The Polish Odd Couple
Moving Stories Theatre presents:
reviewed by Paige Listerud
Chicago audiences rarely get a chance to see the stimulating and provocative work of Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. For that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to high tail it to Moving Stories Theatre’s showing of The Emigrants at The Artistic Home. This is the first in a series of World Theater they will be presenting for the 2010 season and if their opening shot is any indication of future productions, we are all in for a real treat.
Written in 1974, The Emigrants reflects both the philosophical and the mundane dilemmas of émigrés from Eastern Block states living in the West. Commenting on his own immigrant experience in a letter, Mrozek wrote, “I never experience such a sharpening of [my] senses and thoughts as in an unfamiliar country, an unfamiliar city, among unfamiliar people, whose language preferably I do not know. [This offers] such intensification of life, of my whole existence.”
That state aptly describes Emigrant XX (Goran Milev, who also directs the productions), the prosaic prole who wants to make just enough money to own a house back in the old, totalitarian home country. Emigrant AA (Joe Mack), a Polish liberal intellectual succeeds him in education and abstract understanding, but hasn’t enough drive to get dressed and step out of the basement apartment they share. Without a dollar in his pocket, XX finds excitement going to the train station and standing among the people there, while AA stays on the subterranean level, imagining himself as an organism in the bowels of a great beast.
Together, XX and AA make up a pre-Perestroika Polish odd couple–getting on each other’s nerves over issues that are either petty, but significant to daily survival, or are deeply profound but, without traction, vanish into airy nothingness. Milev, in particular, strikes all the right notes portraying XX’s new emigrant awkwardness and anxiousness to be acceptable. Compounded by a capacity for taking concepts too far and reluctance in admitting when he doesn’t understand something, XX’s character drives most of the comedy of the piece.
Indeed, he seems to be its heart and soul, especially when AA determines to make him the center of his new work of political theory. Never mind that AA hasn’t completed any work, intellectual or otherwise, since he’s arrived—XX cannot leave until it is done. Here, the enlightened intellectual begins to reflect the control of the totalitarian state they have both left. But then, as XX astutely pointed out earlier, under totalitarianism the both of them were equal—in slavery. New rules and not-so-new divisions of class and privilege determine their value as human beings in the so-called free world.
It’s here where the production falls short in teasing out all the layers of darkness, paradox, and absurdity. But then, Mzorek packs more into an 80-minute one-act than most playwrights do into two hours. Mack’s interpretation of AA is especially casual—that, and no discernible accent, makes AA like a slightly more educated Dude from The Big Lebowski than a despondent Polish intellectual émigré. A certain lack of fire and intensity, particularly when holding forth dearly held political views, robs Mack of an edge to be realistically threatening once the story turns dark. Both actors do sustain the dynamic tension between them, however, long enough to suggest the pearl of madness at the bottom of AA’s soul–and the pearl of wit that dwells at the bottom of XX’s.
The Emigrant’s run will be short—only until February 21st. For those who crave more intellectual fare and seek a break from the cultural insularity of American life, this small, dense political drama may prove to be a walk on the wild side.
‘Distracted’ isn’t worth your attention
American Theatre Company presents:
review by Keith Ecker
I’ve been told by medical professionals that I have both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and general anxiety disorder (GAD), which is the exact same dual diagnosis given to the little boy in the play Distracted.
So you’d think that because I could identify with one of the play’s central figures, I’d probably be able to sympathize with its characters; maybe I’d be moved to think about the consequences of medicating children. Well, I can’t sympathize, and the only thing I was moved to do was leave the theater once the lights came up.
There’s a lot to be said about this American Theatre Company production. So much in fact that it’s hard to focus. But as my therapist reminds me, it’s best to break things down into smaller tasks.
Let’s start with something simple, like the space. It’s huge with an exposed concrete floor big enough to stage Xanadu. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a large space. It just requires a lot of energy to fill it. Unfortunately, there’s little energy in this play. The mother (Donna Jay Fulks), who tries to “fix” her son’s AD/HD, has the emotional depth of a woman in an Activia commercial. When she should be banging her head against the steel beam that was obstructing my view of stage left, she instead grits her teeth, rolls her eyes and half-asses a mantra to calm herself down.
