The classic American drama of our generation
Broadway in Chicago presents:
August: Osage County
Review by Barry Eitel
After closing a little more than 2 years ago at Steppenwolf, Tracy Letts’ American neo-epic August: Osage County makes a triumphant return to Chicago. Its vacation has been pretty productive. The play moved to Broadway, then London, picked up a Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and a feature film is in the works. Now the show is on tour around the nation. August occupies a slightly larger space for its homecoming, the massive Cadillac Palace Theatre. Headed by the voracious Estelle Parsons, this touring August retains the intensity of the original, hitting the snowy streets of the Loop with the force of a tornado.
August: Osage County details a few days in the life of the American theatre’s newest favorite dysfunctional family: the Westons. Think of every social taboo present in Eugene O’Neill’s canon and slam into a single, three-act play. Add pedophilia and T.S. Eliot, and soak in alcohol. Letts’ whirling story succeeds so well because it’s a churning cauldron of the worst kind of secrets, yet each one blows us away as we hear it painfully revealed on stage. If one wanted to peg a genre for the masterpiece, it could simply be described as a murder mystery. But that glosses over the addiction, the familial power struggle, and the utter loneliness the play dwells on. If anything, August harkens back to the sweeping epics of ancient times, played out in the 21st century on the arid plains of Oklahoma.
The visiting show doesn’t bring together any of the original cast. The Steppenwolf Theatre actors have all moved on to their own projects. Although a remount of the original cast would be spectacular, perhaps it is better that Steppenwolf has focused on continuing their commitment to great theatre of all colors. August’s mother has been doing some great work since her son moved out-of-state. Case-in-point: Letts as “Teach” in the current production of another Chicago playwright, American Buffalo by David Mamet. (our review ★★★★)
The touring production really succeeds in pushing the brilliance of the writing. It is obvious that the Oscar-owning Parsons, who has played pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston on and off since the play’s move to Broadway, has a keen insight to Letts’ characters. She has gotten plenty of practice at self-destructing night after night onstage, and the experience shows. Parsons’ Violet is part nagging mother, part tigress, part wandering spirit. She can violate and disgust the audience one moment, then pull out a flood of pity the next. Although she has the stature of a little old lady, Parsons has the heart of Greek god. Throughout the play, Violet finds the toughest resistance from her daughter Barbara (Shannon Cochran), who may be on a path to Violet’s life of drug-induced isolation herself. Fighting bitterly against an actress as brutal as Parsons is a momentous task, but Cochran remains ruthless. It’s a delight for us to witness these two actresses battle on-stage, like two fierce, starving animals placed in a cage where there’s only room for one.
Unfortunately, some of the other actors can’t find their stride in Letts’ potent language. Emily Kinny, who plays the 14-year-old pot-smoker Jean, comes off as strained and stilted. When the pressure cooker starts to bubble, she can pull out some excellent work, but she congeals quickly when the stakes aren’t as obvious. Jeff Still, who plays Barbara’s estranged husband and Jean’s father Bill, has a similar problem. Amy Warren seems to be pulling from Kristin Wiig in her interpretation of Karen, the oft-ignored third sister. She rides the comedy too hard instead of depending on the text. Luckily, the tenacity of Libby George (Mattie Fae), Paul Vincent O’Connor (Charlie), and Angelica Torn (Ivy) picks up the others’ slack.
As it has been said over and over again in the press, in college classrooms, advertisements, and the blogs, August: Osage County is the classic American drama of our generation. It need not be said again.
Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at
Northlight Theatre presents
Awake and Sing
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.
From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.
Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.
Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.
In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.
When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.
Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."
Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.
Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.
Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.
Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.
Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.
Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.
Playwright Lisa Loomer discusses her new play, Distracted, currently playing at American Theatre Company through February 28th.
It’s hard to keep up with Lisa Loomer. The prolific playwright’s work has been produced around the globe in such countries as Germany, Mexico, Israel and Egypt. She’s the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a handful of awards. In addition, her plays The Waiting Room—which is about the effects of cosmetic body modification on women—and Living Out—a piece that explores the relationship between a Salvadoran nanny and the Anglo lawyer for whom she works—are both taught in women’s studies and Latino studies programs.
