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.  

"Punch me," is the first line of dialog in Dry Land, and those two words sum up the effect of this play - gut wrenching and, in a climactic scene, hard to watch. If you are looking for lighter fare, move on; but you will not find much better than this Rivendell Theatre production.

Set in a girls' swimming pool locker room at a Florida high school, the play revolves around the bond between an unlikely pair: Amy (Bryce Gangel), a girl who gets around too much with teenage boys;  and a much sweeter young woman, Ester (Jessica Ervin).

Playwright Ruby Rae Speigel has received plaudits for Dry Land, celebrated in its New York Off-Broadway production. In fact, the excellent set built at Rivendell (Joanna Iwanicka is scenic designer) tracks closely to the New York version.

A recent Yale grad, Speigel is now writing a series in development for Netflix. Her script, with its scenes broken by blackouts, is strong in its spare yet realistic dialog - one that lets the action unfold all the exposition, a mark of good writing.

Amy,  who moves with the fast crowd, is pregnant - a fact she prefers not to share with her best friends, or her mother. Ester, chosen as confidant, accepts that role in a dynamic familiar to any high school kid looking for a friendship. This pairing plays out against a backdrop of the ordinary stresses of high school life, amped up by pressures of a compeitive women's swim team.

From that "Punch me" opening, Ester assists as Amy meanders through ignorant attempts at terminating the pregnancy - Ester sits on Amy's stomach; punches her diaphragm; drinks hard liquor with her. Snippets of google searches are shared, and eventually leading to the morning after pill. It's a risky choice for the second trimester, and leading to the barely bearable scene in which the pill does its work.

Bryce Gangel is commanding as the weak and somewhat off-putting Amy. Jessica Ervin's Ester is convincing as an innocent who is solid to the core. Just two male characters make brief appearances.Ester's kindly young suitor, Victor (Matt Farrabee is spot on), who reveals a less than flattering perspective on Amy.

And it is the Janitor (Ric Walker in a world-weary performance) who provides the most telling commentary, in a silent scene in which he methodically cleans up the bloody aftermath of that pill. In his matter-of-fact mopping and wiping, we can tell this Janitor has seen it all, and seen it all too often.

Life goes on. As the action draws to an end, college acceptance letters arrive - or don't - and these two young women who passed together through the worst of life will go their separate ways.

Dry Land is also a cautionary tale of the dire punishments suffered by young women through ignorance. For more than two decades, the Rivendell Theatre has followed its mission of recognizing and cultivating the talents of women in theatre and exploring the unique female perspectives of everyday stories. Dry Land advances that mission and takes it a step further.

How much do we reveal about ourselves to others? In a masterful new Steppenwolf production, title character Mary Page Marlowe gives the short answer: Only what we know.  

It may sound like an unpromising premise, but in recounting the life of ostensibly ordinary Mary Page Marlowe, a CPA from Dayton, playwright Tracy Lett’s shows his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning chops, with a script that achingly reveals the human condition.

Through a dozen vignettes, one of six actresses plays Mary Page Marlowe at various stages. The first is in a restaurant, where Mary Page tells her kids that mom and dad are splitting. She gazes across the audience, asking loudly with her eyes, “How did I get here?”

Mary Page appears in every scene that follows, and the play challenges the audience to flash back and flash forward with her in time. We see her years before in a tryst with her boss; and years later in session with her therapist. Action jumps ahead to her deathbed, then back to her parents’ home in the 1940s, when she was just a baby.

 

From this we weave together the narrative of Mary Page Marlowe’s life: an alcoholic daughter of an alcoholic mother, her son who battles addiction, her family suffering the life of quiet desperation typical of many under the repressive social expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.

Mary Page Marlowe displaces her unhappiness in drinking and love affairs. A DUI near-fatal accident sends her to jail, and ends her second marriage. Hitting the wall, she finally comes to terms with her drinking and her life. Marrying successfully, she is eventually widowed. Alone on her death bed, Mary Beth Marlow confesses to her medical attendant she is ready to go, and has come to terms with her life.

