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Tuesday, 19 September 2017 16:49

Review: Goodman's "A View from the Bridge"

The Goodman Theatre almost never includes a show in their subscriber season that they haven’t developed themselves. Dutch director Ivo van Hove began his vivid production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” in London before bringing it to Broadway in 2016. It went on to win the Tony Award for best revival. Goodman artistic director Robert Falls requisitioned the work for Chicago prior to the Broadway run. Some may remember van Hove’s contribution to the Goodman’s 2009 Eugene O’Neill Fest. His arresting version of “Mourning Becomes Electra” performed entirely in Dutch was a sure stand out.

Ivo van Hove’s vision for Arthur Miller is uniquely his own in that it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen. If a standard Miller production bores you, then imagine an electric guitar version of Miller. The scenery and scene changes have been cut and what’s left is a minimalist masterclass in strong directorial choices. Minimalism doesn’t mean a lack of spectacle. The white cube contains the play to a small portion of the stage, allowing for audience members to sit right on stage. Each movement of this highly choreographed production creates a stunning visual.

Suffice it to say, you’ll never see “A View from the Bridge” like this again. van Hove’s intention is to create an “ultimate” version of classic American works through a European lens. What he reflects back is interesting. The concluding scene is a work of installation art, and leaves you with an unsettling feeling that we are but animals battling it out at the bottom. As with his interpretation of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”, van Hove is unafraid of heightening the subtle sexuality in the script. The blocking between Catherine (Catherine Combs) and Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford) is highly suggestive and pushes the envelope even further than Miller had in 1953.

There’s no scenery, no costumes and no tricks for this cast to hide behind. Since the New York production, some of the parts have been recast, but many have not. Catherine Combs reprises her role as Catherine, but is no stranger to the Goodman stage. Combs’ performance is transfixing. She’s able to balance the juvenile qualities of a young girl in a falsetto, but convey the deep-voiced desires of a woman with an unexpected control. Playing her adoptive mother Beatrice, Andrus Nichols, commands each scene. The script would make this character a weakling, unable to stand up to her hulking husband. Nichols brings a hardened strength to the role that propels the final scenes to full throttle.

This production will stick with you. With our nation’s president touting severe immigration reform, this play comes at a critical point in history. Arthur Miller wrote plays that addressed social issues. In many ways Eddie Carbone is how Miller saw America, as something afraid of change. When we hear white supremacists chanting “You will not replace us” on national TV, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. This is an essential play for our times. Ivo van Hove has created a striking and extremely intense version of “A View from the Bridge” that Arthur Miller himself would applaud.

Through October 15th at the Goodman Theatre. 170 North Dearborn. 312-443-3811

Published in Upcoming Theatre

“This world will remember me,” Bonnie and Clyde sing to each other in Kokandy Productions’ presentation of “Bonnie & Clyde” – a musical. Directed by Spencer Neiman, this odd-ball musical makes its area premiere after an unsuccessful Broadway run in 2011. This production also marks the fifth anniversary of Kokandy Productions, now a regular staple of Chicago’s storefront theater scene.

“Bonnie & Clyde” was developed in 2009 by La Jolla Playhouse in California, a frequent incubator for new Broadway work. The show opened officially on Broadway in 2011, but closed after 36 performances. Critics were not especially kind.

Even though it’s not a direct adaptation, it’s nearly impossible not to compare this musical to Arthur Penn’s stylish 1967 film. It’s an American film classic with iconic performances by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. It’s widely considered a turning point in American cinema. The film was focused less on historical accuracy and more on drawing comparisons between the young outlaws and the political awakening of the late 60s. The musical tends to tread on the same territory as Penn’s film but in a less dynamic way.

The issue is camp. Penn’s film is mostly devoid of camp even some fifty years later. “Bonnie & Clyde” the musical feels like two hours of pure kitsch. There’s no discernable reason this story needed to be told to music and unfortunately the empty songs prove that. Neiman’s cast seems to forget that these characters were indeed real people and not cartoon characters to be parodied. The nature of the material isn’t especially satirical, but this cast has decided it is.

Missy Wise as Blanche Barrow pretty much steals the show with her number ‘You’re Goin’ Back to Jail’, but the whole thing feels a bit Disney-fied, considering that the real Blanche Barrow served time for armed robbery.

The two leads Desiree Gonzales and Max Detogne are both incredible performers. Detogne’s voice is perfectly suited for the country-tinged folk rock of Frank Wildhorn’s music. Gonzalas also has a strong voice and makes some genuine choices for Bonnie Parker, adding a real dimension to her that isn’t otherwise in the script. The generic “I-wish” song feels sincere with Gonzalas singing. You will remember her, just like Clara Bow. Detogne also makes it his own. There’s a chemistry between the two that really translates.

If you were just dying to see “Bonnie & Clyde” during its Broadway run in 2011, Kokandy offers up a serviceable production. If you were hoping to gain more knowledge about the infamous star-crossed outlaws, you may be impressed at what playwright Ivan Menchel spins into his version of “Bonnie & Clyde.”

Through October 15 at Kokandy Productions. Theatre Wit 1229 West Belmont Ave.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 16 August 2017 03:49

Review: Machinal at Greenhouse Theater Center

Machinal refers to an automated or mechanical system. Sophie Treadwell's 1929 play "Machinal" takes its styling from this theme. Directed by Jacob Harvey, Greenhouse Theater Center brings this work back to Chicago for the first time in many years.

Maybe not as well known as Lillian Hellman, but Sophie Treadwell was once a popular playwright on Broadway during the height of expressionism in theater. She wrote some forty plays and often directed them, nearly unheard of in those times.

"Machinal" is a retelling of the murder trial of Ruth Snyder who was eventually executed by electric chair. The play is an expressionist interpretation. The dialogue is written in a way that feels like the innerworkings of a machine. There's a sparse greyness to the costumes by Christina Leinicke that would also suggest the joylessness the protagonist lives.

Heather Chrisler plays the young woman. Chrisler interprets the staccato dialogue with a human quality. Her performance brings up the intensity by breaking through the repetitive and unpoetic lines. She brings life to them and elicits an emotional response. This woman is pleading for her life as her societal system of steamrolls her.

Doubtful that Treadwell saw the real life Ruth Snyder as a villain. "Machinal" shows the the pressure of getting married, of having financial security and living in a ever-moving world. The young woman in Treadwell's play can't keep up. She's pushed into an advantageous, but unsatisfying marriage. She finds happiness in the arms of a lover. She does what she has to do to feel free and pays the ultimate price.

Eleanor Kahn's set mirrors the starkness of the play. Presented in a near black box with the exception of some strobe lighting, there's an eeriness from the beginning. There's an atmospheric quality in Kahn's setting, and it's working.

Life may seem a little more liberated for today's women but Jacob Harvey's point in mounting this work, is that maybe it's not? And maybe it's not even limited to just women. Treadwell's play is about the mechanics of being a adult human in this world, and how that conveyor-belt life makes us all animals destined for slaughter.

Through September 24 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave.

Published in Theatre in Review

‘S wonderful. “An American in Paris” was the surprise hit of 2015 on Broadway. It is of course the stage adaptation of Vincent Minnelli’s 1951 Best Picture winner of the same name. With familiar songs by George and Ira Gershwin, it would be hard not to be charmed.

 

To appreciate this “new musical”– you need to go back to a simpler, post-war era. Musicals were essentially plotless vehicles for stars like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland to showcase their talents. If some of the songs sound recycled here, that’s because they were. Often Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins repurposed their songs for multiple films. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

 

The stage musical devised by Craig Lucas and Christopher Wheeldon is fairly standard. While it may not be a reinvention of the wheel, it artfully pays homage to Vincent Minnelli’s lush style. Wheeldon’s ballet-flavored choreography is beautiful. The playfulness is tres Francais. Sometimes when a show hits the road, the production has to sacrifice some visual elements for the sake of portability. Not the case here. It’s impressive how well the vivid set pieces and projections travel. Visually, this “American in Paris” is stunning.

Sara Esty in the role as Lise evokes the spirit of a young Leslie Caron who starred in the original. Esty has been with the production since its conception at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Though, her dialogue is sparse, she’s a lithe dancer and thoroughly adorable. Her co-star McGee Maddox takes up Gene Kelly’s role as Jerry Mulligan. What he loses in convincing line delivery he more than makes up for with impressive dance.

If you’re asking yourself, why “An American in Paris” or why now? Why not is a good answer. This show endures because it casts a heartwarming spell over audiences from varied generations. It may not be the most poignant musical, but for the nostalgia lover or Francophile this is sure to bring a smile to your face.

 

Through August 13 at The Oriental Theatre. 24 W Randolph. Broadway in Chicago

Published in Theatre in Review
Wednesday, 12 July 2017 22:19

Review: "HIR" at Steppenwolf Theatre

With “HIR” by Taylor Mac, Steppenwolf Theatre continues its legacy of pushing relevant and sometimes uncomfortable topics onto its audiences. Directed by Hallie Gordon, this is the Chicago premiere of Mac’s acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway hit. This vivid production is sure to unsettle some subscribers, but that’s the point. Mac’s script offers up laughs and lessons and is able to gets its point across without coming off as preachy.

What a treat it is to see ensemble member Amy Morton back on the Steppenwolf stage. Morton is a frequent director at the Steppenwolf but has been scarce since her much-praised performance as Martha in 2010’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which transferred to Broadway. Morton plays Page, the mother of a transgender teen, Max (Em Grosland) and recently discharged soldier Isaac (Ty Olwin). She is also caring for her ailing husband (Francis Guinan) who has been incapacitated by a stroke. Page has unusual ideas about politics and lifestyle and is finally able to express herself the way she wants without an oppressive husband and societal restrictions.

