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Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.

Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”. 

Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend. 

The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for. 

Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene). 

While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).

A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.   

Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters. 

Very highly recommended. 

Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org

*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation. 

*Extended through May 28th 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 24 February 2017 12:23

Review: Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre

In 2010, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director adapted "The Seagull" by Chekhov. An all-star cast, a stellar script and unique staging made for a memorable production. For this season, Robert Falls returns Chekhov to the Goodman with a new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" by Annie Baker. This production of "Uncle Vanya" could be seen as a companion piece to 2010's "The Seagull." There's a stylistic similarity and another all-star cast breathing new life into this classic work. 

 

Like any Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" is about the everyday boredom and sadness of bourgeois Russians living on a country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled away their youths keeping the estate afloat and subsidizing the academic career of Sonya's aging father Alexander (David Darlow). When Alexander and his much younger wife Yelena (Kristen Bush) decide to move in with Vanya, their simple lives reach confrontation. 

 

Chekhov has a knack for dynamic female characters. "Uncle Vanya" is no exception. Caroline Neff's performance as Sonya sneakily becomes the focal point. Neff infuses Baker's already modern dialogue with an almost tangible sense of emotion.  Playing off her in the role of Yelena is Kristin Bush. This character is complicated and cold but Bush deftly shifts between moods without ever losing her audience. 

 

Adapter Annie Baker won the Pulitzer in 2014 for her play "The Flick." Her interpretation of "Uncle Vanya" was based on a literal word-for-word translation as she wanted her version to sound as fresh to a modern American audience as the original Russian had in 1900. To that end, Baker is successful. The script is quiet, but the dialogue seamlessly flows into our century. There's a timelessness to the entire production. Certain conventions, costumes and set pieces span generations, yet are of no specific historic era.  This stylistic choice only reinforces the ever-relevant themes of Chekhov's complex works. 

 

"Uncle Vanya" can neither be described as a comedy or a drama. There are moments of lightness and even dark humor, but overall the play is not particularly funny. On the other hand, while there's a well of unhappiness just beneath the surface, nothing truly cataclysmic happens. In the end, Chekhov makes his nihilistic point that perhaps none of us are happy and that death is the only respite we'll know. 

 

Through March 19th at Goodman Theatre. 170 N Dearborn St. 312-443-3800

 

Published in Theatre in Review

David Rabe’s Visiting Edna is everything you expect from Steppenwolf Theatre: a work of depth and significance, actors rendering studied characters, and production values of the highest order. 

Rabe’s writing also displays another Steppenwolf hallmark: plays that mine the power and drama in the ordinary language of daily life. Edna (Debra Monk is sensational) is an Iowa widow soldiering through a litany of ills – heart failure, colostomy, colitis, diabetes and cancer – all conspiring to come in for the kill. Her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford gives what will surely be a definitive performance) visits to check in on her, and decides to see if better medical advice might improve her condition. 

This may sound grim, or even boring. It is anything but. Though Edna babbles endlessly - as mothers may – her almost hypnotic patter is laced with incisive reflection and homespun wisdom, engaging her son (and the audience). She also begins settling accounts, handing off possessions and revealing scars from her own upbringing from which she sought to shield Andrew and his sister. Edna vividly relates the impact on her own childhood of the fraught circumstances of her older sisters’ teenage miscarriage and battle with tuberculosis. 

Edna’s end of life scenario affords moments of reflection, recall, and bonding with Andrew. Edna, born in 1926 to a world devoid of social media - or psychotherapy, for that matter - regrets in hindsight the physical discipline she inflicted on Andrew, and worries over her own careless decision to bring Andrew, age four at the time, to watch a hotel fire at which guests jumped to their deaths.  "It's just so different now, that's all," Edna says. 

The play also hums with a magical realism, as the dying Edna is pulled between two polarities familiar to anyone who has tread the path of serious illness: a distracting television, and the illness itself. In Visiting Edna, Actor One (Sally Murphy in a beautifully crafted and inspired performance) plays a channel-flipping Television, breaking the wall to address the audience in her opening monologue. She even relates the playwright's reflections on whether to wear rabbit ears or a dish antenna.)

Tim Hopper as Actor Two, plays Edna’s cancer through most of the play. (Note to Hopper fans: this is one his best roles.) Hopper’s knowing, insidious cancer recounts Edna's ailments, and telsl the audience, "Yet, she is desperate to live." Cancer offers gloomy reminders to Edna ("It's a dark hole you're in.") and competes mightily with Murphy’s sprightly Television for attention. In fact, neither wins it. As Actor Three (in a stunning walk-on role), Michael Rabe is at once frightening and believable as an angel of death. 

The stage itself is quite awesome: a sky tunnel right out of Magritte hovers above a split level living room. Stormy weather was so convincingly portrayed I was surprised the streets were dry when I left the theater. Kudos to David Zinn for set design, Marcus Doshi on lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for  music and sound design. Artistic director Anna Shapiro, famed for August: Osage County, oversaw the show and guides this season at Steppenwolf. 

This wonderful production has just one drawback: the ending, which seems to drag, as Andrew addresses the audience in a lengthy, tearful soliloquy about Edna’s final moments. 

That aside, Visiting Edna is as good as it gets on stage. It runs through November 6, 2016 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi opens with a spectacular video presentation of the massive gardens and castle of Versailles along with a full on catwalk style fashion show by the queen, her girlfriends and the rest of the royal cast. I loved the staging of this show by a six person design team including Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Dave Bova (hair and wig design), Japhy Weideman (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound and composition) and Jeff Sugg (projection design). The mirrored stage, combined with giant Vegas style flowers above it and the ever changing video projections worked together wonderfully to give us a glimpse of the largesse and majesty of that time period. Truly, the fashion of the time was something that separated the rich from the poor but also enslaved those able to afford it because it was impossible to dress and style yourself without a huge staff.

Alana Arenas is stunning as Marie Antoinette and does a great job portraying the doomed queen with both biting sarcasm and the occasional childlike grasp of the violent events unfolding all around her and because of her but not within her control at all. She, like the rest of royalty, is completely out of touch with the real world. We really see this as they try to pass as farmers during their escape after revolutionaries have taken over yet they are completely incapable of holding a normal conversation with approaching peasants (worse yet, they actually try to flee in the royal carriage thinking no one will notice them!). It is also very interesting to see the many parallels from Marie Antoinette that exist today, such as the inappropriate distribution of wealth, power in the hands of people that should not have it and the lack of power in those that should.

I like that Adjmi mentions twice in the play that Marie was only 14 years old when she was married to the imbecile King Louis the Louis XVI (Tim Hopper) – because most people assume she was an adult when she entered the realm of marriage and politics which was not true. You can really see in his text how similar the situation is for celebrities and their children today that their every move is first exalted and then diminished and eventually degraded as the social and political climes about them change. It is also pointed out how gross the invasion of privacy is when a human being feels they cannot even leave the confines of their home or do anything normal in public at all without it being analyzed and ridiculed by thousands of strangers whose opinions should not matter at all.

In a way we all have a little Marie Antoinette in us, that confused and excited teenager who is thrust into adult circumstances and is forced to “conform and perform” or sink under the weight of disappointment of family and society around us if we do not produce the hoped for successes in finances and family life, i.e. having children.

I highly recommend this elegant, eye popping and thoroughly modern interpretation of the life of a woman who was born and bred not to have her own life but the life prescribed for her by her parents and their political advisors.

Tickets and information:

When: Now through May 10, 2015

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Contact: www.steppenwolf.org

Published in Theatre Reviews

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