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Sarah Ruhl’s ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ returns to Chicago at Timeline Theatre. Directed by Mechelle Moe, this drawing room comedy about the advent of electricity is sure to tickle audiences. Ruhl’s works have often been produced around the city as she’s an Evanston native. She may reside in Brooklyn now, but we’ll still claim her as our own.

‘In the Next Room’ was shortlisted for the 2009 Pulitzer after a successful Broadway run. It was also nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play. ‘In the Next Room’ might just be Ruhl’s most fully realized play. It’s a whimsical, if not loose, history of the invention of the vibrator. While it may sound like a cheeky sex comedy, ‘In the Next Room’ is a feminist anthem.

Dr Givings (Anish Jethmalani) is a country doctor who specializes in hysteria, a very real condition that afflicted women during a much less sexual period in history. His wife Catherine (Rochelle Therrien) does not suffer as her husband’s patients do, but instead yearns for romantic love. In some ways, this play is like Sarah Ruhl’s own version of ‘A Doll’s House.’ A wife searching for her purpose in a world dominated by men. Catherine says at one point “I do not know what kind of person I am” and feels like a failure when her child will not nurse. Through various entrances and exits, we’re shown how sexless life was between man and wife during the Victorian era. As an audience with hindsight, we understand that this miracle cure for hysteria is nothing more than a medically induced orgasm.

The ensemble is well cast. Rochelle Therrien makes Ruhl’s fanciful dialogue endearing and innocent. Her fresh-faced and child-like performance is so charming you can’t believe her husband’s indifference. Though quiet and understated, Dana Tretta plays Annie, the physician’s midwife. A sort of “Igor” sidekick type, but Ruhl doesn’t overlook the character. Her arch of a life without love is perhaps the most touching of all.

Not only is this play a feminist anthem, but a play about orgasms. The very idea that women did not discuss anything related to sex is absurd in a world where you can watch re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ at any given time. Even nursing a child was considered distasteful to discuss. Rarely if ever have so many simulated orgasms happened in one theatrical performance. Though, like the era, they’re so unsexualized that you can’t help but giggle at the characters discovering themselves. In one full-length play Sarah Ruhl bursts nearly every female taboo of the time out of the closet. Never have Women’s Rights been a more hot button issue and ‘In the Next Room’ comes at just the right time.

Through December 16 at Timeline Theatre Company. Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review

You don’t need to be an Anglophile to love The Audience.

Directed admirably by Nick bowling, it is written by Peter Morgan, the trending screenwriter of the The Queen (Helen Mirren) and the Netflix series The Crown, developed another angle on portraying Queen Elizabeth II: recounting a number of the 20-minute political briefings delivered weekly by Britain’s Prime Minister in a private audience with her Majesty.

This engaging stroll through history will also help explain to American's the vital role the Queen still plays in British society - though whether she's too expensive isn't resolved. The Queen functions as the reflective conscience of the British people, and remains as Prime Ministers come and go. 

Even before her coronation, the young Elizabeth is carrying on the tradition, and the play soon brings us to Churchill – who refuses to sit for the conversation. Elizabeth soon puts her stamp on the matter, and he Sir Winston is soon seated and receiving a dose of scotch. She also regularly reminds all her PMs that she heads what was the British Commonwealth - 52 nations largely former colonies who have at least some fealty to British culture and the Queen. 

Janet Ulrich Brooks does a marvelous job as the Queen, and the role is demanding for any actress. The playwright avoids a rote chronological sequence by having scenes jump around in time. Brooks ages in place, and manages to convey a constancy of personality, while also evolving Elizabeth who grows up and gets old before our eyes.

Janet Ulrich Brooks  is so seriously good here, notwithstanding inevitable comparisons with Helen Mirren, who originated the role in London and brought it to Broadway. You will not think one jot about Mirren when you watch her.

Brooks is also surrounded by a remarkable cast. Along with the Queen, there is another constant figure on stage through all the political ages: the Equerry played with immeasurable aplomb by David Lively. The Equerry is to the Queen, as she is the Prime Minister. The conversations in the weekly audience  are expected to be entirely private. And while the Queen is not actually ruling, she is reflecting – and her periodic interjections certainly have influenced the government.