Always one to gain inspiration from personal experience, it is only natural that Loomer would incorporate this idea of busyness in a play. Her piece Distracted, which is receiving its Chicago premier at American Theatre Company, explores the themes of sensory and information overload in our society, and more specifically, Attention Deficit Disorder. The conduits for the story are a husband, wife and their fidgety 8-year-old son. It’s part of the ATC’s 25th season, which explores the identity of the American family.
ChicagoTheaterBlog: American Theatre Company’s 25th season focuses on the American family. How do you think Distracted fits into this theme?
Loomer: Well, I think it fits all too well. Aside from the increasing number of children diagnosed with ADD and the huge rise in the number of psychiatric drug prescriptions written for children, it’s about how we live right now—our world of screens, our fractured attention spans, our need for stimulation and the effects on the family.
CTB: Distracted premiered in 2007. A lot has happened in the U.S. since then, including the election of our first multi-racial president, the collapse of our economy and, of course, the health care debate. Do you think in light of these historical changes, the play has taken on new significance?
Loomer: I think the play is about a society in a mad rush to keep up. I heard it in the State of The Union speech the other night, “We must keep up with China, with India, we cannot be second.” We need our stimulants and other drugs, our ever-changing Windows, our quick cuts, our frenetic rap. They keep us going. And as we fall behind in the world, as we see ourselves as struggling, I think it makes us run even faster. In terms of health care, I’m afraid I do see the drug companies as preying on this need of ours to perform, to be the best.
CTB: Distracted deals with issues related to ADD. What is it about our contemporary culture that has destroyed our attention spans? Is it Facebook, Twitter, 24-hour news cycles, etc.?
Loomer: Well, first of all, let me say that I do not believe ADHD is simply a cultural phenomenon. Scientists have isolated genes that are involved in ADHD. It is quite real, and I would never minimize its impact on the people who have it or their teachers or families. Whether it is a “difference” or a “disorder” is a question that I pose in the play. And I believe that what is a “difference” in the context of one society might be a “disorder” or “dysfunction” in another. That said, I do think that Xboxes and Twitter and the barrage of 24-hour news, etc. has had an effect on our attention spans. It’s harder to sit still, to contemplate, to wait and to pay attention. And what is attention? For me it is the ability to be present with someone without judgment. And that’s even harder to do when you’re distracted.
CTB: What themes are pervasive throughout your work? Why do you feel you focus on these concepts? Is it a conscious effort?
Loomer: I tend to be moved to write when something bugs me. I seem to have written a lot about balance or the need for balance—the balance of masculine versus feminine, nature versus science, Anglo culture versus Latino culture, the powerful versus the powerless, life versus art. It wasn’t conscious, no. But after a while it became clear even to me.
CTB: Tell me about your writing process. Where do you get your ideas, and how do you flesh them out into a full piece?
Loomer: I tend to get ideas by what I see around me. I wrote Living Out when my son was little and I spent a lot of time in the park, listening to both nannies and moms. I wrote The Waiting Room when the dangers of breast implants were in the news and a friend also wanted me to do something on Chinese foot binding and my mother was dying of cancer. I’m writing now about Israel and Palestine because, well, I read the papers and because I get a dozen passionate e-mails everyday from both sides. Once I do have an idea or an impetus or I’m pissed off enough, a character will appear in my mind and start talking and taking action. And then other characters will appear and start to disagree and get in the way. Once I have a first draft, I will say, “Now what does this want to be about?” And I’ll start to shape.
CTB: You’ve done stand-up comedy. Do you still perform stand-up today? How has this influenced your playwriting?
Loomer: I did stand up, political mostly, for a very short time. Mostly, when I did comedy, it was one-person shows in the vein of Lilly Tomlin. I was an actress, and character comedy and working in political-comedy/performance groups was part of being an actress for me. If stand-up influenced me at all, it made me appreciate the value of cutting. Being an actress had a far greater impact on me as a playwright.
CTB: What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights who wish to see their work produced?
Loomer: Well, my advice is always write what you have to write, write what is yours to write and never write to please or be “popular.” Your job is to do your body of work—no one else’s. I can’t tell anyone how to get produced. But I believe that the more you allow your own voice, no matter how strange, and explore your own interests, no matter how controversial, the more satisfying it will be. I also advise living your life so you have something to write about, talking to everyone about everything and going to the theater.
distracted is currently play at American Theatre Company through February 28th.
