Fun video – building the set for “Osage County”

Here’s a fun clip, showing a very sped up version of building the set for Steppenwolf’s hit show “Osage County”.  Oh, if only set-building only took this long!

August 28, 2007 | 0 Comments More

Steppenwolf’s “Osage County” moving to Broadway

Looks like this ground-breaking show will be making its way to Broadway, with almost the entire cast in tow. 

August 23, 2007 | 0 Comments More

Review: Remy Bumppo’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”

 

Annabel Armour and Susan Shunk, currently starring in Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw, presented by Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre

Prostitution and incest – topics that have fueled many a modern play, were extremely taboo subjects in 19th-century Victorian England. So it’s wholly understandable that George Bernard Shaw’s comedic drama, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which deals with these themes (real or implied), would cause such an uproar in 1893 London. The work was completely banned for seven years. Indeed, when the play finally leapt to American shores, opening in New York in 1905, it was shut down on opening night, with two of the lead actors arrested and thrown in jail. And modern day stage actors think they have it bad!

Along with these obvious moral no-no’s, Mrs. Warren’s Profession also presented the threatening notion that women actually might have a choice in seeking a satisfying profession rather than rely on men to supply their security. Going beyond this, Shaw’s work also exposed the high emotional cost that could occur with this possible female independence.

Remy Bumppo Theatre has successfully discovered the perfect rhythm of Shaw’s flowing and introspective voice – Mrs. Warren’s Profession is darkly delightful. The two leading women are superb, accenting the directing prowess of David Darlow. Annabel Armour radiantly shines through her performance of the scandalous Mrs. Kitty Warren. Armour has created a character that, rather than reviled (or at least pitied), draws compassion. We understand her plight and are proud of what she has done with her life. Susan Shunk, playing Mrs. Warren’s Cambridge-graduated daughter, Vivie, is masterful in finding her character’s complexities – she is strong-willed in combating the social demands of a woman of the time, but reaches further into her character by communicating Vivie’s insecurities: shunning other people in her life, using her supposed resolute independence in order to avoid any situation that would make her seem vulnerable and unsure of herself to others.

Backing up these two talented leads are the charismatic Matt Schwader as perennial tease Frank Gardner (who might be Vivie’s half-brother, hence the implied incest), the fatherly Donald Brearley as Praed, Joe Van Slyke as the confused Reverend Gardner, and Kevin Gudahl as Mrs. Kitty’s shrewd (and boorish) business partner, Sir George Crofts

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is slow in the beginning, the first scene gives us the feeling that we are witnessing a study in character development rather than engrossing us in the play’s rich language. Also, George Bernard Shaw has offered up a few implausible circumstances: Why wouldn’t a grown daughter know whether her mother was married or not? Why wouldn’t same daughter be curious as to where the tuition money supplied by her mother was originating? What was her mother doing when traveling all over Europe (and why wouldn’t the well-educated daughter want to go along with her mother to such cultural cities of Berlin, Brussels and Budapest)? Perhaps these are questions that would not seem so odd at the time the play was written – that children did not question their parents or analyze their situations. Who knows?

Overall, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is an exquisite study of the struggles women once faced (and still face) when yearning to obtain a decent standard of living through an enjoyable career rather than succumb to the morally acceptable road of seeking a husband for security. Through Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Remy Bumppo has presented a highly-satisfying resonant coda to their theatrical season.  

Rating: «««

March 11, 2007 | 0 Comments More

Review – Next Theatre’s "The Adding Machine"

AddingMachine---06-web-733116 The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical is an intriguing, hard-to-pigeonhole piece of musical theatre. With music by Josh Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, The Adding Machine is a through-sung work with glimpses of Sondheim’s Passion, Guettel’s A Light in the Piazza and LaChuisa’s Wild Party. Nonetheless, it is set apart from these examples through its use of comprehensible melodies on top of layered dissonances; changing time signatures juxtaposed with sharply-syncopated choral chants. In its world-premier, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company has taken a noteworthy risk by commissioning and presenting this piece. Based on a rarely-produced 1923 play of the same name by expressionist playwright Elmer Rice, the show mostly works. But there are some caveats, all in the second half of the show, that keep The Adding Machine from realizing its full potential.

Though there is no intermission, the play is comprised of two distinct acts, delineated by the death of the main character, Mr. Zero (artfully played by the talented Joel Hatch). In the first section of The Adding Machine, the world is engulfed in numbers. The main character, Mr. Zero, works as an accountant. Mrs. Zero (wonderfully sung by Cyrilla Baer) is continually unhappy, contemplating the clichéd conclusion that Mr. Zero really is a zero, and she never should have married him.

AddingMachine---01-727264 Undoubtedly the work’s most mesmerizing section takes place in the second scene of the well-delineated first act. Mr. Zero is at work, sitting at the first of three tables, methodically and laboriously writing down numbers fed to him by his assistant Miss Devore (Amy Warren). As the chorus, sitting at tables behind him, hauntingly chants number after number (infusing clever asides, their brains wandering away from numbers and instead to thoughts of beer and girls), Zero relays that today is his 25th anniversary at the company, and he’s sure he will get a promotion. The boss, the stoic Mr. Charles (Michael Vieau) shows up. But instead of promoting him, Zero is canned, being told that with the advent of the adding machine, his job can now be done by high school girls at a sliver of his salary. (Echoing the present day’s outsourcing of jobs to other countries, where they are paid a fraction of our salaries). That evening, at a dinner party thrown by Mrs. Zero, with Mr. and Mrs. One (Rosalind Hurwitz and Steve Welsh) and the Two’s (Toni Inzeo and Kevin Mayes) in attendance, her husband is arrested for murdering his boss. What follows is a clever scene in prison on death row, where Zero meets the disturbing Shrdlu (Ian Westerfer), who has killed his mother by cutting her throat instead of the lamb that his mother has made for her son’s dinner. (i.e., mom turns into the sacrificial lamb?)

