If what you really wanna do is produce… Here’s a chance to pick the brains of the industry’s elite

goodmanSo you wanna be a producer? Mark the weekend of March 19 – 21 and plan on attending the Chicago Producing Intensive Conference   at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. A $350 ticket ($275 for members of the League of Chicago Theatres) includes access to presentations and networking opportunities with a who’s who of heavy-hitter producers and  general managers from blockbuster shows in Chicago and on Broadway as well as national tours.

Presenters scheduled for the conference include  Tom Viertel, partner with Scorpio Entertainment  (A Little Night Music);   Allied Live Managing Partner Laura Matalon (Broadway’s Hair, Billy Elliot, Mama Mia and Legally Blonde,  among others);  Broadway in Chicago Vice President Eileen LaCarioJujamcyn Theatres Creative Director Jack Viertel;  Steppenwolf Theatre Executive Director David Hawkanson;  David Richards of Richards/Climan (general managers for Broadway’s  Blithe Spirit and All My Sons, among others) and Goodman Theatre Executive Director Roche Schulfer.

Presenters are slated to address audience development, script and story development and promotional strategies and marketing techniques, among others topics.

The conference is open to anyone interested in producing, co-producing or investing in the theater, be it in Chicago, New York or for national tours. Aspiring general managers and investors are also invited.  Program planners say the weekend will be of special interest to anyone exploring relationships between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors in the development of a theater project.

The Commercial Theater Institute, now in its 29th year, is a project of Theatre Development Fund (TDF) and The Broadway League, Inc. Dedicated to training the next generation of commercial theatre producers, CTI strives to provide resources and guidance to people interested in creating commercial productions for the stage.


February 26, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished


Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters


by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.


Rating: ★★★½


Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.


February 26, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Noises Off (Theatre at the Center)

You gotta have heart



Theatre at the Center presents:

Noises Off

by Michael Frayn
directed by
William Pullinsi
Theatre at the Center, Munster
through March 21st (more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, is one of the most popular farces of all time, concerning a traveling play whose actor’s backstage antics are so outrageous that they can’t get through a performance without a totally zany mishap. It is a regional theatre favorite because of its light-as-a-feather demeanor and broad appeal, and audiences love the wacky English humor. Theatre at the Center’s production, directed by Artistic Director William Pullinsi, hits all noisesoff1the right marks in this fast-paced, technically demanding play, but loses a little heart amidst the hubbub on stage.

It’s a show that relies on physical props: phones ringing, opening and closing doors, putting props in exactly the right place every time, and it’s a pleasure to marvel at the athleticism of the actors when they pull it off. Just hitting those marks consistently is amazing work, and Pullinsi’s staging is masterfully organized and effective.

The humanity in these performances, however, is lacking. Everything in this show is done correctly, but sitting in the audience I barely cracked a smile. Too much focus has been placed on the technical proficiency here, and not enough as been paid to acting. During the crazy second act – the funniest, wildest scene in the show – there are times when one can’t even tell actors Jeff Cummings and Clay Sanderson apart because their relationships and characters are so muddled. The women had an easier time of distinguishing themselves. Laura E. Taylor and Anna Hammonds are both charming as rival love interests for the hotshot director played by hit-or-miss Will Clinger. But if one is to choose the show’s standout performance, it is no doubt the stage manager, Rebecca Green, whose role job includes calling sound and light cues, props placement and basically running the entire show.

One crew member who is sorely missed in this production is a dialect coach. The English dialects are awful across the board in this show, to the point that they are distracting and embarrassing. The life of noisesoff3an English accent in this play is more exciting than the life of any of the characters: it travels across the world and becomes a New York accent, and then Dutch, and then maybe a little Italian and then it falls off completely, only to return when you least expect it. These are extremely competent actors, with a list of Jeff awards and nominations among them, and yet, not one of them makes it through this show without sounding like they have marbles in their mouth at one point or another.

The adept physicality of the ensemble is notable, and director William Pullinsi knows exactly what what Noises Off should look like. It’s a great show for children and theatre newbies because it lays out, in an entertaining manner, just what a play should look like.  But the more seasoned theatre-goer might want to stay clear of this production. Hey, you gotta have heart, even in the silliest of farces.


Rating: ★★


EXTRA-CREDIT: Check out pics from the opening night reception. Looks like they’re having a well-deserved good time.

February 26, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Abigail’s Party (A Red Orchid Theatre)

“Let’s get pissed!”


A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Abigail’s Party

by Mike Liegh
directed by Shade Murray
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Suburban popularity hinges on repressed emotions. Irritating neighbors are tolerated and marital woes are hidden all in the name of keeping up appearances, but what happens when the inhibitions that keep these feelings in check are removed? Hilarity ensues.

abigail_home The year is 1977 and Beverly (Kirsten Fitzgerald) is waiting for her husband Laurence (Larry Graham) to arrive with lagers before guests arrive for a cocktail party. Cheesy pineapple bites have been set, the fiber light has been switched on, and the hostess is grooving to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” while sipping a gin and tonic. A few houses down, punk rock teenager Abigail is throwing a party of her own, but the real action is about to begin in the Moss’s living room, the setting of Mike Leigh’s hilarious Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid Theatre, exquisitely directed by Shade Murray.

Angela (Mierka Girten ) and Tony (Danny McCarthy), newcomers to the neighborhood, arrive first, followed by Susan (Natalie West), the title character’s divorced mother. Drinks are poured as small talk begins, the men discuss cars, the women furniture, and all is pleasant and respectable. This picturesque gathering quickly develops cracks in its facade as drinks are topped up and people become looser with their tongues, revealing the problems that lie under the surface.

Leigh’s script was largely developed through actor improvisations, and the evidence is apparent in the dialogue. Characters check in with their listeners to make sure they are paying attention, and at one point two completely different conversations are happening at the same time, a rare occurrence on stage but something that can be heard at any party. The rhythm of the dialogue moves at a clipped pace that intensifies as drinks are poured, but the actors never become caricatures of inebriation.

Alcohol is the medium through which awkwardness flows in the play, and Fitzgerald’s Beverly is the main instigator. She jumps at the chance to criticize Angela’s makeup once the men are away, openly mocks her husband, and in the play’s most uncomfortable moment gets a little too intimate with Tony. “A little row adds sparkle to a relationship,” isn’t just something she says, but something she lives by, and her abhorrent behavior is a way to garner an emotional response from the lifeless Laurence. Beverly mirrors Abigail’s party, becoming more invasive in the lives of those around her as her neighbor’s punk rock grows louder, disrupting her perfect evening.

Fitzgerald may be the life of the party, but her supporting cast doesn’t play second fiddle. Graham’s Laurence may be a square, but he matches his wife’s aggression when threatened, and his intellectual nature serves as a great foil to Beverly’s vivacity. Girten is hilarious as wide-eyed doormat Angela and McCarthy is appropriately brutish in his mostly silent role. West essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent, and while primarily serving to drive the plot forward, Susan becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.

Rating: ★★★½

February 26, 2010 | 2 Comments More

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya


By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.


Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.


Rating: ★★★


February 25, 2010 | 3 Comments More

REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men (Raven Theatre)

Classic play focuses on shades of gray

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Raven Theatre presents:

Twelve Angry Men


by Reginald Rose
directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
through April 17th (more info)

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Reginald Rose, the author of the classic teleplay turned movie turned play Twelve Angry Men, was no stranger to controversy. He used his storytelling talents to take on big social issues—including abortion and McCarthyism—at a time when standing on the wrong side of such issues could be career poison. Still, despite his viewpoints, he managed to find work at all three major television networks, a feat rarely accomplished by even the most passive and innocuous scriptwriters of today.