January 28 – February 28 (ticket and show info)
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm
run-time: 2 hours, with one intermission
kid-friendly?: recommended for ages 14 and up
Overblown ‘Jeeves in Bloom’ grows on you
First Folio Theatre presents:
Jeeves in Bloom
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
In the opening scene of First Folio Theatre’s Jeeves in Bloom, the characters pursue each other around the garden set in a goofy, stylized chase scene so exaggerated it made me want to run out of the theater. The broad, affected campiness Director Alison C. Vesely has imposed on this Equity production really put me off at first, but after a while, the show began to grow on me.
Margaret Raether’s script does P.G. Wodehouse proud. Loosely grafted and considerably pruned from the British author’s 1922 comic novel “Right Ho, Jeeves,” and light as dandelion fluff, this Chicagoland comedy premiere revolves around the amiable but asinine Bertie Wooster, a London man about town, and his keen-witted gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. Bertie’s old school-chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, a painfully tongue-tied nerd with a passion for newts, has unaccountably fallen in love with a dippy debutante called Madeline Bassett, a sappily romantic girl who believes in fairies, and appealed to Bertie and Jeeves for advice on wooing her. Meanwhile, Bertie’s intrepid Aunt Dahlia enlists the duo’s aid in stealing her own diamonds as a means of hiding her gambling losses from her irascible and dyspeptic husband, Tom Travers. However, their schemes inadvertently entwine Bertie with Madeline and touch off the Travers’ volatile French chef, Anatole, with disastrous consequences for Tom’s digestion. (James Leaming doubles as the bluff Tom Travers and excitable Anatole so ably that I didn’t realize he wasn’t two actors until only one of him turned up for ovations.)
Kevin McKillip’s portrayal of Gussie Fink-Nottle really won me over. As he moaned, “If only I were a male newt!” and bodily demonstrated the mating habits of the minute amphibians, I twigged to the value of the histrionic approach. McKillip’s expressive face and physical comedy constantly delight.
Christian Gray’s hammed-up rendition of Bertie takes some getting used to. With McKillip, Leaming and Melanie Keller as Madeline all chewing the scenery, one would think Bertie could be more understated. When he’s not spitting chunks of backdrop, Gray comes off admirably Woosterian. And my reaction to his over-the-top mugging is perhaps not entirely Gray’s or the director’s fault.
Chicago-area Wodehouse lovers must be forgiven if the vision of Bertie and Jeeves imprinted indelibly on our brains is that of Mark Richard and the late Page Hearn, who played those roles with brilliantly nuanced humor over some nine years at City Lit Theatre. They’re a tough act to follow.
Jim McCance, in what seems like a rather small role for the title character, presents an older, stouter and stiffer Jeeves than Hearn’s (or the image drawn in the iconic Penguin paperbacks by Ionicus), but his deadpan tone and facial expressions are impeccable.
However, the real stars of this production are McKillip and Jeannie Affelder as Aunt Dahlia. Although I always picture Dahlia as an Englishwoman of the large, horsey and hearty type, the diminutive Affelder dominates the stage in a smart and subtly comic performance.
Everything about this production shows an attention to detail, from Elsa Hiltner’s period costumes to the stage properties. Scenic Designer Angela Miller has beautifully integrated a garden terrace into the high-ceiling event hall of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate, complete with working fountain, statuary and realistic plants.
So, by the time that thorny opening chase scene was reprised at the end of the first act, I could take it without wincing.
Though more of an overblown rose than a tight bud of comedy, “Jeeves in Bloom” is a fun and enjoyable show.
Note: The performance is 2½ hours, with intermission.
Cirque du Soleil presents
in HOFFMAN ESTATES for EIGHT performances only
from MARCH 3 – 7, 2010
at the SEARS CENTRE ARENA
INFO: Cirque du Soleil is pleased to announce that the critically-acclaimed touring production Alegría will perform in Hoffman Estates at the Sears Centre Arena from March 3 – 7, 2010 for eight performances only.
Tickets are available at www.cirquedusoleil.com/alegria or by calling 1-800-745-3000.
ABOUT: Alegría is a Cirque du Soleil classic and an internationally acclaimed production that has entertained more than 10 million people worldwide since its world premiere in Montreal in 1994. In May 2009, Alegría embarked on a new journey, performing the same mesmerizing production, but now in arenas in North America, giving more people the opportunity to enjoy a Cirque du Soleil show in their own town.
Alegría is a Spanish word that means happiness, joy and jubilation and features an international cast of 55 performers and musicians from 15 countries and showcases breathtaking acrobatics.
