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.
Erika Sheffer’s The Fundamentals is a powerful tale of the struggles of a service industry worker. It is also a parable for our times. Director Yasen Peyankov has taken what we see all the time, and really shows it to us.
The Fundamentals (at Steppenwolf Theatre) tells the story of Millie (Alana Arenas), a housekeeper in The Bakerville, a New York boutique location of a premier luxury hotel chain. Classic dramatic tension arises as Millie, aspiring to a better job and compensation, tries to move up from cleaning rooms to front desk.
In the course of the story, Millie learns she can get ahead by feeding her manager profit enhancing ideas gleaned from a housekeeper’s perspective. Arenas’s Millie is completely convincing as the innocent feeling her way through a corporate environment, and learning as she goes.
Millie soon discovers her manager puts the highest value on dirt about long-time workers that will let her fire them and hire cheaper replacements. You will readily recognize the lifer in the thirty-year hotel veteran Abe (played to a 't' by Alan Wilder). He ends up in the crosshairs.
In the role of Eliza the manager, Audrey Francis is flawless as an avatar of the steely corporate operative. She captures your attention, yet makes your skin crawl.
Another tension arises in the play around a class divide between workers, and the more moneyed class of managers and customers. This gap is even expressed in the language: Arena’s Millie, speaking in a thoroughly natural Manhattan brogue, contrasts sharply with the crisp Connecticut language of manager Eliza. Tanera Marshall coached dialects.
The private life of the struggling housekeeper spills over into workplace conflicts with her beau, hotel janitor Lorenzo (a strong performance by Armando Riesco).
Like many contemporary service businesses, this hotel has developed a detailed strategy for maximizing the satisfaction of guests, carefully training employees in seven “fundamentals.”
In this scenario natural expressions of interest and concern are replaced with uniform gestures of graciousness, and an interest in a customers welfare that is artificial, even clinical. Millie questions aloud the conflict in offering generosity and graciousness to customers, but not to colleagues.
The Fundamental’s serious reflection of these societal concerns is a tribute to the developers of this work – more than a year in the making it was commissioned by Steppenwolf, funded by the Zell Foundation, parts were read at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and an earlier version was performed at Steppenwolf’s First Look series last year.
Steppenwolf’s prodigious marketing skills were also put to dramatic use fashioning media props in this work. The play is sprinkled with highly polished advertising interludes (Stephan Mazurek) that are shockingly authentic. This was the first time I have ever been shaken from suspending disbelief, to really believing.
The set by Collette Poward also deserves great praise. The millworked trim and commercial lighting of a hotel hall make a great backdrop for the multimedia interludes. The elevator from the subterranean locker room to guest services is completely convincing.
The Fundamentals at Steppenwolf Theatre comes highly recommended. It runs through December 23, 2016.
Northlight Theatre’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is deftly crafted, a thoroughly engaging comedic riff on Pride & Predjudice, Jane Austen’s early 19th century classic.
It is also a refreshing antidote to a truth universally known: that Chicago stages yield slim pickin’s for legitimate drama this time of year. Nothing against A Christmas Carol, but, bah humbug.
Even better, though: Miss Bennet is laugh out loud funny. It picks up two years after Pride & Predjudice left off. Bookish spinster Mary Bennet (Emily Berman) meets her match in a scholarly young Oxford grad Arthur de Bourgh (Erik Hellman). The chemistry between these brainy characters is vividly rendered on stage by Berman and Hellman.
In short order the two become the center of the action, and the life of the play. (I was reminded of Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon & Amy) Another real stand out is Bri Sudia as Anne de Bourgh, who commands attention and obedience as she competes unsuccessfully with Miss Bennet for Arthur.
Must one be conversant in Austen's ouvre to get this show? Decidedly not. You just need a funny bone.
Playwrights Lauren Gundeson and Margot Melcon have concocted a classic comedy of manners, with a dash of farce. They tread lightly on the Regency English while keeping it clever and witty, injecting various comic tropes - misplaced letters, props imbued with humor in the course of the action - and offering a dramatic intrigue that builds to pique the audience's interest as Act I ends. Just like the old days.
This play is set in a time when the English people were first adopting the tannenbaum from Germany, allowing a Christmas tree to reasonably appear on stage - conveniently enough for seasonal marketing purposes. Anne de Bourgh showers the spruce in whithering disdain, to great comic and dramatic effect. Perhaps that is why I liked her so much.
