It’s been quite a year in Chicagoland for Karen Zacarías, and it’s not over yet. One year after her The Book Club Play graced the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, a month after Destiny of Desire opened at the Goodman, and a month before Native Gardens plays at Victory Gardens, her new play Into the Beautiful North is receiving a rolling world premiere back at 16th Street. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Naperville resident Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North is a hilarious, bitingly satirical, and occasionally terrifying and disturbing adventure story about a group of young Mexicans going on a quest to the distant, fabled city of Kankakee. The dangers awaiting them will change how they see everything.
The small Mexican town of Tres Camarones doesn’t have much. There’s just one internet-capable computer, owned by Tacho (Esteban Andres Cruz), the gay proprietor of the internet café. There’s a shuttered movie theatre where people used to escape into wild flights of fancy. And recently, nearly all the men seem to have deserted for the United States. This makes Tres Camarones easy prey to the evil narcos, who steal and abuse the town’s inhabitants as they please. But the town still successfully holds a mayoral election, which is won by Irma Cervantes (Laura Crotte) on a platform of boosting female employment by holding a Yul Brenner festival (though the cinema owner insists on a Steve McQueen festival).
While the town watches The Magnificent Seven, Irma’s niece, Nayeli (Ilse Zacharias), has a bold idea: why not go to the United States and gather seven brave Mexican men to fight off the narcos? They could even start with her father, who sent her a postcard once from Kankakee claiming he had done well. Irma supports the idea and contributes a lead of her own, while Nayeli gathers Tacho and her goth friend, Vampi (Allyce Torres), to make the journey to Tijuana, and then, illegally cross the border and go onward to Illinois, with stops for sight-seeing in Beverly Hills and Hollywood.
All does not go well. The band of friends is subjected to harassment and assault by federal troops searching for illegal Central American immigrants while still deep within Mexico. At Tijuana, they are joined by the dump-dwelling garbage warrior, Atomiko (Brandon Rivera), but their first crossing attempt is a disaster. The friends soon realize they have no idea what they will do even if they do get across, but this only proves to Nayeli that only the braves heroes can survive going to the United States.
Directed by Ann Filmer and cast member Miguel Nuñez, Into the Beautiful North rides the peaks of absurdity and valleys of real life horror like a roller coaster. Though we may be chuckling at Nayeli’s silhouetted Jack Sparrow-fantasy-lover one minute and cringing at an all-too-real incident of homophobia or xenophobia the next, the play is very much a coherent whole. Partly that’s because of a brilliant design by Joanna Iwanicka (set), Cat Wilson (lighting), Rachel Sypniewski (costumes) and Barry Bennett (sound/music), which capture the look of a Technicolor Western. We’re half-in the land of myth, where good and evil, love, and coming of age journeys are all outsized, so, of course, anything can happen.
But we’re also in the realm of shrewd political commentary, and that’s where the eight-person ensemble really shines. Zacharias, Crotte, Cruz, Nuñez, Torres, Rivera, and Andrés Enriquez and Juan Munoz go through a whirlwind of character changes as they perform this epic, each moving between larger-than-life performance styles and brief, but fascinating portraits of people from a massive swath of North America. Nayeli is so optimistic it’s impossible not to love her, and Tacho likewise emerges as a true hero in the face of the crap he is subjected to.
Filmer’s pre-show announcement hails the Mexican pride in this play, and that’s certainly present in abundance. Despite the outward simplicity of the presentation, we feel as though we are going on this journey with these characters as they learn about their own country and the United States. Atomiko the garbage warrior is amusing, but we are pointedly reminded that people really do live and die in such dumps. That’s an indictment of both countries’ social structures as well as a tribute to ordinary peoples’ courage, resourcefulness, and determination to survive. As is often the case with 16th Street, the play was extended before it even opened. As fine as this story is, it works especially well in an intimate setting. Don’t wait to get your tickets.
Into the Beautiful North is playing at the 16th St Theater in the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Il. Performances run Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm through June 3rd. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Free parking is available in the parking lot at 16th St and Gunderson.
To order, call 708-795-6704 or visit 16thstreettheater.org.
