Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year In Review 2008

I counted up my reviews for Centerstage and this blog, which add up to over 30, plus at least another 20-25 shows I saw as a civilian, in Chicago, New York, Connecticut, and Cleveland--at least a play a week this year, probably more. I didn't see nearly as much as some did, and I missed some of the best theatre of the year, but here is my personal list of some of the most memorable things I saw this year in Chicago. These are all Chicago shows, and leave out shows or companies with which I was affiliated--so nothing from Stage Left or Northlight, though they produced some exceptional stuff this year. Here, arranged alphabetically, are some of the best things I've seen this year.

Production (Play)

Edward II (Chicago Shakespeare)--Sean Graney's promenade staging in Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs space, with the audience and the actors sharing the same place and scenes erupting all over the place, may not have been a purist rendering of Christopher Marlowe's script (about half of which was missing). However, since I wasn't familiar with the play, I was swept up in the show's intensity and theatricality. The production lacked subtlety, but it packed a punch, and I'll never look at a pair of garden shears the same way again.

Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage's new play took on a grisly subject--sexual violence against women in the Congo--and made it gripping and sympathetic. This was no lecture, it was a play full of vibrant life and hope. As Kate Whoriskey's production moves to the Manhattan Theatre Club, I hope that it continues to reach audiences as it did in Chicago.

A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--I caught this play from fall 2007 in its run at the Royal George this spring. Simple, powerful stuff, about two cops in a downward spiral. No formal fireworks, but a simple story that packed a wallop. It's great to see something so serious have a real financial success.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--For his followup to August: Osage County, Tracy Letts went in a completely different direction, for this comedy set in an Uptown doughnut shop. It lacked the scope and intensity of its Pulitzer-winning forerunner, but it featured a real depth of feeling and a keen eye of the issues facing Chicago (and many other cities) today. Tina Landau's production was bursting with warmth and life.

Titus Andronicus (Court Theatre)--Wrenching. This revisionist production wildly divided people, but I found its stark look at how groups slide into violence extraordinary. It may not quite have held together, but I can't argue with the fact that I was almost sick after seeing the show. Some of the images still haven't left my head.

Production (Musical)

Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's profound meditation on race, religion, civil rights, family, and change made its belated Chicago debut, five years after its scandalously brief Broadway run. It was worth the wait. Charles Newell's gloriously simple staging let the play's intense emotional and intellectual impact come through. Gorgeous playing and singing didn't hurt. The audience was left devastated and cheering, and a serious, dark musical managed to sell out an extended run.

Carousel (Court Theatre)--Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote an extremely dark play, and this production played up the desolation in Billy and Julie's lives--how the complete lack of economic opportunities drove them to self-destructive behavior. The singing was inconsistent, and some missed the color and romance, but I was wiping away tears by the last scene.

Nine (Porchlight)--Maury Yeston's gorgeous score was given a highly entertaining, exceptionally well-sung production. What a pleasure to hear such amazing female voices given the chance to wrap themselves around such powerful songs.

The Threepenny Opera (The Hypocrites)--Sean Graney used the entire Steppenwolf Garage space for this galvanizing production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's extraordinarily difficult show. They nailed both Brecht's social point and his wicked sense of fun, and Weill's gorgeous tunes were well-served. An orchestra would have been nice, but it was still electrifying.

New Script

10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Laura Jacqmin's play was not completely successful, but it made for a fascinating exploration of the place of gender in fairy tales. A real mind-teaser, but theatrically vivid as well.

Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that succeeds both in raising awareness of a real problem and bringing us deeply into the lives of the characters. We'll see more of this play.

A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--Intense and moving, and proof that sometimes, all you need is a good story told well.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--Warm, funny, moving, and socially acute. The success of August: Osage County caused people to underrate it, but I think it will eventually find wider respect than it has now.

Performance (Play)

Celebrity Row (American Theatre Company)--Itamar Moses extraordinary, though as yet unrealized, play got a scorching production in the hands of four actors playing four of the most notorious criminals in recent history, along with one actress as the idealistic lawyer who got caught up in their games. Their performances made even the script's slack sections riveting.

The Misanthrope (Greasy Joan)--The production of Moliere's comedy was inconsistent and sometimes puzzling, but Kevin Cox as the title character was a marvel. He was a comic whirlwind, the proverbial bull in the china shop, and took the play to dizzying comic heights.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--The word "incandescent" was created for Jon Hill. As young doughnut shop employee Franco Wicks, he lit up the stage whenever he appeared. It was impossible to take your eyes from him. He more than justified having been chosen as a Steppenwolf Ensemble member as soon as he graduated college.

The Trip To Bountiful (Goodman Theatre)--Realism at its finest, in the extraordinary performances of Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Horton Foote. Rarely have I seen performances that seemed so effortlessly lived, rather than acted.

Performance (Musical)

Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--The titanic E. Faye Butler, in the title role, led the way, but the women of this production all stood out, with Melanie Brezill, Jacqueline Williams, and Kate Fry being only the most amazing. What a combination of fiercely committed acting and gorgeous voices.

Forbidden Broadway (Royal George Theatre)--Unsurprisingly, the cast proved extraordinarily adept at skewering a wide variety of Broadway personalities, but Valerie Fagan, with a dangerous glint in her eye, stood out.

Nine (Porchlight)--With a commanding and delightful lead performance by Jeff Parker and one of the most diverse and impressive groups of women I've ever seen on stage, this was first-class musical theatre performing.

Sweeney Todd (Broadway in Chicago)--In John Doyle's fascinating production, Judy Kaye gave an exceptional performance as Mrs. Lovett. By performing the play rather than her own private show, Kaye significantly improved on Patti LuPone's work and made the entire production look much better.


David Cromer--While I sadly missed his acclaimed productions of Our Town and Picnic, his crystalline work on Celebrity Row made it eminently clear why Cromer has suddenly, after a 20 year career, become a celebrity, and will be making his Broadway directing debut in the fall on 2009.

Sean Graney--He can certainly be accused of flash, but every one of Graney's productions I've seen has been vivid and involving. Edward II and The Threepenny Opera were two of the most pulse-pounding productions I've seen in a long time, though perhaps better if viewed as Graney's plays rather than classics.

Charles Newell--I have yet to not love one of Newells productions. All three shows he directed this year were among the best I saw--Titus Andronicus, Carousel,  and Caroline, or Change. His stagings divide many, but count me among his fans.

Kate Whoriskey--The sense of a world fully lived in that she created with the exceptional cast of Ruined is hard to forget. I went from knowing little about the Congo to feeling like I'd visited.


10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Five of the ten sisters depicted in the play are portrayed by puppets, and Allison Daniel's designs made them full parts of the production, as well-characterized as the flesh and blood actresses. They were invaluable in telling the story.

The Birthday Party (Signal Ensemble Theatre)--Harold Pinter's play shows a seemingly ordinary world where menace slowly undermines everything the characters and audience think they know. Julie E. Ballard's lighting slyly and subtly helped to bring this atmosphere to disturbing life.

Cadillac (Chicago Dramatists)--While I had problems with Bill Jepsen's script, he and set designer Kevin Depinet worked together to create a pitch-perfect evocation of the used car lot where it was set.

Termen Vox Machina (Oracle Theatre)--I didn't like the confusing script or the production concept of live actors lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack at all. However, I can't get Tyler Burke's set, made from layers plastic curtains, out of my head. If the entire play had been as intriguing as the set, I would have been hooked.