On a positive note, the use of 16 flat-screen televisions was a novel effect. Not only do the screens serve as figurative distractions—representing cell phones, cable news and instant messaging—they also create digital scenery. A doctor’s office, for example, comes to life when the screens flicker with images of impressionist paintings and a fish tank.
Next, the acting. I’ll start with the positive on this one. The supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles, steals the show. As the protagonist boringly drifts from one professional to another, teetering on helplessness and frustrated but never quite getting there, the supporting cast infuses real emotion and vibrancy into the piece. Audrey Morgan, who plays the teacher, a doctor and a nurse, and Dina Facklis, who plays the obsessive-compulsive neighbor Vera, have impeccable commitment and comedic chops. When they speak, the play comes to life.
Unfortunately, most of the time the acting is dead on arrival. The mother and father (Kevin Rich) are an incredibly unconvincing couple, playing out the tension in the relationship with all the reality of a “very special episode” of a primetime sitcom. True, Fulks had a challenging part. The mother is the sun that the world of the play revolves around. But damn it, feel something! Maybe this is emblematic of Distracted’s suburbia setting, where people harbor a sort of overly reserved kind of existential anger at society that must be suppressed for fear of what the neighbors might think. But hey, we’re all human. And even a soccer mom is going to have a mental breakdown at some point. I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty. The best we get is a shoe-shopping spree and a small outburst where she confesses to the audience that she feels like her son is ruining her life.
The direction. PJ Paparelli, who is also the artistic director of ATC, makes Distracted move fast. A bedroom morphs into an office which morphs into a classroom. A teacher becomes a nurse, a doctor breaks out of character and everyone stops action to speak to the audience. The smash-cut scene changes work thanks to the coasters on all the set pieces. However, the character switches do not. Paparelli moves so fast that half the time the actors seem confused as to whom they are supposed to be, occasionally stumbling over their lines in an effort to catch up.
Finally, the writing. I’m amazed this play was first produced in 2007 because it feels like it was from the early 90s. I’m 28 years old. Childhood Ritalin prescriptions were commonplace, albeit controversial, when I was 8. This play treats the subject matter as untouched territory while failing to contribute anything to the decades-old dialogue. Worse still, the whole piece feels like a big lecture, a sort of morality play where the audience is talked down to the entire time. And because there aren’t really characters in this piece, just physical embodiments of different points of view, we never have the opportunity to care about anyone.
One last note: If you do find anything redeeming about this play, it will all be dashed by the miserable ending. Distracted just kind of peters out on an anticlimactic note, that note being a song by Eminem, a rapper no tweenage boy has listened to for nearly a decade. I don’t know if the use of Eminem was in the script or if it was a directorial move, but it reminded me of watching my mom try to prove how cool she still is by doing tequila shots.
A good supporting cast and some interesting stage elements can’t save this production. Sadly, the only thing you’ll be paying attention to while watching Distracted is your watch.
The surreal world of “Lucid”
Diamante Productions presents:
Review by K.D. Hopkins
The play Lucid is supposed to be about the mystery and excitement of what is called lucid dreaming. This is a somewhat controversial technique parlayed by New Age practitioners as a means to fulfill desires both conscious and subconscious. The playwright Tony Fiorentino has attempted to bring this to the audience in the form of a frustrated working drone named Peter Moore. He is a character descended from Roth and John Updike yet updated for our time and current American culture. Moore shares a cubicle and comic relief from the work day with Wally who seems to be an everyday guy but has a Mephistophelian bent with his fantasies and rants against the bosses of the world. Peter and Wally are graphic artists working in anonymity putting doodles and copy on items that end up in the dollar stores of Chicago or plastered on the windows of closed storefronts.
