Category: Tom Stoppard
In a theater community as diverse and talented as Chicago’s, every aspect and genre of stage productions can be found throughout the city on a given week. 2015 was no exception to this fact, as one can see from our reviewers’ picks of the year’s greatest and most memorable works.
The Real Story Vanishing in the Dead of Night
|Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents|
|Night and Day|
|Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31 | tickets: $35-$40 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
What to make of Remy Bumppo’s latest production Night and Day? On one hand, the whole production is a sexy, easy fit. James Bohnen’s spot-on cast slips casually and effortlessly into Tom Stoppard’s dialogue–just like an old-school lounge lizard would slip into a dry martini or a pair of silk pajamas. On the other hand, what with the United Nations releasing its recent report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Stoppard’s cunning 1978 play still looks like a bunch of white people sittin’ ‘round, talkin’ while a country made up of darker-skinned people burns all around them. Set in the fictional African nation of Kambawe, the home of copper-king ex-pat Geoffrey Carson (David Darlow at our showing) is hardly the Court of Versailles. Nevertheless, on the brink of civil war, who has time to talk about fickle fame, sex, Scotch or the role of the media? These characters do.
Into this jaded milieu, Stoppard interjects the question: Does a free press matter? Define what you mean by a free press, etc. It’s this et cetera that Bohnen’s actors handle so well. Dick Wagner (Shawn Douglass), an Australian-born reporter for the Globe, solidly provides most of the sly, tough cynicism through his omnipresent worry over getting scooped. His colleague and comrade, photojournalist George Guthrie (Jeff Cummings), brings battle weariness and much-needed urgency and passion to a very talky show. Greg Matthew Anderson, playing freelance journalist Jacob Milne, achieves likeability and freshness with a character who sees no problem with blurring the line between serious and tabloid news. If Night and Day reveals anything, it’s Stoppard’s gift for prophecy.
These few, these happy few, descend on Carson’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth (Linda Gillum), because he possesses an untapped, unsevered line and a Telex machine to get the news out to the West. They are the true seekers of the story, since the rest of Western press is still hanging out in the lobby of the local Sheraton. Carson also has connections with the rebel leader, Colonel Shimbu, whose scheduled late-night meeting with the dictatorial President Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) leads to devastating consequences.
Politics aside, Stoppard situates blithe and cynical Ruth at the center of his satire, being the only character whose unspoken thoughts are transparent to the audience and being the one whose name–meaning mercy, sympathy and compassion–contrasts starkly with the ruthlessness all around her. Cherchez la femme, right? And what a femme she is. Gillum doesn’t hit a wrong note, negotiating dialogue directly to the audience and exchanges with her fellow actors like a master magician. Hers may be a performance that redefines the word glib. She excoriates the tabloid press for their paparazzi stalking of her divorce and marriage to Carson in one scene, only to fall for the young, idealistic defender of the tabloid press in another. I’m still pondering how she makes it look so easy, believable, and above all, sympathetic.
For the most part, Night and Day flows as smoothly single malt Scotch from a never-ending stream. Bohnen successfully builds tension with Guthrie’s suspicion of Carson, Milne and Guthrie’s departure to meet Colonel Shimbu, and the anticipated, nerve-racking visit from President Mageeba.
Perry’s entrance as Mageeba, certainly does not disappoint. He’s every bit as gracious, intelligent and threatening as a Western-educated, media-conscious despot should be. Regrettably, Mageeba’s ad hoc interview with Wagner drags and the play’s bit of stage violence comes off as unconvincing. It seems strange that Remy Bumppo should stumble here at such a critical moment. My hopeful assumption is that this was an off performance in an otherwise impeccable production.
Does Stoppard ever resolve the question of the necessity of a free press? Tough to say—on the one hand, you don’t want the Mageeba’s of the world in charge of what’s fit to print; on the other, the media is a capitalist enterprise that trivializes critical news and foregrounds trivia, until all information turns into fodder before its gaping maw. Guthrie’s defense of a free press remains the most poetic in the play:
People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.
That is a plea appropriate to 1978, long before the 24-hour news cycle and the digital age. Now we are awash in information, both qualified and unqualified, and we can hardly now call all information light.
We few, we lucky few citizens of open, industrialized nations have, for a long time, used the media as much as a distraction from daily cares as for timely and relevant news. That’s a very human tendency. All the same, I found myself wanting to turn away from the diverting chatter of Stoppard’s principal characters. I grew weary of the same jaded arguments from people still living in a bubble of white and colonial privilege. I longed for Stoppard’s most silent character of the play, Francis (Michael Pogue), the Carson’s servant, to report his truth and have his perspective brought front and center.
Important Event on October 11th:
October 11: "Is the Truth Front Page News?" Journalist Panel
A free journalist panel hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele
Performance excerpts from Night and Day, highlighting the risks and responsibilities of foreign correspondents, will springboard a charged panel conversation, hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, on where readers now turn to get the truth.
