It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century.
William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play.
This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience.
Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on.
Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company.
Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125
I thoroughly enjoyed the world premiere of Jesus the Jew: As Told by His Brother James. The play is the seventeenth work produced by Forum Productions. The one-man show by playwright William Spatz is very well-written and in my opinion contains some of the answers of the most important issues facing our society today with regards to antisemitism and the violence propagated against Christians and or Jewish Christians in this country and others around the world.
Actor, Steven Strafford plays a modern-day professor of religious history who has just found out his brother John has been tortured and killed in an attack in Syria. He then travels back and forth in time to portray James, the brother of Jesus, one of the mainstays of his research. Strafford's performance is compelling and rich.
Jeremy, as James thanks the audience for coming whether they are Jews, Christians or Jewish Christians. This designation is very important especially in the political climate currently where all three groups are regularly singled out in some countries and sentenced to death by beheading if they do not renounce their Christian and/or Jewish ties.
This play is of particular interest to me because I am a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew. That is a person who is Jewish by birth who continues to believe that Jesus was Jewish and was the Messiah sent to save the Jewish people and later the non-Jews from the belief that we are just helpless animal-like human beings in bodies which have no actual active spiritual life that continues after death of the human body. We also believe that God is a loving forgiving being that abhors killing of humans and animals, indeed cruelty to women and all living things.
I was given a very complete three-year education in Jewish history and religious practices before completing my bat mitzvah and the only mention of Jesus, if any that I recall, was that Jesus was to be looked at as a Rabbi gone mad - a religious traitor to the Jewish people whose new ideas threatened to destroy Judaism rather than elevate it to new levels of generosity and higher spiritual intelligence. I have often wondered how the separation of Jesus' Jewish birth and the statement he made regarding incarnating in a human body specifically for the Jewish people turned into an entirely new religion called Christianity – a religion that proceeded to make a scapegoat of the Jews when Roman occupation and laws actually caused the killing of Jesus. I've also wondered how Christians and especially Catholics who - on the one hand - give great honor to Mary, Jesus' mother, seem to have completely forgotten the fact that Mary the Mother of God was a JEWISH woman named Miriam. And how can modern Christians continue to refer with reverence to the Gospels written by Jesus' disciples as inspired by God without recalling that ALL the disciples of Jesus were JEWISH?
James’ finally answers this question in the last hours of his life in the play when he is about to be put to death (after 30 years of leading Jewish Christians) for not renouncing his brother's and his own Jewish faith.
The apostle Paul is well known among feminists for his damning letters stating that women should have no place in the new Church and should be subject to all the discrimination that Jesus himself stressed many times should end by interacting with women, healing them and insisting that they receive the same education his male apostles were receiving. During this council, the apostle Paul effectively overthrew James’ leadership by declaring a new law that if a Jewish person believed in Jesus they must stop all Jewish religious practices and laws or be sentenced to death.
Jeremy as James also made it clear that Mary was from a wealthy family and financially supported Jesus and, by extension, financially supported many of the apostles that followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene was NOT by any stretch of the sexist imagination a "prostitute" as many since have claimed.
James states that Jesus and Mary were indeed married per the Jewish tradition and although it was not brought up in this play, their marriage gives some credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene, Jesus' legal wife, gave birth to a daughter after his death, directly continuing the spiritually royal bloodline of Jesus himself. It’s been said that she and her daughter were escorted to safety by her father and sailed to France to raise her daughter.
There is some humor in the play when James says, “Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”
The production team includes: Milo Blue (scenic design), Hailey Rakowiecki (costume design), David Trudeau (lighting design), Alex Kleiner (sound design), Ron Rude (production manager) and Sarah Knoke (stage manager). This team does a great job decorating the set with objects of art from both modern and ancient times. The interesting props keep one’s eyes busy looking at the beautiful colorful aspects of that historic period while keeping the audience firmly in the present with offstage interruptions by reporters seeking interviews with him and friends or family who are trying to help Jeremy stay calm and sane in the face of the news that his brother has been tortured first then killed.