Biggest Disappointments

Bernarda Alba (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)--In adapting Federico Garcia Lorca's extraordinary play, Michael John LaChiusa added some gorgeous music. Unfortunately, he also sapped the play of its dramatic vitality and tension. Boho's production put some exceptional voices onstage, but a miniscule stage and some bizarre miscasting undercut the power of their production. Possibly the year's saddest case of a potentially amazing piece of theatre constantly undercutting itself.

Jersey Boys (Broadway in Chicago)--While I'm no great fan of the music of The Four Seasons, I was led to expect that Jersey Boys would be an interesting story told in an exciting and entertaining way. Instead I found a script that was a laughable concoction of cliche and sentimentality. This is what has sold out everywhere it has played? Oy.

Saint Joan (The Shaw Festival at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre)--Ever since I appeared in a production of it, George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan has been among my very favorite plays, and in the may years I have been lucky to attend it, Canada's Shaw Festival has proved itself among the best theatres on the planet. So what a disappointment to find this production too polite and lacking in fire. Perhaps the saddest disappointment of the year.

Pure Pleasure

A Commedia Christmas Carol (Chicago dell'Arte)--In their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the expert clowns of Chicago dell'Arte resurrect the 16th Century Italian art of commedia dell'arte in deliriously funny fashion. Completely ridiculous and utterly delightful.

Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished) (Babes With Blades)--Barbara Lhota's new play, set in 16th-Century Spain, may have stretched credulity with an improbable plot and the characters somehow maintaining gay and interracial relationships against the odds. But if you were willing to let go, it made for a thoroughly delightful evening, full of laughs, thrills, and exceptional stage combat.

What a year! Hapy New Year, and here's to a 2009 that's just as exciting!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dale Wasserman Dies at 94

Dale Wasserman, who wrote the stage version of One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest and wrote the book for Man of La Mancha has died at 94. The obit has some very interesting tidbits about him. He lived a full life, that's for sure, and creating two of the most popular plays of the twentieth century was only part of it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

Harold Pinter has died, at the age of 78, after a lengthy illness. He was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2002. The New York Times has an excellent obituary here. (In a macabre touch, since obituaries are often drafted long before their subject dies, this one was co-written by Times culture writer Mel Gussow--who himself died in 2005.)

The Times also has an excellent page filled with reviews of Pinter's plays and films, and a wide variety of articles about him. It's an excellent way to get a deeper view of his work, and it can be found here.

Pinter was one of the great playwrights of our time--something which was recognized by the Nobel committee, which made Pinter only the ninth playwright awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (previous ones included George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O'Neill, and Samuel Beckett). 

I've had a few wonderful Pinter experiences, including seeing an absolutely terrifying Old Times at Northwestern, The Hothouse, his earliest play, at London's National Theatre, and The Birthday Party, here in Chicago at Signal Ensemble Theatre. Old Times had me gasping when a woman lit a cigarette, The Hothouse, though written before Pinter had really found his voice and taking place in a theatre somewhat too large for the script's claustrophobia, was still a fascinating and frightening look into darkness, and The Birthday Party exposed my boyfriend, who didn't know Pinter's work, to one of his most disturbing and bizarre plays. I'm still not sure he's forgiven me.

I also had the opportunity to work on his plays in acting class my senior year at Northwestern. Doing the Lenny-Ruth scene from The Homecoming is about as much fun as I've ever had in acting class. As cryptic as the language is, it's incredibly alive, practically electric, and unbelievably fun to speak.

So let's remember Pinter--How many other playwrights have inspired adjectives?--insert mysterious pauses into our conversation, and look for "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet," as Pinter described his own works. There won't be another like him, but what riches he has given!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New Review Posted: A Commedia Christmas Carol

Over at Centerstage, they've posted my review of Chicago dell'Arte's A Commedia Christmas Carol, playing at the Boho theatre in the Heartland Studio through 12/31. It's totally delightful, and a great use of $15 for anyone who wants 90 minutes of guilt-free laughter. I highly recommend a visit, and I certainly plan to check out whatever they do next.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Personal Announcement

I just wanted to let you all know that I have been invited to join the ensemble of Stage Left Theatre in Chicago. I am already dramaturging their upcoming production, the world premiere of David Alan Moore's The Day of Knowledge, and I will continue to work in a mostly literary/dramaturgy capacity, along with the usual duties of load-in, box office, and more. I'm incredibly excited to get the chance to work more with the people at Stage Left, who I think are pretty wonderful. It's also amazing to be in an ensemble 18 months out of college--especially of a company that has been around for so long--since 1982, which is an eternity in Chicago. We've produced some exceptional work over the years, and I am sure we will do more in the future.

And those of you who act or write political plays: Submit your material! I promise nothing, but I'd love for some of you to come along for the ride--and we do a few full productions and plenty of workshops and readings over the course of the season.

I can't wait to see you all at 3408 N Sheffield!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tempest in a Teapot of the Day

Snobbishness goes in all directions.

In a recent article in the New York Times about the difficulty Broadway producers are having finding capitalization for their shows, and the increasing number of shows closing in January, Nancy Coyne, head of the PR firm Serino Coyne made a remark that one might politely call really dumb:

“The good news is that so many straight plays are now coming in the spring, and I think New Yorkers will come out for them once the tourists go away,” Ms. Coyne said. “We’re horrible snobs. We hate tourists from Cleveland.”

The Times has a piece about the ensuing flap here. Predictably, the focus has mostly been on the last sentence--regarding the opinion of Clevelanders--and not the second to last, in which Coyne admits New Yorker's snobbishness. Tony Brown's writeup of the incident in the Plain Dealer has elicited the expected barbs towards 1) Nasty, wealthy, elitist New Yorkers who have no interest in the rest of the country and 2) Theatre, which on Broadway consists of nothing but frothy musicals, and which no real person cares about. Who says New Yorkers are the only ones with  judgmental views of those outside of their world?

I am a Clevelander who has frequently visited New York. I like to think that my tastes are not those of the stereotypical tourist (how many 16 year olds see Ibsen and Strindberg on one trip?) but I can not deny the lure of Broadway. To a certain extent this is because I, like many, grew up loving big Broadway musicals, and never have (and hopefully never will) gotten over that love. When done well, nothing is better.

Also, people in any major city can get tough, experimental shows at home. In Cleveland, Dobama, CPT, and many other places produce exceptional work that pushes all of the boundaries. What Cleveland doesn't have in the same degree is big stuff--yes, there are the touring Broadway shows, but in my experience those are generally poor substitutes for the real thing. Touring theatres are generally much larger than those on Broadway, and it makes a difference in the experience--being one of 1,000 in the audience of New York's Spring Awakening is certainly different from being one of 2,500 in Cleveland.

However, having observed a lot of tourists in New York, I can say that the criticism of them is sometimes valid: walking slowly and blocking pedestrian traffic, treating the city like a garbage can, and generally being inconsiderate is enough to drive the most patient person mad. And New York is not an environment that breeds patience. However, those who live in New York would be well advised to remember that tourism is a major part of the city's economy, and, especially these days, it might be wise to do everything you can to make the city welcoming to those few who can still afford to be tourists.

As for Broadway: yes, there is a lot of crap there, but it doesn't take much work to find stuff that is serious and interesting. Just among currently running shows August: Osage County, Avenue Q, Boeing-Boeing, Dividing the Estate, Equus, In The Heights, Pal Joey, South Pacific, Speed the Plow, Spring Awakening, The 39 Steps, and The Seagull all have something more than flash to recommend them. When you add in Off-Broadway, there is plenty to engage an audience with good taste.