12AM vert 1 I’m sure personal connections may have played some role in Rose’s success in light of his opinionated nature, but there’s no doubt that his ability to write moving and emotionally charged prose helped. After all, how easy is it to make twelve men arguing in a hot and muggy room compelling?

The Raven Theatre’s production of Twelve Angry Men takes Rose’s seminal work and gives it some updated twists in an effort to add a contemporary spin. No longer are we watching 12 angry white, predominantly middle-class men puff their chests. This cast is interracial, adding Latinos, blacks and even a man of Asian decent to the mix to provide new subtext for an audience that lives in a society that is far from post-racial but has moved beyond the days of sit-ins.

The play centers on the jury deliberation in a murder trial. A teenaged boy from the slums of the city stands accused of killing his father. If convicted, the boy will receive a mandatory death sentence. The jury of 12 take a show of hands to see who falls on the side of guilty and not guilty. While many are expecting an open-and-shut case, one lone juror (C.L. Brown) votes not guilty.

Incredulous scoffing follows, but once the man is given the floor to speak, he begins chipping away at the prosecution’s evidence. As holes are poked in the case, jurors begin flip-flopping. Still a few stubborn men hold their ground. Gridlock sets in, people reach their boiling points and personal prejudices reveal themselves.

Whereas the original play’s all-white jury was a stark contrast to the non-white defendant, the choice to use a multi-racial cast in this production softens the play’s focus on the issue of race. Instead, it conveys the message that bigotry is colorblind while playing up prejudice based on class. For example, the phrase “those people,” which is used frequently by the black bigoted Juror #10 (Reginald Vaughn), seems to refer to people from urban slums regardless of race. This neither improves upon nor detracts from the play. Rather, it merely infuses new meaning.

12AM horiz 1 Wrangling a cast of 12 actors is no easy task, but director Aaron Todd Douglas does a fine job of managing all the bodies. The juror table is long enough to give each actor some room to occupy his own space, allowing the audience to see the men as individuals rather than a dense mob. Subtle actions also convey characters’ masked emotions. For instance, as the play advances, jurors begin to pace, stand and move about the room with greater frequency, a sign of escalating tension.

Brown is astounding as the defective Juror #8. He is calm, cool and collected without coming across as smug, an easy pitfall for an actor playing the character. Dan Loftus as Juror #3, one of the hardest eggs to crack in the room, also does a stellar job. His final monologue is tense and heartfelt. He’s not a villain. He’s just proud to a fault, and Loftus makes sure never to muddle this distinction.

As impressive as the performances are overall, Juror #10’s melodramatics are cringe-worthy. Throughout the play he delivers his lines with the pacing of someone reading from a piece of paper. Only when he dials his anger to the highest setting is it convincing. The rest of the time the acting is fairly transparent. It’s a shame he has such a key role as the prejudiced juror.

Twelve Angry Men’s relevance relies on the context of the times. Raven Theatre has taken a classic and altered it for a contemporary audience. The jurors who remain married to their opinions for no rational reason might be compared to today’s “Party of No” attitude, while class may prove to be more of a hindrance than race. Despite some questionable acting, this production does a good job of bringing these themes to the surface.

Rating: ★★★


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February 25, 2010 | 4 Comments More

REVIEW: The Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre)

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep


Goodman Theatre presents:

The Long Red Road


by Brett C. Leonard
directed by
Philip Seymour Hoffman
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep. Such is the sad, irrefutable wisdom of The Long Red Road, where that reason proves relentlessly elusive. In playwright Brett C. Leonard’s stark, devastated landscape, bodies are physically wrecked by alcohol, hearts spiritually wracked by alcoholics.