Playwright, performer and singer-songwriter Taylor Mac (otherwise known as “judy”) is hot right now. His one-man “24-Decade History of Popular Music” was shortlisted for the 2017 Pulitzer. There’s no one quite like judy. HIR is essentially a fictionalized thesis on gender and politics in America. Guinan’s feeble character represents the fragile white male ego and Morton’s character is the at-times militant voice of the future. That future is without gender, without color, and without boundaries. Page seems to relish in abusing her once violent husband. An apt metaphor. Mac has a great sense of humor about the LGBT community and that shines through, but his script is also dense with a vital cultural insight that suburban audiences need to hear in the age of Trump’s America.

Hallie Gordon’s vision for this show is spectacular. Collette Pollard has created a fitting set for the chaos of this family. Gordon’s cast is top-tier. You can’t do much better than Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. Morton quickly becomes the focal point of the play and displays an overwhelming capacity for physical comedy and emotional honesty. You can’t take your eyes off her. Guinan is extremely brave to tread the boards in nothing more than adult diaper, or even braver, a full-face of clown makeup. Without uttering more than a few intelligible sentences, Guinan turns in a complicated but moving performance. This is likely to be one of the most talked about shows in Chicago, and good for the Steppenwolf for continuing to take risks.

Through August 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 1650 N Halsted Street. 312-335-3830 www.steppenwolf.org

 

Published in Theatre in Review

“Late Company” is the fairly literal title of a new play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. Presented by COR Theatre, Jessica Fisch directs the regional premiere at Pride Arts Center. The 80-minute play is a response to the uptick in teen suicides triggered by cyberbullying.

“Late Company” takes on the weighty issue of LGBT teen suicide. The play begins with political couple Michael (Paul Fagen) and Debora (Tosha Fowler) setting up for some dinner guests. Over the course of their cryptic conversation, we glean that their son has killed himself and the dinner guests are the parents of the bully they blame for their son’s suicide.

The implausibility of the situation is troubling. It’s hard to imagine that a grieving family would cordially invite over the parents of the bully they blame for the loss of their son. It’s even harder to imagine anyone taking that invitation. What transpires over the course of 80 minutes is a structurally unsound one-liner competition. Some highlights include “you were always more interested in the spin, than the spin cycle.”

This is not a play without heart. This is a play without a clear message. While most of us can generally agree that suicide is a heartbreaking thing to happen to any loved one, this play treats it as nearly incidental. The playwright struggles to flesh out a clear central argument. These characters are rarely having conversations, sometimes they’re just reading letters to each other. Great plays are exchanges of revelatory dialogue in which bigger issues are addressed. “Late Company” stays so specific to its own characters that it rarely acknowledges the outside world.

Tannahill’s play is ambitious and maybe more remarkable in other productions. The storyline is very relevant and has the opportunity to say much more than it does in its current form. There’s a lot to discuss on this topic and plenty of work still to do to prevent teen suicide. The playwright would be wise to dig a little deeper than anger in order to express that moral.

At COR Theatre through July 16th at Pride Arts Center. 4147 N Broadway St

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:15

Review: "T" at American Theater Company

The 90s really must be back because this is the second show about Tonya Harding and Nancy Karigan to debut in Chicago in the past year. American Theater Company's telling is a new play called "T" by Dan Aibel. "T" is a ninety-minute retelling of the infamous 1994 incident from the perspective of Tonya Harding's family. Margot Bordelon returned to Chicago to direct the conclusion of Will Davis' first as artistic director of American Theater Company.

"T" steers clear of camp and tabloid. What this play is essentially about is how much T, or Tonya Harding was worth to the people around her. In quick-moving scenes, Dan Aibel calculates all the ways in which Tonya Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly could profit from endorsements. In other scenes, we see her only female companion is her coach who's desperate for a win.

There is something a little strange about "T"­--a slightly lyrical tempo to the dialogue. Sentences read like work emails, missing regular parts of speech. It's an interesting choice, but it often puts uncharacteristically poetic words into otherwise simple people's mouths. It takes for granted that most of us are probably too familiar with the particulars of this crime, and therefore breezes through events without much context. There's a lot to cover in this story and while it's brief, it sufficiently wraps up in a single act.

Leah Raidt plays Tonya Harding with fierce intensity. The look is perfect. There's a duality in her interpretation that strongly resembles the real Tonya Harding without resorting to impression. She's endearingly naive but also bullish and brash. Her coach, Joanne is played by Kelli Simpkins. Her performance is like a cross of Tilda Swinton and Jodi Foster. Her scenes are the most captivating. Her character, however flawed, proves to be the moral backbone of the play.

