Dance 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
Thursday, 22 June 2017 23:42

Taylor Mac's HIR at Steppenwolf

Rehearsals are underway for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere production of Hir, a subversive comedy by celebrated playwright, actor, singer-songwriter and performance artist Taylor Mac. Directed by Steppenwolf Artistic Producer Hallie Gordon, the cast features ensemble members Francis Guinan (Arnold) and Amy Morton (Paige) with Em Grosland (Max) and Ty Olwin (Isaac). Previews begin June 29, 2017 and the show runs through August 20, 2017 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St. Opening night is Sunday, July 9. Tickets ($20 - $89) are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
 
The classic dysfunctional family story has just crashed through into a wholly original place. Meet Paige, a wife and mother liberated from an oppressive and abusive marriage; Max, her newly out transgender child; and Isaac, Max’s PTSD-addled older brother, who discovers a brand new war zone when he comes home from Afghanistan. Hir’s crusade to shake up the patriarchy is disarmingly funny, absurd and surprising as it looks at an American family forced to build a new world out of the pieces of the old.   
 
“I started Hir in 1997, after seeing the Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child on Broadway.  Although the two plays are extremely different in style, tone, and theme, I was wildly inspired by Mr. Shepard’s play and his poetic inquiry into the broken and hidden parts of our culture. It’s thrilling to get to bring the play full circle round to Steppenwolf and to participate in the conversation about working class America that they and Mr. Shepard have been involved with for decades,” shares Taylor Mac.
 
Taylor Mac (who uses “judy”, lowercase sic, not as a name but as a gender pronoun) is a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director and producer. Named “one of the most exciting theater artists of our time” by Time Out NY, judy is the author of 17 full-length plays and performance pieces including A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Kennedy Prize in Drama), Hir (placed on the top ten theater of 2015 lists of The New York Times, New York Magazine and Time Out NY; published by North Western University Press and in American Theater Magazine), The Lily’s Revenge (Obie Award), The Walk Across America for Mother Earth (named One of the Best Plays of 2011 by The New York Times), The Young Ladies Of (Chicago’s Jeff Award nomination for Best Solo), Red Tide Blooming (Ethyl Eichelberger Award) and The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac (Edinburgh Festival’s Herald Angel Award).
 
Mac is the recipient of multiple awards including the Kennedy Prize, Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a Guggenheim Award, the Herb Alpert Award in Theater, the Peter Zeisler Memorial Award, the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and an Obie.  An alumnus of New Dramatists, judy is currently a New York Theater Workshop Usual Suspect and the Resident playwright at the Here Arts Center.
 
Hallie Gordon (Director) is currently the Artistic Director for Steppenwolf for Young Adults, where she has directed many productions for the program including the world premiere of Monster by Walter Dean Myers; George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; the world premiere of The Book Thief; To Kill a Mockingbird; and the world premiere of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. She has directed for Northlight Theatre and is an ensemble member for Rivendell Theatre where she directed the critically acclaimed Dry land and Eat Your Heart Out.
 
About the Cast & Creative Team
Ensemble member Francis Guinan has appeared in more than 30 shows, most recently John Steinbeck’s East of Eden last season. Amy Morton has been a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1997 and received Tony nominations for her roles in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and August: Osage County. Em Grosland makes his Steppenwolf debut in Hir and most recently appeared Off-Broadway in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Masterworks Theatre Company. Ty Olwin is a graduate of the School at Steppenwolf and was previously in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ productions of The Burials and Lord of the Flies. Olwin was featured in the 2016 film Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart.
 
The Hir production team includes Collette Pollard (scenic design), Jenny Mannis (costume design), Ann G. Wrightson (lighting design), Richard Woodbury (sound design and original music) and Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach). Other credits include Anna D. Shapiro (artistic producer), JC Clementz (casting director), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager) and Mary Hungerford (assistant stage manager).
 
