Tag: Jeff Cummings
In a theater community as diverse and talented as Chicago’s, every aspect and genre of stage productions can be found throughout the city on a given week. 2015 was no exception to this fact, as one can see from our reviewers’ picks of the year’s greatest and most memorable works.
The real King Lear
|Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents|
|The Madness of George III|
|Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropulos
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 12 | tickets: $44-$75 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Talk about life imitating art. Like the fictional King Lear of Shakespeare’s harshest imagination, in the late 18th century King George III of the troubled House of Hanover descended into madness, then briefly emerged from it as he realized that a king is mortal and that others have suffered as much as he. He too had vicious offspring: two sons – the fat and foolish Prince of Wales, later George IV, and the foppish Duke of York – were every bit as ungrateful as Goneril and Regan (and he had no Cordelia to redeem the curse). George was temporarily “cured” by a tough-love regimen: A monarch who had never been contradicted in his life was restrained by strait-jackets and strapped to a chair like a thief in a pillory. If not worse, the treatment was as vicious as the malady.
If Lear’s story is tragic, George’s is pathetic, so great is the gulf between his real illness (porphiria, a medical and not a mental degenerative disease) and the neo-medieval physicians who think the solution is just a question of bloodletting, poultices, and a daily inspection of the chamberpot. It’s too easy to say that George was unhinged by the ingratitude of his American subjects in daring to revolt—or that his peace of mind was subverted by parliamentary plots hatched by his enemies the Whigs (under the unscrupulous Charles Fox). (The government’s Tories, under William Pitt, were not above exploiting the addlepated king as he forfeited control over almost all his functions and functionaries.) His was a classic case of hubris: The body’s conditional state betrayed the monarch’s absolute power.
Alan Bennett’s much-praised 1991 dramatization of this unpleasantness (made into Nicholas Hytner’s superb 1994 film with Nigel Hawthorne as the humbled king) recalls Thomas Hogarth’s most vicious caricatures: It conjures up a dysfunctional dynasty as fraught with friction as any family and a political circus in which Whigs and Tories behave just as badly as our bad boys do in 2011, not 1785.
Penny Metropulos’ all-engrossing staging is a marvel of perpetual motion. Its energy is coiled and concentrated in Tony-nominee Harry Groener’s piledriving performance in the dual title role (the madness as much as the king). In this awesome fall from grace we watch the symbol of the then-world’s greatest empire lose authority as he does his bowels, brain and locomotion. The well-named Groener makes us feel his pain in each particular (and Bennett is nothing if not graphic in his depiction of a body breaking down).
The king’s sole help comes from Ora Jones’ magnificent Queen Charlotte, George’s fearlessly loyal, unjustly neglected wife, his faithful equerries (Kevin Gudahl and Erik Hellman), and his principled and frustrated prime minister (Nathan Hosner). All do legion work above and beyond every theatrical expectation.
As devious as the disease that wracks the king, Richard Baird plays his heir with odious opportunism, matched by Alex Weisman as his corrupt and corpulent younger brother. David Lively’s Lord Chancellor is amusingly caught in the crossfire between both factions, while the four doctors (Brad Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) display a cornucopia of ignorance that Moliere would envy.
The near-three hours fly by as pell-mell conflicts ebb and seethe under William Bloodgood’s immense Palladian portico. Its most telling moment is when a recovering George experiences the only good treatment he received: He plays a dying King Lear, suddenly realizing that another man wrote about and an imaginary one felt his plight. That, of course, was to know how powerless you are when fate toys with you and your own body turns on you worse than any enemies could imagine. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this scatological and scandalous story unfold, but you can’t take your eyes away for an instant.
The Real Story Vanishing in the Dead of Night
|Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents|
|Night and Day|
|Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31 | tickets: $35-$40 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
What to make of Remy Bumppo’s latest production Night and Day? On one hand, the whole production is a sexy, easy fit. James Bohnen’s spot-on cast slips casually and effortlessly into Tom Stoppard’s dialogue–just like an old-school lounge lizard would slip into a dry martini or a pair of silk pajamas. On the other hand, what with the United Nations releasing its recent report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Stoppard’s cunning 1978 play still looks like a bunch of white people sittin’ ‘round, talkin’ while a country made up of darker-skinned people burns all around them. Set in the fictional African nation of Kambawe, the home of copper-king ex-pat Geoffrey Carson (David Darlow at our showing) is hardly the Court of Versailles. Nevertheless, on the brink of civil war, who has time to talk about fickle fame, sex, Scotch or the role of the media? These characters do.
Into this jaded milieu, Stoppard interjects the question: Does a free press matter? Define what you mean by a free press, etc. It’s this et cetera that Bohnen’s actors handle so well. Dick Wagner (Shawn Douglass), an Australian-born reporter for the Globe, solidly provides most of the sly, tough cynicism through his omnipresent worry over getting scooped. His colleague and comrade, photojournalist George Guthrie (Jeff Cummings), brings battle weariness and much-needed urgency and passion to a very talky show. Greg Matthew Anderson, playing freelance journalist Jacob Milne, achieves likeability and freshness with a character who sees no problem with blurring the line between serious and tabloid news. If Night and Day reveals anything, it’s Stoppard’s gift for prophecy.