Also, a word in favor of snobbishness: it sometimes just means someone who really cares about something and has trouble with the disrespect so many people have for the art. Looking at what is and is not successful in the world of theatre, I am not ashamed to be a snob.

Besides, I live in Chicago, which is obviously vastly superior to either Cleveland or New York.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Scientologist Kids and Robert Prosky

So there's this great new website called Decider Chicago, which is wonderful for several reasons:

1) It is a city guide-type website from the people behind The Onion and The A.V. Club, two of my favorite media institutions.

2) I've been taken on by them as a freelancer, and will be writing occasional pieces for them, which will be a whole lot of fun. I'm really excited to start pitching and start writing.

However, whatever I write will have trouble competing, in weirdness and hilarity, with their most recent theatre article: an interview with the kids in the cast of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant at A Red Orchid Theatre. The show is, as the title suggests, a Christmas pageant, starring actual preteens, that tells the story of scientology. It got a great response in New York, and if the show is anywhere near as funny as the article,  it's going to be great in Chicago too. I'm hoping to see it soon, and will let you know when I do. Whether or not you can make it to the show, do read the article--preteens having a serious discussion about religion is about as strange and hysterical a thing as you're going to encounter.

I also read with some sadness this week about the death of Robert Prosky, at age 77. Prosky was one of those consummate character actor--the New York Times obituary described him as having appeared in 220 plays, 38 movies, and hundreds of television shows--best known to theatre fans for his performance as Shelley Levene in the original Glengarry Glen Ross and to TV watchers as the desk sergeant in the later seasons of Hill Street Blues. I think that he epitomized the ideal of the working actor, and wish I'd gotten the chance to see him on stage.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Humana 2009 Plays Announced

Playbill reports that the Actors Theatre of Louisville has announced the plays for the 2009 Humana Festival, which features 6 full productions of world premiere plays. There are some familiar names--a play by Charles L. Mee and the SITI Company, a new script by Naomi Wallace-- some new ones--Allison Moore, the UNIVERSES collective--and two from names better known in other areas--one from Zoe Kazan, an actress currently playing Masha in Broadway's The Seagull and another by Marc Masterson, ATL Artistic Director, and Adrien-Alice Hansel, ATL Literary Manager, based on the work of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry. 

I got the chance to attend Humana in 2006--where I saw Act A Lady, one of the best plays of the past five years--and 2007. I hope I find a way to return this year. It's the center of new plays for the month it's open, and it makes you feel like the rest of the world cares about them. Who knows what'll break out this year?

Also, make sure to check out the post below on conservative theatre--the conversation in the comments is really fascinating.

Conservative Theatre?

So there has been much ballyhoo recently about the relative lack about conservative voices in theatre. The New York Times had an article about the issue. Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal, published his conservative perspective on his blog, and my good friend Leonard Jacobs wrote a typically spirited response on his blog.

The issue being questioned is why so few contemporary playwrights are conservative, and why so few plays express a conservative point of view. While I agree that it would be good to have a greater ideological diversity on stage, I feel that there may be more variation in the canon that we might recognize. What follows are a few pieces that seem to have a definite conservative ideas--I'm sure more can be found.

The first that came to mind immediately was Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. This is the story, essentially, of a man who tries to create a Utopia, but fatally ignores the inherent violence and lust in people. By refusing to recognize either the evil of Mordred or the affair of Lancelot and Guenevere, the terminally naive Arthur dooms his fool's paradise. Not quite the classical liberal perspective--that humans are essentially perfectible and good.

Mark Ravenhill's wonderfully titled Shopping and Fucking, a British play from the 1990's, might seem liberal in its unflinching portrayal of sex, drugs and hedonism. The bizarre thing, though, is that it uses this setting to make a shrilly conservative point--that a permissive society has divorced people completely from their true values, replacing them with utter emptiness. No paean to open sexual mores to be found here.

Even Lorraine Hansberry's landmark A Raisin in the Sun, though hugely progressive in its portrayal of race, has some elements in the plot that might please conservatives more than liberals. One is its uncompromisingly pro-life characters: the threat of Ruth aborting her pregnancy, due to the family's poverty, is a major plot point, and a decision which is portrayed as a horrible betrayal of her values. Another, trickier, point is the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" element to the Younger's story. These are people who get where they get without government help of any kind. I can imagine contemporary conservatives pointing to the Youngers as models--and perhaps arguments for cutting welfare and affirmative action.

Go further back, and the argument gets even harder--like with the Greeks. Aeschylus' Oresteia ends with the case being made that killing your mother to avenge your father is permissible. After all men are more important than women, because men are the seed and women merely the vessel. (Don't blame me for that ripe bit of misogyny, blame Aeschylus.) 

And what of Sophocles' Antigone? It is frequently held up by liberals as a story of someone whose principles force her to defy a repressive government--many contemporary adaptations stress this. But couldn't it just as easily be seen as a story of a woman whose religious convictions are so strong that they place her beyond the rule of law?

So am I totally off-base on these interpretations? Are there other plays similarly sympathetic to conservative philosophies, if not specific policies? I bet with a little digging we can find a lot more ideological diversity than we thought.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


As seen in Playbill, The Weinstein company has acquired the film rights to Tracy Letts' Pulitzer, Tony, Jeff, Nobel, and American Dental Association winning play August: Osage County. Letts will write the script, no director or casting have been announced, and release is planned for 2011.

So what do we think? Will a movie version work? I hope they will resist the temptation to open it up too much, adding too many extra characters and outside scenes. With 13 characters, the play is already pretty expansive, and there is plenty of room inside the house for it to stay visually varied. We shall see. (I have similar worries about how John Patrick Shanley opened up Doubt for the upcoming movie--we'll see how well it works.)

Any ideas for a director? In terms of familiarity with large casts, complex plots, and fascinating language, my first two thoughts are Jonathan Demme (whose recent Rachel Getting Married is apparently a brilliant ensemble drama) and Stephen Frears, who can do anything, and is usually superb. If she has any interest, it would be great if original stage director Anna D. Shapiro were approached, but I don't know if they'd give such a big movie to someone who hadn't made one before.

What about casting? In an ideal world, of course, I'd love to see the entire original cast reunited (except maybe for the character of Jean, as someone who's 15 in 2008 is 18 in 2011, which is a significant difference). However, I'm not sure that could fly. It might take stars to get this thing made. The only adaptation of a play recently that  kept the original cast was The History Boys, and that was not widely seen in the US. Then again, Proof had Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins and still sank without a trace, so stars are hardly a guarantee.

But if we do need stars, who? I'm often good at fantasy casting, but I have to admit my mental well is dry at the moment. Anyone thinking of actors who would be perfect for these parts? Comment!

Playbill is also reporting that the upcoming Roundabout revival of Hedda Gabler has been cast. In addition to the previously announced Mary-Louise Parker as Hedda, interesting names include Michael Cerveris as Tesman (It's a surprisingly nebbishy role for an actor who's usually so volcanic, and I'm not sure how it will work.) and Peter Stormare as Judge Brack. (An actual Scandinavian in the role, though he's Swedish rather than Norwegian.) Hedda Gabler is one of my favorite plays, but I have to ask if New York really needs another one. Broadway saw a superb production in 2001-02, with Kate Burton in the title role (which I saw) and more recently there was Ivo Van Hove's highly controversial Off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop with Elizabeth Marvel dousing herself in tomato juice. (I told you it was controversial.) So why a new one so soon? I am sure Christopher Shinn's new translation will be strong, and director Ian Rickson is riding high from his acclaimed production of The Seagull. And there is no doubt that Parker, especially with her role on TV's Weeds, is certain to sell tickets. But what's the urgency to do this play again? I think it's great that people are being exposed to it, but couldn't they at least have waited for it to be off Broadway for  10 years?