All that is easier said than done on stage, and the audience may struggle at times to follow the characters’ progress in this play which yearns to be a movie. It is clear why director Anna Shapiro, who is also artistic director, postponed a sabbatical just to work on this production, which rivals film in its creative presentation.

Co-starring in all this is the set (Todd Rosenthall) and Lighting (Marcus Doshi), which moves from scene to scene by sliding in rooms, and dropping in translucent partitions that shape-shift through projection and backlight. The effect is truly cinematic, with scenes dissolving, like artfully edited film. Letts may be showing the influence of Hollywood, having watched his masterworks August: Osage County (Meryl Streep and Sam Shepard) and Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) transfer from stage to screen.

The structure relegates the 21-member cast to largely extended cameo roles, but these carefully chosen performers really deliver. Along with the title actresses, two standouts were Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (Ed Marlowe), the very picture of a post-World War II young father; and Kirsten Fitzgerald (Shrink), who knows how to project her lines, and commands the stage.

Six actors portray Mary Page Marlowe:  Blair Brown (Mary at ages 59, 63 and 69); Carrie Coon (Mary at ages 27 and 36); Laura T. Fisher (Mary at age 50); Caroline Heffernan (Mary at age 12); Annie Munch (Mary at age 19); Rebecca Spence (Mary at ages 40 and 44), along with three live infants who intended to rotate in the role. (It was unclear in a recent matinee if a real baby made the curtain time. Other ensemble members Ian Barford (Ray) and Alan Wilder (Andy), Amanda Drinkall (Roberta Marlowe), Jack Edwards (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Keith Gallagher (Ben), Sandra Marquez (Nurse), Ariana Venturi (Connie), Madeline Weinstein (Wendy Gilbert) and Gary Wilmes (Dan).

Mary Page Marlowe can be seen as a coming of age story, starring a Baby Boomer everywoman. Letts has also broken new ground, here, not just in the cinematic style of this play, but in examining to what extent we can reveal in our new relationships a life’s worth of baggage collected along the way.

In what may be the most revealing scene, the widowed Mary Beth Marlowe (Blair Brown) strikes up a conversation with a dry cleaning clerk Keith Gallagher as Ben) about restoring an old quilt – a conversation riddled with yearning, about nothing, and everything. Just like the play.

Cole Theatre’s adventurous production of The Bachelors takes an unsparing look deep into the male psyche. It is not always easy to watch. 

It’s amazing how well playwright Caroline McGraw manages to capture the flavor of men’s behavior when they are away from women. (Was she hiding behind a couch?) Whatever the answer, this rising writer is as much the star in a challenging theatrical event that should not be missed. (It runs through April 10.)

The Bachelors plot carries little action in the conventional sense: three 30-something men are still living a frat style life, long past the period of respectability. The play reveals one of them has used a date rape drug to prey on a young woman, who is gagged and naked in an attic room - a shocking turn of events.

As the play opens, Laurie (Shane Kenyon in a very strong performance), returns from a Vegas business trip to find Kevlar (Nicholas Bailey) dead drunk on the floor, the house trashed. Laurie helps Kevlar sober up, when Henry, the third roommate, arrives. 

As Henry appears (Boyd Harris excels as this menacing sociopath) we sense something is amiss. And these presentiments of danger unfold in the action. Henry is perturbed that Laurie has returned early, and that he has sobered up Kevlar. Henry has also drugged Kevlar, so he won’t learn about the woman in the attic, either. 

Laurie’s early return throws a wrench in Henry’s nefarious plans. Laurie is intent on rescuing the woman in the attic. A brawl follows, and Henry beats up Laurie. 

We should recognize these men as archetypes: Henry, alpha male with a cruel streak, is a biochemist; Laurie, feminist-male, is perpetually carrying the torch of unrequited love, and has just been fired from his sales job. 

The third, Kevlar, is a narcissistic wastrel. His current emotional trauma kicks off the play: he can’t understand why his long-time love left him after getting a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis. The audience knows why: she doesn’t want to spend her remaining time with a guy like him, who could never commit, and provides little support.    

