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Bill Esler

Bill Esler

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.  

You know it's been a strong performance when you find yourself cringing in your seat from the action onstage. Just such an evening I had watching Irish Theater of Chicago's In a Little World of Our Own.

This play by Gary Mitchell set during the Irish "Troubles" premiered in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement that year which put an uneasy end to the Catholic versus Protestant dispute in Northern Ireland. While memories may be fuzzy, the world at large - and the Irish neighborhoods of Chicago - were at the time emotionally and politically charged, and highly invested in the battles in Ireland. They still are invested.

The drama centers on an Irish Protestant family - less familiar terrain for Chicago - and incorporates a tense whodunit regarding a heinous murder, committed offstage, thankfully. Trapped in the claustrophobic community of one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious housing projects, family members wrestle with how to mete out justice on their own after one of three brothers is accused - the plot twists and turns as we try to determine what really happened on the evening in question. When the moment of truth arrives on The Den stage, I covered my head with my arms.

The production is a noble endeavor, and the Irish Theatre of Chicago continues its estimable mission in bringing us this staging. Directed by Associate Artistic Director Jeri Frederickson, and featuring ITC company members Jeff Duhigg, Matt Isler, Rob Kauzlaric, and Jodi Kingsley, this play will appeal to those who are willing to risk being challenged. One slight quibble would be in the Irish accented English, which performers mastered unevenly under coaching. Sometimes the playwright's language got lost in translation.

By way of background, in Northern Ireland, the British army was charged with keeping the peace, but neither Catholic nor Protestants trusted justice could be found through formal means - and so they took justice into their own hands. As the action unfolds at the Den Theater, we watch a Protestant family struggling with such a dispute - and not wanting to involve the formal authorities. In a Little World of Our Own holds up, after all this time, as a portrait of a society in dissolution - showing us the dire consequences for a community that has made its peace with such rough justice.

A quarter century before the play's premiere, the Bloody Sunday incident took place, in which 14 people were killed by British soldiers during a protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. (It was around that time, in 1971, that Paul McCartney recorded his protest song, "Give Ireland Back to the Irish.")

From the late 1960s until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Ireland's "Troubles" - the political and social antipathy between the Catholic minority and Protestant majority in Northern Ireland - had a strong hold on the world's attention, and especially on Chicago, the largest Irish American city. Interventions and negotiations over the years have reduced the tensions in Northern Ireland to a largely uneasy peace.

These matters are far from settled. There are still 4,000 protest marches held each year by Catholic and Protestant groups in Northern Ireland, population 1.8 million. Playwright Gary Mitchell, who won the Belfast Drama Award, and the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best New Play for the work in 1998, was forced from his home in Rathcoole, Belfast in 2005, after it was attacked by Loyalist [loyal to British rule] paramilitaries. He now lives with his family in a secret location.

The Compass, a powerful Steppenwolf for Young Adult premiere, concerns an Entrepreneur (Tim Hopper) who has launched the Compass app, a seemingly harmless and fanciful social media tool aimed at saving users the nuisance of worrying over minor decisions, like which shirt to wear today. 

Trouble ensues, however, when Marjan, a high school senior (played by Ariana Burks) follows the guidance of the Compass app in committing a crime: She calls in a false bomb threat at her school. This is a felony - albeit perpetrated in this case to avert likely violence. 

The action of The Compass turns on a subsequent trial. And it is here that The Compass rises to a very engaging two hours. If theater is society's way of holding a live debate with itself, the impact of social media is high on the list of topics. And The Compass does that with an inventive theatricality - one that will appeal audiences of all ages. Through it's multiple levels, we get a kind of Minority Report meets 12 Angry Men - and an encounter for all of us with ideas that matter.

Two years in development, The Compass was not "scripted" but instead "devised" by director Michael Rohd. Over the past two seasons, Steppenwolf for Young Adults hosted a series of "Project Compass" events aimed at engaging multi-generational theater audiences in a dialog about what goes into making a decision, and how we are each guided by our own moral compass. 

The team even researched with Google, which affirmed the feasibility of an app like Compass - which scans a user's total online behavior to predict choices for him or her going forward. From that arises another the crux of the play's topicality: What is our obligation to make sure we are guided by our own sense of right and wrong, and not to be driven by the prevailing winds frequently expressed through social media? 

Steppenwolf can benefit as well, through all this, using this as a focus group, helping it to devise a type of theater that could appeal to the next generation of ticket buyers. 

The feedback from the pre-show events played a major role in the structure of the play - which is decidedly multi-media and driven by audience participation. Big screens display the feeds from the characters' social media feeds, and far from distracting, seem naturally to advance the actio of the performance. The play also jumps back and forth in time; and 

 

actors play multiple characters, variously from perches above the stage, on jumbo video screens, and even in the aisles. All the shape and time shifting flows pretty seamlessly.

In another departure from a standard staging, ten Facilitators are cast within the audience. Each one also plays a juror in the trial on stage, while periodically stepping off the boards to lead a section of the seating in a discussion on topics being discussed on stage. Actor Sean Parris did this winningly for our group.

Leading the conversation, and taking notes, these Facilitators return to the stage to argue their audience sections' viewpoints from the jury box, then vote guilty or not based on each group's feelings - adding to the investment ticket buyers have in the action. 

After jury deliberations reach a third day (a real-time time-lapse gets the idea across very well), Marjan is found guilty by the 10 jurors. The vote for  the 210 ticket holders is also rolled across the stage on a white board. We the audience at the Steppenwolf downstairs theater voted Marjan guilty, 126 to 94. So the action changes, based on the audience sentiment at each performance. 

The play is set in the near future (Elizabeth Warren is Vice President, the Compass app, widely adopted,  now offers 99 cent filters that turn it into a Beyonce-based advisor.) All of it is very believable - including a falling out between Hopper's Entrepreneur and his programmer Ada - played by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. The branding for the Compass app has been professionally developed - and rows of theater seats are emblazoned with it - further fostering the impression that we are in a real-world exercise.

The cast of The Compass also features Bryan Bosque, Cheryl Lynn Bruce,Jasmin Cardenas, Melissa DuPrey, Krystel McNeil, Johnathan Nieves, Abby Pajakowski, Sean Parris, Emilio G. Robles, Alejandro Tey and Lindsey Barlag Thornton.

The production team includes Courtney O'Neill (scenic design), Sully Ratke (costume design), JR Lederle (lighting design), Rick Sims(sound design), Joseph A. Burke (projection design) and David Masnato (content creator). Additional credits include Cassie Calderone (stage manager) and Jessamyn Fuller (casting).

Key to the craft of an actor is learning the lines. In a 70-minute solo show where the star talks non-stop, that's a lot to learn, let alone deliver convincingly, and compellingly.

Going well beyond that accomplishment, Manny Buckley is due accolades for his performance in American Blues Theater's "Looking Over the President's Shoulder."

Buckley has explored and developed his character, Alonzo Fields, who detoured from an intended opera career, to become the White house butler in chief, beginning during the Hoover administration and continuing for 21 years into the Eisenhower administration.

As the play opens, we meet Fields waiting in the evening chill at the bus stop. The play becomes a flash back through the time leading up to, and his years within, the White House. We hear it all from Fields' perspective, including encounters with Truman, Winston Churchill, and at the tail end, even Richard Nixon.

The movie, "The Butler," based loosely on the same autobiography from which this play is drawn [My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, Coward-McMann, 1960] extended the story to a period beyond Field's actual tenure. That Hollywood telling runs through the Johnson presidency, and minimizes Fields to an everyman in the shadow of historic figures surrounding him.

'Looking Over the President's Shoulder' stays truer both to the book, and to life the way real people live it. Fields shares his interior world, and in Buckley's solid performance, we are privy to his journey, one that is at once personal, and universal.

A Bostonian who hoped to become an opera singer, Field's job running a grocery store ends as the Great Depression looms. A temporary job as a servant for a wealthy family disappears as the Crash draws nearer, and though he has aspirations to a life in music, Fields sets aside those goals for a more practical route. Eyeing the bread lines and soup kitchens, Fields takes the bird in hand to become a White House domestic, thinking of it as a temporary stopping point. But it is this career in the White House that puts Fields in the heart of domestic and world affairs, and in proximity to greatness.

As spectators, we may even see Fields position as enviable. But living his life, Fields still longed for the path not taken, while in reality he is running up and down stairs with heavy trays and hustling to set the White House dinner table. 