It makes you wonder what the relevance of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan feud is to today. Aibel tries to connect it to the beginning of the digital age, and maybe he's right. It was the last time in history that shlock news didn't go "viral." This story held a nation's attention at the speed of nightly news. Like the OJ Simpson trial, this time will always hold a special place in a certain generation's heart.

At American Theater Company through June 25th. 1909 W Byron St. 60613

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 20 April 2017 11:05

Review: "Marry Me A Little" at Stage 773

How nice that even songs Stephen Sondheim cut from his own musicals can still find a home. “Marry Me a Little” is a 1981 songbook musical assembled by Sondheim. It’s a review of songs he wrote for various musicals in the 60's and 70's but were cut or unfinished. “Marry Me a Little” is a show performed without dialogue. The plot is pretty simple: a man (Austin Cook) and a woman (Bethany Thomas) are two artists who live a floor apart in a New York City apartment building. A chance meeting sends them down a standard relationship path. Or does it? 

 

You may already be asking yourself, why see this show? To be fair, it’s not a great script and like its sister Sondheim review “Putting it Together” – opinions are generally mixed. The script isn’t the point though. “Marry Me a Little” is a great chance to glean some insight into Sondheim’s creative process and hear some strong voices singing great songs you may not otherwise be familiar with. 

 

Director Jess McLeod’s vision for this semi-modernized “Marry Me a Little” is sleek and cool. The décor in both apartments looks directly out of a West Elm catalog. Costumes by Stephanie Cluggish fit right in, you’ll definitely want a pair of the cool shoes The Woman struts around in. 

 

What will certainly resonate after an hour and a half of continuous singing are these two voices. It would difficult for any co-star to match the vocal talents of Bethany Thomas, but Austin Cook holds his own. Cook is also the music director here and spends a great deal of the show parked at the piano. It’s nice to see the usual music director on stage and killing the piano. Without speaking a single word, these two are selling the magic of romance, all its ups and downs. If there’s one number worth coming for it has to be “Can That Boy Foxtrot” originally written for “Follies.” Bethany Thomas’ playful and sexy interpretation will bring a smile to your face. 

 

“Marry Me a Little” may not be the opus “Sunday in the Park with George” but it’s a great way to spend some time with Sondheim’s lyrical genius. With a short run time and overly romantic plotline, this stylish production would surely make for a charming first date. 

 

Through May 21 at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Shattered Globe Theatre welcomes back one of Chicago’s own, Sarah Ruhl.  “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a new play making its Midwestern debut at Theater Wit. Ms. Ruhl is one of the country’s foremost playwrights right now. She has another new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” currently running at the Lincoln Center in New York. Her work is often produced in Chicago usually directed by her friend Jessica Thebus. This is an especially personal production for Ruhl as it stars her own mother (Kathleen Ruhl) in the title role. 

 

No, this is not another warmed over incantation of the JM Barrie fairy tale. While somewhat influenced by the source material, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a very realistic story of five siblings grappling with the death of their father. What begins in a depressing hospital room, moves to a whiskey-soaked conversation between siblings that eventually turns into a make-believe version of Peter Pan. 

 

At its core, this is a play about love. There are plenty of plays about dysfunctional families, and this isn’t one of them. What it boils down to are five adult children trying to pinpoint a time when they felt their father’s love. These siblings have differing political beliefs and Ruhl’s apt commentary about our current climate is especially sharp, without being polarizing. There’s a great deal of truth in the courtesy her characters show for one another’s opinions. She also spends a great deal of the play dissecting the role of Catholicism and whether or not there is an afterlife. Despite the volley of bittersweet and at times painful memories of their childhood, these characters love each other and that is felt in the dialogue and performances. 

 

Kathleen Ruhl is adorable as the oldest sister and former Peter Pan star, Ann. Perhaps it’s her relation to the playwright, or her commitment to character, but Kathleen Ruhl makes the audience question how much of this work is fiction and how much is fact? Eileen Niccolai, a Shattered Globe ensemble member, provides a lot of the humor, but also some of the more heartfelt moments as youngest sister Wendy. All the siblings are named for Peter Pan characters, which underscores Sarah Ruhl’s point that with their parents gone, they are orphans now and need to grow up. 

 

Like any Sarah Ruhl work, there is a great deal of whimsy. With each new work, Ruhl continues to keep one foot on the ground and one in the clouds. “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is both prolific in its subject matter and also aesthetically striking it its presentation. The reality of the situation and the poignancy of the lines allows the audience to trust their narrator and fly when the time comes. 

 

Shattered Globe’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is being performed at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont (773.975.8150) and has been extended through May 27th. 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century. 

 

William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play. 

 

This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience. 

 

Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on. 

 

Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company. 

 

Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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