Category: Barry Eitel

Review: Beauty and the Beast (Broadway in Chicago)


Timeless story transcends wobbly production


Benjamin Lovell, Jen Bechter, Michael Haller, Erin Elizabeth Coors, Julia Louise Hosack, and Noah Jones as Chip

Broadway in Chicago and NETworks present
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Book by Linda Woolverton, Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice
Directed by Rob Roth
at Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through August 7  |  tickets: $18-$85  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The love story between a beautiful girl and a beastly prince has staying power—the original French fairy tale is centuries old. The most recent reincarnation, a horrendous movie featuring an Olson twin, at least illustrates how the tale is still in the modern consciousness. Let’s not forget there was also that ‘80s TV show. The quintessential telling of the story, however, will always be Disney’s 1991 smash hit full of dancing home furnishings, the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture until Pixar Dane Agostinis (The Beast) and Emily Behny (Belle)came along. Logically, Alan Menken’s catchy music in the movie was transformed into a Broadway musical. Now it’s a favorite of high schools around the country. And a new non-Equity tour that’s settling down at the Oriental.

Dollar for dollar, a high school production may be the better value.

Let me qualify that—the performances here are not so bad. The spectacle is pretty neat most of the time. But it’s outrageous that people are shelling out 85 bucks when there is exponentially better theatre in town for a fraction of the price.

The plot follows the story and music of the film closely, with a few stage adjustments to flesh out the characters. The living cutlery looks more human. It’s not as innovative as Julie Taymor’s The Lion King (remember when she was innovative?) but it ain’t plush costumes, either. In fact, the screen-to-stage adaption is graceful and embraces the challenges of the medium.

What’s going on at the Oriental, though, is a roughly-sketched copy of the original. The town’s wishing well is wobbly. The orchestra is stripped down to the bare minimum. And the performances are terribly broad, almost across the board.

Dane Agostinis’ Beast, for example, is pretty un-beastly. Agostinis goes for some weird comic choices that diminish the character. It works for the awkward courtship, but not so much when he is supposed to terrify us. Most of the comic relief characters have a similar problem with commitment to the material. Benjamin Lovell’s Cogsworth gets too caught up in trying to appear stuffy and so he never actually comes across as stuffy. Andrew Kruep’s clownish Lefou (Gaston’s bumbling sidekick) has some great physical bits—he pulls a few moves that look like he stepped out of a cartoon—but he doesn’t back them up with the emotional stakes great clowning requires.

Logan Denninghoff as Gaston, Andrew Kruep as Lefou, and the villagers in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". Photo by Joan Marcus

Emily Behny’s Belle carries the show well enough. She doesn’t always portray Belle’s driving individuality, but she taps into her sense of humor and genuine sweetness. Logan Denninghoff plays her foil, Gaston, with gusto, something Agostinis could learn from. Michael Haller’s lecherous Lumiere is another shining performance (pardon the pun). His amusing goofiness trumps most of the other objects’ posturing.

This Beauty and the Beast feels fundamentally cheap. Instead of reevaluating concepts and execution, it feels like NETworks is trying to put up a Broadway-level show with a much smaller budget. The diminished orchestra fails to fill the space and many of the ensemble numbers seem empty of vibrancy. “Be Our Guest,” one of the most cherished numbers of the original, is anticlimactic no matter how much Haller hams it up. They should have took the show back to the drawing board and played up their strengths.

Nevertheless, the classic parable of inner beauty wins out. This non-equity tour is much less fun than the movie, but it has its fair share of magic up its sleeves. The tour feels like an imitation in every sense. If you’ve always hankered to see the animation in real life, this is something you should check out. Otherwise, I’d implore you to see something local with more spirit.

Rating: ★★

 Emily Behny as Belle, and the cast of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in the number "Be Our Guest". Photo by Joan Marcus


July 2, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: Marisol (The Artistic Home)


Conveniently apocalyptic


Marta Evans as Marisol and Leslie Ann Sheppard as her guardian angel, in The Artistic Home's "Marisol" by Jose Rivera.  (photo credit: Tim Knight)

The Artistic Home presents
Written by Jose Rivera
Directed by John Mossman
at The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through July 31  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Coffee goes extinct. Neo-Nazis run around parks setting homeless people ablaze. Men give birth. According to playwright Jose Rivera, these are a few apocalyptic signs we should look out for. His 1993 work Marisol follows one woman’s journey in a New York City gone crazier than usual. Just in time for the summer, the play gets a gritty treatment from The Artistic Home.  Premiering, ironically, a month after Harold Camping’s rapture fail, the play explores modern ideas concerning the end of the world. While the play beautifully depicts the death of civilization, it tends to wander and ends up dipping into convoluted waters.

Rivera gained national attention with his screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries and received a smart production of his Boleros for the Disenchanted at the Goodman a few years back. Marisol showcases a younger, angrier Rivera. His masterful grasp on language is evident. The vivid descriptions of the End of Days flow like graphically violent poetry.

A scene from The Artistic Home's "Marisol" by Jose Rivera.  (photo credit: Tim Knight)Marisol asks massive existential, theological, and social questions. Although we never see it onstage, the play revolves around a divine war. Rivera pits a senile God versus rebellious angels, with humans impotently caught in the middle (as usual). The battle causes civilization to break down and all sorts of wacky stuff to happen here on earth. One night, Marisol (a straightforward Marta Evans) is informed that her guardian angel (Leslie Ann Sheppard) is going to the front lines and won’t be able to protect her anymore. She goes out into the world and meets all sorts of friends/foes, including her co-worker June (Kristin Collins), June’s nutty housebound brother Lenny (Brandon Thompson), a man with an ice cream (Andrew Marikis), and a woman in furs who was tortured after going over her credit card limit (Joan McGrath). She sidesteps Nazis, urinates in the street, and helps Lenny give birth.

The cast plays Rivera’s lines simply and honestly. Director John Mossman doesn’t have to pull out a lot of tricks with his staging because the text is fantastical enough (although he uses levels to interesting ends). Evans’ Marisol carries the plot on her back and does an admirable job, although devoid of flash. Thompson is the most lively of the bunch, adding much needed comic spice to the soup. He can also dive into emotional territory, though. The scene in which he shows Marisol where all the street infants are buried is easily the most disturbing, touching, and memorable in the play. Marikis, who appears in three similar nutjob roles, strikes the right mix of nervous anger and violence. You never know what he’s capable of.

 A scene from The Artistic Home's "Marisol" by Jose Rivera.  (photo credit: Tim Knight) A scene from The Artistic Home's "Marisol" by Jose Rivera.  (photo credit: Tim Knight)

Although the program states that the play is set in the present, it is clearly a relic from the pre-Millennium era. It’s almost a period piece in that way, exuding an uncertain jitteriness about the future. Rivera’s two-hour epic is never dull, but you start to wonder where he’s leading us. His final thesis doesn’t answer any questions. I was unsure whether he’s making an impassioned call for atheism or giving a thumbs-up to organized religion’s better parts. He wants to make a statement about the inherent nature of human beings—characters constantly worry about being “eaten” by the human animals outside their door. Yet, Marisol is clearly good of heart. Rivera and Mossman present a series of ideas but don’t follow through.

Marisol jumpstarts with a great hook, but then the stakes evaporate. Rivera overcompensates with his lyricism and eerie characters. It’s not enough to make this play great, but it makes for an entertaining trip. Aaron Menninga’s innovative set is fascinating, covered with graffiti and aphorisms. Marisol may not be a great tale, but it’s a startling vision.

Rating: ★★½

A scene from The Artistic Home's "Marisol" by Jose Rivera.  (photo credit: Tim Knight)

   All photos by Tim Knight

June 22, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass)


Now extended through August 21st!