McGraw’s portrait of these males reveals the toxic mix of their personalities. What shows isn’t pretty, and there is little to redeem the characters. Like fruit too long on the branch, they have gone from ripe, to fetid. As the play closes, a foreboding wind blows open the apartment door - hinting at a dark destiny. 

The play is directed by Erica Weiss, and she has handled a difficult work well. McGraw's script has the characters shift from language that is realistic and natural, to soliloquoies that border on magic realism. One, a description of his lost love and the perfect girl, by Henry reels in the audience as they, and his roommates, realize this was someone who never existed. It's poetic. 

In another long interlude Henry performs a dance that mimes the strutting (and aggravating) a male displaying his dominance among men. It seemed over-long, but perhaps that was the point. 

The set is well-conceived, a kind of mindless squalor, with stairs suggesting those upper reaches that we don't want to see. 

The cast's Boyd Harris is Cole Theatre's artistic director. The Bachelors runs through April 10 at Greenhouse Theatre Center. 

You know it's been a strong performance when you find yourself cringing in your seat from the action onstage. Just such an evening I had watching Irish Theater of Chicago's In a Little World of Our Own.

This play by Gary Mitchell set during the Irish "Troubles" premiered in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement that year which put an uneasy end to the Catholic versus Protestant dispute in Northern Ireland. While memories may be fuzzy, the world at large - and the Irish neighborhoods of Chicago - were at the time emotionally and politically charged, and highly invested in the battles in Ireland. They still are invested.

The drama centers on an Irish Protestant family - less familiar terrain for Chicago - and incorporates a tense whodunit regarding a heinous murder, committed offstage, thankfully. Trapped in the claustrophobic community of one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious housing projects, family members wrestle with how to mete out justice on their own after one of three brothers is accused - the plot twists and turns as we try to determine what really happened on the evening in question. When the moment of truth arrives on The Den stage, I covered my head with my arms.

The production is a noble endeavor, and the Irish Theatre of Chicago continues its estimable mission in bringing us this staging. Directed by Associate Artistic Director Jeri Frederickson, and featuring ITC company members Jeff Duhigg, Matt Isler, Rob Kauzlaric, and Jodi Kingsley, this play will appeal to those who are willing to risk being challenged. One slight quibble would be in the Irish accented English, which performers mastered unevenly under coaching. Sometimes the playwright's language got lost in translation.

By way of background, in Northern Ireland, the British army was charged with keeping the peace, but neither Catholic nor Protestants trusted justice could be found through formal means - and so they took justice into their own hands. As the action unfolds at the Den Theater, we watch a Protestant family struggling with such a dispute - and not wanting to involve the formal authorities. In a Little World of Our Own holds up, after all this time, as a portrait of a society in dissolution - showing us the dire consequences for a community that has made its peace with such rough justice.

A quarter century before the play's premiere, the Bloody Sunday incident took place, in which 14 people were killed by British soldiers during a protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. (It was around that time, in 1971, that Paul McCartney recorded his protest song, "Give Ireland Back to the Irish.")

From the late 1960s until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Ireland's "Troubles" - the political and social antipathy between the Catholic minority and Protestant majority in Northern Ireland - had a strong hold on the world's attention, and especially on Chicago, the largest Irish American city. Interventions and negotiations over the years have reduced the tensions in Northern Ireland to a largely uneasy peace.

These matters are far from settled. There are still 4,000 protest marches held each year by Catholic and Protestant groups in Northern Ireland, population 1.8 million. Playwright Gary Mitchell, who won the Belfast Drama Award, and the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best New Play for the work in 1998, was forced from his home in Rathcoole, Belfast in 2005, after it was attacked by Loyalist [loyal to British rule] paramilitaries. He now lives with his family in a secret location.

The Compass, a powerful Steppenwolf for Young Adult premiere, concerns an Entrepreneur (Tim Hopper) who has launched the Compass app, a seemingly harmless and fanciful social media tool aimed at saving users the nuisance of worrying over minor decisions, like which shirt to wear today. 

