Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: The Wild Duck, performed by Court Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Charles Newell's production of Richard Nelson's new translation of Henrik Ibsen's play.


A man without self-knowledge is dangerous--he can destroy the lives of those around him without even realizing it. This, it seems to me, is the real tragedy of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck. The play is frequently described as a parable of the dangers of meddling in other people's lives. The true destruction comes from men who does not understand themselves and therefore hurt those closest to them. Charles Newell's production makes this tragedy clear on an intellectual level, but fails to make it emotionally compelling until the last half hour.

Hialmar Ekdal (Kevin Gudahl) lives a quiet, happy life as a photographer, with wife Gina (Mary Beth Fisher) and daughter Hedvig (Laura Scheinbaum). (Full disclosure: Scheinbaum is a college friend of mine.) He believes himself a brilliant, hard-working man, and sees no flaw in his family life. That comes crashing down due to the well-meaning interference of his old friend, Gregers Werle (Jay Whittaker). Gregers sees the influence of his hated father (John Reeger) in Hialmar's life, and believes that revealing the truth as he sees it will make Hialmar's life infinitely better. Werle fails to reckon with the power of delusions, both Hialmar's and his own. The consequences are tragic for all concerned.

Newell's production is always clear--there is no confusion over who the characters are and what they want, as can be endemic to productions of classics. Unfortunately, it takes until the last half hour or so for the play to have a real sense of urgency, or for the audience to have an emotional investment in the lives of the characters. Once that comes, however, it is powerful. Much credit for this goes to Scheinbaum--her tantrum faced with the incomprehensible fact of her father's sudden cruelty to her is absolutely wrenching.

Newell has coaxed vibrant performances from the rest of his cast as well. Gudahl was somehow both lovable and contemptible as the supremely deluded Hialmar, with Fisher providing most of the evenings few laughs as a woman desperately trying to keep her life together. And Whittaker provided a memorable portrayal of a man desperately uncomfortable in his own skin: his actions seemed almost reasonable, since he believed they would bring him peace.

It's not clear quite why the production fails to engage until midway through the second half. Perhaps the pace is too slow, perhaps the drama gets lost inside Leigh Breslau's cavernous loft of a set. Maybe the cast doesn't fully understand how high the stakes are, even from the beginning. However, once the world begins to fall apart, it's hard to shake off the tragic sense of lives undone.

The Wild Duck runs at The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, through February 15th. For tickets/information, visit or call (773) 753-4472.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

McDonagh Writes Another Fecking Play

Well, this was unexpected. According to a short piece on the New York Times' website, Martin McDonagh has written another play. As he revealed in a 2006 profile, McDonagh wrote the first drafts of all six of his produced plays (and a seventh that he says is terrible and will not allow to be produced) in one six-month period in 1994. He gave every indication of being done with theatre for films, and his first feature, In Bruges, just got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Still, it seems that the he can't quite get away from theatre just yet. I have some ambivalence about McDonagh as a writer--I sometimes feel like all of his formidable technique is being funneled into a sort of jokey nihilism that doesn't add up to much--but there is no doubt that the man has an amazing way with dialogue and plot construction. Anything new from him is definitely worth checking out.

As for the play itself, all that has been revealed is that it's called A Behanding in Spokane, and takes place in "small-town America." I'd assume from this that it has something to do with someone's hands being chopped off and takes place in Spokane, Washington. How McDonagh will do with an American idiom is another question entirely, but I must say I'm very excited to see what happens. Here's hoping it ends up onstage next season as he promised!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Oscar Nominations

Theatre and film have a peculiar relationship--film is like a younger sibling or cousin that has gone on to much greater success, but still looks longingly for the older relative's approval. Film envies theatre's prestige and cachet, not to mention the ability to get people to pay huge amounts of money for tickets, while theatre envies the money to be made and the global reach of film. There is frequent traffic between the two--plays adapted into movies and movies into plays, theatre actors, directors, and playwrights working on films and movie talent coming to stage--but the results are not always successful. Film actors often seem underpowered on stage, stage actors sometimes are overblown on film. Adaptations between media frequently stumble, and only rarely are writers and directors powerhouses in both fields. Still, I think that the traffic between the two media is generally a good thing--it gives people a chance to work more and stretch themselves, and sometimes results in something wonderful. It's just better when the work is done with some creativity, rather than slavishly taking work from one medium and forcing it into another.

