Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes leading up to opening night at the theater? Do you have any idea how much detail goes into a stage production? Can you imagine the funny moments that could take place while building a set or rehearsing lines? Do directors really get as frustrated as we hear?
Theater Wit brings to the stage the latest, and possibly most innovated, work by author Anne Washburn 10 Out of 12. A headset rests on each seat in the theater for audience members to wear as they become engulfed the midst of tech rehearsals just one week prior to a production opening. We hear random chatter and instruction from the stage crew as 10 Out of 12 gives us an in-depth view of the goings on behind the scenes of mounting a show. Burns, known most recently as the playwright behind Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play that found a successful run at Theater Wit in 2014, delves into the high stress that comes with detailing theater specifics such as lighting, cues and prop placement while also touching on actor stereotypes, tantrums and the desire in some to hold their work to a standard that demands integrity.
“No one in Chicago has ever seen anything like 10 Out of 12. Simultaneously exacting real-to-life and riotously funny, Anne Washburn’s detonation of a single technical rehearsal is promising to be a unique and thrilling viewing experience,” said Jeremy Wechsler, Artistic Director of Theater Wit and director of 10 Out of 12.
We watch as the production team fastens bolts to secure the set, samples the lighting and sound from scene to scene, place each mark to the director’s satisfaction and amuse themselves during down time. We see actors rehearsing their lines, suggesting where changes might be made (usually to the director’s chagrin). In our headsets we get a real feel for the high levels of demand that must be met along within a time crunch that increases by the minute. We also hear stage hands discussing their lunch and such, along with occasional side remarks about what is transpiring on the set. The fourth wall is often broken with actors using the aisles and theater as though an audience were not present, the director and actors often taking a seat amongst us to watch their handiwork from a patron vantage point.
The production as a whole is a truly inimitable experience and provides an insight to theater that most may not be familiar with, adding a new appreciation for the art. Upon leaving the theater many discuss how they’ve had no idea the work and precision involved in mounting a play, making 10 Out of 12 an informative piece – perhaps also an homage to those behind the scenes.
Star Chicago theater personalities are recruited to provide pre-recorded roles such as John Mahoney, Martha Lavey, Barbara Robertson and Jeremy Wechsler, Mahoney delivering some of the play’s funniest lines. The stage cast also packs a punch with Erin Long, Adam Shalzi, Dado, and Riley McGliveen as the production team, Shane Kenyon as The Director, and Eunice Woods, Gregory Fenner, Christine Vrem-Ydstie, Kyle Gibson and Stephen Walker as the actors. Walker, taking advantage of several moments to shine in only the way he can in delivering highly-charged monologues with just the right amount of entitlement and sardonic flair as the veteran actor brought in to bring credence to the production. Walker’s character questions the truthfulness in his character, conflicted by his passion for honest art, which he feels is losing its grip in modern day theater.
So what does the title 10 Out of 12 mean? A 10 out of 12 is a day in which, per the rules of Actors Equity, the actors are contracted to work for 12 hours with one 2-hour dinner break. It’s during that time that all the designing elements of the production are united as a whole, as costumes, sound, lighting, projections, set and acting are fine-tuned just prior to a show’s opening.
When asked why she wrote a play about a tech rehearsal, Washburn descriptively states, “A decade ago most theaters didn’t have Wi-Fi…and no one is more useless in tech than the playwright. So, I began taking notes. I was fascinated by the strange surreal interplay of light and music. I loved the mysterious technical languages being used around me, the rhythmic drone of the calling light and sound cues. I liked watching the actors freed from their normal self-consciousness. I liked the low continual volume of play which bubbled up throughout the tech as a desperate counterpoint to the long periods of tedium and waiting. And the endless snacking, and discussion of snacking.”
Throughout the production we hear small talk between the techs – everyday musings that are often quite humorous. We also hear the actors talking hopefully about getting their big break, but also turning down roles for the sake of integrity. At one point the leading actress asks the stage manager if she can leave early to audition for a role in a pilot. We have entered the world of theater.
As much as this often funny and revealing play is a fantastic chance to catch the inner-workings of theater production, it misses a few opportunities that were begging for the injection of timely humor, at points drifting away only to grab the audience again just in time. It would also have been nice if the script called for a larger role from Mahoney, whose well-timed remarks were almost always met with crowd laughter. Notable was the play’s pace, perhaps running about thirty minutes too long (two and a half hours plus intermission), making the thought of a slightly condensed version somewhat appetizing. Washburn's story nicely envelopes the stresses, complications and rewards in theater production.