As the play closes, Buckley has kept our attention with his portrayal of Fields - and establishes the moment of pathos. He is retiring from the White House, President Eisenhower wished him luck, and for all his years at the side of greatness, he is now just another man, waiting for a bus on a chilly night. 

Buckley conveys the perception we have of Fields as an even tempered man who was not caught up in the swirl of political and social excitement at the White House. He relates two of proudest moments: a performance by opera great Marion Anderson at the White House (Fields played a role in funding her musical training we learn); and his own performance, singing at the White House accompanied by another butler on piano. Though the President and his family were not present, Fields bears witness to his own moment of glory, taking satisfaction in it.

Buckley enlivens the performance, mimicking his famous employers - the dour, engineer Hoover; an ebullient Franklin Roosevelt and the high-pitched and exuberant Eleanor; the no-nonsense Harry Truman. Well directed by Timothy Douglas, this one-man show has two other performances that also special deserve special credit: the stage set (kudos to Brian Sidney Bembridge), and the light design (Mike Durst), both are powerful components in this show; as are props (Amanda Herrmann).

This production of "Looking Over the Presidents Shoulder" is well worth a visit to 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. (It's also something that school-age viewers might like.)  It plays through March 6 at  www.americanbluestheater.com

How much sex and booze can a Shakespeare staging stand? A lot, it turns out, as "Fifty Shades of Shakespeare" showed at its opening Feb. 5.

And it proves again that Shakespeare is so good a playwright that his language, and stage dynamics, cannot be denied - even with Juliette played by a comely bearded man in polkadot bathrobe (Zachary Lee Schley) to an "unconventionally handsome" Romeo (played in a gender reversal by Kelly Schmidt).

Evidence that "something 'wicked' this way comes [Macbeth]"  was littered about the cabaret at Lincoln Avenue's Fizz Bar: various sexual trivia cards, "spanking sticks" and gift bags from the Pleasure Chest adult emporium. All to let the audience know this would not be your father's Bard.

 

The (re)discovertheatre production calls it an "orgy of hilarious, powerful, and revealing explorations of gender roles, sexuality, kink, and relationships, all told through the bard's sexiest scenes."  It leans toward the hilarious and light-hearted, supporting the troupes' mission to make theater more casual. And that it was.

Awaiting the 8:00 performance, the audience, seated cabaret style, watched the actors running through bits, as they mingled and collected trivia that later made its way into improvised scene breaks. A fully stocked bar was open during the performance, and the audience was exhorted to visit continuously.

As the show unfolded so did its structure: 11 Shakespeare scenes from several plays (Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet) covered by four actors (Zach Schley, Kelly Schmidt, plus Shaina Schrooten and Jesse Hinton). Scenes ran five to seven minutes, with mostly pairs of actors.

Each piece was re-imagined from the original script, and given a name. "Virginity," (drawn from Act 1 Scene 1of All's Well that Ends Well,) finds Helena (Zach Schley) asking Parolles (Jesse Hinton) how to defend her virginity against the relentless efforts at her seduction by soldiers and men in general. This is artfully reimagined as a 1950s sex education film strip with Parolles as the lab-coated science prof in safety glasses dispensing know-it-all advice to the innocently persistent Helena, who knows better than to take it. This was one of the most fun scenes in the show.

"Pleasure," (drawn from Act. 2, Scene 4 of Measure for Measure) posed the players as a cat and dog with S&M overtones. Isabella (Schley) and Angelo (Hinton) made the action expressive of the text as Angelo jousted for dominance. Shakespeare played along. Angelo's "Show it all by putting on the destined livery," fit nicely with bondage props. Isabella's "I have no tongue but one," fit the moment on stage, though probably not as the author intended.

For Shakespeare purists, how does performing in a bar measure up? A case could be made this approach very much matches the original intent of the playwright, whose work was served up in tavern courtyards, along with mead and wine. And as is generally known, men played the women's roles in Shakespeare's time. (Charles II ended that, as the 2004 movie "Stage Beauty" relates.)

For some scenes portrayed with more physicality than speech, the words got lost. And the show relies on a familiarity with the material to get what Shakespeare's original intent was, and the riff that we are witnessing. The opening night audience was keeping up and laughing steadily, so the performers were connecting.

