Tag: Stacy Stoltz
Top 25 Chicago Productions of 2010
(in alphabetical order)
All told, Chicago Theater Blog covered an astounding 508 shows in 2010—proving without a doubt that this town is truly a non-stop theater machine! Whittling 500 shows down to the year’s top 25 productions was not an easy task, but we think this list illuminates what makes Chicago such a dynamic place to perform and create – a mix of works produced by small storefront companies all the way up to large Equity houses.
So, without further ado, here – listed alphabetically – are the top 25 productions of 2010:
Collaboraction (Sept 2010)
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by Seth Bockley
“The Arabian Nights” are replayed in a near-futuristic setting, taking place in the belly of New York City’s underground tunnels after a nuclear blast. Says reviewer Oliver Sava, “Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization.”. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the play “savvy, self-aware and adroit at noting the power of myth in generations of sectarian strife . . .” and Monica Westin of New City noted, “It’s almost impossible to overstate the wit, fluidity and complexity . . .” of the production. (our review)
A Red Orchid Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Mike Leigh
Directed by Shade Murray
A Red Orchid Theatre brought out some of their best ensemble work for Mike Leigh’s class-conscious play about stifled lives in 1970s English suburbia. Director Shade Murray lovingly crafted middle class malaise out of Leigh’s caustic script, while Kirsten Fitzgerald lit the torch as Beverly–leading the tight and superb cast in a reckless, discontented charge to mutual destruction. As Susan, Natalie West “essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent . . . she becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.” (our review)
Awake and Sing
Northlight Theatre (Feb 2010)
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
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, especially considering Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama. The play 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. As director, Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton adeptly paced the show, no doubt helped with a top-knotch cast, including seasoned performers Cindy Gold, Peter Kevoian, Mike Nussbaum and Jay Whittaker. (our review)
TUTA Theatre (May 2010)
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
TUTA Theatre will remount its very successful production of Brecht’s The Wedding this February. However, their stronger tour de force was the young Brecht’s very first play, Baal, which explored the rise and fall of the ultimate rebel artist. Assisted by a brilliantly clean and powerful translation by Peter Tegel, director Zeljko Djukic and cast executed a searing interrogation of the subversive artist as pop idol, while at the same time delivering to audiences a wildly intuitive and anarchic performance by Ian Westerfer in the title role. An exactingly cohesive ensemble cast matched Westerfer moment-to-moment, composing the perfect Petri dish for pre-Nazi cynicism, cruelty and decadence. Josh Schmidt’s original music contemporized and rounded out the mood and atmosphere for the piece. (See our review here.) Tom Williams of Chicago Critic called the production “refreshingly inventive as it swiftly blends drama with raw sensuality . . . demonstrates what the power of dedicated artists can produce once they are in creative sync.” Albert Williams of the Reader called Baal “a vivid, dreamlike work of stage poetry.” (our review)
The Book of Liz
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (Sept 2010)
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy had a huge success with The Book of Liz, so much so that it was extended numerous times, and is still running well into 2011. The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as “The Squeamish”. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. In this hilarious production, Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful when using the tight space, managing to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment. The Book of Liz stayed true to the Sedaris spirit, and fortunately did not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. (our review)
Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
our review | photo album
McCraney’s much-anticipated Chicago debut at Steppenwolf did not disappoint. Indeed, concisely paired with Tina Landau’s sparse and enigmatic Viewpoints direction, the triptych of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet formed a breathtaking mythic and generational through-line that consistently transcended time and space. To be a young playwright mentioned along with August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner must be quite a heady experience. But Steppenwolf’s production—teaming with sterling performances by Jaqueline Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Philip James Brannon and Glenn Davis—shows that sometimes you can absolutely believe the hype. Barry Eitel’s review (see here) affirms Chicago’s critical consensus that “McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.” (our review)
Goodman Theatre (Sept 2010)
Adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler
Music by Leonard Bernstein, et.al.