Production_08 “I’m afraid I’ll always be thirsty,” says Sam (Tom Hardy), an alcoholic for whom every new day offers a thousand good reasons to die. Hardy’s delivery of the line sends shivers down the spine. There is no quenching this kind of thirst, only the temporary escape of blackouts. Sam isn’t alone in the conclusion that the unbearable heaviness of being is all but unendurable. Each of the six tormented souls in The Long Red Road is wandering through a desert, the unshakable ache of the relocation muscatel blues chasing them like arid Furies.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman orchestrates the piece like a conductor shaping a symphony. A slow, deliberate crescendo of damage builds shock upon shock, none of them gratuitous, all of them wrenching. Leonard’s dialogue is spare; some scenes are all but monosyllabic, others entirely wordless. With the economy of poetry, Leonard makes every word count. The suffering on stage hits hard, the lack of extraneous frills in the staging making it all the more intense. A small oval of light in a sea of darkness pinpoints the stunning damage to a 13-year-old girl as she’s being raped by a close family member. An overflowing ashtray and a small FedEx box indicate the pathetic remnants of a life lost to whiskey. A barn ladder is an entry try way to the sins of the father, monstrosities inflicted through generations, ensuring generations of monsters to come.

Production_06 Yet for all that, The Long Red Road is profoundly optimistic. It gives nothing away to say that in the final scene, there’s a baptism by fire as an inferno consumes a silent, sinister monument to decades of abuse and awful secrets. Sex, throughout most of the play defined by fear, hate, and loss, becomes a powerfully redemptive celebration of forgiveness and unconventional beauty in the last scene. Characters who have been waiting all their lives for confirmation that they are, in fact, human beings of value, potential and goodness receive that confirmation. That it comes from beyond the grave is tragic. That it comes at all is reason for joy.

At the crux of Leonard’s harrowing drama are two brothers: Sammy (Hardy, utterly convincing as a drunk hurtling toward the point of no return) and Bob (Chris McGarry, simultaneously repulsive and profoundly empathetic portraying a man as damaged as he is damaging). Leonard gives us the backstory in atmospheric slashes of exposition, leaving the audience to connect-the-wounds as the picture slowly comes into focus.

After a horrific, completely preventable car accident led Sammy to abandon his wife Sandra (Katy Sullivan, whose flat affect is imbued with infinite shadings of conflicting love, hate, fear and stony self-reliance) and daughter Tasha (10th grader Fiona Robert in an astoundingly nuanced performance that displays range and depth well beyond her years).

Nine years after the accident, Bob is overwhelmed, tortured and enraged by demons warping his desire to do right by his inherited family into something terrible. Sammy is drinking himself to death in the dead-end town of Little Eagle, South Dakota, his school teacher girlfriend Annie (Greta Honold, a near-perfect depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic, trying to save the drunk boyfriend stand-in for her drunk father) patiently, choosing not to see the dead-end in the depths of Sammy’s “drunk, bloodshot, bullshit eyes.”

“You’re probably waiting on someone I ain’t never gonna be,” Sammy says one night, a razor-blade shard of truth slicing up through the seemingly endless torrent of repellent self-delusion that keeps him (barely) alive. That is, of course, exactly what Annie is waiting for. The moment illustrates the power of Leonard’s language and of Hoffman’s astute direction: It is instilled with the sorrow of a million lost drunks, that rare sliver of inescapable reality that propels one irrevocably toward either recovery or death.

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For Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), the Native American bartender at the ironically named Red Road bar (the red road, Clifton explains, is the Native American phrase for sobriety ), Sammy’s increasingly self-destructive binges are the symptoms of a deeply diseased man.

When the bar’s patrons – fed up with Sam’s cringingly offensive rants – decide to tie Sam to a truck axel and drag him through the Reservation (with a sign proclaiming the likes of “I’m a racist honky” around his neck), Clifton steps in and saves him. Akiaten is a largely silent wonder, dispensing tequila shots with the judgment free stony-eyed compassion that comes from a stone-solid foundation inner strength. This is a man who has fought the Furies and won – at least for today in a one-day-at-a-time recovery process that will never pass into the past tense. Clifton’s recovering, never recovered. Akiatenin captures that beautifully, craggy face reflecting the never-ending battle of turning away from a bottle while living with an endless, unquenchable thirst.