Playwright Morgan has distilled the essence of each of these PMs, while resisting caricature, and tapping into the memorable issues during their terms. Think of names the strongly resonate, like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, John Major, David Cameron. Kudo’s to the actors and to Matt DeCaro (Winston Churchill / Harold Wilson / Tony Blair), and Mark Ulrich (John Major / Gordon Brown / Anthony Eden / David Cameron). DeCaro and Ulrich have physically taxing roles, and deliver their Prime Ministers with verve and precision. 

Carmen Roman as Margaret Thatcher was a dead ringer, and also brought frisson to the scene in which she confronts Queen Elizabeth for disparaging her Reagan-like dismantling of Britain’s social safety net and socialized marketplace.

Also notable for its timeliness – with the 20th anniversary of her death -  is the scene in which Queen Elizabeth’s emotional struggles with Princess Diana rise to the surface – but just barely.

A cinematic trope brings a child actor onto the stage intermittently in a nod to the Queen’s childhood – I can’t say those were effective scenes, but they provided leavening for the rest of the play.   

The Audience is recommended. It plays through November 12 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. in Chicago

Published in Theatre in Review

One of the most striking presentations of a drama grounded in music is TimeLine Theatre’s Paradise Blue. It is not a musical, nor a review - rather it is a “jazz infused” production.

Powerful original music was composed by Orbert Davis, the founder of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. The music has been recorded and is played as incidental and transitional themes in the play, giving it a strong supporting role but without overwhelming the production - akin to the role of the set.

Paradise Blue is set in 1949 in Detroit. It tells the story of a trumpeter, Blue (Al’Jaleel McGhee) running the Paradise nightclub in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood. As Detroit thrives in the post-war boom years, property values are rising and the area is a target for development.

Blue carries a lot of emotional baggage from a rough upbringing and the violent home life with his battling parents, a heartbreaking and tragic story revealed in the play, which leaves him orphaned, and haunted. Into this setting Morriseau brings a retinue of characters, and each one well-developed and memorable – which is quite an achievement: P-Sam (Charles Andrew Gardner), Corn (Ronald L Conner), and Pumpkin (Kristin E Ellis).

Those many strong characters do put a strain on the advance of the action, as we get a good deal of dialog about the background and aspirations of each. That is the kind of thing that could get balanced out in future productions which Paradise Blue clearly warrants. 

The play carries a noire styling, and this line is expressed with dynamic energy with the arrival of a mysterious stranger from New Orleans: Silver, played with amazing power by Tyla Abercrumbie. In fact, Abercrumbie's performance is so strong, she really stands out from the rest of the cast. She is exciting to watch from the moment she arrives and every second the spotlight is on her. Abercrumbie is also a pro, and balances the moments she plays opposite others, and doesn't overwhelm them - though I suspect she could. 

Unlike many plays about musicians, in this one the lead, Al’Jaleel McGhee, picks up a horn and blows. He plays intentionally weakly at one point, then gets his note at a pivotal point. Director Ron OJ Parson has McGhee play the theme line written for the show, then dissolves it into an artful reverb that fades away. Very very nice. The rest of the music was performed by Davis and members of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, featuring Rajiv Halim, and recorded and mixed by Roger Heiss at Tone Zone Studio in Chicago. It was  The Chicago Community Trust. 

This play was recommended to me by those great folks at Hot Tix as I searched for one worth seeing, so I bought a ticket. Now I am saying the same to you. Paradise Blue runs through July 23 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W Wellington in Chicago. 

