Theatre in Review

Wednesday, 12 July 2017 22:19

Review: "HIR" at Steppenwolf Theatre

With “HIR” by Taylor Mac, Steppenwolf Theatre continues its legacy of pushing relevant and sometimes uncomfortable topics onto its audiences. Directed by Hallie Gordon, this is the Chicago premiere of Mac’s acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway hit. This vivid production is sure to unsettle some subscribers, but that’s the point. Mac’s script offers up laughs and lessons and is able to gets its point across without coming off as preachy.

What a treat it is to see ensemble member Amy Morton back on the Steppenwolf stage. Morton is a frequent director at the Steppenwolf but has been scarce since her much-praised performance as Martha in 2010’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which transferred to Broadway. Morton plays Page, the mother of a transgender teen, Max (Em Grosland) and recently discharged soldier Isaac (Ty Olwin). She is also caring for her ailing husband (Francis Guinan) who has been incapacitated by a stroke. Page has unusual ideas about politics and lifestyle and is finally able to express herself the way she wants without an oppressive husband and societal restrictions.

Playwright, performer and singer-songwriter Taylor Mac (otherwise known as “judy”) is hot right now. His one-man “24-Decade History of Popular Music” was shortlisted for the 2017 Pulitzer. There’s no one quite like judy. HIR is essentially a fictionalized thesis on gender and politics in America. Guinan’s feeble character represents the fragile white male ego and Morton’s character is the at-times militant voice of the future. That future is without gender, without color, and without boundaries. Page seems to relish in abusing her once violent husband. An apt metaphor. Mac has a great sense of humor about the LGBT community and that shines through, but his script is also dense with a vital cultural insight that suburban audiences need to hear in the age of Trump’s America.

Hallie Gordon’s vision for this show is spectacular. Collette Pollard has created a fitting set for the chaos of this family. Gordon’s cast is top-tier. You can’t do much better than Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. Morton quickly becomes the focal point of the play and displays an overwhelming capacity for physical comedy and emotional honesty. You can’t take your eyes off her. Guinan is extremely brave to tread the boards in nothing more than adult diaper, or even braver, a full-face of clown makeup. Without uttering more than a few intelligible sentences, Guinan turns in a complicated but moving performance. This is likely to be one of the most talked about shows in Chicago, and good for the Steppenwolf for continuing to take risks.

Through August 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 1650 N Halsted Street. 312-335-3830 www.steppenwolf.org

 

Published in Theatre in Review

“Late Company” is the fairly literal title of a new play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. Presented by COR Theatre, Jessica Fisch directs the regional premiere at Pride Arts Center. The 80-minute play is a response to the uptick in teen suicides triggered by cyberbullying.

“Late Company” takes on the weighty issue of LGBT teen suicide. The play begins with political couple Michael (Paul Fagen) and Debora (Tosha Fowler) setting up for some dinner guests. Over the course of their cryptic conversation, we glean that their son has killed himself and the dinner guests are the parents of the bully they blame for their son’s suicide.

The implausibility of the situation is troubling. It’s hard to imagine that a grieving family would cordially invite over the parents of the bully they blame for the loss of their son. It’s even harder to imagine anyone taking that invitation. What transpires over the course of 80 minutes is a structurally unsound one-liner competition. Some highlights include “you were always more interested in the spin, than the spin cycle.”

This is not a play without heart. This is a play without a clear message. While most of us can generally agree that suicide is a heartbreaking thing to happen to any loved one, this play treats it as nearly incidental. The playwright struggles to flesh out a clear central argument. These characters are rarely having conversations, sometimes they’re just reading letters to each other. Great plays are exchanges of revelatory dialogue in which bigger issues are addressed. “Late Company” stays so specific to its own characters that it rarely acknowledges the outside world.

Tannahill’s play is ambitious and maybe more remarkable in other productions. The storyline is very relevant and has the opportunity to say much more than it does in its current form. There’s a lot to discuss on this topic and plenty of work still to do to prevent teen suicide. The playwright would be wise to dig a little deeper than anger in order to express that moral.

At COR Theatre through July 16th at Pride Arts Center. 4147 N Broadway St

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:15

Review: "T" at American Theater Company

The 90s really must be back because this is the second show about Tonya Harding and Nancy Karigan to debut in Chicago in the past year. American Theater Company's telling is a new play called "T" by Dan Aibel. "T" is a ninety-minute retelling of the infamous 1994 incident from the perspective of Tonya Harding's family. Margot Bordelon returned to Chicago to direct the conclusion of Will Davis' first as artistic director of American Theater Company.