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production. “Thanks to director Zimmerman’s affinity for levity,” said our own Keith Ecker, “Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible. (our review)
About Face Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by Leslie Buxbum Danzig
About Face Theatre overcame the pitfalls of preciousness that come when presenting a Christmas story about five women with Minnesota-nice written all over them. Members of a Midwest women’s society, they gather in a barn to create the annual Christmas float. What could have devolved into Hallmark card caricature actually resulted in honest emotional plumbing of their lives, conflicts and pressures. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig kept the pace brisk while the cast molded complex and full-figured characters out of Patricia Kane’s witty script. FLOAT became the new fresh face in a holiday theater season stuffed to the gills with the same old fruitcake. (our review)
Timeline Theatre (Aug 2010)
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
A reclusive, disgraced ex-president squares off against a glib playboy talk show host in a televised battle for public approval. TimeLine’ Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon inventively captured America right on the cusp–before reality TV but shortly after the boob tube emerged as the gladiatorial arena in which public figures are tried and tested. Terry Hamilton’s portrayal of the fallen Nixon impressed everyone with its grounded, humanistic veracity. Andrew Carter’s Frost signaled a smooth operator, fitting the jet-set mold of the period, yet heralding vacuous times ahead for civic discourse. Scenic designer Keith Pitts collaborated with projectionist Mike Tutaj to manifest the perfect facile realm for Louis Contey’s subtle and tense direction. (our review)
Haff, the Man/Falling Girl
Theatre Zarko (Oct 2010)
Written by Michael Montenegro
Directed by Montenegro and Ellen O’Keefe
Master puppeteer Michael Montenegro and long-time creative partner Ellen O’Keefe created and directed two deeply evocative stories; one about a man trying to restore himself in order to begin a new life with a new love, another about a young girl dangerously desperate for the promising adventure that could be her life. An extremely dedicated and integrated troupe of puppeteers and performers executed Montenegro’s dreamlike dramatic creations, manifesting a fully realized, vivid revival of the Symbolist Theatre tradition. Sublime musical atmosphere directed by Jude Mathews backed up their efforts. The result was pure, unadulterated poetry for the child within the adult theatergoer. (our review)
Factory Theater (March 2010)
by Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by Sarah Rose Graber
Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle (Melissa Nedell) and Trisha (Catherine Dughi) give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K. (Jacob A. Ware), who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble. Says our own Keith Ecker: “The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.” (our review)
Drury Lane Oakbrook (Aug 2010)
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
Drury Lane Theatre tore it up with this jazz-age revival version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic. Lawrence Bommer raved that its music director Michael Mahler had a “period-perfect Midas touch” and that the production “sizzles with (director) David Bell’s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-step dances . . . the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force . . .” Aurelia Williams brought the power as Katisha, while Stephen Schellhardt worked his comic chops, recalling Groucho Marx, Stephen Colbert, Keaton and Chaplin. All in all, Drury Lane’s production was a unmistakably riotous success heard all around the Chicagoland area. (our review)
Court Theatre (March 2010)
Written by Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
our review | photo album
But for a few dramatic speed bumps between the romantic leads, Court Theatre pulled off a dense, ornately rich and multilayered dream world with Tony Kushner’s story-within-several-stories adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 400 year-old play. Charles Newell’s direction led the dance between reality and fantasy, while Collette Pollard’s set design established an delightfully uncanny magical realm. Chris Sullivan amazed as the magician, Alcandre, and Timothy Edward Kane roiled the audience with his comic portrayal of Matamore, the cowardly warrior. Barry Eitel declared the production an “uncommon delight” and a “triumph,” a love letter to the theater. (our review)
Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010)
Written by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
Profiles Theatre pushed the envelope with Tracy Lett’s early play and gave audiences a sly, close, depraved and dangerous ride. Rick Snyder’s direction never stinted on its desolate Texas trailer-trash realism or let up on the work’s unrelenting dark humor and looming tension. Darrel Cox gave a killer performance as Killer Joe Cooper, hired by Chris (Kevin Bigley) to kill his birth mother for insurance money in order to pay off his debt to a drug dealer. Keith Ecker notes Cox’s facility to go “from southern gent to cold-blooded killer . . . all that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath.” Catey Sullivan observed that Profiles’ production was not for the faint of heart, yet its “blood-drenched, innocence-murdered gallows” humor in Snyder’s hands was “a thrilling piece of theater.” (our review)