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Long Overdue Update

First off, I must apologize for the fact that it's been almost two weeks since I wrote here. No excuse is terribly good, but I guess that at least I can offer the turmoil of the election (Ohmygodwediditwedidit!) and some developments in my own life (Short version: things in my theatrical career are looking very promising. Things in my "job to pay the bills" career, rather dire. Anyone have leads for seasonal or long-term employment?) as a partial explanation.

But a wide variety of things have been happening in theatre, here and elsewhere, and I figured it was time to roll up my sleeves and comment away.

First off, I wanted to use this space to thank Deanna Boyd. She plays the title role in Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's Bernarda Alba which I reviewed here. Though my review was mixed, she still complimented me on my analysis--one with which she agreed in many points. She even called it the best-written review that the show had received. I appreciated this greatly, as it is rare for a critic to hear anything positive from an actor in a production--especially in response to a mixed review! Unfortunately, she did not include an email address--otherwise, I would have responded to her directly. Deanna, if you happen to be reading this and want me to respond, please get your email address to me, either on these comments or through my page at Centerstage. I'd love to discuss this more with you!

Did anyone see Charles Isherwood's profile of Chicago director David Cromer in yesterday's Sunday New York Times? I have not gotten the chance to see some of Cromer's productions--either his totally sold out Our Town or his Writers' Theatre Picnic--but I was a big fan of his current production of Itamar Moses' Celebrity Row at American Theatre Company. He certainly seems to have earned his reputation as a director always worth checking out. But did anyone notice the odd tone of this article? The main focus was on the question of why Cromer hasn't yet moved to New York. Why is it so difficult to imagine that someone might choose to live in Chicago? That they might find the New York lifestyle unappealing? Chicago is chosen as a home base by many nationally known directors--Frank Galati, Robert Falls, Mary Zimmerman, and Anna D. Shapiro, to name only a few--and many directors who may not have received national recognition but still produce reliably strong work--such as Jessica Thebus, Charles Newell, and Sean Graney. I'm sure other cities have their own world-class directors in residence. Perhaps it's simply snobbishness from someone used to assuming that he lives at the center of the cultural universe, but its still perplexing.

Last weekend I got to see Forbidden Broadway at the Royal George, just in advance of its closing the following day. At points, the show demonstrated why it is such a treasure, but I wish the entire show had lived up to the best moment. Numbers spoofing Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins and Young Frankenstein, Patti LuPone and Kristen Chenoweth, and of course the evergreen Les Mis and Lion King parodies had me almost crying from laughter. But the Little Mermaid parody was pretty lame. And where were the numbers about August: Osage County and Spring Awakening? It still has more laughs per moment than most shows, but I was left wanting more.

That's all for now, but I hope to be blogging a lot more frequently in the future! 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New Review: Celebrity Row

I have a review of Celebrity Row at American Theater Company up on Centerstage. It's great to finally see a play by Itamar Moses, whose scripts I've admired for a while. He better keep getting produced in town! Here's a tease:

Who'd guess that Theodore Kaczynski (Larry Neumann, Jr.) would get the best laughs? Four of U.S. history's most notorious criminals dominate the stage in Itamar Moses’s provocative new play "Celebrity Row," currently in its Chicago premiere at ATC. The play does not always live up to its best moments, but in David Cromer’s lucid production it possesses a vitality all too rare in contemporary theatre.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Huh?" of the Day

Saw this item on Playbill today:

Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones will star in director Steven Soderbergh's first movie musical, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

"Cleo," a 3-D rock-n-roll musical about the life of Cleopatra, will feature music by Guided by Voices and a script by James Greer, who formerly played bass for the indie rock band. Zeta-Jones will star in the title role; Tony winner Hugh Jackman is currently in negotiations to play her lover, Marc Antony.

It goes on from there, but that's the gist. This is, to say the least, odd news. Casting Zeta-Jones and Jackman in a musical is perfectly logical--they are both exceptional singers and dancers, and really should do more musicals. But a rock musical about Cleopatra? Maybe, stranger things have worked--though not very many. But in 3-D? Why? Why Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra? She's a bit old for the role, and other than looking vaguely "foreign" to Hollywood eyes doesn't seem to be the right type--Cleopatra was more manipulative seducer than overwhelming sexpot. And why Steven Soderbergh? What connects him to musicals?

It isn't April 1, so can anyone figure out what the rationale behind this is? Will it actually get made? And if so, how on earth would it work?

Sunday, October 26, 2008


A few unfortunate closings announced in recent days:

The New York Times reports that Spring Awakening will be ending its run in January. It will have run over two years and made back its investment, which is no small feat, but I am among many who hoped that something that audacious and exciting would stay around for a little longer. I saw it over the summer, and was highly impressed. While the play has definite flaws (many with the lyrics), the staging and production are simply dynamite. I've never seen a show so exceptionally good at expressing the itchy, squirmy, inappropriate energy of being 15, while somehow not being as irritating as actual 15-year-olds are. It's an electrifying, brilliant production, and you should really see it before it closes in New York--or at least when it visits Chicago in August of 2009.

Recent days have also seen the announcements of the January closings of Monty Python's Spamalot and Hairspray after lengthy runs. I hope that they are replaced with productions of equal success!

Closer to home, Kris Vire and others have announced the shocking early closing of the Chicago run of Forbidden Broadway. It's particularly strange given the show's great success in its previous engagement here last year and the rave reviews of this year's edition. Apparently a combination of soft grosses, insufficient marketing, and a poor economic environment have caused the producers to bolt. It runs one more week, through November 2nd, so get your tickets now!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jeff Winners Announced

Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards, or Jeffs, were awarded last night. They celebrate the bet in Chicago theatre. Like any awards ceremony there is no lack of controversy, but the commotion over what is and isn't nominated, and what doesn't win, is mostly a sign of how much fantastic work there is out there. I didn't see everything this year, but here are a few comments on this years awards, followed by a list of the winners.

--I'm not sure that splitting some of the categories into large and midsized was necessary. More awards are nice, but it does somewhat make it seem like a tiered system, and that's not necessary.

--I was disappointed when the nominations came out to see that Court Theatre's Titus Andronicus was shut out. I'm thinking I may be the only one who loved this production, but it's a shame that something so stunningly theatrical and viscerally effective got so little recognition.

--Congratulations to Northlight, which picked up three Jeffs for their production of Ella, for Production of a Revue, Director of a Revue (Rob Ruggiero), an Actress in a Revue (the astonishing E. Faye Butler, currently finishing up her run in Caroline, Or Change).

--A Steady Rain is a hell of a play, and I'm glad it picked up awards for new work, production, and actor in a play, for Randy Steinmeyer. While Jon Hill was incandescent in Superior Donuts, and the play was also wonderful, Tracy Letts already has a Jeff and Jon Hill has more chances to win one. A Steady Rain made for a pretty exceptional evening, and I'm heartened that a show that is so powerful without being flashy did so well. I hope that the New York transfer that has been discussed materializes, either commercially or at a nonprofit. This is a show that should be seen by a wider audience.

--While I was sorry to see it not win for Best Musical, Court's gorgeous Carousel richly deserved the wins for Supporting Actress (Jessie Mueller) and especially Music Direction--Doug Peck's orchestra really brought out the beauty in the score, and fit the space beautifully.