The production is exceptionally detailed, with intensively styled Regency finery for men and women by Melissa Torchia, and a set by Rick and Jacqueline Penrod that would be at home on the cover of Architectural Digest.
Running through December 18 at Northlight Theatre, this show comes highly recommended for the season.
Marriott Theatre has staged an audacious, vibrant production with its adaptation of the 1952 Gene Kelley musical, ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’
This show reaches for the stars, and its company is so exuberant, its orchestration and choreography so refined, that shortcomings of the script (by legendary duo Adolph Green and Betty Comden) don’t really matter. It came to life, after all, as the low-brow, plot-free Hollywood Revue of 1929, a cinema collection of musical numbers to showcase big stars in early talkies.
Danny Gardner plays silent film era Don Lockwood (the Gene Kelley character); Gabriel Ruiz Yoder, his bosom buddy and pianist Cosmo Brown (Dennis O’Connor in the film).
The third in this musical menage is Mary Patterson as Kathy Selden (in the movie, Debbie Reynolds). Patterson is a standout in this show: a most natural dancer, a bit of a bel canto, and emotive in her role, performing as naturally as someone falling off a log.
The songs were hits long before Singin’ in the Rain’s theatrical release. Burned into our collective unconsciousness (‘You Were Meant for Me’, ‘’Make Em Laugh’, ‘All I Do Is Dream of You’’Good Mornin’) we recognize these tunes from note one, accompanied by scenes from the movie re-enacted faithfully – if on occasion a bit slavishly.
The production builds to the show-stopping stormy solo dance, choreographed (as are all the dance sequences) by Gene Kelley and taken nearly intact to this staging, which includes hundreds of gallons of rain delivered from above for the Singin’ in the Rain scene. For my money, though, the best is Good Mornin’, in which the Gardner, Yoder, and Patterson really channel the spirit of unfettered joy expressed by the screen originals.
Among the standouts in great cast is Amanda Tanguay as gossip columnist Zelda Zanders (that 1920s elocution is on key), and Alexandra Palkovic as Lina Lamont, the star with a voice perfect for silent film (a Judy Holiday doppelganger). The orchestra directed by Patti Garwood is amplified in perfect balance throughout the theater.
Also a special nod to the set design by Tom Ryan, costume design by Nancy Missimi, lighting design by Jesse Klug, sound design by Bob Gilmartin, properties design by Sally Weiss. The recreation of the silent film sequences which were much more incidental to the 1952 original are very, very funny - and beautifully conceived, with 18th Century France transmogrified to the 1920s silent era Hollywood - you'll recognize the style of those movie palaces in these very creative scenes.
This original production developed in Chicago could easily be Broadway bound. Seize your chance to see it through December 31 at Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre.
Watching teens in a Cypress, Texas, Bible class plan a sock puppet revue, we have a setting ripe with dramatic possibilities.
In Hand to God, playing now at Victory Gardens Theater, one of those puppet claims a mind of his own, hurling sacrilegious epithets and encouraging mayhem with his devil-may-care insults.
Jason is the repressed teen (Alex Weissman is hilarious) whose arm is stuck inside Tyrone – the Satanic stocking that reveals everything Jason dare not say. Adding to the angst: Jason’s mother Margery (Janelle Snow) is the puppet class teacher, and the erotic vision for classroom nemesis, Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson nails it).
In short order, the puppet’s revealing zingers upset the tightly wound congregation. The world of Cypress has only one way to explain all this: this puppet is possessed by Satan. Why else would he sharpen his teeth and bite the ear of the class bully? How else would he know Pastor Greg lurks outside the windows of teenagers?
With a nudge from Tyrone (Weissman plays this flip-side personality very well) the stage abounds with licentious behavior (playfully enough, since puppets are involved), but particularly tawdry considering most of the action is in a church basement, or in the study of Pastor Greg (Eric Slater).
No one should fault director Gary Griffin for playing for shtick with this foul-mouthed puppet calling the shots on stage. But the play also holds a serious subtext, on the tendency for religious social settings to repress at least one fundamental human requirement: the need for irreverence. The play offers a full hand of irreverence, and that is a laugh a minute.