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
Project 891 Theatre (Nov 2010)
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by Jason W. Rost
Project 891 created an intimate and emotionally mature depiction of a Jewish family of the American South right on the cusp of World War II and the Holocaust. Sort of fitting in, but not quite, informed by the culture surrounding them, yet set apart, director Jason W. Rost gently unraveled this family’s issues around identity, belonging and success at the Gunther Mansion (now known as the North Lakeside Cultural Center). Darrelyn Marx dominated as the matriarch Boo and Liz Hoffman generated much sympathy as her awkward daughter Lala. Winning and balanced performances from Sarah Latin-Kasper, Jason Kellerman, Lori Grupp, Larry Garner and Austin Oie rounded out the cast. (our review)
BackStage Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written and Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by Matthew Reeder
our review | photo album
Director Matthew Reeder and cast evolved rich, enmeshed and powerful emotional journeys, from rehearsal process to fully realized production, from a woman’s struggle to tell the complete story of her traumatic survival of the Holocaust to a Palestinian’s story about his embattled and complex relationship with an Israeli soldier. Says Allegra Gallian of the Backstage Theatre’s production, “The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space . . . performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating us so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.” (our review)
Theatre Seven (March 2010)
Written by Carlos Murillo
Directed by Margot Bordelon
Theatre Seven’s production crowned a season full of excellent deconstructive theatrical storytelling. Margot Bordelon’s driven and well-paced direction expertly juggled three storylines regarding the mysterious murder of a woman. Oliver Sava noted the savvy Brechtian distancing wrought by the intelligent cast and the emotional immediacy supplied by Cassy Sander’s performance. “Sanders brings vulnerability . . . her scenes are the most visceral of the production . . . Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.” (our review)
My Brother’s Keeper
Black Ensemble Theater (March 2010)
Written by Rubin D. Echoles
Directed by Jackie Taylor
our review | photo album
Though light on storytelling, Black Ensemble Theatre’s recreation of the dancing career of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers was as close to seeing the originals as audiences are bound to get. Jackie Taylor directed an exuberant production overflowing with swinging musical finesse and huge dancing talent. Rashawn Thompson and Rubin Echoles played Fayard and Harold Nicholas to Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington’s musical arrangements and Echoles’ choreography. Donald Barnes and Dawn Bless warmly rounded out the tale as the boys’ vaudeville-bound parents; Michael Bartlett and Rhonda Preston added showbiz flare and power as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Big Maybelle. All in all, the cast excelled in reviving the joy of pure, solid entertainment. (our review)
Oleanna / Speed-the-Plow
American Theater Company (Sept 2010)
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Rick Snyder
American Theater Company scored big with two searing, back-to-back productions of David Mamet. Director Rick Snyder had a field day building a war between a student and professor over a slight, but fatal, misstep versus a showdown between big commercial movie business and art. Darrell W. Cox expertly worked his range between playing a slick, cut-throat producer in one and a smug, self-compromised liberal arts professor in the other. The difference between the two Mamet works may have been Nicole Lowrance’s sympathetic portrayal of Carol in Oleanna, which rang more truthful and well timed than her turn as Karen in Speed the Plow. All the same, Lance Baker oozed fierce sleazebag perfection in his role as Charlie Fox, bringing Plow to a devastating end. (our reviews here and here)
Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010)
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper. With this production it’s clear that Director Anna Shapiro knew this material well. She came at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieved the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play. Said our own Keith Ecker: “If you only see one play this year, see (this play).…the set design by Todd Rosenthal is amazing. …Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.” (our review)
Drury Lane Theatre (April 2010)
Book by Terrance McNally
Music/Lyrics by Flaherty and Ahrens
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
our review | photo album