--The acting of The Trip to Bountiful was realism at its best, so it was a thrill to see Lois Smith and Hallie Foote recognized--not that Lois Smith's performance was lacking in recognition.

--I had real problems with the script of Cadillac at Chicago Dramatists, but one way that the script and production were very successful was in creating the world of a used-car dealership. Kevin Depinet's set was a major part of that, and I'm glad it was recognized.

--Finally, congratulations to Dominic Missimi on his Jeff for Les Miserables, and I hope that his health continues to improve.

Here's a full list of the winners:

Production - Play – Large: "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Production - Play – Midsize: "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

Production - Musical – Large: "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Production - Musical – Midsize: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Production – Revue: "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

Ensemble: "Funk It Up About Nothin’" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director – Play: Barbara Gaines, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director – Musical: Jim Corti, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook / Dominic Missimi, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Director – Revue: Rob Ruggiero, "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

New Work: Keith Huff, "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

New Adaptation: Ron West, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Solo Performance: Nilaja Sun, "No Child" at Lookingglass Theatre

Actor in a Principal Role – Play: Randy Steinmeyer, "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

Actor in a Principal Role – Musical: John Cudia, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Play: Lois Smith, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Musical: Summer Naomi Smart, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play: Mark Ulrich, "Juno and the Paycock" at The Artistic Home

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical: Richard Todd Adams, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play: Hallie Foote, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical: Jessie Mueller, "Carousel" at Court Theatre and Long Wharf Theatre

Actor in a Revue: James Rank, "The American Dream Songbook" at Next Theatre Company

Actress in a Revue: E. Faye Butler, "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

Scenic Design – Large: E. David Cosier, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Scenic Design – Midsize: Kevin Depinet, "Cadillac" at Chicago Dramatists

Costume Design – Large: Ana Kuzmanic, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Costume Design – Midsize: Bill Morey, "Nine" at Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

Lighting Design – Large: J.R. Lederle, "The Turn of the Screw," at Writers’ Theatre

Lighting Design – Midsize: Mike Durst, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" at Shattered Globe Theatre

Sound Design – Large: Barry G. Funderburg, "Carter’s Way" at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Sound Design – Midsize: Jack Arky, "Because They Have No Words" at Piven Theatre

Choreography: Mitzi Hamilton, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook

Original Incidental Music: David Pavkovic, "Nelson Algren: For Keeps and A Single Day" by Lookingglass and the Museum of Contemporary Art

Musical Direction: Doug Peck, "Carousel" at Court Theatre and Long Wharf Theatre

Fight Choreography: Nick Sandys, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" by Shattered Globe Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Videography: John Musial, "Nelson Algren: For Keeps and A Single Day" by Lookingglass and the Museum of Contemporary Art

Special Award: Eileen Boevers, Outstanding Achievement, founder of Apple Tree Theatre

Monday, October 20, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare The Time Of My Life?

So the stage version of Dirty Dancing opened its Chicago run (the American premiere) on Sunday night. I was fascinated by Chris Jones' review in the Trib and even more so by the comments after (39 as of this writing.)

For those who haven't read the review, the point is that the play aims to be nothing more than a direct reproduction of the movie. It goes to extreme length to replicate every song, every line, every shot, even the montages. The point of the play is to be "The Classic Story Live On Stage" as per the tag line. It never seems to acknowledge that theatre and film are different media with different demands, and that it might be a good idea to have a musical in which the two leads actually sing.

The question is, why replicate it with such slavish fidelity? I will confess that I have never seen the movie, so I don't really understand the love some people have for it. But still, why would they pay up to $95 (!) to see a Swayze-less reproduction of something they could watch for free at home?

I'm not against stage adaptations of movies. Often, they have something real to offer to the film. The Full Monty, for instance changes the original's British setting to Buffalo, NY, and has smart, tuneful songs that let us inside the characters. The premise is the same, but the execution is unique. Musicals that take familiar movies and adapt them in memorable and interesting ways are wonderful. It's musicals that seem like nothing more than cynical ways to cash in on the audience's fond memories of movies that seem beside the point. I just don't understand why it's worth it to watch a pale imitation that has nothing of its own to add.

This is why the comments are so interesting: they are evenly mixed between people who agreed with Chris--that the show is painfully unoriginal and weirdly untheatrical--and those who disagree vociferously--saying that any deviation would be blasphemy, so this is the only way to do the show. Their sense of ownership of this movie is so intense that changing anything would be a sin. But I repeat--why put it on stage if it aspires merely to be a replica?

Can anyone explain this to me? Has anyone actually seen the show? I'm really curious to understand this phenomenon, and any help would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Bernarda Alba

Elizabeth Margolius' production of Michael John LaChiusa's musical Bernarda Alba at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble


Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is a riveting play. A tale of rural Spain and the miserable women trapped there, it has a steadily increasing force that builds to a shocking ending. Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation, called simply Bernarda Alba, currently in its Chicago premiere at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, boasts an exceptional score and superb singers. Unfortunately, due to miscalculations on the part of both the play and the production, it fails to have a similarly potent theatrical impact.

The story focuses on Bernarda (Deanna Boyd), whose second husband has just died. She declares that, due to mourning, her five daughters will always dress in black and stay locked in the house. Angustias (Kelsey Shearer), the eldest daughter and the only one with an inheritance (as she is the child of Bernarda's first husband) is being courted by Pepe el Romano—despite the fact that she is 39 and no beauty. Though he is making a lucrative marriage, Pepe is going elsewhere for his physical satisfaction: 20-year-old Adela (Cat Davis), Bernarda's youngest daughter. When the daughters' desires go up against Bernarda's fanatical need for control, tragedy results.

The music that LaChiusa has composed is genuinely thrilling. Full of the rhythms and vocal patterns of flamenco, the songs are exciting on a deeply visceral level. The entire ten member cast and the three piece orchestra show a real comfort with the music, and the raw power is amazing. In fact, at times there is too much of that raw power for the miniscule 30-seat theatre. Music and voices like this need more room--in Bohemian's space they can become overwhelming. Still, from a purely musical perspective, the show is a great success.

It is from a theatrical angle that it is problematic. Some of the miscalculations belong to LaChiusa. Primarily, he has taken a play that is highly realistic in style and changed the focus. He has emphasized the original's implicit sexuality and taken the few moments of poetry and expanded them into lengthy arias. The problem with this approach is that it takes a tight, tense play and turns it into a poetic, sensual meditation, sapping the play's dramatic tension. And without that relentless forward motion, the play just sits there--often interesting, but never grabbing the audience.

The production amplifies these script problems with a few of its own. The first is the size of the space--the cast barely fits on the stage, and with most of them onstage whether or not they are in the scene, director Elizabeth Margolius hardly has room to stage the play. There are also a few odd casting decisions: while Shearer brings her character to compelling life she looks virtually the same age as Davis--bizarre as Angustias is nearly twice Adela's age. Also, Martirio (Lisa Liaromatis) the second youngest daughter, is frequently described as crippled and ugly due to illness--yet in this production she has nothing more than severely pulled-back hair to distinguish her from her able-bodied sisters. The sisters' relationships lack the clarity and definition that they have in the original, and it damages the drama.

So in the end, we are left with a really fascinating score in a play that is at best imperfect. The choice of whether to go depends on your interest in audacious new musicals. If you need a show that works perfectly, it may not be the best use of your time, but if the risk and amazing music excite you, then it is worth a visit.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Edward II

Here is a review of Sean Graney's dynamic staging of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare.

