Reviews: Theater for thought and laughter

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

GB-TheRoseTattoo-1Tennessee 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

PragueThis 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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May Playbill: Fighters, painters, mammoths and more

I’ve seen lots of plays lately, as usual, and wanted to give you a little recap of a few to see, or not.

Lay Me Down Softly at Seanachai Theatre

Seanachai does an excellent job with this terrific Irish script by Billy Roche. It’s a tough story about a traveling roadshow that includes a fake bearded lady, carnival booths and fake boxing ring challenges. Every day is the same; only the towns change. The main story thread is about Dean, a boxer who can’t seem to win, and Junior, a once-champion who was forced to retire because of an injury. The bullying roadshow owner Theo and the cut man and boxers’ mentor Peadar are the other two male characters. Two women create really strong performances to anchor the play. The boxing ring set is handled with great care and almost seems to create a play within a play.

My Gapers Block colleague, Alice Singleton, reviewed it and adds some interesting insights.

Lay Me Down Softly runs until May 25 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Like Seanachai’s recent production of The Seafarer, which I reviewed in December, it’s a must-see. Oh, how I love those Irish playwrights.

Dorian at The House Theatre

GB-DORIAN_HouseThtr_photoMichaelBrosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Dorian is an adaptation of the great Oscar Wilde novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a visually interesting production that stresses the personal relationships among Dorian, his portraitist and friends and party people of today’s London. It’s the well-known story of Dorian–the man who didn’t age while his portrait did. House stages it in “promenade” style, which means most of the audience is mingling with the actors during the action, which can take place in the artist’s studio, at parties, galleries or performance spaces. I recommended it with a three-star review, and added this:

“This is not a play to attend because you love the writing of Oscar Wilde, notably in his fabulous plays like Lady Windermere’s FanA Woman of No ImportanceSaloméAn Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, all written in the 1890s. The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, is complex and challenging–and filled with smart, witty dialogue, but you won’t find much of that complexity or dialogue in Dorian.”

Dorian runs until May 18 at the Chopin Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My review here.

Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
at Theater Wit

This play has received excellent reviews, every one of them richly deserved. It’s smart and well written, warmly acted by a fine cast, and directed by Jeremy Wechsler. The script is by Madeleine George, a writer with Massachusetts and Brooklyn connections. It’s about relationships between friends and lovers and the financially stressed closing of the museum at a small northeastern college, which will leave the mammoths homeless.

Every cast member is excellent. The day I saw it, one of the major roles was played by a superb substitute, Penelope Walker. Laura Fisher, an old friend from Famous Door Theatre days, is outstanding in one of the other lead roles. A special treat is the performance by Steve Herson, who plays various characters including the museum caretaker, a reporter, citizens at a town hall meeting, and a board member reading the hilarious minutes of the meeting. In each case, his accent is different and perfect. Also the museum exhibits include prehistoric people in diorama exhibits who voice the concerns of museum visitors.

Seven Homeless Mammoths is a great treat and you shouldn’t miss it. It runs until May 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont.

 Mud Blue Sky at A Red Orchid Theatre

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Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This is a terrific show at Red Orchid, with great humor, warm relationships, and things you didn’t want to know about airplanes. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Loneliness, regrets, friendship, humor, and a little maternal instinct season A Red Orchid Theatre’s new play, Mud Blue Sky. Director Shade Murray gets the most out of Marisa Wegrzyn’s fine script, which revolves around airport life. The tiny Red Orchid space on Wells Street is perfect for the claustrophobic story of three very mature flight attendant friends on a layover at a hotel near O’Hare.” Beth and Sam are still flying. Angie lost her job recently and now lives in a Chicago suburb. Angie misses flying and the others can’t wait to get away from it. That’s the story until they get acquainted with a young man named Jonathan, who helps them find some relaxation and entertainment.

My review is highly recommended at theatreinchicago.com. Mud Blue Sky has been playing to sold-out houses and it’s now extended until June 29.

Our Class at Remy Bumppo

Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek is a play about the Holocaust—set in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in the years leading up to World War II. The play was troubling and thought-provoking and my friends debated and disagreed about it  afterwards.