That said, these are serious Shakespearians, and at times the intensity of the material took charge. In "More the Man," Shaina Schrooten as Lady Macbeth and Kelly Schmidt as Macbeth captured the essence of the scene and the power of the language.

"The Cause" with Othello (Hinton) and Desdemona (Schley) took the floor to high seriousness.

The witches scene from Macbeth plays the language for all its worth as the witches (Hinton, Schley, Schmidt) writhe and squirm lecherously ("Open locks, whoever knocks"), then having placed a bondage mask on Macbeth (Shaina Schrooten), and binding his (her) hands, they disappear - true to the playwright, and the production, this scene should not be missed.

The cast switches roles evening by evening. So the experience will be a bit different depending on who plays whom. As an immersive experience and a fun, relaxing event - you will enjoy 50 Shades of Shakespeare.

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare features Jesse Hinton, Zachary Lee Schley, Kelly Schmidt*, and Shaina Schrooten*. The creative team for Fifty Shades of Shakespeare includes Janet Howe* (director / costume design), Molly Donahue* (assistant director / fight director), Paul Hovey (stage manager), Abby Gillette (assistant stage manager), Jack Wallace (text coach), Matt Wills* (sound design), Andrew Lund (choreographer), Laura Wiley (Lighting Designer), and Tristan Brandon (props design). Fifty Shades of Shakespeare was created and developed by Jess Shoemaker and (re)discover theatre.

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare will run February 5 - 28 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings at 8 pm— with additional 10 pm shows on February 12 and 13— at Fizz Bar (3220 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL). Tickets can be reserved at: rediscovertheatre.com/tickets

 

Playwright Neil LaBute earned a bad boy reputation early on, putting the spotlight on the extremely politically incorrect, while challenging audiences - and critics - along the way. 

In Vices & Virtues, his newest effort running at Profiles Theater, LaBute also stretches the performance format, queuing up twelve one-act 'playlets,' each with separate cast and directors, served up in two courses, intended to be viewed in two evenings. 

It it fun? In a word, yes. These bite-size theatrical plot lines are delicious, and laced with LaBute's signature sinister layer. The plot is sketched in inferences, as characters (the script calls some just "A" or "man") deliver commonplaces, then with an insidious slip of the tongue drop  bombshells: 

In Kandahar, a lone soldier addressing at length an unseen inquiry panel, dispassionately describes in gruesome detail the jealous rage in which he bayoneted his wife and shot up a soldier he suspected of being her lover.

In 10K, a young father (Tom McGregor) encounters and joins for an impromptu a young mother (Betsy Bowman, awesomely weird in the role), who reveals  unsettling details: she leaves her two-year-old home alone while running and shopping ("Is that horrible?" she asks); she may fancy calling a plumber over for sex. They almost pair up, but decide to leave it as a fantasy - for the moment, anyway. 

I'm Going to Stop Pretending finds two women at the end of a relationship. Why has it failed? We learn, eventually, the she (Brookelyn Hebert) was once a he, who changed sex to win other woman (Marie Wiegle) - a lesbian. The relationship fails when the object of his desire finally decides that she just doesn't like him (now her) as a person. 

Fans of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf will relish The Great War. A couple meet to split their property following the divorce. After some bitter, bitter cruel jousting, they both discover neither wants custody of their two young children, ages 8 and 10: "They will always be C students, and they will die of heart disease in their mid-60s," says the anything but doting mother. "I don't want them." Elizabeth Birnkrant is deliciously vicious; Brian Goodman plays the hapless schmuck.

LaBute may want to trim a minute or two from some of these pieces, which sometimes continued to hammer home their point well after it was delivered. But his star-power is clearly a performer magnet, with 20 screen-ready actors, all, really, so very good, and giving it their all. It's hard to imagine Hollywood won't be scouting this show. You should be, too.  

But four hours - two nights - in the theater is a big commitment. If you have to choose one, the Virtues set is a better value on a cost per character basis: eleven performers, versus nine actors in the Vices set.

Virtues also carries a likely portrait of the playwright in Swallowing Bicycles, about a scriptwriter battling a producer; and Good Luck in Farsi a backstage drama about mean-spirited competition between two actresses (Sarah Brooks and Sarah Ruggles) vying for the same role. But Vices wins out for sheer intensity and more fully realized characters. 

