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.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Was there any identification?

No, I'm not talking about a stage version of Law and Order. (Though that is a cool idea, no?) I've been thinking audiences identifying with plays, recognizing what they see onstage, and how it can affect their experiences of a play separate from the quality of the script or production.

For example, I have seen two shows in recent weeks set in eras before I was born: Jersey Boys at the Bank of America Theatre and Nixon's Nixon at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The former follows the lives and careers of the members of the band The Four Seasons, focused mostly on the early 1960's, while the latter imagines the meeting between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the eve of Nixon's resignation in 1974.

I did not like Jersey Boys at all. I found the book to be an uninterrupted series of laughable cliches, the characters two-dimensional, and the whole enterprise vaguely ridiculous. However, the show had several strikes against it. In addition to the fact that I had a terrible seat (the rush seats are cheap for a reason, don't sit there if you want to see the stage) I had no particular love for the music of The Four Seasons, the story of blue-collar kids from New Jersey had no great emotional resonance for a kid who grew up middle-class in suburban Cleveland, and I was not born when the show took place. Now, I like to think that I would've been able to tell that the show was not very good if none of these strikes were against it. But the show's been a hit, often described as an enthralling, well-told story, so perhaps it effectively uses nostalgia to cover its own flaws.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Nixon's Nixon. However, in the 50 seat theatre, there were only three people who did not remember Watergate. I and my roommate, able to go because of our friendship with the Assistant Stage Manager, were two, and the third was a family friend of the actor playing Kissinger. And yet, my general familiarity with Nixon's presidency proved to be enough to help me enjoy the show. I didn't need to remember everyone they discussed to enjoy it, and the flaws I saw had nothing to do with not remembering the era.

A few months ago, however, I was on the opposite end of this problem. I reviewed a House Theatre show called The Attempters. Its central character was a very smart and creative, highly confused 17 year old boy. The play followed his struggles and his realization that, while he was very smart and interesting, he was also acting like a total asshole and hurting the people around him. His finally understanding this and starting to grow up was the play's drama. As far as I'm concerned, this play captured that vulnerable, impossible time of life better than just about anything I've seen, and I absolutely flipped for it, giving it a rave review. Of course, I am not too many years removed from being that character, so perhaps its no surprise that I loved a play that captured my recent past so well.

A few days later, I read reviews from other sources. They all pointed out the play's real flaws--a weak structure, a plot that took too long to get going, etc. Looking back, these things were all true, but I simply couldn't see them past the way that the play hit me emotionally.

So how much can critics and audience members do about this? Can we recognize when something outside of a play is affecting us? Should we acknowledge it? Can we work too hard to remove that bias and take all of the fun out of watching the show? Do we owe the audience a report of what we felt, a more objective reporting of what did and didn't work, or a balance between the two? And have any of you ever had the same experience, in either direction?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bad News and Good

Two notable pieces of news from Playbill.

The sad news out of Canada is the death at age 64 of Richard Monette, Artistic Director of Ontario's Stratford Festival, from a pulmonary embolus. I had issues with Monette's season selection--it seemed that he stuck to a path that was too conventional, even commercial. However, he led the festival through an extraordinary 14 seasons--1994-2007--of unprecedented stability and financial success. And though I saw a few stinkers in the years I went, I also saw a number of extraordinary shows--My Fair Lady and Pericles, to name two of a half-dozen wonderful shows. He will be missed.

I am  much happier to report that the Public Theatre has announced that they are moving their Shakespeare in the Park production of Hair to Broadway. I had the great privilege of seeing it in the park at its fourth preview, and knew that if audiences and critics continued to react the way we did that night, a move was inevitable. It was already extended a full month beyond its original close date, to September 14th, so it clearly found a very appreciative public. The play and production have flaws, but it was both an extraordinarily energetic delight in the fun numbers and a real gut punch when necessary. And it was anything but dated. One of the major flaws with the staging was that too much of it was directed front and center in a theatre where the seats formed a full half-circle, a flaw that would be eliminated if it moved to a traditional proscenium theatre. No casting, dates, of theatre for the move have been announced, but I hope they will move as much of the original cast as possible. If so, don't be surprised to see Tony nominations for Jonathan Groff (Claude), Will Swenson (Berger), and Patina Renae Miller (Dionne) when announcements are made in May. Just saying...

