As the snow starts to fall, Chicago audiences take refuge in heated theatres and family-friendly performances that warm them with holiday cheer. But if someone stumbled upon Victory Gardens this winter, perhaps expecting "It's a Wonderful Life," they'd quickly realize they were taking in something very different: a close examination of a family that is definitively unfriendly.
Victory Garden's "Appropriate," a world premier from young African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, follows the Lafayette family as three children return to their deceased father's estate to settle his affairs and their life-long feuds. These adult children - who often act more like children than adults – are played by the powerhouse Kristen Fitzgerald, the comedic Keith Kupferer and the looney Stef Tovar. Along with their "chosen" family – a son, a wife and two children, and a new finance named River, respectively – the three treat each other as only family can: cruelly, hurtfully, and painfully.
Their mutual distaste is heightened when the threesome uncover a secret about their absent father. How Jacobs-Jenkins reveals the secret, though, is a delicate moment that could be improved – we see the characters in shock, repeatedly, before we are let in on what it is. When our imaginations are left to run wild, it can hurt the gravity of the actual secret and make it seem smaller to what is collectively imagine.
Critical reception to the play has been overwhelmingly positive, with many comparing the work to the similarly Chicago-bred dysfunctional family drama "August: Osage County." Workshopped and developed in 2012 at Victory Gardens, "Appropriate" is now officially premiering, though I can't help but feel like it is on the cusp of greatness and not-yet-great. My suggestion would be for the playwright and director Gary Griffin to seek out and nurture moments of compassion and comedy in the play. In such a dark, realistic slice of an American family, we need a balm to go along with the wounds we are watching. Jacobs-Jenkins has a biting wit and command of dramatic tension, and hints of nourishment are present. But without some substantial "holiday cheer" (for lack of a better term), we are far less likely to eat the brilliant medicine he wants to feed us.
"Appropriate" is tearing down the house at Victory Gardens through December 14. More information and tickets at http://victorygardens.org
"The Wheel" is best experienced blank. Martha Lavey, the Artistic Director of Steppenwolf which is staging the American premier of the imaginative play, begins her well-penned program note with a Spoiler Alert. "Part of the wonder and mystery of The Wheel" she writes, "is in the unpredictable way the story unfolds." That epic story begins in a peaceful village in Northern Spain, where Beatriz (the talented and majestic Joan Allen) is preparing for her younger sister's wedding. Suddenly, soldiers appear and Beatriz is unwillingly thrown into a quest to reunite a young girl (Emma Gordon) with her father. That mission is the central thrust of "The Wheel," a symbol-and allegory-laden tale of wavering and enduring compassion in the face of tragedy.
In the two-hour play, Beatriz and the silent girl travel through war zones witnessing a panorama of war and bloodshed. Zinnie Harris's rich and layered script lives in the world of magical realism, as the characters pass through time and space without comment, and fantastical powers are a subject of distrust. This fantastical element serves as both a theatrical device, and a sort of balm to the wounds of war – we witness the carnage, but are ever aware these are actors performing in a magical space. Tina Landau's Brechtian staging contributes to this, giving the audience a front-row experience of the tense, visceral, and often irrational world of war.
Blythe R.D. Quinlan's scenic design is powerful playground for the story to shift from agricultural and wooden to industrial and metallic. Her black pipes and scaffolding, hidden by shards of stretched cloth, appear like spears while also contributing to a Brechtian "backstage" aesthetic. Director Tina Landau's often breath-taking staging shines brightest during scene changes, as the story is thrust forward like soldiers storming a battlefield.
The 17-person ensemble fills the epic stage and transports the action, from Spain to France to Germany to Vietnam. As the ensemble members don varied costumes and characters, the similarities between cultures are realized: we are similar – not in an overly sentimental way, but in a visceral, blood-filled way. We have the same capacity for compassion, just as we have the same capacity to harm and destroy one another. And as we spin between evil and good, Harris seems to suggest the human spirit can triumph – but it is work.
"The Wheel" ends where it begins, just as this review will end with the playbill:
In a printed dialogue between Martha Lavey and Tina Landau, Martha asks:
Martha Lavey: Tina, will you speak to how you hope to make this play available to an audience, so that they will take away something this is nourishment for them, and not just a portrayal of the difficulty of life?