One may ask how much LaBute is too much. It wasn't. That is a testament - or really, a verification - that this is a serious playwright, whose work carries some of that flavor of Albee, Pinter, Miller, if the finest moments of these 11 works ultimately is distilled further. 

The audience is a party to a worthwhile experiment. The star power of LaBute, an accomplished screenwriter and even a bit of a Hollywood force, drew top talent to this effort. And they delivered. It's definitely recommended for those who love a real theater event. 

 

Riveting. Arresting. Barry Shabaka Henley's performance as Louis Armstrong in Court Theatre's one-man-show Satchmo at the Waldorf is surely one of the great stage performances delivered in Chicago - or anywhere, for that matter. 

Lone actors on stage can be dry - and we were only mildly curious about the real-life Louis Armstrong, among a handful of jazz performers who grew rich with his music. Born in 1901 in New Orleans, the son of a prostitute, Armstrong was the most important jazz improviser - the free-form restyling of a song's melodic line that is the essence of the form. 

But it is not Armstrong's music (there is really very little of it here) that makes this such enthralling theater. It's Henley, a popular television and movie actor who has starred against Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, played the manager in the biopic Ali (with Will Smith) and as a U.S. customs agent (with Tom Hanks) in Spielberg's Terminal

Henley would make a convincing Armstrong just sitting in a chair under a spotlight. His exacting impersonation of the trumpeter's low growl nails it. But as he spins the yarn that traces Armstrong's rags to riches life, Henley's skill as a story-teller (and credit here to Terry Teachout's script) draws in the listener.  

The one-man-act is also leavened (again thanks to Teachout) by the appearance of two other characters: Armstrong's Jewish manager Joe Glaser, who led him to fame and fortune. And Miles Davis, the more cerebral and far less kindly jazz trumpeter. Both are also played by Henley, who changes characters by a power of voice as dramatically as if he had changed costume.

Henley's performance as the conniving Glaser who outfoxed the mob, is really off the charts. Under contract to Glaser, Armstrong performed for Al Capone in his Chicago speakeasies.

Miles Davis felt Armstrong was a sellout, too cordial with the white establishment. But he did give him his due as a jazz innovator.

These two characters provide relief, and a useful counterpoint, to Armstrong's view of the world. Big credit is also due to Charles Newell's refined direction.

The one-man show wows regardless of whether you liked the music of Louis Armstrong, or even knew that this jazz player was a rock star celebrity before rock appeared.

His long career which blossomed in the post World War II era, and really took off, especially among white Southerners, during the Jim Crow period, as Teachout's book tells it. Louis Armstrong is known these days by students and followers of jazz, or from his standard, "What a Wonderful World." 

Satchmo at the Waldorf comes strongly recommended. It plays through February 7 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. www.courttheatre.com

 

In London Wall, Griffin Theater Company has mined a stage gem from the British theatrical vaults, giving John Van Druten's 1931 romantic comedy a serious treatment.

This production at The Den Theater also finds a well-written play, still fresh more than 85 years after its premiere - even with three acts and two intermissions that modern audiences supposedly won't tolerate.

But there is something about a well acted, skillfully directed, and very well cast production that keeps an audience in its seats, and returning after the breaks.

You might also be intrigued to see this play by the author of I Am a Camera -  the main source for he Broadway musical Cabaret. Van Druten also wrote the screenplay for a now-campy Bell, Book & Candle (James Stewart was the love interest for Kim Novak, a svelt 1960s Greenwich Village witch.)

Set in 1928, London Wall tracks the lives of law-firm stenographers in a London law firm. These poorly compensated women struggle to survive, and face a life shaped by the loss of so many men in the war, that young women cannot find a spouse, or a job that pays a decent wage.

That may seem like a downer, but the basic plot line - a young couple Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierrien) and Hec Hammond (George Booker) feel their way around obstacles to find romance - buoys our interest. So do the actors, mainly very, very strong in their roles.

Uncertainty about what kind of British accent may be delivered in a Milwaukee Avenue storefront is immediately dispelled as young clerk Birkinshaw (Michael Saguto) answers calls at the switchboard in convincing dialect. Likewise for the rest of the troupe, whose dress and styling are spot-on. Whoever cast them found just the right faces to fit the period.