Recent Tony Award not Lookingglass’ last act


Marilyn Dodds Frank (Lilith Fisher), Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison) and Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams)

Lookingglass Theatre presents
The Last Act of Lilka Kadison
Written by Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Abbie Phillips
         Heidi Stillman and Andrew White
Directed by David Kersnar
at Lookingglass Theatre, Water Tower Water Works. (map)
through July 24 August 21  |  tickets: $30-$58  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

This weekend, most of the people that put Lookingglass Theatre Company on the map were not at the opening for their latest show, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison. Instead, they were sitting in the Beacon Theatre in New York City—that other theatre town—scooping up the 2011 Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre. This marks the fifth such award belonging to Chicago, making one wonder if maybe the whole Tony venture should shift more Midwest. That’s not too likely happen, no matter how much tepid material Broadway churns out (with a few bright spots, of course).

Marilyn Dodds Frank (Lilith Fisher), Usman Ally (Menelik Kahn), Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) and Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison) in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams)Lilka Kadison, then, finds itself in an odd position. Considering the timing, it should prove that Lookingglass deserves that little statue. The play, collectively written by Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar (who also directs), Abbie Phillips, Heidi Stillman and Andrew White, is stylistically different from any Lookingglass piece I’ve seen—it’s in proscenium. But what seems like a conservative choice on the surface is really a storytelling maneuver. Kadison is still infused with the whimsy-tinged yet socially conscious ethos that made the company famous. While the story is jerky, there’s a heart-tugging journey with plenty of breathtaking moments.

As you might expect with a play containing the words “The Last Act” in the title, Kadison is a concise meditation on death. And life. Kersnar and friends based the piece on the writings of the late Johanna Cooper, who worked with Phillips on a radio series called “One People, Many Stories.” The duo recorded the stories of Jews from all over the planet and put them on the radio. The far-reaching narrative of Cooper’s tales resonate with this script, which traverses the Atlantic and the multiple lives of Lilka.

The play splits focus between two periods in the life of the titular female. In one, she’s a young, romantic Jewish girl (Nora Fiffer) living in Poland days before the Nazis strolled in. The other is the “last act,” where we find an embittered, cranky old woman (Marilyn Dodds Frank) left to die in her cluttered house. Her only companion is her live-in caretaker, Menelik (Usman Ally). Moving throughout both these realms is the charming Ben Ari Adler (Chance Bone), Lilka’s first love. He was there to protect her during the invasion and his spirit later haunts her, begging her to tell their unknown story to someone.

Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison), Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) and Usman Ally (Menelik Kahn) in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams) Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) and Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison) do the dip in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams)

Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison) and Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams)

The narrative moves along at a chipper pace, clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission. The obligatory quirky theatricality here is the show’s homage to Yiddish theatre of the 1930’s. Adler drags around a toy theatre where he puts up elaborate puppet shows and schemes his larger theatrical ventures. Kersnar throws too much time and attention on these moments, though they never get close to boring. The actual love story is ill-developed, jumping through the courtship at an unbelievable pace. I can chalk some of this up to radical world circumstances and the story gets the emotional job done in the end, but I was longing for some more scenes detailing Lilka and Adler’s relationship.

Each of the performers holds their own against the technical hullabaloo going on. Bone is the highlight, exuding the urbanity of an old time movie hero, even when he’s operating puppets or doing some magic trick. Fiffer and Frank are interesting foils and both funny in their own way. Ally steals his fair share of scenes as the much-abused nurse. Props to the writing committee for giving Melenik enough depth so he’s not just another throw-away supporting character.

Kadison works because of its heart, plain and simple—though the delightful stage pictures help. The play’s final message is terse yet touching—give your mom a call.

Rating: ★★★

Extra Credit: Check out this production’s wonderful study guide!!


Chance Bone (Ben Ari Adler) and Nora Fiffer (Lilka Kadison) with their toy theater, in Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison". (photo: Sean Williams)

All photos by Sean Williams

June 13, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: Sister Calling My Name (Uncovered Theatre)


Tennessee Williams finds religion



Uncovered Theatre presents
Sister Calling My Name
Written by Buzz McLaughlin
Directed by Rob Arbaugh
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Although it isn’t explicitly mentioned in their mission statement, Chicago newcomer Uncovered Theatre has a definite Christian bent. Not only does their debut production, Sister Calling My Name, dabble quite heavily in Catholicism, their list of donors reveals several Christian charities. With a city where every theatre company has their niche, it’s refreshing that Uncovered decided to cater to a Christian crowd. Sort of. Buzz McLaughlin’s Sister Calling My Name veers dangerously close to a Sunday School video with a few naughty words thrown in. While some intriguingly honest dissenting opinions are explored, they are simply cast off by the end. I think director Rob Arbaugh was aiming for contemplative but he winds up with preachy.