Other productions have lost focus and been crushed under the multiple layers and storylines of this musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel. Yet, Drury Lane, under Rachel Rockwell’s knowing direction, succeeded in taking its panoramic 19th century sweep and transforming it into a work that truly earns the word “epic.” Brilliantly cast with Quentin Earl Darrington, Valisia LeKae, Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan, Ragtime’s spare and fluid set design was offset by Santo Loquasto’s lush costuming for the strongest visual impact. John Beer of TimeOut Chicago recognized “this Ragtime yields a snapshot of a nation recognizably our own: dynamic, idealistic and terminally haunted by bigotry and fear.” (our review)
Silk Road Theatre Project (Oct 2010)
Written by Wajdi Mouawad
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen
Silk Road Theatre Project breathed life into a contemporary yet timeless tale of war, poverty, age-old gender inequities, lost family threads, and finding a restored sense of self out of the ashes. Dale Heinen’s direction brought all the suspense of a mystery thriller without sacrificing the emotional weight that gave the play the quality of a Classical Greek Tragedy or a war story out of Bible. Three actresses, Rinska M. Carrasco, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Diana Simonzadeh, convincingly played Nawal, the Middle Eastern mother who mysteriously stops speaking 5 years before her death and posthumously sends her twin children on a quest to find their father and brother. Adam Poss was riveting as Nihad—the pop music and celebrity obsessed jihadi sniper who becomes inextricably linked with their lives. The sterling production of this new work announced Wajdi Mouawad as a playwright to watch. (our review)
Goodman Theatre (Oct 2010)
Written by Anton Chekhov
directed by Robert Falls
our review | photo album
Director Robert Falls wowed audiences with a simple, almost ascetic, presentation of Anton Chekhov’s sprawling tale of a dysfunctional theater family. Mary Shen Barnidge of Windy City Times noted that the production demanded much from both performers and audience but “The experience is well worth the effort . . . with intimacy generated by this Spartan approach illuminating the smallest secrets hidden beneath the surface of the most self-effacing personalities.” Our own Catey Sullivan raved, “Falls and his rock star cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and glory that makes the piece fly by . . . When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.” (our review)
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (March 2010)
Written by Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz
our review | photo album
Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning play was no maudlin sulkfest on the downward spiraling fortunes of jazz musicians tending to a diminishing art. If anything, director Lauren Rawitz followed the play’s emphasis on strong individual characterization and an unsentimental view of the unstable nature of artistic life. The tough, moxie and cohesive cast captured Leight’s humorous and gritty take on the lives of jazzmen and the women who love them. Michael B. Woods gave an especially stellar performance as Jonesy and Ryan Hallahan’s wry Clifford grounded the show as its narrator. Dustin Efrid’s neon set design gave the production the just the right touch of bluesy feel. (our review)
State of the Union
Strawdog Theatre (October 2010)
Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by Geoff Button
For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society.State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre, especially as its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. Infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, this work managed to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre. Geoff Button’s direction was commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he had to manage throughout the play. (our review)
A Streetcar Named Desire
Writers’ Theatre (May 2010)
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
David Cromer’s direction injected vitality and vivid perspective into Writers’ production of this sultry Williams classic. Barry Eitel remarked, “Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but . . . he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story . . . his Streetcar is a searing as July in the French Quarter.” Matt Hawkins, Natasha Lowe and Stacy Stoltz carved new and original ground as Stanley, Blanche and Stella and Collette Pollard’s scenic design put the audience right in their squalid New Orleans apartment. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader wrote that Writers’ production “tears away at the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people . . .” (our review)
Tad in the 5th City
MPAACT (May 2010)
Directed and Adapted by Carla Stillwell
From the poetry of Orron Kenyatta
MPAACT gave Chicago a visceral shot in the arm with its world premiere adaptation about the aftermath of the 1968 riots that burned the West side of Chicago. Our K. D. Hopkins praises the outstanding cast that poetically depicts the community that survived in the ashes. “The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer . . . David Goodloe is new to America . . . His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve . . . Destin L. Teamer . . . son of Andre Teamer . . . is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran . . . his portrayal is savvy and heartbreaking . . . MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theater scene.” (our review)