Stories of alcoholics are rarely ground-breaking – there’s nothing new about the saga of a drunk who leaves his family in ruins. But this particular tale is so authentic that it transcends its well-trod genre. When Sandra screams that Sammy “took my legs,” the moment is as raw and real as theater get, primarily because Sullivan is a phenomenal actor but secondarily because she was born without legs. The Long Red Road is defined by such veracity – startling,  moving and at times, difficult to bear in its stark authenticity.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Hoffman, he can always fall back on directing.


Rating: ★★★★


VIDEO: Playwright Brett C. Leonard discusses his play



February 25, 2010 | 1 Comment More

REVIEW: A Love Lost Life (Theatre Building Chicago)

‘Love Lost Life’ Fails to Explore the Brando Family Tragedies


David Barnes as Christian Brando-1


T.M.R. Inc. presents:

A Love Lost Life

by David Nathie Barnes
directed by Susan Felder
through March 14th at Theatre Building Chicago (more info | tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

“The first two days with Marlon, I pushed him the wrong way, and as a result I lost him. He hated me, and it was my fault. I was too confrontational, too strong . . . All actors are frightened that they won’t give you what you want. It was a sad way for me to learn that even Marlon Brando was scared.

Frank Oz, on directing The Score

“He didn’t want to be treated like an icon. When you dealt with him you had to talk to him like a regular guy—he was very anti-Hollywood. But then the other part of him—he wanted a little gift to be brought. It was Persian caviar, imported cheeses and red wine. He loved it.

–Writer/director Bob Bendetson of Big Bug Man

“My family’s weird . . . We had new additions all the time. I’d sit down at the table with new people and I’d have to ask: ‘Who are you?’ Invariably they were a brother or sister I had never met.”

Christian Brando, to his probation officer

Beau Forbes as James Dean-1During the filming of “Last Tango in Paris,” director Bernardo Bertolucci became so overwhelmed at the range, rawness and immediacy of Marlon Brando’s talent, he momentarily lost faith in his ability to direct the intense, dynamic actor. Anyone who considers writing a full and accurate account about the Brando family must surely have as much trepidation. Even in his own words, Brando’s tangential and unreliable understanding belies a mind at the mercy of shifting moods, aspirations and desires. Plumbing the depths of his mercurial and inscrutable personality would require the expansive and agile faculty of Oscar Wilde and, without a doubt, the built-in, shockproof, shit detector of Earnest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, actor/playwright David Nathie Barnes only renders for us a meager slice of Marlon Brando’s life—with as many holes as Swiss cheese. But for the exception of a few well-written monologues, A Love Lost Life—the Unauthorized Story of Marlon Brando, overdoses on the kind of shallowness and superficiality one finds on E! True Hollywood Story. Especially in handling Brando family dynamics, so much goes unexpressed and undeveloped, it’s hard not to suspect that Barnes either has been cowed into pulling punches out of fear of litigation or is utterly blinkered in his characterization by poor-rich-kid clichés.

More’s the pity, because the talented cast of Theatre Building Chicago’s latest production is obviously capable of taking on more than what’s demanded of them here. Like a reigning triumvirate, Michael Perez, Jamie Asch, and Robert Ashkenas capture Marlon Brando at 20-30, 40-60, and in his 80s, respectively. Perez exudes the young, insouciant Brando, with all the defiant masculinity that awakened the ‘50s out of its white-bread stupor. Asch gives a full-throttle performance of an impossible Brando, nihilistically grinding down his career and personal life until “The Godfather” pulls him out of a rut. Ashkenas poignantly evokes an infirm, bloated and pathetic Brando, wheezing and rationalizing his way toward a regretful and sorrowful exit.

As an actor, Barnes strikes fire with his sullen, edgy interpretation of Christian Brando. Claudia Di Biccari sympathetically gives total commitment to the limited material as his doomed sister, Cheyenne Brando. Director Susan Felder has done her best to pull out humanizing characterizations from the cast. But strong performances alone can’t make up for lack of a dramatic structure hefty enough to pull together Brando’s groundbreaking, but uneven, career and bizarrely troubled family life.