All of this is by way of saying that the Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and included several items of interest to theatre people. As a caveat, I have not seen most of the films nominated.

--Of greatest interest to Chicago theatre lovers is the nomination of Michael Shannon as best supporting actor for his role in Revolutionary Road. Shannon has a long history in Chicago, and is in the ensemble of A Red Orchid Theatre. He played the lead in their production of Bug, which moved to Off-Broadway and won him the lead in the film version. Looks like the local boy is making good!

--It was a good year for stage to film adaptations. Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon a hit at London's Donmar Warehouse and then on Broadway, won nominations for Best Picture, Frank Langella's recreation of his Tony-winning role as Richard Nixon, Morgan's adaptation of his own play, Ron Howard's direction, and editing. Doubt, adapted from John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer and Tony winning play, one of the few to make money and go on tour in recent years, failed to get a Best Picture nomination, but did pick up one for Shanley's adaptation of his own play. Also, all four principal actors were nominated for Oscars. Meryl Streep got her start on stage and still makes an occasional appearance, usually in brief runs for which it's impossible to get a seat, Philip Seymour Hoffman works with some frequency as both an actor and director, usually with Off-Broadway's LAByrinth Theatre Company, and Viola Davis won a Tony for her powerful work in August Wilson's King Hedley II. Amy Adams has yet to do prominent stage work, which is a shame, since she's delightful.

--Several other theatre people have nominations this year. Actors include Anne Hathaway, nominated for leading actress in Rachel Getting Married, who once appeared in Carnival! at Encores, and Marisa Tomei, nominated for supporting actress in The Wrestler, who has been making quite a career as a theatre actress, most recently in last season's Broadway revival of Top Girls. Stephen Daldry, nominated for directing The Reader also has a long resume onstage, mostly in Britain, with credits including a famed revival of An Inspector Calls and, more recently, the musical adaptation of Billy Elliott, one of his films. Two other playwrights received screenwriting nominations: David Hare, for The Reader, and the notorious Martin McDonagh for his feature debut, In Bruges. (He won an Oscar for live action short for Six Shooter a few years back.)

That's what I've noticed. Anything I missed? Any other thoughts on this year's nominations?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Only For Now

On this day of outstanding political theatre, a few bits of politics related theatre news--both connected to former President Bush. (It still feels so good to read, say, and write those words.)

--Will Ferrell's new show You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush starts previews tonight at the Cort on Broadway. It seems to be a bit of a hybrid--not a solo show, since there are other actors, but not a conventional play either. I wonder whether audiences really want to spend up to $116.50 (not including premium seats) for even more George W. Bush and whether Ferrell, whose past few movies have not done very well, has the power to bring people in like he used to. It seems like plays with stars are how producers are trying to ride out the recession, so expect more where this came from if it does well.

--Avenue Q's final song "For Now" promises that "George Bush! Is only for now!" However, with Bush out of office, the producers decided to hold a contest for a phrase to fill that spot. A few days ago they announced four finalists that will all be tried out at various performances over the next few weeks. The finalists are "Recession," "Prop 8," "This show," and "Your mother-in-law." My personal vote is for either of the first two, though the producers indicated they might use several if none is clearly the favorite.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Macbeth

A review of Barbara Gaines' production of Shakespeare's tragedy at Chicago Shakespeare.


Shakespeare's Macbeth has a reputation as a cursed play. In part, this is based a history of disasters or near-disasters during performances--actors menaced or even killed by falling scenery, theatres catching fire, and more. Even more accursed, however, is the frequency with which productions end up as disasters. This is because Macbeth is an insanely difficult play to do well. It only has one story, without subplots, but it tells the story on three different levels: the political, for the murder of Duncan and subsequent rise to power, the personal, for the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the supernatural, for the scenes with the witches. Balancing those factors, and keeping a play that's familiar for a huge portion of the audience interesting, is no easy feat. 

