Category: Dan Jakes
Patsy not the star of her own show
|Fox Valley Repertory presents|
|Always, Patsy Cline|
|Created by Ted Swindley
Directed by John Gawlik
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
through May 15 | tickets: $29-$39 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
Fox Valley Repertory performs Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the late country music darling Patsy Cline through a haze, literally and figuratively. For one, generational, tertiary colored lights penetrate fog above the stage, making for a nice effect not unlike watching a “Lawrence Welk” type television show on an analog set. The edges around the singers and band are softened, and the space is filled with nostalgic ambiance.
The other haze is selective memory.
Whatever events that caused the lonely heartbreak that drives Cline’s most moving songs—listen to “Faded Love, ” for god’s sake—as well as the struggles she suffered attaining her success are left deep in the background. No, the stakes in Swindley’s play couldn’t be lower, but one gets the sense that’s where he wants them. Always, Patsy Cline is inspired by the real life letters kept between Cline (Megan Long) and her close friend Louise Steger (Kate Brown), and just like pouring over the letters of a departed friend, he only wants us to remember what was good. Cline’s actual biography is a tragic story of a legendary artist dying in a senseless accident at 30. Director John Gawlik’s show is the recounting of a friendship and the joy that carries on after someone passes.
We’re first introduced to Patsy in boots at the Grand Ol Oprey, with Louise miles away seated in a Lucy Chair in her kitchen. Listening to Cline sparks a bit of a love affair in Steger, and she quickly closes the gap.
As the narrator and primary means of moving the play’s light plot forward, Brown is engaging and affable. She makes a balanced duo with Megan Long, countering Long’s authoritative pettiness with broad shoulders, an admiration for cigarettes and coffee, and an unabashed willingness to wiggles, shake, and slap her tuckus. Getting the mostly older audience at Fox Valley Rep to actively engage can be a process akin to pulling
dentures teeth, but Brown actually gets a few of them to their feet.
Cline, on the other hand, is written to be viewed from a distance. Long shines in the music numbers with her strong voice and well-trained little yodels and yips, but she’s given little opportunity to be the star any place else. Perhaps the playwright is trying attain some sense of mystique for the title-character. Trouble is, that choice forces Brown’s character to continually grab for exposition instead of action to tell the story about a friendship, and leaves our deep connection to their relationship out of reach.
Always, Patsy Cline: The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven runs through May 15th at Pheasant Run Resort, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, with selective Thursdays either 8pm or 2pm. Tickets are $29-$39 (dinner package: $49), and can be purchased online or by calling (630) 584-6342. More info at www.foxvalleyrep.org.
All photos by Trademan Photography
Update on a classic adventure fantasy takes off, but not high
|Adventure Stage presents|
|Sinbad: The Untold Story|
|Written by Charles Way
Directed by Amanda Delheimer
at Vittum Theater , 1012 N. Noble (map)
through April 16 | tickets: $12-$17 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
How relieving, I thought while sitting amongst the kids and pre-teens at Adventure Stage’s Saturday matinee, to hear the words “Baghdad” and “Koran” outside of a contentious context. The children who will see Sinbad: The Untold Tale are part of a generation who’ve never experienced America before its frighteningly mainstream Islamophobic discourse, before every televised use of the phrase “Muslim” was intrinsically linked to controversy and heated debate. Charles Way’s 2006 play, on the other hand, is about as amenable as it gets: a quest story promoting courage and nobility–values that are universal with characters that are relatable.
The intent, as well as the production’s partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is commendable; the execution is so-so.
Way’s tale takes place in the years after Sinbad the Sailor’s epic journeys in “1001 Arabian Nights,” after the adventurer has wrapped up his seventh voyage at sea and called it quits. Retirement doesn’t end the world’s conquests, though, so when a witch plagues his city with a haze that in short-time will kill all adults (“Gas-s-s-s!,” anyone?), the tired and afflicted sailor transfers the hero role to his eager orphan porter (Edgar Miguel Sanchez, physically-grounded and affable as the young lead, alongside Dana Dajani as his travel partner Ittifaq).
From thereon, there aren’t many divergences from the tried-and-true action-for-kids plot. The porter is handed a box containing three items to use in times of peril, a girl sets out to prove herself by tagging along, saving him and becoming a love interest along the way, clever quips abound, etc. etc. It’s all very familiar and sustainable. But assuming the young audiences are not familiar with the original Sinbad stories, they’ll likely trip over a few recurring points. They may ask themselves, “who is that old man that keeps talking about adventures that sound more interesting? Who is Ittifaq’s mom, and why should I care?”
