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Monday, 09 October 2017 18:06

Review: The Crucible at Steppenwolf Theatre

It’s the season of Arthur Miller in Chicago. It appears Miller is enjoying a renaissance right now with three of our major companies reviving his work this season. The Steppenwolf takes on "The Crucible" as their Young Adult show. Calling upon Jonathan Berry (one of the city's foremost storefront theatre directors), Steppenwolf bids for a younger audience's attention.

Berry doesn't disappoint. His vision for this show is more like MTV than stuffier productions of yore. The first act begins with hip-hop flavored choreography combined with Izumi Inaba's stylish costumes that create a sort of "sexy Halloween costume" version of "The Crucible". The alternative staging helps guide a younger, perhaps less engaged audience through the multi-cast roles and quick on-stage character changes. Berry also makes a distinct stylistic choice to gender and colorblind cast all of the roles. Performances are convincing enough that it never feels like a gimmick. Instead, it underscores Miller's theme that these characters are all of us.

The only misstep is Naimi Hebrail Kidjo's tepid Abigail. Arthur Miller's scenes between Proctor and Abigail are some of the most electrifying in modern American drama, but somehow, they rarely reach a boil here. Perhaps an underplayed Abigail helps bring the relationship between Proctor and his wife Elizabeth into sharper focus. The scenes between John (Travis A. Knight) and Elizabeth Proctor (Kirstina Valada-Viars) are gripping. Valada-Viars gives a feisty performance, making Elizabeth a stronger heroine than typically played. Knight's John Proctor is youthful and naive, but not without a quick temper and imposing figure.

The ensemble wears many hats, quite literally in some cases. Stephanie Shum swiftly moves through characters without faltering. It's hard to figure why some actors played more roles than others, but the moral backbone of the play is sufficiently taken up by Taylor Blim's Mary Warren.

For many of us, "The Crucible" occupies a greyish area of high school that we'd like to forget. The old timey language and belabored scenes are hard to get into. Even still, this is a show the Steppenwolf is aiming at school groups. Berry's version is cool. It may take some effort to get generation Snapchat into it, but for those who invest, this is a worthwhile production. "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman" are essential theater experiences. So much more is defined in a live performance versus a moldy permabound high school book.

Miller is hot right now because his themes are forever relevant. "The Crucible" tells us not to be sheep, but to look around and develop our own code of ethics. Jonathan Berry's modernish version of this classic work is sure to attract audiences without much theater-going experience, and what a cool introduction this would be. The key to instilling the values of Arthur Miller onto another generation is make it seem new, and this production feels fresh.

Through October 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

Published in Theatre in Review

American Theater Company's  (ATC) regional premiere of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by artistic director Will Davis, took on the story of the one-arm captain, William Wesley Powell, who was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1869 to map the Green and Colorado rivers of the Grand Canyon.

 

Davis was recently appointed as ATC artistic director and Men on Boats is his first production for the company. He was also responsible for staging the Off Broadway version of the play in 2015.

 

The expedition, the first sanctioned in the American West, consisted of 10 grizzled explorers who set out on four boats, courageously riding through the rivers of the Grand Canyon. However, their varied personalities were almost as difficult to navigate as the terrain.

 

Backhaus' Men on Boats, performed by a genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined, provides an entertaining look this historic journey as well as perhaps providing a statement on just how much American society and the role of women have changed since the 1800's. 

 

The ATC cast includes ATC ensemble member Kelly O'Sullivan (William Dunn) and ATC youth ensemble alumna Lawren Carter (Hall), with Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Brittney Love Smith (Bradley), Sarai Rodriguez (Seneca Howland), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell) and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).

 

A simple yet effective set and props, as well as carefully choreographed movements, provide a heightened sense of action, especially when the explorers tackle the imagined vertical drops in the rivers.

 

Although the cast is really good at selling the quirkiness and reticence of some of the explorers and how those differences lead to small skirmishes among the crews, at times it is not enough to sustain it through the 100-minute performance.

 

Overall Backhaus provides is an interesting and sobering look at how a group of people can risk everything in the name of adventure and discovery. It speaks to the heroism we often bestow on our early American West explorers, their faith and commitment in their own visions yet it also highlights the vulnerabilities, conflicts and contradictions of blind loyalty. For it is only one person, John Wesley Powell, who reaps the actual benefits of their bravery as a team.

 

Recommended

 

Men on Boats is playing at ATC now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at the ATC box office or by visiting atcweb.org.

 

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