These few, these happy few, descend on Carson’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth (Linda Gillum), because he possesses an untapped, unsevered line and a Telex machine to get the news out to the West. They are the true seekers of the story, since the rest of Western press is still hanging out in the lobby of the local Sheraton. Carson also has connections with the rebel leader, Colonel Shimbu, whose scheduled late-night meeting with the dictatorial President Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) leads to devastating consequences.
Politics aside, Stoppard situates blithe and cynical Ruth at the center of his satire, being the only character whose unspoken thoughts are transparent to the audience and being the one whose name–meaning mercy, sympathy and compassion–contrasts starkly with the ruthlessness all around her. Cherchez la femme, right? And what a femme she is. Gillum doesn’t hit a wrong note, negotiating dialogue directly to the audience and exchanges with her fellow actors like a master magician. Hers may be a performance that redefines the word glib. She excoriates the tabloid press for their paparazzi stalking of her divorce and marriage to Carson in one scene, only to fall for the young, idealistic defender of the tabloid press in another. I’m still pondering how she makes it look so easy, believable, and above all, sympathetic.
For the most part, Night and Day flows as smoothly single malt Scotch from a never-ending stream. Bohnen successfully builds tension with Guthrie’s suspicion of Carson, Milne and Guthrie’s departure to meet Colonel Shimbu, and the anticipated, nerve-racking visit from President Mageeba.
Perry’s entrance as Mageeba, certainly does not disappoint. He’s every bit as gracious, intelligent and threatening as a Western-educated, media-conscious despot should be. Regrettably, Mageeba’s ad hoc interview with Wagner drags and the play’s bit of stage violence comes off as unconvincing. It seems strange that Remy Bumppo should stumble here at such a critical moment. My hopeful assumption is that this was an off performance in an otherwise impeccable production.
Does Stoppard ever resolve the question of the necessity of a free press? Tough to say—on the one hand, you don’t want the Mageeba’s of the world in charge of what’s fit to print; on the other, the media is a capitalist enterprise that trivializes critical news and foregrounds trivia, until all information turns into fodder before its gaping maw. Guthrie’s defense of a free press remains the most poetic in the play:
People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.
That is a plea appropriate to 1978, long before the 24-hour news cycle and the digital age. Now we are awash in information, both qualified and unqualified, and we can hardly now call all information light.
We few, we lucky few citizens of open, industrialized nations have, for a long time, used the media as much as a distraction from daily cares as for timely and relevant news. That’s a very human tendency. All the same, I found myself wanting to turn away from the diverting chatter of Stoppard’s principal characters. I grew weary of the same jaded arguments from people still living in a bubble of white and colonial privilege. I longed for Stoppard’s most silent character of the play, Francis (Michael Pogue), the Carson’s servant, to report his truth and have his perspective brought front and center.
Important Event on October 11th:
October 11: "Is the Truth Front Page News?" Journalist Panel
A free journalist panel hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele
Performance excerpts from Night and Day, highlighting the risks and responsibilities of foreign correspondents, will springboard a charged panel conversation, hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, on where readers now turn to get the truth.
You gotta have heart
Theatre at the Center presents:
Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt
Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, is one of the most popular farces of all time, concerning a traveling play whose actor’s backstage antics are so outrageous that they can’t get through a performance without a totally zany mishap. It is a regional theatre favorite because of its light-as-a-feather demeanor and broad appeal, and audiences love the wacky English humor. Theatre at the Center’s production, directed by Artistic Director William Pullinsi, hits all the right marks in this fast-paced, technically demanding play, but loses a little heart amidst the hubbub on stage.
It’s a show that relies on physical props: phones ringing, opening and closing doors, putting props in exactly the right place every time, and it’s a pleasure to marvel at the athleticism of the actors when they pull it off. Just hitting those marks consistently is amazing work, and Pullinsi’s staging is masterfully organized and effective.
The humanity in these performances, however, is lacking. Everything in this show is done correctly, but sitting in the audience I barely cracked a smile. Too much focus has been placed on the technical proficiency here, and not enough as been paid to acting. During the crazy second act – the funniest, wildest scene in the show – there are times when one can’t even tell actors Jeff Cummings and Clay Sanderson apart because their relationships and characters are so muddled. The women had an easier time of distinguishing themselves. Laura E. Taylor and Anna Hammonds are both charming as rival love interests for the hotshot director played by hit-or-miss Will Clinger. But if one is to choose the show’s standout performance, it is no doubt the stage manager, Rebecca Green, whose
role job includes calling sound and light cues, props placement and basically running the entire show.
One crew member who is sorely missed in this production is a dialect coach. The English dialects are awful across the board in this show, to the point that they are distracting and embarrassing. The life of an English accent in this play is more exciting than the life of any of the characters: it travels across the world and becomes a New York accent, and then Dutch, and then maybe a little Italian and then it falls off completely, only to return when you least expect it. These are extremely competent actors, with a list of Jeff awards and nominations among them, and yet, not one of them makes it through this show without sounding like they have marbles in their mouth at one point or another.
The adept physicality of the ensemble is notable, and director William Pullinsi knows exactly what what Noises Off should look like. It’s a great show for children and theatre newbies because it lays out, in an entertaining manner, just what a play should look like. But the more seasoned theatre-goer might want to stay clear of this production. Hey, you gotta have heart, even in the silliest of farces.
EXTRA-CREDIT: Check out pics from the opening night reception. Looks like they’re having a well-deserved good time.