The action works from time to time. David Chrzanowski’s fight choreography infuses some video-game-type elements that, at the performance I attended, garnered lots of positive verbal reaction from the kids and least one audible “that’s cooool!” from a little girl behind me. Others fall comically short, like an attempt at a flying carpet that left two actors’ feet visible under their stuffed faux-legs. Not yet versed in polite restraint, many of the children outwardly giggled during a moment clearly aiming for a different response.
Sinbad: The Untold Tale could easily shave off 15 minutes, and its desired audience is a little ambiguous. As a journey tale, it meets the bar–but it isn’t magic.
Sinbad: The Untold Story continues through April 16th, with 10:30am performances March 22, 24 and 31; April 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15. Family matinee 2pm performances continue April 2, 9 and 16, with a special evening performance April 8th at 7pm. Tickets are not available online. Instead, call 773.342.4141.
The bleaker side of Ballybeg
|Oak Park Festival Theatre presents|
|Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Belinda Bremner
At Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through April 16 | tickets: $25 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
In one of the four monologues that compose Brian Friel’s harrowing story about a religious performer’s doomed tour, an aging act-manager describes the one constant you experience in northern Europe: dampness. Not wetness per se, he explains, but an unyielding saturation in your clothes and hair and skin. As I sat and listened to the three desolate characters in the moody, reflective Faith Healer, that feeling of heavy saturation is something I identified with.
The unfulfilled desires and emotional stagnations of Frank, the titular artist (Kevin Theis), his deprived wife Grace (Mary Michell), and his manager Teddy (Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey) almost sink into your being. The present, as they portray it at least, is more or less a venue for romanticizing, decoding and brooding over the past. We never get to meet the true characters that live out the events leading up to an alluded-to tragedy–only the half-husks remembering the details years later and in some cases, from beyond the grave. It’s all very Irish.
Friel is more recognizable by his perennial hit Dancing at Lughnasa, a play that takes place in the same fictional village but counteracts its grim wallowing with nostalgia and a little whimsy. But this is different universe, one where God is less tangible, and balance or order look like fatalistic notions. Even self-centered, alcoholic Frank is clueless to whether or not he even harbors legitimate abilities. In practice, presenting Faith Healer creates a challenge: how do you stage this play and not have it read as maudlin?
Director Belinda Bremner accomplishes a semi-even tone by highlighting the speeches’ dank and sometimes searing humor. As Teddy, bottle after bottle in-hand, Hickey is so genial he’s heart-breakingly pitiful. Fantastical stories about his deceased dog give way to an account of death and a tear-soaked plea to keep business and personal relationships separate. Likewise, Michell (Grace) plays to the subtext of her relationship with her husband, conscious that every bitter detail is as equally self-destructive to dwell on as it is righteous to point out.
Faith Healer sways off-track in the one place it can’t afford to: the title-character. Theis gets carried away with the weathered Irish persona. His jagged, gravel-heavy dialect work pushes beyond brogue into a realm more comparable to a pirate or Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice.” The effort for realism shows admirable dedication, but a character as layered as Frank aught to be born from instincts, not donned like a St. Patrick’s Day costume. Theis appears to have those instincts—veiled, they do no good.
Faith Healer continues through April 16th at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, with performances Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (708) 445-4440. For more info, go to www.oakparkfestival.com.
Competent ‘Hair’ revels in its own kitsch
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Book/Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through March 20 | tickets: $27-$90 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
If the pre-show announcement–which asks that you please turn on your heart and to please turn off your cell phone–isn’t a clear indication, there’s plenty of proverbial winking in director Diane Paulus’ Hair. From the restrained band volume to the affable, mostly miles-from-the-danger-line interactions between actors and audience, we’re assured from the beginning that the night’s show is going to be professional, going to be groovy, and going to be safe.
Safety, of course, was not what made Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s rock-musical about a tribe of hippies significant. It defied modern standards of decency, blazed new theatrical territory and was written and performed in the chaotic epicenter of the same cultural revolution it advocated.
But let’s face it. Entertainment value aside, The Man acquisitioned Hair a long time ago. It’s unclear when, but the changeover presumably took place some time after religious groups stopped picketing outside of performances and some time before it began running in theaters named after multi-billion dollar car companies.
During this revival, I thought about what, if any, our contemporary equivalent to the monument Hair was in its heyday for intrepidity and relevance. It’s certainly nothing that can be described in the same genre (in the grand scheme of art and provocation, rock-musicals are now, by more honest billing, lite-rock-musicals). I won’t pretend to romanticize living in the late 1960’s–one, I would not yet exist as a fetus for another two decades and two, it was a notoriously violent era of persecution, uncertainty, hate, and abused authority–but I can appreciate the time’s profound art and its ability to have instigated change.
Yet the national conflicts Ragni and Rado wrote about are still (in some cases, eerily) recognizable. Our current generation is witness to an aggressively protested war, sex as a talking point for political candidates, old white men tossing around the word “communist” to rebuke lefties, and mainstream efforts to legalize marijuana. Then is it fair to wonder if, for all its critical acclaim, this latest resurgence of Hair missed an opportunity to be more than a technically laudable send-up to a counter-cultural artifact?
