. See my complete review here.

Brahman/i at Silk Road Rising + About Face Theatre

Brahmani360pxBrahman/i is an unusual production—part standup comedy, part lesson in the history (and mystery) of sexual ambiguity. Its subtitle is “A One- Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show.” As a co-production of Silk Road and About Face, it involves both storytelling from South Asia and questions of sexual identity. Brahman/i, the sole character, is played by Fawzia Mirza, who has performed at many other Chicago theaters. Brahman/i is an hijra or intersex person, who is considered to be both male and female. (I’m working very hard not to use personal pronouns here.) During the performance, the actor changes from male garb to female with sari and jewelry. A guitarist provides occasional accompaniment and comments.

The story told is interesting and complex and tells us bits and pieces of history and mythology as well as stories of Brahman/i’s middle school and her opinionated auntie. We learn lessons from Odysseus and Galileo and see erotic Tantric images from the temples at Khajuraho. The almost-two-hour show is truly a stand-up comedy performance, not a play, although the stories are engaging and humorous; Mirza’s performance is charismatic and energetic. Brahman/i runs until April 27 at Silk Road Rising’s theater in the Chicago Temple on Washington Street.

 Arguendo by Elevator Repair Service

This play was staged at the MCA Stage for just one weekend in March, but the Elevator Repair Service production of Arguendo was one of the best things I’ve seen lately. I suppose not everyone would be attracted by a theatrical performance of a Supreme Court case, but this New York theater company is smart and innovative and made the lines sing. Barnes vs Glen Theatre Inc. was a 1991 Indiana case questioning the constitutionality of the Indiana law requiring performers to wear something—pasties and a g string, shall we say—rather than performing nude. The suit was brought by the Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre, Inc., of South Bend, Indiana. The Barnes in the case title was Michael Barnes, then St. Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney.

The show begins with a reporter scrum outside the SCOTUS building as exotic dancer arrives to observe the trial. Then we move to the courtroom where three justices are seated on a raised area above the stage. Proceedings begin in a dignified manner with opening arguments by petitioner and respondent. Shortly, we realize the justices’ chairs are on casters as they come careening down the ramps on either side of the stage. From then on, the scene changes moment by moment as justices and attorneys wheel around the stage to face each other or the audience. The three actors portraying the justices change voice and physical style to mimic the various justices.

The actor portraying Bruce Ennis, the ACLU attorney for the respondents (the dancers et al) argued on First Amendment grounds that the right to nude dancing was an element of free expression. His energetic arguments began to result in his gradual disrobing—first jacket, then trousers, then shirt, then undershirt and shorts—until he was down to a thong. And soon the thong came off too. He completed his arguments as naked as the day he was born.

Unfortunately, the SCOTUS decision, delivered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, didn’t agree with the First Amendment arguments—and the exotic dancers lost their case.

The 80-minute play was followed by a fascinating discussion and Q&A by director John Collins with Nancy Marder of the Jury Center at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Other experts joined Collins at other performances.

I first saw the great work of Elevator Repair Service in 2008, when they performed a full staged reading of Gatz, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The 8.5-hour production, with meal breaks, was also held at the MCA theater. It was one of those incredible arts experiences that can’t be matched. Except maybe by a terrific rock and roll concert.

 Coming up tonight: Bruce Springsteen on HBO

For fans of Bruce Springsteen and rock and roll: The 30-minute documentary, Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, will premier on HBO at 8:30pm tonight (my DVR is set). The making-of film was edited and directed by Thom Zimny, so it will be well done. The new album, High Hopes, was released in January.

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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.


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


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.


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.

What’s showing? Not for the faint of heart

This is an excellent theater season in Chicago. Both the mainstream and storefront theaters are doing interesting new plays and presenting inventive takes on old material. And there’s always the bizarre and quirky film to talk about, for instance….

seanpenn2This Must Be the Place. This is an extraordinarily rewarding film if I can interest you in the plot and the techniques – and if you can tolerate ambiguity. It’s written and directed by the Italian Paolo Sorrentino. Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a rich rock star, retired in Dublin, who seems to have lost interest in life and has nothing to think about except when to sell his 30,000 shares of Tesco. His wife of 35 years, played by Frances McDormand, is charming and vital and totally in love with him. Penn, by the way, throughout most of the film, is made up with the bizarre red, black and white makeup and long black messy hair patterned after Robert Smith of the Cure. And one plot element (two teenagers commit suicide, perhaps because of the depressing lyrics of Cheyenne’s songs) is also patterned after Smith’s career.

