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
Pop Waits, currently being performed at the Neo-Futurarium, is a smart and innovative production that takes audience members on a journey into the psyche of rock stars Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Co-created by Molly Brennan and Malic White, the two are also featured in this well-written play/musical, each giving dynamic performances that are as much high energy as they are genuine and nothing short of sensational.
Upon entering the theatre, one is met with a couple musician dudes strolling around the stage with guitars area joined in song by a female accomplice whose velvety smooth voice is immediately attention grabbing. Song lyrics are being written on a chalkboard that creates the stage’s background. Brennan and White casually sift about nearby talking with audience members before taking their seats, possibly even at the two-top tables set up along the edge of the stage. It’s casual yet interest in what will happen next already peaks. Not long after, the band kicks in and we are thrust into the minds and makeup of Waits and Pop as interpreted by the show’s creators.
Brennan and White delve into the depression and pain of each rock icon explaining how it is transferred into music of which so many of us have identified. The possibility is thrown around that each have hidden behind their rock personas to avoid being…well, themselves – everyday people.
Brennan more than admirably portrays Tom Waits (raspy voice and all) while White plays a keyed up Iggy Pop that can be electrifying at times. Aided by a fantastic band that features Elisa Carlson, Nick Davio and Spencer Meeks, the production often alternates from an engaging, and often humorous piece of storytelling to a full on concert in what we can imagine would be CBGB’s in its heyday – crowd surfing and all. Making the show even more entertaining is the fact that Carlson, Davio and Meeks frequently trade instruments and add a few other sounds such as the violin and accordion, showing a great range of musical versatility.
Though drawing several laughs and musically pleasing, serious topic matter is explored in depth such as deep depression and suicidal ideation. What do you do when you fear seeing a therapist because an expert opinion on how fucked up you are will only confirm that you’d rather be dead than numbly plowing through this world? Yes, there are a few hard-hitting moments but plenty of laughs and music make this an extremely balanced production.
As the show begins, we are alerted that the right to five Tom Waits songs for use in the show have been denied for the time being. That said, a handful of songs (and very good ones at that) written by Molly Brennan and Spencer Meeks are inserted into the production that fit ever so perfectly into the Pop Waits’ theme such as “Heaven’s A Bar in Chicago”, “Witches” and “Ode to Gretel”. There are also several Iggy Pop favorites that are performed including “The Passenger”, “Search and Destroy” and “Lust for Life”.
Directed by Halena Kays, Pop Waits is a very unique theatre experience that is thought provoking, darkly humorous and even audience interactive at times. Brennan and White pour their hearts into their roles taking on these tortured rock stars with a raw passion that Pop and Waits themselves would certainly be proud of.
Highly entertaining, Pop Waits flat out rocks. Pop Waits is being performed at the Neo-Futurarium through March 12th. For more show information visit www.NeoFuturists.org.