Theatre

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.  

Scapegoat; Or (Why the Devil Always Loved Us) a satirical political drama now playing at the Den Theater, takes the audience on a wild ride through a rather unusual family affair. But the play rapidly bogs down with its own complexity.

The curtain rises mid-action, and we gradually piece together that the six members of the Porter family are career politicians: patriarch Senator Anse Porter and his son, Congressman Coyote “Coy” Porter, represent Ohio as Democrats. The Senator’s Chief of Staff John Schuler is married to his daughter Leza, who is in the final weeks of her pregnancy. Matriarch Eleanor Porter and the Senator’s adopted daughter Margaret, are lobbyists for the United American Muslims.

The plot centers on the passage of a bill that would favor Christianity over other religions in the U.S. This bill is supported by Congressman Coy Porter, who is courted by the Religious Freedom Caucus, comprised of three Republican Senators: Frank Mason, Texas; Mary Colbourn, Illinois; and Perry Allen, Arizona.

Plans go awry when Congressman Porter’s father Anse, the senator, is outed as a Satanic Priest. He decides he will filibuster the bill. To dissuade him, so the bill can pass, the Religious Freedom Caucus hints they will award him a judgeship.

While it took a while to figure out what was going on, once I did, I loved the concept. And the play delivers some strong social commentary on religious freedom – a topic of great social currency. It also  scores some comedic points – Senator Porter delivers a complete Black Mass in downstage while the political drama unfolds upstage in convincingly delivered press conferences.

Jeffrey Freelon Jr. strong performance as the put-upon Chief of Staff John Schuler. Likewise for Echaka Agba (Margaret), John Kelly Connolly (Frank), Barbara Figgins (Eleanor Porter), Jack McCabe (Perry), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Leza), Kelli Strickland (Mary) and Norm Woodel (Anse).

Scapegoat is needlessly layered, starting with its grammatically suspect title, through characters whose background and details have little bearing on the main action on stage: That Margaret is the Senator’s adopted daughter is revealed in the second act – along with the fact that she chose to keep her birth mother’s last name (so she is Okafor-Porter). So? Coy Porter is widowed, and occasionally has seizures. Um, did we need to know that? This made Evan Linder’s job playing Coy a challenge, but he rose to it.

Scapegoat is by and large a sentimental comedy. The script by Connor McNamara, a Chicago actor, brought to mind those fast-paced 1930’s screwball comedies loaded with mayhem. But the play is probably closer to You Can't Take It With You, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 Pulitzer prize-winning satire. 

There are some rich moments here: Deciding to filibuster anyway, Anse reads chapter and verse from the satanic scriptures, driving the believing Caucus senators from the chamber floor. This intelligent script which renders the political processes and dynamics with veracity, is, is fast paced and strong at its core. The direction by Kristina Valada-Viars is very well done. Scapegoat plays through May 7. www.thenewcolony.org

Pass through the swinging vinyl flap doors and you find yourself not inside Lookingglass Theatre, but immersed instead in the ongoing performance of Alexander Zeldin’s social activism play, Beyond Caring.

The audience gathers under the noxious glare of fluorescent tubes, facing towering grimy walls in a windowless, industrial building workroom. The awareness grows that these harsh lights will not go down for us at curtain time. Instead we share the glare with four disheartened workers who drift in during the opening minutes of the play.

These people are contract workers, a growing cohort of the American workforce that suffers the peculiar misfortune of not even working for the business they are working at. Actor David Schwimmer, and member of the Lookkingglass Theatre, has brought this story for its U.S. premiere in association with Dark Harbor Stories – a company he leads with Tom Hodges that aims at social enlightenment. 

In Beyond Caring, we watch as workers arrive to a dreary workplace. First comes Phil (Edwin Lee Gibon), already established in his contract gig, heading directly into the bathroom – we learn that is his hiding place. Then come new applicants: highly capable, with chip-on-her-shoulder Tracy (J Nicole Brooks), deceptively self-effacing Sonia (Wendy Mateo), and soon after, manager Ian, a dissolute young man who supervises these contract workers, but reports directly to the factory management (embodied in an unseen character, Phil). Later comes one more applicant, Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), who is always needy, and not too productive.

