A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.
Douglass is striking from the moment the stage lights go on at Theater Wit. De’Lon Grant commands the stage as the escaped slave, Frederick Douglass – who in his time was a towering intellect among abolitionists, and who remains a powerful influence on public discourse even today.
Playwright Thomas Klingenstein begins the action in 1841, when Douglass, 23, began publicly speaking out against slavery to sympathetic abolitionist audiences around Boston. Anyone who has read even a bit of Frederick Douglass' writing knows the power of his language. Excerpts of his speeches in this production – and there could be more, to my mind - display his strength as a communicator, and inspirational force.
In short order, Frederick Douglass outstripped his patron, publisher William Lloyd Garrison (convincingly portrayed by Mark Ulrich), who comes across here as self-satisfied in his public position as a firebrand abolitionist newspaperman. Differing in anti-slavery strategies, Garrison gets a court to interdict Douglass' printing press. The script plays up Garrison's loss of stature as Douglass' star rises.
Douglass has a different agenda than Garrison. He soon gains his own following and financial means to pursue it. Klingenstein clearly portrays the differences between Douglass’s more gradualist approach to ending slavery, and Garrison’s belief in “Dis-Union,” the belief that because the U.S. Constitution enshrines slavery, the Union must be abolished. Douglass says the slave-related clauses in the Constitution are “scaffolding,” meant to be dismantled once the nation was established.
The script also accomplishes something very difficult: revealing the unconscious racism among liberal whites. Because Douglass disagrees with him, Garrison - a white man who thought his anti-slavery credentials were unimpeachable - decides that blacks are incapable of comprehending the circumstance of, and solution for, their own slavery. Garrison's self-evidently racist position, part of the historical record, is amply presented. Contemporary parallels can be readily drawn - which is one reason Douglass is such a valuable production. It also introduces an important historic figure to a new generation. The production is built and billed as a multi-media performance in part to pull in the younger crowd.
In biographical plays, the dramatic action required for satisfying theater can easily seem forced – lives don’t usually have convenient plot lines. But Douglass draws in enough of the personal side of the character– Douglass’s devotion to his wife, an affair with an admirer, his conflicts with Garrison – to make them people we care about.
Director Christopher McElroen has pulled out all the stops in putting together Douglass for The American Vicarious organization. Great costumes, lighting, set, staging, music – values that would be at home at the top theaters anywhere are meticulously woven into telling and showing the story of Douglass. The production team deserves mention: William Boles (scenic design), Mieka van der Ploeg (costume design), Becca Jeffords (lighting design), Liviu Pasare (projection design), Jamie Abelson (casting director), Cara Parrish (stage manager) and Will Bishop (production manager).
Should you see Douglass? It is so well produced, how can you not? It runs through August 14, at Theater Wit.
Right out of the gate CHOPS is a winner – in performances, production and script. Playwright Michael Rychlewski captures that ineffable quintessence of Chicago-ese as his three remnants of the 1950s and ‘60s glory days of Rush Street wash ashore at Vince’s bar.
Let’s hear it for the casting, too – director Richard Shavzin has corralled an exceptionally well-matched brace of players here, strong character actors from our city’s bountiful supply. As Walt (Randy Steinmeyer) launches full throttle into his opening monologue, the audience knows it is in on something big tonight.
On Walt's arm is a dame, Kaki (Clare Cooney), claiming to be older than she is, and unnaturally well schooled in the music and dance from the waning days of 1950s and 1960s big band jazz. Tending bar, the world-weary Vince (Larry Neumann Jr.) is a perfect counterpoint to Walt’s bravado, as he eyes with suspicion this young lady’s game.
The story line is straightforward. Three late middle aged men – the third, Philly (Danny Sullivan) makes a backdoor entrance along the way – are competing for the attention of the comely young lass. They dance, talk big, and tell tales of their past. Chicagoans of a certain age will glow at references to now-vanished Rush St. locales like Mr. Kelley’s and the Gaslight Club.
Then the big talk turns competitive, and a storytelling contest ensues – shades of August Wilson here. A contrivance? Perhaps, but it arrives naturally and these guys are so compelling, the audience doesn’t begrudge a minute of it.