Acts include the Synchro Trapeze and the intense and high-energy Aerial High Bars in which daring aerialists fly to catchers swinging more than 40 feet above the stage. The vibrancy of youth is alive in Power Track, a brilliant display of synchronized choreography and tumbling on a trampoline system hidden under the stage floor. In Russian Bars, artists fly through the air and perform spectacular somersaults and mid-air turns, landing on bars perched on the sturdy shoulders of catchers.
Category 1, 2, 3
- Adults: From $35 to $75
- Children (12 & under): From $28 to $60
- Military, Seniors & Students: From $31.50 to $67.50
- Adults: $95
- Children (12 & under): $76
- Military, Seniors & Students: $85.50
Show Schedule (March 3 – 7, 2010):
- Wednesday, March 3 at 7:30pm
- Thursday, March 4 at 7:30pm
- Friday, March 5 at 3:30pm and 7:30pm
- Saturday, March 6 at 3:30pm and 7:30pm
- Sunday, March 7 at 1pm and 5pm
Japanese professional theatre’s rehearsal of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, the finale of Sweeney Todd.
CAST: Masachika ICHIMURA (Sweeney Todd), Shinobu OTAKE (Mrs. Lovett), Midoriko KIMURA (Beggar Woman), Sonim (Johann), Yu SHIROTA (Anthony), Michitaka TACHIKAWA (Judge Turpin), Satoru SAITO (Beadle), Shinji TAKEDA (Tobias), Amon MIYAMOTO (Director)
And here’s the Japanese trailer for the movie opening of “Sweeney Todd”, starring Johnny Depp.
A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie
Living Newspapers Festival
Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)
review by Paige Listerud
Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.
Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.
Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.
The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.
There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.
The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.
The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.
“Whack!” needs work to get its licks in
Gorilla Tango Theatre presents:
Whack! The Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story
written and directed by Kelly Williams
thru February 25th (more info)
review by Paige Listerud
Just what is it with our culture’s renewed fascination about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? The current musical production on at Gorilla Tango Theatre is just the tip of the iceberg. A rock opera about their infamous 1994 Olympic rivalry premiered in Portland in 2008 and another production is scheduled for this year in Los Angeles; in 2008, then-candidate Obama told the press he would not “pull a Tonya Harding” on Hilary Clinton in the run up to the Democratic Convention; and the phrase quickly became used by Dem insiders to forecast Hilary’s options pursuing the presidential nomination.
On the other hand, as the opening number, “Bitches On Ice,” would suggest, there’s a certain eternal appeal to dueling women in dainty outfits. The audience wants to see a catfight between two aspiring ice princesses precisely because they’re suppose to be polite little ladies. Writer and director Kelly Williams further exploits the (presumed) class differences between Nancy and Tonya in her new show, Whack! The Tony Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story, a Karaoke Musical–about which much could be deconstructed.
But first, the lyricists for Whack! are some very clever people. In fact, the wittiness in the songs far outshines the dialogue, especially at the start. If there’s a rewrite in this show’s future, let it sharpen up spoken lines and leave jaunty works like “Majorsubcutaneousepiduralhematoma” well enough alone. Of course, it helps that they’ve subversively set the lyrics to the Disney movie music canon, so that shiny, happy crowd-pleasers like “Be My Guest” get transformed to “I Love Breasts”—an easy improvement over the original.
It’s the run-up to the Lillehammer Olympics. According to Whack!’s storyline, Nancy Kerrigan (Leslie Nesbitt) is nothing other than an evil skating genius, planning to use her Olympic gold victory to establish (or is that re-establish?) WASP dominance. “Mother, how would you feel if all of Asia was trying to ruin my life?” Nancy says, referring to Michele Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Oksana Baiul. Never mind that two of the above are Asian-American competitors. She’s not about to let white trash Tonya Harding (Cassandra Cushman) keep her from total white upper middle class victory. For her part, Tonya is just striving to lift herself out of the depths of her trailer park existence.
Both characters would be nothing without their mothers–Nancy’s Blind Mom, played hilariously by Carry Bain, and Tonya’s Drunk Momma (Natalie Kossar ) form the perfect pair of bookends to their emotionally deformed daughters. Kossar takes some time to warm up to her role, but once there she slays with lines like, “Make Momma a pizza,” and “Shh! You’ll scare the whiskey away.”