There is much to be enlightened about here for our times. We hear frequently of the difficulties suffered among independent contractors to the “sharing economy,” orchestrated by firms like Uber. Likewise for the challenges of randomly set schedules at chain restaurants, with “clopening” where workers close a Starbucks or McDonald’s late one night, and open early the very next day.

Zeldin’s work gets us to examine the predicament of contract workers who have a jobsite manager, but no worker rights, or avenues of appeal, at their workplace. In small doses, contract work for third party companies can benefit workers who need temporary work – Manpower is a familiar provider here. But the original practice is such workers are to be used in peaks periods. Companies have discovered they can outsource much of their labor needs, and increase or tamp down the headcount as needed.

The workers in Beyond Caring find themselves in competition for a near full-time position. Their performance is critiqued by the unseen Phil, whose reprimands are delivered by Ian. To get a day off, a schedule change, or an accommodation for a short-term ache, is impossible. "Talk to your employer," Ian says when one of them complains. 

Beyond Caring highlights the loss in generally accepted standards of worker rights, things we have come to take for granted since the rise in power of unions and the establishment of work rules overseen by the Department of Labor. But the power of unions has eroded with the decline in manufacturing jobs, and the rise of right to work legislation around the country.

Beyond Caring runs through May 7, 2017 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.  This thought-provoking work comes recommended.

The promise of hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performed live in its entirety drove me to RAIN, the Beatles' tribute band playing at the Oriental Theater. But the show is much more than that.

Perfectly controlled, with exactingly beat and chord progressions, RAIN lovingly renders selections from the Beatles repertoire to the ‘T’. The group has been playing for years - longer than the originals. A new generation of performers, all born after the Beatles stopped recording, has taken up the torch at RAIN to keep the songs alive.

It was founded by Mark Lewis, who began in the 1970's as a Beatles cover artist, and recruited the original players and made many of the arrangements they perform. Aaron Chiazza plays Ringo Starr; Paul Curatolo plays Paul McCartney; Steve Landes is John Lennon; and Alastar McNeil is George Harrison.

The players are not so much actors, as they are masters of performing as their Beatles characters. So while they are fully realized in musical performance, they can be a little wooden in beckoning to audience participation. Paul Curatolo succeeds most, channeling the warmth of Paul McCartney pretty closely, and he looks quite a bit like him. When Aaron Chiazza's Ringo Starr sings his solo, "With a Little Help from My Friends," he brings the house down by evoking one of many people's favorite Beatles personalities. Though the real Beatles were ready handy with social commentary, these Beatles do not make much small talk, commenting neither on current - or past - events. It's all about the music. And that's just fine.

Most of us never heard the Beatles perform live in person, so hearing their music in a concert setting is striking, but also a little unsettling in a real venue. The group is not exactly impersonating the Beatles, and there is inevitably some personal expression involved. But they do have the various songs nailed down pretty well. 

This show at the Oriental Theatre also gives us a hint of how it would have felt to hear the band play their own works on stage themselves. 

At the point when they recorded Sgt. Pepper (it was released in 1967) the Beatles had mostly ended live performances, and were doing studio albums and seeing themselves not as rockers, but artists. It wasn’t too long after when they broke up, recording their last album Abbey Road in 1969, and ultimately heading their own ways. (Let It Be was recorded in 1969, prior to Abbey Road, but released afterward.) 

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded over a four-month period from December 6, 1966 – April 21, 1967.  Released on June 1, 1967, it is considered to be the greatest rock album ever released. It was also the first concept album. So for the 50th anniversary of its release, RAIN has essentially created a performance art piece, and it is pretty awesome - and well worth seeing.

The album is just 40 minutes long, so it forms the core of the second act at the Oriental Theatre performances. The first half retraces the Beatles rise from Liverpool to global phenomenon. With a strongly representative selection of the history of Beatles music, it provides a wonderful context for the performance of Sgt, Pepper in toto

Visual backgrounds are nicely done, though if I may quibble, I expected a horse for "of course, Henry the horse, dances the waltz" rather than a cartoon carousel figure. I was also hoping for a full orchestra for the monumental "A Day in the Life."  The original recording used 40 classical musicians who were instructed to play gradually from their individual instruments' lowest notes to its highest, and to go gradually from the quietest to the loudest, over the course of 40 bars. That sound is pretty distinctive, and is simulated by RAIN's "fifth Beatle" Mark Beyer, who fills in all the synthesized music along the way. 