The story begins in the schoolroom where members of “our class” study and play together. They are all friends, whether Jewish or gentile. Hints of anti-Semitism creep in to their school and their play from time to time and gradually increase. The key event is the 1941 massacre of virtually all the Jewish citizens—1,600 men, women and children–by their neighbors. The perpetrators are never accused, never held accountable. In the years that follow, various survivors lie about their role in the event, including one who hid and one who had converted to Christianity.

Despite the power of the first act, most of the second act is bogged down in excessive exposition. Too much detail kills the power of the first act. The play runs nearly three hours, with one intermission.

This is a risky sort of play for Remy Bumppo, which tends to produce superb quality Anglophile theater by great writers. Their regular ensemble is made up of talented and experienced Chicago actors. Our Class takes Remy Bumppo in a totally different, riskier direction and brings in some younger actors new to the company.

Reviews are virtually all “highly recommended” or four star. Our Class runs until May 11 at the Greenhouse Theatre Center.

Death Defying Acts at Saint Sebastian Players

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Photo by John C Oster.

Three short plays by three brilliant writers: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Unfortunately, they were all writing on their off days because the scripts in Death Defying Acts aren’t very good. The production is medium, with a few good performances. I really wanted to give this play a better review but I just couldn’t. The theater company decided to create a circusy atmosphere in the lobby and around the production, which was not a great idea. Here’s what I said about that in my Gapers Block review.

“One problem with the whole production is the overworked circus atmosphere. Yes, death-defying acts suggest a carnival with risky high-wire acts. Old circus posters decorate the lobby of the church-basement theater. Before the show opens, an old circus film, Here Comes the Circus, is projected across the stage floor. The crew is dressed in circus clown and aerialist costumes while making stage changes. But it’s a bit over the top, especially considering the lack of death-defying acts on stage.”

Death Defying Acts runs until May 18 at St Bonaventure Church, 1641 W Diversey. The theater space is in the basement; entry door on the west side of the church. Good news is that there’s free parking in the church lot.

And on screen, not stage

The Wind Rises returns. This wonderful Japanese animated film by the master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is scheduled for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Center, May 16-29. I wrote about this film when it opened recently. It’s beautiful, hand-drawn throughout, rich and complex in its use of Japanese history and mythology. If you didn’t see it before, you have another chance.

orsonwelles-siskel

Photo courtesy Siskel Film Center.

Othello at Siskel. The great and greatly flawed Orson Welles 1952 production of Shakespeare’s Othello has been running at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I saw it for the third time last night (the first time was when I was in college at the old Fine Arts cinema, the second a few years ago at the Music Box). The 1992 restoration made a lot of improvements in visual and sound quality. It’s a powerful film, with Welles starring as the Moor. It’s clear why his film presence was so huge; he dominates every scene with his size, voice and expression.

The play is really Iago’s, as Harold Bloom insists in his essay on Othello in his book, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. The actor who plays Iago in the film (Micheal Mac Liammoir, an Irish actor who founded the Gate Theatre),does a creditable job but can’t stand up to the Welles persona. Because he is Orson Welles, no matter what role he is playing.

 

 


Theater reviews and reveries

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

OCG-4This 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

blood-on-the-cat_tThis 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

imagesCourt 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.

Related posts

Read about the two plays I recommend hereThe Seafarer runs until February 1.  An Inspector Calls just closed.


December Diary: My reviews of theater, art, movies

Two theater recommendations

seafarer_250The Seafarer is a Christmas play by an Irish playwright. Given that, you know that there may not be a happy ending or a lot of tra-la-la. And there most likely will be consumption of alcohol. I hate stereotypes, but there you are. The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, is a terrific production by Seanachai Theatre Company at The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My Gapers Block review gives all the details. The play is running until January 5. I gave it a “highly recommended” for theatreinchicago.com, as did all the other reviewers.

That website, theatreinchicago.com, is a great resource for theatergoers. It compiles reviews of all current plays on Chicago, along with their ratings. Go to the website and click on Review Roundup in the left-hand column.