The Biograph main stage has been fully updated, housing a nicely designed set (Joe Schermoly) that rotates beautifully from scene to scene. An Exorcist-style makeover of the classroom is campy and droll at the same time. Daniel Dempsey built and directed the evil Tyrone in his various manifestations, along with his buxom fabric love interest, a puppet girl worn by teen classmate Jessica (Nina Ganet).
This production of a script by Robert Askins (it earned 5 Tony nominations) is so wonderfully put together that it’s been selling out (a Wednesday night was packed), and the run was extended twice. You still have until October 30 to watch it at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. Don’t miss it.
David Rabe’s Visiting Edna is everything you expect from Steppenwolf Theatre: a work of depth and significance, actors rendering studied characters, and production values of the highest order.
Rabe’s writing also displays another Steppenwolf hallmark: plays that mine the power and drama in the ordinary language of daily life. Edna (Debra Monk is sensational) is an Iowa widow soldiering through a litany of ills – heart failure, colostomy, colitis, diabetes and cancer – all conspiring to come in for the kill. Her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford gives what will surely be a definitive performance) visits to check in on her, and decides to see if better medical advice might improve her condition.
This may sound grim, or even boring. It is anything but. Though Edna babbles endlessly - as mothers may – her almost hypnotic patter is laced with incisive reflection and homespun wisdom, engaging her son (and the audience). She also begins settling accounts, handing off possessions and revealing scars from her own upbringing from which she sought to shield Andrew and his sister. Edna vividly relates the impact on her own childhood of the fraught circumstances of her older sisters’ teenage miscarriage and battle with tuberculosis.
Edna’s end of life scenario affords moments of reflection, recall, and bonding with Andrew. Edna, born in 1926 to a world devoid of social media - or psychotherapy, for that matter - regrets in hindsight the physical discipline she inflicted on Andrew, and worries over her own careless decision to bring Andrew, age four at the time, to watch a hotel fire at which guests jumped to their deaths. "It's just so different now, that's all," Edna says.
The play also hums with a magical realism, as the dying Edna is pulled between two polarities familiar to anyone who has tread the path of serious illness: a distracting television, and the illness itself. In Visiting Edna, Actor One (Sally Murphy in a beautifully crafted and inspired performance) plays a channel-flipping Television, breaking the wall to address the audience in her opening monologue. She even relates the playwright's reflections on whether to wear rabbit ears or a dish antenna.)
Tim Hopper as Actor Two, plays Edna’s cancer through most of the play. (Note to Hopper fans: this is one his best roles.) Hopper’s knowing, insidious cancer recounts Edna's ailments, and telsl the audience, "Yet, she is desperate to live." Cancer offers gloomy reminders to Edna ("It's a dark hole you're in.") and competes mightily with Murphy’s sprightly Television for attention. In fact, neither wins it. As Actor Three (in a stunning walk-on role), Michael Rabe is at once frightening and believable as an angel of death.
The stage itself is quite awesome: a sky tunnel right out of Magritte hovers above a split level living room. Stormy weather was so convincingly portrayed I was surprised the streets were dry when I left the theater. Kudos to David Zinn for set design, Marcus Doshi on lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for music and sound design. Artistic director Anna Shapiro, famed for August: Osage County, oversaw the show and guides this season at Steppenwolf.
This wonderful production has just one drawback: the ending, which seems to drag, as Andrew addresses the audience in a lengthy, tearful soliloquy about Edna’s final moments.
That aside, Visiting Edna is as good as it gets on stage. It runs through November 6, 2016 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
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.
Amour, playing at the Atheneaum, is a jewel box of a show. This lighthearted musical (technically a comic opera) is profoundly entertaining, without needing to be profound. It is just plain fun.
With nearly no spoken dialog, the nine cast members sing their hearts out for 90 minutes. The music, lively and varied, stays fresh – and the libretto is sharp and humorous. These are all very talented, natural singers, who are well balanced and, with no electronic assist, sing dialog clearly, ever with an ear to a backstage orchestra – though small it is excellent.
On key and in seemingly effortless harmony, the cast waltzes through a dozen different musical styles that hearken to the play’s roots. It was Tony nominated on Broadway in 2002, adapted from a 1997 Paris production. Numbers run the gamut from cabaret to jazzy Manhattan Transfer, grand opera, and everything in between.
