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.  

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

A tragedy is unfolding at Steppenwolf Theatre, a good thing for audiences, less so for the denizens of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. In this show, with powerful performances by Glenn Davis, Shannon Cochran, Tom Irwin and Robert Brueler, the show stopper is Jacqueline Williams’ marvelous turn in the role of Congregant - she is a revelation.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) is operating a mega- church, one that has grown exponentially from fundamentalist storefront to a building so big it has a coffee shop, retail store, and a parking lot you could get lost in. Exponential expansion incurred debt, which the board of directors, led by Elder Jay (Robert Breuler) has struggled to discharge.

The play opens amid a mega-church service rendered so faithfully - huge backlit cross, melodious music, passionately performed; a serious scripture read - that a number of audience members joined in the prayers. Pastor Paul then delivers the sermon that sows chaos: the church, he says, is at a turning point – it is now debt free; but something else has gone awry. He no longer believes in that pillar of dualist theology, hell fire. Irwin’s discursive recount of this radical change in heart is delivered with a hint of irony, and at a pace faster than a real sermon – reminding us we are not in church, but in a theater.

In due time, the congregation starts to come apart at the seams. Associate Pastor (Glenn Davis) challenges this heresy, and is released of his duties. Elder Jay counsels Pastor Paul, in an eldering, indirect monolog, advising him of the folly of turning out his very popular associate preacher.

Then Congregant (Jacqueline Williams) arises during worship, and reads a letter of her reflections, begun in a self-effacing and unassuming manner, then swelling to emotional poignance, even majesty, as she picks apart Pastor Paul for forsaking the congregation’s need for faith, accusing him of a lack of sincerity in waiting until the after the mortgage was paid off.

The wind-down of the drama finds Pastor Paul again challenged by his Associate Pastor. Glenn Davis’ performance of a combative theological and emotional challenge rivaled that of Williams. And finally, Pastor’s Wife Elizabeth (Shannon Cochran) takes Pastor Paul on her own terms, struggling with the compromises he has inflicted on his family. And asserting she does not share his belief.    

These performances all on their own justify a trip to Steppenwolf Theatre, and the writing of this play. Directed obviously so well by K. Todd Freeman, The Christians runs through January 29, 2017, and is highly recommended. 

Davina & the Vagabonds' rollicking New Orleans-inflected jazz, gospel, and R&B delighted fans at a packed City Winery in Chicago this week. The retro stylings of this Minneapolis group carries a 1960's vibe, underscoring lyrics packed with an ironic take on songs of the “you done me wrong” and “don’t steal my man” variety.  

While the band features cornet and trombone, bass, drums and keyboard, there is added brass in the high powered vocals of lead singer Davina Powers, who along with her band mates, wins fans because she “brings it” to every performance.

Imagine Bette Midler impersonating Amy Winehouse, with a dash of Madeline Peyroux thrown in, and you get a sense of Davina Sowers. And while she has a lot of control of her vocal instrument - going from breathy to belting, with a light rasp that softens the delivery - she’s affecting as a pianist as well.

 

The  enthusiasm and turnout at City Winery - Wednesday's windchill notwithstanding - also delighted Sowers: nearly everyone yowled in the affirmative when she asked if they’d seen the show before. The band had begun this day before dawn to make an appearance at WGN Studios in the morning, and was to be up at dawn the next day for a show in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Sowers writes most of the songs, and her performance is loaded with showmanship as she mugs her way through the breaks and as songs unfold – but at a point in most songs she gets captured by the music, and really delivers. 

The group is much more than Davina, though, as each member – trombonist Steve Rognes, trumpet Zack Lozier, and drummer Connor McRae Hammergren - sings and writes original songs. Rognes and Lozier take the lead as they swing into Dixieland and Bourbon Street jazz. (The bass at City Winery is not a permanent member of the group.) Drummer Connor Hammergren, with big muttonchops, seems to have a lot of street-style percussive techniques up his sleeve.

Chicago’s City Winery is the perfect setting both in terms of intimacy and sound – and because the elegant noshes and paired with house wines harkens back to the glory days of 1950s and 1960s night clubs. As do Davina & the Vagabonds. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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