Some theater recommendations from my recent reviews and theater adventures in Chicago.
The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare
Yes, 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.
Geneva at Shaw Chicago
Shaw 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
Congratulations 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.
Going to the theater is a treat that never grows old for me. Here are some of the plays I’ve seen recently, most of which were excellent.
The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre
This is a captivating production and a perfect example of the rich quality of Chicago storefront theater. Great direction, great acting, great staging. It’s a 70-minute play and you will enjoy every minute. Here’s how my review begins:
“The stage is set. Three claw-footed bathtubs. The kind your grandmother had. Props: Three scrub buckets, newspapers and a tea set. Costumes: Bridal gowns and veils, usually sopping wet.
“If this doesn’t sound like a promising start for a night at the theater, The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre will quickly change your mind. The play is a beautifully performed, balletic story of an English serial killer in the 19th century, who swindled from and then drowned his three wives. Actually, it’s the entrancing story of the three wives, who perform all the parts in the play from the brides submerged in their tubs to the husband(s), parents, lawyers, judge, reporters and scrubwomen.”
You can see The Drowning Girls through June 6. Signal is at 1802 W. Berenice, near the intersection of Irving Park and Ravenswood. See my review for details.
Three Sisters at The Hypocrites
Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets an excellent production from the always-interesting Hypocrites. It’s a fairly traditional staging except the color palette is used in a very inventive way. Director Geoff Button adapted the script to use more contemporary language without trivializing it. My review describes the story this way:
“The eponymous Prosorov sisters lead the excellent 14-person cast in a story that progresses over several years in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. The sisters, all in their 20s, yearn to move back to Moscow, which they left 11 years ago when their father assumed the command of a brigade in the rural area. Now their father is dead and the town (and their social life) is dominated by the presence of the military base and its officers.”
The play is 2 hours, 20 minutes, and runs through June 6 in the Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
Side Man at American Blues Theater
This is a fine production of Warren Leight’s Tony-award winning play, Side Man. It was first produced at Steppenwolf in the 1999-2000 season and I tried to keep that excellent production out of my thoughts and not let it affect my review of this production. This is a memory play about the jazz musicians—trumpet players—who were riding high in the 1940s and ‘50s before the rise of rock and roll. The story focuses on the career and family of one particular side man. His son takes us back and forth in time from the moment his parents met through their present difficult period.
Side Man runs two hours and continues through May 24 at American Blues Theater, staged at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue. There’s live jazz played on stage before the performance begins.
Between You, Me and the Lampshade at Teatro Vista
This new play about immigration and family issues by Raul Castillo runs through this Sunday at Victory Gardens/Biograph Richard Christiansen Theater (the upstairs space at VG). The 100-minute play (with one intermission) is well written with lively dialogue. My Gapers Block review says:
“Between You, Me and the Lampshade is an entertaining and poignant story told by an excellent cast under the capable direction of artistic director Ricardo Gutierrez. Original music and sound design by Victoria Deiorio create an authentic sound landscape for the story. Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scene design is very much an aging trailer interior, including the turquoise kitchen.”
I recommend it. Take Mom on Sunday. Or take yourself.
Ghost Gardens at Chicago Dramatists
Ghost Gardens, a new play by Steven Simoncic, explores “how people in a dying community fight to overcome grief, illness, hopelessness, and air poisoned by a giant local corporation.” The play, set in Detroit, has certain charms and a couple of good performances, but it can’t overcome the fact that the script is rambling and disjointed. I wish I could recommend it. My Gapers Block review is here.
Ghost Gardens continues through May 31 at Chicago Dramatists on Chicago Avenue near Milwaukee.
The Herd at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The Herd by Rory Kinnear is a story about several generations of an English suburban family who have a severely disabled child. The play looks at how different generations deal with the issues of parenthood and disability. Frank Galati directs an excellent cast of mostly Steppenwolf ensemble members, including John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Molly Regan and Francis Guinan. The writing is witty and tender and gets to the heart of these family matters. I didn’t review this, but you can check out other reviews here.