*Extended through June 17th
The Chicago premiere of a Tom Stoppard play is one of the most hotly anticipated events of this season. We’re never short for great Stoppard productions in this town, but The Hard Problem was Stoppard’s first new play in nine years when it debuted in 2015, and since Court Theatre’s Charlie Newell can be trusted to mount a strong production, the author is undoubtedly the main draw. Some of his best-known plays, such as the recently produced Travesties and Arcadia, were extremely complicated, sprawling works which required the audience to have a sizable pre-existing knowledge of artistic movements and the interplay between culture and technology, but The Hard Problem, as the title states, zeroes in on a single issue which, depending on which side of it you fall on, might not really seem to be a problem at all. Whether the mind is a function of the brain or has an ethereal quality is not something Stoppard attempts to answer definitively, but the degree to which this play interests you will largely depend on your investment in the debate.
Chaon Cross owns the part of Hilary, the only fully three-dimensional character in the play. A young psychologist whose path in life has had some unexpected hiccups, Hilary is dependent on Spike (Jürgen Hooper), an evolutionary biologist, to help her fake the mathematical credentials she needs to get a job with the Krohl Institute, a research lab dedicated to solving the mind-body problem. She doesn’t even particularly want to work there, but it was the only place she applied to and heard back from. Spike is an utterly noxious, self-justifying proponent of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to be more than just a need to be perceived as good at data processing which causes Hilary to keep inviting him into her bed. Anyway, it turns out that Leo (Brian McCaskill), the man running the part of the Krohl Institute Hilary’s interested in, shares her preference for psychology over neurology, and she gets the job on her own merits.
The Krohl Institute was created by Jerry Krohl (Nathan Hosner), a billionaire hedge fund manager, to help him gain an edge over other traders. Krohl himself doesn’t really care whether the brain is a meat computer or a conduit for the sublime; he just wants to eliminate uncertainty in practical matters. Early on, we meet Amal (Owais Ahmed), a mathematician who holds the position that the soul is flesh and whom Krohl later punishes for publicly predicting the 2008 crash instead of keeping it close to the vest. Amal’s growing disillusion with humans’ capacity for rational thought is driven largely by what he sees happening in the stock market, but he’s reluctant to fall into line with Hilary’s belief that this leaves us with no alternatives but belief in some kind of divinity.
The plot concerns Hilary’s struggle with a job that was never a good fit for her while her entire field appears to be in jeopardy. But Stoppard’s interest seems to be in how nobody really wants to acknowledge the true implications of their belief system, whatever that happens to be. Hilary is a less forceful arguer than Spike, but Newell’s centering of her on stage almost throughout the show and Cross’s commitment to her full range of emotions prevent us from dismissing her. Stoppard has also made her opponents repulsive Thersites-like characters, while Hilary’s on-stage ally is the kind-hearted, idealistic Bo (Emjoy Gavino). John Culbert’s scenic design doesn’t give them very many hiding places, which is perhaps why they resort to vicious verbal, and eventually, physical confrontations to make their points.
If Stoppard’s goal was to show how the debate over the hard problem spills out of sealed realms such as universities and think tanks to strike at peoples’ deepest vulnerabilities, the flatness of the other characters prevents him from quite getting there. However, he does a good enough job of illustrating his point for us to understand it. A great many people love Stoppard and Court Theatre simply for having these conversations, with no expectation the problem will be resolved. Pointing out how divorced from real life rationalism and rationalizations are is enough to make a fruitful evening, and getting to experience it being put so eloquently by fine actors is a bonus.
The Hard Problem plays at Court Theatre through April 9, with performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Running time is one hour and forty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $48–68; to order, call 773-753-4472 or visit CourtTheatre.org. For more information, see TheatreinChicago.com.
The House Theatre of Chicago artistic director Nate Allen introduces the world premiere of Diamond Dogs, an adaptation of a short story by Alastair Reynolds, by noting that it is “hard sci-fi” and a departure from the optimism usually implicit in House Theatre shows. Since a significant plot point of Diamond Dogs is people undergoing medical transformation into floating diamonds, I question how “hard” the science in this fiction actually is, but I think it is fair to say that the term signals that the story caters to a different set of expectations and interests than people usually expect from other genres. The House has also performed enough tragedies recently, including an adaptation of The Bacchae, that the optimism Allen refers to is meant in the sense that people have significant enough good qualities for their self-destruction to elicit sorrow. Diamond Dogs doesn’t really do that. Like Moby Dick, one of the stories best known for a pessimistic view of peoples’ graces to flaws ratio, Diamond Dogs depicts people slowly killing themselves in pursuit of an idiotic objective, but it depicts them in a manner which is far more frustrating.