Director Sean Graney has already had an excellent fall with his exceptional staging of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which I sure hope you saw before the end of its run this weekend. Now, only a month later, comes his production of Edward II, by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe. This grisly tale of a king done in by his love for a man is not particularly subtle, but Graney's staging certainly packs a punch.

The staging is promenade style--the audience members stand and sit among the actors, who might pop up from anywhere at any moment. The audience is encouraged to move around to get their own perspectives on the action, with actors shooing them out of the way when necessary. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it ends up working remarkably well. Graney's inspiration doesn't end with the staging style--everything feels organic, every production decision thought out carefully. For most of the play I was not engaged emotionally--my main reaction was  "That is so cool!"  However, once the play slid into its frightening finale I found myself horrified, not wanting to watch but unable to turn away.

Edward II (Jeffrey Carlson, regal and irresistible) has fallen hard for Piers Gaveston (La Shawn Banks, worth losing a kingdom over) a Frenchman of common birth, to the point of ignoring his wife, Queen Isabella (Karen Aldridge, magnetic) and offering Gaveston any office in the kingdom that he desires. His nobles, led by the conniving Mortimer (the dangerous Scott Cummins) cannot accept this, and conspire to kill Gaveston and depose Edward. From then on, things get brutal, both in the story and in the production. The many acts of violence are not gorily explicit, but they are extremely disturbing and immediate--those with weak stomachs should not attend.

Graney uses a deeply cut version of the script that only runs about 85 minutes, but still manages to tell the story with impressive clarity. I hadn't read the script before attending, yet I always knew exactly what was going on--no mean feat for a play from the 1590's.

The production definitely stages for visceral impact. There isn't much soaring poetry to be found, and the actors work in broad strokes, sometimes bordering on the crude. Still, the staging is constantly surprising and exciting, and it's a real thrill to see an avant-garde off-loop director being given a Chicago Shakespeare sized budget and keeping his idiosyncratic vision.

While gallery tickets, keeping you at a relatively safe remove, are available, I can't imagine them being anywhere near as much fun as going promenade. Best of all, promenade tickets are only $20--and if you go to and enter the code MARLOWE, you can get them for only $5 on October 14 and 21. If you have the courage for dangerous, thrilling theatre, go. You won't regret it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"The Trojan Candidate" Blog Exclusive Review

Here's a review of  Theatre Oobleck's new production, The Trojan Candidate, running through November 3rd at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N Ashland Avenue at Foster. Suggested donation $12, reservations at (773) 347-1041 or visit the website.

Dick Cheney has a problem. As many have suspected all along, Dick Cheney is actually an alien parasite which infects people's bodies and controls their actions. Unfortunately, his current host body doesn't have long to live, so it's up to Cheney to find someone new to infect and use to rule the world. Thanks to some Fantastic Voyage-style technology, he manages to enter the brains of all of the potential presidential candidates, and see which psyche will fit him best, and is most likely to win.

Such is the setup for Theatre Oobleck's cerebral and absurdist new satire The Trojan Candidate, written by Jeff Dorchen and Danny Thompson (who also appear in the play), and the rest of the cast. The idea is an extremely silly one, but the execution is erudite, filled with sophisticated political and cultural references. The production sometimes feels like a series of sketches rather than a play, and a number of long blackouts doesn't help this problem, but it still has more than enough laughs and a fascinating enough perspective to make it very worth seeing, and a cut above most of the political entertainments available this season.

Playwright Dorchen leads the cast as Cheney, giving the best interpretation of him that I've ever seen. He gets the look and sound perfectly, and also terrifyingly embodies the sheer disregard for the constitution and the happiness of others that has come to define Cheney. The rest of the five-member ensemble, playing several parts each, create many wicked political caricatures, including Sati Word's idealistic Barack Obama, co-author Thompson's splenetic John McCain, KellyAnn Corcoran's high-tension Hillary Clinton, and Diana Slickman's glum Lynne Cheney. However, all of the caricatures have in common that they go to deeper and stranger places than a "Saturday Night Live" sketch ever could.

Theatre Oobleck works without a director, and it sometimes shows in  the production--it could have used a slightly more ruthless hand to tighten op the parts that go too long. Still, you won't find political satire quite this smart or strange anywhere else in Chicago.


By the way, after reviewing The Trojan Candidate last night, I returned to the Neo-Futurarium to see their legendary Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, still running late nights after twenty years. I hadn't seen it since they gave a special performance at Northwestern my freshman year, and it's still exceptional. The goal is to do 30 plays in 60 minutes (they time it), with new plays being cycled in every week--there were 9 world premieres this weekend. The plays are funny, serious, and just plain weird, and it makes for a wild and delightful night out. If you haven't been, go, and if you have, go again.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

An Unlucky Number?

Jason Robert Brown has a new show, 13, opening on Broadway this Sunday. A fascinating New York Times profile is here. Bizarrely enough, it has been ten years since his last Broadway show, Parade. In the intervening time, New York saw The Last Five Years, in a brief Off-Broadway run (it's hard to imagine that a show that has had so many productions since ran only two months in New York), and Broadway's calamitous Urban Cowboy, for which he wrote only a few songs.

So a new Broadway musical by a still-young composer. I should be excited, right? But my expectations for 13 are decidedly low.

First of is the musical's subject matter: the lives of 13-year-olds, with a cast of 13 teens, and a pit band of teens as well. This is a terrible idea for one simple reason: young adolescents are extremely annoying. I, at least, would rather do just about anything than spend 2 hours in a room full of middle schoolers, and the idea of paying $100 for the privilege makes my head spin.

However, even if the show were to manage to be about 13-year-olds without being as annoying at 13-year-olds (a task that Spring Awakening manages remarkably well with slightly older teens) I still have my doubts about its potential success, for one simple reason. I do not think that Jason Robert Brown is a good theatre writer.

He is certainly a skilled songwriter. Many of his songs are memorable and charming, and I enjoy listening to the cast albums of Parade and The Last Five Years. What his songs aren't is dramatic. The melodies are catchy or lyrical, the songs full of emotion, the performers often very impressive. But nothing happens. Characters express an emotional state, sure, but it never changes, it never develops. This can make a song awfully tough to act, and this can make an enjoyable pop song trying to watch onstage. Even in Parade, unquestionably his most successful show, the songs illustrate emotional moments--they don't really move the plot along within the song. (I am also not a fan of how politically simplistic the show is, reducing a complex story to "good Jewish man is railroaded by rednecks," but that is as much attributable to bookwriter Alfred Uhry as it is to Brown.)

The next time you are near your CD collection (or iTunes), try an experiment. Listen to "Nobody Needs to Know" from The Last Five Years and try to figure out what is different between  the beginning of the song and the end. Then notice that it takes seven minutes for nothing to happen. Once you have contemplated that, listen to "A Weekend in the Country" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and notice that in 6 minutes and 30 seconds, everything in the lives of these characters changes. Then ask yourself why Jason Robert Brown is writing musicals.

The problem is that the kind of pop songwriting Brown does best has very little place in the contemporary music landscape. Songs that are melodic and based on acoustic instruments have very little currency anymore. A friend theorized to me that Brown wants to be the next Billy Joel, and I think it's a valid comparison. If there were room for a new composer like Billy Joel, Brown would have a great career writing and maybe even performing. As it is, his CD of pop songs, "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," barely made a ripple.