The backdrop also makes this play high relevant to its time: women far outnumber men in the post WWI period. Employers and society at large still operate under the assumption that women will only remain on the job until they find a spouse. That model has disintegrated, and these women seeks careers, but owing to the times, dead-end jobs are their only option.

The play resonates, too, with the gender gap in compensation and glass ceilings - oh, and sexual harassment. The 1928 office of Windermere & Co. has its share of that, too, as  Brewer (Nick Freed) a despicable louse, puts the moves on every woman in the office. (Freed did such a good job I still don't like him.)

Central to the play is the world-weary and wise Miss Janus (Vanessa Greenway in a star turn). After 10 years in the office, when her ship does not come in (her beau sends a 'Dear Jane' letter and leaves the country) Miss Janus makes the best of it  by coaching the young women to make the best choices. She also challenges the office cad, Brewer - and in the script, Van Druten provides her with a wit to out-argue this lawyer.

Mr. Walker (Ed Dzialo), chief counsel at the firm, intervenes periodically as a voice of enlightened male reason - dispensing justice in the end - perhaps a stretch for the period, but a contemporary writer would have let the women settle the scores.

Playwright Van Druten reveals what these low-paid clerks must do for love or money. In one scene, a young Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierren) reveals to a wealthy dowager client (Mary Poole is really pretty sensational in the role) that her pay is just a pittance - just enough to rent a bed in someone's home.

When London Wall had its premiere in May of 1931 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, it stood out for its realistic depiction of office life. Playwright Van Druten may be having a standout moment, as this play was recently revived in London and in New York.

For those who love real theater and solid performances, London Wall is gets a strong recommendation. 

Crowdsourcing theater may be having its moment, as 500 script submissions competed for three slots in an evening of one-acts on the cozy stage at the Chicago Dramatists theater. Never mind this is the annual Pegasus Players high school competition. What they have wrought this time around is a delightful night in the theater by any standard.

Yes, there are a few uneven moments - I believe it a fundamental rule of theater not to leave the stage devoid of scenery and actors overly long (though it was opening night) - but these are strong first efforts.

 

The more sober drama, Our Little Secret, by Myka Buck, a senior at Kenwood Academy, opened the evening on a serious note. Two truly delightful comedies: The Adventures of FeRb by Brian Hayes of Taft High; and A Cup of Souls and One Grim Reaper, Please, by Keauna Piece, at Lane Tech, made the evening take flight.

The high caliber interpretation of the characters by a strong cast, and juiced up productions by energetic directors Ilesa Duncan, Lavina Jadhwani and Jason Fleece, mined the scripts for everything they had. Between cast and crew these three one acts were given the full treatment.

Myka Buck's Our Little Secret explores the ambivalence and guilt of teenage lesbian, Tommasina (Shadana Peterson), facing a moment of truth: the revelation to her mother (Danielle Rennalis) that her prom date is not only another girl, but has been her secret romantic steady for the past two years. The necessarily career-focused mother  is no caricature, but sympathetically drawn. (Dad, played by Chris Cinereski, is in jail, and won't be released until prom night.) When the truth comes out, Danielle is warmly embraced by Mom.

In the second show, Adventures of FeRb, director Jason Fleece's lively staging elicited loud guffaws for a stylized comedic piece. An ever-positive and positively determined high school Everyman, FeRb (Chris Acevedo), confronts the cliques (in their current flavors -  goths, B-boys, and nerds) only to find each dominated by a shape shifting nemesis, Bradly (played with abandon by Eric Gerard Walter). FeRb challenges, then vanquishes Bradly, freeing the students to just be friends.

The actors explored another side, as the casts from the first two plays turned ensemble (the cast also includes Erica Pezza and Brenann Stacker in multiple roles) for A Cup of Souls etc. Playwright Keauna Pierce suggests in a pre-show video that she was unfamiliar with live theater, and so wrote cinematically. . .challenging director Ilesa Duncan to change location from home, to hell, to heaven, and finally, a Paris cafe - but she did it. The glory of Chicago storefront staging! Chris Cinereski (left) and Shadana Patterson in A Cup Of Souls And One Grim Reaper, Please by Keauna Pierce, directed by Ilesa Duncan, part of Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 29th Young Playwrights Festival.