Let’s not forget that people are paying good money for these seats. It seems deceitful to wholeheartedly shove a worldview down their throats without fair warning, no matter if the point of view is religious, political or otherwise. This play definitely had my Catholic guilt churning. After about the third or fourth “Hail Mary” said on-stage, I felt compelled to go to confession. (I guess they got me. Well played.)

McLaughlin’s script is ripped straight out of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. A cynical young man, Michael (Luke Daigle), keys the audience into his memories, most of which concern his disabled sister, Lindsey (but here she’s severely mentally retarded, played by Katie Cheely). Empty picture frames hang from the walls. Supposedly colorful paintings are presented as stark white paper. Instead of an overbearing Southern mother, though, we get Sister Anne (Kelly Helgeson), the sister’s overseer and former flame of Michael. It’s all a bit too close to Williams’ masterpiece for comfort.

The basic premise is that Michael has crossed Lindsey out of his life for years. Lindsey becomes a successful painter yet has no one to manage the huge sums of money people are paying. Sister Anne phones up Michael to let him know the situation, telling him he has a legal obligation. He visits, sticks around, and offers plenty of thoughts regarding religion. Maybe he feels called by God. Maybe he feels an underlying desire to see his sister. Or maybe he’s hoping Sister Anne will leave the Church for him. Half of McLaughlin’s play is devoid of stakes—you’re wondering why Michael doesn’t just bolt once he finds out Sister Anne tricked him into coming out.

Even though the finale is predictable and didactic, Sister Calling My Name isn’t empty of complexity. I was worried they would equate Lindsey’s condition to possession by evil spirits, but that never happens. Lindsey’s story is pretty bleak. There’s no shying away from the real-life horrors many similarly disabled people face, which imparts some honesty to the text. And Michael raises some nagging existential questions. God, seemingly, made his life (and Lindsey’s, for that matter) awful. Why shouldn’t he hate God?

McLaughlin’s answers are unsatisfying. Instead of the touchingly sad ending of Williams’ play, this ties itself up too nicely. And Michael’s vitriolic hate for his sister rings false—his constant referring to her as “subhuman” didn’t match the rest of his character.

Daigle’s performance occasionally dips into melodrama and he can’t work out the script’s glaring holes, but he’s a decent go-between for the audience. Cheely plays Lindsey simply and honestly, carefully avoiding an offensive depiction of disability. Helgeson’s nun is great, if sometimes overly earnest.

It’d be easy to dismiss Uncovered as missionaries on a stage (most of them hail from Regent University), but I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Sister Calling My Name’s religious message doesn’t fully convey the complexities of the situation it sets up. They can leave some hard questions unanswered. That’s just how life works sometimes.

Rating: ★★


June 8, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: Mother Bear (Mortar Theatre)


Mother Bear roars with danger


Jim Farrell (Mother), Dustin Whitehead (Bones), Brian Plocharczyk (Freely), J. Kingsford Goode (Vera) in Mortar Theatre’s “Morther Bear,” by Jayme McGhan.

Mortar Theatre presents
Mother Bear
Written by Jayme McGhan
Directed by Jason Boat
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through June 19   |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As a normal, sedan-wielding citizen, the life of a trucker has a white trash mystique for me. Rest stop showers. Knowledge of every 24-hour diner in the country. A glove compartment bulging with methamphetamines for those all-night long hauls. Yes, much of this is a big rig fantasy. But it’s a whimsy Mortar Theatre’s Mother Bear indulges in heavily. While the tone is unstable and the story questionable, Jayme McGhan’s play is a white-knuckle ride, full of scumbags. I’ve reviewed most of Mortar’s production history and Mother Bear is the most entertaining piece I’ve seen.

