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?

1 comment:

Jacob said...

It does look like an interesting season. And, interesting to me, I workshopped a play I wrote about Joan of Arc with Tanya Palmer at Chicago Dramatists just last year. I will be very curious to see Tanya's take on the story, especially since she did not even mention during the workshop that she, too, was working on a Joan of Arc play...