Yep, it is possible to laugh at Death
|Sideshow Theatre presents|
|Theories of the Sun|
|Written by Kathleen Akerley
Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through October 3rd | tickets: $15- $20 | more info
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
Where does Death take a holiday? Apparently, a remote hotel in France! Sideshow Theatre presents the Midwestern premiere of Theories of the Sun. A mother and daughter duo seek medical advice from a quirky doctor. The doctor is in residence at a boutique inn. Also vacationing at the locale are a couple of playwrights, a scotch- infused Tennessee Williams and a frothy-wine sipping Tom Stoppard. Another hotel guest, Mr. Asher, collects theories about the sun from different cultures. Looming invisibly to most of the guests, Death waits for someone. Theories of the Sun is a mysterious gathering of a hodge-podge of characters. Each confronts Death and puts in a special order for preferred exit timing. Despite the primary storyline being the unusual circumstances surrounding the mother and daughter, its boys’ night! Individually and collectively, the guys overshadow with eclipsing humor and vibrant movement. Sideshow Theatre’s Theories of the Sun proves the hypothesis that is possible to laugh at Death.
Directed by Jonathan L. Green and Megan A. Smith, with choreographer Katie Spelman, theories of the sun are illuminated with poetic, fluid motion. The synchronization is the bright spot to the story. A game of blindman’s bluff is an effervescent dance with Death. The ensemble, sporting a variety of accents, is dazzling. Matt Fletcher (Stoppard) delivers his British wit with a droll smugness. Uttering lines like ‘being not in tune,’ Fletcher is hilarious as an insipid playwright caught up in semantics. Andy Luther (Williams) plays it perfectly understated as the southern-speaking, unapologetic drunk. Luther’s face-off with Death is a deliciously defiant monologue of fearlessness that unexpectedly ends in tenderness. Jesse Young (Dr. Giraud) is hysterical as an eccentric doctor conducting a series of odd tests. Young deadpans ludicrous statements for riotous results. The storyteller of sun theories, Dylan Stuckey (Asher) is most engaging when he silently reacts to other characters. The entire cast revolves around Death in stunning visuals in a mime-type ballet and exquisite fifties finery (Costume Designer David Hyman).
Playwright Kathleen Akerley has penned a life-and-death tale with eclectic characters. Although the mother-daughter storyline loses some of its luster from recently being Hollywood-ized, Akerley’s provides intrigue in her other character choices and surprising twists. Theories of the Sun is a thought-provoking, entertaining dance to the death. With the finale’s hindsight, you’ll want to relive it for Death’s subtle entrance.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a thirty minute intermission
Hammed-up Stoppard fails to find the laughs
|Signal Ensemble Theatre presents|
|The Real Inspector Hound|
|By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
Through Sept. 18 | Tickets: $15–20 | more info
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
From the time the house opens on Signal Ensemble Theatre’s The Real Inspector Hound, to the close of the play, Charles Schoenherr lies unmoving on stage while the other characters cavort around him, never noticing this still figure at stage rear until nearly the end of the one-act comedy.
It just might be the best performance of the play.
Any theater reviewer who takes aim at Tom Stoppard‘s 1968 comedy risks being classified with Birdboot and Moon, the two pompous critics on whom the play focuses. Stoppard, once a critic himself, mercilessly skewers theater writers, painting them as arrogant, self-absorbed and none too ethical.
The critics comment on the play within a play taking place in front of them in highly affected terms, chat through the action, munch chocolates and begin to write their reviews mid-play. Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen), a married, middle-aged philanderer, flaunts his position to entice pretty actresses while piously proclaiming he does no such thing, while Moon (Philip Winston), his paper’s no. 2 critic, continually laments his second-string status. The two put in some comic turns, but they aren’t enough to overcome the broad strokes with which Director Ronan Marra paints the rest of the show.
The meta-play, an exaggerated English country-house mystery, a la The Mousetrap, takes places in what Mary O’Dowd as Mrs. Drudge, the creepy, scenery-chewing housekeeper, tells us is the "drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring." Scenic Designer Melania Lancy has created a fine drawing-room set in Signal’s spiffy new theater, the former home of now Los Angeles-based Breadline Theatre Group, a 50-seat venue in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.
Wealthy widow Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Meredith Bell Alvarez), is entertaining her lover, Simon Gascoyne (John Blick) and — to his embarrassment — Felicity Cunningham (Katie Genualdi), the ingenue he’s also been seeing. Added to the menage is the wheelchair-bound Major Magnus Muldoon (Colby Sellers), half-brother to Lady Cynthia’s late husband, who lusts after his hostess. Meanwhile, the radio announces that a murderous madman is loose in the neighborhood and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), a dog of a police detective, arrives on the scene.
As the play becomes more existential, the critics break through the fourth wall and get drawn into the action on stage. In this production, comic business is piled so high that the parody becomes a parody of itself, laden with overdrawn gestures and pointless shtick, such as when characters continually lift a telephone receiver for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the pace crawls.
Through it all, Schoenherr lies, still and untwitching. That’s acting.
Note: Allow time for finding street parking, as well as extra time for traveling to the theater on nights when the Cubs play at home.