Trouble ensues, however, when Marjan, a high school senior (played by Ariana Burks) follows the guidance of the Compass app in committing a crime: She calls in a false bomb threat at her school. This is a felony - albeit perpetrated in this case to avert likely violence. 

The action of The Compass turns on a subsequent trial. And it is here that The Compass rises to a very engaging two hours. If theater is society's way of holding a live debate with itself, the impact of social media is high on the list of topics. And The Compass does that with an inventive theatricality - one that will appeal audiences of all ages. Through it's multiple levels, we get a kind of Minority Report meets 12 Angry Men - and an encounter for all of us with ideas that matter.

Two years in development, The Compass was not "scripted" but instead "devised" by director Michael Rohd. Over the past two seasons, Steppenwolf for Young Adults hosted a series of "Project Compass" events aimed at engaging multi-generational theater audiences in a dialog about what goes into making a decision, and how we are each guided by our own moral compass. 

The team even researched with Google, which affirmed the feasibility of an app like Compass - which scans a user's total online behavior to predict choices for him or her going forward. From that arises another the crux of the play's topicality: What is our obligation to make sure we are guided by our own sense of right and wrong, and not to be driven by the prevailing winds frequently expressed through social media? 

Steppenwolf can benefit as well, through all this, using this as a focus group, helping it to devise a type of theater that could appeal to the next generation of ticket buyers. 

The feedback from the pre-show events played a major role in the structure of the play - which is decidedly multi-media and driven by audience participation. Big screens display the feeds from the characters' social media feeds, and far from distracting, seem naturally to advance the actio of the performance. The play also jumps back and forth in time; and 

 

actors play multiple characters, variously from perches above the stage, on jumbo video screens, and even in the aisles. All the shape and time shifting flows pretty seamlessly.

In another departure from a standard staging, ten Facilitators are cast within the audience. Each one also plays a juror in the trial on stage, while periodically stepping off the boards to lead a section of the seating in a discussion on topics being discussed on stage. Actor Sean Parris did this winningly for our group.

Leading the conversation, and taking notes, these Facilitators return to the stage to argue their audience sections' viewpoints from the jury box, then vote guilty or not based on each group's feelings - adding to the investment ticket buyers have in the action. 

After jury deliberations reach a third day (a real-time time-lapse gets the idea across very well), Marjan is found guilty by the 10 jurors. The vote for  the 210 ticket holders is also rolled across the stage on a white board. We the audience at the Steppenwolf downstairs theater voted Marjan guilty, 126 to 94. So the action changes, based on the audience sentiment at each performance. 

The play is set in the near future (Elizabeth Warren is Vice President, the Compass app, widely adopted,  now offers 99 cent filters that turn it into a Beyonce-based advisor.) All of it is very believable - including a falling out between Hopper's Entrepreneur and his programmer Ada - played by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. The branding for the Compass app has been professionally developed - and rows of theater seats are emblazoned with it - further fostering the impression that we are in a real-world exercise.

The cast of The Compass also features Bryan Bosque, Cheryl Lynn Bruce,Jasmin Cardenas, Melissa DuPrey, Krystel McNeil, Johnathan Nieves, Abby Pajakowski, Sean Parris, Emilio G. Robles, Alejandro Tey and Lindsey Barlag Thornton.

The production team includes Courtney O'Neill (scenic design), Sully Ratke (costume design), JR Lederle (lighting design), Rick Sims(sound design), Joseph A. Burke (projection design) and David Masnato (content creator). Additional credits include Cassie Calderone (stage manager) and Jessamyn Fuller (casting).

Key to the craft of an actor is learning the lines. In a 70-minute solo show where the star talks non-stop, that's a lot to learn, let alone deliver convincingly, and compellingly.

Going well beyond that accomplishment, Manny Buckley is due accolades for his performance in American Blues Theater's "Looking Over the President's Shoulder."

Buckley has explored and developed his character, Alonzo Fields, who detoured from an intended opera career, to become the White house butler in chief, beginning during the Hoover administration and continuing for 21 years into the Eisenhower administration.

As the play opens, we meet Fields waiting in the evening chill at the bus stop. The play becomes a flash back through the time leading up to, and his years within, the White House. We hear it all from Fields' perspective, including encounters with Truman, Winston Churchill, and at the tail end, even Richard Nixon.

The movie, "The Butler," based loosely on the same autobiography from which this play is drawn [My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, Coward-McMann, 1960] extended the story to a period beyond Field's actual tenure. That Hollywood telling runs through the Johnson presidency, and minimizes Fields to an everyman in the shadow of historic figures surrounding him.

'Looking Over the President's Shoulder' stays truer both to the book, and to life the way real people live it. Fields shares his interior world, and in Buckley's solid performance, we are privy to his journey, one that is at once personal, and universal.

A Bostonian who hoped to become an opera singer, Field's job running a grocery store ends as the Great Depression looms. A temporary job as a servant for a wealthy family disappears as the Crash draws nearer, and though he has aspirations to a life in music, Fields sets aside those goals for a more practical route. Eyeing the bread lines and soup kitchens, Fields takes the bird in hand to become a White House domestic, thinking of it as a temporary stopping point. But it is this career in the White House that puts Fields in the heart of domestic and world affairs, and in proximity to greatness.

As spectators, we may even see Fields position as enviable. But living his life, Fields still longed for the path not taken, while in reality he is running up and down stairs with heavy trays and hustling to set the White House dinner table. 

As the play closes, Buckley has kept our attention with his portrayal of Fields - and establishes the moment of pathos. He is retiring from the White House, President Eisenhower wished him luck, and for all his years at the side of greatness, he is now just another man, waiting for a bus on a chilly night. 

Buckley conveys the perception we have of Fields as an even tempered man who was not caught up in the swirl of political and social excitement at the White House. He relates two of proudest moments: a performance by opera great Marion Anderson at the White House (Fields played a role in funding her musical training we learn); and his own performance, singing at the White House accompanied by another butler on piano. Though the President and his family were not present, Fields bears witness to his own moment of glory, taking satisfaction in it.

Buckley enlivens the performance, mimicking his famous employers - the dour, engineer Hoover; an ebullient Franklin Roosevelt and the high-pitched and exuberant Eleanor; the no-nonsense Harry Truman. Well directed by Timothy Douglas, this one-man show has two other performances that also special deserve special credit: the stage set (kudos to Brian Sidney Bembridge), and the light design (Mike Durst), both are powerful components in this show; as are props (Amanda Herrmann).

This production of "Looking Over the Presidents Shoulder" is well worth a visit to 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. (It's also something that school-age viewers might like.)  It plays through March 6 at  www.americanbluestheater.com

How much sex and booze can a Shakespeare staging stand? A lot, it turns out, as "Fifty Shades of Shakespeare" showed at its opening Feb. 5.

And it proves again that Shakespeare is so good a playwright that his language, and stage dynamics, cannot be denied - even with Juliette played by a comely bearded man in polkadot bathrobe (Zachary Lee Schley) to an "unconventionally handsome" Romeo (played in a gender reversal by Kelly Schmidt).

Evidence that "something 'wicked' this way comes [Macbeth]"  was littered about the cabaret at Lincoln Avenue's Fizz Bar: various sexual trivia cards, "spanking sticks" and gift bags from the Pleasure Chest adult emporium. All to let the audience know this would not be your father's Bard.

 

The (re)discovertheatre production calls it an "orgy of hilarious, powerful, and revealing explorations of gender roles, sexuality, kink, and relationships, all told through the bard's sexiest scenes."  It leans toward the hilarious and light-hearted, supporting the troupes' mission to make theater more casual. And that it was.

Awaiting the 8:00 performance, the audience, seated cabaret style, watched the actors running through bits, as they mingled and collected trivia that later made its way into improvised scene breaks. A fully stocked bar was open during the performance, and the audience was exhorted to visit continuously.