The play opens on the “L” as Wally is regaling Peter with how he stood up to the boss. The dialogue escalates until Wally claims to have taken an ax to the boss. He knows it is a lie but claims that it could happen in the world of lucid dreaming. Wally has taken the class for $300 and wants to share his newfound knowledge with Peter. That benevolence-really malevolence-sends Peter Moore into a descent where he is obsessed with non-reality. On the home front, Peter has what is the new American Dream set on its ear. His girlfriend is pregnant and has moved in taking up the extra bedroom where he once had an art studio. She is portrayed as obsessed with being a family and having Peter as a part of his child’s life. The minute Peter hits the door, he is faced with Becky doing Kegel exercises on the sofa and having ordered takeout to satisfy her eggplant craving. Their relationship is strained even though they each proclaim love and devotion. They all step through the looking glass when Peter gives his seat to a beautiful passenger on the “L”. Peter feels a connection and thinks that she is everything that Becky is not. She leaves her scarf on the train which becomes a fetish for Peter’s fantasies.
Peter is played by Daniel McEvilly. He fits the look of the character and does well especially in scenes with Becky, played by Laura Shatkus. Otherwise his performance came across as a bit too earnest. The artist has attention deficit rather than longings for freedom in his portrayal. This may be due to the writing more than the acting. There are elements of Surrealism and then Transcendentalism and then the Great American Discontent of post war America. They are all worthy subject matter and yet one cringes when Peter and his fantasy lover-Robin quote Thoreau. Mr. McEvilly does a fine job of projecting the rage of the working stiff who is meant for greater things. His scenes with Wally- played by Jake Szczepaniak are at times riveting. They have some great dialogue about art and real life. Sometimes McEvilly veered into preaching but he balanced well off of Mr. Szczepaniak.
The character of Wally is quite complex and well played by Mr. Szczepaniak. Wally is a world class BS artist that hides behind his bravado. He is a Mephistopheles leading Peter into a world that can solve all of his problems without any mention of the cost. When Peter goes too deep into the surreal world of lucid dreaming, Wally tries to take immoral liberties under the guise of being drunk and blacked out. This scene had the possibility of being smarmy but came across as menacing and unsettling.
Laura Shatkus’ portrayal of Becky is quite good. She has the task of taking on a role that’s written with a misogynistic bent. Pregnant women are usually portrayed as hysterical, needy, and insecure – always at the expense of a very put upon man. Peter goes so far as to count back the days when she got pregnant to claim that the child may not be his. He does not want any responsibility messing up his fantasy life. This is where the play veers dangerously close to melodrama, but Ms. Shatkus’ emotional range and subtlety keep things taut.
The character of Robin is played by Tracey Kaplan. She has a wonderful stage presence that also keeps the drama on course. She is equally charming as the woman on the “L” and the fantasy/muse of Peter’s dreams. The scenes between her and Mr. McEvilly are erotically charged and they play well off of each other. As mentioned before, some of the dialogue is a bit stilted and derivative but great chemistry between actors can be the saving grace. (Speaking of derivative-the homage to “Casablanca” made me chortle rather than feel any regret for the characters.) Robin always appears holding an apple as her symbol of temptation and the great fall of man. It was a bit too obvious and the actors had enough chemistry to not need a superfluous prop.
One would be remiss to not mention the brilliant scenic design by Robert Shoquist. The set is a Kafkaesque mix of cubicles representing the compartmentalization of Peter Moore’s life. It is accented expertly by props designer Lindsay Monahan. There is an assault of the hyper-colored junk that crowds our world including the sound of a Halloween skeleton singing “Just A Gigolo”. The office is a tight box as much as home is a suffocating trap lit beautifully in somber tones by Justin Wardell. The set is on a Lazy Susan mechanism that the actors move between scenes. The physical movement adds to the surrealist tone. One definition of Surrealism is ‘what is beneath the surface is what the mind’s eye sees’. We are taken beneath the surface of Peter Moore’s mind as well as the mechanisms of the drama and maybe the mind of the playwright. This was an enjoyable drama that will be of some interest to those who are into psychology and relationships in our times; that can be a surreal journey in real life.
NOTE: This play contains adult subject matter and sexual situations. Parents are advised.
“Lucid” plays on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM at the Athenaeum Theatre 2936 Southport. Tickets are available through Ticket Master at 800-982-2787 or at the Athenaeum box office.