The second section, occurring after Zero has been put to death, falls flat, the storyline veering away from any kind of worthy conflicts and – as my father told me when trying in vain to teach me how to swing a baseball bat – no follow-through. We are supposedly in heaven, Shrudlu, the mom-killer, is there. Zero, too, is present. And Zero’s assistant, Mrs. Devore, just happens to also be there. Zero and Devore soon realize that they are in love. All this unexplained oddness abets an unfortunately dissatisfying ending.

The singing is mostly excellent. The characters have lovely, adaptable voices, and the music director, Jeremy Ramey, has done a great job blending the cast’s instruments, successfully honing the difficult syncopations of the choir. But a few of the main characters, specifically Zero and Shrdlu, do not have the chops to sing this discordant and often operatic score. In the beginning this is okay, as their wavering voices match their character’s woes. But this vocal crudeness becomes a problem near the end when these same characters are no longer suffering.

The design team has done a notable job, with the highest honor given to Keith Parham, the lighting designer. His design is dead-on, thoroughly matching and enhancing the dynamics of the story – dark and ominous in the first half and utopian in the second. In one remarkable scene, as Zero is entering heaven, the lights are cast in such a way that projects Zero as having wings. As the lighting changes, though, it is revealed that these “wings” are in fact just a coat thrown over his shoulder. This is some of the best lighting work seen in recent years.

Overall, if you’re an avid fan of new musical works, works that push the boundaries of stereotypical musical theatre, The Adding Machine is worth seeing – even when taking into consideration the aforementioned problems. Indeed, the accounting scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The score and orchestrations are exemplary, matching much of what you’d hear on Broadway. If only the show was just about the first act, it would be highly recommended. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Rating: «««

February 4, 2007 | 1 Comment More

Review: "The Sparrow" at House Theatre

The_Sparrow1-small Only in the world of Chicago theatre can you find such an exciting artistic organization like The House Theatre. Now in its fourth season, The House has energized the city’s theatre audience, creating a huge following of 20-somethings that might not have otherwise gone to theatre. The company never fails to push the theatrical envelope through the combination of artistry, multi-media, and aggressive and ingenious fun – which explains their reward of consistently sold-out performances.

There are two definitive reasons for the success of The House. First of all, they only present new works that are written through a collaboration of members of the company and the actors of the play itself, and it is evident that this creative style empowers the actors and production team so that each member completely engrosses themselves into each production, sweeping the audience with them. Secondly, and most important, the fare that the company creates for their loyal audience is consistently an artistically exuberant experience. It combines engaging video and original music along with pure athleticism and inspiring energy, leaving one’s senses pleasantly exhausted by the end of each show.

In regards to these two points, House Theatre’s newest work, The Sparrow, does not disappoint. The play follows Emily Book (imagine a combination of Stephen King’s Carrie and Wicked’s Elpheba), who has the unexplained power of flight (among other things), earning her the nickname of “Sparrow”. Emily Bock (believably played by Carolyn Defrin), was the lone survivor of a school bus crash in the town of Spring Farms, IL, when she was four, after which she was quickly whisked away to a Catholic boarding school. Now, at age 17, she has come back to Spring Farms, where she has been taken in by Joyce (Evie Sullivan) and Albert (Jonathan Simpson) McGuckin, whose daughter had been killed in the same bus accident. At Emily’s new school, her school counselor, Dan Christopher (charmingly played by Cliff Chamberlain), takes Emily under his wing, introducing her to all of the students, including the school’s class president and cheerleading captain, Jenny McGrath (an enthusiastic Paige Hoffman). Emily’s powers are discovered at a basketball game, when Jenny, during a cheerleading stunt, ends up precariously hanging from a banner high above the gym. Emily flies up and saves her. Through some surprising turn of events surrounding a school dance, the overall arc of The Sparrow is completed, and the play comes to a jarring but satisfying end (fyi: the show will no doubt be the first in a series).

SpringFarm1-smallThe director (the highly-gifted Nathan Allen) and artistic team have come up with some brilliant scene changes and interludes, including a performance in the bio-chemistry lab by the teacher and a host of singing dissected pigs, (singing and big-band-dancing to a Frank Sinatra tune), and a basketball game that is infused with some fun, acrobatic cheerleading and MTV-influenced dancing.

Special kudos must be made to the music and sound design teams: Kevin O’Donnell, Mike Przygoda, Jeremiah Chiu, Michael Griggs and Phil Canzo. Kevin O’Donnell has composed a remarkable score for this play. The music in this work plays a huge role in the telling of the story, and Mr. O’Donnell will no doubt go far in the field.

The Sparrow - pulling the bullet out of teacher's chest There are a few weaknesses in the show, mostly surrounding some missing storyline and the development of the character of cheerleader Jenny McGrath. Although The Sparrow takes place in a make-believe world, there still needs to be some believability in what motivates the characters, and in Jenny’s there is no fore-shadowing to explain the events of the second act.

Nonetheless, if you have not been to a production at The House, you should make plans to sit among the audience as soon as you can. You will have to venture westward-ho of the main theatre districts, but the short jaunt to Belmont and Western is well worth it.

Rating: ★★★½

January 13, 2007 | 2 Comments More