Maybe 13 will prove me wrong, and show him to be a dramatist on the level that he is a melodist. Based on the song available with the profile in the New York Times, I am not particularly optimistic. But anything can happen, right?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Caroline, Or Change

My review of Caroline, Or Change at Court Theatre is on Centerstage here. The show looks to be turning into a real hit--the audience went wild at the opening performance and they've added a week. It's well deserved; I think it's just spectacular. I particularly regretted only having 300 words for this one--it's a show that deserves more analysis. Anyway, here's a tease:

Few words have been more abused in the past year than "change." So what better time is there for a play that explores both the need for change on a national level and its terrible cost on a personal one? If this play also engages the audience's intellect, emotions and senses, it rises from relevant viewing to essential. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline, Or Change," currently in a stellar staging at Court Theatre, is such a production.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shaw Festival Announces 2009 Season!

The Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada, has announced its 2009 season. Press release here.

The Shaw Fest is probably my favorite theatre in the world. As the name suggests, the primary focus is on the plays of George Bernard Shaw (one of my favorite playwrights) and on other plays written during and about his lifetime, 1856-1950. They do productions in repertory in three theatres: The Festival, an 860-seat proscenium, the Court House, a 325-seat thrust, and the Royal George, a 325-seat proscenium.

The biggest news this year is that the festival is doing all of the Noel Coward Tonight at 8:30 plays. These were ten one-acts that Coward wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Coward and Lawrence would play the lead couple in all of the plays, of which three would be presented per night. The Shaw Fest production will be the first time that all 10 have been presented by a professional company since the premiere in the 1930's. They are being presented in three bills of three, one in each theatre, with the tenth presented as a noon-time stand alone production in the Royal George. For Coward lovers such as myself, this is pretty extraordinary. Very few of these plays are ever done any more. In fact, the only two I have seen, Still Life and Shadow Play, were presented as one-acts at previous seasons of the Shaw Festival. The chance to see all 10, to drown in Coward, is something like heaven. No word yet on casting, but I'm betting that each of the 10 gets a different pair of leads. Lord knows there are enough great actors in the ensemble!

As for the rest of the season:

There are two Shaws this season. The Festival is hosting The Devil's Disciple, set in Revolutionary America. It's a rather strange melodrama, whose most interesting character (General Burgoyne) doesn't appear until Act III. I'll be interesting to see how it plays. In the Royal George they are doing In Good King Charles' Golden Days, an obscurity about which I know nothing. However, the Shaw does his obscure plays remarkably well, so we'll see if it is worth resurrecting.

The musical is Sunday in the Park With George, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Hot damn. Love this show, and it is so rarely given a first-class production. I'm expecting magic here.

Two classic American plays are on the docket, one serious and one funny: Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. The O'Neill has had two successful Broadway revivals in the past 10 years, and it holds up beautifully. In the intimate Court House, I bet it'll be spellbinding. Born Yesterday is more discussed than performed these days, but it was a huge hit in the 1940's, and I think a really strong production would still be highly entertaining. 

They are doing a production of a 1986 French-Canadian play called Albertine in Five Times, by Michel Tremblay. I know nothing about it. Anyone out there know anything?

Finally, and perhaps oddest of all, the eleventh production of the season isn't appearing in one of the theatres. John Osborne's The Entertainer is being presented in the Festival Theatre's rehearsal studio. It's brief run, so I'm guessing this is a pretty experimental thing. I don't know Osborne's play, but apparently with the right lead it's absolutely riveting. I'm curious to see how it works.

Overall, I think it's going to be an amazing season. I haven't been up to Niagara on the Lake in the last two years, but for this, I think I need to start making plans now!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray--Blog Exclusive Review

Here's a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray at  Lifeline Theatre, the fourth play I reviewed in seven days. Oy.

It's hard to  horror onstage. There is only so far that onstage special effects can go, with the audience right there to see the trickery, and creepy camera work is impossible without a camera. Theatrical chills usually work best when they are almost or entirely in the mind of the audience. This is a lesson that would have been well learned by Lifeline Theatre's stage version of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is effective enough at setting up an unsettling atmosphere, but when the scares arrive they provoke more giggles than gasps.

The play concerns Dorian (Nick Vidal, who looks the part of the young beauty and portrays it with conviction) and his descent into depravity. A beautiful young man who fascinates all he sees, he has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Aaron Snook as a young man, Don Bender when older). Dorian wishes that he could always stay as young as the picture, while the picture would show the ravages of time--and it happens. 

Many of those ravages are provoked by Lord Henry Wotton (Paul S. Holmquist, younger, Sean Sinitski, older), a witty and amoral man who counsels Dorian to seek nothing but pleasure, and damn the consequences. This leads, as such things often do, to heartbreak and a few deaths, but Dorian maintains the look of the innocent 20-year-old, while the picture ages into something hideous.

Robert Kauzlaric's adaptation makes the fascinating choice of putting two people onstage for most of the characters (though not Dorian), allowing for narration as the play is going on, and the visible contrast between young men and their aged counterparts. In the early part of the first act, I was drawn in by the set-up and the storytelling. Director Kevin Theis' actors seemed to have a strong grasp of Wilde's language and the play's intricacies. But once Dorian's love affair with young actress Sibyl Vane (Melissa Nedell) went south, the hoped-for scares turned into laughs and the production went off the rails. Perhaps no onstage depiction of a horrifyingly aging portrait could match the mental image. Special effects aside, though, the acting and staging of the frightening moments suggested a campy horror movie, rather than a subtle moral chiller.

This is a problem when the real monster is a man's own slide into corruption. This production, while admirable and occasionally successful, never brought that monster to life.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No Darkness Round My Stone--Blog Exclusive Review

Here is the first of what will hopefully be many reviews exclusive to this blog, this time of No Darkness Round My Stone at Trap Door Theatre in Bucktown.

When a play begins with a live man copulating with a corpse, only to be interrupted by the dead denizens of the cemetery, you have a pretty good idea of what kind of show you're in for. For those who enjoy the idea of a play featuring dead people acting out scenes from their lives, full of pungent language and bizarrely compelling images but short on linear plot development, this proves a satisfying and at times spectacular show. Those with no taste for the avant-garde probably won't change their minds based on the ghoulish goings-on.

The play, by French author Fabrice Melquiot, is having its US premiere at Trap Door, in David Bradby's lyrical translation. As far as can be determined, it centers on brother grave-robbers Ivan (Kevin Lucero Less) and Dan (David Steiger), their father Louis, who also dresses up as a woman named Lullaby (Bob Wilson), and the two women the brothers love (Cassandra Kaluza and Tiffany Joy Ross), all of whom are apparently dead, and their interactions with apparently living (and occasionally corpse-raping) poet Juste (Casey Chapman). (Full disclosure: Chapman is a friend.)

The ninety minutes of the play show the characters varied interactions and several versions of their past. There is no linear through-line that I could discern, and the play has not avoided the common trap for plays of its type. While there are a number of exciting scenes and arresting images, the play eventually gets repetitious, and feels about 15 minutes too long.

But there are many pleasures along the way. Director Max Truax, fresh from the dire Termen Vox Machina, has a much better script on which to work his magic, and the results are striking. The play has a physical language that is fascinating to watch--characters move almost like real people, only to suddenly crumple to the ground, corpses again. It's an image that's startling every time. The design team clearly shares Truax's vision, and Ewelina Dobiesz' filthy, rotting set, Richard Norwood's grotesque lighting, and Zsofia Otvos' deathly makeup are particularly vital in creating a world so believable you can practically smell it. The actors all give fully committed performances, finding the beauty, humor, and horror in Melquiot's writing.

