Monday, March 30, 2009

New Article: RENT

I've had another article posted on Decider--this one's a preview of the new tour of RENT that starts tomorrow night at the Oriental Theatre. You can read it on the site here, which had pictures, videos, and the chance to comment (please do!) or just read the text below. Enjoy!

Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical can hardly be called current anymore. Rent—based on Puccini’s La Bohéme but given a rock score and set among drug-addicted, HIV-positive artists in New York's East Village—was a flat-out sensation when it first opened. The musical was the cover story on Newsweek, and the production won the Tony Award for "Best Musical" plus the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Not to mention the legion of devoted fans.

But it’s been 13 years, and the show no longer creates excitement like it once did. The East Village it portrays, seedy and full of struggling artists, was gentrified out of existence. The 2005 film version flopped, and the Broadway production finally closed in 2008 (though not before reaching seventh on the list of longest Broadway runs ever). The show risks becoming one more example of misplaced '90s nostalgia.

So how are producers selling the new tour coming to the Oriental Theatre? They’re giving it the Hello, Dolly! treatment. That means original cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal are touring in the roles they made famous 13 years ago, just like Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! or Yul Brynner in The King And I. Of course, these parts are completely dependent on youth and energy, and the former-twentysomething unknowns playing struggling youngsters have reached their late-30s. Will the actors even be believable in those parts? History indicates no: The movie was widely reviled for featuring the original cast members, who are now a decade too old for those roles.

Still, despite having lost its cultural cachet, the show still has its fan base. And this is probably the best anyone's going to get as far as reviving the magic that sold audiences on the show the first time around.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Review Posted: Mop Top Festival

Centerstage has posted another one of my reviews, of Mop Top Festival, presented by the Factory Theater at Prop Thtr, 3502 N Elston. It runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7 through April 26. Tickets are $20-25 and can be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting

You can follow the link to my review or just read it here:

The Beatles have inspired many works of art: covers of their songs, movies, theatre, novels, television, paintings…the list is endless. To that list, add "Mop Top Festival", Scott OKen’s fun but unfocused look at the culture of Beatles conventions.

The play is set at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare for the Mop Top Festival—a celebration of all things Beatles, with merchandise, cover bands, and film screenings. Twenty-one characters (played by 19 actors)—including guests, festival organizers, and hotel staff—all collide, displaying both Beatles geekery and personal drama. Guests seek precious merchandise, cover bands aspire to glory, the officious, origami-obsessed hotel manager (Christopher Marcum) tries to shut the festival down, and the first sparks of friendship and romance are struck.

To OKen’s great credit, the characters are memorable, and it’s never hard to follow who they are and what they want. A lot of the jokes are very funny. The problem is that the play is too in love with its eccentric characters and silly jokes, and not nearly concerned enough with plot and structure. Plenty of events happen, but the evening never quite works up a head of steam: every time the plot starts moving, it ambles to a halt for another scene of characters sitting around discussing the Beatles. The stakes stay low and the plot never becomes involving, while the show stretches at least 15 minutes too long.

Yet it’s hard to dislike this show. The excitement and brilliance of the music makes even the unnecessary scenes fun, and the cast ably incarnates the characters—though they can’t give them depth that’s not in the script. In the end, the show’s like spending an evening with a friend who loves talking about the Beatles, but can’t quite keep the thread: it’s frustrating, but still a good time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

To Every Theatre (Turn, Turn, Turn), There Is A Season (Turn, Turn, Turn)

So the past couple of weeks have seen three very interesting season announcements from Chicago theatres. Here they are, with my commentary, in the order they were announced.

Court Theatre

The Hyde Park company, which tends to produce classics, often in new ways, has announced its full five-show slot.

They start with August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the first of Wilson's plays to be widely produced, about blues star Gertrude "Ma" Rainey in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s. It hasn't been seen for a while in Chicago. I'm excited to see what Court does with it. Ron OJ Parsons directs.

Next is Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by that irrepressible scamp Sean Graney. The play is hilarious--two men play dozens of parts in a wild parody of gothic melodrama, with a heavy dose of camp. It's another show I've been dying to see.

