Theatre

Serious theatergoers may well want to see Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, which in 1935 won the first New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. Specializing in mining historic gems, Griffin Theatre Company’s production at The Den Theatre gives it the full Monty.

Though Winterset is a period piece, unlike 1930s works like Mother Courage or Waiting for Lefty, the social agenda in Anderson’s work doesn’t supersede the story. In this tragedy, the star-crossed lovers Mio (Maurice Demus) and Miriamne (Kiayla Ryann) suffer the slings and arrows of an ill-fated romance.  

The challenge for audiences made up of you and me is the language and structure. Written largely in verse, in three acts with two intermissions, Winterset is work to watch. The performances that director Jonathan Berry draws out carry the story well enough. But the language, especially Act I, is so stylized that I wondered if the playwright were really any good. He wrote the 1954 hit The Bad Seed, and in 1947 Anne of a Thousand Days - both also successful as films.

Winterset is another matter. Impossibly poetic lines are tossed into moments of climactic action. Actors sometimes resorted to continuously declaiming, or soaring away on wings of poetry, in their delivery. That being said, you can totally follow the story of young Mio, who wants to clear the name of his father, unjustifiably executed for a murder. Miriamne learns that her brother Garth (Christopher Acevedo) knows enough to clear Mio’s father. But he is intimidated from doing so when two accessories to the murder arrive: Trock (John Odor conjures up Killer Joe) and Shadow (Bradford Stevens as Trock’s ominous partner).

Norm Woodel in his supporting role as Esdras has the vocal skills to overcome Maxwell’s challenging script, putting cadence, timber, emphasis and whatever else the pros know into delivering lines greatly. And Larry Baldacci as Judge Gaunt also has the seasoning to carry it off. But this is a tough script for today.

The retro industrial set by Joe Schermoly is a standout. Despite the constraints of space, Schermoly has created a properly noir environment with backlit fog (lighting by Alex Ridgers). The stage tilts forward, with huge steam pipes that fit the script and are so convincing I thought they were part of the Milwaukee Avenue loft building that Den calls home. Schermoly’s recent credits include Steppenwolf’s Constellations and Victory Gardens Hand to God – all very different and all very creative. 

In its time, Winterset was celebrated for its topicality. Audiences did not miss parallels to efforts to exonerate Sacco & Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants executed for murder in 1927, in a case that resonates with today’s social activist movements. In real life, nearly every major city on the globe saw protests in 1927 in support of the two. That subtext combined with the romantic tragedy was boffo at the box office. Ticket buyers ponied up to keep the retelling the tale in Winterset's 190-performance run on Broadway.

This show is recommended. See Winterset at the Den Theatre through December 23, 2016.

Published in Theatre in Review

Hordes of swarming, diving birds are attacking a cabin in Somewhere, America -- and, we later assume due to dead radio noise and a major power blackout, the entire country -- while two strangers seek shelter and safety within its walls. They don't know why the birds are attacking but they've seen enough carnage to know stepping outdoors during the beak- and talon-filled ambushes every six hours at high tide means undoubtedly walking into their own deaths. They pass the hours by talking, learning about each other, reading, writing, and most pressingly, discussing their survival. Food is scarce, they have no working transportation, and there's no electricity.

When a third party enters the scene seeking refuge, the two unhesitatingly take her in. The group dynamic now changed, suspicion and mistrust seep into the threesome's thoughts and behavior like an intravenous disease. The silence and long, drawn-out hours don't give the characters the opportunity to ruminate over their regrets, worries, and doubts so much as shove them into a dark, smothering heap of them.

While most of us are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 cinematic horror masterpiece, and maybe less of us with the novellette by Daphne du Maurier, I had never heard of this story being put to the stage. Adapted by acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Griffin Theater Company's The Birds is an entirely original story set in the apocalyptic universe created by du Maurier and later expanded upon by Hitchcock. The play is less about the literal horrors caused by insane, vicious birds attacking as much as the metaphorical: What would we do to survive? In what ways would we change if society collapses? Would our values regress if nobody is there to enforce rules and keep score? What are we capable of? As The Birds will show, the monsters outside are no match for the ones lurking inside.

The Birds is playing at Theater Wit Thursdays through Sundays until July 19th. Visit theaterwit.org for tickets.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 00:00

Sail On Titanic!