The show at the Oriental Theatre, a launch of the 2017 Tour, runs through April 2 here in Chicago, with remaining performances at 8 p.m. April 1, and 2 and 8 pm on April 2. Tickets are at www.BroadwayInChicago.com

The hip-hop Broadway in Chicago sensation Hamilton, which, has spawned a secondary market in pricey theater tickets, has also delivered a pair of spin-offs. Shamilton, an improv riff at the Apollo, and now, notably, Spamilton, a send up of the original musical about the founding fathers of the U.S. 

Is it funny if you haven’t seen the original? The short answer is yes – because following the opening sets based on Hamilton, the show quickly turns its sites on other long-time Broadway shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, warhorses like Camelot, and shows of more recent vintage like Wicked and Book of Mormon.

The creative force behind the show is Gerard Alessandrini, the originator of the 1982 "Forbidden Broadway," which was similar in format, and has been rewritten and updated more than a dozen times. It has played around the world, including Chicago - I’ve seen two different versions here.

For all practical purposes, Spamilton is the newest Forbidden Broadway, and on some levels it exceeds the earlier ones in appeal.

The key to the storyline is Broadway’s perpetual and desperate struggle to save itself, and to create a new vision of the big musical show. Show business has been mired in novelties like Book of Mormon and the puppet-based Avenue Q; overproduced extravaganza with no memorable songs, like Spiderman; or Sondheim light operetta that those outside the cognoscenti may find hard to sit through.

Alessandrini picks up this scent of desperation, and seizes on Broadway producers struggles with wickedly funny original song and dance numbers that sample or mash-up the originals. Clinging to revivals of Rogers & Hammerstein or Leonard Bernstein; turning over theaters to somewhat vapid Disney productions like Aladdin and Newsies, these producers become fodder for fun in Spamilton.

The show parodies this desperation with another extreme: combining previously successful shows.

A perfect example comes around 10 minutes in, as the Spamilton players switch gears and time periods to present The Lion King & I. Anna the English Governess in hoop skirts dons a Julie Traymor head set in a duet with a squawking animal character. Let’s say I chortled heartily.

The show runs at a mad-cap pace, and even if you don’t get all the references, it’s still funny. A scene of an axe wielding gentleman clad just in Fruit of the Looms is a send up of American Psycho (I think, after Googling). It was funny even though I didn’t know exactly what the reference was.

Wicked and Book of Mormon – once the pricey ‘it’ shows, now discounting tickets like any other production – get nailed pointedly, having yielded star status to Hamilton. Scenes are punctuated by a running gag: homeless ladies in rags begging for Hamilton tickets – understood to be based on true stories of famous  stars desperate for seating.

A Barbra Streisand impersonation finds the aging diving singing in signature reverb, advising that when Hamilton is filmed, she wants to play a role in “The Film When It  Happens.” Likewise, J-Lo and Gloria Estefan walk-on, each hoping to tap the mojo of Hamilton. Liza Minnelli appears, but runs the other direction - and asks that rap be banned on Broadway, so they can “bring back the tunes.”  

The show reveals broader awareness in a number, Straight is Back, which laments the loss of gay show tunes and glitter, as productions like Hamilton skew to more manly styles. 

You can get a taste of Spamilton from the original New York cast album, just released. But it pales compared to the experience of seeing this cast of amazing dancers and singers, and their great comedic timing: Donterrio Johnson, Michelle Lauto, Eric Andrew Lewis, Yando Lopez, David Robbins, and guest diva Christine Pedi (she's the Streisand character among others), with musical direction by Adam LaSalle.  

While Hamilton’s original star Lin-Manuel Miranda love “laughed my brains out!" when he saw the show, during last Sunday’s production the Chicago cast of Hamilton was in the audience – and they had a blast.

Gerry McIntyre did the choreography;  Dustin Cross gets Costume Design; , Fred Barton (Musical Director), and Richard Danley and Fred Barton (Musical Arrangements). "Spamilton" is produced in Chicago by John Freedson, David Zippel, Gerard Alessandrini, Margaret Cotter and Liberty Theatricals, in association with JAM Theatricals. Chuckie Benson and Arielle Richardson are the understudies the production.