January sees The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted by Joan Didion from her own memoir of the year that her husband and daughter both died. The play got mixed reviews when it was on Broadway a few years ago, but whether that was due to Didion's adaptation or Vanessa Redgrave, who some thought miscast (one reviewer described  Redgrave playing Didion as like "a hawk playing the role of a sparrow") is unclear. Mary Beth Fisher plays the one part, Artistic Director Charles Newell directs.

Next comes Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's The Illusion. I don't know the play--the original is from the French Baroque, and Kushner brings his own spin to it--but it seems popular in Chicago these days: it was seen a few weeks ago from Promethean Theatre, and will be done in Northwestern's mainstage season in a few months. We'll see what Newell, directing again, does with it.

The season ends with Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, directed by Parsons. The play looks at a man pretending to be dead in Apartheid-era South Africa. Interestingly, Remy Bumppo is producing Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona's other famous play from that era, The Island, a few months earlier. We seem to have a Fugard festival in the offing.

The season looks to be quite interesting--quite varied in tone and style (including an actual comedy!) and including shows that aren't often seen. One can see the hand of the recession, though--Irma Vep and Sizwe Banzi both have only two actors, and Magical Thinking has just one. Still, intriguing. You can see the Court's descriptions here 

Goodman Theatre

A very interesting season in the Goodman's two theatres. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any playwright festival, but that's not a huge surprise--I bet the O'Neill Festival was huge enough to push them to the edge of ruin.

The larger Albert Theatre has five plays, four of which has been announced. (Of the fifth, all we know is that it will be directed by Chuck Smith.)

Fall will see Animal Crackers, a musical that was originally a hit for the Marx Brothers. It could be truly hilarious--it depends if they find good replacements for the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, no simple task.

January sees a double bill of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, about a broken-down gambler, and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, about an old man looking back on his life. The star will be the redoubtable Brian Dennehy, so the production is announced as Broadway bound. Dennehy's a star, but the shows are pretty bleak--hopefully the evening will connect with the audience. This production, starring Dennehy, was a hit at the Stratford Festival in Canada summer 2008, so it's a good sign.

March has a world premiere from Rebecca Gilman, often produced by the Goodman, A True History of the Johnstown Flood. It apparently explores the story of the infamous 1889 disaster through the lens of class and from the perspective of a theatre troupe from the time.

The summer sees The Sins of Sor Juana, written by Karen Zacarías and directed by Henry Godinez, about the legendary 17th Century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was also a nun. It looks at her life and work--and how it threatened the church and the patriarchy. Victory Gardens did a play on Sor Juana a few years ago--Defiant Muse--so clearly she has something that excites the imagination. Godinez also directed a production of this play at Northwestern just a few months ago, so he clearly knows his way around it.

The Owen, the smaller theatre, will have three plays, all world premieres.

The first is Joan D'Arc created by Austrian director Aida Karic and Goodman Literary Manager Tanya Palmer, which will premiere in Austria before coming to the Goodman. It is based on Friedrich Schiller's Die Jungfrau Von Orléans, about Joan of Arc, and features live gospel music. I'm not sure what it'll be, but it looks like something exciting.

Next will be High Holidays by Alan Gross, set in the early 1960's in the Chicago suburbs, about the upheavals in a young man's life around the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Looks like fun--and it certainly has significant local appeal.

The spring will see the excitement of Philip Seymour Hoffman's directing debut at the Goodman, Brett C. Leonard's The Long Red Road, about a man trying to escape his past in alcohol on an Indian reservation. As seems always to happen, a stranger appears from the past to force him to face his past. It looks like this one goes to some profoundly dark places. I'm intrigued.

I find this to be a hearteningly adventurous season. There are four world premieres, and only the first two Albert shows are familiar titles. But Animal Crackers is almost never seen since the Marx Brothers left Broadway (70-some years back), and Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape are not what you call easy shows to take. Hopefully the gambles will pay off with some good shows. The Goodman's descriptions are here.

Northlight Theatre

My recent home has announced four of their five shows for their 35th anniversary season.

They start off with The Marvelous Wonderettes, written and directed by Roger Bean. A recent success Off-Broadway, the show is billed as witty and nostalgic, and deals with a girl group singing the hits of the 1950's and the 1960's.