When his father, a Holocaust survivor, dies in New York, Cheyenne goes home and gets involved in a search for the Auschwitz camp guard with whom his father was obsessed. The film then becomes an American road trip as Cheyenne travels across country tracking down clues and eventually finds the man – with the ultimate help of Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter. I’m leaving out a lot of detail that makes this plot somewhat more rational. (One critic called it “a fascinating mess, but one worth your time.”)

Sorrentino’s direction has a lot of jump cuts and oddly composed scenes but the cinematography is beautiful and his dialogue is often poetic and intense. Penn is brilliant as Cheyenne; he has totally remade himself and his voice to become the depressed aging performer.

Oh and there’s music. David Byrne, who makes a cameo appearance in the film as himself and an old friend of Cheyenne’s, composed the original music with Will Oldham. The film title is also the name of the song from the Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues. Byrne and Talking Heads and other artists perform “This Must Be the Place” frequently throughout the film. (Turn on the subtitles on your DVD player to find out who is singing what at any moment.)

The film was released in 2011 and was recently released on DVD. I watched it twice. You might too.

The Birthday Party. This early play by Harold Pinter is now at Steppenwolf Theatre and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It’s not that I don’t like Pinter. But early reviews were mostly negative and I had heard from two acquaintances that it was “terrible.” Maybe it improved since opening night. I thought it was well paced and had some good performances, two of them appropriately menacing. The scary birthday party has disastrous consequences … and a Pinteresque ambiguous ending. The play is in three acts and (unusual for me) did not seem too long. I usually think everything needs editing but this party did not.

The cast is directed by Austin Pendleton and made up of some fine Chicago actors including John Mahoney, Francis Guinan, Marc Grapey (don’t miss his clever bio in the playbill), Ian Barford, Moira Harris, and her daughter, Sophia Sinise. It’s a play where everything is not always what it seems, which makes it gripping from beginning to end. The Birthday Party runs thru April 18.


denthtr-cityCity of Dreadful Night. The last time I commented on a Den Theatre play, it had already closed and that’s the case with this noir knockout. Sorry – you should have been watching out for this clever storefront company, as I recommended recently. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/03/02/quick-cuts-2-stage-screen-and-lobster-rolls/

City of Dreadful Night is a four-character thriller by Don Nigro. It’s set during the Cold War and the four characters end the play sitting in a diner that resembles the scene in Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. (See that at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nigro has written about 300 plays, several of them about or inspired by artists and their paintings.) Brisk dialogue, a bit Mametesque, and good acting. It’s a 90-minute one act that moves along briskly.

Several other small theater companies also perform at The Den Theatre location. Check them out.  These small companies are the lifeblood of Chicago theater. www.thedentheatre.com

Julius Caesar is the current play at Chicago Shakespeare. It’s not my favorite Shakespeare but I liked the visual style and setting of this production. It’s a contemporary political drama – that’s probably an irresistible approach for a director and serves to demonstrate how Shakespeare can explore human character flaws in any era. Before the play starts, the scene is the Roman Forum, populated by sellers of hot dogs and political buttons, Roman citizens taking photos with their smartphones, and a banner promoting Julius Caesar’s website: www.caesarforall.com. The play is well acted and its scenes of strife bring life to the conspiracy against Caesar.

An essay in the Chicago Shakespeare playbill points out that the play was relevant to the American Republic from the beginning – in its “neoclassical constitution and the gargantuan neo-Roman buildings that would give it palpable form.” And we have also inherited the “irreconcilable conflicts that provoke its violence.” Just as Caesar was considered by his enemies to be an illegitimate leader, some American presidents have been the subject of polarized opinion about their right to lead. In the Civil War era, supporters of slavery would not recognize Lincoln’s leadership, just as today a certain wingnut fringe persists in denying President Obama’s citizenship. And my very rightwing father despised FDR and thought his third and fourth terms were illegitimate and illegal. (They would be today because of the 22nd Amendment.)

