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.
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.