Theatre in Review

The producers at Steppenwolf describe Pass Over as a “riff on Waiting for Godot” – and that’s true - except for this: Pass Over is not boring. In fact it is gripping and entertaining for every one of its 80 minutes of run time.

Written by Antoinette Nwandu and premiering under the direction of Danya Taymor, Pass Over is at once funny, alarming, sickening, and frightening. With shades of Master Harold & the Boys and Miss Margarita’s Way, it portrays two young inner city black men – Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker)  hanging out under a street lamp, hoping to get off “the block.” To say these two give knock out performances is an understatement.

Like Groundhog Day, each morning they resume the wait, their hours punctuated periodically by gunfire, and the appearance of the menacing policeman Ossifer (Ryan Hallahan in a searing performance; he also plays the white-suited Mister) whose role is to dispel their hope, and keep them in their place.

Moses and Kitch are condemned, suggests Nwandu, to be “waiting for Godot” their whole lives. Unlike Beckett’s duo, Moses and Kitch are not abstract constructs, but real people. The warmth and mutual fealty of these two young men captures your heart through their amusing word games and youthful horseplay.

Nwandu also plumbs the depths of the emotional link between Moses and Kitch, and we bear witness to their bond. As in Beckett’s play, these characters form a suicide pact, but cannot do it.  

They survive, somehow, and hope returns repeatedly – even against all odds. But the two never escape, either, and Pass Over faces us with our contemporary social challenge. By making Moses and Kitch so accessible to us, by humanizing them, Nwandu brings a fresh immediacy to the lament, that Black Lives Matter.   

Pass Over is both timeless, and a powerful commentary on contemporary conditions. Into this piece, Nwandu has squeezed a book. Fully deconstructed, it could easily fill a college semester of study.

Part of the vaunted excellence of Beckett’s 1953 Waiting for Godot - an existentialist reverie on the seemingly endless insufferableness of life, and perhaps the meaningless of that suffering – is that the audience also experiences the ennui of that endless wait, in real time. Frankly it’s a bore.

Not so with Pass Over. It is fully realized in this production. I might quibble with the end of the play – it seemed heavy handed from a first viewing. But I am going to have to trust and respect the playwright's and director’s judgements, given the excellence of all that comes before. The performances by Hill and Parker in fact are so perfectly delivered, hopefully it is exactly what the playwright intended – because it is tremendous. It runs through July 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Published in Theatre in Review

The storyline in Relativity is a supposed to be a mystery. The great physicist and mathematical theoretician Albert Einstein fathered a daughter, Liserl, out of wedlock in Switzerland with Mileva Marić– but all mentions of her disappear after the age of two.


What happened to her? Several theories have been put forward – that she died of scarlet fever, that she was put up for adoption - but the historical track was largely obliterated with the destruction of many records during World War II. Though Einstein later married Marić, his daughter disappears from the historical record after 1904.


Mark St. Germaine’s Relativity poses one possibility on her whereabouts , and Einstein is confronted with it many years later, by a mysterious visitor to his quarters in Princeton. Margaret Harding (Katherine Keberlein), a journalist who has come to profile him for the Jewish Daily News – and to challenge him on his neglect of his daughter.


Suffice it to say we witness a fair amount of unresolved anger in the encounter, during which Einstein also learns he has a grandchild – also a genius - who is seeking his support in entering a top university. This colorful and intriguing tale is enticement enough to see Relativity. But an added bonus is the fact that the lead is played by the oldest working union actor in the U.S. – the indomitable Mike Nussbaum. Known for his skillful and intelligent delivery including some of David Mamet’s most challenging dramas, Nussbaum at 93 makes a striking appearance. That he can do it at all may be surprising, but Nussbaum delivers a textured and nuanced characterization of the great physicist. He is bring his all to the role, though he doesn’t project at the same intensity as in days of yore – or maybe it’s my hearing going.


The script is okay, with its once over lightly descriptions of Einstein’s unprecedented theorems, and the family angst grows tiresome pretty quickly. There is also a lot of exposition in which the reporter recounts famous quotes and anecdotes from Einstein, who fills in with one liners that elicit some laughs.


Ann Whitney plays a crotchety housekeeper and secretary, the real-life Helen Dukas, and her chemistry with Nussbaum is delightful. Their scenes provide insight into the suffering of an aging genius who is unlikely to discover new universal theories. Nussbaum brings an unusual gift to this aspect of the role, and a hunt for a piece of chalk to write a formula on a blackboard captures the essence of the matter, opening a window into the unsettling existential void.


As always Northlight delivers high production values (Jack Magaw on scenic design; JR Lederle on lighting; Stephen Mazurek fir Projection Design) and director BJ Jones does an excellent job orchestrating the production. Relativity runs through June 25 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Published in Theatre in Review

Objects in the Mirror, an outstanding play having its premier at Goodman Theatre, will soon have you wanting to know more about its author, Charles Smith, a Chicago playwright.  

Starring Daniel Kyri as Shedrick Yarkpai, this play springs from the true story of the real life Yarkpai, a refugee who fled Liberia in the aftermath of its first Civil War, struggling for 12 years across hostile terrain and through refugee camps in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

Excellent performances and a creative set and lighting make this a show not to miss, especially for the wonderful writing of Charles Smith. Breon Arzell plays cousin Zaza Workolo; Ryan Kitley is Rob Mosher; and Lily Mojekwu as Shedrick’s mother Luopu Workolo is just spectacular – she steals all her scenes.