Griffin Theatre Company has taken on the feat of recreating the Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Launching this production in a much more intimate space at Theater Wit, the audience gets a real close up feel to the action and is able to capture the bevy of emotions delivered first hand. Scott Weinstein directs Griffin’s Titanic with intensity, giving this production a true feel of tragedy and humankind.

We are all familiar with Titanic’s maiden voyage that where the luxury passenger liner launched from Southampton, UK and sank in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912 after hitting an iceberg on its way to New York City. In Peter Stone’s Titanic, we join the excitement prior to the ships fateful launch where the ship is boasted as the largest and fastest passenger sea vessel that also comes with the tag “indestructible”. Families, friends and crew members are giddy with enthusiasm and anticipation as projected so well in the show’s magnificent opening number “In Every Age”. After Titanic’s triumphant departure, we are taken to both the luxurious world of the ship as well as that of the lesser class. In its five day voyage, we are taken to ballroom extravaganzas, fine dining and also to the far less glamorous galleys and crew quarters.

All the while the good Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch look to steady the course but do so under the pressure of ship owner White Star Line to increase its speed in order to break the speed record to cross the Atlantic. Finally, on a dark and quiet night, lookout Frederick Fleet notified Murdoch of an iceberg due ahead, but it was too late to maneuver, the ship receiving a 300-foot gash in its side, doomed to sink in the frigid waters. In all the panic and commotion we learn that there are only enough lifeboats to save a third of the ship’s passengers. Ultimately only 700 or so of the Titanic’s 2224 passengers would survive, the rest condemned to a watery grave.

In Griffin’s Titanic, we get a real sense of devastation after what is at first denial (after all they are on an indestructible ship). We see the blame game shifted between architect, White Star Line and the Captain. It is an interesting dynamic as we see both unbridled selfishness and unselfishness between the passengers as some are intent on saving themselves while some are more interested in trying to help others.

The set, though simple, converts well from ship deck, to dining hall and living quarters, to ship exterior. The music is strong and heartfelt (also newly reworked). Many numbers are memorable, seizing the essence of the situation so very well such as “I Give You My Hand”, “To Be a Captain”, “I Have Danced” and “God Lift Me Up”. We also get a number of excellent acting performances in the large cast of twenty, making this a very solid production that has everything you would want in a musical tragedy.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Titanic is a high seas adventure you will not soon forget. It’s a big show in a smaller theatre. This warm and stunning production is being performed at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont) through December 7th and tickets are priced at a very worthwhile $39. For more information, you can visit www.griffintheatre.com. 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 00:00

Men Should Weep at Raven Theatre

The Scottish city of Glasgow wallows in economic depression, as this laborer’s family struggles through the hardships of basic survival. “All we’ve done wrong is to be born into poverty,” the father says in comforting the overworked wife wrapped in his arms. A crash look into the real housewives of Glasgow circa 1930, overcrowded and unsanitary apartments, unfaithful relationships, being unemployed and broke, rebellious teenagers, and human rights verse human cruelty clash in this epic three-act play at Edgewater’s Raven Theatre.

A complex tale of interweaving lives, Robin Witt impeccably directs a strong cast in the creation of this fast-moving family drama, sure to be a summer hit! Touching on many modern issues, this story carries its audience through a roller coaster of fears and tenderness: the joys of raising children, the sorrows of disaster befalling loved ones. Family, even society, pull together as economic struggles break them apart.

Especially touching is the graceful performance of Lori Myers playing Maggie Morrison, the matriarch who leads her family through this desperate saga. She clings to love although gossip, fighting, rejection, and illness nearly break her heart in two. A masterful portrayal, Myers carries the show with a touch of genius, inviting the audience to share her trauma and rejoice in her triumphs. 

Great talent work in Chicago, nowhere more so than in this production.  A slice of life, featuring excellent costuming by Kate Murphy and ingenious audio effects by Victoria Deiorio contribute to making this charming production an evening that leaves its audience with hope and enjoyable entertainment.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Men Should Weep runs July 5 to August 10 at 7:30pm at the Raven Theatre Complex, 6157 N Clark St in Chicago. The show runs 2:40 with two 10 minute intermissions. Tickets are available at www.griffintheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

Twitter@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

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