Still, there is much to like in 10 Out of 12, the good outweighing the bad by significant measure. One should expect a fun lesson in Theater Production 101 that is coupled with fine acting performances and enough humor that insures an overall pleasant experience. The headsets are a nice touch, giving audience members an opportunity to feel at times as though they were part of the production team.
10 Out of 12 is being performed at Theater Wit through April 23rd. For tickets and/or more show information click here.
"The Wiz" is a perfect collision of disco and show tunes. Appearing on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Though it was not the first all-black production on Broadway, the cross-over appeal of its music made it a sensation. A few years later it was adapted for film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horn. The film is considerably different than the stage version, for the worse.
Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" accentuates all the enduring qualities of the show while adding some modern flare of its own. This has to be the hardest working cast in Chicago right now. For two and a half solid hours director Lili-Anne Brown's cast of talented singers and dancers fill the space with an infectious energy. Sydney Charles as Dorothy is cute and brings a sense of humor to the character, her soaring vocals come to an inspiring crest during "Home." Though, it may well be Frederick Harris in the titular role (in fabulous drag no less) who walks away with the evening's biggest laughs. There's not a sour note in this production and each song is either a powerhouse ballad or a funky dance number.
One of the show's many pleasant surprises is the costuming and overall aesthetic. This is highly conceptualized version that suits the intimate space at Theatre Wit. Borrowing from 90s-era TLC and blending it with today's street fashion, costume designer Virginia Varland creates a very stylish motif in an otherwise minimal set. The ensemble looks as great as they sound.
Lili-Anne Brown doesn't complete her update of "The Wiz" with costumes alone. There's some fairly edgy humor written into this production, including a nod to the prevalence of police brutality cellphone videos. This version of "The Wiz" is how it was originally intended to be–for adults. What the movie and the NBC live version miss is a lot of the grown-up humor in the script. After all, this is an urban contemporary version of the Wizard of Oz, it should be cheeky. Miss Brown's vision for Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" is a lot of fun and keeps its source material relevant.
Through April 16th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150
"The Temperamentals" by Jon Marans makes its Chicago premiere at About Face Theatre. Artistic director Andrew Volkoff revisits this 2009 Off-Broadway play in a critical time for LGBT rights in America. This play was selected for their season long before the election, but serves to remind that the struggle for equality is not over.
"The Temperamentals" refers to a slang term for homosexuals in the 1950s. It tells the true story of the Mattachine Society, the first LGBT rights group in America. Kyle Hatley plays Harry Hay, a closeted college professor working on behalf of gay rights. The Mattachine Society is formed when he meets Rudi Gernreich (Lane Anthony Flores). Gernreich is an up-and-coming designer who escaped the Nazis in Austria. His observations about life under the Third Reich inspires Harry Hay to action.
Maran's script shines in the way it intertwines the historic plotline with authentic relationship dramas between characters. Alex Weisman plays Bob, the promiscuous one, with such sincerity even while cycling through several bit parts. Lane Anthony Flores gives a brave and dynamic peformance as chic European designer Gernreich. Also featuring Rob Lindley and Paul Fagan, About Face has assembled an all-star cast for this vital piece.
Many think that gay activism started at Stonewall, but what "The Temperamentals" documents is the West Coast movement that began in the 1950s. The Mattachine Society was pitched to influential closested homosexuals in Hollywood, like Vincent Minnelli, but failed to garner mainstream interest for fear of blacklisting. Its intention was to decriminalize homosexuality.
Jon Maran's play is sexy and stylish. It echos of Larry Kramer and that's what theater needs right now. It's a nearly three hour wake up call to a generation who takes advantage of the privileges fought for by activism.
Through February 18 at About Face Theatre. Theatre Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave.
CHICAGO, December 22, 2016 - Chicago theater luminaries Martha Lavey, John Mahoney, Barbara Robertson and Peter Sagal will play key roles in Theater Wit's much anticipated Midwest debut of 10 Out of 12, the newest, most adventurous work by Anne Washburn, author of Wit's 2014 smash hit Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.
Hailed by the New York Times as a "wholly original love song to the maddening art of the theater," 10 Out of 12 is an extraordinarily funny and touching workplace comedy. With its story of the challenges of bringing a new play to life, Washburn'snear-perfect recreation of a technical rehearsal is also a moving tribute to the complexity and beauty of human endeavor.