The real life Shedrick Yarkpai eventually made his way to Adelaide, Australia, and as fate would have it became an actor. And so, playwright Smith met him and heard his tale while staging another of his plays there - Free Man of Color (it won a 2004 Jeff Award and has been staged widely, including the Goodman).

Shedrick Yarkpai’s passage through the wilderness alone would be a worthy story, bringing our attention to the privation in Liberia wrought by years of civil chaos. But this play would not succeed as it does, unless it can hold our attention and keep us in our seats. 

And here Smith’s skillful craft shines through, along with director Chuck Smith and the creative team, who have turned the years-long odyssey of the protagonists, Shedrick and his uncle John Workolo (Allen Gilmore is terrific) – they ate grass, lived in the bush, both life and limbs, literally, endangered by violent, machete wielding warriors – and condensed it into an engaging trek, showing geography, educating us on the history, but all in an entertaining way, unlikely as this may seem.

Objects in the Mirror is so much more than a topical recount of Liberian suffering and struggle. Smith also puts before us the psychological and emotional toll on all refugees who must give up so much of their culture, and themselves, in resettling. Among the things so striking about Smith’s play is how he holds our interest in Shedrick’s odyssey. But he subordinates it to a more charged dramatic concern: the personal compromises refugees must make in escaping, and losses that can never be reclaimed.

In a way that only theater can, we engage and experience the personal emotional stress. And while we know of the trauma, what Smith conveys is the suffering from loss of identity, and of dreams. Shedrick has adopted a false identity to make it through border crossings – but he regrets the loss of his name.

Shedrick is a dreamer. He is also a storyteller, as is Smith, and the characters he has created. "Through storytelling, the play ascends to a powerful examination of truth and falsity, and the powers of persuasion. All good stories tell a strand of the truth," says Uncle John.

Once in Adelaide, Yarkpai finds work with a supportive Australian government agent – but Shedrick’s uncle John is fearful it will blow their cover. The debate through several scenes in which different characters tell their version of the parts of Shedrick's story is the stuff of great theater. 

The creative team includes Riccardo Hernandez (set design), Mike Tutaj (projection design), John Culbert (lighting design), Birgit Rattenborg Wise (costume design), Ray Nardelli (sound design). Briana J. Fahey is the production stage manager.

Objects in the Mirror runs through June 4 at the Goodman Theatre. It is highly recommended.

Published in Theatre in Review

Let's cut to the chase on this review: Queen is the best show in town. 

Having its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, in Queen, Madhuri Shekar has delivered a knockout script, deftly directed by Joanie Schultz, and brought to life by a strong cast. 

Two PhD students - Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) - have spent six years examining a true-life dilemma: why honey bees are dying – a real-world environmental crisis.

Ariel does the field research, and Sanam – a highly regarded math wonder - crunches numbers for the data, which point to a farm chemical from Monsanto as the culprit. Or so five years of data have shown. But something is amiss.

Queen is a gripping account of academic intrigue laced with ethical challenges, along the lines of David Auburn’s provocative Proof, but with a much livelier pace.

The two are working under Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer) who is to deliver within a few days a presentation on their work to an influential scientific group. The paper based on their research has been accepted for the journal Science. Dr. Hayes is gleeful about the prospects for his program, and promising access to big funding for the University.

A crisis looms as the latest research data does not support the earlier findings. Believing it stems from a glitch in the programming, Sanam searches desperately through the code. The pressure is on to bring the numbers in line with expectations.

If this sounds drab, it is anything but. Shekar lays out the science, and describes the culture of academia, in digestible bites. The human side of the drama comes to the fore in the relationship between the two women researchers, Sanam and Ariel, as the pressure mounts to get the results required by their academic overseer. BFFs, the two struggle through this growing professional chasm.

But it is the side-story about Sanam and a potential mate, Arvind Patel (Adam Poss) that leads to some exceptionally well-played scenes that steal the show – at least for me. Sanam’s diffidence about a date with Arvind (set up by her parents back in India) eventually leads to an unexpected romance.

Patel plays Arvind with a smooth, purring, throwaway manliness of that on-the-make single guy everyone knows. Sanam, who parries Arvind’s advances with vigor as he helps her puzzle out the math (he’s a math guy too, an investment manager who works in quant theory), and debate the ethical issues. To see the chemistry between Mohanty and Poss is worth a trip to the converted Biograph Theater.

Queen has been portrayed as an Earth Day oriented story, and a story of friendship among women. But it's also a showcase of great writing and acting.  Don’t miss Queen. It runs through May 14th and it's very highly recommended. 

For more show information click here

Published in Theatre in Review

Scapegoat; Or (Why the Devil Always Loved Us) a satirical political drama now playing at the Den Theatre, 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. gives a 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

Published in Theatre in Review

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

Published in Theatre in Review

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

Published in Theatre in Review

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.

Published in Theatre in Review

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.

Published in Theatre in Review

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.

Published in Theatre in Review
Page 1 of 2

 

 

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