The Tallest Man
The Artistic Home (June 2010)
Written by Jim Lynch
Directed by John Mossman
The Artistic Home evoked intense cultural accuracy and emotional veracity with their rendering of Jim Lynch’s turn-of-the-century Irish township, where people scramble for survival under British rule, the memory of the Potato Famine a lurking shadow of the recent past. A consummate ensemble effort by the cast brought out the best in Jim Lynch’s script. K. D. Hopkins writes, “The language is coarse and the action naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly . . .” (our review)
To Master the Art
Timeline Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
Timeline’s first commissioned play was a “masterful, multilayered experience that excites all the senses,” said Leah Zeldes. The production gently folded in Cold War obsessions about Communism with Julia Child’s discovery of French cuisine and her efforts to compose and publish her groundbreaking cookbook. (our review) Karen James Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder and Ann Wakefield led the superbly balanced ensemble cast. William Brown’s staging was “impeccable” around scenic designer Keith Pitts’ charming Parisian kitchen. (our review)
The Water Engine: An American Fable
Theatre Seven (Nov 2010)
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
our review | photo album
Theatre Seven took on a feat of virtuosity when they mounted this play-within-a-radio-play, with 10 actors taking on 40 roles, in a exploration of a Depression Era inventor’s quest to implement his creation, an engine that runs on pure water. The cast impressed with its uncommon professionalism, working together “like a well-oiled machine,” and Director Brian Golden “effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways.” Leah A. Zeldes called the production “beautifully nuanced” and while Mamet’s plot “is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful . . .” (our review)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
Steppenwolf rounded out their year with a tightly drawn, tensely wound portrait of America’s favorite warring couple, George and Martha. Pam McKinnon’s direction insisted on greater naturalism, with Tracy Letts’ consummate performance as George taking on subtler shades of calculation and sadism, while Amy Morton’s Martha was distinctly more understated and vulnerable. (See our review here.) Madison Dirks’ Nick charmed as a budding player who gets played and Carrie Coon’s Honey almost stole the show with her emblematic mixture of goofiness and pathos. Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago recognizes that MacKinnon’s direction “hugs curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts.” A marriage made in hell for the characters–but a marriage made in heaven for Chicago audiences. (our review)
All summaries written by Paige Listerud.
Graney’s adaptation brings the laughs, but lacks substance
|Court Theatre presents|
|The Comedy of Errors|
|Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Sean Graney
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through October 17 | tickets: $30-$60 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
Sean Graney’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (our review ★★★★) was one of the highlights of last season, with the seamless execution of the quick-change heavy script garnering huge laughs and multiple Jeff nominations for Court Theatre. With their new adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, it’s apparent that Court is trying to see if lightning can strike twice, with six actors playing 20 characters in another quick change extravaganza, but the script lacks the sophistication that made Irma Vep so memorable. In Graney’s hands, Shakespeare’s story of two sets of separated twins is taken to new levels of absurdity, building humor around the characters’ awareness of the plot’s implausibility. The jokes are very funny, but too much of the play’s substance is lost as the story essentially becomes a 90-minute running gag.
In the dilapidated town of Ephesus, Antipholus (Erik Hellman) and Dromio (Alex Goodrich) of Syracuse search for their missing twin brothers, separated from them in a shipwreck during infancy. Because of a feud between the two cities, they conceal their true identities, inciting mass confusion as they are mistaken for their counterparts. Hellman and Goodrich are the focal points of the production, playing both sets of twins, leading to some impressively rapid costume changes (see video example here) and backstage movement.
As the characters most bewitched by the events surrounding them, Antipholus and Dromio are also the most self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on the ridiculous nature of the plot they are in. When Antipholus calls out Dromio for interrupting him mid-soliloquy, this works. But when Goodrich constantly checks in with the audience to check if a joke landed, it gets old. These scenes are also when Graney returns to some of his Irma Vep tricks, with varying degrees of success. An audience participation segment as Dromio describes his beastly wife Luce (Elizabeth Ledo) works incredibly well to create a relationship with the viewer, but a song sung by Dromio later in the show seems out of place and odd for odds sake (Irma Vep used dulcimers, here it’s a ukulele).