"No one in Chicago has ever seen anything like 10 out of 12. Simultaneously exactingly real-to-life and riotously funny, Anne Washburn's detonation of a single technical rehearsal is promising to be a unique and thrilling viewing experience," said Jeremy Wechsler, Artistic Director of Theater Wit and director of 10 Out of 12.
"This is the most technically extravagant piece of design we've ever done at Theater Wit," he added. "For instance, armed with 98 individual headsets, our audience will get to experience the play in three distinct auditory spaces simultaneously. As a special bonus, Anne is working with us to customize the play to our city's own rich theatrical history (and contemporary reality), which is going to provide an immediacy and context that will make 10 out of 12 a must-see show for every Chicago theatergoer who loves Chicago Theater."
Performances are March 3-April 23, 2017: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Press opening is Tuesday March 14 at 7:30 p.m. Exceptions: Sunday previews on March 5 and March 12 are at 7 p.m. There is no performance on March 16.
Theater Wit is located at 1229 N. Belmont Ave., in the heart of the new Belmont Theatre District in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Tickets are $12-$70. To purchase tickets, a Theater Wit Membership or Flex Pass, visit TheaterWit.org or call 773.975.8150.
Behind the scenes of
10 Out of 12
10 Out of 12 will feature the recorded voices of a clutch of Chicago on stage icons cast in key backstage roles:
Former Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey will voice the lighting designer.
John Mahoney, best known for TV's Frasier, will play back stage crew person #3.
Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, is the sound designer.
Noted Chicago classical actor Barbara Robertson will voice the costume designer.
At every performance, each audience member will be given their own headset to hear their pre-recorded backstage chatter, mixed in real time with live actors on stage for a very meta look at seemingly the most mundane of processes and the hopes and visions that emerge from the 10 hours commonly known as "tech."
On stage, one of the city's edgiest storefront theater pioneers, Dado, takes on the role of the stage manager. Dado is joined by Gregory Fenner as Jake, an actor; Kyle Gibson as another actor, Ben; Shane Kenyon as the director; Erin Long as the assistant stage manager; Riley McIlveen as electrician #2, Adam Shalzi as assistant director; Stephen Walker as the troublesome lead actor, Paul; Eunice Woods as supporting actor, Siget; and Christine Yrem-Ydstie as the female lead, Eva.
For a show that pulls the curtain on the tech process, major props are due for Wit's production team: Adam Vesness (set), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Diane Fairchild (lights), Brenda Didier (choreography), Andra Velis-Simon (original music and music director), Joe Court (sound), Vivian Knouse (props), Greg Pinsoneault (scenic charge), Andrew Glasenhardt (technical director), Kristof Janezic (master electrician) Majel Cuza (production manager) and Katie Klemme (stage manager).
Anne Washburn (playwright) play, Mr. Burns...a post electric play, was produced by Theater Wit, Playwrights Horizons, Woolly Mammoth (DC) and The Almeida (London). Her other plays include Antilia Pneumatica, The Internationalist, A Devil at Noon, Apparition, The Communist Dracula Pageant, I Have Loved Strangers,The Ladies, The Small and a transadaptation of Euripides' Orestes. Awards include the 2015 Whiting Award, 2015 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation Theater Award, the Guggenheim, a NYFA Fellowship, a Time Warner Fellowship, Susan Smith Blackburn finalist, and residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. She is an associate artist with The Civilians, Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, Chochiqq, and is an alumna of New Dramatists and 13P.
Jeremy Wechsler (director) most recently staged Theater Wit's workshop of Mitchell Fain's This Way Outta Santaland and the extended Midwest premiere of Mat Smart's Naperville. Other directing credits at Wit include the company's election night reading of The Trump Card by Mike Daisey, The New Sincerity by Alena Smith, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George, Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, Madeline George's Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, and that show's summer remount at Art Square Theatre in Las Vegas. Wechsler also staged Wit's acclaimed Completeness and The Four of Us (Itamar Moses), Tigers Be Still (Kim Rosenstock), This (Melissa James Gibson), Spin (Penny Penniston), Feydeau-Si-Deau (Georges Feydeau), Men of Steel (Qui Nguyen), Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) (Will Eno), Two for the Show (James Fitzpatrick and Will Clinger) and The Santaland Diaries. A veteran director in Chicago with over fifty productions, his work has been nominated for and won multiple awards for design, performance, adaptation and best new plays.
About Theater Wit
Theater Wit, Chicago's "smart art" theater, is a major hub of the Chicago neighborhood theater scene, where audiences enjoy a smorgasbord of excellent productions in three, 99-seat spaces, see a parade of talented artists and mingle with audiences from all over Chicago.