This scene also paints an even richer portrait of Chicago’s bygone era, captured in the color of its speech. While David Mamet has abstracted this linguistic naturalism into a generalized form, Rychlewski gives it the specificity of its locale – all the more enjoyable. Chops is a must-see just for this scene.
As the story continues, the plotting became harder to follow. But given the caliber of the performances, it seems that the director and author may need to coax a bit more from this section to get across the nature of the con that is being set up. Past that scene, the power struggle among the characters continues to a satisfying dramatic conclusion.
There is one point in CHOPS that gave me pause: the character Kaki takes restroom breaks for the convenience of the dramatic trajectory, but at some point these become too many, and one runs unnaturally long (is she doing cocaine in there?).
The set is very good; Grant Sabin has done an impressive job with set design while Chris Neville handled the props. As CHOPS reveals itself to be a cut above the ordinary, I felt myself wishing even more resources were given so that Sabin and Neville could take their artistry further.
In addition to the choreography and music that spice this play, there is also a compelling story behind its authorship, a first work, 25 years in the making by Rychlewski, a Schurz High School English teacher. He brought a 120- page script to director Shavzin, who cut it back to 74 pages – another factor in its excellence.
Dashnight Productions’ CHOPS runs through August 14 at Theatre Wit. May that run be extended.
It is with a heavy heart I confess that I cannot recommend the play Eroica. David Alex’s melodrama is not without merit or redeeming character – but for most people it will probably not be worth spending 70 minutes to extract them.
The story is compelling and worth telling: during the height of the Vietnam War, college was a refuge for young men wanting to avoid being drafted. A nascent war resistance movement was not widely embraced, and the “average American” at the time viewed “draft dodgers” with suspicion.
This was especially so in small towns in the Great Plains states, where Eroica is set. Playwright Alex is dead-on in rendering the details of the story of that time. America has not yet relinquished its perception of itself as an ever-righteous world savior, honed in World War II. But the war in Vietnam is not going well. Better-off young men go to college, or join the Army Reserve – as did President George W. Bush – to avoid the military. Its ranks swelled with the less affluent. Some young men fled to Canada, others ended up conscripted.
Alex’s story turns on a champion high school basketball coach, Victor (Felipe Carrasco) young enough to be in the Army, but who has somehow earned a medical deferment from the draft. The action, and plot, turns on one of his former charges, Charles (Garrett Young), a top basketball player, who was kicked off the team by the coach after he tore up a house in a rowdy party. This ended Charles's chance at college, and he has received his draft notice. He stalks the coach and his family as he exacts his revenge.
I’ll avoid revealing the spoiler, in case you want to see it. It is moderately entertaining. But the language of the characters is just a tad too formal. And there are some elements that are unexplained: why does the coach’s sister, Grace (Sarah Koerner), a major character, walk with a cane (or for that matter, why she is even in the play). Other elements get too much explanation: the play’s title, Eroica, is from Beethoven’s symphonic work (and the play is set during his 300th anniversary of his birth), which was first dedicated to Napoleon, then the dedication was scratched off when he named himself emperor. We hear even more about Beethoven, far more than we need to.
Here’s when we must ask whether director Maggie Speer might not have pushed back a bit on the author, to make the work more playable by the actors – who all did really good work, but needed to have better orchestration. One example: during the dramatic crescendo, in a battle between Victor and his wife Sally (Sara Pavlak Macquire) the stalking basketball player Charles who has sown these seeds of discord sits in the audience's focal point, center stage, munching pretzels and drinking beer. Charles also spends an inordinate amount of time rustling through documents while other characters aren't around. And the banter about basketball while technically precise is inaccessible and excessive for most ticket buyers.
While commending the effort here by the cast, this is a case where the playwright probably gains more from the production than the rest of the parties involved, including the audience.
Eroica is being performed at Redtwist Theatre thru August 7th.
Watching one scene acted four or five ways is intrinsically interesting. It’s regularly played to comic effect at Second City. But what about an entire play strung together from a series of such scenes?
This structure, used in Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre, may put your interest to the test. But it will not lose it.