An Inspector Calls at Remy Bumppo Theatre seems at first like a smart drawing-room comedy. But J.B. Priestley’s play, written in 1945 for an English audience, soon turns into a tale about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. The 1 percent is the Birling family, wealthy through their manufacturing business. The 99 percent is represented by a young working woman who comes to a sad ending through actions, ultimately, taken by all the family members. (That’s a bit of a spoiler, so forget I said it.)

The Remy Bumppo cast is excellent and the production very gripping. Nick Sandys, as the mysterious inspector, plays the role very coolly. Calmly and without bluster, he terrorizes the Birlings in their dining room. Priestley was raised in a socialist family and was a writer of social conscience. As David Darlow says in his director’s note, Priestley “calls out to us to be accountable and responsible for our behavior and actions.” The play runs through January 12 in the upstairs mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Ave.

Linguistic whine. Why can’t theater/theatre companies settle on one spelling, preferably the standard American spelling of theater, rather than the pretentious Anglified theatre. When I’m writing reviews for Gapers Block, it makes me crazy, going back and forth between the spellings, depending on whether I’m naming a theater company that persists in using that spelling (see above) or using the word generically as part of a sentence. Grrrrr.

Art with a message

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Small Change by Richard Laurent; image courtesy of the curator.

The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions. There’s a very interesting exhibit of art with a message at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of law, 565 W Adams St. I know, that’s an unusual place for an art exhibit, but it works. The exhibit is made up of 38 works in various media by 13 local and regional artists and represents metaphorically — in ways both beautiful and horrifying — the crimes perpetrated on women and girls in countries where those actions are considered part of the culture, rather than crimes. The purpose of the exhibit is to make an impact on those who may be influential in the future to help change the legal processes in those countries. My review for Gapers Block gives all the details and shows four images that illustrate the range of the work.

Films, live and DVDd

Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at 3 hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics. The film is currently on view at local theaters.

A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (DVD). This very thorough documentary of Cassavetes’ work is well worth your time as an illustration of the auteur approach to independent filmmaking. It’s almost 3.5 hours long and no, this film wasn’t too long, although I did watch it in two sittings. It was made in 2000, about 11 years after his death at 59. The doc includes interviews with many of the actors he worked with: his wife Gena Rowland, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Jon Voight and Seymour Cassel. The actors and others talked about his creativity, his honesty, and his lack of concern about making money. Many long film clips and film of scenes during the shooting process really bring Cassavetes’ approach to life.

 My favorite Cassavetes quote: A reporter asks him if he’ll ever make a musical. He says he really wants to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  My kind of guy.

gondry-chomskyIs the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. Yes, I said Noam Chomsky. But this is the avuncular linguistics professor, not the radical political activist (though just a hint of that Chomsky shows occasionally). French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) created this animated documentary from interviews with Chomsky. He animates and illustrates Chomsky’s ideas by scrawling clever cartoons and charts.

The film title is taken from a sentence that Chomsky diagrams near the end of the film to show how children learn to use language.

The film runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center through tomorrow. I’ll watch it again on DVD when it’s available. There are places where I wanted to say, “Wait, let me replay that last bit because I didn’t quite get it.”

My coming attractions for this week

Inside Llewyn Davis. This is the Coen brothers film about the early years of the folk movement in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. It opens here Friday and I’ll be there. In addition to the film, Showtime network has been running a concert with a setlist of some of the music from the film, performed by other musicians. There’s also a Showtime making-of film called Inside Inside Llewyn Davis. And there’s the soundtrack on CD or download. I’ll review this film here soon.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at Trap Door Theatre on Cortland. The always provocative and entertaining Trap Door group has been getting mixed reviews for this play; it’s Jeff recommended, however.

Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence presented by The Ruffians at Theater Wit. The play is about the tragic 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago. This is a theater company I have not seen before and I’m looking forward to it.

And finally, I’ve gone another whole week without writing about Bruce Springsteen.  But he has a new album coming out in January. You can be sure I’ll make up for my apparent neglect.