"T" steers clear of camp and tabloid. What this play is essentially about is how much T, or Tonya Harding was worth to the people around her. In quick-moving scenes, Dan Aibel calculates all the ways in which Tonya Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly could profit from endorsements. In other scenes, we see her only female companion is her coach who's desperate for a win.

There is something a little strange about "T"­--a slightly lyrical tempo to the dialogue. Sentences read like work emails, missing regular parts of speech. It's an interesting choice, but it often puts uncharacteristically poetic words into otherwise simple people's mouths. It takes for granted that most of us are probably too familiar with the particulars of this crime, and therefore breezes through events without much context. There's a lot to cover in this story and while it's brief, it sufficiently wraps up in a single act.

Leah Raidt plays Tonya Harding with fierce intensity. The look is perfect. There's a duality in her interpretation that strongly resembles the real Tonya Harding without resorting to impression. She's endearingly naive but also bullish and brash. Her coach, Joanne is played by Kelli Simpkins. Her performance is like a cross of Tilda Swinton and Jodi Foster. Her scenes are the most captivating. Her character, however flawed, proves to be the moral backbone of the play.

It makes you wonder what the relevance of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan feud is to today. Aibel tries to connect it to the beginning of the digital age, and maybe he's right. It was the last time in history that shlock news didn't go "viral." This story held a nation's attention at the speed of nightly news. Like the OJ Simpson trial, this time will always hold a special place in a certain generation's heart.

At American Theater Company through June 25th. 1909 W Byron St. 60613

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 20 April 2017 11:05

Review: "Marry Me A Little" at Stage 773

How nice that even songs Stephen Sondheim cut from his own musicals can still find a home. “Marry Me a Little” is a 1981 songbook musical assembled by Sondheim. It’s a review of songs he wrote for various musicals in the 60's and 70's but were cut or unfinished. “Marry Me a Little” is a show performed without dialogue. The plot is pretty simple: a man (Austin Cook) and a woman (Bethany Thomas) are two artists who live a floor apart in a New York City apartment building. A chance meeting sends them down a standard relationship path. Or does it? 

 

You may already be asking yourself, why see this show? To be fair, it’s not a great script and like its sister Sondheim review “Putting it Together” – opinions are generally mixed. The script isn’t the point though. “Marry Me a Little” is a great chance to glean some insight into Sondheim’s creative process and hear some strong voices singing great songs you may not otherwise be familiar with. 

 

Director Jess McLeod’s vision for this semi-modernized “Marry Me a Little” is sleek and cool. The décor in both apartments looks directly out of a West Elm catalog. Costumes by Stephanie Cluggish fit right in, you’ll definitely want a pair of the cool shoes The Woman struts around in. 

 

What will certainly resonate after an hour and a half of continuous singing are these two voices. It would difficult for any co-star to match the vocal talents of Bethany Thomas, but Austin Cook holds his own. Cook is also the music director here and spends a great deal of the show parked at the piano. It’s nice to see the usual music director on stage and killing the piano. Without speaking a single word, these two are selling the magic of romance, all its ups and downs. If there’s one number worth coming for it has to be “Can That Boy Foxtrot” originally written for “Follies.” Bethany Thomas’ playful and sexy interpretation will bring a smile to your face. 

 

“Marry Me a Little” may not be the opus “Sunday in the Park with George” but it’s a great way to spend some time with Sondheim’s lyrical genius. With a short run time and overly romantic plotline, this stylish production would surely make for a charming first date. 

 

Through May 21 at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Shattered Globe Theatre welcomes back one of Chicago’s own, Sarah Ruhl.  “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a new play making its Midwestern debut at Theater Wit. Ms. Ruhl is one of the country’s foremost playwrights right now. She has another new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” currently running at the Lincoln Center in New York. Her work is often produced in Chicago usually directed by her friend Jessica Thebus. This is an especially personal production for Ruhl as it stars her own mother (Kathleen Ruhl) in the title role. 

 

No, this is not another warmed over incantation of the JM Barrie fairy tale. While somewhat influenced by the source material, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a very realistic story of five siblings grappling with the death of their father. What begins in a depressing hospital room, moves to a whiskey-soaked conversation between siblings that eventually turns into a make-believe version of Peter Pan. 