Running time for The Herd is 100 minutes. You can see it—and you should—until June 7.
It’s spring! I knew that for sure today when I decided to get the salt washed off the Beetle and had to wait in line around the block from Bert’s Car Wash on Grand Avenue. It’s a beautiful day and I didn’t mind sitting in the car, listening to a Springsteen album. And now the Beetle is clean. (Of course, to be realistic, it could snow again. And again.)
Despite the weather, I’ve reviewed some excellent plays recently, two of them of classic origin. And I’ve spent time mulling over a remarkable 1949 film, The Third Man. Here’s a recap.
Endgame at The Hypocrites
Samuel Beckett’s midcentury play, Endgame, is said to represent the theater of the absurd. And it is absurd. Non-linear, plotless. Very funny in a black humor sort of way. The Hypocrites do a great job of staging it so that the dialog gains meaning and connects to our circumstances today. Here’s how I ended my Gapers Block review:
The 90-minute play is skillfully directed by Halena Kays, carefully following Beckett’s stage directions–to which the playwright demanded full compliance. The performances by all four actors are superb. The festive cabaret atmosphere of the venue makes the black absurdity of the play more profound.
You can see Endgame at The Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through April 4.
Antigonick at Sideshow Theatre Company
Non-classic or neo-classic? Anne Carson’s contemporary translation or reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone is witty and the casting is gender-bending. The way double casting is used brings fresh insights to the age-old story of Antigone, her two slain brothers, and King Kreon’s refusal to allow proper burial rites for one of them. Antigone’s opposition to that ruling is dramatized by the words of the Chorus and of Teiresias, the blind prophet. When she tries to get her sister Ismene to help, Ismene reminds her of the tragic family history.
“Wherever we are, think, Sister — father’s daughter. Daughter’s brother. Sister’s mother. Mother’s son. His mother and his wife were one. Our family is double, triple degraded and dirty in every direction. Moreover, we two are alone and we are girls. Girls cannot force their way against men.” And Antigone responds, “Yet I will.”
And the 75-minute production is timed and measured by Nick, a servant who is busy on stage—but wordless—throughout the play.
Staging and performances are excellent in Sideshow’s interpretation of a classic story. You can see it at the Victory Gardens’ upstairs studio theater through April 5. See my review for details.
The Third Man, preferably on a big screen
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is set in Vienna just after the end of World War II. Many critics have called it one of the greatest films ever made and, after watching it half a dozen times recently, and considering all the ingredients that make up a masterpiece, I agree.
The film is noteworthy for its stars—Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. The plot and characterizations are fascinating but the element that makes it a masterpiece, in my mind, is the black-and-white cinematography and the night-time exteriors of war-torn Vienna. The film is simply gorgeous and I urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible. Do not watch it on your phone! I have a friend who has an eight-foot screen in his living room and that was the best screening I can imagine, short of seeing it on a big screen at an arthouse.
The theme of Chicago Literati‘s current issue is “Cinematique: The Movie Issue.” I submitted an essay on The Third Man, which you can now see on the magazine’s site. I’ll bet that even if you don’t remember the film, you’ll remember the zither music.
It’s Oscar time. Love the art, if not the artist. The best films of 2014, according to me, and why it doesn’t matter if you like the character or not.
Foreign films including one featuring The Talking Heads. (Yes, one of my favorite bands.)
A classic play on screen: Ibsen’s The Master Builder translated brilliantly.
It was a sunny warm summer Sunday, and a holiday weekend. Most people would spend their time outside, hiking, biking, on the beach, at a family picnic. I spent 12 hours inside a mostly darkened theater, having one of the most captivating theatrical experiences of my life.