It’s telling that during opening night’s post-curtain-call “Be-In,” where the tribe welcomes the audience onstage to dance through a reprise, the cast really had to coax people to budge. Some inevitably jumped up, but most smiled good-naturedly while inconspicuously grabbing their coats and eying the exits.
Some rapport never got established.
And some did. As Berger, Steel Burkhardt has the most opportunity to break down the fourth-wall and create a sense of community. He doesn’t as often as I‘d have liked, but his allocated moments for addressing the audience are the most entertaining, substantive parts of the show. Taking a gentle stab at an over-zealous laugher is funny–allowing another to stuff single dollar bills down his suede fringe loincloth is funny and opens up the risk and fun of watching anything-goes action. The rest of Hair could benefit from this sense of happening and authenticity.
Vocally, the ensemble is consistent, and fits well within the folk-rock style Galt MacDermot’s compositions call for. Appropriately cast, these kids look and sound like the embodiment of young idealism and acceptance. At times, they’re sublime.
Billing a show as a revival carries a certain weight, implication and spirit. I’m not confident this latest production lives up to these. But as a fully-produced tribute, it’s at least a good trip.
Hair continues through March 20th, with performances Tuesday at 7:30, Wednesday 2 and 7:30pm, Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 2 and 8pm, and Sunday 2pm. Tickets are $27 and $90, and can be bought at www.broadwayinchicago.com.
Rivendell explores the boundaries of communication
|Rivendell Theatre presents|
|Written by Madeleine George
Directed by Julieanne Ehre
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through April 2 | tickets: $15-$25 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
If you’re going to present a play about language, you may as well cast Marilyn Dodds Frank. Among her high attributes—she has plenty, versatility and precision hover near the top—Frank lays claim to one of the most interesting voices in Chicago. That’s a dubious designation, I guess, but much of Madeleine George’s Precious Little is indebted to it. Whether she be dressed as a gorilla (abstractly, thank god) in a zoo or timidly counting numbers aloud as a frail, elderly woman in a recording booth, Frank’s tenor and masterful delivery lends authority and depth to her multiple characters and, consequently, to George’s mixed-bag of a play.
More or less a showcase for fine acting, the scope of Precious Little is limited, but focused: an 80-minute meditation on human communication’s shortcomings told through three interweaving narratives. A lesbian professor and linguistics researcher (Meighan Gerachis) struggles to cope with news that her artificially-inseminated child may suffer a mental disability upon delivery. Stressed with complications in her research and unable to find enough solace confiding in her graduate-assistant lover (Kathy Logelin), the professor looks toward unconventional alternatives for an emotional connection.
Gerachis plays the troubled teacher with a balanced sense of sympathy and fault. Having sex with her student, betraying the trust of her test subject’s daughter, and openly confessing that she’d be more willing to handle raising a child with a physical set-back instead of a mental retardation, Brodie isn’t the most admirable protagonist. Gerachis makes those flaws identifiable and human.
The burdens these women shoulder aren’t light—a career-risking affair, an ailing mother, the ethics of abortion—yet the stakes of director Julieanne Ehre’s play never simmer to a high boil.
But maybe they don’t need to. The drama is frequently dotted with intellectual musings and light humor, and the partial detachment allows complicated ideas about expression to appear more clearly. Then again, if we’re to empathize with a supposedly sane 40-something-year-old scientist who’s driven to the extremity of fantasizing romantically about a caged animal, it would help if there were more emotional gravity to cling to along the ride. Ehre’s program note suggests the “quest for definitive knowledge ultimately leads to an acceptance of ambiguity.” Really though, it’s willingness of Precious Little to settle for ambiguity that sells the plight of its characters a bit short. What we are given to ruminate, however, is worthwhile, said subtly and said sincerely.
Precious Little continues through April 2nd at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and can be purchased online or by calling 312-742-8497.
Wilson’s thought-provoking drama has a whole new relevancy in 2011
|Raven Theatre presents|
|Written by August Wilson
Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through April 9 | tickets: $30 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
A lot has happened in six years.
In that time, certain middle-upper-class white signifiers prominently featured in this 1990’s-based drama have taken a dip from grace. Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, lucrative condo investments and, well, Tiger Woods…let’s just say they aren’t what they used to be. “Unemployment” has knocked out “affluenza” as the country’s go-to economic buzz-word, Chicago just watched a mayoral campaign season with similar Harold Washington-era fears about equal race representation and, oh yeah, America elected its first non-white president.