Next is Souvenir, written by Stephen Temperley and directed by David H. Bell, a former professor of mine and a truly lovely human being. The show looks at the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, an extremely wealthy woman, convinced she was a great singer. She used her fortune to book concert halls--including Carnegie Hall--despite have no singing talent whatsoever. It looks like a really funny and entertaining show.

Next is the most exciting show of the season, in my opinion: Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing, directed by Steppenwolf Ensemble member Amy Morton and starring Rondi Reed, Steppenwolf Ensemble member, and Mike Nussbaum, Chicago theatre legend. The play is about a struggling Jewish family in the Bronx during the Depression, and is full of Odets' trademark crackling dialogue and moral fervor. It's a gorgeous, heartbreaking play, and I've been dying to see it done well. And I can tell you from experience, Odets is scarily relevant to the present. It should be something to see.

The fourth show of the season will feature John Mahoney, the Frasier star who has returned to Chicago, in Hugh Leonard's A Life, directed by Northlight Artistic Director B. J. Jones. The play looks at life in a small Irish town through the life of one man--played by Mahoney.

By the way, I'd recommend checking out Mauritius, currently onstage at Northlight. It's a fun, twisty ride, with some delicious performances. If you'd like to see what Northlight has to say about their season, visit their website.

Overall, it looks like we've got some interesting shows to come. Anyone have shows particularly exciting for them?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Zev's Opera Adventure Begins!

So my wonderful roommate Jessie Cluess is an opera fan. Not a fanatic, but she really enjoys opera and attends a few times a year. I've never really enjoyed opera. Part of it is simply that I didn't grow up with it--my parents aren't fans either, so I never heard the music around the house--but my main difficulty is theatrical: in my experience, opera's primary responsibility is to music. What story there is exists as a framework to show off the music and the singers. If the story is gripping, the characters are believable, and the production is involving, so much the better, but even if not, as long as it sounds wonderful, it's okay. I have respect for what opera singers can do--reaching 3,000-plus audience members without amplifications while sounding great is no small feat--and find some of the music quite beautiful, but I never felt a need to really explore the world of opera.

Jessie (who in addition to being my roommate is also a wonderful actor and playwright--theatres, cast her and do her plays!) thought that I really needed to give opera more of a chance before dismissing it entirely, and I figured it was worth a try. She saw that the Lyric Opera was doing the double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. (The two one-act operas, written in 1890 and 1892, are almost always performed together.) She figured that since they were each only 75 minutes, they would make an ideal introduction. Since the Lyric has seats in the back of the second balcony for only (!) $32, we decided to go last night, along with my friend Whitney Powell (also highly skilled in design, technical, and production areas--hire her!).

Overall, I was impressed. First off, there is nothing like opera for sheer grandeur--Michael Yeargan's set and costumes are simply gorgeous, particularly for Pagliacci. The orchestra sounded fantastic (Renato Palumbo conducted) and the singing was, to my untrained ears, exceptional, and often genuinely thrilling.

But how did the evening fare as theatre?

First off, while they may be tightly plotted by opera standards, there's still an awful lot of putting the story on hold while people sing--there was at least one too many happy peasant choruses in Cavalleria, and Pagliacci, while it had a more interesting story, could still have used some judicious trimming. Still, each had moments that were thrilling. 

Cavalleria is a story of a love quadrangle, a pregnancy, and a duel in a small Italian town. Its peak comes when Santuzza (Dolora Zajick), pregnant and spurned by her lover Turiddu (Carlo Ventre), tells Alfio (Mark Delavan) that Turiddu has taken up with Alfio's wife, Lola (Katherine Lerner). His rage, her revenge and guilt, combined with Zajick and Delavan's singing--riveting. Didn't quite make up for the dull bits, though.