Robert Ashkenas as Marlon Brando age 80 -1 Finally, it must be said, too often Barnes’ writing leaves holes a Mack truck could drive through. Accuracy vs. poetic license–yadayadayada–but nothing should be sacrificed from a drama that substantially informs its action or characters. Among the least of them: Marlon Brando had at least 11 children–legitimate, illegitimate and adopted. A Love Lost Life is written as though Christian and Cheyenne were the only ones. It’s as if, in play’s memory, the other siblings—and their impact on Christian’s mentality—have disappeared down a rabbit’s hole.

Then, there are Cheyenne’s struggles with schizophrenia, which Barnes’ play doesn’t acknowledge until well after Christian goes to jail for shooting and killing her boyfriend, Dag Drollet. The truth is, Cheyenne began having violent bouts of schizophrenia at 16, one of them inducing her to recklessly crash her car–an accident that so damaged her face, all her hopes for a modeling career were ruined. Most likely, schizophrenia influenced Cheyenne’s fallacious tales to Christian about Dag assaulting her, which in turn led to the shooting. Barnes cover none of this in his play.

Also not touched upon: a history of domestic violence in Christian’s own marriages; Christian’s stockpile of weapons, including illegal automatic weapons, that police uncovered in his home upon arrest; forensics which disclosed that Dag had been shot in the back of the head, not in the face in the middle of a struggle, as Christian confessed–that Dag died with his tobacco pouch in one hand and a TV remote in the other.

There’s more, so much more, to the Brando family saga than Barnes can tell or is willing to tell. It’s not just another spoiled-celebrity-children-gone-wild tale; it should never, ever be treated as one. Perhaps the answer lies, not in Brando’s chic home on Mulholland Drive, but in the unexplored chapters of Brando’s family life in Tahiti. Wherever it may be, nothing less than madness itself holds sway over this family. To dramatize this family’s story, one needs a playwright brave enough to head into that heart of darkness.

Rating: ★★

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

February 24, 2010 | 0 Comments More

Theater Thursday: Chekhov’s Shorts (St. Sebastian Players)

Thursday, February 25th 

Chekhov’s Shorts

Saint Sebastian Players

1625 W. Diversey, Chicago

chekhovshortsHelp celebrate Chekhov’s 150th birthday! The event kicks off with a food and drink reception, then an informal presentation by the producer of the show, followed by the production and a post-show Q&A with all the directors and members of the cast. Chekhov’s Shorts is a collection of short pieces penned for the Russian vaudeville circuit and other venues with each piece directed by a different director. Featuring farce, parody, slapstick, and the battle of the sexes (his favorite theme), you will leave this evening with an entirely new appreciation of Dr. Chekhov.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.
Show begins at 7:30 p.m.


For reservations email TheaterThursday@SaintSebastianPlayers.org with the subject heading "Theater Thursdays."

February 24, 2010 | 0 Comments More

Wednesday Wordplay – Gogh and Cho

Motivational Quotes

I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate.
            — Vincent van Gogh

When people think the world of you, be careful with them.
            — Margaret Cho, Margaret Cho Blog, 09-26-05

Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.
            — Brendan Gill

The highest result of education is tolerance.
            — Helen Keller, Optimism,’ 1903

I define comfort as self-acceptance. When we finally learn that self-care begins and ends with ourselves, we no longer demand sustenance and happiness from others.
            — Jennifer Louden

Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
            — William Faulkner

Whoever does not love his work cannot hope that it will please others.
            — Unknown

Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.
            — Marcus Valerius Martialis

Words are a heavy thing…they weigh you down.  If birds talked, they couldn’t fly.
            — Sy Rosen and Christian Williams, Northern Exposure, On Your Own, 1992

Part of understanding the creative urge is understanding that it’s primal. Wanting to change the world is not a noble calling, it’s a primal calling.
            — Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative: 17, 08-22-04

The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.
            — Saint Jerome

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
            — Abraham Lincoln

I like coincidences. They make me wonder about destiny, and whether free will is an illusion or just a matter of perspective. They let me speculate on the idea of some master plan that, from time to time, we’re allowed to see out of the corner of our eye.
            — Chuck Sigars, The World According to Chuck weblog, September 8, 2003


Urban Dictionary


stealth abs

When your ripped six pack is covered by a thick layer of fat.