The story line is delightfully simple: an office worker in dreary post-war Paris discovers he can walk through walls, turning his humdrum life into an adventure. Brian Fimoff as Dusoleil brings that Everyman quality to his role.
Much credit must be given to Black Button Eyes Production for retrieving this treasure from the script vault. Their mission is to bring Chicago seldom-seen works containing elements of fantasy, in which magical and surreal invade reality. Mission accomplished.
Standouts include Missy Wise (as Claire/Whore), with a big voice and plenty of sass. Kevin Webb plays a Gendarme but his performance as a Nazi-like Boss in jodhpurs and riding crop is over the top funny. A real standout is Scott Gryder in three key roles: he is all Newsies as a newspaper vendor; very funny as frightened advocate; but he could give Paul Lynde a run for the money as office clerk Bertrand.
And then there is THE VOICE: in this show, it's Emily Goldberg (playing Isabelle). Goldberg has it all: trained, expressive, and Broadway beautiful. (Goldberg, playing musical theater al around town, is certainly Broadway bound, so catch her locally while you can.) Fimoff pairs nicely with Goldberg in their duets, but he cannot match the rest of the troupe's volume when he is not belting.
The Amour production itself is a tribute to what can be conjured up with minimalist but imaginative props and sets. It also is a testament to the audience's ability not just to suspend disbelief, but to join in the fantasy.
Amour debuted in Paris in 1997, and its original libretto was adapted for Broadway in 2002 by Jeremy Sams. Music is by Michel Legrand, and the French libretto is by Didier Van Cauwelaert here in a witty English adaptation by Jeremy Sams.
Amour, highly recommended, runs through October 8 at The Athenaeum Theatre.
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.
Right out of the gate CHOPS is a winner – in performances, production and script. Playwright Michael Rychlewski captures that ineffable quintessence of Chicago-ese as his three remnants of the 1950s and ‘60s glory days of Rush Street wash ashore at Vince’s bar.
Let’s hear it for the casting, too – director Richard Shavzin has corralled an exceptionally well-matched brace of players here, strong character actors from our city’s bountiful supply. As Walt (Randy Steinmeyer) launches full throttle into his opening monologue, the audience knows it is in on something big tonight.
On Walt's arm is a dame, Kaki (Clare Cooney), claiming to be older than she is, and unnaturally well schooled in the music and dance from the waning days of 1950s and 1960s big band jazz. Tending bar, the world-weary Vince (Larry Neumann Jr.) is a perfect counterpoint to Walt’s bravado, as he eyes with suspicion this young lady’s game.
The story line is straightforward. Three late middle aged men – the third, Philly (Danny Sullivan) makes a backdoor entrance along the way – are competing for the attention of the comely young lass. They dance, talk big, and tell tales of their past. Chicagoans of a certain age will glow at references to now-vanished Rush St. locales like Mr. Kelley’s and the Gaslight Club.
Then the big talk turns competitive, and a storytelling contest ensues – shades of August Wilson here. A contrivance? Perhaps, but it arrives naturally and these guys are so compelling, the audience doesn’t begrudge a minute of it.
This scene also paints an even richer portrait of Chicago’s bygone era, captured in the color of its speech. While David Mamet has abstracted this linguistic naturalism into a generalized form, Rychlewski gives it the specificity of its locale – all the more enjoyable. Chops is a must-see just for this scene.
As the story continues, the plotting became harder to follow. But given the caliber of the performances, it seems that the director and author may need to coax a bit more from this section to get across the nature of the con that is being set up. Past that scene, the power struggle among the characters continues to a satisfying dramatic conclusion.
There is one point in CHOPS that gave me pause: the character Kaki takes restroom breaks for the convenience of the dramatic trajectory, but at some point these become too many, and one runs unnaturally long (is she doing cocaine in there?).
The set is very good; Grant Sabin has done an impressive job with set design while Chris Neville handled the props. As CHOPS reveals itself to be a cut above the ordinary, I felt myself wishing even more resources were given so that Sabin and Neville could take their artistry further.
In addition to the choreography and music that spice this play, there is also a compelling story behind its authorship, a first work, 25 years in the making by Rychlewski, a Schurz High School English teacher. He brought a 120- page script to director Shavzin, who cut it back to 74 pages – another factor in its excellence.
Dashnight Productions’ CHOPS runs through August 14 at Theatre Wit. May that run be extended.
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