Jesus The Jew delivers the most important message of our time, that the division of Jews from Christians and the division of Jesus from his own Jewish followers and people came from a political move - a political document written to serve the Romans and the ambitions of one aggressive sect of new Christians/Jews led by the apostle Paul.
My only complaint about the well-written and well-documented play is that it does not delve deep enough into the horrors and centuries of suffering that this rift initiated by the apostle Paul caused. Actually using the word “horror” is inadequate to describe the current situation for both Christians and Jewish Christians - the Holocaust or recent be-headings of Christians and Jewish Christians around the world and the suffering of women subject to the new rules of Bible thumping-Jew hating Christians who have been forced to follow their husband’s commands even under extreme abuse.
James even acknowledges that as he gives his last sermon before he is put to death that there may not be any Jewish Christians left to hear his final pleas for a meaningful, literal and political reunion of the Jewish and Christian people. That strongly resonated with me because I am the ONLY Jewish Christian that I have ever met (other than my mother who had a similar late life realization) who sees Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and miracle maker of the highest order, the human incarnation of God on earth.
I highly recommend this compelling, well-paced and delicately handled theater piece for anyone who is interested in a more realistic view of daily life during Jesus' time, or is seeking similar comfort that Jewish Christians still actually exist.
Jesus the Jew: As Told by his Brother James is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through March 26th. For more information on this show, click here.
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.
Before the colonial history of New York City was hip hop-ified by outrageously talented Broadway composer/writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a small portion of the city had its own hip hop story to tell. In the Heights, which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and subsequently won the Tony for Best Musical (among four total wins) and Grammy for Best Musical Show album, features a lively ensemble who collectively share the story of their own corner of Manhattan.
It's appropriate that Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre chose Miranda's first musical to perform through October, as it will overlap the Chicago premiere of his second musical, the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, which gets its own Loop theater at the end of the month. Like Hamilton, In the Heights is a mixture of brilliantly-crafted rap, (as well as merengue and salsa), powerful singing, and rich, often funny, dialogue.
The story, set in Manhattan's predominantly Latino neighborhood Washington Heights, centers around the neighborhood bodega where the members of the community congregate, whether to grab their morning coffee, flirt, gossip, or discuss their dreams, their conversations painting a complicated portrait of the "barrio" life. Some of them, like the willful and stubborn Vanessa, see the Heights as a prison sentence and hope for a better future, wishing to get out by any means. Others, like Abuela Claudia, immigrated to the utopian New York City when they were young and dearly love the neighborhood in which they have lived most of their lives. Meanwhile, others struggle with both love and disdain for the Heights, like college dropout Nina who wrestles with the shame of losing her scholarship and breaking the bittersweet news to her parents that she must return home.
On top of the drama, humor, romance, heartbreak, and impossible hopes passionately sung and rapped about by the various characters -- Porchlight's modest 18-person cast showcases extreme talent, the powerful female voices in particular could easily be heard on a professional Broadway stage -- the authenticity of a real New York community shines through. From the "piragua" (flavored shaved ice) seller carting through town, to the close-knit gossipy hair salon, to the shop owners chasing away graffiti artists, to the fierce Puerto Rican and Dominican pride on display, In the Heights realistically captures the essence of a colorful, cultural community. It entices and welcomes you with open arms, making you feel like you could be right at home if you found yourself at the edge of northern Manhattan getting off the A train at 181st Street.
In the Heights is playing at Stage 773 now through Sunday, October 23rd. Tickets can be purchased at Porchlight Music Theatre.
The image of sitting around a campfire under the stars brings to mind nights connecting with friends and family, sharing stories about the past and imagining what the future may hold. Connected, by Collaboraction, plays on this theme transporting the audience from campfire to campfire throughout history and into the future, examining how our connections to one another can shape our world.
The show opens as a young girl prepares for her dreams during “water sleep”. The audience puts on their time travel masks along with her and together they travel all the way back in time to the Big Bang – the original campfire. From there, the play moves from the first fire the caveman created, to a camp fire on the Oregon Trail, to a 60’s peace and love campfire, to our virtual campfire supported by technology and social media and ending with a glimpse of what our future campfire conversation could look like, coming right back to our young protagonist preparing for her “water sleep” in this imagined future.