I'm still not sure what the show was trying to say, if anything at all, and I wish the entire play had lived up to its best moments, but the combination of script and production still makes for an arresting show, and those with a love of the bizarre should definitely attend.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: Dashiell Hamlet

My review of City Lit's Dashiell Hamlet has been posted here.

Here's a teaser:

Updates and adaptations of classic stories are risky endeavors; the new version needs to compete with the success of the old and add something that isn't in the original. Many such plays leave the audience wondering why anybody bothered. Happily, this is not the case with "Dashiell Hamlet" at City Lit Theatre, which finds amusement and unexpected emotional resonance in updating the story of "Hamlet" to the era of film noir.

Neither Pure Nor Wise Nor Good

If the past 52 years have taught us anything (and I sometimes doubt it) it is that you can't make a musical of Candide.

Voltaire's classic 1759 novella, which destroys the philosophy of mindless optimism by putting its characters through an outlandish series of adventures and gruesome events, has 30 chapters and rushes at breakneck speed through an astonishing number of plot points, with a huge number of cardboard characters who exist to serve up his wicked satire. This is fine in a picaresque novel, but what on earth made Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman think that it would make for good theatre? Things can be described much faster than they can be dramatized, so putting even half of the novel's events onstage would take all day. And the lack of characters with an inner life makes it very hard for an audience to care about their adventures. The best a stage version can hope to do is select as many incidents as possible and hope that spectacle and satire carry the day. Is it any wonder it flopped in 1956?

But Bernstein, damn him, had to write one of the most beautiful scores in the history of musical theatre. The songs somehow combine the musical virtuosity of opera with the drama and intelligence of theatre. It's just that the show is a mess. But as long as that music is there, people will want to stage the show.

Unfortunately, the problems with Candide are at the root--the novel's essential unsuitability to the stage. None of the revisions of the play (and there have been many) have really solved that problem. Nothing can fix them--or at least, nothing has yet--and I don't see what could be done to change that.

I appeared in a production of Candide my junior year at Northwestern. It featured some spectacular performances, gorgeous designs, and real moments of savage satire and beauty. It was also a disaster--three hours long, hard to follow, harder to identify with. Audiences loved the music and the performances, but couldn't get in to the story. This maximalist approach tried to stuff in as much as possible--more songs, more story, more satire, more everything. Unfortunately, in trying to include everything, in focusing on the parts, it lost the whole.

Porchlight Music Theatre is currently producing the 1974 edition of Candide, originally directed by Harold Prince with a book by Hugh Wheeler, at Theatre Building Chicago. A selection of reviews of this production can be found  here. This version is minimalist and intermissionless, clocking in at around 105 minutes the night I went. Since I attended a preview, I will try not to discuss details of the production, but the concept has not changed, and that is where the shows problems lie.

The developers of this version seemed to think that what had scuttled Candide in the original production was that it was just too much--too much plot, too many songs, too huge a production, and too much heavy-handed satire. As a result, they put it on a radical diet, cutting it almost in half. Gone went chunks of the plot (the Venice sequence, with "What's the Use" being the most tragic loss), much of the music, and Voltaire's point of view. There's nothing wrong with a show that's a goof, but it's not satire, it's not Voltaire, and it's not Candide. The novel's humor comes from the contrast of persistent optimism with awful tragedies. If there is no horror in rape and murder, earthquakes and the inquisition, the satire has not teeth. All that is left to provoke laughs is a series of jokes and rather dumb ones at that. The play makes sense, and some of the laughs land, but if the characters never suffer, then they never learn anything, and "Make Our Garden Grow," the finale, is simply a lovely song, not the immensely moving statement of people who have suffered and finally learned how to live in a punishingly arbitrary world. And what's the point in that?

So there's the dilemma: do Candide maximalist and it will be bloated and incoherent, despite moments of brilliance, do it minimalist and it is robbed of its reason for being. So what's left? Do it as a concert without even trying to tell a story?

Has anyone seen either of these productions who has other thoughts? Has anyone seen a theatrically satisfying Candide? Can anyone prove me wrong? Please continue the conversation!

On a completely unrelated note: in case anyone was wondering, my internship at Northlight Theatre does not mean I will be publishing any dirt or secrets. First off because I have ethics, and secondly because everyone at Northlight knows I have this blog. So sorry to all those looking for Skokie theatrical gossip, I'm afraid I can't provide it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Exciting Personal News

I am happy to report that tomorrow I will be starting a Literary Management/Dramaturgy internship for Northlight Theatre in Skokie. I will be there through the end of the year, putting together dramaturgical packets, reading script submissions, and doing whatever else they like. It's a very highly-regarded and well-attended theatre, and one that's known for actually giving their interns interesting work and helping them in their careers afterwards.

I will try to keep plugs out of this blog, and clearly label them as such when I put them in. I beg your indulgence in advance.

I only found out I had gotten this internship on Thursday, so things are still a bit whirlwind. I can't wait to start, and I hope this will be the start of something big!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Permitted Broadway?

As has been widely reported (well, in the theatre press at least) Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini's hilarious revue parodying the best and worst of Broadway, will be closing in January of 2009. (The New York times has  the best article on the subject.)

The series, which will close on the 27th anniversary of the opening of the first edition in 1982, has been an institution in New York since it opened. It has been running, on and off, since before Cats opened. Staggering.

I only have gotten to see it once, when a company opened a run in Cleveland. However, I listened to the CDs constantly, and would frequently remember the parody lyrics better than the originals--because they were better lyrics.

But I guess that the acclaim eventually gets old--long runs, multiple companies around the country, a whole bunch of awards, even a special Tony in 2006. Alessandrini has pointed to a lack of artistic excitement in the next few seasons--nothing to sink ones teeth into. I can see this, but I don't think that  the upcoming seasons are going to be any worse than the low years of the late eighties and the early nineties. Of course, it is 15 years later, so that might have some impact.

Either way, I'm going to be sure to see the company that's coming to Chicago next month, and say a prayer of thanks that we had the genius of this show for as long as we did. Hopefully in a few years he'll feel the itch to get back into the parody business--or someone else almost as brilliant will come to take his place!

Burn After Reading

Alright, it's not a play, but with Ethan Coen having had a play Off-Broadway this past spring and theatre stalwarts like Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Elizabeth Marvel, and David Rasche in the cast, I think it falls under the purview of this blog. So there.

Overall, very worth seeing--it's a kick to see such generally serious actors given the chance to cut loose and give such aggressively stylized performances. I particularly enjoyed Malkovich's apoplectic alcoholic CIA agent and Pitt's empty-headed personal trainer. And seeing George Clooney and Tilda Swinton in bed together after their decidedly less friendly relationship in Michael Clayton (a movie I also highly recommend).

The story is satisfying in its twists and turns, even though they make minimal sense. The movie maintains its lighthearted tone throughout, even after the lurch into violence that is predictable given the Coen's past work but shocking in the movie.

Even after the violence, however, the movie doesn't have much impact beyond laughter. None of the characters live in three dimensions, and there is only so much we can care about even the most vivid caricature. This may have been the Coen's intention--without characters who we care about, the violence stays funny, and the whole bizarre story is nothing more than a goof. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--it would have been an extremely unpleasant movie if the worst things that happened were serious. Still, those who prefer their movies less mean-spirited might want to avoid this one.

It's probably not classic Coen, but for those looking for a nasty little joke, it's a great time.