As the show unfolded so did its structure: 11 Shakespeare scenes from several plays (Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet) covered by four actors (Zach Schley, Kelly Schmidt, plus Shaina Schrooten and Jesse Hinton). Scenes ran five to seven minutes, with mostly pairs of actors.

Each piece was re-imagined from the original script, and given a name. "Virginity," (drawn from Act 1 Scene 1of All's Well that Ends Well,) finds Helena (Zach Schley) asking Parolles (Jesse Hinton) how to defend her virginity against the relentless efforts at her seduction by soldiers and men in general. This is artfully reimagined as a 1950s sex education film strip with Parolles as the lab-coated science prof in safety glasses dispensing know-it-all advice to the innocently persistent Helena, who knows better than to take it. This was one of the most fun scenes in the show.

"Pleasure," (drawn from Act. 2, Scene 4 of Measure for Measure) posed the players as a cat and dog with S&M overtones. Isabella (Schley) and Angelo (Hinton) made the action expressive of the text as Angelo jousted for dominance. Shakespeare played along. Angelo's "Show it all by putting on the destined livery," fit nicely with bondage props. Isabella's "I have no tongue but one," fit the moment on stage, though probably not as the author intended.

For Shakespeare purists, how does performing in a bar measure up? A case could be made this approach very much matches the original intent of the playwright, whose work was served up in tavern courtyards, along with mead and wine. And as is generally known, men played the women's roles in Shakespeare's time. (Charles II ended that, as the 2004 movie "Stage Beauty" relates.)

For some scenes portrayed with more physicality than speech, the words got lost. And the show relies on a familiarity with the material to get what Shakespeare's original intent was, and the riff that we are witnessing. The opening night audience was keeping up and laughing steadily, so the performers were connecting.

That said, these are serious Shakespearians, and at times the intensity of the material took charge. In "More the Man," Shaina Schrooten as Lady Macbeth and Kelly Schmidt as Macbeth captured the essence of the scene and the power of the language.

"The Cause" with Othello (Hinton) and Desdemona (Schley) took the floor to high seriousness.

The witches scene from Macbeth plays the language for all its worth as the witches (Hinton, Schley, Schmidt) writhe and squirm lecherously ("Open locks, whoever knocks"), then having placed a bondage mask on Macbeth (Shaina Schrooten), and binding his (her) hands, they disappear - true to the playwright, and the production, this scene should not be missed.

The cast switches roles evening by evening. So the experience will be a bit different depending on who plays whom. As an immersive experience and a fun, relaxing event - you will enjoy 50 Shades of Shakespeare.

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare features Jesse Hinton, Zachary Lee Schley, Kelly Schmidt*, and Shaina Schrooten*. The creative team for Fifty Shades of Shakespeare includes Janet Howe* (director / costume design), Molly Donahue* (assistant director / fight director), Paul Hovey (stage manager), Abby Gillette (assistant stage manager), Jack Wallace (text coach), Matt Wills* (sound design), Andrew Lund (choreographer), Laura Wiley (Lighting Designer), and Tristan Brandon (props design). Fifty Shades of Shakespeare was created and developed by Jess Shoemaker and (re)discover theatre.

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare will run February 5 - 28 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings at 8 pm— with additional 10 pm shows on February 12 and 13— at Fizz Bar (3220 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL). Tickets can be reserved at: rediscovertheatre.com/tickets

 

Playwright Neil LaBute earned a bad boy reputation early on, putting the spotlight on the extremely politically incorrect, while challenging audiences - and critics - along the way. 

In Vices & Virtues, his newest effort running at Profiles Theater, LaBute also stretches the performance format, queuing up twelve one-act 'playlets,' each with separate cast and directors, served up in two courses, intended to be viewed in two evenings. 