"A thrilling addition to Chicago's roster of theaters" (Chicago Tribune) and "a terrific place to see a show" (New City), Theater Wit is now in its sixth season at its home at 1229 N. Belmont, in the heart of the new Belmont Theatre District in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.
The company's most recent hits there include Naperville by Mat Smart, The New Sincerity by Alena Smith, Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence and Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England by Madeleine George, andCompleteness and The Four of Us by Itamar Moses.
In 2014, Theater Wit was awarded the National Theatre Award by the American Theatre Wing for strengthening the quality, diversity and dynamism of American theater. Theater Wit also brings together Chicago's best storefront companies at its Lakeview home, including 2016-17 resident companies About Face and Shattered Globe.
In addition to its popular Membership program, Theater Wit also offers a 10-play Flex Pass for $215 to anything presented in the building, a savings of up to 40%. To purchase a Theater Wit Membership, inquire about a Flex Pass or to buy single tickets, visit TheaterWit.org or call 773.975.8150.
To receive an "artisanal selection of consonants and vowels from Theater Wit," sign up at TheaterWit.org/mailing for exclusive updates, flash deals and behind-the-scenes production scoop every few weeks.
When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!”
Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.
Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!
Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”
He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?" Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!"
Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?
Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!
Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that!
Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself.
In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet.
Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.
In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not.
We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside.
Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.
The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke.
Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time".
As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.
The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.”
It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own!
Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.
Underscore Theatre and Harborside Films hearkens back to a simpler time, when the biggest national tragedy was a young Olympic figure skater getting clubbed in the knees. The year was 1994 and the world couldn't get enough of Tonya Harding versus Nancy Kerrigan. Some twenty-two years later, this scandal is ripe fodder for a campy rock opera.
Written by Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli, "Tonya and Nancy" is exactly what it sounds like. A sharp, 90 minute campfest akin to "Mommie Dearest." There's no dressing this up as anything other than satire. It almost feels like an extended SNL sketch, but that's not to say it's not interesting. It's questionable how much of this skate tale is true, but it certainly serves to humanize both Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
Since this is billed as a rock opera, the soaring vocals make good sense. In the role of wrong-side-of-the-tracks Tonya Harding is Amanda Horvath, and she lands it well. Despite everything, Horvath's performance gives Harding some extra layers. She's also hilarious. Courtney Mack co-stars as Nancy Kerrigan. Mack also has a tremendously strong voice and it comes across in such campy songs as "Why Me?" While the show may be about two figure skaters, Veronica Garza actually steals the show playing dual-characters, Tonya and Nancy's moms. She seems to relish in playing Tonya Harding's down-on-her-luck mom, and the audience eats her spot-on accents right up. Garza also has an impressive voice.
Director Jon Martinez's choreography stands out as a high point in a show about ice skating that doesn't actually feature any ice skating. It's almost a surprise to see so many group dance numbers in a small space. In fact, the show features ensemble members in a perpetual state of motion which adds a nice visual element. It pairs well with all the lyrcra costuming, which reminisces of a thankfully bygone era.
For those entering this fray with some skepticism, approach this work with confidence. "Tonya and Nancy" is highly polished and well-staged. There's some real potential here. The show may be a little crowded with solos, but otherwise this is a solid script. It's always fun to see a new musical in its debut production.
Through December 30th at Theatre Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150.
In 2002, About Face Theater company debuted Doug Wright's play "I Am My Own Wife." It opened on Broadway in 2004, and won both the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Tony award for Best New Play. About Face Theater and director Andrew Volkoff revisit the play twelve years later in an eerily relevant political climate. In it, Wright tells the story of the time he spent in Berlin with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf during the early '90s.
Mahlsdorf was the subject of international fame after publishing her autobiography and being awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz by the German government. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf established The Grunderzeit museum, it housed her collection of historical items spanning decades of German history. Her most unique attribute is that she was a transvestite and managed to survive the nazis and the communists.
Playwright Doug Wright turned his interview notes into a mostly one-woman show. His character is played here by Scott Duff and functions as the narrator. Charlotte is portrayed by real life transgender actress Delia Kropp. In little stories about the antiques in her museum, Charlotte reveals more about herself. During both authoritarian regimes, gay people were persecuted. Each item is in some way connected to preserving the history of Germany's lgbt community.