This celebrated work is by British playwright Nick Payne, whose daring script has a simple storyline – boy and girl meet, court, marry. They face the joys and trials of coupledom: sharing, loving, careers, infidelity, illness.
Many scenes (all of them quite short) are played verbatim, or nearly so, three or more times in rapid succession. The characters shift emphasis, even reverse roles - the victimized party turns victimizer; the adulterer turns adulteress. Other scenes are almost largely rewritten for the multiple versions – delving into a conditional world – one in which this same relationship has played out differently than other scenes have suggested to us.
As Constellations progresses, the effect of so many short scenes is like standing at Oak Street Beach as the waves lap up, each similar, but different. In totality, the effect is mesmerizing.
And those individual scenes are very strong. The excellent performances by Jon Michael Hill as Roland, a beekeeper, and Jessie Fisher as Marianne, a theoretical physicist, give this work its due. (Both play with plausible British accents.)
After the 80 minute performance (no intermission) one can think back and say, “I saw a play tonight, and here’s what happened.” At Wednesday’s performance the audience was clearly engaged, getting the jokes, and tracking the action– as those scenes washed over them again and again.
The unlikely pairing of a beekeeper and a theoretical physicist also assures there will be great contrast in these characters. The beekeeper’s career path, explored through exposition, is quite credible in our renaissance of makers and foodies. He clearly admires the well defined roles of bees (i.e., worker,drone, queen).
But it is the role of Marianne, the theoretical physicist, that may be the key to this drama. Explaining her work to Roland, she posits a world in which all the choices we have made, or didn’t make, and lives we could have led, or did lead – coexist. Perhaps like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, these characters are "unstuck in time." This helps explain recurring scenes that diverge from the most likely story line. One example: a wistful exchange when the two, apparently living separate lives, meet up “years later” by sheer chance – a scene (repeated multiple times in various ways) that runs counter to suggestions they lived happily ever after.
The handsome set (Joe Schermoly) carries Constellations' theme well, setting the duo on a seamless, cornerless, groundless landscape of blue, evoking an unbounded cosmos. Above hang webs of LED rope (light design by Heather Gilbert) that crackle and flare like lightning (perhaps a visual cue of String Theory?).
Another provocative aspect of Constellations is conjured by a line delivered repeatedly by Marianne early on, and again near the end: “Mother wasn’t afraid to die; she was afraid of being kept alive.” This play is also about that solemn thought.
Constellations, directed by Jonathan Berry, runs through July 3. In addition to its well regarded author and highly regarded performances in London and New York, the show lets fans see TV star Jon Michael Hill (Detective Marcus Bell in CBS-TV’s Elementary) and Jessie Fisher, who starred on Broadway in Once.
If you can stand witnessing 90 minutes of emotional misery, then I can recommend Spinning at Den Theatre, where Irish Theatre of Chicago is giving the Dublin-based Deirdre Kinihan’s work its U.S. premiere. The four actors turn in powerful performances– a fifth character, never seen, was almost equally present throughout, a testament to the playwright’s gifts and the ensemble’s skills.
But the play may challenge U.S. audiences, as its exploration of the meltdown of Conor following an acrimonious divorce (Dan Waller’s vivid portrayal of Conor’s ups and downs is sensational) but the audience ends up nowhere. As his wife Jen, Carolyn Kruse is so well cast, and delivers an A+ performance - courageously staking out her ground, and the grounds to leave the marriage. Taking her daughter (never seen) she persists against the onslaught of Conor’s full-blown fury.
As Conor navigates Jen’s claim for divorce, he enters a downward spiral – heading on a destructive path, losing his business, and landing in prison. The storyline of the play turns on a very deliberate, but very slow reveal, of this crime.
But is this enough of a story for a play? Kinahan, a rising star in stage and with screen projects in development, explains that in Ireland, divorce is just a decade old. Unlike the U.S., Kinahan says Ireland’s divorced fathers are still establishing post-marital roles. To Conor, divorce means he loses his home, his daughter, and his standing as a spouse. It’s a different case here.
In Ireland this play is enlightening. Here, the play leaves one wanting – asking why we watched all that woe. Irish Theater of Chicago’s mission is to “focus on the rich legacy of Ireland,” and to “return theater to its storytelling origin.” Well this fraught recount of a marital breakdown is certainly that, a story – though for U.S. audiences, it may not have enough of a plot or purpose.