It it fun? In a word, yes. These bite-size theatrical plot lines are delicious, and laced with LaBute's signature sinister layer. The plot is sketched in inferences, as characters (the script calls some just "A" or "man") deliver commonplaces, then with an insidious slip of the tongue drop  bombshells: 

In Kandahar, a lone soldier addressing at length an unseen inquiry panel, dispassionately describes in gruesome detail the jealous rage in which he bayoneted his wife and shot up a soldier he suspected of being her lover.

In 10K, a young father (Tom McGregor) encounters and joins for an impromptu a young mother (Betsy Bowman, awesomely weird in the role), who reveals  unsettling details: she leaves her two-year-old home alone while running and shopping ("Is that horrible?" she asks); she may fancy calling a plumber over for sex. They almost pair up, but decide to leave it as a fantasy - for the moment, anyway. 

I'm Going to Stop Pretending finds two women at the end of a relationship. Why has it failed? We learn, eventually, the she (Brookelyn Hebert) was once a he, who changed sex to win other woman (Marie Wiegle) - a lesbian. The relationship fails when the object of his desire finally decides that she just doesn't like him (now her) as a person. 

Fans of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf will relish The Great War. A couple meet to split their property following the divorce. After some bitter, bitter cruel jousting, they both discover neither wants custody of their two young children, ages 8 and 10: "They will always be C students, and they will die of heart disease in their mid-60s," says the anything but doting mother. "I don't want them." Elizabeth Birnkrant is deliciously vicious; Brian Goodman plays the hapless schmuck.

LaBute may want to trim a minute or two from some of these pieces, which sometimes continued to hammer home their point well after it was delivered. But his star-power is clearly a performer magnet, with 20 screen-ready actors, all, really, so very good, and giving it their all. It's hard to imagine Hollywood won't be scouting this show. You should be, too.  

But four hours - two nights - in the theater is a big commitment. If you have to choose one, the Virtues set is a better value on a cost per character basis: eleven performers, versus nine actors in the Vices set.

Virtues also carries a likely portrait of the playwright in Swallowing Bicycles, about a scriptwriter battling a producer; and Good Luck in Farsi a backstage drama about mean-spirited competition between two actresses (Sarah Brooks and Sarah Ruggles) vying for the same role. But Vices wins out for sheer intensity and more fully realized characters. 

One may ask how much LaBute is too much. It wasn't. That is a testament - or really, a verification - that this is a serious playwright, whose work carries some of that flavor of Albee, Pinter, Miller, if the finest moments of these 11 works ultimately is distilled further. 

The audience is a party to a worthwhile experiment. The star power of LaBute, an accomplished screenwriter and even a bit of a Hollywood force, drew top talent to this effort. And they delivered. It's definitely recommended for those who love a real theater event. 

 

Riveting. Arresting. Barry Shabaka Henley's performance as Louis Armstrong in Court Theatre's one-man-show Satchmo at the Waldorf is surely one of the great stage performances delivered in Chicago - or anywhere, for that matter. 

Lone actors on stage can be dry - and we were only mildly curious about the real-life Louis Armstrong, among a handful of jazz performers who grew rich with his music. Born in 1901 in New Orleans, the son of a prostitute, Armstrong was the most important jazz improviser - the free-form restyling of a song's melodic line that is the essence of the form. 

But it is not Armstrong's music (there is really very little of it here) that makes this such enthralling theater. It's Henley, a popular television and movie actor who has starred against Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, played the manager in the biopic Ali (with Will Smith) and as a U.S. customs agent (with Tom Hanks) in Spielberg's Terminal

Henley would make a convincing Armstrong just sitting in a chair under a spotlight. His exacting impersonation of the trumpeter's low growl nails it. But as he spins the yarn that traces Armstrong's rags to riches life, Henley's skill as a story-teller (and credit here to Terry Teachout's script) draws in the listener.  

The one-man-act is also leavened (again thanks to Teachout) by the appearance of two other characters: Armstrong's Jewish manager Joe Glaser, who led him to fame and fortune. And Miles Davis, the more cerebral and far less kindly jazz trumpeter. Both are also played by Henley, who changes characters by a power of voice as dramatically as if he had changed costume.