 

At its core, this is a play about love. There are plenty of plays about dysfunctional families, and this isn’t one of them. What it boils down to are five adult children trying to pinpoint a time when they felt their father’s love. These siblings have differing political beliefs and Ruhl’s apt commentary about our current climate is especially sharp, without being polarizing. There’s a great deal of truth in the courtesy her characters show for one another’s opinions. She also spends a great deal of the play dissecting the role of Catholicism and whether or not there is an afterlife. Despite the volley of bittersweet and at times painful memories of their childhood, these characters love each other and that is felt in the dialogue and performances. 

 

Kathleen Ruhl is adorable as the oldest sister and former Peter Pan star, Ann. Perhaps it’s her relation to the playwright, or her commitment to character, but Kathleen Ruhl makes the audience question how much of this work is fiction and how much is fact? Eileen Niccolai, a Shattered Globe ensemble member, provides a lot of the humor, but also some of the more heartfelt moments as youngest sister Wendy. All the siblings are named for Peter Pan characters, which underscores Sarah Ruhl’s point that with their parents gone, they are orphans now and need to grow up. 

 

Like any Sarah Ruhl work, there is a great deal of whimsy. With each new work, Ruhl continues to keep one foot on the ground and one in the clouds. “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is both prolific in its subject matter and also aesthetically striking it its presentation. The reality of the situation and the poignancy of the lines allows the audience to trust their narrator and fly when the time comes. 

 

Shattered Globe’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is being performed at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont (773.975.8150) and has been extended through May 27th. 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century. 

 

William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play. 

 

This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience. 

 

Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on. 

 

Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company. 

 

Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 13 March 2017 12:34

Review: Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz"

"The Wiz" is a perfect collision of disco and show tunes. Appearing on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Though it was not the first all-black production on Broadway, the cross-over appeal of its music made it a sensation. A few years later it was adapted for film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horn. The film is considerably different than the stage version, for the worse. 

 

Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" accentuates all the enduring qualities of the show while adding some modern flare of its own. This has to be the hardest working cast in Chicago right now. For two and a half solid hours director Lili-Anne Brown's cast of talented singers and dancers fill the space with an infectious energy. Sydney Charles as Dorothy is cute and brings a sense of humor to the character, her soaring vocals come to an inspiring crest during "Home." Though, it may well be Frederick Harris in the titular role (in fabulous drag no less) who walks away with the evening's biggest laughs. There's not a sour note in this production and each song is either a powerhouse ballad or a funky dance number. 

 

One of the show's many pleasant surprises is the costuming and overall aesthetic. This is highly conceptualized version that suits the intimate space at Theatre Wit. Borrowing from 90s-era TLC and blending it with today's street fashion, costume designer Virginia Varland creates a very stylish motif in an otherwise minimal set. The ensemble looks as great as they sound. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown doesn't complete her update of "The Wiz" with costumes alone. There's some fairly edgy humor written into this production, including a nod to the prevalence of police brutality cellphone videos. This version of "The Wiz" is how it was originally intended to be–for adults. What the movie and the NBC live version miss is a lot of the grown-up humor in the script. After all, this is an urban contemporary version of the Wizard of Oz, it should be cheeky. Miss Brown's vision for Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" is a lot of fun and keeps its source material relevant. 

 

Through April 16th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150

*Extended through April 23rd

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 24 February 2017 12:23

Review: Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre

In 2010, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director adapted "The Seagull" by Chekhov. An all-star cast, a stellar script and unique staging made for a memorable production. For this season, Robert Falls returns Chekhov to the Goodman with a new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" by Annie Baker. This production of "Uncle Vanya" could be seen as a companion piece to 2010's "The Seagull." There's a stylistic similarity and another all-star cast breathing new life into this classic work. 

 

Like any Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" is about the everyday boredom and sadness of bourgeois Russians living on a country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled away their youths keeping the estate afloat and subsidizing the academic career of Sonya's aging father Alexander (David Darlow). When Alexander and his much younger wife Yelena (Kristen Bush) decide to move in with Vanya, their simple lives reach confrontation. 

 

Chekhov has a knack for dynamic female characters. "Uncle Vanya" is no exception. Caroline Neff's performance as Sonya sneakily becomes the focal point. Neff infuses Baker's already modern dialogue with an almost tangible sense of emotion.  Playing off her in the role of Yelena is Kristin Bush. This character is complicated and cold but Bush deftly shifts between moods without ever losing her audience. 