As more time becomes devoted to meta-comedy and increasing the slapstick, less time is spent on the actual story and the characters’ relationships. The actors turn to exaggeration to differentiate their multiple roles, and in doing so the illusion becomes more important than the action. Steve Wilson is the major exception to this as Officer Jailor and Balthazar, with the Jailor’s unreturned love for Luciana (Ledo) garnering a vocal lament from the audience in the play’s closest thing to a “dramatic” moment. On the flip side, Wilson has amazing talent for slapstick, and the fate of Balthazar is of the funniest moments of the show.
As the play becomes more and more absurd, it becomes obvious that the story is just a launching pad for an endless barrage of meta-theatrical gags. By the end it feels like there are no stakes at all, and while it is fun to be along for the ride, there’s still a huge emotional connection missing. Granted, when the ride is Kurt Ehrmann in drag recounting his days at the mall getting his ears pierced, it’s worth it.
A wrenching ‘Streetcar’ of desire
|Writers’ Theatre presents|
|A Streetcar Named Desire|
|by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through July 11 | tickets: $65 | more info
reviewed by Barry Eitel
David Cromer has quite a gift. Apparently, he can rescue any brilliant yet overdone play from the annals of community theatre and breathe a vibrant energy into those dusty scripts. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe considering his ingenious productions of Our Town and Picnic. We can now add to the pile of evidence his A Streetcar Named Desire over at Writers’ Theatre.
This production is a revival in the true sense of the word. Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but all the while he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story. As a result, his Streetcar is as searing as July in the French Quarter.
The play, Williams’ finest, is epic in scale. It explores domestic abuse, deceit, homosexuality in post-WWII America, love, and a ton of sex, along with Chekhovian-style class conflicts. Cromer gathers all of this and crams it onto the tiny stage at Writer’s. Collette Pollard’s brilliantly intimate design places the audience a few feet away from the action. You cannot help but feel voyeuristic as you watch Stella, Stanley, and Blanche claw and clutch at each other.
What makes the production crash along, however, are the individualistic, desperate performances. From his first step on-stage, Matt Hawkins makes some bizarre choices as Stanley. He’s sleazy, cocky, yet lovable. Even though he explodes often, he’s not incessantly threatening. He has to frequently remind himself that he is king of his castle, making him a man and not a monster. Hawkins makes no attempt at a Brando impression, but Writer’s production doesn’t need nor want that. It also helps that he shares the stage with two powerful females—Natasha Lowe’s reserved Blanche and Stacy Stoltz’s compelling Stella. Lowe doesn’t steep Blanche in sexuality, but pushes her cold shrewdness instead. She slashes away at those around her as she is ripped apart herself. Lowe’s Blanche is neither saint nor villain. Stoltz, Hawkins’ real-life wife, turns in some great work in a part that can be overlooked if a director isn’t careful. I’m used to her performing in stylized pieces with The Hypocrites and House Theatre, so it was refreshing to see her in some classic American realism. Her Stella is a fighter, refusing to be steamrolled by Stanley’s machismo. The relationship between the two is fascinating to watch unfold—you can sense real love between them, not just animal desire (although there is a lot of that, inches away from our seats). This forces us to ask if love is enough for a marriage, because their love is definitely not healthy. Although Stanley is convinced all their problems stem from Blanche, to us there seems to be a fundamental disconnect.
Throughout the piece, Cromer sprinkles in original tweaks that make the production shine and resonate. The ghosts that sweep through Blanche’s mind are put on stage, for example. Williams’ script is also hyper-sexualized here. The production would never pass censors in the 1950s, but today it rips open the major theme of the play: desire. Cromer seems to have a desire for flame on-stage, because he utilizes it so well. The scene between Blanche and Mitch (the laudable Danny McCarthy), where Blanche lays out some secrets, is stunning because most of it is lit by candlelight alone. Cromer is brave and bold—many of his choices bring the audience into his characters’ heads, especially the unstable Blanche.
My one critique of the show is that there are some sightline issues, deriving from both the cramped set and some of the staging. At times it seemed like turning the actors a few degrees would have solved it, which is why it became a bit pesky. However, it was not nearly enough to derail my involvement with this piece. Cromer corrals us into this world, and the powerful ensemble drags us along whether we like heading towards the impending cliff or not. When the house lights finally turn on, it feels like a tiny chunk of your soul has been ripped away.