THE JOFFREY BALLET ANNOUNCES ITS 2010-2011 SEASON
Season to feature two mixed repertory programs:
- showcasing World Premieres by Liang and Possokhov
- toasting famed choreographers Balanchine and Wheeldon
- Plus, the revival of The Taming of the Shrew and the return of America’s #1 Nutcracker
Continuing in The Joffrey Ballet’s mission to provide the highest level of performance quality, the season will feature live orchestral accompaniment by the Chicago Sinfonietta , the official orchestra of The Joffrey Ballet. All performances will take place in The Joffrey’s home venue, the historic Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, in downtown Chicago at 50 East Congress Parkway.
“The Joffrey’s next season promises to be an intriguing array of dance,” noted Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “We’ll salute the contributions of 20th century, New York masters in the fall, and introduce works by the next generation in the spring, with two full-length story ballets in between. Throughout the season we balance established and rising talent, mixed rep and evening-length ballets, contemporary and traditional. There’s something for both the dance aficionado and the dance novice, and everyone in between.”
October 13-24, 2010
Wheeldon’s After the Rain
Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto
The Joffrey Ballet’s 2010-2011 Season opens with a mixed repertory program of Company Premieres, highlighting 20th century New York icons. The program will include Christopher Wheeldon’s emotionally resonant After the Rain (2005). Set to the minimalist, classical music of Arvo Pärt, After the Rain is in two sections that are strikingly different in tone, with the first section marked by steel gray costumes and backdrop with three couples creating bold lines and intricate lifts. The second section shifts to a warmer palette as dancers embody an emotional relationship, at times becoming tender and connected while at other times pulling away or struggling to find each other. The bill will also offer George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which was revised in 1972 from a previous choreographic endeavor titled Balustrade that premiered in 1941. Using the opening “Toccata,” two central “Arias” and the final “Capriccio” from Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Balanchine forms contrasting pas de deux for two different couples. Dancers resemble musical notes floating over the stage in Balanchine’s sensual and saucy homage to the genius of Igor Stravinksy. The fall program will include a third piece, to be announced at a later date. This program will be presented October 13 – 24, 2010.
December 11 – 26, 2010
Possibly America’s #1 Nutcracker and Chicagoland’s most popular holiday tradition, Robert Joffrey’s production of The Nutcracker will again transform the Auditorium Theatre into a winter wonderland, complete with magical toys, dancing snowflakes and exotic sweets. The Tchaikovsky masterpiece, featuring the full Joffrey Company, ,local children’s choruses and more than 120 young dancers, will be presented in seventeen performances, December 11 – 26, 2010.
February 16 – 27, 2011
John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew
In February 2011, The Joffrey Ballet revisits the popular The Taming of the Shrew, last performed by The Joffrey in 2002. John Cranko’s world-renowned ballet adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic story is a romantic comedy about the trials of finding balance in love. With music by Kurt-Heinz Stolze and Domenico Scarletti, The Taming of the Shrew depicts the boastful Petruchio as he attempts to tame the strong-willed Katherine. When it originally premiered at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1969, Cranko’s translation re-defined narrative ballet through witty and subtle choreography that brought the characters and their foils vividly to life. The Joffrey will revive this two-act ballet February 16 – 27, 2011.
May 4 – 15, 2011
The 2010-2011 Season concludes with a mixed repertory program featuring two World Premieres, by Edwaard Liang and Yuri Possokhov. A former soloist for New York City Ballet, Liang’s first work for The Joffrey, The Age of Innocence, premiered in the fall of 2008 and was met with critical and audience acclaim. His theatrical work paired 19th century romanticism with athletic prowess and a contemporary sensibility. Possokhov, a former dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and a principal dancer and choreographer for the San Francisco Ballet, has made a name for himself as an austere and charismatic dancer and a bold, innovative choreographer. The Joffrey Ballet is proud to commission these new works, being performed May 4 – 15, 2011.
Location, ticketing and info on the company’s present season can be found after the fold.