Published in Theatre in Review
Saturday, 01 October 2016 18:53

The Last Wife Keeps Its Head

The tumultuous personal life of the six-time married Henry VIII has been an inspiration for dramatists for centuries, and provided immortal fame to several of his ill-fated wives. However, as the wife who had the political astuteness to survive him and the luck to marry him after he had already produced his long-awaited male heir, Katherine Parr has usually been neglected due to her apparent lack of tragedy. That changed last year, when Canadian actress and playwright Kate Hennig’s new work, The Last Wife, premiered at the Stratford Festival. Narrowly focused on six richly drawn characters, Hennig’s play is a reminder of how remarkable Parr truly was, and that her political power stemmed from her ability to reconcile one of the English-speaking world’s most notoriously fractured families. In the play’s United States debut at Timeline Theatre, director Nick Bowling’s cast teases out the nuances of Hennig’s complex script, creating a surprisingly compassionate image of a court known mainly for its beheadings.

The play is in modern dress and language, with elegantly simple costumes by Melissa Torchia and a matching silver and black set by Regina Garcia. Katherine Parr (AnJi White) is a social-climbing noblewoman with a dying husband she never liked, and a handsome admirer in the highly desirable Thom Seymour (Nate Santana). However, at the top of the play, she is troubled by the gift King Henry (Steve Pickering) has made to her of a dazzling necklace. It is a clear indication that he wishes to make her wife number six, and to refuse his gift is even more dangerous than to accept it. Henry himself makes that clear when he interrupts the couple by forcibly kissing Katherine and humiliating Thom by pretending to forget his lack of title and pointing out his inability to protect “his” woman. Catherine makes a counteroffer of becoming Henry’s mistress, but he refuses, and surprises her by declaring that his interest in her is primarily due to his belief that the young prince Edward (Chinguun Sergelen, alternating with Matthew Abraham) needs a mother.

Katherine, or, as she prefers to be called, Parr, recognizes several opportunities. The king is ailing, and is in need of advisers, and possibly a regent. Furthermore, if she maneuvers correctly, she could place herself in a position to mentor his older daughters, Mary (Paola Sanchez Abreu) and Bess (Caroline Heffernan, alternating with Peyton Shaffer), whom he is currently estranged from due to abusing, and in Bess’s case, murdering their mothers. Parr would like to see more women in positions of power, and the first step to making that happen is to restore the girls to the line of succession. White possesses the strength and the warmth to communicate that Parr is a mixture of high ambition and idealism, with a long-disappointed hope of starting a family of her own. She craves power enough that she is willing to take grave risks to gain it, seeks it for others as well as herself, and, perhaps unexpectedly, finds herself falling for the Tudors even as she tries to negotiate her suddenly much more complex relationship with Thom. White’s astute choices regarding when to be vulnerable and when to be commanding make her a fascinating figure, and the driving force of the play.

She’s in good company. Steve Pickering’s Henry is a sardonic, miserable, but highly intelligent and dangerous old monster. “I’m capricious; that makes me a fascist, not a liberal,” he declares early on in what is also an example of Hennig’s generally strong ability to describe Renaissance dynamics in modern language. (It’s not perfect; everything onstage is contemporary, but the characters still refer to cannons.) Henry cannot be tricked by false affection, but Parr is old enough to remember there was a time when he was a genuine sex symbol, and still has lingering admiration for the person he was when he took the throne as a teenager. Henry misses that person, too. Santana’s charming, but somewhat feckless Thom is depicted more sympathetically than the historical character usually is, as is Sanchez’s wounded and sour Mary. Heffernan’s Bess starts very guarded, but grows to reveal her intellect as well as her insecurities. Sergelen’s Edward is an innocent who has an adorable tendency to get underfoot at awkward moments, one of which implies early on that Parr and Thom may be a little sleazier than we’ve been led to believe.

Hennig is too clever a writer to make The Last Wife a morally simplistic story. Her characters are messy, and she treats her audience as people who don’t need to be preached to. At two and a half hours, The Last Wife is unusually dense and lengthy for a new play, and at times, Hennig’s style seems suited for a novel. There are a few big dramatic scenes, but most of the character development takes place through quieter moments during which they are clearly thinking more than they say. For example, while discussing Edward’s succession, Bess takes a tactless tone while pointing out that seventy percent of males in their family die before the age of eighteen. Mary responds with a veiled comparison between Bess and Richard III. But Bowling has done such a fine job of casting and pacing that the story never drags (and for those who absolutely prefer something shorter, Timeline’s production of Bakersfield Mist will be continuing through mid-October). For fans of the Tudor era, as well as people who enjoy intimate studies of ambitious families, The Last Wife is highly recommended.