"Spamilton" plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Royal George Theater.  www.spamilton.com

In The Source, Gabriel McKinley has penned what may be destined to become a stage classic. A gripping thriller, The Source is a timeless existential drama as well.

It centers on a pair of journalists –  a writer, and a photographer – holed up in a hotel, waiting to connect with a whistleblower - someone who will reveal deep background on a cache of information just released on a security agency in the government.

In 85 tightly controlled minutes director Jason Gersace ensnares our curiosity, luring us into this very topical examination of the tension between privacy and security. It is also a study of what happens when two people who don't necessarily like each other are bound together by necessity. 

The journalists are professional opposites – the writer Vernon (Cody Proctor) is cool and cerebral; the photographer Luna (Kristina Valada-Viars) warm and intuitive. On a journalistic level, Vernon holds writing in higher esteem than photography – a notion that causes competitive professional sparks familiar to those in the field. For her part, Luna feels pictures rule. “I don’t read newspapers; it’s a dead medium,” she digs.

Vernon enters the hotel room as the lights come up, and makes a hurried canvass of the premises -  unplugging the TV, putting his phone in the freezer after removing its batteries, he draws the curtains tight – establishing his high level of anxiety and paranoia. We are not sure why.

We soon see they are opposites on a human level, too. Luna’s arrival catches him off guard (he was in the shower), and she exhibits far less angst than him. Luna readily introduces herself to Vernon and shares her background, while he is reluctant to provide even his name.

That they are to pose as a married couple while they await further signals from their source only heightens the emotional aspects of this drama.

Thrown together in a hotel room for a period that is indeterminate, the two unfold before the audience – and each other – as any roommate or cell mates will. They empty the mini bar, they attempt a tryst in bed, they lose sleep, and sleep too much.

The progression of time is conveyed artfully, with a supertitle Day 2, Day 4, etc., flashed on the wall above the window. Because the two will not admit room service, their quarters also mark the passage of time by become messier. Their clothes need laundering. They are at each other’s throats, and their claustrophobia germinates into a mutual paranoia.  

That wait goes on interspersed by just a few external diversions – a fire alarm goes off, periodically someone pounds on the door of the room, lights from an unknown source scan across the room and its occupants.

This is where The Source rises from a topical drama about government intrigue and media, to a timeless study of two people cast together, waiting, but not knowing what exactly they are waiting for. It seems like a play that will wear well over time.

Credit goes to Jack McGaw for scenic design, Claire Margaret Chrzan for lighting design, and Mark Comiskey for projection design for lighting design – particularly artful are the abstract glowing shadows of lamps inscribed on the wall when the room goes dark.  

Route 66 Theatre Company ‘s The Source runs through April 2 at The Den Theatre. www.route66theatre.brownpapertickets.com.

We first meet Clea as she traipses into the great room of a sky-high Manhattan penthouse, enraptured by the “surreal” view. Looking on disdainfully are Charlie (Mark Montgomery), an actor who has been struggling to get cast lately, and his wing-man Lewis (La Shawn Banks).

In the world of theater, a gushing ingénue making a breathless entrance is something that has been seen before, to put it mildly. Charlie for one is not impressed. 

In short order, though, we sense there may be more to this young woman, and these men, than first appears. As it happens, the party is in the home of an actor-writer on the rise, and his older, wealthy patron. Charlie is there hoping to rub shoulders with him, and maybe get a role in his new production.

Clea (Deanna Myers blazes in the role) is on a similar mission – though at this point in her career she is less certain about how things will play out. She is also a font of inanity – “Food is, like, disgusting to me,” she avers, claiming never to eat. “Most things people put in their mouths, it is totally just like eating death. Someone proved that eating is killing people." 

Charlie and Lewis are agape at Clea. Charlie clearly finds her exaggerated pronouncements aversive, while Lewis nods and puts on about the phoniest show of interest imaginable - miming that attraction men sometimes feel despite (or perhaps because of) knowing better.  

Poured into snug-fitting couture and clearly master of her heels, Clea reads, accurately, the mocking tone in Charlie’s desultory conversation. When he asks her how the view can be “surreal,” sparks begin to fly in what turns out to be a harbinger of later romance.   

This is also the first inkling we have that Clea is more femme fatale than ingénue.  She vacillates from helpless to heated. In due course, she reveals a grab-bag of information about herself, and observations on life in general. Her mother is an alcoholic, so she doesn’t drink. People are just not "awake" to life.  