Pagliacci is the story of a group of clowns, where life imitates art: Nedda (Ana Maria Martinez) is cheating on Canio (Vladimir Galouzine), much as her character, Colombina, is cheating on his character, Pagliacci. The ending is a bit different, though--while they are performing their comedy, he stabs her and her lover. It's a much more interesting opera--the plot is more exciting, and the music is much more complex and vibrant. Martinez is a wonder--she has a gorgeous voice, and effortlessly portrays a young woman in an unhappy marriage, desperate for the escape of real love. Galouzine is more problematic. In the most famous aria, "Vesti la giubba" (you'd recognize it if you heard it) he isn't acting, exactly. He's playing the emotion, not the action: what we got was not so much a man in an untenable emotional situation, but an opera singer showing how sad and enraged he could act while sounding good. The audience loved it, but I found it severely underwhelming.

Overall, I'm glad I went. And the opera adventure won't end here. Daniel Jackman is an extremely tenacious man who works in the marketing department at Chicago Opera Theater--whose mission is to do exciting, theatrically vibrant opera productions. He discovered the blog (people actually read it, apparently) and wants me to come review the productions as a theatre critic. I'm fascinated by the idea, and I think I will continue my adventure into the world of opera. Look for three reviews in the coming months.

And if you want to see their shows, they are having a YouTube contest: make a video to explain why you deserve free seats to all three shows, and you could win! Information on the contest is here and COT's website is here. Check it out, and maybe you'll get to see the shows!

Natasha Richardson Dies at 45

She suffered a skiing accident. The whole thing is confusing and distressing, and I don't have much to add. She was an extraordinary actor by any reckoning. The New York Times obituary is here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strange and Wondrous

On Sunday afternoon (and evening) I had an experience. I got to see the Neo-Futurists do O'Neill's Strange Interlude, all 5-hours-of-stage-time-plus-two-intermissions-and-a-dinner-break of it. And I am so glad I did.

Now, in all fairness, I was not an unbiased observer: I interviewed Greg before the production (for the piece in the Onion that you can see below), and was already aware of his methods and ready for whatever came.

That being said, It. Was. Amazing.

Now partially this is because of the sheer scale. I had seen other long shows before--most were in the usual 3-3.5 hour range: longer than usual, but doable in a normal evening. I had even seen The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America onstage, but I saw both presented on successive weekends, not in one day--indeed, they are designed to be performed in two parts. This was the first time I had ever done a true one-day marathon. There is something to be said for the sheer intensity of spending that much time in a dark room with a few hundred strangers. You're ready for anything.

And not everybody was a fan--check out the comments on Chris Jones' review to get an idea of how very varied the response was. Most people were on board, and many loved it, but the performances on Friday and Saturday included hecklers yelling at the stage, either during intermission or mid-performance, about how a brilliant play was being butchered. Luckily, or sadly, there was no such interruption on Sunday. I didn't notice any walkouts on the orchestra level, and anyone who wasn't having a good time was kind enough to avoid disrupting the entire show.

But what about the show itself? Well, it was certainly not a faithful production. The play is, to put it simply, insane. The nine acts of the wildly over the top plot covers 25 years in the life on Nina Leeds and the three men who love her. There's abortion, atheism, and adultery, and that's just the letter a. That's not even taking into account the lengthy asides to the audience, the huge swaths of intensely purple prose, the lengthy, prescriptive stage directions, and the general air of Freudian weirdness. It is almost never produced anymore, and not just because of length--I honestly think that modern audiences would not accept it produced straighforwardly onstage. (Though apparently there was a Chicago production in 2002 at the North Lakeside Cultural Center, which is actually a gorgeous old house--the audiences moved from room to room for each act.) So those claiming that director Greg Allen and his cast did violence to a great play should actually read it. I doubt they'd still claim that doing it as written would be an improvement.

However, and I think this is the important part, this was not a wholescale demolition of Eugene O'Neill's genius. It was definitely playful and irreverent, but it did have the genuine goal of illustrating O'Neill's ideas and themes--the way people go wrong when they try to maniuplate the lives of others, the crushing loneliness of lying to everyone around you, and the grinding boredom of trying to be someone else. By recognizing how ridiculous a lot of O'Neill's theatrical devices and plot twists are, though, the production seduces the audience with laughter, only to sneak the moving stuff in bit by bit. Somehow, it continues to walk that thin line, and be both hilarious and moving up to the end.

There were huge laughs in the show--each character reacting to their endless, physically impossible character descriptions, one characters repeated howls as he remembers his first time having sex (of course with a prostitute), a hilarious sex scene between a man and a Cabbage Patch doll. But there was also a lot that was genuinely, surprisingly moving--the fifth act, consisting almost entirely of the stage directions, and the sixth, virtually all the asides, performed by the actors at microphones, picked out of the dark by a spotlight, were both shockingly moving.

So yes, I laughed, I cried, I had to pee pretty badly at each intermission. And I hope that they manage to arrange a way for the production to return. If they do, GO. You'll probably never experience anything else quite like it, and there's a decent chance you'll love it.

By the way, for another, more poetic response, do check out the blog of my friend
Benno Nelson, who was at the same performance as I.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Read My Article From The Onion! (Their City Guide Section, that is.)

As you may know, I was taken on to write freelance theatre stories for Decider, which is the city guide section inside of the Onion, as well as its own website. And my first article, with the Neo-Futurist's Greg Allen, about his insane production of O'Neill's Strange Interlude, has been published online! You can read it here.

Unfortunately, while it was published in print, it was in last week's issue, which I didn't pick up. If anyone has a copy of it lying around, please save it so that I can pick it up.

Thanks, and happy reading!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Horton Foote Dies At Age 92

UPDATE: The New York Times times obit is here.

Horton Foote, who fit the definition of "Great American Playwright" as well as anyone, has died at the age of 92. He was writing up to the end. The New York Times has a piece on his death, I will post the full obituary when it becomes available.

Foote wrote over 50 plays and several screenplays, winning a Pulitzer for The Young Man From Atlanta and two Oscars for his screenplays to To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. Most of his plays take place in Texas, where he grew up. He was often compared to Chekhov for his humane tone, both amused and saddened by humanity's foibles.

Many of his plays dealt with the lives of people who somehow could not adjust to modernity bearing down on them--most famously The Trip To Bountiful. I got to attend the opening night of the acclaimed revival starring Lois Smith at the Goodman, because my friend Emily appeared in the bus station scene. I saw Mr. Foote at the opening night party, though I did not go up and introduce myself. I did, however, get the chance to meet his daughter Hallie, one of his greatest stage interpreters.

Few people dug so deeply into the lives of characters that most people ignored. It's a shame he won't be writing any more, but how amazing that he wrote so much!

Two New Season Announcements

A few local theatres have announced their seasons, and they look pretty interesting.

Remy Bumppo has announced a three-show slate:

Fall will see Tom Stoppard's translation of Gerald Sibeyras' Heroes, about three World War I veterans in an old-age home in 1959. I don't knw the play, but it was successful in London and is about to open Off-Broadway. With a cast of David Darlow, Mike Nussbaum, and Roderick Peeples, it looks like an actor's showcase first and foremost. Could be fun.

Winter brings Athol Fugard's The Island, about two men in a South African prison, whose friendship is tested when one gains an early release, which Fugard created in collaboration with the original stars, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The cast hasn't been announced, but it looks like another real actor's show.

I'm most excited about the spring show, though--Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos do Laclos' French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, made into the film Dangerous Liaisons. I have a real weakness for clever people in gorgeous clothes doing horrible horrible things to each other, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is pretty much the best of that genre. Since Remy Bumppo tends to focus on plays with witty language, I have high hopes for this production.

Meanwhile, at Writer's up in Glencoe, Chris Jones' blog announces a very interesting, if slightly less risky than usual, season. Most exciting for me is Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a show I once had the privilege of doing, and which is lots of fun while still being intellectually formidable. They will also feature Oh! Coward, a revue of Noel Coward's songs--interesting, as Northlight did their own Coward revue only a few seasons back. The Old Settler by John Henry Redwood, directed by Ron O. J. Parsons, will also be onstage--I sadly don't know this one, but it's always been successful when it's been done. The biggest story of the Writers' season, of course, is the return of Chicago's own David Cromer, whose Our Town just opened Off-Broadway and who will be directing Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound in repertory on Broadway in the fall. He'll be directing Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire--I bet that Chicago's actors will be fighting over parts in that one.

2009-10 looks to be pretty exciting so far--we'll see how things go!