All Our Tragic at The Hypocrites
Yes, it was my All Our Tragic binge day at The Hypocrites. Some people binge on Orange Is the New Black. I’ve binged on three plays a day at theater festivals and at the six-hour production of Gatz, a reading of The Great Gatsby. This time I binged on 12 hours of Greek tragedy, including uncounted beheadings, stabbings, poisonings, horse stompings and ritual sacrifice. It was exhilarating.
(Actually, Chicago Magazine did total them. See the Death by Numbers chart. There were 63 murders and gallons of blood.)
If you consume or read about theater, you know that All Our Tragic is the latest production created by the very creative and passionate Sean Graney, founder and former artistic director of The Hypocrites. All Our Tragic is actually a four-act play adapted from all 32 surviving Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Graney has mashed them up into four parts titled Physics, Politics, Patriotics and Poetics.
All Our Tragic is tragic, yes, and involves lots of murders, yes, and blood, yes. But it’s also a bit loopy, with marvelously crazy costumes, lots of pop culture references, and anachronistic musical interludes by the Odd Jobs. Three women (sort of the chorus in a Greek play) dressed as waiters, maids or nurses, play stringed instruments and sing songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah,” and “Hard Times.”
There are some excellent performances among the cast of 23 (14 actors, 3 Odd Jobs, and six Neo-Titans or fighters). Walter Briggs goes from wide-eyed innocent Herakles to general and king Agamemnon. The talented and versatile Zeke Sulkes plays Aegeus, the king with goat feet, as well as Kreon and others. Luce Metrius is really fine as Jason and Achilles. Christine Stulik, Erin Barlow and Dana Omar stand out among the seven sisters (think of the Pleiades) armed with lethal umbrellas.
Those should be familiar characters, even if you haven’t seen many classic Greek plays. You’ll remember these stories from reading about Greek mythology and Greek heroes. (Herakles carries an illustrated book of the Greek heroes because he wants to be one.)
It’s really only nine hours of theater, broken up with intermissions and food breaks. The show is the first production at The Hypocrites’ new space on Milwaukee Avenue at street level below the Den Theatre. You don’t need to leave the theater because snacks are served at all breaks with lunch and dinner meal breaks. Coffee, water and a cash bar are available. The food is vegan, Middle Eastern and delicious. Dinner break is an hour and there are many restaurants nearby, in case you want to leave the theater.
The Greek marathon goes on from 11am to 11pm Saturdays and Sundays through October 5. You can also see each play separately on Friday nights and some Mondays. But the immersive experience is mesmerizing and worth giving up a day of your life. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t fully engaged. I was never bored or checking the time on my smartphone. The full house audience Sunday also came to stay and be fascinated by the Hypocrites’ tragic bash.
This post is sort of a wandering commentary about what it’s like to spend a long tragic Sunday with The Hypocrites. I haven’t tried to write this as a review because there have been plenty of those already, including this amazing one by two of my Gapers Block colleagues, who did team coverage of All Our Tragic.
My rating for All Our Tragic: 4 stars.
My Name Is Asher Lev at Timeline Theatre
This weekend I also saw and reviewed the excellent new Timeline play, My Name Is Asher Lev, at Stage 773 on Belmont. This is the story about the young Hasidic man in Brooklyn who is torn between his family and religion and his passion to be a painter. The play is written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the best-selling 1972 novel about the Brooklyn Hasidic community by author and rabbi Chaim Potok.
Director Kimberly Senior has done a terrific job of working with the three actors, two of whom play many parts, and creating a strong and compelling whole. Here’s my review in Gapers Block.
My rating for My Name Is Asher Lev: 4 stars.
Suggestion for theater-lovers
See the Theatre in Chicago website for compilations of current plays. It’s a great resource.
I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.
Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre
Yes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.
Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.
Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.
The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project
Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.
In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.
The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.
The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Cock at Profiles Theatre
Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.
The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall. The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.
The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.
Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.
The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre
Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.
The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)
The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.
More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.