American Theater Company will be presenting their first installment of the company’s 25th Anniversary celebration, The Silver Project, which will include world premiere plays by playwrights Steven Belber, Itamar Moses, Yussef El Guindi, Stephen Karam and Brian Tucker. The first Silver Project presentation will take place at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street, Chicago on Monday, February 8th at 7:30 p.m. (more info)
A little background
To celebrate the company’s 25th Anniversary, Artistic Director PJ Paparelli asked over 30 playwrights across the country to choose a year between 1985 and 2010 and write a short play that explores the company’s mission: “what does it mean to be an American?” Directed and performed by over 50 Chicago artists, the plays will be presented in five parts throughout the year and as a complete cycle during the National Theatre Communications Group Conference June 16-20, 2010 here in Chicago.
"ATC is proud to launch our Silver Project with world premieres from five of the country’s most innovative playwrights. From Rudy Guilliani’s radical clean up of New York City to a school satire sparked from the Bush/Kerry debate to collateral damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, Part I explores pivotal American events in the 00’s from five diverse perspectives," Paparelli says.
The program for the initial showcase on February 8th will include:
|Year 2000:||Quality of Life, written by Steven Belber, directed by Jason W. Gerace.|
|Year 2001:||There Was So Much We Were Going To Do, written by Itamar Moses, directed by Jeremy Wechsler|
|Year 2003:||So Unlike Me, written by Yussef El Guindi, directed by Eric Ziegenhagen|
|Year 2004:||Pee in the School by Stephen Karam, directed by Jesse Young|
|Year 2005:||Famous Blue Raincoat, written by Brian Tucker, directed by Derrick Sanders|
Stephen Belber’s work as a playwright has been produced on Broadway and in over 25 countries. His plays include Match (Tony nomination for Frank Langella); Tape (Time Out’s Top Ten Plays 2001); McReele (Roundabout Theater); Geometry of Fire, (Rattlestick); Fault Lines (Cherry Lane) and A Small, Melodramatic Story (Labyrinth Theater Company). He was an Associate Writer on The Laramie Project (Drama Desk and Lortel nominations), and co-writer on the more recent Laramie Project Epilogue. Movies include Tape, directed by Richard Linklater; The Laramie Project (Associate Writer/Emmy Nomination for screenwriting); Drifting Elegant and Management, which he also directed, starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn. Currently developing screen adaptations of both Match and McReele. Television includes Rescue Me and Law and Order SVU (staff writer). He is a proud member of both Tectonic Theater Project and the Labyrinth Theater Company.
Yussef El Guindi’s plays include Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, (Golden Thread Productions, InterAct Theater, and Kitchen Dog Theater), Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat (Silk Road Theatre Project, Jeff Nominated), Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith (Silk Road Theatre Project), Back of the Throat (Theater Schmeater), and an upcoming production of Language Rooms (Wilma Theater). His play, Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, is included in Salaam/Peace: An Anthology of Middle-Eastern-American Playwrights, published by TCG in 2009. Yussef holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and was playwright-in-residence at Duke University.
Stephen Karam is the author of Speech & Debate which was produced off-broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company as the inaugural production of Roundabout Underground. He is the co-author of columbinus (2006 Helen Hayes nomination), which ran off-broadway at New York Theatre Workshop following a co-production by Round House/Perseverance Theaters. His latest play was commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company and will have its world premiere in their 2010-2011 season. Current projects: screenplay of Speech & Debate for Overture Films and the libretto for an original chamber opera with composer Nico Muhly.
Itamar Moses is the author of the full-length plays Outrage, Bach At Leipzig, Celebrity Row, The Four of Us, Yellowjackets, Back Back Back, and Completeness, and various short plays and one-acts. His work has appeared Off-Broadway and at regional theatres across the U.S. and Canada. Moses holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU and has taught playwriting at Yale and NYU. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, MCC Playwrights Coalition, Naked Angels Mag 7, and is a New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspect. He was born in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Brian Tucker is a graduate of The Juilliard School’s Playwrights Program, in New York, where he was a Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Fellow. Tucker’s other plays include The St. James Infirmary, Sins of the Father, The Great Defeat of Coltrane Grey, and Bathing Van Gogh. Tucker’s work in film includes Broken City, currently in development with Mandate Pictures, and an adaptation of the Korean film Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance for Warner Bros. He resides in New York City.