That aside, the performances are excellent, the director keeps the ensemble at a heightened level of delivery throughout – and Spinning makes for a worthy if painful theater experience .
With foreboding I took my seat in Court Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors, knowing the actors had devised some parts of the play on their own. As the company frolicked and sang the opening number, the jollity on stage was leaving me stone cold.
But enter Francis Henshall (Timothy Edward Kane) – the ‘One Man’ in the title – and within minutes this British import by way of Broadway had the audience laughing. And me? Full throat guffawing – by the second half, to the point of tears.
One man, Two Guvnors is based on a 1745 Italian Commedia dell Arte, Servant of Two Masters, written in that period’s improvisational comedic form. It has been masterfully adapted to modern sensibilities by Richard Bean, but it helps to know that Henshall is a stylized character of this Italian genre – known as a Harlequin – a hapless, bumbling dolt. While this suggests a scholarly exercise, the show is anything but.
It is more akin to Monty Python or Fawlty Towers - with a dash of Second City and some smart clowning. The action centers on a British seaside in 1963 Brighton, with costumes (nice work by Mara Blumenfeld, who has dressed Mary Zimmerman's productions) and original music (Grant Olding) that match the period perfectly. The plot is ridiculous, centering on mistaken identity and this Harlequin butler trying not to tip off his two bosses about each other. There is some cross dressing.
Henshall the Harlequin may be hapless - think Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy – but Kane makes him a completely sympathetic character who controls the stage and the audience. Carlo Goldoni was commissioned to write the 1745 original by Italy’s premier Harlequin, Antonio Sacchi, as a showcase for his talents - the thin storyline left open ended for improvisation. Goldoni then updated it to capture some of Sacchi's free-form genius.
It may well be we are seeing our own Sacchi. This locally grown Harlequin, in Kane’s performance, is a stage wonder. He seems born to the role, and Chicagoans are afforded the unique opportunity to see a new type of character born right on the boards at Court Theatre.
Stage screwball comedy evaporates in a retelling, but be assured it is very, very funny – whether you like your humor high brow or low, physical or intellectual, in wordplay or horseplay. The range of scenes includes a very hungry Henshall (Kane) lusting after a piece of cheese on a mousetrap. When his tongue is caught with a snap, he struggles mightily to reach that cheese (without using his hands), to great comedic effect.
Another scene finds Stanley Stubbers (Erik Hellman) one of Henshall’s Guvnors, despondent at the loss of his love. Deciding to cast himself into the sea, he throws himself at the ocean backdrop – discovering it is just a painted sheet. The audience picks up on the joke while Stubbers is bewildered with encountering the “fifth wall” (a recurring point of humor). This was my “laughed ‘til I cried" point.
Once Henshall’s character grounded the action, all the actors’ performances came alive – for me, anyway. The producers hired coaches to school the troupe in language and the Commedia style. But this cast of worthies, in addition to Kane, is impossible to fault, all delivering over the top, memorable performances: Chaon Cross (Pauline Clench), Allen Gilmore (Lloyd Boateng), Alex Goodrich (Alan Dangle), Francis Guinan (Charlie Clench), Erik Hellman (Stanley Stubbers), Elizabeth Ledo (Rachael Crabbe), Ross Lehman (Harry Dangle) and Hollis Resnik (Dolly). You will recognize most of them from their plentiful stage and screen work.
The show runs through June 12, 2016 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue in Chicago. Don’t miss it.
"Punch me," is the first line of dialog in Dry Land, and those two words sum up the effect of this play - gut wrenching and, in a climactic scene, hard to watch. If you are looking for lighter fare, move on; but you will not find much better than this Rivendell Theatre production.
Set in a girls' swimming pool locker room at a Florida high school, the play revolves around the bond between an unlikely pair: Amy (Bryce Gangel), a girl who gets around too much with teenage boys; and a much sweeter young woman, Ester (Jessica Ervin).