The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which takes some time to get there, too. One thing about rowdy, schlock musical comedies: not beginning with high energy is death to the production. Hopefully, that flaw will be rectified in the course of the run, because once fired up, the show is much funnier. Spiro Zafiropoulos, as Tonya’s ex-husband-live-in-boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, shows the kind of professional steadiness that the rest of the conspiracy against Nancy could learn from. But he can’t bring the plot to wicked fulfillment all by himself.
As for Nesbit and Cushman, each takes the stage well alone, whether envisioning world domination or plaintively wishing to get out from under a drunken parent’s domination. But once onstage together, the sparks don’t fly equal to expectations that have been built up in the audience. Since this is a musical comedy, not a history lesson, it’s a little astonishing that more liberties aren’t taken with their exchanges. In other words, go wild, ladies. This is what we’ve paid our tickets for.
As for the class differences that Williams expounds on and exploits between Tonya and Nancy, I hope that by now most people are aware that the real Nancy Kerrigan comes from an equally blue-collar background. It’s a different tale to tell, two blue-collar girls both engaging in an aspirational struggle–rather than setting up yet another “upper class vs. blue collar” dynamic. Perhaps it all depends on where you want to get your comedy.
This is an excellent vocal arrangement, especially the punctuated quarter note “dahts” and the underlying bass voice mimicking a bass guitar. Very nice. I do have problems with these kind of clips that show these singers being heard over the band while not on microphones, not to mention the heavy mixing of the finished product. But either way, this is still a great clip.
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (mp3 download)
Fisher mesmerizes in Didion’s ethereal examination of grief
Court Theatre presents:
The Year of Magical Thinking
review by Oliver Sava
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self pity.
– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Renowned novelist Joan Didion‘s heartwrenching memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” astonished critics with its unflinching portrayal of the author’s grief following the death her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in the midst of a medical crisis surrounding their daughter, Quintana, garnering Didion a National Book Award and becoming the foundation for the writer’s first stage play. Shortly before the novel’s publication, Didion lost Quintana to pancreatitis, and the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking expands the scope of the novel by including the playwright’s struggle to rationalize her daughter’s death while coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Directed by Charles Newell and starring Mary Beth Fisher in a career-defining performance, Court Theatre‘s production maneuvers the intense emotional shifts of Didion’s script with an artistic precision that bristles with elegance, overcoming the insular nature of the script to create a work of art with graceful resonance.
The first thing to greet the viewer’s eye is John Culbert‘s minimal, yet refined, set – an elevated rectangular platform floating in a dark void. A flesh-colored wood floor, desk, and chair are the only set pieces; a teacup, saucer, and flower atop the table the only props. Fisher appears on stage wearing cream slacks and a blue blouse that, aside from the occasional light cue, is the production’s sole use of color. The design elements of the production enhance the script beautifully, the set creating a physical representation of Didion’s isolation surrounded by the blackness of grief, the blue of her costume recalling the ocean and sky imagery of her memories with husband and daughter in Malibu and beyond. Jennifer Tipton‘s lighting design further reinforces the changes in the character’s psyche; inky projections during moments of "magical thinking" show the pervasive effects of grief by dirtying the pristine stage, and lights are turned to full power when she enters the "vortex" of memory that paralyzes her, blinding the audience as much as the character.
Carrying the show on her shoulders, Mary Beth Fisher gives a technically astounding performance. Newell has blocked her in a way that gives her freedom to dramatize events, immensely helpful to a script that is completely centered around the inner workings of one woman’s mind. Fisher is particularly skilled at capturing the obsessively rational side of Didion, a woman that memorizes the names of every drug her daughter is given, who obtains hospital records and doorman’s logs so she can recreate the moments following her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table. As a person that operates from a primarily intellectual position, there are not many instances when Didion lets her heart override her brain. The moments in the "vortex" are fueled by the photographic recall of specific events rather than an emotional response to these memories, making Didion’s mind her greatest enemy. Unable to control the flood of memories attached to certain stimuli, "the question of self-pity" becomes impossible to ignore.
Towards the end of the show, Fisher recalls a vacation in Hawaii with her husband and daughter. Rather than attempting to escape as she has the past recollections, she sits at the downstage edge of the stage and dips her foot into the darkness. The small gesture is a huge step for the character, and by finally venturing into the unknown – the uncontrollable – Didion can finally live outside the shadow of death.