Tina Landau… I want to bring out as much light as we can find in it…the lower the play dives the more it also needs to soar.
Be transported to the world of "The Wheel" at Steppenwolf Theatre through November 10, 2013. More information and tickets at steppenwolf.org
In a posh French flat in the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, Abby walks in on her new husband Zack masturbating to porn. The Americans are living the dream: she teaches yoga in her fantasy city, he saves lives with Doctors without Borders, and the two couldn't be more in amour. But this discovery is the first in a series of cracks which erupt in a shocking climax that warns against perfection, lies, and living for others.
Amy Herzog's "Belleville," commissioned and premiered by Yale Repertory Theatre where she received her M.F.A, powerfully closes the Steppenwolf's "The Reckoning" season. Directed by Anne Kauffman, who helmed the premier and Off-Broadway incarnations, the 100-minute play is raw, funny, and startling. Herzog's contemporary-set script still creates a traditional playground for the Steppenwolf design team. Greek and Shakespearean imagery – blood, water, daggers – appear alongside cell phones and a luxurious French apartment with plenty of natural light to expose the wounds within.
The wounds are suffered by four characters, breathed by life by a talented ensemble – Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain shock, move, and scare as the destructive couple Abby and Zack. Chris Boykin and Alana Arenas entertain, ground, and reveal as Alioune and Amina, the couple who live a few floors down who own the building. While the landlord couple cares for a newborn, have a thriving property management business, and seem to make their relationship work, Zack smokes weed, Abby pops pills, and the pair fight and torture themselves and one another. At opposite ends of the alphabet, A and Z shouldn't be together; meanwhile, Alioune and Amina are A synchronized pair.
"Belleville" is an edgy, existential thriller, brilliantly brought to life by powerhouse performers, designers, and a director. It's not a feel-good play, although I did feel good as I left – impressed by its execution, haunted by a Herzog's warning, and glad to be single.
"Belleville" is a tenant in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre from June 27 – August 25, 2013. For more information and tickets, visit steppenwolf.org.
It's 2004 and a violent war is raging in the desert. In Afghanistan, young, fatigued soldiers fight against terror, but in a secluded West Coast mansion, a war of word wages between a strained family. Brooke, the daughter of two prominent old-school Republicans - Ron and Nancy are among the dropped names - has just written a new book. This should be cause for celebration -- she's a brilliant writer who's just emerged from a 6-year depression-fueled writer's block, but it's not the novel Mom and Dad think it is. Her brother and aunt know it's a memoir, exposing a dark, family secret, sending the five-member family into a Christmas from hell in the humid desert heat.
Whether Brooke's new work is an expose for profit or her therapeutic life's work is a question that hangs like smoke in the Chicago premier of "Other Desert Cities" at Goodman Theatre. Lauded during its Broadway debut in the fall of 2011, Jon Robin Baitz's Pulitzer Prize finalist "Other Desert Cities" is a strong exploration of the modern blurring of the public and the private lives and how money complicates the matter even further. But this blurring has become faded in its translation to the Goodman's Albert Theatre. Perhaps the bi-coastal themes (East Coast academics versus West Coast relaxers) resonate more strongly on the coasts, or perhaps the cast doesn't quite carry the firecracker power of the NYC debut, but the Chicago show doesn’t live up to the potential the script holds.
Tracy Michelle Arnold's depressed Brooke is a bit one-dimensional, and not until the final scene does it really feel as if she has fallen into her character. Deanna Dunagan and Chelcie Ross Lyman, both connected with August: Osage County (a similar family drama fueled by heat) are strongly suited to play the aging GOP matriarch and patriarch of the family. John Hoogenakker is delightful as the brother trapped in the familial crossfire. A Los Angeles reality TV producer, he is on the front lines of profiting off a family's fights, and Linda Kimbrough's eccentric substance-abusing Aunt Silda provides much needed comedic relief in the tense family drama.
But Henry Wishcamper's direction has the cast swimming around the stage throughout the one-setting play - aimless, often lacking purpose, which seems to spill over into other character choices. Further, at the opening of the play, I felt something I'd never before in a theatre: I couldn't quite hear the actors. Whether it was a technical amplification question or not, it felt like it symbolized a soft understanding of the characters rather than fully inhabiting them and sharing them with the audience. Jon Robin Baitz's script is funny and smart, and his jokes are able to overcome their sometimes soft delivery in the Chicago premier, but I couldn’t help but imagine what New York audiences saw and responded so passionately to.
Other Desert Cities is through February 17, 2013. More information at http://www.goodmantheatre.org
I felt like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket. Except my Willy Wonka’s factory was the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show and I had 15 tickets, red rather than gold.
Cake pops, cupcakes, confections, toffee, brownies, and confections of every letter lined the halls of the Navy Pier convention hall where the inaugural Chicago Fine Chocolate Show set up shop up on a cold weekend in November. The popular tourist venue had attracted “tourist” vendors from across the nation and around the block. Over 100 choco-businesses provided samples of their tasty delights and hyped their particular take on the decadent treasure of chocolate to the nearly 14,500 attendees. Businesses present ranged from small, local shops with adorable names - Puffs of Doom, Chocolate for the Spirit - to corporate empires like Fannie Mae and Dove.
While chocolate-eating was my primary concern, chocolate-making was also present. Chefs from the French Pastry School of Kennedy-King College at City Colleges of Chicago constructed intricate sculptures made solely of chocolate, and live cooking demonstrations were a feast for the eyes and stomach. But my most significant take-away wasn’t the inevitable stomach ache, but some wise advice from a man who led a chocolate and beer tasting in the afternoon.
Clay Gordon, the bearded founder of TheChocolateLife.com, has made a career out of encouragin everyone to use their taste buds to create unconventional pairings, including beer and chocolate. As an expert on neither, but a consumer of both, I enjoyed mixing and matching beers and chocolate chips, paying closer attention to the tastes I was experiencing. I learned the percentages on chocolate packages don’t speak to the quality of the chocolate, simply the ratio of cocoa to sugar and cream. It’s labeling that includes the chocolate’s origin - which farm grew the beans were grown on - that can actually shed some light onto the chocolate’s story and history. It’s the story behind the chocolate that can be as important as its taste.
After a few beer samples, I approached Clay for a quick interview. He repeated a lot from his tasting, and firmly believes in letting people discover tastes on their own and not judging less developed palettes, but what was most interesting about our discussion was the “dark side of chocolate.” Throughout his tasting, folks walked through the aisle, snooping around at chocolate, hunting for free samples. Gordon shared that at one show, someone had tried to make off with $1,000 worth of samples. The mentality for consumers at a trade show (which regrettably included me) is to stuff their faces and get their money’s worth. Gordon shared that it’s just as important to meet the people behind the chocolate, hear their stories, and respect the work that goes into starting a business and travelling to a trade show.
By the end of the 3 hours, I had an appreciation for the dedication of chocolate businesspeople and a severe stomach ache. I went home, passed out for 2 hours, and awoke as if it had all been a dream. My only evidence that I had been there was one final unused ticket, and a new appreciation for the stories behind the pieces of chocolate, which can make for the most delicious pairing of all.
While Steppenwolf occupies itself with Russian "Sisters," the Goodman is mounting a musical with sisters of a different sort. "Crowns," the soulful musical brainchild of Goodman mainstay Regina Taylor. Inspired by real-life stories of Black women and the extravagant and fabulous hats that adorn their heads, "Crowns" hits its stride about 20 minutes in when the ensemble settles into a church to tell their stories.
The women have lived with heavy topics like persecution and death, and more light-hearted travails like bickering with a husband over buying too many hats; but no matter the situation, the lesson remains the same: stay poised and proper, holding your heads up high to keep your hats in place.
Originally penned a decade ago, "Crowns" has been updated to reflect cultural shifts in the past 10 years. The new script follows a "urban" youth from Engelwood who has lost her brother; she's angsty, emotional, and, unfortunately, a bit cliche. The language and staging of her initial story remain a bit too vague to prick like specificity can. Nevertheless, the bulk of the show centers on stories around this main thread.
Plenty of humor along with powerhouse voices make "Crowns" entertaining and occasionally emotional. While an overall narrative might not move you, individual performances and ensemble numbers make the song cycle a strong performance piece. Felicia P. Fields is particularly impressive as the soulful, wise Mother Shaw. While the character of an older, wise Black women is as well-worn as a old baseball cap, it doesn't keep her from being entertaining as hell - or heaven.
Head to "Crowns" at the Goodman Theatre through August 12. For more information, visit http://www.goodmantheatre.org
A comfortable schoolteacher, an angst-ridden housewife, and an idealistic teenager walk into a house. What sounds like the set-up for a terrible joke is a roll call for the titular characters in one of Chekhov's most produced plays. "The Three Sisters," currently enjoying a nearly pitch-perfect incarnation at Steppenwolf, chronicles three Russian siblings and a cast of connected characters who come and go but never really go anywhere.
In a small town during wartime, members of the family mourn their past (a fallen patriarch), contemplate their present, and dream of a future in Moscow. The distant city is promised land of vodka and honey, but it remains a dream as characters realize they will never reach it and must find other meaning in their lives. Chekhov, a subtext slut, challenges actors with his naturalistic language, and the Steppenwolf ensemble attacks the text to bring out new meaning. Veterans and newcomers alike revel in his bluntly stated questions about life, love, and happiness.
The set contributes to the haziness of answers to these questions. A 40x15 foot frame hangs above the stage, blurring the suspended doll house estate. Combined with the proscenium, the frame allows the audience to remain disconnected from the characters and their existential questions. We watch like gods listening to their creations scream for answers, and remains silent for reasons of etiquette, or perhaps ignorance.
After the curtain call, I emerged onto Halsted with thoughts of death, betrayal, and the fear that being equally in love with someone is as much a fiction as a fairy tale. Then I realized it was 70 and sunny and went to the beach. As brilliant and moving as Steppenwolf's "The Three Sisters" may be, brooding angst and life-ponderind questions aren't well suited for swimsuits and sunshine. Chekhov is a winter writer.
Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" is checked in to the Steppenwolf through August 26. For more information, visit http://www.steppenwolf.org
Steppenwolf's season of “Dispatches from the Homefront” has travelled from Greek legend to contemporary Iraq. Now, it splits the difference and hones in on a time in America when the battlefield and homefront collided. Countless historians have told the tale of the War between the States; from analysis of military strategy to reporting of death tolls, our collective fascination with American-American bloodshed has never been satiated. But what these numerical overviews devalue is the story of the mundane individual: the nobody father weeping over his dead son, the forgotten lover sending notes to her husband-to-be, and, of course, the horny detractors who took self-serving advantage of a young nation being pre-occupied with survival.
The latter characters, Arly (the impecccable Ian Barford) and Will (the shapeshifting Stephen Louis Grush) are the comedic relief and driving force in Frank Galati's adaptation of D.H.Lawrence's “The March.” A piece of historical fiction which weaves invented characters into the preserved war record, “The March” follows a handful of personal narratives forged in a time when life and death were separated by thin lines, like stripes on a flag. Arly and Will, the dynamic duo whose bravado is only surpassed by their libido, fight on both sides of the conflict and push us forward through the plot of the war. Neither man actually existed, but by blurring fact and fiction, Lawrence offers up a sort of “People's History of America.” Fictional nobodies coexist with historical behemoths, most notably the general Ulysses S. Grant, boomibly embodied by Harry Groener.
Grant's writings are staged as soliloquies directed to the brooding mass of the audience. The tensions he faces of ordering a group of men to their death is similar to the task Frank Galati has undertaken, as he “orders” a large cast to translate an enormous war into a finite stage. The soldiers rise to their general's challenge, and “The March” is able to represent the Civil War not only in content, but form: like the war that spanned across five Aprils, the two-act epic spans almost three hours; like the bloodshed that affected millions of Americans, the play enlists an ensemble of over thirty. The piece is a strong representation of the war, but that doesn't save it from – like war – occasionally being boring. While the mundane can be imbued with profound significance, it can still come off as siply mundane. On the whole, “The March” will not keep you on the edge of your seat; it's a story that has been well-worn, but that doesn't keep it from being exceptionally well-told.
The March is stomping at the Steppenwolf through June 10, 2012. Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org.
The 2000 teen comedy "Bring It On" is a cult classic. The 2012 musical of the same name likely won't be. Borrowing the title and not much else, "Bring It On" relies on a formulaic, fairly conventional plot peppered with high-flying acrobatic cheerleading routines. It's entertaining enough, especially for the mostly younger tween audience in attendance, but when you put "the musical" in your title, you promise that story and song will be central.
The musical creates a wholly new plot from the film, although it is still a well-worn one. White head cheerleader Campbell is redistricted during her senior year to a mostly black and hispanic high school. Cue the lessons about race, identity, and being yourself. Bridget, a slightly chubby girl who provides most of the comedy in the show, excels in the new school since she's always been an outsider. Eventually, everyone learns something about themselves and a happily ever after ensues.
Throughout, the high-flying acrobatic work of the ensemble dazzles, as performers in red skirts are launched into the air almost as high as the mezzanine. A series of shifting digital screens add to the theatricality, transporting the action to different settings, whether a bedroom or basketball court, in a rather innovative way. The altogether aesthetic is a bit cartoonish, but when your subject matter is competitive cheerleading, it's hard not to venture into Looney Tune territory.
With a writing team that combines talent from Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Next to Normal, one might expect "Bring It On" to be fresh, subversive, and full of catchy, diverse, and memorable songs. Instead it is rather mainstream musical comedy, which sadly lacks any songs that stand out. When the lyrics disappoint, the choreography dazzles almost as if to distract rather than enhance the plot. What's most surprising about the book is a commendable move to feature a transgendered character in a strong supporting role. While many of the character's laughs come from just being trans, a solo power ballad reveals a the obstacles she has overcome. "Is that a boy, Mommy?" the young boy in front of me asked mid-show. I didn't catch his mother's response, but the inclusion of a trans character in an otherwise dated musical comedy certainly opened the door for a teachable car-ride conversation on the way home.
Bring It On: The Musical is at its best when the cheerleaders are flipping and twirling across the stage. The final climax of the show is truly breath-taking, and is a marvelous convergence of poppy song with powerful dance that furthers the plot. Overall, the show is an entertaining night out, but don't expect any emotional resonance to lift you off your feet.
Bring It On is bringing it at the Cadillac Palace through March 25. More information at BroadwayinChicago.com
Moving is an emotional experience, especially for a 10-year old. Thin and petite Laure and her mischievous 6-year-old sister are packed up by their parents over the summer and moved to a new neighborhood. In addition to all the stress and fears associated with new friends and a new school, Laure is mistaken for a boy. Thing is, she doesn’t deny it. “Michael,” she responds when asked her name. And so begins a summer of fantasy for the pre-pubescent, swimming without a shirt, playing basketball with the boys, and kissing a young, long-haired girl.
French auteur-director Céline Sciamma sophomore feature “Tomboy” is a soft, beautiful coming-of-age film that follows this fantastical summer and the aftermath when Michael’s mother discovers it. Overall, the family is loving -- soft shots of shared baths and tickling sessions reveal that -- but the mother’s response is heart-breaking. She forces Laure to don a dress and parades her around the neighborhood to apologize. The tour of humiliation comes to a climax when the young person is taken to the home of the young girl she has fallen for.
Tomboy follows this transformation and the consequences of a society unable to understand or support a child who is questioning their gender. The young Zoé Héran gives a phenomenal, muted performance as the young person who slips into a new identity so easily, it should be questioned whether it was a deception at all. From nail polish to G.I. Joes, gender norms are inscribed upon children before they even know how to do long division. So were Laure’s actions a lie, or was she telling the truth for the first time? Identity, whether it’s constructed or discovered, is a lifelong task. It’s messy and only becomes all the more complicated when others have a stake in yours: parents, friends, teachers, businesses. In this tug-of-war for your identity, it’s hard to find a moment when you’re truly who you are. “Tomboy” celebrates a summer apart from that harsh, cruel reality, capturing a rare moment of truth as fleeting as childhood.
Tomboy was just playing ball at the Music Box Theatre. More information at www.musicboxtheatre.com