Tickets & Production Info
Single tickets ($20-$89) available at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org. Previews: $20 - $54 and Regular Run: $20 - $86. Prices subject to change. Rush Tickets: half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. Student Discounts: a limited number of $15 student tickets are available online. Limit 2 tickets per student; must present a valid student ID for each ticket; steppenwolf.org/students. Group Tickets: all groups of 10 or more receive a discounted rate for any performance throughout the season; steppenwolf.org/groups. Flex Card Memberships: Black Card memberships are for audiences interested in extreme flexibility with six tickets for use any time for any production. Black Card ticket credits are valid for one year with the option to add additional tickets as needed. Perks include easy and free exchanges, access to seats before the general public, savings on single ticket prices and bar and restaurant discounts for pre- and post-show socializing. Red Card memberships are available for theatergoers under 30.  To purchase a Card Membership, visit Audience Services at 1650 N Halsted St, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.
 
Accessible performances includean American Sign Language interpretation on Sunday, July 30 at 7:30pm, Open Captioning on Saturday, August 12 at 3pm and a Touch Tour on Sunday, August 13 at 1:30pm. For more information, visit steppenwolf.org/access. Assistive listening devices and large-print programs are available for every performance. An induction loop is installed in the Downstairs Theatre and the 1700 Theatre.
 
Visitor Information
Steppenwolf is located at 1650 N Halsted St near all forms of public transportation and is wheelchair accessible. The parking facility consists of both a covered garage ($11 cash or card) and an open-air lot, located just south of our theater at 1624 N Halsted. Valet parking service ($14 cash) is available directly in front of the main entrance at 1650 N Halsted St starting at 5pm on weeknights, 1pm on weekends and at 12 noon before Wednesday matinees. Street and lot parking are also available. For last minute questions and concerns, patrons can call the Steppenwolf Parking Hotline at (312) 335-1774.

Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks
Connected to the main lobby is Steppenwolf’s own Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks offers a warm, creative space to grab a drink, have a bite, or meet up with friends and collaborators, day or night. Open daily from 8am to midnight, Front Bar serves artisanal coffee and expresso is provided by La Colombe and has a new menu for this spring and summer with food prepared by Goddess and Grocer. The menu focuses on fresh, accessible fare, featuring grab-and-go salads and sandwiches for lunch and adding shareable small plates and desserts for evening and post show service. www.front-bar.com.

For additional information, visit steppenwolf.org, facebook.com/steppenwolftheatre, twitter.com/steppenwolfthtr and instagram.com/steppenwolfthtr.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

If you were to take a survey of teenagers and young adults to determine which social issue they’re most interested in seeing addressed onstage, mass shootings would be near the top of the list. Though the kind of incident in which an ideologically fanatical and/or severely mentally ill individual massacres a random group of people is not how the majority of murders occur, or the type of shooting Chicago public school students are most likely to encounter, it is something I’ve found that students have a strong desire to discuss. Of course, discussing something is quite different from discussing it intelligently, and the “conversation” around school shootings is filled with so much nonsense and has so little legislative effect that people have become jaded enough for Heathers: The Musical to exist (and be funny). But that’s where playwright Caitlin Parrish comes in. Working with director Erica Weiss, Parrish has adapted the ancient Greek story of Antigone into a new play which not only allows its characters to be complex and intelligent, but is an interesting story in its own right, and worthwhile for adults to see during a public performance.

The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was one who sacrificed her life by defying her uncle Creon to give her treacherous brother a proper burial. The one imagined by Jean Anouilh in 1944 switched her motivations so rapidly that Anouilh’s Creon excused himself by saying she simply wished to be martyred and did not care what principle she ostensibly died for. Parrish’s Antigone, named Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan), has no desire to sacrifice herself at all. The favorite child of a widowed Republican senator running for re-election as a moderate, high school senior Sophie has just cast her vote in her first primary election when shots ring out at her school. Upon learning that her brother, Ben (Matt Farabee), was the killer and concluded his massacre in suicide, her first thought is that she hopes his body hasn’t been left alone, and her second thought is to hope the media does not release his name until the polls are closed. Sophie has made supporting her father’s career her purpose in life, and is deeply disappointed in Ben for what she perceives as a calculated attempt to kill their family socially, along with his more direct victims. In this version, he is buried quickly, in an unmarked grave outside of town, but Sophie is troubled at how easily her father, Ryan (Coburn Goss), and sister, Chloe (Becca Savoy), join everyone else in writing him off as evil.

Sophie’s discomfort increases when her father declares that he wants teachers to be armed, and implies he would have killed Ben himself had he known what he was planning. She’s also blindsided by how suspicious her classmates are of her—to have not known Ben was a psychopath means she must either have been stupid or been covering for him, and they know she’s not stupid. As her father’s plan to rebuild his public image as Ben’s most prominent surviving victim proves surprisingly successful, Sophie finds herself disagreeing with him on the wisdom of widespread access to firearms. He claims that she is simply trying to avoid acknowledging what Ben was so he won’t reflect poorly on her, but Sophie believes whatever was wrong with Ben isn’t as easily addressed or as relevant to any other mass shooting as cracking down on guns.

Parrish’s script sometimes strays close to letting characters speechify, but generally, she motivates their responses quite well. The nine-member ensemble all acquit themselves marvelously, with Cygan expertly managing the difficult task of keeping a somewhat objectionable and high-handed protagonist clever and active enough to maintain the audience’s interest. Higher on the sympathy scale is Savoy’s sardonic Chloe, who, as a lesbian from a Republican household, had relied more upon the school than her family for a social network, and is more upset by having that taken from her. Goss’ senator is no caricature, but he doesn’t display the same level of conflict over what to do with Sophie as most Creons. His claim that he specifically is needed in Washington and he therefore must be willing to sacrifice his family seems to have little basis, but the playwright allows him to sound reasonable despite disagreeing with him.

The school, too, is host to a wide array of richly developed characters. Stephanie Andrea Barron plays Sophie’s friend Janette, who is from a far less-comfortable background and already had mechanisms for coping with violence; her boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd) never liked Sophie in the first place, perhaps saw her as a rival, and is the kind of person who displays his books so everybody can be impressed by what he’s reading (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me). Greg (Ty Olwin) is a profoundly hurt friend of a victim who finds the Martins unspeakably vile, while Brianna (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a survivor whose brief appearance in a video at the beginning of the play instantly establishes an unsettling tension. It was wise of Parrish to grant the chorus so much individuality—the community feels much more authentic when its differences can be acknowledged, and the play has a heart which is sometimes missing in modern remountings of Greek tragedies. Representing her and Weiss’s own generation are a teacher and a newscaster played by Kristina Valada-Viars, one of whom, being in her mid-thirties, declares herself too old to lead the cause of gun control, and the other of whom outright admits she has been faking her routine shock and grief for a while.

Courtney O’Neill’s set design contains a nod to what the Athenian theatre is supposed to have looked like in the time of Sophocles, but it also allows room for Joseph A. Burke’s projections. Ben appears in the form of a vapid video diary he kept which endlessly frustrates the other characters by providing very little help in figuring out his motivations, but his posthumous presence on social media becomes a major recurring plot point. Parrish used the premise of Antigone, but since the point of the play is to make teenagers feel empowered, one can see long in advance that it’s not a tragedy. Parrish and Weiss also aren’t shy about using the play to advocate for stricter gun regulation, or possibly elimination, but the context of Steppenwolf’s encouragement of discussion and feedback prevents this from feeling propagandistic, and they present a reasoned argument with respect for the other side. Based on the differences between how Goss and Valada-Viars’s characters are represented, they seem harder on themselves, which, when ninety percent of the public supports stricter background checks and is unable to move Congress, gun-regulation advocates perhaps ought to be. 

One of the most encouraging things about this production is that there exist people who understand the myriad viewpoints that exist surrounding mass shootings and respect young peoples’ experiences and concerns. Acknowledgement isn’t progress in itself, but it is a precondition to progress that is often lacking, and Weiss’s cast display genuine empathy. This show isn’t meant to condescendingly educate teenagers about themselves; it’s a mirror held up to the people most effected by an issue, and for them and everyone else concerned about mass shootings, The Burials is highly recommended.

 

Public performances of The Burials are on October 14 at 7:30 pm, October 15 at 3:00 pm, and October 22 and 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted Ave, Chicago. For ticket information, see Steppenwolf.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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