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.
I’ve seen and reviewed a couple of plays and other events since last week and I have a few opinions I want to get off my mind. You won’t be hearing from me for a couple of weeks because I’m going to a very exciting writers’ program. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.
Death and the Maiden at Victory Gardens
A gripping political play by Ariel Dorfman, set in a country “that is probably Chile,” in the time after the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet. See my brief review on Gapers Block, which links to my original detailed version on theandygram.com.
Death and the Maiden, starring Sandra Oh in a strong and nuanced performance, runs thru July 20 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N Lincoln Ave.
The Late Henry Moss at The Artistic Home
I tweeted a link to my review on Gapers Block, with this comment: “You think your family is obnoxious? See what a Sam Shepard family is like.” A very good production of a play that is not for the faint of heart. The Artistic Home cast is talented and the acting solid. Their productions are reliably so.
The Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepard runs until August 3 at the Artistic Home, 1376 W Grand Ave.
Charles Ives Take Me Home at Strawdog Theatre
This play, now closed, got excellent reviews. The two lead performers give fine performances and are also solid at their respective talents: music and basketball. The father, a violinist, doesn’t understand his daughter’s obsession with basketball. The daughter, a basketball player, doesn’t understand why her father thinks music is the only thing that matters in life. The conversation and interplay is entertaining, but the plot doesn’t hang together. At the end of the 80-minute play, I thought, well, ok, did I just waste an evening or what?
If I had been reviewing this play, I would have given it two stars or “somewhat recommended,” as several reviewers did. And others gave it three or four stars.
And one more thing….
Chinatown. A movie review, for your home viewing. Have you seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in the 40 years since you first saw it in a movie theater? This 1974 film is absolutely brilliant. Every single detail–of clothing, behavior, autos, and clues to the mystery–is perfect and perfectly positioned. And of course, superb performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston make it as astonishing film.
I liked it when I first saw it, but in recent years, I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking and directing (thank you, Roger Ebert!) and I was able to get even more out of it. Chinatown is available streaming on Netflix or, of course, on DVD. Next time you’re looking for a great movie to watch, choose this one!
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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!
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.
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.
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.
Paddy Chayefsky’s The Goddess at The Artistic Home; through November 17
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.
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.
More theater suggestions, one from a Gapers Block review, plus two music films. My rock and roll and film commentary is coming back. I’m working on something now about rock lyrics — and an essay on art and fashion is on the horizon.
Molière in Hyde Park
Not only is the Court Theatre’s new play showing in Hyde Park, Court’s home territory. Director Charles Newell has set this new production of Molière’s marvelous Tartuffe in modern dress in Hyde Park/Kenwood. (His name was really Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; Molière was his stage name.) The delicious touch is that Newell has cast the same ensemble of actors, mostly African-American, to play Tartuffe as performed The Misanthrope, the first play in the Court Molière Festival. Tartuffe is the religious fanatic hypocrite who almost takes over Orgon’s family and wealth.
The acting is superb and the cast does a splendid job with Moliere’s witty dialogue. The mansion setting and contemporary costuming are beautiful … with the possible exception of Mariane’s and Valère’s outfits. Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, wears some silly-looking pink frocks (to emphasize her youth?) while Valère, her love interest, wears shorts he would never wear on the streets of Hyde Park and a White Sox cap that doesn’t know where to go.
The two-hour-plus-intermission play is immensely entertaining. The translation by poet Richard Wilbur is the gold standard and isn’t hurt by some modern interpolations. The Tartuffe run ends this weekend.
Beaten at The Artistic Home
Beaten is a new play by Scott Woldman at The Artistic Home, a storefront on Grand Avenue. It’s a family drama about three generations of women living in the same home and provides meaty roles for Kathy Scambiatterra, Kristin Collins and Kathryn Acosta as grandmother, mother and daughter.
“Put three generations of women in a house together and you’re sure to have an eruption of personalities; eventually, long-kept secrets slip out and lies are undone. Beaten, a world premiere drama by Scott Woldman, gives the Artistic Home actors a searing and emotionally charged script, and they all come through with fine performances.”
I also noted that the play “was inspired by a 2009 workshop at Chicago Dramatists where female actors expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of challenging parts for women; when asked to name their dream roles, all named parts written for men. Playwright Woldman listened.” (Photo courtesy of The Artistic Home; Scambiatterra and Acosta.)
The play runs at The Artistic Home, 1376 W Grand Ave, until August 11.
Read the complete review here.
Two new music documentary films
20 Feet From Stardom is about the mostly anonymous female backup singers behind some of the greatest bands of the 20th century. The 90-minute film directed by Morgan Neville features singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, plus interviews with some of the musicians they performed with. It’s at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema now but it’s probably one of those films that will disappear from theaters after a short run.
Ain’t In It for My Health is a film about Levon Helm, the late great drummer and singer with The Band. You’ve heard him on songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon died last year of throat cancer and was a musician until the end although he lost his voice in 1998. His Midnight Rambles at his home and studio in Woodstock, NY, were famous. The Levon film had three showings at the Music Box last month and I missed all of them so now I have to find it elsewhere or wait for the DVD to be released.
You can find Levon’s music on levonhelm.com and if you want to see him in top form, watch the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorcese.