The Chicago premiere of a Tom Stoppard play is one of the most hotly anticipated events of this season. We’re never short for great Stoppard productions in this town, but The Hard Problem was Stoppard’s first new play in nine years when it debuted in 2015, and since Court Theatre’s Charlie Newell can be trusted to mount a strong production, the author is undoubtedly the main draw. Some of his best-known plays, such as the recently produced Travesties and Arcadia, were extremely complicated, sprawling works which required the audience to have a sizable pre-existing knowledge of artistic movements and the interplay between culture and technology, but The Hard Problem, as the title states, zeroes in on a single issue which, depending on which side of it you fall on, might not really seem to be a problem at all. Whether the mind is a function of the brain or has an ethereal quality is not something Stoppard attempts to answer definitively, but the degree to which this play interests you will largely depend on your investment in the debate.
Chaon Cross owns the part of Hilary, the only fully three-dimensional character in the play. A young psychologist whose path in life has had some unexpected hiccups, Hilary is dependent on Spike (Jürgen Hooper), an evolutionary biologist, to help her fake the mathematical credentials she needs to get a job with the Krohl Institute, a research lab dedicated to solving the mind-body problem. She doesn’t even particularly want to work there, but it was the only place she applied to and heard back from. Spike is an utterly noxious, self-justifying proponent of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to be more than just a need to be perceived as good at data processing which causes Hilary to keep inviting him into her bed. Anyway, it turns out that Leo (Brian McCaskill), the man running the part of the Krohl Institute Hilary’s interested in, shares her preference for psychology over neurology, and she gets the job on her own merits.
The Krohl Institute was created by Jerry Krohl (Nathan Hosner), a billionaire hedge fund manager, to help him gain an edge over other traders. Krohl himself doesn’t really care whether the brain is a meat computer or a conduit for the sublime; he just wants to eliminate uncertainty in practical matters. Early on, we meet Amal (Owais Ahmed), a mathematician who holds the position that the soul is flesh and whom Krohl later punishes for publicly predicting the 2008 crash instead of keeping it close to the vest. Amal’s growing disillusion with humans’ capacity for rational thought is driven largely by what he sees happening in the stock market, but he’s reluctant to fall into line with Hilary’s belief that this leaves us with no alternatives but belief in some kind of divinity.
The plot concerns Hilary’s struggle with a job that was never a good fit for her while her entire field appears to be in jeopardy. But Stoppard’s interest seems to be in how nobody really wants to acknowledge the true implications of their belief system, whatever that happens to be. Hilary is a less forceful arguer than Spike, but Newell’s centering of her on stage almost throughout the show and Cross’s commitment to her full range of emotions prevent us from dismissing her. Stoppard has also made her opponents repulsive Thersites-like characters, while Hilary’s on-stage ally is the kind-hearted, idealistic Bo (Emjoy Gavino). John Culbert’s scenic design doesn’t give them very many hiding places, which is perhaps why they resort to vicious verbal, and eventually, physical confrontations to make their points.
If Stoppard’s goal was to show how the debate over the hard problem spills out of sealed realms such as universities and think tanks to strike at peoples’ deepest vulnerabilities, the flatness of the other characters prevents him from quite getting there. However, he does a good enough job of illustrating his point for us to understand it. A great many people love Stoppard and Court Theatre simply for having these conversations, with no expectation the problem will be resolved. Pointing out how divorced from real life rationalism and rationalizations are is enough to make a fruitful evening, and getting to experience it being put so eloquently by fine actors is a bonus.
The Hard Problem plays at Court Theatre through April 9, with performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Running time is one hour and forty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $48–68; to order, call 773-753-4472 or visit CourtTheatre.org. For more information, see TheatreinChicago.com.
Court Theatre proudly announces its 63rd season under the continuing leadership of Charles Newell, Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director and Executive Director Stephen J. Albert. The company’s 2017/18 season will feature the lively musical tribute to the hit songs of saxophonist and songwriter Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe, written by Clarke Peters and directed by Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson and Associate Director Felicia P. Fields; an exploration of the complex life of Emily Dickinson with The Belle of Amherst, written by William Luce, directed by Sean Graney and featuring Kate Fry; an electrifying story of love and family with Arthur Miller’s American masterpiece All My Sons, directed by Charles Newell and featuring Timothy Edward Kane and John Judd; the classic family drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, by Todd Kreidler, based on the screenplay by William Rose, directed by Marti Lyons and featuring Jacqueline Williams;and the Chicago Premiere of the story of remarkable Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with The Originalist, written by John Strand.
In addition to the mainstage season, Court’s 2014 production of Iphigenia in Aulis will be remounted in California at the invitation of the prestigious Getty Villa. This is the highest achievement for theatres producing Greek or Roman work. Charles Newell, Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director, returns to direct the script translated by Court’s Founding Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall, featuring members of the original cast.
“From a celebratory musical to a leading American poet, from Arthur Miller’s tragedy of the common man to a stage adaptation of an iconic film and a portrait of a notorious figure in American jurisprudence, Court Theatre welcomes an eclectic and powerful season,” says Charles Newell, Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director. “We are thrilled to invite a range of celebrated artists from Chicago and beyond to bring these stories to life for our audiences. It is also a distinct honor to bring our production of Iphigenia in Aulis to the leading American presenter of Classical Greek Theatre as the Getty Villa offers an incomparable setting for the study and enjoyment of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Roma, and Etruria.”
The 2017/18 Court Theatre Season Up-Close:
Five Guys Named Moe
September 7 - October 8, 2017
A Musical by Clarke Peters
Directed by Ron OJ Parson and Associate Director Felicia P. Fields
Music Direction by Abdul Hamid Royal
Featuring Louis Jordan’s Greatest Hits
A lively musical tribute to the hit songs of saxophonist and songwriter Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe introduces Nomax: a broke, newly single guy singing the blues late into the night. Suddenly, five unexpected friends--Big Moe, Four-Eyed Moe, Eat Moe, No Moe, and Little Moe--emerge from his radio to help ease his broken heart. Pioneering musician Louis Jordan’s new approach to jazz paved the way for rock and roll in the 1950s.
The Belle of Amherst
November 2 - December 3, 2017
By William Luce
Directed by Sean Graney
Featuring Kate Fry as Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson's own original poems, diary entries, and letters welcome us into her Massachusetts home, where she shares snippets of joy and creation amongst the heartache of an isolated and misunderstood life.
This 1976 play by William Luce offers a glance into the complex life of one of the most prolific poets of our time. Playwright and director Sean Graney returns to Court for the fourth time to direct The Belle of Amherst, with Kate Fry (Electra; Caroline, or Change) starring as Emily Dickinson.
All My Sons
January 11 - February 11, 2018
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Charles Newell
Featuring Timothy Edward Kane and John Judd
Local businessman and manufacturer Joe Keller developed a bitter history with his business partner after dealing with profound tragedy during World War II. Despite the odds, love blossoms between Joe’s son Chris and his partner’s daughter Ann. Joe is destined to face old dilemmas and defend his decisions in this electrifying family drama.
All My Sons established playwright Arthur Miller as an American theater icon, and won the 1947 Drama Critics' Award for Best New Play. Court Theatre’s production is directed by Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director Charles Newell and features Timothy Edward Kane (An Iliad; One Man, Two Guvnors; Harvey) and John Judd.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
March 15 - April 15, 2018
By Todd Kreidler (based on the screenplay by William Rose)
Directed by Marti Lyons
Featuring Jacqueline Williams
Matt and Christina Drayton live a modern, white upper-class life in 1960s San Francisco, but their comfortable life is muddled when daughter Joey returns home with John Prentice, a black physician whom she has known for ten days and intends to marry. Suddenly, their longtime progressive values are challenged; Matt and Christina find themselves facing difficult personal questions about the future of their daughter and their family. And unfortunately for the Draytons, Joey and John aren’t their only surprise guests coming to dinner.
May 10 - June 10, 2018
By John Strand
When a Harvard Law School graduate with decidedly different views takes on a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of America’s most brilliant and polarizing figures, she discovers in him an infuriating opponent and an unexpected mentor. Their relationship faces the ultimate test as they confront one of the most polarizing cases to reach the nation’s highest court.
Written by Charles MacArthur Award winner John Strand, this daring new work shows just how much passion for the law and risk it takes to defend one’s version of the truth.
Additional casting and creative team information to be announced at a later date.
Five, four, and three play subscriptions to Court’s 2017/18 season range from $96 to $300 and are on sale now. To purchase a subscription or to receive more information, call the Court Theatre Box Office at (773) 753-4472, or visit Court’s website at www.CourtTheatre.org. Individual tickets for all shows will be available on August 1st.
Court Theatre is guided by its mission to discover the power of classic theatre. Court endeavors to make a lasting contribution to American theatre by expanding the canon of translations, adaptations, and classic texts. Court revives lost masterpieces, illuminates familiar texts, and distinguishes fresh, modern classics. Court engages and inspires its audience by providing artistically distinguished productions, audience enrichment activities, and student educational experiences.
Trying to explain what Black Harlem's Renaissance was like is hard. The period was so rich in creative verve, you really have to show it while you tell it. It took me awhile to grasp what playwright Pearl Cleage has achieved - and director Ron OJ Parson has brought carefully to life - in Court Theatre's Blues for an Alabama Sky.
In this beautifully polished production, we become familiar with the lives and aspirations of five denizens of the abundant cultural life enveloping New York's burgeoning black district in the 1920s and 1930s, driven by waves of aspiring new arrivals during the Great Migration from the South to the North. The period gives rise to the first jazz concert, to international musical superstars like Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller; to writers and thinkers like Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, who wrote the first bestseller by a black author.
Cleage has fleshed out each of her characters - a doctor, a singer, a fashion designer, a social worker, and a carpenter - who are much more than archetypes. These are real people, each contributing a seminal thread to this tale. She has also set the timeline toward the end of that golden era, in 1930 after the market crash, as the Great Depression rolled in.
The storyline seems surprisingly fresh, but it is true to its time: the protagonists here seem a mismatched couple - a flamboyant gay fashion designer Guy (Sean Parris), and his platonic love, Angel (Toya Turner), a gangsters' moll who tries but fails to make a living as a night club singer.
Abandonedly outré, Guy has worked his way up from stitching gowns for cross dressers, to designing clothes on spec for Josephine Baker. The pair love and support each other as they pursue their dreams, but have no future as a couple; Angel is set on finding herself a big strong man who will take care of her, and pay the rent. Guy wants to make it in Paris.
Across the hall dwells the scholarly Delia (Celeste Cooper), who is launching the first family planning clinic in Harlem. A history lesson makes its way into the plot as the clinic is burned down. Some in the black community suspected efforts at setting up such clinics - led by Margaret Sanger - were really just part of a plot to reduce the black population. Carrying the torch for Delia is Sam, a medical doctor. James Vincent Meredith's performance gives Sam a steady, even temperament - abiding patience, and someone who is tolerant and nurturant.
Conflict arises as Leland (Geno Walker) a widowed carpenter recently arrived from Alabama, falls for Angel. His ardor cools as he discovers he is not in Alabama anymore. In this Black Harlem, homosexuals are accepted; family planning is a matter of choice.
Each of these characters engenders our sympathy. And in the course of the action they live, die, move on - or remain stuck in place. Though Cleage wrote this work in 1995, it is completely fresh. And it has been given its due in Parson's production. Costumes and set are beautifully period, and lighting brings added dimensions to the staging. Blues for an Alabama Sky now extended through February 19th at Court Theatre.
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