The timing of director Aaron Todd Douglas’ production feels perfect. With just enough distance and room for perspective, we get to see the protagonists’ superficial goals and misplaced trusts with an unwavering knowledge of the consequences—something Wilson, who died in 2005, never got the chance to witness for himself. I wonder if he knew he was creating a prescient work of theatre.
As candidate Wilks, Michael Pogue conveys idealism and an eagerness to please his community, listening to its grievances and welcoming citizens into his private office, a space traditionally reserved for the shady deals that are kept far away from picture-windowed PR campaign centers. Time goes on and compromises need to be made, such as the necessity to petition a neighborhood for blight status and the unethical demolishing of a delinquent taxpayer’s house. A little more arc in Pogue’s demeanor would be compelling. But like the rest of this cast, Pogue finds the rhythm in Wilson’s dialogue most of the time (the poetic allegories are clear and strong), steam-rolling it a bit here and there.
David Adams is the most consistent and entertaining of the bunch. Patient and methodical as the stubborn but righteous owner of the dilapidated property at 1839 Wylie Ave.—a brick house that stands in Wilks’ way between continued suburban poverty and a massive, gentrifying real estate complex—Adams carries the weary but proud burden of a man who values what’s right. Blue collar local Sterling Johnson (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) does likewise. Both actors nail Radio Golf’s comedy with complementing styles: Adams understated and Whitfield abrasive.
It makes me wonder about 2012. 15 years after this story takes place, how much of “the game” will be the same, and who gets to play?
Radio Golf continues through April 9th, with performances Thurs. through Sat. 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling 773-338-2177, or online at RavenTheatre.com.
Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Samuel J. and K.|
|Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.
Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.
Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.
It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.
No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.
Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”
Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.
Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?
‘Leaving Iowa’ backs its rustic corniness with heartfelt characters
|Fox Valley Repertory presents|
|Written by Tim Clue and Spike Manton
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
thru March 13 | tickets: $29-$39 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
As a boy, I endured my share of 6-hour road trips to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a pint-sized rural town where my sister attended college. I can’t say the experience left me with playwrights Tim Clue and Spike Manton’s fondness for the Hawkeye State, but I can appreciate the sentiment behind this charming family comedy.
Leaving Iowa is straight-up Americana, full of the diner waitresses, Civil War re-enactors, helpful motel clerks and hyped-up mechanics we like to believe still pepper the Midwestern landscape. The narrative is familiar but sturdy: Don, a city boy (Alex Goodrich), returns home to take care of family business and finds himself reconnecting with his roots in the process.
On a mission to scatter his father’s ashes, he is hit with a wave of nostalgia for his family car trips. The action leaps back and forth between Don’s narration (richly performed, which is no easy task with light-hearted material), his present day quest, and flashbacks to his vacation adventures with Mom (Diane Dorsey), Dad (Don Forston), and Sis (Katherine Banks). The childhood scenes are largely dominated by broad comedy—the kind you’d expect in a self-rated PG play about nostalgia and making things right. At times, jokes about incessant backseat wailing just become incessant wailing, but mostly the gentle humor earns at least a smile.
The real heart of the show lies in Don’s relationship with his father. For a play that ends its first act with an ensemble chorus of “This Land is Your Land” set against a waving flag, director Rachel Rockwell touches on some unexpectedly honest, complicated ideas about growing up. When adult Don tries to have a long-distance phone call with his father, boredom and guilt fill the pauses in between banal sports chatter and monosyllabic responses. Dad, planted in front of a television, silently hurts. The son lacks the will to make the connection his old man needs.
The same goes for a later lament about opportunities passed.
This father-son duo has convincing chemistry. Forston is loveable, and Goodrich fills the All American Boy bill with a sense of earnestness and relatable imperfection. Wacky bits about navigating in the bygone collapsible-map era are swell, but Rockwell never lets us forget there are real humans in that car. The show contains substance underneath its silliness—themes that are affecting and brave.
In other words, Leaving Iowa gives us the apple pie without making us stomach too much gooey, fluorescent cheese on top.
Cast: Diane Dorsey (Mom), Don Forston (Dad), Katherine Banks (Sis), Alex Goodrich (Don), Sean Patrick Fawcett (Character Man), Anna Carini (Character Woman), Torey Adkins (Male Understudy), Géraldine Dulex (Sis Understudy), Valerie Glowinski (Mom & Character Woman Understudy)
Production: Rachel Rockwell (Director), Tim Clue & Spike Manton (Playwrights), Mike Tutaj (Video Designer), Yousif Mohamed (Lighting Design), Elizabeth Flauto (Costume Design), Kevin Depinet (Scenic Design), Miles Polaski (Sound Design), Kristi J. Martens (Stage Manager), Laura Eilers (Performance Assistant Stage Manager), Mark Johnson (Replacement Stage Manager), Jesse Gaffney (Properties Master)
***NOTE: Valerie Glowinski has taken over role of The Character Woman***