Spring is the season when a lot goes on in Chicago theater and other performing arts. (It’s still not as stuffed with events as October, however.) This is part 1 of two posts this week.
Certainly my favorite theater experience was seeing my 16-year-old grandson perform in his high school’s production of Urinetown yesterday. I’ve seen that play so many times I could recite parts of it by heart. But it’s a smart play and the production was really good. The kid did an excellent job, playing three different parts and successfully mastering the quick offstage costume changes required. The last performance was Saturday night, so I won’t recommend you check it out.
Urinetown was written by Greg Kotis (of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann and opened on Broadway in September 2001; I saw it there a couple of months later. The premise of Urinetown does make you think. It’s set in a period of economic decline and extreme water shortage. If we can privatize highways, bus shelters and parking meters, can “public amenities” be far off? I hope Mayor Emanuel has not seen this play.
Darlin’ at Step Up Productions
Step Up Productions is staging this brave play that treats domestic abuse as part of its mission to benefit a local nonprofit for each production. Darlin’ deals with Clementine, a woman who leaves husband, home and children and moves into an anonymous motel room, where she meets an assortment of down-on-their-luck souls. One of them is a motel maid who blames her injuries on a box of Brillo pads falling on her from a high shelf. She and Clementine share some strong scenes.
The theater will donate a portion of its proceeds to the House of the Good Shepherd, which serves women and children survivors of domestic violence. Last fall’s production, The Benchmark, benefited the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.
Darlin’ runs until April 13 at the Athenaeum Theatre. See my Gapers Block review. (By the way, you’ll notice that I got in a Bruce Springsteen lyric into my review. Just goes to show that there’s a Springsteen lyric for every occasion–and his fans are obsessively vigilant about using them.)
Into the Woods at The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites move to the Mercury Theatre on Southport to stage their version of the Sondheim musical, based on classic fairy tale characters. The play is a 1987 show by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Since I have often admitted I hate musicals, you know I’m going into this one with my cynic’s pen in hand. But I do like Sondheim’s music and the lyrics are often thought-provoking.
This show is performed by 10 talented actors and singers and it has received mixed reviews. The setting is designed like a children’s park, suggesting “the playground of a top-notch arts magnet school,” as one reviewer commented. To me, the “into the woods” theme has a dark overtone, and some of the lyrics portend danger. But when the trees are represented by balloons, it’s a clever touch but loses the darkness. I kept wondering if they were going to pop all the balloons to mimic leaves falling off trees. It would be a Hypocrites kind of symbolism.
The Hypocrites do a decent job of this, although I would argue with some of their costume and stage setting choices. The show runs through next weekend, so if you’re a Sondheim fan, you will want to see it.
And one fine movie
Grand Budapest Hotel
If you’re going to see one film this week, make it this new Wes Anderson charmer. On the surface, it’s the reminiscences of the owner of the now somewhat rundown hotel in the fictional central European country of Dubrowka. He tells of his adventures as a lobby boy for Gustave H, a concierge of multifarious talents, played by Ralph Fiennes. I think of Fiennes as a serious actor and I have admired his work in many classic roles, on stage and film. But here he shows he can be a comic actor of the highest caliber.
The film has an amazing cast including short but inspired performances by Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Jude Law and many others. There are too many convolutions, escapes and chase scenes to describe here. And pastry. Lots of pastry.
The brilliant thing about this film is that it is a panoply of film history and film techniques. Not only is there beautiful cinematography, there are models and stop-motion animation. And to show time changes, the color palette and aspect ratio of the film changes from widescreen to traditional boxy shape and back again. Whimsical? Quirky? Idiosyncratic? Nostalgic? Yes, it’s all of those. And on top of the humor and whimsy, there’s a hint of the World War II tragedy to come as German military officers accost Gustave and the lobby boy on a train.
This phrase appears twice in the film: “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” I think Anderson wants us to remember it.
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