Julius Caesar runs through March 24. See it if for its visually stunning presentation and reminders of how political conspiracy can infect the body politic.

Folk and funk at the Symphony Center. Wednesday night’s concert featured Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio in a fabulous one-hour set on the symphony stage, followed by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell performing songs from their recent album, Old Yellow Moon. The Thompson set was amazing and he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest guitarists ever. (For some reason, he slipped from #19 in 2003 to #59 in 2011 on the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists, living and not. That confirms my view that the list is made up by one person after a long day without coffee. Just start with Jimi Hendrix as #1 and then shuffle the cards for the rest.)

The Thompson trio played songs such as “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” the beautiful “Salford Sunday” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You.” Harris and Crowell played a fine acoustic set with their seven-piece band and then Thompson joined them on stage for another number. Greg Kot’s review in the Tribune gives a good description of the concert – and of Thompson’s playing wizardry. http://trib.in/YcsMjq

I know most people were at the concert to see the marvelous Emmylou. She was fine and her songs with Crowell were well done. But I was there to see Richard Thompson Electric. And he was.

What’s next on Nancy’s calendar? Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theatre, Coriolanus at The Hypocrites, and an overview of the Picasso and Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute.

Guilt and trust in the Tunnel of Love

Two Chicago plays, both riveting productions, explore the angst of relationships and the gulf between guilt and trust. Skylight, David Hare’s play at Court Theatre set in the Thatcher era, finds a couple meeting again after several years and trying to discover whether they are still the same people who once loved each other. At Steppenwolf Theatre, The Motherf**cker with the Hat (I’m spelling it as they do on the playbill) by Stephen Adly Guirgis, puts two couples in a contemporary setting about addiction, infidelity, trust and guilt. And of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen connection.

Skylight, which I also saw at Steppenwolf about 15 years ago, is about a reunion of Kyra, a young woman who teaches in a tough part of London, and Tom, her former lover, a wealthy restaurant owner, whose wife died a year ago. (He seems patterned after Terence Conran.) She lived with his family earlier and left when his wife discovered their affair. They talk about their lives, their feelings about the past, and their profound disagreements about Kyra’s chosen way of life.  Actually they talk far too much and both acts of the play drag to a 2.5-hour ending. (My motto: Everyone needs an editor.)

The Motherfucker With the Hat (all the reviews and the script itself spell out the word; I don’t know why Steppenwolf was so dainty) is a profane, fast-moving series of scenes in which men and women swear to stay clean and faithful and manage to do neither.

Jackie, the dealer and ex-convict, says to his AA sponsor, Ralph D: “Even though we’re fucked up, we got a code. It’s a fucked up code, but still, it’s a code.” However, the code is broken over and over again while the players profess love and trust and unashamedly acknowledge guilt. The Motherfucker does not need an editor; it’s tightly written and runs about 100 minutes.

SPRINGSTEEN_TUNNEL-OF-LOVE_12X12_site-500x493I came home from this theater evening and picked up my copy of Bruce, the 2012 Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin. I had put the book down in the middle of the chapter about the creation of the Tunnel of Love album, during Bruce’s first marriage. He acknowledged to interviewers that he was learning how to be married. Writing the songs for Tunnel of Love, Carlin says, “Bruce followed the knotted strands of his married life, working to string them into words and music.” The songs are about the difficulties of keeping a relationship together, about love and trust, longing and guilt – and possibly the lack of an escape route. I listened to the album while I read, knowing the story ended in divorce.

I didn’t care for the album when it was first released in 1987. For one thing, the E Street Band played almost no part in its production and that always turns off the true Bruce obsessives. However, I’ve come to really like Tunnel of Love. The songs are poignant and probably the closest things to love songs that Bruce ever wrote. (But they still rock, of course.) My favorite song on Tunnel of Love is “Brilliant Disguise,” which hit #5 on the singles chart in 1987. It sums up this discourse nicely.

Well I’ve tried so hard baby but I just can’t see
What a woman like you is doing with me
So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes
Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?