Henley's performance as the conniving Glaser who outfoxed the mob, is really off the charts. Under contract to Glaser, Armstrong performed for Al Capone in his Chicago speakeasies.

Miles Davis felt Armstrong was a sellout, too cordial with the white establishment. But he did give him his due as a jazz innovator.

These two characters provide relief, and a useful counterpoint, to Armstrong's view of the world. Big credit is also due to Charles Newell's refined direction.

The one-man show wows regardless of whether you liked the music of Louis Armstrong, or even knew that this jazz player was a rock star celebrity before rock appeared.

His long career which blossomed in the post World War II era, and really took off, especially among white Southerners, during the Jim Crow period, as Teachout's book tells it. Louis Armstrong is known these days by students and followers of jazz, or from his standard, "What a Wonderful World." 

Satchmo at the Waldorf comes strongly recommended. It plays through February 7 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. www.courttheatre.com

 

In London Wall, Griffin Theater Company has mined a stage gem from the British theatrical vaults, giving John Van Druten's 1931 romantic comedy a serious treatment.

This production at The Den Theater also finds a well-written play, still fresh more than 85 years after its premiere - even with three acts and two intermissions that modern audiences supposedly won't tolerate.

But there is something about a well acted, skillfully directed, and very well cast production that keeps an audience in its seats, and returning after the breaks.

You might also be intrigued to see this play by the author of I Am a Camera -  the main source for he Broadway musical Cabaret. Van Druten also wrote the screenplay for a now-campy Bell, Book & Candle (James Stewart was the love interest for Kim Novak, a svelt 1960s Greenwich Village witch.)

Set in 1928, London Wall tracks the lives of law-firm stenographers in a London law firm. These poorly compensated women struggle to survive, and face a life shaped by the loss of so many men in the war, that young women cannot find a spouse, or a job that pays a decent wage.

That may seem like a downer, but the basic plot line - a young couple Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierrien) and Hec Hammond (George Booker) feel their way around obstacles to find romance - buoys our interest. So do the actors, mainly very, very strong in their roles.

Uncertainty about what kind of British accent may be delivered in a Milwaukee Avenue storefront is immediately dispelled as young clerk Birkinshaw (Michael Saguto) answers calls at the switchboard in convincing dialect. Likewise for the rest of the troupe, whose dress and styling are spot-on. Whoever cast them found just the right faces to fit the period.

The backdrop also makes this play high relevant to its time: women far outnumber men in the post WWI period. Employers and society at large still operate under the assumption that women will only remain on the job until they find a spouse. That model has disintegrated, and these women seeks careers, but owing to the times, dead-end jobs are their only option.

The play resonates, too, with the gender gap in compensation and glass ceilings - oh, and sexual harassment. The 1928 office of Windermere & Co. has its share of that, too, as  Brewer (Nick Freed) a despicable louse, puts the moves on every woman in the office. (Freed did such a good job I still don't like him.)

Central to the play is the world-weary and wise Miss Janus (Vanessa Greenway in a star turn). After 10 years in the office, when her ship does not come in (her beau sends a 'Dear Jane' letter and leaves the country) Miss Janus makes the best of it  by coaching the young women to make the best choices. She also challenges the office cad, Brewer - and in the script, Van Druten provides her with a wit to out-argue this lawyer.

Mr. Walker (Ed Dzialo), chief counsel at the firm, intervenes periodically as a voice of enlightened male reason - dispensing justice in the end - perhaps a stretch for the period, but a contemporary writer would have let the women settle the scores.

Playwright Van Druten reveals what these low-paid clerks must do for love or money. In one scene, a young Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierren) reveals to a wealthy dowager client (Mary Poole is really pretty sensational in the role) that her pay is just a pittance - just enough to rent a bed in someone's home.

When London Wall had its premiere in May of 1931 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, it stood out for its realistic depiction of office life. Playwright Van Druten may be having a standout moment, as this play was recently revived in London and in New York.

For those who love real theater and solid performances, London Wall is gets a strong recommendation. 

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