If you are in New York ,try to get to Hair this week (and get in line really early). Otherwise, try to get seats when it moves to Midtown. It's pretty fantastic.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bailiwick Closing

According to Chris Jones' theatre blog at the Trib site, the Bailiwick Repertory in Boystown is closing. I'm not sure how expected this was: on the one hand a friend of mine who is doing a show there was surprised to hear it, but then again everyone knew they were having money problems.

Their track record wasn't perfect (What on earth did David Zak see in Bare?) but I did see some wonderful things there in the past five years--Tim Miller for the first time, a lovely production of The Tricky Part, and the Hypocrites' Angels In America, to name a few. Plus, they were one of this city's most consistent providers of naked men onstage.

It's a shame any time that a theatre closes down, especially one that produced so consistently, and rented out to so many small companies. Was the financial and administrative mismanagement a sign that it was time to close? Has Bailiwick's moment of being necessary in Chicago passed? I'm not sure. I hope they continue to produce in rented spaces once in a while.

It is very encouraging that Theatre Wit is taking the building over--if they really do give it such a nice refurbishment and open it with three stages, this loss will be a little easier to take. The great thing about this city is that rental stages are always full--someone always wants to do a show!

Does anyone who has actually worked for Bailiwick have an opinion on this? I speak only as an audience member, so I recognize my perspective is skewed at best.

Monday, September 8, 2008

No Longer For Rent

Rent closed yesterday. Strange.

Even stranger, I have never seen it. Not on Broadway, not on tour, not on film. I've never even listened to the full CD from end to end (though I know all the songs by now, lord knows.) I liked the idea of it when it was new, but once I got to hear more of the music, it didn't excite my very much. It just never seemed worth the money to see it live--especially as the play from all reports devolved into something highly overamplified, more a substandard rock concert than a theatrical experience. And based on reviews and what i've heard from friends, the movie is just a joke.

I have read the script, and honestly found it sort of dumb. Predictable story, characters without much depth, intensely romanticized and sentimental.

And yet I find myself wistful about Rent's closing. First off, I'm sure that it is much better onstage in a strong production than it is to read--not many  musicals read well. Second, even if it never connected to me, it connected to a lot of people in a way that few other musicals do. Even though the New York it portrays is long gone, and it is unquestionably a period piece, it still speaks to people. If you manage that, there's nothing wrong with a little sentimentality once in a while, right?

It won the Tony and the Pulitzer, and was on the cover of Newsweek. How many plays or musicals had been on the cover of Newsweek before? I'm pretty positive that none have been since. And, personal reaction to the show aside, that's something to celebrate.

There have been other smashes since, some that even covered the same territory as Rent, and better (Avenue Q, Spring Awakening), but none have had the same kind of cultural impact. Hopefully the end of Rent's era doesn't mean that nothing the same can ever come along again. That would be the real tragedy--and one that could be resolved by a convenient resurrection in time for the end of the show.

New Reviews--The Threepenny Opera and Heroes and VIllains

My review of The Hypocrites' The Threepenny Opera at Steppenwolf Garage is up on Centerstage  here.

My review of Collaboraction's Heroes and Villains at Theatre Building Chicago, meanwhile, is up here.

Here's a teaser for Threepenny:

For one of the seminal classics of modern theater, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" has a surprisingly poor record on stage. Productions often have trouble balancing Brecht's fierce Marxist critique with his wicked sense of play, and frequently miss the proper style for Weill's scorching, gorgeous score. Happily, director Sean Graney's smashing production for The Hypocrites evades virtually all of the pitfalls, and makes for an exceptional evening of theater.

And here is one for H&V

It sounds like a setup for campy fun, but "Heroes and Villains," Daniel Janoff's peculiar but fascinating new play, has deeper things on its mind. The play somehow works as a cross between a gentle small-town love story and a meditation on the need for heroes and the battle between faith and skepticism.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


My name is Zev Valancy, and I love Chicago theatre.

I moved to Evanston in 2003 to study theatre at Northwestern, and after graduation  in 2007 I moved into Chicago itself.

I work as a critic at, and will post links to reviews there. I also work, variously, as a dramaturg, literary manager, assistant director, and  actor, and hope to do more of all of them in the future.

How did I get here? This summer, I was lucky enough to attend the National Critic Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, where two of the teachers were my friend Leonard Jacobs from Backstage (see his blog at and Andy Propst, of the invaluable Andy was so impressed with our writing that he offered to set up blogs for all of us. I jumped, and here we are.

On this blog you'll find links to my reviews, theatre news, and my thoughts on all things theatre-related (and maybe an occasional off-topic post). I also want to hear your thoughts, so make sure to post comments!