Playwright Ruby Rae Speigel has received plaudits for Dry Land, celebrated in its New York Off-Broadway production. In fact, the excellent set built at Rivendell (Joanna Iwanicka is scenic designer) tracks closely to the New York version.
A recent Yale grad, Speigel is now writing a series in development for Netflix. Her script, with its scenes broken by blackouts, is strong in its spare yet realistic dialog - one that lets the action unfold all the exposition, a mark of good writing.
Amy, who moves with the fast crowd, is pregnant - a fact she prefers not to share with her best friends, or her mother. Ester, chosen as confidant, accepts that role in a dynamic familiar to any high school kid looking for a friendship. This pairing plays out against a backdrop of the ordinary stresses of high school life, amped up by pressures of a compeitive women's swim team.
From that "Punch me" opening, Ester assists as Amy meanders through ignorant attempts at terminating the pregnancy - Ester sits on Amy's stomach; punches her diaphragm; drinks hard liquor with her. Snippets of google searches are shared, and eventually leading to the morning after pill. It's a risky choice for the second trimester, and leading to the barely bearable scene in which the pill does its work.
Bryce Gangel is commanding as the weak and somewhat off-putting Amy. Jessica Ervin's Ester is convincing as an innocent who is solid to the core. Just two male characters make brief appearances.Ester's kindly young suitor, Victor (Matt Farrabee is spot on), who reveals a less than flattering perspective on Amy.
And it is the Janitor (Ric Walker in a world-weary performance) who provides the most telling commentary, in a silent scene in which he methodically cleans up the bloody aftermath of that pill. In his matter-of-fact mopping and wiping, we can tell this Janitor has seen it all, and seen it all too often.
Life goes on. As the action draws to an end, college acceptance letters arrive - or don't - and these two young women who passed together through the worst of life will go their separate ways.
Dry Land is also a cautionary tale of the dire punishments suffered by young women through ignorance. For more than two decades, the Rivendell Theatre has followed its mission of recognizing and cultivating the talents of women in theatre and exploring the unique female perspectives of everyday stories. Dry Land advances that mission and takes it a step further.
How much do we reveal about ourselves to others? In a masterful new Steppenwolf production, title character Mary Page Marlowe gives the short answer: Only what we know.
It may sound like an unpromising premise, but in recounting the life of ostensibly ordinary Mary Page Marlowe, a CPA from Dayton, playwright Tracy Lett’s shows his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning chops, with a script that achingly reveals the human condition.
Through a dozen vignettes, one of six actresses plays Mary Page Marlowe at various stages. The first is in a restaurant, where Mary Page tells her kids that mom and dad are splitting. She gazes across the audience, asking loudly with her eyes, “How did I get here?”
Mary Page appears in every scene that follows, and the play challenges the audience to flash back and flash forward with her in time. We see her years before in a tryst with her boss; and years later in session with her therapist. Action jumps ahead to her deathbed, then back to her parents’ home in the 1940s, when she was just a baby.
From this we weave together the narrative of Mary Page Marlowe’s life: an alcoholic daughter of an alcoholic mother, her son who battles addiction, her family suffering the life of quiet desperation typical of many under the repressive social expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mary Page Marlowe displaces her unhappiness in drinking and love affairs. A DUI near-fatal accident sends her to jail, and ends her second marriage. Hitting the wall, she finally comes to terms with her drinking and her life. Marrying successfully, she is eventually widowed. Alone on her death bed, Mary Beth Marlow confesses to her medical attendant she is ready to go, and has come to terms with her life.
All that is easier said than done on stage, and the audience may struggle at times to follow the characters’ progress in this play which yearns to be a movie. It is clear why director Anna Shapiro, who is also artistic director, postponed a sabbatical just to work on this production, which rivals film in its creative presentation.
Co-starring in all this is the set (Todd Rosenthall) and Lighting (Marcus Doshi), which moves from scene to scene by sliding in rooms, and dropping in translucent partitions that shape-shift through projection and backlight. The effect is truly cinematic, with scenes dissolving, like artfully edited film. Letts may be showing the influence of Hollywood, having watched his masterworks August: Osage County (Meryl Streep and Sam Shepard) and Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) transfer from stage to screen.