11:11 – The New Colony
Aelita & Shiny Boxes – Dream Theatre
Almost, Maine – The Gift Theatre
Aunt Nancy and Doggie Tales – Corn Productions
The Cabinet – Redmoon Theater
F.A.T. People – Gorilla Tango Theatre
Bourbon Street Burlesque – New Millenium Theatre
Frindle – Griffin Theatre
Glass Menagerie – Chicago Heights Drama Group
The Greatest Porno, EVER! – Gorilla Tango Theatre
I Am A Camera – The Neo-Futurists
Improvised Disney – Gorilla Tango Theatre
Jessica Presents: Yet Again – Gorilla Tango Theatre
A Raisin in the Sun – The Theatre School at DePaul University
Return to Haifa – Next Theatre
Rush Limbaugh! The Musical – Second City
Show Us Your Love – Bailiwick Chicago
TGIF: RAW – Gorilla Tango Theatre
Wiggerlover – DCA Theatre
Wilson Wants It All – The House Theatre of Chicago
The American Pilot – Theatre and Interpretation Center, Northwestern University
Ayn Rand Soup Kitchen in Atlas Shrugged – Corn Productions
Burlesque is More – Annoyance Theatre
I Hate Hamlet – Big Noise Theatre
Thursday, February 4
I Am A Camera
Come see Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen‘s new show I Am A Camera. After the performance mingle with the cast and crew during which you will be supplied with plentiful amounts of beer from local brewer Metropolitan Brewing while simultaneously being fed different style pizzas from Apart Pizza.
Show begins at 8 p.m.
Event begins immediately following the performance (around 9:30 p.m.)
TICKETS ONLY $20
For reservations call 773.275.5255 and mention "Theater Thursdays," or order online at www.neofuturists.org.
I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time.
— Anna Freud
When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.
— Francois de La Rochefoucauld
A dog is the greatest gift a parent can give a child. OK, a good education, then a dog.
— John Grogan, An Interview with John Grogan, 2008
Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important.
— Natalie Goldberg
We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.
— Stewart L. Udall, commencement address, Dartmouth College, June 13, 1965
A person has three choices in life. You can swim against the tide and get exhausted, or you can tread water and let the tide sweep you away, or you can swim with the tide, and let it take you where it wants you to go.
— Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, Northern Exposure, Northern Lights, 1993
Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
— George Bernard Shaw
The world is full of women blindsided by the unceasing demands of motherhood, still flabbergasted by how a job can be terrific and torturous.
— Anna Quindlen, O Magazine, May 2003
Something or someone who literally sucks your time like a vampire sucks blood.
My computer broke again, I spent all night working on that fucking time vampire.
Someone who texts on their cellphone in really inappropriate places, like movie theatres, concerts, plays, or during sex.
1. The movie was great, except right during the best scene, this text-hole in front of me lit up his phone and started texting away.
2. We were humping away, and she started texting her friend. She was a certified text-hole.
When someone retires from a legendary television franchise, passes the torch to a worthy successor. Then he gets bored and starts a new show which sucks and then asks for their old job back by firing the successor.
He’s a leno giver.
A crush on a FB friend is characterized by the unexplainable urge to revisit the friend’s Photos tab repeatedly and checking to see if other friends have written new messages on their Wall. Usually afflicts users who are only somewhat acquainted.
"I’ve got a Facebook crush on a guy I was going to rent a room from, but in the end we just friended each other."
A positive review you give to a movie, book, TV series or CD that you don’t like but which a friend has recommended to you, usually because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Rod: I watched that movie The Departed last night which John lent me.
Tom: What did you think?
Rod: I hated it.
Tom: Oh boy, he loves that movie. What did you tell him?
Rod: I told him it was great.
Tom: You gave it a friendly review, huh?
Rod: Yeah, you know what hes like.
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.