This isn’t a beer belly, it’s my stealth abs. I just needed to avoid attracting too many ladies with my well defined stomach.

mirror scare

the specific scene in a movie where a person is scared by something seen in the mirror. (see video below)

February 24, 2010 | 2 Comments More

REVIEW: 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples (n.u.f.a.n.)

Dirt-cheap dirty jokes


n.u.f.a.n ensemble presents:

200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples


By Paul Barile
Directed by
Rachel Edwards Harvith
Prop Thtr, Avondale Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

As the judge remarked the day that he
acquitted my Aunt Hortense,
‘To be smut  It must be ut-
-terly without redeeming social importance.’       —Tom Lehrer, "Smut"

In the Golden Age of radio theater, every serial had its soundman, the crew member who created the sound effects, often by hand — clapping coconuts together for hoof beats or twisting sheets of cellophane for a crackling fire. In n.u.f.a.n. ensemble‘s staged radio play, 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples, Mike Dunbar, in the role Hap the Foley Guy, spends most of the show blowing bubbles into a jar of water, clanking chains and beating cymbals, and creating convincing sounds while working up to a stretch of brilliantly frenzied physical comedy that’s the highlight of the show.

And just about all that keeps it from meeting Lehrer’s definition of "smut and nothing but."

joe irvingMost of Paul Barile’s world-premiere comedy is a gleeful barrage of raunchy double entendres, ribald puns and blatant sexual innuendos — like a 1940s party record, only filthier. Think humor at the level of “I Used to Work in Chicago" or "Shaving Cream" crossed with the Urban Dictionary.

If dirty jokes give you a thrill, "200 Bullets" will keep you laughing. And since tickets to the late-night show are just $5, the low comedy comes at low cost.

The play is set behind the scenes at a 1937 radio show. Due to a strike, management has brought in inexperienced scab writers — prisoners in a volunteer program — who’ve created a futuristic radio drama pitting humanitarian scientist Dr. October, heroine Liberty Pink and her sidekick, Attaboy, against the malevolent, power-seeking Malice and M’Lady and their henchman, Bilge. As a result, regular advertisers have dropped out, and new sponsors, such as Wicked Willie male supplements, have provided unusual commercials. The last-minute arrangements mean the radio actors go on the air without first having seen the script.

The ensembleKeely Maureen Brennan, Justin Cagney, John Champion, Mary Czerwinski, Joseph E. Hudson, Emily Kane and Ben Veatch — all do a fine job in their dual roles as radio actors and futuristic heroes and villains, while Zach Uttich plays the mostly off-stage Eugene the Engineer. Barile’s script leaves no place for the characters to discuss the peculiarities of the radio play, so all their reaction is visual, and often funnier than the jokes themselves.

Director Rachel Edwards Harvith keeps things moving as the cast segues from the lewd lines of the silly radio story to even more unlikely advertising jingles and back, and Dunbar is constantly in action. In a fun attention to detail, picketers stood outside the theater on opening night.

cagney and veatch mary and emily two

Despite the genuine, if often sophomoric humor, I found myself thinking what a waste it was for all this talent to focus on something so nearly devoid of redeeming social value. This is n.u.f.a.n.’s first deviation into the underworld of blue humor. The ensemble mainly does brief festivals of one-acts and monologues; Barile, who was once music columnist for Chicago’s erstwhile Lerner Newspapers while I was entertainment editor there, has authored a handful of full-length plays.