The Last Wife is playing at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave through December 18. For tickets or show information, see timelinetheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Prepare to be taken on a journey with Timeline Theatre at their production of "Chimerica." Directed by Nick Bowling, "Chimerica" is an epic saga of a play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. While a solid three hours of theater may be discouraging for some, this play makes it well worth the time. 

 

Spoiler alert, "Chimerica" is a story about Chinese-American relations, not Chicago. That said, John Culbert's stage design addresses it pretty head-on. One side of the stage is an ironically vintage New York City apartment, a wide gulf separates it from a shabby Beijing tenement. A Macbook sits on the coffee table of the American apartment, a well-known symbol of strife between these two worlds. 

 

Lucy Kirkwood's play makes its American debut at Timeline. It is the story of a photo journalist, Joe Schofield, who took the famous picture of a man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. We catch up with Schofield (Coburn Goss) in 2012 as he tries to persuade his magazine editor to do a story about the Tank Man 23 years later. Joe's kept a long-time friendship with a professor in Beijing, Zhang (Norman Yap), who is the story's window into Chinese life. Joe falls in love with largely uninvolved marketing expert, Tessa (Eleni Pappageorge) who's on a mission to "figure out" the Chinese for a credit card company. Joe becomes determined to track down the man he accidentally made famous, and in the process, a global chase ensues. 

 

There are a ton of characters in this play. Some more consequential than others. Nick Bowling has assembled a very talented cast of Asian-American actors on which the moral backbone of this story hinges. In fact, there's not a bad performance in this play. 

 

One could dissect the themes of this show for hours, but for the sake of brevity, we won't. What is immediately fascinating is that this is a story told from the mindset of someone caught in the middle. It's a story about how America and China are becoming more alike as well as their inherent differences. It’s a story about what is actually dictating "free press" in America. It’s a story about how foreign countries see American politics, particularly Hillary Clinton. It's also a story with great heart. Lucy Kirkwood is not just delivering a geo-political thesis, but also a compassionate look at the lives of ordinary people. At times this very-right-now drama can seem to go on and on, but in the end it adds up to a very bittersweet conclusion and a lot to take home and unpack. 

 

Through July 31st at Timeline Theatre. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463.

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Friday, 22 January 2016 16:32

Review: Sunset Baby at Timeline Theatre

What drew me to this play is the powerful message around civil rights and the negative impact it had on the children of activist. Sunset Baby is about a women named after Nina Simone whose parents were a part of the Black Panthers. After her mother passes away, her father comes back into her life after what seems to have been a long stint in prison. playwright Dominique Morriseau, who landed the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for her previous work, Detroit '67, comes back with another fine effort Sunset Baby a story of generation gaps and healing old wounds.

 

As I walked closer to the stage at Timeline Theater, I saw large signs of many individuals who have contributed to the civil rights movement such as Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Malcolm X, Tupac Shukar, Nina Simone, and DeRay Mckesson who works with Black Lives Matter. The short descriptions of these individuals were informative and appreciated and also helped set the tone for this play.

 

The plays opens up with Nina, played by Anji White, getting ready to go hustle and make some money with her boyfriend, Damon (Kelvin Roston Jr.). As she is getting ready, she gets a buzz from downstairs thinking it was him but it is instead her estranged father Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear). Nina blames her father for the addictions her mother had which ultimately led to her death. What is uncovered through this encounter is Kenyatta's desire to locate unsent letters from Nina's mother, Ashanti X, while in prison. 

 

Although the play had a lot of ups and downs to keep the audience busy, I still left wanting more. There could have been more about the political activism around Kenyatta. I believe more details should have been explored a bit more as well as character development. The acting itself was very strong. Phillip Edward Van Lear's demeanor throughout the play was calm as Kenyatta but when he talked about his experiences, he did a great job of appearing physically agitated, making his role even more believable.