Barbara Gaines' production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is far from a disaster--indeed it is intermittently riveting. But there are only a handful of scenes that are really gripping, and the rest of the play goes along, never boring and rarely falling into the territory of the truly silly but never feeling truly urgent or exciting.

Gaines has set the production in our era, in a city somewhat reminiscent of Chicago. Macbeth (Ben Carlson) is in combat fatigues and later business suits, Lady Macbeth (Karen Aldridge) in either flowing dresses or nothing at all. The witches in this interpretation (Kate Buddeke, Angela Ingersoll, and a hilariously bizarre Mike Nussbaum) are representatives of the media--showing Macbeth what he wants to see, whatever the consequences. Other contemporary touches range from the clever (the song "Witchcraft" played under the party where Duncan visits the castle) to the perplexing (the strip club).

The performances are a mixed bag. Carlson is an exceptional Canadian actor--I saw him as Jack in Man And Superman at the Shaw Festival, keeping the audience utterly engaged for well over three hours of challenging theatre, and he won a Jeff for his performance as Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare two seasons back. Here he is a marvel at speaking the verse--clear, accessible, and crystalline. Unfortunately, he never quite takes us into the depths of Macbeth's soul. He's always interesting to watch, but never truly horrifying. Alrdridge, generally wonderful, was surprisingly tentative for the first part of the performance. She was heartbreaking in the sleepwalking scene, but I wish she had brought that level of vibrancy and commitment to the production as a whole.

What makes the production sad instead of merely disappointing is the fact that there are genuinely exceptional moments onstage. I won't soon forget the banquet scene, where Macbeth becomes steadily more and more unhinged while confronted with Banquo's murder--with invaluable assistance from projections designer Mike Tutaj and makeup desiger Melissa Veal. But a few exceptional scenes can't make up for a production that overall lacks urgency, failing to make this terrifying story consistently gripping. It is far from a catastrophe, but also far from exciting.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eileen Boevers, 1940-2009

I am very sad to report the death at age 68 of Eileen Boevers, founder of the Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park. Chris Jones' obituary is here.

I was an intern at Apple Tree during the summer of 2006, when Eileen was already very ill. She had only recently started returning to the office, and then only a few hours a day, in the wake of therapy for breast cancer. I thought she had entered remission, but apparently complications from that cancer killed her.

What she did in her life was truly exceptional--founding a theatre and keeping it going in the face of all odds. She produced a challenging selection of plays and musicals in Highland Park, and won quite a few Jeff Awards in the process. In addition to the main season productions, Apple Tree's Theatre For Young Audiences plays were seen by thousands and the educational programs have trained several generations of people who went on to have careers in theatre in Chicago. She will be missed, and I hope that Apple Tree continues to survive and thrive.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


A real star is a beautiful thing.  Last night I watched the PBS broadcast of last season's Broadway revival of Cyrano de Bergerac. The play may be over-the-top, sentimental, and slightly silly, but when done right, it's totally irresistible. David Leveaux's production had a fine handle on the spectacle (oh those costumes) and, aside from a blah Jennifer Garner as Roxanne (she wasn't terrible, just not enough to set the heart aflame), the supporting cast was fantastic. But the production's reason for being was Kevin Kline, and what a marvel he is. That voice, that presence, that way of playing an audience like a violin: simply amazing. There is nothing like star quality, and Kline has it in spades. Cyrano should be on PBS a few times more in the next couple of weeks. Watch/tape/Tivo it. You won't regret it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cold Reality

It is not uncommon on Broadway for January and February, traditionally the slowest months, to see their share of closings. Still, this month is particularly brutal. Nine closings today, another four to come, including some major hits like Hairspray, Spamalot, and Spring Awakening. I know that Broadway isn't the center of the theatrical universe, but it's hard not to think of this as simply the most visible sign of the bad times. When you add in companies that are strapped and in danger of closing, I'm a little worried.

Maybe Obama will create a new Federal Theatre Project? I will happily be the new Hallie Flanagan.