“Show Us Your Love” extended through the end of March
Bailiwick Chicago’s cabaret hit has been extended through the end of this month – Sunday, March 28th, to be exact. You can catch Show Us Your Love, at Mary’s Attic, every Sunday evening at 7:30pm. For tickets and more information, go to www.BailiwickChicago.com
Noble Fool Theatricals has extended their popular family comedy Over the Tavern through April 3rd (our review ★★½). Directed by John Gawlik at the Pheasant Run Resort Mainstage Theater (4051 E. Main, St. Charles) Over The Tavern was originally scheduled to close on March 28, 2010, but now has added two additional performances – April 2nd and 3rd. For tickets or more information, visit www.noblefool.org or call the box-office at 630-584-6342.
The cast for Over the Tavern includes Alex Adams, Scott Cummins, Gabriel
Harder, Renee Matthews, Stacy Stoltz, Katrina Syrris and Dan Velisek.
Noble Fool’s “Over the Tavern” recalls a bland 1950s
Noble Fool Theatricals presents:
Over the Tavern
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
Noble Fool Theatricals, whose last production played to the Ed Sullivan generation with the holiday revue “Plaid Tidings,” gives the over-60 set another nostalgia fest with their latest, Over the Tavern. Unfortunately, this bland production offers little for the rest of us.
Playwright Tom Dudzick’s semi-autobiographical look back at life in a working-class Catholic family, ca. 1959, has a strong nostalgic appeal for seniors who recall their childhood in that era, particularly those brought up on the Baltimore Catechism by stern-faced, black-draped nuns with clickers in one hand and punishing rulers in the other. The Pazinski clan — Chet, Ellen and their four kids — live over the family tavern, here denoted by a large lighted Hamm’s Beer sign at stage right. Designer Ian Zywica’s 1950s apartment set has an authentic, if too-affluent feel.
The irascible Chet runs the not overly-successful bar, with unreliable help from his never-seen Pop, and takes his frustrations out verbally on his family. He’s better than his own father because he doesn’t have a drinking problem and he doesn’t hit his kids, but — as his wife offends by reminding him — he also doesn’t hold them first in his thoughts. By paying their tuition to Catholic school, he considers he’s done his duty, and it’s the nuns’ job to shape their character.
He’s so short-tempered that his youngest son, 12-year-old Rudy, literally prays to Jesus for Dad to be in a good mood. Rudy, a bright young wiseacre, isn’t content to follow along placidly where his older siblings and parents have gone before him. In between doing Ed Sullivan impersonations, he takes a literal look at what the nuns are teaching, and questions not only their word, but the religion itself.
If you’re under 60 and didn’t go to Catholic school, what does “Over the Tavern” have to offer you? While there’s a certain universalism to Rudy’s religious rebellion, ordinarily the charm of this play lies in fast and furious repartee and engaging performances from cute kids. Yet there’s little furor in John Gawlik‘s version, which seems slow-paced and cleaned up.
One point of this play is to showcase a high-pitched, rough-and-tumble 1950s that wasn’t like its TV depictions — Rudy’s prayer includes a request to turn his father into Robert Young, the mild-mannered star of the sitcom “Father Knows Best.” Yet Scott Cummins’ reserved Chet makes us wonder what Rudy’s afraid of.
Stacy Stoltz plays his wife as a kind of understated Mary Tyler Moore, resigned, rather than fiery. Most disappointingly, Renee Matthews, normally a vibrant performer, seems listless and stiff as Sister Clarissa, the termagant nun determined to school Rudy in his catechism at all costs.
Picking on a 13-year-old makes me feel meaner than Sister Clarissa, but while Gabriel Harder makes no missteps in the central role, neither is he so engaging as to keep us captivated with Rudy’s prankishness. Rudy needs more piss and vinegar.
As Rudy’s less-bright older brother, 16-year-old Alex Adams is also restrained, though he does give us some convincing moments of teenage angst. Katrina Syrriss seems colorless as the boys’ sister.