This plot line follows a newly minted but reluctant Grim Reaper (Chris Cinereski) on his first day harvesting souls. He quickly goes astray, binge-watching the cable show  Supernaturals and befriending his first victim. After an iPad wielding Devil intervenes (Will Kiley dominates his scenes) that soul and its owner head straight to hell. I really enjoyed Shadana Patterson's turn as God who sends the Grim Reaper back to the inferno to win back his friend.

These three shows, running through January 23, are winners in every sense of the word.

A note about Pegasus Theatre Chicago: The Young Playwrights Festival is a citywide playwriting competition that gives voice to Chicago high schoolers by teaching them to craft one-act plays. The winning teens join with professional directors and actors to workshop and stage their scripts as part of Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s main stage season. The second oldest such festival in the country, the competition enhances language arts, encourages independent, high-level thinking and strong personal values and influences career development for area teens. This 29th festival runs through January 23, 2016 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are currently available at www.PegasusTheatreChicago. org or by calling Ovation Tickets at (866) 811-4111.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015 07:00

DYNAMITE DIVAS IS EXPLOSIVELY GOOD

Here is a theater event that is so rich you cannot be disappointed. Anyone who attends Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women in Soul will be richly rewarded by the experience. In fact, it is so good, I would say run, don't walk, to the Black Ensemble theater to see it. (It runs through January 24.)

The premise of the play is self-admittedly thin: African-American multi-billionaire Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles, who directs, choreographs and designed costumes) has paid $2.5 million to each of four grande dames of soul - Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison, a real show-stealer) - who are to spend the day preparing for and then performing in a television special. 

 

Why just these four? Well, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Tina Turner were considered - but schedule conflicts kept them away. Besides, these four personalities are probably the only compatible mix, as we discover in the course of the show.

Why put on such a show? Mr. Maurice, who claims to have earned his wealth through his inventions  (e-mail, texting, touch-screens, and Botox!), wants to celebrate the musical accomplishment of these remarkable singers.

These actresses' divas, as personified by these exceptional performers, capture not just the singing style, but also the personalities of their real-life counterparts. And they, too, are mystified by Mr. Maurice's circumstances and motive.  "A black billionaire we've never heard of?"

While the set-up is ridiculous, the music, and the performers, are anything but. In his performance as Mr. Maurice, Rueben Echoles sets the stage with such an abundance of energy, that he truly casts a spell across the audience, forcing the room into a complete suspension of disbelief. That is theater! (And I don't say that lightly, after four decades in the audience.)

Though well paid, these divas - in their 70's - need to be coaxed to sing at first. An extra $50,000 finally breaks the ice, and Gladys Knight lets loose with "I've Got to Use My Imagination," her 1973 hit with the Pips. This offers an inkling of what is to come: Rashada Dawan captures that teary edge to Gladys Knight's voice throughout the night, and replicates the original convincingly - with the added power of being there live.

Now that the audience knows what to listen for, the next plot turn packs a punch using the Assimilator, a kind of holographic transporter used to call up greats of the past. First a phantasm of Billie Holiday alights on the stage and performs, really channels, Holiday's "God Bless the Child" - followed by almost equally powerful impersonations of Dinah Washington ("The Bitter Earth") and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam.")

As Mr. Maurice convinces each Diva to sing - beginning with first hits, and other career high points - the other three sing back-up. Music fills the 299-seat stage for what turns out to be a very short 2-1/2 hour run.

While each of these leading ladies is a powerful performer, and ably capture the singing style and phrasing of their diva, it is Shari Addison who most often seizes control of the stage - befitting her role as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As the most familiar personality, Franklin gives Addison more to work with. But in McCullough's Flack singing "Killing Me Softly;" or in Preston's Wilson doing the signature "Guess Who I Saw Today," to cite two examples, the stage, and the listeners, belong to those performers.

There are also live performances or video tributes to many other notables - Chaka Khan, Mary Wells, Patti Labelle - the list goes on. Beyonce Knowles also crashes the event, in person, asking why she isn't included in the diva pack, earning a dismissive retort from Aretha: "Do you think they will be singing 'Single Ladies' in 20 years? She also tells Beyonce, "We love your music, at least some of it."

With a rich supporting cast that includes Mr. Maurice's technicians Donald Craig Manuel (as Hubert) and Kyle Smith (as Youngblood), Dynamite Divas thrives on its six-man, all-star band: music director Robert Reddrick on drums, Justin Dillard on keyboard, Mark Miller on bass, Gary Baker on guitar, Dudley Owens on woodwinds, and Bill McFarland on trombone. These guys were versatile and solid as they ran through the years and genre of the divas. Backing Rhonda Preston's Nancy Wilson on "Guess Who I Saw," the performance was "live recording" quality.

Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women of Soul at the Black Ensemble Theater comes very highly recommended.

 

The Apollo Chorus has been performing Handel's Messiah since 1879 and they have it nailed. Singing through the 53 Bible passages Handel set to a Baroque score 250 years ago, it becomes quickly clear - three numbers in - as the choir sings its first part, who owns this performance: it's the Apollo Chorus. Performing and recording steadily through the years, this volunteer singing body is professional caliber. And largely as a result, this is a very satisfying Messiah - just right to kick off the holiday season. 

By the time the Apollo Chorus goes at it, we have heard the opening Sinfonia by the 28-piece orchestra assembled for the performance. The orchestra has all the essentials required for a strong Handel's Messiah: trumpeters ("A Trumpet Shall Sound"), timpani (essential to the Hallelujah Chorus), an organist (a fundamental underlay for the majesty of Handel's masterpiece); a harpsichord (like the organ, this is the house instrument at the Harris, built for Barbara Gaine's Music of the Baroque ensemble); and 20 string players, with Jeri-Lou Zike leading as concertmaster among the five first violinists. 

At this point we have also heard from tenor, William Hite (a Senior Lecturer in Voice at U. Mass in Amherst and frequent opera performer), the first of the soloists (in the recitative, "Comfort ye my people" and the air "Every valley shall be exalted.") He knows how to sing the part. 

The 120-member chorus then rises to its feet for "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.") It is signature Handel, and signals to the audience these singers both know the music, and know how to they want to deliver: purposeful and strong, with tightly controlled volume, and clear expression and phrasing. They are consistent throughout 

For those who have listened often to the Messiah, there are markers for style and quality: the tempo (is the Messiah to run fast or slow); soloists: will the basic trio of bass, tenor and soprano by joined by a mezzo-soprano, contralto, alto, or the increasingly popular countertenor? Will they use 18th century period instruments?

Messiah geeks go further, for example, stressing over the expression by singers and players of the ornamental grace notes that bring the trilling associated with baroque music in general. These free-form music indicators are subject to interpretation. 

The Apollo Chorus has made the choices that provide its audience with an accessible, enjoyable and up tempo Messiah, crisply delivered in a rapid 2 hours and 50 minutes including one intermission (and a five minute delay about 20 minutes in as latecomers were seated.)

Conducted last night by Steven Alltop, this Messiah also saves the fidgety members of audience from what can seem an interminable sitting for those who aren't regular baroque listeners.) It's fitting considering Handel wrote the piece from a libretto by Charles Jennens in just 22 days. 

We'll note that once in a while the spaces between passages seemed a bit too short. At certain points the silence between airs and recitative functions like a palate cleanser for the ear.  

The chorus sings with clarity - bring to mind the 300-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Apollo Choristers enunciate the language.   

The prominence of the chorus contrasts with the soloists, each skillful, but not making for a natural ensemble. Bass singer Sam Handley, a graduate of Lyric Opera's school, whose background indicates he is trending as an opera performer, warmed as the evening progressed. In his opening with "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts" he seemed a bit tenative - the Harris is a space that takes some adjustment for performers -  but by the time we reached the air "The trumpet shall sound," Handley's individual sections were generating excitement for this listener. (They say he leaves audiences "panting for more.")

Amanda Majeski has the volume and baroque technique down cold, and presented the soprano role in the Messiah with great strength. (She is a frequent performer at Chicago's Lyric Opera, where Majeski's work is described as  "shattering, star-making performance."

Likewise, Elisa Sutherland sang very well, in fact, with more warmth perhaps than Amanda Majeski. But she was certainly struggling with volume - and as a consequence the audience could not hear her well. Owing to this, when concertmaster Sikes accompanied her, the violin performance was in danger of overshadowing Sutherland. Being close up I can attest that she sang wonderfully, if too quietly for the space. 

Page 4 of 4

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