 

Sunset Baby will be at Timeline Theater from January 21st through April 10th. Visit http://www.timelinetheatre.com/sunset_baby/ for more details on obtaining tickets to see this powerful cast. 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Friday, 28 August 2015 12:10

Review: The Price at Timeline Theatre

Dorothy Parker once said, "If you want to know what god thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to." Arthur Miller's 'The Price' centers itself around a middle aged couple getting on toward their golden years, but for them, it's not so golden. The horrors of The Great Depression have haunted Victor and Esther for years and now that they’re finally liquidating his father's shabby estate, they see glimmers of financial security.


While Victor has struggled for years, partly by choice and partly out of an obligation to care for his aging father, his brother Walter selfishly pursued wealth and stature. Will a chance meeting with an almost supernatural antique dealer pave the way for a reconciliation?


Timeline Theatre presents 'The Price' in a time much like the one it was originally presented in. While the recession of 2008 clearly didn't hit as hard as '29, the uneasy ripples are still being felt today. Director Louis Contey's intimate production feels fresh and modern. Since this is a lesser known Miller, you won't be coming to it with any high school English class biases.


The small ensemble here works well together. Kymberly Mellen as money-hungry Esther is both aggravatingly pathetic and also heartbreakingly true in a final moment so slight you might miss it. Her character is an interesting commentary on how Miller and popular culture must have felt about wives. Her costar, Bret Tuomi as Victor is good, but often seems disconnected from the character. Perhaps this was a flaw of Miller's script because large swaths of monolog from Roderick Peeples as Walter seem insincere at times too. 91 year old Mike Nussbaum as furniture dealer Solomon is by far the most endearing part of the show. There's a heaven-sent quality to this role which is uncharacteristic of Miller's solidly grounded work. Nussbaum's performance is very charming.


'The Price' at Timeline Theatre is a highly polished, and well designed play that will introduce a new generation to a minor, but no less important Arthur Miller classic. It's a history lesson in privation and a cautionary tale about the unpleasantries money brings to people's lives. It's also powerful story about what it means to choose between love and wealth.


At Timeline Theatre through November 22nd. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773.281.8463

Published in Theatre Reviews
Saturday, 16 May 2015 00:00

Review: Inana at Timeline Theatre

About a month ago, CNN began running a series of clips showing self-proclaimed Islamic State militants destroying Middle Eastern artifacts. While their motives remain unclear, it does point to an unsettling idea that significant pieces of history are lost or destroyed in times of civil unrest.

Michele Lowe’s 2009 play ‘Inana’ makes its Midwestern premiere at TimeLine Theatre. ‘Inana’ centers itself around an Iraqi museum curator Yasin (Demetrios Troy) and his recent bride Shali (Atra Asdou). Yasin is in love with a statue named Inana and fears that with the impending U.S. Invasion of Baghdad, she will end up in the wrong hands. His fanatic obsession leads him to an arranged marriage with Shali, who despite her servile disposition is smarter than she seems.

Director Kimberly Senior arranges her stage in a way that compliments Lowe’s non-linear script. While the present-tense action of the play takes place in a London hotel room – a series of past events are revealed in vignettes that lead us to a final revelation.

TimeLine has assembled a talented cast of Chicago actors, but it’s really Atra Asdou in the role of Shali on which this show hinges. Asdou is a gifted reactionary actress, every little offense Yasin commits registers on her face, and a single tear hangs in her eyes throughout the show. In many aspects Asdou and Troy’s interaction begins as a comedy of errors, but ends a bittersweet love story. Some explosive dialogue builds in between and the chemistry is thrilling.

The political slant in Lowe’s 90-minute play preaches to a choir whose opinion is now the majority in the U.S. “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” is widely regarded as a debacle these days. This play goes back in time to show us a view from the other side of the lines. We sympathize with a people who knew no other world than Saddam’s regime, people who were actually content with what was. Considering today’s disturbing post-war Middle Eastern climate; a crumbled Syria, and the volatile Iraqi infrastructure, it’s hard not to see the parallels between a sacred statue being guarded from corrupt hands and that of a region destroyed by global machismo.

Through July 26th at TimeLine Theatre – 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463

Published in Theatre Reviews

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