The only stirring performance is that of Daniel Velisek, who does a credible and compelling job with the rather limited role of Georgie, their mentally challenged brother.
Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist
The Hypocrites present:
reviewed by Barry Eitel
From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.
Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.
It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.
Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.
The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.
Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.
Photos by Paul Metreyeon
Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
What is not laudable about this production of Oedipus? Sean Graney’s rockin’ adaptation harkens back to the first productions of Hair, when our country badly needed to let the sunshine in. We need, these days, that same purifying light. Rare is the theatrical event that can stand on its own, in terms of theme, artistry, and invention, yet also address, in profound and universal ways, the sickness of our nation.
The Hypocrites do Oedipus as rock opera! Yet it is a rock opera that preserves the poetry and tragedy of Classical tradition, without slipping into the maudlin solipsism to which rock opera is prone. Inspired by Ted Hughes’ translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, Sean Graney maintains a healthy devotion to the history and beauty of this ancient myth, while still managing to kick out the props and go for something fresh–something both the kids and the old Classical Lit geeks can thoroughly enjoy.
If the set were not enough to create a carnival mood, with it bright colors, its McDonald’s style plastic picnic tables, its totem pole booth ringed with lights, or its pink painted filing cabinets growing a cactus out of one open drawer, then the actors tossing around balloons between themselves and the audience engender a carnival atmosphere. The set design expresses both the horror and mock horror aspects of the production, which one discovers upon noticing that the blue plastic sheets, enclosing the set from floor to ceiling, are dripped with thick red paint, simultaneously suggesting both blood and fake blood.
This strikes a balanced interrogation between the plastic and the real. Stacy Holtz, as the Blind Seer, may sing about the emptiness of life and, therefore, the emptiness of losing life; but her final rock solo, as Jocasta, brings the emptying loss of life to its raw, devastating conclusion. Thank God–or the gods–and/or the terrific cast—that, here, we have a show that uses irony and distancing to intense theatrical purpose, not as a faddish ploy. What is done to Oedipus (Steve Wilson), by fate or by his people, is truly horrifying. Yet humor is played for all it’s worth—whether between Creon (Halena Kays) and Oedipus jockeying for position or the gratuitous tongue-wrestling between Oedipus and Jocasta.
One wonders whether can be no “over the top” for this production precisely because it takes place “under the big top”. Yet, what grounds and sustains it is its unmistakable, unyielding commitment to poetry. If anything, Sean Graney’s careful preservation of poetic language consecrates this theatrical space, as surely as it consecrates Oedipus’s struggle for the truth that will demand his ultimate sacrifice. While Graney has never had a classical education, his work relies on self-education, a thorough love for the tragedians, and copious research, both prior to writing as well as all the way through development.
“Sean and Stacey and I have worked together close to 10 years now,” says Halena Kays. “We all worked together for 4.48 Psychosis. Sean has very definite ideas. He’s really clear about the world the play is going to be in. We would get the script filled with clues about how the tone would change, things like, ‘they’re underwater,’–things he knows for himself and his instincts. I find that the best way to work with Sean is to make really strong choices. The actors’ contributions come through in the minutiae—the clarity, the magic and the fun.”
The delicate minutiae wield the greatest political punch. The first moment Oedipus appears on stage, a surgical mask covers his face—recalling all our panics over H1N1, SARS, and AIDS. But diseases that mark a country “rotting from within” do not end with viruses. Oedipus may believe a little too completely in his own legend, as self-made man and conqueror of the Hell Bitch. Steve Wilson brings realistic pathos to a man who will nobly prevail past the point where others would rationalize their ideals away. Such an uncompromising nature will lead him to be self-sacrificing. It will also lead him to commit torture. For all who care about the power of theater to reveal our political, psychological, and spiritual selves, hie thee to this show for shame. Or live thee in the shame of our nation’s present state without it.
Venue: The Building Stage
Location: 412 N. Carpenter Street, 2 blocks south of Grand, Blue line to Grand or via the #8 or #56 bus. (Click on map below for larger view.)