The adaptors, called Althos Low (a group also known as Shanghai Low Theatricals led by Steve Pickering) are working from one of sixteen stories within Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. The backstory is long and complicated, but basically, hundreds of years from now, humans have colonized space, developed cybernetic enhancements to our bodies and intelligence, and can skip over the boring centuries traveling in between stars by freezing and unfreezing ourselves. Our viewpoint character, Richard Swift (John Henry Roberts), is still youthful at one hundred and seventy-two years old, and in mourning for his parents and dozens of other people who died in an experiment meant to achieve immortality. It seems that effective immortality has been achieved through other means anyway, but Swift refuses to criticize the dead, and while honoring them, is surprised to find their leader, his boyhood friend Roland Childe (Chris Hainsworth), still very much alive. Childe claims he has found the key to technology which could lead to resurrection, and asks Swift to join his exploration team.
Though no living aliens have been encountered thus far, traces of their long-dead civilizations have been found, and Childe is particularly interested in a structure he has named Blood Spire on a desolate planet he calls Golgotha. The Blood Spire is a floating spiral tower with a pile of corpses at its base. Childe claims to have spoken with a survivor who said that to climb within the tower, explorers must answer increasingly difficult mathematical questions as they move from room to room. A wrong answer results in mutilation, and repeated failures in death. Also, the Blood Spire’s AI is advanced enough to be considered sentient. The motley crew Childe has assembled consists of Swift, Swift’s ex-wife, Celestine (Katherine Keberlein), who has cybernetic implants to make her a math whiz and whom Swift has had suppressed in his memories, Forqueray (Abu Ansari), a captain, Hirz (Elana Elyce), a mercenary hacker, and Dr. Trintignant (Joey Steakley), a fugitive who kidnapped and murdered dozens of people while developing new cybernetics. They do not get along and their attempts to climb the tower do not go very well.
It takes until the beginning of the second act for somebody to point out that they do not have the slightest reason to believe that the tower is in any way related to their supposed objective, and even longer for someone to point out that there is no reason to believe the tower would ever allow them to win. However, it is also made clear early on that none of their objections matter. While Captain Ahab was a charismatic figure who inspired his men to believe in him and made them feel valued, Childe is a bully who immediately resorts to physical intimidation and openly delights in humiliating his crew and watching them quaver in terror of Blood Spire’s traps. But he’s only one man, and what really keeps the other five returning to the tower again and again is ego and spite. I was reminded while watching Diamond Dogs of a game my family played last Christmas which all of us hated, but which went on for hours because none of us would quit first or allow ourselves to lose. Diamond Dogs is about people who are supposedly very intelligent and truly loathe each other doing something with serious consequences for losing, but not winning.
As for the staging, it’s technically brilliant, but in service of a story which is claustrophobic and cerebral. Lee Keenan has supplied all sorts of special lights to create the Blood Spire environment, and several of these are integrated into Izumi Inaba’s very cool space costumes. Inaba and sound designer Sarah Espinoza also had the foresight to put microphones into the masks and helmets. Mary Robinette Kowal’s puppets are also visually impressive, and I gather that they are considerably more graceful and ghostly than what is described of the titular diamond dogs in Reynolds’s text. But Allen’s direction can’t avoid the Sisyphean nature of the plot and theme, so the visual elements’ power wears thin after not very long.
The six actors also do a fine job with broadly written characters. Steakley, in particular, has mastered an odd movement vocabulary, which he relies on because Dr. Trintignant always wears a mask and may not even have a face. Roberts is also a stand-out in a role which requires the audience to become increasingly disillusioned with his character. For fans of the Revelation Space series, Diamond Dogs is a must-see, and The House’s production values are used here in service of an interesting aesthetic rarely seen elsewhere. But the aggravating nature of the story makes it important for anybody who is not a hard sci-fi fan to know what they are getting into beforehand. Certain plot points late in the play which seemed too convenient or didn’t make sense made me even more frustrated. Diamond Dogs has its strong points, but is firmly situated within its niche.
Diamond Dogs is performed in the upstairs at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St, Chicago, Illinois. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $30-35; to order, visit thehousetheatre.com or call 773-769-3832.
Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through March 5.
If you don’t already know about the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, now’s a great time to check it out. For ten years, the Equity company run by Ann Filmer in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center has endeavored to produce high-quality work for an affordable price while paying artists fairly, and for this anniversary season, they’re reviving several of their hits as staged readings (I can personally recommend Yasmina’s Necklace). As for the current mainstage production, Blizzard ’67 by local playwright Jon Steinhagen is an expertly crafted character study in a setting familiar to every Chicagoan of a certain age, but is easily accessible to those whom the blizzard long predates.