The structure relegates the 21-member cast to largely extended cameo roles, but these carefully chosen performers really deliver. Along with the title actresses, two standouts were Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (Ed Marlowe), the very picture of a post-World War II young father; and Kirsten Fitzgerald (Shrink), who knows how to project her lines, and commands the stage.
Six actors portray Mary Page Marlowe: Blair Brown (Mary at ages 59, 63 and 69); Carrie Coon (Mary at ages 27 and 36); Laura T. Fisher (Mary at age 50); Caroline Heffernan (Mary at age 12); Annie Munch (Mary at age 19); Rebecca Spence (Mary at ages 40 and 44), along with three live infants who intended to rotate in the role. (It was unclear in a recent matinee if a real baby made the curtain time. Other ensemble members Ian Barford (Ray) and Alan Wilder (Andy), Amanda Drinkall (Roberta Marlowe), Jack Edwards (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Keith Gallagher (Ben), Sandra Marquez (Nurse), Ariana Venturi (Connie), Madeline Weinstein (Wendy Gilbert) and Gary Wilmes (Dan).
Mary Page Marlowe can be seen as a coming of age story, starring a Baby Boomer everywoman. Letts has also broken new ground, here, not just in the cinematic style of this play, but in examining to what extent we can reveal in our new relationships a life’s worth of baggage collected along the way.
In what may be the most revealing scene, the widowed Mary Beth Marlowe (Blair Brown) strikes up a conversation with a dry cleaning clerk Keith Gallagher as Ben) about restoring an old quilt – a conversation riddled with yearning, about nothing, and everything. Just like the play.
Cole Theatre’s adventurous production of The Bachelors takes an unsparing look deep into the male psyche. It is not always easy to watch.
It’s amazing how well playwright Caroline McGraw manages to capture the flavor of men’s behavior when they are away from women. (Was she hiding behind a couch?) Whatever the answer, this rising writer is as much the star in a challenging theatrical event that should not be missed. (It runs through April 10.)
The Bachelors plot carries little action in the conventional sense: three 30-something men are still living a frat style life, long past the period of respectability. The play reveals one of them has used a date rape drug to prey on a young woman, who is gagged and naked in an attic room - a shocking turn of events.
As the play opens, Laurie (Shane Kenyon in a very strong performance), returns from a Vegas business trip to find Kevlar (Nicholas Bailey) dead drunk on the floor, the house trashed. Laurie helps Kevlar sober up, when Henry, the third roommate, arrives.
As Henry appears (Boyd Harris excels as this menacing sociopath) we sense something is amiss. And these presentiments of danger unfold in the action. Henry is perturbed that Laurie has returned early, and that he has sobered up Kevlar. Henry has also drugged Kevlar, so he won’t learn about the woman in the attic, either.
Laurie’s early return throws a wrench in Henry’s nefarious plans. Laurie is intent on rescuing the woman in the attic. A brawl follows, and Henry beats up Laurie.
We should recognize these men as archetypes: Henry, alpha male with a cruel streak, is a biochemist; Laurie, feminist-male, is perpetually carrying the torch of unrequited love, and has just been fired from his sales job.
The third, Kevlar, is a narcissistic wastrel. His current emotional trauma kicks off the play: he can’t understand why his long-time love left him after getting a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis. The audience knows why: she doesn’t want to spend her remaining time with a guy like him, who could never commit, and provides little support.
McGraw’s portrait of these males reveals the toxic mix of their personalities. What shows isn’t pretty, and there is little to redeem the characters. Like fruit too long on the branch, they have gone from ripe, to fetid. As the play closes, a foreboding wind blows open the apartment door - hinting at a dark destiny.
The play is directed by Erica Weiss, and she has handled a difficult work well. McGraw's script has the characters shift from language that is realistic and natural, to soliloquoies that border on magic realism. One, a description of his lost love and the perfect girl, by Henry reels in the audience as they, and his roommates, realize this was someone who never existed. It's poetic.
In another long interlude Henry performs a dance that mimes the strutting (and aggravating) a male displaying his dominance among men. It seemed over-long, but perhaps that was the point.
The set is well-conceived, a kind of mindless squalor, with stairs suggesting those upper reaches that we don't want to see.
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