Volkoff's production is sleek and well dressed. The lighting design by John Kelly adds a nice dimension to this otherwise minimal staging. Delia Kropp gives a fascinating performance. Charlotte labeled herself as a transvestite and never opted for sexual reassignment surgery. Delia portrays her with soft androgyny. Kropp's authenticity in voice and mannerism is striking. Her lengthy passages of monologue illuminate the imagination.
It's by no accident About Face selected "I Am My Own Wife" for their season. As the political tides turn, some lgbt communities are worried their legitimacy may be less certain. Doug Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a reassuring testament to everyday heros. As his character says in the play, "I need to believe this."
Through December 10th at Theater Wit - 1229 W Belmont. 773-975-8150.
In a Sam Shepard play, rarely are things what they seem. His 1980 play "True West" is no exception. Under the direction of James Yost, Shattered Globe Theatre tackles this modern classic. "True West" is often considered part of a family saga by Shepard that includes his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner "Buried Child."
Austin and Lee are two brothers who couldn't be more different. Austin (Kevin Viol) is an upstanding writerly type who we first meet hunched over a typewriter in his mother's kitchen. Lee (Joseph Wiens) is his hulking older brother with a checkered past. Austin is working on a script in his mother's house while she's on vacation. Hoping for some peace and quiet, he's interrupted by Lee whom he hasn't seen in five years. Over the course of Act I, we watch as Lee and Austin battle for superiority through frustratingly inane questions. The moment of reckoning comes when Lee highjacks Austin's meeting with an important Hollywood executive.
What the play points to in American culture is that bullies win. Bullies get what they want and being a polite makes you weak. This theme couldn't be more relevant as we look to a certain unpresidential candidate running for president this year. No matter how much evolution we have to the contrary, human nature is that the strongest eat first. Austin and Lee can be interpreted as two parts of the same mind. Shepard often opines on the perception of masculinity. "True West" explores the duality we all possess.
There's a special place in Chicago's theater community for "True West." It was one of the first out-of-town successes of a then fledgling theater company, The Steppenwolf. Gary Sinese and John Malkovich starred in the principal roles. It transferred off-Broadway in 1984 and helped establish The Steppenwolf as one of the best regional theaters in America.
Director James Yost's vision for this show is faithful. The set by Greg Pinsoneault drops us right into 1980. Sarah Jo White's costumes are also very authentic. Performances are this production's strongest asset. Kevin Viol's breakdown between Act I and II is hilarious. While Joseph Weins' character stays mostly static throughout the play, his commitment to the grossness of extreme masculinity echos Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi. Shattered Globe's production of "True West" shows their knack for bringing topical themes to classic works.
Through Oct 22nd. Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont Ave. www.theaterwit.com
Naperville may be worth seeing just for its portrayal of T.C., a newly installed Caribou Coffee shop manager. When customers repeatedly ask after Nick, his popular predecessor, he replies by the book, “Nick no longer works here.”
We soon see that T.C. is desperate to succeed in his new job, hoping to avoid the fate of Nick, who was sacked for letting customers linger past closing time – the kind of thing that throws a monkey wrench into the central database to which the cash register, lights, locks and ever observant video monitors are linked. Welcome to 1984.
While T.C. is a parody, he is also a parable for our times. In their chain store incarnation, coffee shops are friendly places – within limits. As he warms to the customers, T.C. slips and reveals that “Nick will never work in this or any other Caribou Coffee again.” As closing time nears, these customers have no intention of moving on despite T.C.’s angst-ridden and frantic efforts.
The problem with the rest of Naperville is that the roles are more caricatures than characters. Overweening Howard (Mike Tapeli), home to care for his sight-impaired mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), is put upon as she needles him to get married. Howard ’s popular high school classmate, Anne (Abby Pierce), sequestered in a corner, broods over her poorly lived life while cobbling together a vaguely worthy history of Captain Joseph Naper.
Playwright Mat Smart delivers steady laughs and Naperville is somewhat engaging, but toward the midpoint we start hankering for. . .meaning, as do the characters. Instead we have something more like a Seinfeld episode (you know,” nothing happens”) only it’s a bit less edgy.
Not to fault this cast. Abby Pierce has movie star quality. Mike Tepeli projects the protagonist as “everyman.” Charlie Strater as Roy perfectly evokes that untethered born-again character you hope to avoid in social settings. (And he draws our sympathy when he reveals his pain in answer to Howard’s, “What’s your deal?”). Also, the set (Joe Shermoly), props (Amanda Hermann) and costumes (Christine Pascual) are pretty much perfect. Somewhat recommended, Naperville runs through October 16 at Theater Wit.
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.
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