She has recently arrived from Ohio hoping to make her break in New York. She eventually asks for that vodka – just this one time – and becomes even more voluble. Clea reveals she has applied for a position on a television production team – and does a send-up of the woman who interviewed her, describing a “Nazi priestess” of talent bookings, by the name of Stella. As it turns out, Stella is Charlie’s wife - and fatefully, the unrequited love of Lewis.

Clea came there intent on making an impression. And oh she does in Meyers’s super-charged performance. In later scenes, after she has vanquished Lewis, she moves on to seduce Charlie, ultimately triggering his downfall by overstaying a tryst - so the two get caught by Stella.

Charlie eventually ends up on the street, having cast aside his stable life with Stella. (The story line draws on Waugh's of Human Bondage, according to playwright Therese Rebeck.)

The couple was about to adopt a child. Perhaps the prospect of parenthood was too great a strain on Charlie. Fear of parenthood is a classic romance killer, but under Kimberly Seniors direction we are witness to Charlie's action, but not his motivation. Stella also is a bit of a caricature, slipping into Spanish when her blood gets boiling.  Lewis, meanwhile, has played this marriage's third wheel from the opening scene, defending Stella against critiques. The trio has a reasonable chemistry in scenes, but Stella seems overplayed, and Lewis underplayed when they are alone together. 

As to Clea: Viper? Seductress? Ingénue? Trollop? Those old-fashioned words don’t quite apply, as Clea owns her sexuality, and is aware of where she is heading. She seems at once incisive, and empty-headed.

“How can you know so much and so little at the same time?” as Charlie asks.

Waugh’s classic, Of Human Bondage, was filmed three times. And The Scene was also made into a movie - Seducing Charlie Barker. 

In The Scene, the eventual affair with Clea leads to Charlie’s downfall, and his wife Stella’s departure, among other things. While the performance by Myers is captivating, and the chemistry between Stella (Charin Alvarez), Lewis and Charlie is convincing, I struggled to find empathy with anyone other than Clea – a rather villainous protagonist.

The glass and steel set is striking, and works really well through all the scenes. The furnishings were dead on, very Blue Dot Catalog. Likewise the costumes, down to the men's shoes.  Brian Sidney Bembridge did sets;  Nan Zabriskie costume; Sarah Hughey, lighting; Richard Woodbury, original music and sound design; and Scott Dickens handled props. 

Running through April 2 at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, The Scene comes recommended, especially to see Deanna Myers.

The lights come up as a dark-haired young, Latino - bloodied, bruised, battered -  launches  into an adrenaline-fueled monolog.  

Facing the audience, Abe (Gabe Ruiz) is talking a mile a minute to an unseen clerk in the wee hours at a convenience store. From the torrent we piece together clues - Abe has survived a harrowing event. 

From this opening, playwright Ike Holter toggles the audience between puzzlement and certainty as The Wolf at the End of the Block tells its story in increments. This high-energy thriller gradually unfolds details that at each bend make us re-examine what we thought we knew. 

Though serious and even tense, The Wolf is never dreary - the pace and light-hearted delivery, the playful banter of the characters, keep it from veering into a diatribe. These are people who manage to extract the joy and happiness when and where they find it, while  they can.  

The next morning we find Abe awaited by sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) and boss Nunley (Bear Bellinger) at the restaurant where he works, since Abe did not come home last night. He arrives - more lucid but still in shock - and reveals he was attacked in a police bar in an anti-Hispanic hate crime. Ethnic slurs were hurled, fists flew.   

Holter takes us deeper: Miranda, a citizen journalist,  feeds this crime lead to Frida, renowned TV newscaster. After vetting Abe's recount, Frida decides she will run with the story. Sandra Marquez  delivers Frida as a savvy yet jaded reporter  - talking in a clip that seems to be ripped right out of The Front Page. The story passes muster as one that will work on TV. 

We follow as Holter digs even further:  the sister Miranda determines Abe has held back something from Frida - he was drinking more than he said and may have instigated the fight. Frida doesn't care; she will use the part of the story that works for the viewers. 

At another point, Nunley, Abe's African-American boss, reveals he has a tape of Abe that may show him stealing - we are never quite sure. We are with Nunley when he enounters the cop James (James Farrugio is perfectly sinister) who may have beaten Abe, and we share Nunley's fear and intimidation.  

Against the current  turbulent political landscape, the play also examines the role of facts in media, and how motive can affect which truth is revealed, or suppressed. 

Having its world premiere, Teatro Vista's The Wolf at the End of the Block is engrossing, well acted and well produced - and is readily recommended. Holter is considered an up and coming writer - at moments he shows a structure and even lyricism along with pragmatic realism. This is the kind of theater we want to see more of.  It runs through March 5 at the Victory Gardens Theatre.  

Trying to explain what Black Harlem's Renaissance was like is hard. The period was so rich in creative verve, you really have to show it while you tell it. It took me awhile to grasp what playwright Pearl Cleage has achieved - and director Ron OJ Parson has brought carefully to life -  in Court Theatre's Blues for an Alabama Sky.

In this beautifully polished production, we become familiar with the lives and aspirations of five denizens of the abundant cultural life enveloping New York's burgeoning black district in the 1920s and 1930s, driven by waves of aspiring new arrivals during the Great Migration from the South to the North. The period gives rise to the first jazz concert, to international musical superstars like Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller; to writers and thinkers like Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, who wrote the first bestseller by a black author. 

Cleage has fleshed out each of her characters - a doctor, a singer, a fashion designer, a social worker, and a carpenter - who are much more than archetypes. These are real people, each contributing a seminal thread to this tale. She has also set the timeline toward the end of that golden era, in 1930 after the market crash, as the Great Depression rolled in. 

The storyline seems surprisingly fresh, but it is true to its time: the protagonists here seem a mismatched couple - a flamboyant gay fashion designer Guy (Sean Parris), and his platonic love, Angel (Toya Turner), a gangsters' moll who tries but fails to make a living as a night club singer.  

Abandonedly outré, Guy has worked his way up from stitching gowns for cross dressers, to designing clothes on spec for Josephine Baker. The pair love and support each other as they pursue their dreams, but have no future as a couple; Angel is set on finding herself a big strong man who will take care of her, and pay the rent. Guy wants to make it in Paris.

Across the hall dwells the scholarly Delia (Celeste Cooper), who is launching the first family planning clinic in Harlem. A history lesson makes its way into the plot as the clinic is burned down. Some in the black community suspected efforts at setting up such clinics - led by Margaret Sanger - were really just part of a plot to reduce the black population. Carrying the torch for Delia is Sam, a medical doctor. James Vincent Meredith's performance gives Sam a steady, even temperament - abiding patience, and someone who is tolerant and nurturant. 

Conflict arises as Leland (Geno Walker) a widowed carpenter recently arrived from Alabama, falls for Angel. His ardor cools as he discovers he is not in Alabama anymore. In this Black Harlem, homosexuals are accepted; family planning is a matter of choice.

Each of these characters engenders our sympathy. And in the course of the action they live, die, move on - or remain stuck in place. Though Cleage wrote this work in 1995, it is completely fresh. And it has been given its due in Parson's production. Costumes and set are beautifully period, and lighting brings added dimensions to the staging. Blues for an Alabama Sky now extended through February 19th at Court Theatre.

Watching an inner circle of Druids contemplate the eventual fall of Rome, my thoughts turned to Game of Thrones, to Mad Maxx’s Thunderdome, even alighting ever so briefly on our own political landscape.  

Lyric Opera’s production Bellini’s beautiful 1831 opera carefully builds such a world, with Iron Age sets in neutral grays, tattooed warriors in leather, heads shaved or dreadlocks piled high, wielding battleaxes, calling for war with the Romans who have desecrated their forest sanctums. 

Then comes Norma, part priestess, part divinity, channeling to her people the spirits of the gods of earth. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is the embodiment of the celebrated bel canto singing Bellini calls for, the carefully crafted libretto all gorgeous melody and harmony – no shouted operatic dialog, just lyrical musical poetry in song. This is opera for opera haters. 

Norma must certainly be the most accessible of the operas produced by the Lyric, and its success – along with Bellini’s masterful composition – is largely on the strength of the designers of its costumes and sets. Above those Druids (that term refers to the learned class among the Celtic people of Europe) a sacred oak floats on its side. A rolling altar brings priestess Norma up to the tree, where she cut the boughs of Mistletoe with a golden sickle. This is the very ceremony the real Celtic Druids would hold on new moons following the Winter Solstice. Notably women and men shared the power in this society whose women took the lead. 

While I am not deeply schooled in the opera form and knew nothing of Norma before attending, I was very much able to feel, see and hear all this happening on the Lyric Opera stage, where Norma works her magic. The opera overall was a co-production of the Lyric, the San Francisco Opera, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu.  And no wonder it is so wonderful:

• The set was designed by David Korins, nominated for a Tony for his sets on Hamilton, with scenery built and painted in the shops at the Canada and San Francisco Opera

• Costumes are by Jessica Jahn, and were fabricated at the San Francisco Opera costume shop; makeup and wigs are by Sarah Hatten

• Lighting, by Duane Schuler, is a huge part of the production, allowing the singers to concentrate on their music while shifting the focal point in concert with the development of each scene. 

The traditional opera-style drama in the story stems from two Druid women secretly falling for the same Roman proconsul – the emissary whose culture will ultimately destroy the Celt’s world. But this drama rises to a level of tragedy, as Norma determines that, having destroyed her priestly standing, and broken her spiritual bond with her secret love affair with the Roman, she must leave her role, and sacrifice her life in a ritual ceremony. 

Tenor Russell Thomas as the Roman proconsul Pollione is the perfect vocal complement to Radvanosky (she is from Berwyn, by the way), and bass Andrea Silvestrelli towers (literally - he is quite tall - and musically) above the scenes as Norma’s father, Oroveso. 

As an opera, this production is sterling. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, was flawless, supporting in perfect balance the soloists and chorus. Kevin Newbury directed the action at a steady clip, never lagging, and paced continuously in harmony with the score.  

The design of this production is much more than window dressing. It conveys the essence of a timeless story: a noble native culture is upended by powerful invaders, whose influence portends the end of a way of life. Lyric Opera's Norma is highly recommended

Just two actors share the credits, yet the stage is crowded with characters in Lookingglass Theatre’s Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth. This fabulist romp is delightful and fully satisfying, conjuring up characters with artful stagecraft and puppetry that remind us of Red Moon Theatre when it was really cranking.

The puppetry of Blair Thomas is indeed impressive - the animated inanimates range from a mini-replica of Mrs. Pennyworth (Lindsey Noel Whiting) to stage-filling boar. And though puppets are plentiful in Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth, it is the astounding shadow animations that make this such an amazing experience. Both Whiting and Samuel Taylor are outstanding in their many roles (and stage formats).

Shadow characters grow and diminish, the moving silhouettes created by actors, puppets, and cut-outs on a stick playing against a backlights. Shadow animations by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller for Manual Cinema Studios, and projection designs by Mike Tutaj, are stunning as they work this magic.  

Hidden behind screens, actors and puppeteers move fro and aft, upstage and down, shape shifting and changing in size. Going in every dimension, using the full depth of the stage, the actors and puppet masters play against the backlight to generate a unique images. (If there were an award for blocking, someone must nominate this show.)

Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth has a steampunk flavor to it, as the ostensibly Victorian-era buskers take a portable stage on the road across Europe, with performance-art renderings of classic fairy tales, after which they pass the hat.

 

The plot thickens as some of the characters disappear from the tales - notably the Big Bad Wolf. Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth set out to solve the mystery, which also creates a social crisis - children, Red Riding Hood, even the three little pigs, are losing track of these stories.

Lookingglass Theatre has long mined traditional tales for its line-ups - rendering memorable, and dark, versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example. Hara broadens the source material, with appearances of the familiar (Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz) and less so (Sæhrímnir, a boar killed and eaten nightly by the Norse goods). The show lags a little as some of the Norse saga was being unpacked. But there was enough momentum to sustain it. 

Written and directed by Lookinglass Ensemble member Doug Hara, this work is said to be influenced by Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods characters struggle through similar travails.

This is not just for kids - or maybe it's not even for them. I found myself wondering where it was a little too dark at times, but that is true in the Grimm tales as well.

Hara is entertaining us, but there is something reminding us that people lose hold of their culture when they lose their stories.The Pennyworth’s life work helps secure these stories - tales that keeps us all tethered to the collective memories that are the touchstones of civilization.

Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth runs through February 19, 2017 at Lookingglass Theatre

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