August may mean the summer doldrums with nothing happening for Parisians and Berliners, who have to get on a train or drive south to find a beach. We lucky Chicagoans have our own built-in lake and beach, so we don’t have to go away for summer fun. There’s lots going on at the lakefront and in the theaters, both large and storefront. Here are a few theater tips from my last couple of weeks.
Assassination Theater at the Museum of Broadcast Communications
Yes, this is a single production titled Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century, which lays out in excruciating detail how the Chicago Outfit was directly involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and also that of his brother Robert five years later. (I did wonder whether it was a new theater company to be dedicated solely to assassinations and started making a list of how many productions they could muster before they ran out of murders. It would take years, but no, this is a one-off production.)
Journalist/author Hillel Levin researched and produced this documentary production staged in a theater space at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St. The ingredients are four actors, three projection screens and a minimum of props and costume changes. The story is dramatic and gripping and if you’re a fan of political conspiracy and love to immerse yourself in historical detail, you will love it. If your theater taste runs to musicals and light comedy, stay away. The show could perhaps have been cut by 15 minutes, but I usually think everything is 15 minutes too long.
My review notes that “The story line of Assassination Theater offers persuasive evidence that the JFK autopsy was falsified and the real facts covered up then and in the 1964 Warren Commission report.” The evidence of Mob involvement is not quite as persuasive but I would be willing to give it some study. You can see this show through November 7.
Things You Don’t Say Past Midnight at the Windy City Playhouse
This is a fast-moving, funny, smartly acted and directed sex comedy at the Windy City Playhouse, a new venue in the Irving Park neighborhood that I’ve written about before. Three couples converse and romp about in three bedrooms arrayed across the large playing space. Their interests finally converge and the comedy reaches its apex in a six-way phone call. The play is clever, edgy and a little vulgar but there’s no nudity (in case you were worried or hopeful).
This new theater company is a nonprofit, but had a well-funded startup. The venue is very comfortable with good sightlines, comfy seating and an attractive bar/cafe in its lobby. The company has been bringing in established Chicago actors and directors to stage their productions and the quality is obvious.
Things You Don’t Say runs through October 4. Windy City Playhouse is at 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Read my review.
The Jacksonian at Profiles Theatre
This is one of those plays that I really wanted to like because it has the right ingredients for a fabulous production. Honored playwright: Beth Henley (she won a Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart and has written many other plays and films). Ingredients: Sex, drugs, murder and a sidedish of politics. Staging: By one of Chicago’s finest Equity storefront theaters. The Jacksonian is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 and the title is the name of the rather seedy motel where Bill Perch is staying, since both his marriage and his dental practice are in decline. The other characters are the motel bartender and waitress and the dentist’s wife and teenage daughter, who my review describes as “Cassandra in a cocoon.” The scenes flow back and forth from the December “night of the murder” to sexy bar and bedroom scenes.
The storyline is interesting and the play and characters definitely keep your interest. So even though I would say my rating is “somewhat recommended” because the nonlinear progression of scenes is a little incoherent, it’s still a worthwhile 90 minutes of theater. The Jacksonian runs through October 11 at Profiles, 4139 N. Broadway. Read my review.
Kafkapalooza at First Floor Theater
First Floor Theater’s annual Litfest, made up of eight short plays inspired by the stories of Franz Kafka, had a short run at the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park, so I’m sorry if you missed it. Sometimes when you see one of these evenings of short plays, a few of them are good and most are forgettable. But all eight of these plays, running 10-15 minutes each with one to five actors each, were interestingly written and well-performed. My review describes my favorite, titled “The Applicant,” drawn from a fragment of a story that Kafka wrote about Poseidon, bored with the paperwork required in his job as god of the seas, and wishing for a vacation.
First Floor Theater says its mission is to stage stories of individuals facing moments of radical change. I was impressed with this effort and look forward to their next outing.
Show Me a Hero on HBO
Speaking of individuals facing radical change, HBO’s current miniseries definitely fits that description. The story is based on actual events that took place in Yonkers, NY, from 1987 to 1994, when the city was trying to implement scattered-site public housing under a court order.
The “hero” is the young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, who’s elected because of his vote against a housing bill but then realizes that the city has to change. There are some great performances by actors such as Bob Balaban as the judge, Alfred Molina as a city councilman passionately opposed to the change, and Catherine Keener as a Yonkers resident bitterly opposed to the new housing that would be in her neighborhood. There are some very ugly but realistic scenes of Yonkers citizens protesting outside city hall and in council chambers. Of course, their arguments are that it’s all about property values and “lifestyle,” not racism. Uh-huh.
The characters are not all politicians and angry residents. Several subplots weave together the stories of public housing residents who will eventually be able to benefit from the new housing.
Isaac really proves his acting chops in this series, following his fine performances in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina. Of course, I first wrote about him in 2014 when he starred in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which all the critics, including me, raved about. Too bad it bombed at the box office and in awards season. I still think it’s a great film and I recommend it too.
One of my favorite things about Show Me a Hero is that it’s threaded with music by Bruce Springsteen from beginning to end. The mayor is a Springsteen fan and the songs all fit the dramatic action. Last week, in parts 3 and 4, the Springsteen songs were “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Secret Garden.” Can’t wait to hear what tonight brings.
Tonight is the third and final part of the six-part production, being shown on three Sunday nights. It will be available on demand if you’re an HBO subscriber and I’m sure it will have another life streaming and on DVD soon.
Images courtesy theater companies and HBO.
It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.
Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre
Remy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.
These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.
Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.
End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse
Yes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.
The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.
See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.
La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre
The talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.
The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.
Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.
La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.
The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre
After describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.
The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.
* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do. Theatreinchicago.com, a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.
The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre
This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.
The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.
The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.
In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.
All photos courtesy of the theater companies.