 

Adapter Annie Baker won the Pulitzer in 2014 for her play "The Flick." Her interpretation of "Uncle Vanya" was based on a literal word-for-word translation as she wanted her version to sound as fresh to a modern American audience as the original Russian had in 1900. To that end, Baker is successful. The script is quiet, but the dialogue seamlessly flows into our century. There's a timelessness to the entire production. Certain conventions, costumes and set pieces span generations, yet are of no specific historic era.  This stylistic choice only reinforces the ever-relevant themes of Chekhov's complex works. 

 

"Uncle Vanya" can neither be described as a comedy or a drama. There are moments of lightness and even dark humor, but overall the play is not particularly funny. On the other hand, while there's a well of unhappiness just beneath the surface, nothing truly cataclysmic happens. In the end, Chekhov makes his nihilistic point that perhaps none of us are happy and that death is the only respite we'll know. 

 

Through March 19th at Goodman Theatre. 170 N Dearborn St. 312-443-3800

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 16 February 2017 21:39

Review: Straight White Men at Steppenwolf

With a title like "Straight White Men" there's a lot to unpack. Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee directs her 2014 play at The Steppenwolf. "Straight White Men" ran Off-Broadway at the Public Theater to critical acclaim. It helped establish the career of up-and-comer Young Jean Lee. This production is a Midwestern debut. 

 

The Steppenwolf's production is well cast. "Straight White Men" tells the story of a family of three brothers assembling with their aging father for Christmas. Hence the title. Madison Dirks plays the oldest brother Jake with a commanding intensity that serves to propel Lee's script. So much of Lee's play relies on an almost impossible sense of chemistry between the brothers. Ryan Hallahan plays youngest brother Drew with a contrasting sincerity that puts Brian Slaten (Matt) in the center of the 90-minute play. Ensemble member Alan Wilder as the dad is maybe the only one whose performance is not in on Lee's comic pattern. 

 

"Straight White Men" does touch on many issues regarding race, gender and class in America. That said, perhaps not enough to warrant such a heavy title. There is a lot of humor and physical comedy between the brother characters, but so often the content of the dialogue doesn't reach further than the three walls of the set. The conclusion of the play is thought provoking and addresses the issue of socioeconomic privilege. 

 

The problem with titling a play "Straight White Men" is that it raises the stakes for the playwright to deliver a work that makes a bold statement. Lee certainly does make a bold statement, it just may not live up to the title. Lee's script takes a while getting to the center of the matter. It's really a play about depression. In that regard, Lee really says something about the way student loans and societal expectations are stunting an entire generation. "Straight White Men" is a play to see as it will warrant a thoughtful post show discussion. 

 

Through March 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650 www.Steppenwolf.org

*Update - Extended through March 26th

 

Published in Theatre in Review

"Attention must be paid," Arthur Miller pleads in his Pulitzer Prize winning play "Death of a Salesman." What is now required reading, "Death of a Salesman" asks its audience to consider the worth of one pathetic old man. The play debuted in 1949, at a time when America was coming out of a war and questioning the value of personal fulfillment. For that theme alone this play will always be relevant. 

 

The intimate space at Redtwist Theatre makes for an overwhelming experience. In many of the scenes there's an almost voyeuristic feel. As if you're in someone's living room listening to something you shouldn't. Director Steve Scott uses this atmospheric effect to create a palpable intensity. After the lights go out on the final scene, an audience gasped in unison. 

 

Brian Parry delivers a powerhouse performance as Willy Loman. Both tough and weak at the same time. His Loman is still feisty, making the ending all the more tragic. Jan Ellen Graves' Linda Loman is played calm and collected and rarely sentimental, but lively when the moment is right. Matt Edmonds gives a standout performance as Biff. There are such revelations in Edmonds' interpretation. 

 

Like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller knew America. He knew the sad and melancholic ways average people live. "Death of a Salesman" should make us uncomfortable. We should bristle at the idea of one average man getting used up and thrown away. It's a warning that if you don't take control of your own destiny, society will toss you aside. Willy Loman skirts through life on quick fixes and delusions. In a way, all of us are Willy Loman and Miller asks us to look beyond the superficial. As "On the Road" had also inspired a younger generation to live life differently than their parents, so does "Death of a Salesman." The moral here is that nobody wants to end up as Willy Loman. 

 

Through March 5 at Redtwist Theatre. 1044 W BrynMawr 773-728-7529

www.Redtwist.org 

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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