The play begins a few days before the January 26th blizzard with the characters breaking the fourth wall to introduce themselves to us in a narrative device, which Steinhagen will return to a few times over the evening. In this early segment, the audience chuckles knowingly along with the four men in a carpool as they marvel over how quickly Illinois weather can go from 65 degrees to dropping two feet of snow. That humor is a necessity for keeping the audience’s interest, too, because calling our characters creatures of their era is about the nicest thing which can be said about them.
Four steel chairs represent the car Lanfield (Mark Pracht) drives his co-workers in. They alternate four times a year, and Lanfield’s functional alcoholism and his car’s faulty radio and horn gain him no reprieve from his duties. Riding with him are Henkin (Stephen Spencer), a bachelor rising in the company, family man Bell (Noah Simon), and young new guy Emery (Christian Stokes). They are not friends. Emery claims he can see that Henkin’s recent promotion is simply a meaningless carrot the bosses wave in front of them, but Lanfield is seething with jealous insecurity and stokes Bell’s low-key dissatisfaction, as well. Henkin is unapologetic about doing “well” and Emery internally debates whether siding with him or Lanfield would be more advantageous.
Besides making up for in paper-thin egos what they lack in social skills and self-awareness, our characters have very little in their lives which gives them any happiness, and our look into their home lives earns them a bit of pity. Bell is luckier than the others in that he at least as a child he loves and is loved by. Emery has a doting father who has provided him with everything and a new wife; even if his life is disappointing now, there’s reason to expect it will get better. Lanfield is an emotional mess but has a wife who nurses him while enabling his self-destruction. Henkin’s loneliness is a more subtle kind of sadness, and one more easily hidden under affected disdain. When the men are caught in the sudden blizzard as a result of preferring the risk of commuting home to the certain misery of sharing a room, they are thrown into crises. In a moment of panic, three abandon the fourth, and are left to confront their mounting horror and disgust at how far they are from how they perceived themselves.
Sometime after Blizzard ’67, Steinhagen wrote The Devil’s Day Off, which was performed by Signal Ensemble in 2014 and depicted the consequences of a heat wave in Chicago. Whether Blizzard ‘67’s script was revised after that I do not know, but Steinhagen has developed a formidable skill at writing characters in extreme, but easily recognizable, situations. However, while The Devil’s Day Off was written to give the actors and director as much latitude as possible, Blizzard ’67 thrives on its specificity. Filmer guides her four actors seamlessly from the satirical tone at the play’s opening to the harrowing meditations at its end. Her direction and Steinhagen’s script draw us into the characters’ lack of closure, making us suffer prolonged tension along with them in the play’s second act. Assisting in this is the minimal design, with a brutal grey set by Grant Sabin, cold lights by Benjamin White, projections with the slightest dream-like edge by Anthony Churchill, evocative weather sound-effects by Barry Bennett, and period and character-appropriate costumes by Rachel Sypniewski.
Even so, the four actors are, of course, the pillars on whom the play rests, and each provides a full portrait of a man mired in his own different kind of frustration. While Bell may be the most conventionally likeable, each has petty weaknesses and aspirations we can easily identify with. Spencer, in particular, does stand-out work, as he not only plays Henkin, but also has to transform himself into several other characters who are treated seriously by the narrative. Wisely, he and Filmer have not attempted to be completely illusionary with this, but give us a good enough idea of a bartender and a close relative of each of the other characters for us to understand how they relate to each other. For the most part, the relationships are very troubled, and what makes Blizzard ’67 interesting on a level deeper than mere nostalgia for the blizzard is its examination of a failure of people to value each other. It takes a televised speech by Richard J. Daley, of all people, for the characters to realize what the true source of their unhappiness is. Those of us today with more satisfactory work environments, families, and friendships may come away grateful for how far things have come, and remember to safeguard mundane kindnesses and our consciousness of others.
Blizzard ’67 is being performed at 6420 16th St in Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours, with one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at 16thstreettheater.org. Admission is $18-22.
Performances are Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm (often with a post-show discussion) and Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 pm now extended through March 4th. Parking is available for free in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.
If you were to take a survey of teenagers and young adults to determine which social issue they’re most interested in seeing addressed onstage, mass shootings would be near the top of the list. Though the kind of incident in which an ideologically fanatical and/or severely mentally ill individual massacres a random group of people is not how the majority of murders occur, or the type of shooting Chicago public school students are most likely to encounter, it is something I’ve found that students have a strong desire to discuss. Of course, discussing something is quite different from discussing it intelligently, and the “conversation” around school shootings is filled with so much nonsense and has so little legislative effect that people have become jaded enough for Heathers: The Musical to exist (and be funny). But that’s where playwright Caitlin Parrish comes in. Working with director Erica Weiss, Parrish has adapted the ancient Greek story of Antigone into a new play which not only allows its characters to be complex and intelligent, but is an interesting story in its own right, and worthwhile for adults to see during a public performance.
The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was one who sacrificed her life by defying her uncle Creon to give her treacherous brother a proper burial. The one imagined by Jean Anouilh in 1944 switched her motivations so rapidly that Anouilh’s Creon excused himself by saying she simply wished to be martyred and did not care what principle she ostensibly died for. Parrish’s Antigone, named Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan), has no desire to sacrifice herself at all. The favorite child of a widowed Republican senator running for re-election as a moderate, high school senior Sophie has just cast her vote in her first primary election when shots ring out at her school. Upon learning that her brother, Ben (Matt Farabee), was the killer and concluded his massacre in suicide, her first thought is that she hopes his body hasn’t been left alone, and her second thought is to hope the media does not release his name until the polls are closed. Sophie has made supporting her father’s career her purpose in life, and is deeply disappointed in Ben for what she perceives as a calculated attempt to kill their family socially, along with his more direct victims. In this version, he is buried quickly, in an unmarked grave outside of town, but Sophie is troubled at how easily her father, Ryan (Coburn Goss), and sister, Chloe (Becca Savoy), join everyone else in writing him off as evil.
Sophie’s discomfort increases when her father declares that he wants teachers to be armed, and implies he would have killed Ben himself had he known what he was planning. She’s also blindsided by how suspicious her classmates are of her—to have not known Ben was a psychopath means she must either have been stupid or been covering for him, and they know she’s not stupid. As her father’s plan to rebuild his public image as Ben’s most prominent surviving victim proves surprisingly successful, Sophie finds herself disagreeing with him on the wisdom of widespread access to firearms. He claims that she is simply trying to avoid acknowledging what Ben was so he won’t reflect poorly on her, but Sophie believes whatever was wrong with Ben isn’t as easily addressed or as relevant to any other mass shooting as cracking down on guns.
Parrish’s script sometimes strays close to letting characters speechify, but generally, she motivates their responses quite well. The nine-member ensemble all acquit themselves marvelously, with Cygan expertly managing the difficult task of keeping a somewhat objectionable and high-handed protagonist clever and active enough to maintain the audience’s interest. Higher on the sympathy scale is Savoy’s sardonic Chloe, who, as a lesbian from a Republican household, had relied more upon the school than her family for a social network, and is more upset by having that taken from her. Goss’ senator is no caricature, but he doesn’t display the same level of conflict over what to do with Sophie as most Creons. His claim that he specifically is needed in Washington and he therefore must be willing to sacrifice his family seems to have little basis, but the playwright allows him to sound reasonable despite disagreeing with him.
The school, too, is host to a wide array of richly developed characters. Stephanie Andrea Barron plays Sophie’s friend Janette, who is from a far less-comfortable background and already had mechanisms for coping with violence; her boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd) never liked Sophie in the first place, perhaps saw her as a rival, and is the kind of person who displays his books so everybody can be impressed by what he’s reading (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me). Greg (Ty Olwin) is a profoundly hurt friend of a victim who finds the Martins unspeakably vile, while Brianna (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a survivor whose brief appearance in a video at the beginning of the play instantly establishes an unsettling tension. It was wise of Parrish to grant the chorus so much individuality—the community feels much more authentic when its differences can be acknowledged, and the play has a heart which is sometimes missing in modern remountings of Greek tragedies. Representing her and Weiss’s own generation are a teacher and a newscaster played by Kristina Valada-Viars, one of whom, being in her mid-thirties, declares herself too old to lead the cause of gun control, and the other of whom outright admits she has been faking her routine shock and grief for a while.
Courtney O’Neill’s set design contains a nod to what the Athenian theatre is supposed to have looked like in the time of Sophocles, but it also allows room for Joseph A. Burke’s projections. Ben appears in the form of a vapid video diary he kept which endlessly frustrates the other characters by providing very little help in figuring out his motivations, but his posthumous presence on social media becomes a major recurring plot point. Parrish used the premise of Antigone, but since the point of the play is to make teenagers feel empowered, one can see long in advance that it’s not a tragedy. Parrish and Weiss also aren’t shy about using the play to advocate for stricter gun regulation, or possibly elimination, but the context of Steppenwolf’s encouragement of discussion and feedback prevents this from feeling propagandistic, and they present a reasoned argument with respect for the other side. Based on the differences between how Goss and Valada-Viars’s characters are represented, they seem harder on themselves, which, when ninety percent of the public supports stricter background checks and is unable to move Congress, gun-regulation advocates perhaps ought to be.
One of the most encouraging things about this production is that there exist people who understand the myriad viewpoints that exist surrounding mass shootings and respect young peoples’ experiences and concerns. Acknowledgement isn’t progress in itself, but it is a precondition to progress that is often lacking, and Weiss’s cast display genuine empathy. This show isn’t meant to condescendingly educate teenagers about themselves; it’s a mirror held up to the people most effected by an issue, and for them and everyone else concerned about mass shootings, The Burials is highly recommended.
Public performances of The Burials are on October 14 at 7:30 pm, October 15 at 3:00 pm, and October 22 and 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted Ave, Chicago. For ticket information, see Steppenwolf.org.
The tumultuous personal life of the six-time married Henry VIII has been an inspiration for dramatists for centuries, and provided immortal fame to several of his ill-fated wives. However, as the wife who had the political astuteness to survive him and the luck to marry him after he had already produced his long-awaited male heir, Katherine Parr has usually been neglected due to her apparent lack of tragedy. That changed last year, when Canadian actress and playwright Kate Hennig’s new work, The Last Wife, premiered at the Stratford Festival. Narrowly focused on six richly drawn characters, Hennig’s play is a reminder of how remarkable Parr truly was, and that her political power stemmed from her ability to reconcile one of the English-speaking world’s most notoriously fractured families. In the play’s United States debut at Timeline Theatre, director Nick Bowling’s cast teases out the nuances of Hennig’s complex script, creating a surprisingly compassionate image of a court known mainly for its beheadings.
The play is in modern dress and language, with elegantly simple costumes by Melissa Torchia and a matching silver and black set by Regina Garcia. Katherine Parr (AnJi White) is a social-climbing noblewoman with a dying husband she never liked, and a handsome admirer in the highly desirable Thom Seymour (Nate Santana). However, at the top of the play, she is troubled by the gift King Henry (Steve Pickering) has made to her of a dazzling necklace. It is a clear indication that he wishes to make her wife number six, and to refuse his gift is even more dangerous than to accept it. Henry himself makes that clear when he interrupts the couple by forcibly kissing Katherine and humiliating Thom by pretending to forget his lack of title and pointing out his inability to protect “his” woman. Catherine makes a counteroffer of becoming Henry’s mistress, but he refuses, and surprises her by declaring that his interest in her is primarily due to his belief that the young prince Edward (Chinguun Sergelen, alternating with Matthew Abraham) needs a mother.
Katherine, or, as she prefers to be called, Parr, recognizes several opportunities. The king is ailing, and is in need of advisers, and possibly a regent. Furthermore, if she maneuvers correctly, she could place herself in a position to mentor his older daughters, Mary (Paola Sanchez Abreu) and Bess (Caroline Heffernan, alternating with Peyton Shaffer), whom he is currently estranged from due to abusing, and in Bess’s case, murdering their mothers. Parr would like to see more women in positions of power, and the first step to making that happen is to restore the girls to the line of succession. White possesses the strength and the warmth to communicate that Parr is a mixture of high ambition and idealism, with a long-disappointed hope of starting a family of her own. She craves power enough that she is willing to take grave risks to gain it, seeks it for others as well as herself, and, perhaps unexpectedly, finds herself falling for the Tudors even as she tries to negotiate her suddenly much more complex relationship with Thom. White’s astute choices regarding when to be vulnerable and when to be commanding make her a fascinating figure, and the driving force of the play.
She’s in good company. Steve Pickering’s Henry is a sardonic, miserable, but highly intelligent and dangerous old monster. “I’m capricious; that makes me a fascist, not a liberal,” he declares early on in what is also an example of Hennig’s generally strong ability to describe Renaissance dynamics in modern language. (It’s not perfect; everything onstage is contemporary, but the characters still refer to cannons.) Henry cannot be tricked by false affection, but Parr is old enough to remember there was a time when he was a genuine sex symbol, and still has lingering admiration for the person he was when he took the throne as a teenager. Henry misses that person, too. Santana’s charming, but somewhat feckless Thom is depicted more sympathetically than the historical character usually is, as is Sanchez’s wounded and sour Mary. Heffernan’s Bess starts very guarded, but grows to reveal her intellect as well as her insecurities. Sergelen’s Edward is an innocent who has an adorable tendency to get underfoot at awkward moments, one of which implies early on that Parr and Thom may be a little sleazier than we’ve been led to believe.
Hennig is too clever a writer to make The Last Wife a morally simplistic story. Her characters are messy, and she treats her audience as people who don’t need to be preached to. At two and a half hours, The Last Wife is unusually dense and lengthy for a new play, and at times, Hennig’s style seems suited for a novel. There are a few big dramatic scenes, but most of the character development takes place through quieter moments during which they are clearly thinking more than they say. For example, while discussing Edward’s succession, Bess takes a tactless tone while pointing out that seventy percent of males in their family die before the age of eighteen. Mary responds with a veiled comparison between Bess and Richard III. But Bowling has done such a fine job of casting and pacing that the story never drags (and for those who absolutely prefer something shorter, Timeline’s production of Bakersfield Mist will be continuing through mid-October). For fans of the Tudor era, as well as people who enjoy intimate studies of ambitious families, The Last Wife is highly recommended.
The Last Wife is playing at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave through December 18. For tickets or show information, see timelinetheatre.com.
Well-to-do friends clashing over hidden resentments and jealousies while dining is a common scenario in the contemporary American theatre. Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, which focused on romantic entanglements, and Ayad Akhtar won in 2013 for Disgraced, which also addressed issues of Islam-inspired and anti-Islamic prejudice. To wrap up a year of smash-hits, the 16th Street Theater is producing the world premiere of A. Zell Williams’s Carroll Gardens, a “comedy” of the same genre which is about an interracial childhood friendship in working-class Stockton, and how it changes when one of the parties becomes a New York creative professional. Williams commented that theatre is bereft of the experience of today’s young African-Americans, and perhaps in an attempt to compensate for not seeing his concerns addressed elsewhere, he overloads his play with plot points, and exposition. However, he also has a very strong director in Ann Filmer, the 16th Street Theater’s artistic director, and a more than capable cast.
The story begins in 1993, when Davis (played as a child by Davu Smith) is visiting the home of Robby (played as a child by Rowan Moxley) for the first time. Robby is new to town and doesn’t have many friends yet, but he just made one in Davis by beating up his bully. Davis isn’t sure what to make of Robby: though they are only ten, Robby’s deceased mother forced him to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and he uses terms such as “cultural appropriation,” yet Robby, who is white, totally fails to recognize what the other kids mean by calling Davis an “oreo” and thinks ending feuds is as simple as telling his adversaries he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Still, they bond by introducing each other to Nirvana and The Coup, and though Davis is bemused by Robby, they genuinely like each other.
Flash forward to Davis’s thirtieth birthday, and things are no longer so warm. Davis (Gregory Geffard) hasn’t responded to any of Robby’s attempts to contact him in years, and Robby (Andy Lutz) mostly stopped trying until right before announcing that he will be visiting Davis’s new apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. While Davis is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, Robby still dresses like a teenager, apparently has no occupation other than selling weed, and still spouts leftist dogma. Davis’s girlfriend, image-conscious Pilates instructor Quinlan (Alex Fisher), does not care for Robby’s uncouthness, and Davis is getting irritated with him, too, when a confluence of events reminds him of how strangled he feels by the upper-class liberalism, trendiness, and materialism of his new environment. Quinlan genuinely loves him, and Robby’s jealous interference in their lives prompts more than just a culture clash, but on the eve of his total transition into adulthood, Davis is forced to ask himself what he truly wants.
There is another couple present who Davis and Quinlan are friends with. Deepti (Minita Gandhi, Leena Kurishingal later in the run) is an Indian-American OB-GYN and the kind of person who thinks declaring “you can tell that injera bread was created to go with lambs raised on African grass” could be anything other than obnoxious. Her boyfriend and Davis’s director, Jamie (Brian J. Hurst), is a politically correct conscious-raising-type who somehow manages to say something casually racist with every breath, and Davis suspects he has outgrown him, too. Williams has drawn his characters in great detail, and Filmer chose well in casting actors who pick up all the details he supplies them with. As the child Davis, Smith’s incredulity at Moxley’s Robby is adorable, and as the adult Robby, Lutz’s clumsy attempts to get along with Quinlan’s Fisher are hilariously uncomfortable.
The problem with Carroll Gardens is that Williams creates too many complications. Davis must not only decide whether it is possible to continue his relationship with Robby, but also whether he wants to continue on with Quinlan and Brian, all for different reasons. While it is understandable for Williams to want to put him under pressure, the defining traits of each character are hammered on a few too many times. Carroll Gardens does, however, have two saving graces. The first is that, in Geffard’s hands, Davis does not come across as weak, but as disillusioned and somewhat disappointed. The script’s other strength is that Quinlan is a fully-developed, sympathetic character, who has her own concerns about their new lifestyle. Fisher captures a great deal of conflict and nuance in her performance, and is able to wrest an equal position in the play to Geffard and Lutz. Joanna Iwanicka has supplied the 16th St with another fine, naturalistic set, which, with just a few touches, suggests a converted space being occupied by people whose income is being almost entirely eaten up by their rent. Would that Williams had left just a few more details to his other collaborators, but what he has written is respectable, and the inaugural production is an ideal telling of the story.
Playing through October 15 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups. Free parking is provided in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.
It’s the beginning of a puppet-laden season in theatre this fall. Victory Gardens will be performing Hand to God, the story of a boy whose hand puppet is possessed by the devil, and later in the season, Writers Theatre will produce The Hunter and the Bear, their latest collaboration with Pigpen Theatre Company, which is expected to include the use of shadow puppets as storytelling devices. But first, The House Theatre of Chicago is now presenting their newest original work, A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, a show which explores a fictionalized origin for England’s popular family annihilating marionette, and the minds of the people who came up with him. Featuring the best products of The House’s beloved design team, Mister Punch is a technical marvel, though the script by Kara Davidson is slow to start.
The earliest record of Punch and Judy shows comes from the seventeenth century, and the show is set slightly after that. Punch’s illegal immigrant Italian creator, Pietro Bologna (Adrian Danzig), ekes out an existence while dodging the authorities, as does the thief and street urchin, Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright). Fate brings them together, and Pietro decides he could use her as a bottler, the assistant who introduces shows and collects money. Disguised as a boy named Charlie, Charlotte is initially awful, but the puppets capture her imagination. They have inner life, Pietro tells her, though he guards his creations jealously, and insists that mass murder is the only acceptable ending for Mr. Punch’s stories. When Charlotte learns that Pietro visits a prostitute, Polly (Echaka Agba), whom he regards more as a mistress, she hopes that a softer side of her master might manifest through the puppets if she could only capture some of that affection in the play. But circumstances, and Pietro’s true disposition, are not so kind.
Lee Keenan’s scenic design is similar to the circus theme used in The House’s recently remounted Death and Harry Houdini, only this time, commedia dell’arte masks and puppet pieces dangle from the rafters. John Fournier’s original music contains several unnerving melodies, though naturally, few can compare with the props designed by Eleanor Kahn or with the puppets themselves, created by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. The leering grins of Punch, the crocodile, and the other denizens of his world look even more grotesque in the masks worn by the live actors (costumes by Izumi Inaba). Punch, played by Johnny Arena, appears in the flesh during scenes in which his puppeteers are acting him out, as do Judy (Carolyn Hoerdemann), his much-abused acquaintance, Joey (Joey Steakley), and his other victims. Though The House prides itself on innovative storytelling, few scenes in the show could be more highly theatricalized than these.
Or, at least, that will probably be the case after a few more runs. Though puppetry is often clumsy, more than was optimal seemed to be going wrong at opening, which distorted the pace of the comedy and caused some hesitancy among the actors during fight scenes. This has happened at other House shows, which were able to recover gracefully, but his time, the script was unfocused in the first act to the point where the performers didn’t have much to return to. In the second act, Davidson found her thread, and director Shade Murray was able to put together a story that was as alarming as it was open-ended. But in the first act, precious time was lost to self-indulgent interludes such as the main antagonist doing an impression of House artistic director Nathan Allen.
As annoying as some of the missed opportunities were, what happens in the second act more than redeems the show. We see Danzig’s Pietro as he truly is—not nearly as monstrous as his creation, but enough like him to confuse and disquiet the girl who can’t help seeing him as a friend. Cartwright’s performance takes over near the end, as with increasing desperation she attempts to turn the world of “cathartic violence” Pietro has devised into something kinder and more hopeful. Ironically, the scene which the opening night audience reacted the most viscerally to was one of the few instances of Pietro doing something truly altruistic, due to its graphic nature. The House strongly advises that this show is for teens, at the youngest. But for people able to enjoy and critique the Punch and Judy aesthetic, this show comes recommended.
A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch is being performed at the Chopin Theatre through October 23. Tickets are $30-35; for more information, visit TheHouseTheatre.com. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.