Connected is many things; maybe too many to appreciate fully in the moment. It is part science class, explaining the big bang, the creation of life on earth, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is part historical drama, showing human evolution from grunting cavemen to a virtual reality society. And finally, it is part social commentary dealing with how technology has changed the way we connect with each other. While all of our technological advances are intended to bring us closer together, Connected explores if it has actually isolated us from one another and what risks does that carry with it. With so many elements to this show, the initial audience reaction may include some confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed but with time and reflection the value becomes more clear.
The show is staged in the round for a small audience so that everyone feels they have a seat at the campfire. In addition to the epic and multi-dimensional story it is telling, the show integrates movement, puppets, video, social media and audience interaction to bring it to life. It is a one act show lasting about 80 minutes and the pacing of the show keeps it moving along, covering millions and millions of years in that short time.
There were many elements to this show which were quite unique including a break in the 4th wall where the audience had a choose their own adventure moment which resulted in a group dance break to the Cha Cha Slide followed by selfie time. The show is full of so many stories, and constant surprises challenging the audience to reflect more deeply on their own connections.
It is certainly not a traditional piece of theater so do not go in with those expectations. Be open and prepared for just about anything and you will likely enjoy the show, if not in those moments after the show ends when you try to piece through what you just saw, but certainly in the days that follow as you reflect on everything that happened in the small theater space of the Flatirons Building.
See for yourself. Connected is playing through May 29th. Get your tickets at collaboraction.org.
How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.
Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.
When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.
My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.
This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.
Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.
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.
I know about as much Russian as a non-native speaker needs. I know how to say hello and goodbye (Preevyet and Da sveedaneeya). I know how to say thank you (Spaseeba), I even know how to say my little monkey (moya malen'kaya obez'yana) though that doesn’t come in handy too often. Just today I learned the Russian word for amazing (Izumitel'nij). But in Russian and English “amazing” falls short of describing the exceptional performance of “Up & Down” by the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.
“Up & Down” is a story set amidst the roaring 20’s. A young psychiatrist falls in love with one of his mental patients who, as it turns out, is a fabulously wealthy socialite. They are wed and soon he is swept up into the money-fueled glitz and glamour that made the 20’s so spectacular. He wrestles with his desire to love and cure his new wife, the enticement of the sensuous social scene, and being the honorable psychiatrist performing his life’s work. Ultimately he succumbs to the pleasures and temptations of the times and it becomes his undoing.
Audience members might liken Eifman’s “Up & Down” to Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. The set was bright and sleek, art-deco inspired and neon-powered. The dancers danced the Charleston and the tango to Gershwin’s jazzy score. Everything leant itself to immersing the company and audience into the 1920's providing the perfect backdrop for Eifman’s story. As Eifman himself said of “Up & Down, “This ballet is both a tragic and bright chronicle of a person’s spiritual death—the story about how a dream of happiness turns into a disaster, and an externally beautiful and carefree life flowing to the rhythms of jazz, into a nightmare. I want audiences to feel all of the emotions of these characters and become just as immersed in the characters’ lives as the dancers are.”
Eifman is often referred to as one of the leading choreographers in the world and it is easy to see why. His style is classic yet edgy, flowing yet jagged, smooth yet striking. He doesn’t force the audience to know the difference between a jeté and a relevé. His style of storytelling is easy to follow and understand, not an ounce of pretentiousness or far reaching concepts to be found. His dancers are afforded the room to convey charm, humor, lust, pain, and even madness. Despite criticism of the American debut of “Up & Down,” I found the ballet to be captivating. This was the ballet to turn new audiences onto the ballet; the story had loonies, beer drinkers, figments of a mind manifested as an evil twin, lust and love, glamour, humor, silent movie stars, evil investors, and a twist ending. What more could you want? “Up & Down” was also the perfect ballet to celebrate the Auditorium Theatre’s 125th year. It personified the timelessness of the ballet while pushing the art form into the modern world.
“Up & Down” might have come and gone, but should you find yourself in the same city as this St. Petersburg Ballet Company, grab and friend and say “da-vai!” Let’s go to the ballet!
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