Theater update: Three you can see

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.

Theater picks

9 Circles at Sideshow Theatre

warishell

From @HistoryinPix

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 HankWilliams-AmBlues-GB1940s 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

mirren-ntliveThe 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. 

 


On stage: Memories, heads, apocalypse prep

Comments on a few plays I’ve seen recently, including one full review.

 The Burden of Not Having a Tail: Apocalypse When?

burden-11x17Sideshow Theatre is presenting this one-woman show at Chicago Dramatists. It’s an entertaining 70 minutes about the prospects of an apocalypse. Woman, the lone character, is a “prepper” and the audience (that would be us) is there to learn from her experience to prepare ourselves.  There’s a sad thread to it (besides the grim one) about the death of her baby daughter.

All in all, the play fails to hold together as a play but I have to give the actor (Karie Miller), playwright (Carrie Barrett) and director (Megan Smith) props for a good try. It’s not easy to tell a dramatic story and hold a one-character play together. The successful ones I have seen are about the lives of riveting characters such as Clarence Darrow (by David Rintels from the Irving Stone biography) or Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (her story, I Am My Own Wife, was produced at Goodman Theatre in 2005). Or brilliantly written one-man plays, like Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

Read my review of The Burden of Not Having a Tail on Gapers Block. You can see it until August 4.

Big Lake, Big City: Chicago noir

If you think “comic noir” is not an oxymoron, then you’ll love the new play by Keith Huff at Lookingglass Theatre. Huff wrote the gripping two-character cop play, A Steady Rain, which was a hit here at Chicago Dramatists and then went to New York where Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman starred in it. That earned Huff his writing cred and he’s been writing for great TV dramas such as Mad Men and House of Cards, the recent Netflix streaming series that I wrote about in February.

BLBCposter

David Schwimmer directs this play about Chicago crime, with two hard-bitten police detectives (Philip R Smith and Danny Goldring), a guy who wants to go to Disneyland with a screwdriver embedded in his head (that’s right, he doesn’t make it through the metal detectors at O’Hare), and two morgue doctors who play golf with severed heads. Actually, heads get a lot of attention in this play and you can decide whether that’s symbolic or not. I left out the two corpses burned to a crisp while in flagrante delicto in a Lincoln Avenue motel and a dozen other delicious incidents.

The play has a lot of characters, a lot of plot threads and is probably more suited to TV, as a couple of critics have observed. Smith and Goldring are terrific as the two cops, and the acting and timing is very good. I suppose it’s not wholly successful as a theatrical exercise. However it’s really entertaining and stuffed with great Chicago jokes and references. My favorite scenic device is the Navy Pier Ferris wheel cab that I kept watching above me; it finally descended in one of the last scenes.

I recommend Big Lake Big City, although maybe not for out-of-town visitors. It runs until August 11 at Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works.

The Glass Menagerie: Memories in shards of glass

Mary Arrchie Theatre is presenting its distinctive version of the Tennessee Williams memory play in an extension at Theater Wit. It’s beautifully done and the acting makes you really appreciate Williams’ poetic language.

Tom, the poet, is played as a homeless man by Hans Fleischmann, who also directs. Tom wanders barefoot through a setting covered in glass shards. He’s the brother of delicate Laura and the son of Amanda (the southern belle who can’t believe the poverty of her current existence). There was something odd that I can’t quite put my finger on about Tom being played as a homeless man. The glass shards, of course, are reminiscent of Laura’s life with her glass menagerie and symbolic of their shattered lives. Basically, no one in the play accepts the reality of their own existence.

The play has a beautiful original score by Daniel Knox, which really enhanced the atmosphere.

I have seen The Glass Menagerie many times. My favorite still is the Court Theatre’s 2006 version, performed on an elevated set, mostly on the fire escape outside the Wingfield family flat in St. Louis. It captured the mood of Williams’ memory play beautifully, with fine acting in a minimalist setting. Jay Whittaker, an excellent Chicago actor who has left for other pastures, was a poetic Tom, longing for escape.

The Glass Menagerie runs until July 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont.