Dance in Review

Bill Esler

Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College. 

The Burn, a lively tale of a high school drama class putting on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, is spectacularly good. The script by Philip Dawkins was commissioned for the Steppenwolf’s Theatre’s Young Adult Theater Program. But this in no way diminishes it as a creative work – it is far, far more than an educational theater program.

Dawkins brings us four students and a teacher, introducing at first just the social surface, gradually individualizing them, and masterfully drilling down into the characters to reveal what makes each of them tick.

The Burn operates on several levels at once. It provides a portrait of the battleground educators face in classes of students with limited attention spans – a contemporary Blackboard Jungle. These young people display the confidence spawned by that thin yet wide breadth of knowledge so readily garnered online.

The Burn also addresses the perpetual condition of student social strata, amped up these days through social media platforms that can at times feed an unfortunate frenzy of bullying.

And finally, its story parallels the drama of the Miller’s masterwork, The Crucible, a dissection of the violence unleashed when a 17th Century Puritanical community’s dark forces are unconstrained. Miller’s dramatization of  the actual 1692 Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony is now an essential per of our cultural literacy. (Steppenwolf produced The Crucible earlier this season - read our review by John Accrocco.) But the play can be impenetrable. This new take by Dawkins illuminates Miller’s story, and will undoubtedly be produced widely at schools.

In The Burn, Tara, the social standard setter and bully (Birgundi Baker) hangs out with a dumbed-down girls’ basketball team member Andi (Nina Ganet) and with Shauna (Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller), who straddles the respectable world of accomplished student, while also following Tara as a member of her “mean girls” clique. Transfer student Mercedes (Phoebe González) is never admitted to the group, and in fact is harassed in person and on line. Mercedes carries a lot of baggage from a violent event that caused her to change schools, finding comfort by becoming a born-again Christian in the process.

We first meet the students as their good-natured teacher, Erik (Erik Hellman, who also starred in The Crucible) struggles to engage the class in diagramming a sentence. He finally gets their attention by using a more personal sentence about Tara, and thereby hints at the increasingly personal encounters that are to follow. 

A high school, or any theater production, for that matter, is also an intensely powerful emotional experience for the players involved. As The Burn progresses, the students rehearse and play their roles, and must learn to perform as a unit. This shifts the emotional dynamics, and the dynamic of the group begins to shift. Tension mounts as Tara’s hold on the group is threatened, and Erik confronts her bullying behavior.

Dawkins is an accomplished playwright, as well as teaching the art at Northwestern, Loyola and Victory Gardens – and demonstrates the high level of craft he has attained from that background. Like Snap Chat, Messenger and Twitter, the play’s delivery runs at an almost breakneck pace – and in that sense is very fitting for its target audience. But the older crowd should not miss it. I laughed and cried and wanted to stand up and cheer when it was done. So yes, it’s highly recommended! Catch it at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 10.

Millennial angst is in the air, and never better captured than in Clare Barron’s autobiographical “You Got Older.” You will laugh at its depictions of a young woman less-than-dexterously navigating her way through the trials of reaching a grown-up state in this first-rate production at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Mae, a 27-year-old unemployed lawyer (dumped, then fired, by her boyfriend and boss) is played by Caroline Neff. Back home in Seattle to nurse her dad through an episode of throat cancer, Mae carries most of the load for the play, a self-portrait of Barron that the author put together a few years ago to clear her writer’s block. Such works risk veering toward a self-indulgent exercise, but You Got Older largely avoids this.

It is true that in “You Got Older” we get more of a slice-of-life than a play with a plot. But most of the scenes - some real, others imagined - are hilariously funny or touchingly insightful (with maybe a couple clunkers). Awesomely fun is a recurring erotic fantasy, which arrives in the form of intermittent scenes with the hyper-masculine, bearded Cowboy in leather vest and chaps, lasso at the ready, who plays out Mae’s deep-seated desires. Gabriel Ruiz is over the top good as Cowboy.

The manly Cowboy contrasts with scenes with a real-life bar pick-up, the inept Mac, whose fetishes dovetail perfectly with Mae’s insecurities. Glenn Davis is comically nerdy, climbing clumsily into her bedroom window, then falling asleep before the tryst even gets started.

In the background, serious life issues play out. Mae’s Dad (Francis Guinan) has throat cancer, and its uncertain what outcome he will have. In Dad’s hospital room we meet Mae’s family following the surgery – two sisters and a brother – with an extended exposure to family culture. This perhaps overly long scene includes a humorous “picnic” (avocados and grapefruit), a peculiar “sniff-out” as the siblings try to determine “the family smell,” and the revelation that the family likes to dance together.

Another scene plays out somewhat gratuitously, as Mae and Dad listen to a four-minute recording of Regina Spekter's Firewood, played on an unamplified iPhone at a level where lyrics are barely audible. Dad has declared it the "theme song" of his illness. The sentimental concept of sharing a meaningful song is conveyed; but the dramatic impact is questionable. A closing dance scene with the four siblings is likewise more important to the author than the audience.  

In one scene of serious emotion, Mae argues with her father over how to approach a job interview. Mae plans to Skype it in; Dad advises going in person. When Mae out-argues him on which approach is better, Dad declares, “This conversation is over,” and withdraws, closing the door in her face.  Mae shouts at the door to no avail, “Admit it, Dad. You’re wrong!”

Neff’s performance is a standout, lacing with dry ironic tone the world weariness that captures the essence of the “generation next’s” view of its forbears, and her own struggles as life turns out to be far less than originally advertised.

Barron won a 2015 Obie Award for the play, and it is easy to see why. Jonathan Berry has pulled a well-crafted ensemble performance by  Audrey Francis and Emjoy Gavino (Mae’s sisters Hannah and Jenny), and David Lind (brother Matthew). The production runs through March 11 at

You Got Older’s production team has perhaps even exceeded the script in excellence: Meghan Raham (scenic design), Alison Siple (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Matt Chapman (sound design & original music), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projection design), Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach) and Sasha Smith (intimacy choreography). Casting director JC Clementz deserves special acknowledgement for the great chemistry on stage.  

In Skeleton Crew, playwright Dominique Morisseau hits close to home, presenting an event that still profoundly impacts America: the 2008 economic meltdown. It is captured here in the form of an imminent Detroit car plant closure.

Our memories are still fresh from that time, and wounds to our social fabric not fully healed from a period when millions lost their homes and savings, and we careened to the brink of a global depression, nearly bankrupting U.S. auto makers.

As Skeleton Crew opens, this tumultuous crash is still unfolding and American were living through early phases of what would befall us. At the plant, management has been whittling away at the employee headcount, raising workloads for those remaining, even as rumors abound that this auto body metal stamping plant may close.

The action plays out entirely in the break room, from which massive industrial gantries and cranes are visible overhead. The clamor of the production line permeates the set as we meet Faye, a senior factory veteran and United Auto Workers Union steward (Jacqueline Williams delivers a dynamic performance); Dez, an aspiring young entrepreneur just finding his in life and work (Bernard Gilbert is excellent); and Shanita, an expectant mom who is also model employee. (AnJi White offers a richly textured performance). A supervisor, Reggie (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) who has risen through the ranks, represents management in the unfolding drama.

I suspect these characters also stand as archetypes, symbolizing familiar types and generational shifts – each carries also a large measure of personal baggage and backstory. We learn that Reggie’s late mom was very close to Faye, and that Faye was like a second mother to him. We see Dez mapping out plans to open a small business – a car repair and restoration shop - but sense the incursions of rising crime and social dissolution. Dez is jumped by two thugs at a convenience store, and with the perspective of today's #BlackLivesMatter sensibilities, see another young black male at risk. Dez begins to carry a gun, and perhaps Morisseau means to foreshadow the tribulation of inner city violence today.   

The more circumspect Shanita represents self-reliance and maturity. Perhaps just a little older than Dez, she fends off his less-than-serious amorous advances, until shifting gears when she becomes pregnant. Faye is the establishment, the UAW go-between to management negotiating secretly with Reggie over how workers will be affected by the shutdown. We learn the circumstances of her personal life are crumbling - as is the auto industry, and perhaps Morisseau is suggesting, social norms.

Morisseau’s earlier installments in her trilogy of plays, Detroit 67 (at Northlight in 2013) and Paradise Blue at Chicago’s Timeline Theatre in July 2017 – also displayed her facility for rich dialog, and an eye for character and dramatic trajectory. All three have been directed by Ron O.J Parsons (formidably well in Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew; I missed Detroit 67). Parsons is also a frequent interpreter of August Wilson’s dramas at Court Theatre, where he is an artist in residence, and around the country. That is a fit for Morisseau, who says she aspires to give voice to Detroit (she uses the word “griot” for her role here) just as August Wilson was for Pittsburgh in his cycle of plays set there.  

Northlight Theater's high production values have given a fine expression to this show, with Scott Davis (scenic design), Samantha C. Jones (costumes), Keith Parham (lighting), and Ray Nardelli (sound). Rita Vreeland is Production Stage Manager. The show is highly recommended, especially so since you are well advised to watch for revivals of the rest of Morisseau's trilogy. Skeleton Crew runs through March 3 at Northlight's home, the Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Rose, the one-woman show featuring the matriarch of the Kennedy family, has returned to the Greenhouse Theater Center. In an extraordinary performance by Linda Reiter, Rose provides a back-story on the family dynamics at play among the Kennedy’s - a window into the powerful maternal force that delivered so many dynamic individuals, including two Senators and a President, to the public sphere.

The show received accolades during its 2016 incarnation, and it is easy to see why. But the social landscape has changed mightily since then. But it was probably not planned that way at Greenhouse Theater. The current run, which coincides with the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s election, serves as a commentary on the times - with a Presidency that has moved into what Peggy Noonan has called a “post heroic” phase. 

Highly successful in its original run in Chicago and off-Broadway, this 120-minute, one-act script by  Laurence Leamer artfully chronicles the trials of the long-suffering Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Though during the days when her sons Jack, Robert, and Ted Kennedy were in office, Rose Kennedy was a more behind the scenes public force than another comparable political scion, Barbara Bush, in her day.

“I’d rather be the mother of the President than the President,” Rose tells us, moving around a sitting room of French provincial furniture, in slacks, sweater and pearls, and her signature black bouffant hairdo. She lifts the many photos and peruses albums, some of which are also projected on a wal behind the set.

The details into the family come from years of research by author Leamer, who wrote a best-selling trilogy on the Kennedys - The Kennedy Women, The Kennedy Men and Sons of Camelot - all New York Times best sellers. Leamer was subsequently given access to 50 hours of taped interviews with Rose Kennedy, which provide a previously unseen look into the family, including infidelities and troubling dynamics of her marriage to Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a successful businessman, and appointed by Franklin Roosevelt as the first chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission. He is known also to Chicagoans as the owner of the Merchandise Mart.

Chicago actress Linda Reiter reprises her role, in an excellent, highly polished performance that will draw a tear as she recounts the many successes of her offspring, four of whom (Jack assassinated in 1963 and Robert in 1968; her oldest Joseph, dies in an air force bombing mission 1944; and Kathleen in a 1947 plane crash).

It is a telling commentary on the cultural landscape that the relevance of Rose is quite changed. During its 2016 run, Artistic Director Jacob Harvey anticipated former first lady Hillary Clinton as a first woman U.S. President.  And one whose spouse had leveraged political links to the Kennedy family during his Presidential campaigns.  

But that was not how it turned out. And so how do we look at Rose today?

Leamer presents a full-dimensioned character with Rose, who is revealed over the course of this 100-minute one-act by her one-sided conversation with an unseen visitor, who arrives soon after Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick scandal cum tragedy.

Periodically phone calls interrupt – her daughters Eunice and Pat; the widow Jacqueline. She is hoping to hear from Teddy, her only remaining son, but he is AWOL for the moment.

In the face of this latest blow to the family, Rose is seeking solace in the Greek tragedies, citing Hecuba, a play by Euripides.

This detail by Leamer gives the play heft and illuminates its underpinnings; we are to see Rose as a woman who has suffered unbearable pain, and yet she endures. Her ancient counterpart Hecuba has several parallels to Rose: she lost her throne as queen when Troy fell; she had nineteen children with wealthy King Priam; she saw a daughter Polyxena sacrificed by enemies, and her youngest son, Polydorus, murdered by enemies.

Rose Kennedy had nine children with wealthy Joseph P. Kennedy; she lived to see two assassinated and two killed in crashes.

Euripides Hecuba is driven mad by her suffering. Rose handles it with Stoicism – another gift of the Greeks, though her version comes by way of the Catholic Church of Irish-Americans.   

“My faith is a discipline, a path from which I never wander,” Rose tells us. She references the Greeks again in a quote favored by her son, Bobby - “God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

If the Presidency is in a post-heroic phase, the play Rose gives us access to the powerful story of the a more congenial moment in time when individuals and leaders asked not what the country could do for them, but what they could do for the country. Rose runs through March 11 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

The mayor of small-town East Lake, Illinois is facing a crisis: lead contamination was just discovered under a thriving magnet school, one that has become a sparkplug over the past few years for a dramatic influx of new residents, real estate development and a thriving local economy.

Complicating matters for Mayor Patty Stock (played with gusto by Kirsten Fitzgerald): the bad news was delivered by her brother Dr. Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen in a knockout performance), the revered science professor who returned to his home town just to teach at this school.

A Red Orchid Theatre's new show, Traitor, taps Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy-drama, An Enemy of the People, and like the original is packed with characters (the mayor’s sister-in-law, her niece and nephew, the publisher and a reporter for the local town paper, Dr. Stock’s father-in-law and three town council members). It is a high energy production that at first plays largely like a screwball comedy. Five people at one point are talking at once over each other’s lines.

As the action unfolds in mythical East Lake, around Dr. Stock’s kitchen table, the mayor calls for gin and her brother Dr. Stock invites everyone to “self-medicate” on medical marijuana. Dr. Stock’s long - suffering wife, Karla Kihl-Stock (Dado) is beset by interruptions as she tries to get some freelance book editing done as the kitchen turns into a Grand Central Station with arrivals and departures.

The drama turns on whether to publish the lead contamination findings in the Non Pareil newspaper, since that will likely kill the magnet school’s success. Dr. Stock, more of a firebrand, and advocates publishing right away. We learn from his wife he is a serial whistle blower, having done something similar (and killing his employment prospects) in several towns before. Mildly amusing and seeming to rely on histrionics, Traitor bumbles along, and we are not quite sure where it's headed or why we should care. 

Then the play takes a turn to awesomeness, with an ingenious shift of venue: as the drama crescendo’s the lights come up and the audience is ushered from its seats to an adjacent storefront, where the East Lake City Council is convening an emergency public meeting to deal with this crisis. The audience automatically take on the roles of townsfolk, and Chair Woman Mary Jo Bolduc (Fran Wysocki), and board members Jacob Alexander (Eric Ryhde) and Natalie West (Jenn Sheffer) conduct a truly hilarious meeting, punctuated by Alexander’s gratuitously mumbling “Second” and Wysocki’s efforts to maintain order. Chaos descends and a melee ensues. 

West, who we have met earlier as the perpetually self-promoting owner of Needle Knit Shop, is even more daffy in this town hall segment. And Mayor Stock recuses herself, then proceeds to disregard her recusal. Those words will be familiar to anyone tracking the investigative committees in Washington! 

This village meeting would be at home on the stages across the street at Zanie's and Second City. The first part of the play is really a set-up for the town council meeting, which gives the whole enterprise a bigger meaning. Wysocki in particular glad hands the audience like any pol, and I was as excited to meet her as if she had been the real thing. That's acting! 

In adapting Ibsen’s 1882 original, playwright Brett Neveu updated the plot and injected contemporary details, sometimes more or less deftly. Social media augments the newspaper channel, for example - that makes sense. But a "Taco Tuesday" device that presumably explains why everyone comes and goes from the Stock household seems kind of strange.

Like Arthur Miller who first adapted it for Broadway in 1950, Neveu has excised Dr. Stock’s rants on eugenics. But he has left in Stock's cry of desperation over the “tyranny of unenlightened masses” that can diminish the social fabric. Dr. Stock’s call will certainly resonate in an age of the Kardashian’s and a famous TV personality now in the White House. That the issues facing our body politic are showing up on our stages - Tracy Lett's recent Minutes at Steppenwolf covers similar territory - reminds us of the useful role theater plays for our community. 

When the audience returns to the theater, the plot takes a more serious turn, and we learn students are lethargic, and the lead poisoning is a real threat. The Stock's own son Randal (15-year-old Nation Stock) shows signs of the poisoning - and delivers a stirring preroration on the tendency adults have to focus on self aggrandizement and power plays than to address the real problems at their root. 

A Red Orchid Theatre received a Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2016, and Traitor is evidence why. A few rough edges notwithstanding, but this is a strong effort. You will not want to miss it during its run, through February 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells in Chicago. 

BLKS, a new comedy premiering at Steppenwolf Theater, tracks three young black women sharing an apartment in New York City, through 24 hours laced with sex and romance. 

Packed with high drama and high jinx, this first play by Aziza Barnes makes for an entertaining show. It may sound like a black version of Sex in the City or Friends, and like them it is a comedy of errors. But it also operates on an altogether more serious plain, taking on issues of violence, and with a look at “gender fluid” and “queer” orientation in next generation black community. It is also a window into a world most white people like me can never see.

“This is a play by blk people and for blk people,” the playwright says a note to the audience, tucked into the program. ”I am inviting blk people to live fully here. Those on stage and off.”

Enjoining the audience – and specifically black people -  to her mission, Barnes also has a longer goal. “What's important to me is trying to understand humanity and doing something of consequence that doesn't hurt people—that liberates people,” as she said in a Vice interview this summer.

The play also comes with a very explicit audience advisory for coarse language, sexualized violence, nudity, and frank depictions of consensual sex – and, notably, for documentary footage of police brutality – the liberal use of the N- and F- words, which punctuate the dialog is not so different from the role that “Frickin” plays in contemporary Irish dramatic dialog.     

Barnes also says she wants the play to be funny, and in large measure it is. In this “day in the life” Barnes depicts herself and two friends, with Barnes presumably represented by the protagonist and "everyman" figure, Octavia (Nora Carroll ably carries off a demanding role) who is dithering over her romantic commitment to Ry (Danielle Davis), a self-assured lesbian with a stable job. When the play opens, Ry and Octavia are snuggling, and we are introduced to the two other roommates Imani (Celeste Cooper) and June (Leea Ayers), as they enter with a flourish.

You feel you know these characters and their lives, but what you won’t know until you see BLKS is how it feels to be them. Barnes says this is a play for black people, and that is true. Comments from predominantly black audience members in an after-show discussion generally expressed surprise at how “black” the play was, and a certain amount of discomfort at the use of the word “nigger” in front of non-black audience members. Those assessments also suggest the realism Barnes has going in BLKS.

BLKS also shows us how #BlackLivesMatter, male abuse and #MeToo play out in the lives of these young women – a dark and undeniable backdrop to their efforts to just live a life.   

I found the character of June the most delightful – a straight black professional woman constantly seeking romance, fending off abuse, and taking a position as a highly paid consultant at Deloitte. Leea Ayers's performance was terrific. Kudos to the supporting cast. Namir Smallwood is excellent as he plays three characters (Dominican Dude, Justin, Sosa) in different scenes, and is thoroughly convincing in each, particularly the nerdy Sosa. (I didn’t realize he was all three guys!) And Kelly O’Sullivan plays somewhat thankless roles as That Bitch on the Couch, and Drunk  White Woman – foils to the action, but still, we like her.

Barnes is a rising voice in the poetry world with a popular podcast and award winning poems that explore black, queer, and feminine worlds. BLKS, her first theatrical effort, features fully fleshed out characters, real people that you will enjoy seeing, and will care about.

Artistic Director Anna Shapiro says with BLKS, she was “handed a script that feels both audaciously new and yet, strangely familiar.” It truly does explores the joy and anguish of growing up, and without question Barnes's playwriting marks the arrival of an original voice on stage. 

A stellar cast has, under the direction of Nataki Garett, brought this play to life, in part through workshopping at Steppenwolf. Barnes's poetic voice adapts very well to the stage, and the characters' language is both natural, yet musical and thoughtfully cadenced.

Producing BLKS is part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s mission to be “where great acting meets big ideas” and “to engage audiences in an exchange of ideas that makes us think harder, laugh longer, feel more” and “develop new plays, new audiences and new artists for the future of American theater.”

With all that back story and context, the question remains, “Is the play any good? Should I see it?” Yes it is good. And you may want to consider this in deciding whether to go: Steppenwolf has become a reliable curator of theater for us, and you are well advised not to miss out on something carrying its endorsement. So BLKS comes recommended. 

This is also a perfect antidote to the Christmas Carols dominating Chicago stages right now, and a good destination for a New Years Eve date. Steppenwolf Theatre Company

I was blown away by how great the score, acting and singing were in Griffin Theatre’s new show, Violet. I didn’t have time to learn about it before opening night, so maybe I came away with a completely unbiased assessment: “Boffo!” as the trade rags say for this over the top, top-notch production.

As a recipe for a great musical, Violet can’t miss. It follows a 1964 pilgrimage of Violet (Nicole Laurenzi is excellent) from Spruce Pine, South Carolina to Memphis, where she hopes to be healed of a facial disfigurement in person by a TV Preacher. (Anthony Kayer is so good in this role!). With that geography, and the characters that board and depart the bus along the way, we have a setting that is rife with musical possibilities. And the show exploits them beautifully.

Violet taps deeply into country, gospel, bluegrass, honky tonk, and Memphis blues at towns along the way. As their vintage Greyhound bus breaks in Kingsport, Tennessee, Violet meets a pair of soldiers – Monty and Flick (Will Lidtke and Stephen Allen are terrific), enroute to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Violet has lived a sheltered life, and with her father gone, she is on a quest, and ready to meet the world for the first time.

An what a great score! What hidden talent has been lurking in Chicago, I wondered? Well, after the performance (90 minutes with no intermission) I was straightened out (duh!): this is a revival of a 2014 Broadway Tony-nominated production, itself a reboot of a 1997 Off-Broadway winner of the Drama Critic’s Circle for Best New Musical and an OBIE award for best music. Music is buy Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics are by Brian Crawley. 

Having great material to work with, the Griffin Theatre has a delivered a wonderful show. The story line and character development are unusually rich for a musical, and the cast measures right up. Matt W. Miles is a true standout as Violet’s father, with a rich voice and emotive performance. The Young Violet (Maya Lou Hlava) is a very good.

Director Scott Weinstein has navigated pretty well through a complex script, which taps flashbacks and memories. The somewhat spartan staging maximizes the Den Theatre’s intimate space, but it is probably challenging to convey the shifts in time and place – it works well overall.

The music by Jeanine Tesori (she also wrote Fun Home and Caroline, or Change) is loaded with harmonies and counterpoint. The band under John Cockerill is hidden behind a screen, but looms large rich sound, and is revealed when it plays the role of the house band for the Memphis church.

One quibble as a spectator: much of the plot revolves around Violet’s suffering with her disfigurement, a factor that has diminished her self-esteem. It is this emotional constraint that Violet sheds in the course of the play. But that moment of truth did not ring out on stage. And Violet’s makeup does not show a person disfigured – at least from the back row.

This blowout production of Violet is being done also to honor Griffin Theatre’s 30th Anniversary. What a great way to celebrate! Violet runs through January 13 at The Den Theatre

The Pearl Fishers has been called Bizet’s most beautiful opera. Lyric’s electric production is certainly one of the most beautiful visually as well. 

The continuously melodious score also represents a departure from more familiar opera, with just one principal female role, Leila (soprano Marina Rebeka) and with the strongest duets sung by the male roles, Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) and Nadir (tenor Matthew Silvestrelli, a home grown talent from Lyric’s own Ryan school).

This production of The Pearl Fishers is also striking for its primitivist scene designs, expressive lighting, and dance sequences that provide a fresh and contemporary take on the mythical setting of the story. This season’s move of the Joffrey Ballet into the role of Lyric’s in-house dance troupe provides an added creative dynamic for each production.

The choreography in The Pearl Fishers – and every Lyric show for that matter - probably deserves a separate review under the Dance sections. It is quite sensational, adding a flavor all its own, especially in the seamless combination with the performer’s dress. The animal dancers have a kind of Julie Taymor Lion King thing going, and this is courtesy of the break out talent of Sandra Rhodes.

Production and costume designs are by Rhodes. Done for the San Diego Opera Company and Michigan Opera Company, both are visual triumphs, and technical achievements. Rhodes must dress regal principal singers, an active corps of supernumerary fisherman and villagers, and a ballet troupe in fashion that advances the narrative, but will not come undone in energetic dance interludes. It’s the ultimate active ware. 

Bizet, known widely today for his later opera Carmen, was just 24 when The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1838. It is the story of a fishing village set in “ancient” Ceylon (today’s Sir Lanka), within a Hindu temple grounds as a center of much of the action.

As to theology, history, and culture, the opera has the story all wrong. At the time Europeans were entranced with the exotic Orient – but it was also terra incognita. (One Sri Lankan academe notes the opera originally was set in Mexico, the contemporary heart of global pearl production, until someone pointed out to Bizet that it was not in the Orient.) There was no Wikipedia back then.

Nevertheless, in the Hindu temple at Lyric we find Buddhist monks and an annual ritual in which a vestal virgin must abstain from romance overnight at the temple, or she will be sacrificed. (She gets a precious pearl if she is well behaved.) A high priest is also chief justice over all such executions. The God Brahma is also involved. 

The plot revolves around two young men, Zurga and Nadir, who previously competed for Leila, but now have pledged undying friendship, both forswearing her in the interest of preserving their friendship. 

Darndest thing! Leila is this year’s vestal candidate. And so we have a scene in which the tenor creeps into the temple to seduce her – with lots of “I must have you” tenor-ing, and even more “no you must go or you will be killed” soprano-ing.

Of course, the high priest Nourabad (bass Andrea Silvestrelli) catches them, and we’ll let you go to the opera to find out what happens. The Lyric calls the relationship between the guys a bromance, and the intensity of their fealty made me research whether Georges Bizet was gay (he was married with a daughter). Suffice it to say "gay" still means "happy" in the world of opera. 

The Lyric Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers comes highly recommended for what opera productions should be, and you have three more opportunities on December 4, 7 and 10.

You don’t need to be an Anglophile to love The Audience.

Directed admirably by Nick bowling, it is written by Peter Morgan, the trending screenwriter of the The Queen (Helen Mirren) and the Netflix series The Crown, developed another angle on portraying Queen Elizabeth II: recounting a number of the 20-minute political briefings delivered weekly by Britain’s Prime Minister in a private audience with her Majesty.

This engaging stroll through history will also help explain to American's the vital role the Queen still plays in British society - though whether she's too expensive isn't resolved. The Queen functions as the reflective conscience of the British people, and remains as Prime Ministers come and go. 

Even before her coronation, the young Elizabeth is carrying on the tradition, and the play soon brings us to Churchill – who refuses to sit for the conversation. Elizabeth soon puts her stamp on the matter, and he Sir Winston is soon seated and receiving a dose of scotch. She also regularly reminds all her PMs that she heads what was the British Commonwealth - 52 nations largely former colonies who have at least some fealty to British culture and the Queen. 

Janet Ulrich Brooks does a marvelous job as the Queen, and the role is demanding for any actress. The playwright avoids a rote chronological sequence by having scenes jump around in time. Brooks ages in place, and manages to convey a constancy of personality, while also evolving Elizabeth who grows up and gets old before our eyes.

Janet Ulrich Brooks  is so seriously good here, notwithstanding inevitable comparisons with Helen Mirren, who originated the role in London and brought it to Broadway. You will not think one jot about Mirren when you watch her.

Brooks is also surrounded by a remarkable cast. Along with the Queen, there is another constant figure on stage through all the political ages: the Equerry played with immeasurable aplomb by David Lively. The Equerry is to the Queen, as she is the Prime Minister. The conversations in the weekly audience  are expected to be entirely private. And while the Queen is not actually ruling, she is reflecting – and her periodic interjections certainly have influenced the government.

Playwright Morgan has distilled the essence of each of these PMs, while resisting caricature, and tapping into the memorable issues during their terms. Think of names the strongly resonate, like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, John Major, David Cameron. Kudo’s to the actors and to Matt DeCaro (Winston Churchill / Harold Wilson / Tony Blair), and Mark Ulrich (John Major / Gordon Brown / Anthony Eden / David Cameron). DeCaro and Ulrich have physically taxing roles, and deliver their Prime Ministers with verve and precision. 

Carmen Roman as Margaret Thatcher was a dead ringer, and also brought frisson to the scene in which she confronts Queen Elizabeth for disparaging her Reagan-like dismantling of Britain’s social safety net and socialized marketplace.

Also notable for its timeliness – with the 20th anniversary of her death -  is the scene in which Queen Elizabeth’s emotional struggles with Princess Diana rise to the surface – but just barely.

A cinematic trope brings a child actor onto the stage intermittently in a nod to the Queen’s childhood – I can’t say those were effective scenes, but they provided leavening for the rest of the play.   

The Audience is recommended. It plays through November 12 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. in Chicago

Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” is getting a knock-out revival by Red Theater. Named for the colorfully staged, and bombastic entrances of professional wrestlers - with costumes, smoke, lights, confetti, and plenty of trash-talking put-downs of their rivals to rile up the audience - pro wrestling is really a natural event for the stage.

In this send-up of the seemingly testosterone-laden world of pro wrestlers – and a hilarious one at that - director Jeremy Aluma has also plumbed the depths of this play, lauded with an Obie and a Pulitzer finalist after its 2008 premier.

Our narrator and guide, Mace (Alejandro Tey), a young Puerto Rican man with a life-long love of wrestling – explains his career in that vital role as one of the class of professional losers, who are willingly vanquished so that the celebrated star wrestler – in this play Chad Deity – can be further elevated and celebrated. And the pay is good.

With amazing casting by Gage Wallace, the production puts the audience in the role of fans at the arena. Much as I resist such tropes (please, let me hide in my seat!), this production drew me in, then captured me – along with the rest of us watching at the StrawDog Theatre building.   

This was in part due to the charismatic and captivating performance of Alejandro Tey as Mace. He carries on for perhaps 45 minutes, relating his life story, teaching us the fine points of the profession, and explaining the symbiosis between the winner and loser. This almost mesmerizing performance is punctuated by demonstrations of wrestling technique.

But in very large measure Chad Deity succeeds on the seamless performances of the troupe – Mickey Sullivan is top drawer as Eko, the promoter; Will Snyder as The Bad Guy and as Fight Captain; and the night I saw it, Harsh Gagoomal as VP. Special kudos to Dave Honigman as the other Bad Guy and as an off-the-wall Referee who also performs janitorial duties and even wanders into the lobby during intermission. Chad Deity himself – Semaj Miller – tears up the in an over the top performance

Before seeing Chad Deity, I was quite blind to the team work and dynamic between winners and losers. My perception was the wrestling was clowning, not sport. In fact, the throws – and accompanying falls – require careful training. The troupe at Red Theater did its due diligence in learning these skills and clearly put in the hours on the wrestling mat.

The revival of this play is also timely. The panoply of villainous characters challenging Chad Diaz’s script highlights the American male heroes who vanquish the Bad Guys. The play – like real wrestling – trades on caricatures for the winners and designated losers alike. Over time, new models of trending bad guys are rolled out.

In Chad Deity, that new character is VJ, a motormouthed Pakistani who stands in for a variety of Middle Eastern villains. Mace adopts the role of his accomplice, playing a Mexican bandit. Let’s just say neither of them intend to pay for any frigging wall.

The plot may be overly burdened by one additional claim on it: Mace is really a great wrestler, and wants to win, rather than lose well. Just once he would like to take the winners belt. Mace and the play deserve this, but it does seem to slow the action at points.

The Red Theater creative team has converted the Strawdog Theatre space into a convincing live wrestling event. It was an absolute delight. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity plays through September 16, 2017 at 1802 W Berenice Ave, Chicago, IL 60613. It is highly, highly recommended.

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