Brian Plocharczyk (Freely), Jim Farrell (Mother), and Dustin Whitehead (Bones) in Mortar Theatre’s “Morther Bear,” by Jayme McGhan.The world-premiere tale isn’t set on the open road, but in a tiny trucker diner in the middle of nowhere, Utah. The pancake house, run by the pictured-sweatshirt-wearing Vera (J. Kingsford Goode) is a front operation for the Disciples, a quasi-Christian mob of truckers who earn higher wages because a Disciples’ trident stamp is on their rig. They also nab a few bucks from hijacking trucks transporting drugs and arms fresh from Mexico. They are led by Mother (Jim Farrell), an unapproachable God-like figure who on some days seems like a reasonable dude, but, on others, won’t hesitate to smash a disrespectful fellow’s head into a table. A young outsider, Freely (Brian Plocharczyk), wants Mother to sign the Disciples to his new truckers’ union. Mother is plenty content with his semi-legal operation. Mother’s days are numbered, though. Spunky female trucker Delia (Maria Enriquez) looks to take down the Disciples from the inside. And Bones (Dustin Whitehead, in the most delicious performance in the piece), Mother’s amoral bodyguard, has his own loyalty issues.

McGhan can’t keep the mood of the piece stable. The first act, though there are plenty of head injuries, knives, and guns, emits a charming warmth and mostly likable, albeit rough around the edges, crew of lowlifes. This feeling flees from the second act, which takes a dark, undeserved turn. The final few scenes have more immediacy, but it comes out of nowhere. The characters unravel, all of them revealing that they are much different than what we first thought.

This makes for an interesting study of appearances vs. reality, but I don’t think that’s McGhan’s point. According to Mortar’s promotion (and their usual pick of work), Mother Bear is a social issues play which opines on the hotly-contested subject of unions. The series of twists undercut the message. I left the Athenaeum unsure of what I should be taking away. There’s no final thesis on labor relations—it’s a play about the nature of evil. This is fine, but McGhan could frame the theme better.

Kingsford Goode (Vera), Brian Plocharczyk (Freely) and Jim Farrell (Mother) in Mortar Theatre’s “Mother Bear,” by Jayme McGhan.

The performances fit right into the text. To be honest, I don’t think the world of truckers and the world of theatre intersect often, but Jason Boat’s cast is wholly authentic. Farrell’s Mother is a King Lear of the open road. There’s a welcoming twinkle in his eye, but also a repressed ferocity just waiting for the cage to be opened. Plocharczyk is a bit whiney, but it works for the oft-abused Freely. Goode’s deadpan portrayal of Vera is spot-on for a cynical diner owner/only waitress. Enriquez’s Delia is tough-as-nails and brashly sexual, except in her last scene where her bravery and dignity disappear—a disappointment. Whitehead rounds out the cast excellently. His Bones is straight out of that bar where your kind isn’t welcome.

Mother Bear pulls as much inspiration from the Bible as it does from America’s highways. It’s this oddly spiritual realm that McGhan seems to really want to explore. McGhan’s script requires re-evaluation and tightening. Boat and the cast invest so much of themselves in the world, though, McGhan’s true intent doesn’t seem so important.

Rating: ★★★

Kingsford Goode (Vera) and Brian Plocharczyk (Freely) in Mortar Theatre’s “Mother Bear,” by Jayme McGhan.

Mortar Theatre’s Mother Bear continues through June 19th at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20 ($18 seniors, $15 students, $12 veterans), and can be purchased by phone (800-982-2787) or online here.

May 31, 2011 | 2 Comments More

Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)


We loves you, Porgy and Bess!


Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

Court Theatre presents
Porgy and Bess
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”


Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

Rating: ★★★★
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
May 23, 2011 | 3 Comments More

Review: Tragedy: a tragedy (Red Tape Theatre)


Tragedy: a new theatrical experience


Paul Miller and Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Red Tape Theatre presents
Tragedy: a tragedy
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?

Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.

Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.

That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.

The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.

I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.

The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?

Rating: ★★★

May 13, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)


Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough


A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

Strangeloop Theatre presents
The Maid of Orleans

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

Rating: ★★

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

May 12, 2011 | 1 Comment More