The first few minutes of "200 Bullets," setting the stage for the strike substitution and introducing the characters, complete with their political biases, is so well crafted that I was sorry to see them disappear almost entirely into the rude comedy of the radio play within the play.

Other bits aren’t so well-done. While folks looking for laughs won’t be bothered, history buffs may be troubled by the script’s endless anachronisms. I won’t go into the smuttier expressions that would have been unknown in 1937, but other examples include the term "foley," which comes out of the motion-picture industry, not radio — a reference to Jack Foley (1891–1967), a pioneer in the creation of specially created sound effects for Universal Studios’ early talkies. Foley started with the 1929 "Show Boat," but he borrowed effects already created by radio soundmen; and the allusion wasn’t used beyond Universal’s sound stages until the 1960s.

In other instances, faked commercial refer to PMS and credit cards. Although symptoms have been recognized for millennia, the term "pre-menstrual syndrome" was first used in the 1950s. And "charge cards," per se, weren’t developed until the 1940s. I’m quibbling, but even filthy fantasy needs consistent context.

While this harebrained comedy is definitely an adult show full of lewd language, you’d have to be fairly prudish to be offended by it. Vulgar but not vilely so, it’s a long way from, say, "The Aristocrats." Frivolous as it is, "200 Bullets" is harmless and mostly amusing.


Rating: ★★★

Notes: Performances are at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Allow time to find street parking.

doctor october

February 23, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: The Gimmick (Pegasus Players)

Rich script overrides lackluster adaptation


Pegasus Players presents:

The Gimmick


by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Ilesa Duncan
performed at Truman College, 1145 West Wilson Ave.

through March 28th  (more info, tickets)
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Chicago Dramatists’ alum Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick is a one-woman show originally performed by the playwright herself in 1999. It is a superbly-written poem/monologue that tells the story of ten-year-old Alexis, as she and her best friend Jimmy grow up together in 1970’s Harlem. The children are surrounded by addiction, LaNisa%20Frederick%20&%20Brandon%20Thompson_Webprostitution and violence both from their parents and their peers, and find solace both in the arts and in each other.

Although it was originally written as a solo piece, Pegasus Players has unnecessarily brought on Caren Blackmore and Brandon Thompson to play supportive roles. The result is a collection of cold, weird, disconnected scenes that come off more like high school skits than scenes in a play, tied together by Alexis’ (LaNisa Frederick) speeches. The work put in by the actors is passable, but the production is passionless: from the snooze-fest of a set (made up of a scrim and a couple of window units) to the beyond lame staging.

Frederick does her best, working against banal direction and bizarre costuming (she is dressed in a huge purple, flowy, over-shirt thingy that completely monopolizes her body). She’s able to transform her role from being cute and funny to dark, gross places when needed. Her monologues are by far the most engaging parts of the show. Brandon Thompson, who ages about ten years as during the play as Jimmy, does a great job of playing a ten year old in a respectful, believable and sweet way.

LaNisa%20Frederick%20-%20Cab_Web When improv actors are learning their craft, they are taught never to bring real props or costumes onto the stage, because it interferes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The theory is that if everything is pantomimed, then anything can be possible. As soon as a real object enters the scene, it becomes harder to imagine things that aren’t really there. I wish someone had told director Ilesa Duncan thies before she directed this play. The idea is creativity in minimalism. Just because a play doesn’t call for fireworks is no reason to slack off when trying to fill the space.

This being said, don’t write off this play entirely. The writing is so robust that you’ll still have a good time. Pegasus Players’ mission to bring theater to those with limited access. which is a very worthy cause. But almost everything about this production, from the props to the costumes, to the set is more half-hearted than impressionistic.


Rating: ★★



Free and metered street parking is available in surrounding neighborhoods.  Valet parking is available at Magnolia Cafe at 1224 West Wilson for $8.00.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

February 22, 2010 | 1 Comment More