Thursday, July 30, 2009

Spring Awakening for Cheap(er)

As some of you may have seen in the comments, the mysteriously named Pun, who runs the tour blog for Spring Awakening, wants you all to know that you can get $50 tickets for orchestra seats for the Chicago run. Full details are here, but the seats are available only for Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday shows, and must be purchased before the show's run starts on August 4th. So get to it!

On a personal note, I'm a real fan of this show, which I got to see in New York last summer. ($40 in the fifth row of the balcony, thank you rush tickets!) The lyrics and book have definite flaws, but the production is simply smashing. I've never seen a show so good at capturing the itchy, uncontrollable energy of adolesence without being as unpleasant and irritating as being a teenager--or being around most of them. While the tour theatre is way larger than the O'Neill in New York, hopefully this production will be at the same level!

By the way, if you do get these tickets, I highly recommend you go to the box office--the fees for online and phone purchases are very high (something like $12.50, by my count), and can be avoided with a walkup.

I'm going to try to see it, and I'll let you know what I think. If you end up going, let me know what you think!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


This is not, strictly speaking, a review. I went to see InnateVolution's production of Edward Albee's one-acts The Zoo Story and The Sandbox because I have a friend in the cast--Casey Chapman, who plays Jerry in The Zoo Story and Daddy in The Sandbox. The show was interested in being blogged about, and I wanted to see it, especially since I'd never seen either onstage, so I went. What little journalistic objectivity I may have still had probably went away when my drink after the show with my friend turned into karaoke with the entire cast. So take this with a grain of salt.

Disclaimers out of the way, how were the shows?

The Zoo Story and The Sandbox were among Albee's earliest plays, and the former was the major hit that put him on the map. Both demonstrate a strong Absurdist influence, though it is more obvious with the latter.

Zoo appears to be a realistic story of a meeting between "permanent transient" Jerry (Chapman) and buttoned-up executive Peter (Raymond Cleveland) on a Central Park bench. Jerry tells increasingly bizarre and frightening stories to Peter, who gets more and more aghast at what he's gotten himself into. The violence that erupts is somehow both inevitable and shocking.

But pay careful attention and it becomes harder to find your way. Why is Jerry so hostile? Where does he really come from? Why doesn't Peter just leave? These questions aren't answered, and maybe they can't be. But the play hints at depths of despair and furious violence that are always just out of reach, and even at an hour long has a surprisingly intense impact.

This production mostly brings that impact across. Director Toma Langston made one very strong choice that I'm not sure about. Throughout the story, Jerry describes the residents of his boarding house. It seems to me that we should never be sure whether anything Jerry says is true, that all of these stories are inherently untrustworthy. Langston chooses to put all of the boarding house residents onstage when they are mentioned. In fact, they appear before the play proper begins, showing the chaos from which Jerry emerges.

For me, this had two effects: it gives Jerry a realistic context, which seems to take away from his status as a mysterious, inexplicable force of disruption, and it puts the audience in the place of Jerry more than Peter. Both effects are fascinating, and some might find them quite illuminating. For me, they subtly threw off the play's balance.

However, whether or not this choice works, it's certainly done well. The figures are not overused, and the characterizations are vivid and creepy. They create some startling stage pictures, and always feel like they are supporting the images in the text, whether or not they are necessary.

Incidentally, Albee himself is responsible for another problem--he recently revised the script to take place in the present day, rather than the late 1950s when it was written. However, a few references to Stephen King are not enough to cover up how rooted it is in its time, in the details--a boarding house and pornographic playing cards are not very common today--the attitudes of the characters, and the general philosophical concerns. Apparently Albee won't allow productions of the original script, which is unfortunate.

However, those concerns aside, the production still works. Much credit goes to the work that Chapman has done. He and Langston wisely realized that this is not a realistic play, and Jerry is not a realistic character. A naturalistic portrayal would flatten Jerry into a case history. So the heightened, theatrical performance that Chapman gives works very well. Jerry is a destabilizing force of nature, and that's disturbingly clear.

Cleveland, as Peter, has far less to do, and the production seems not quite to have settled on who he is. Is he a buttoned-up businessman or a more relaxed, artsy type? Is he who he appears to be or not? (And why, when his being married is constantly referenced, did he not have a wedding ring on?) Still, despite this blurred presence, Cleveland certainly stepped up at the crucial moments.

As for The Sandbox, well...big choices don't always pay off. It's a very odd show, with a sitcom-perfect Mommy (Lyn Scott) and Daddy (Chapman) taking Grandma (Patricia Tinsley) to the beach and placing her in a sandbox, while time passes suddenly and a Young Man (Christopher Boyd) stretches and does exercises. It's billed by Albee as a tribute to his grandmother and it's clearly a meditation on death.

The program notes say that it's being presented as a sitcom, rather than a drama, but that doesn't seem quite accurate. Langston has encouraged his actors to leave any subtlety or clarity behind in search of any joke they can find. There are bad wigs, spontaneous arias, dance numbers, and a variety-show announcer (who I think was completely invented for the show). The scripts genuine humor--dark and absurd--is completely lost, along with any understanding of the play's point and ideas. The actors are clearly capable of being funny, but the staging and the script clash so completely that the effect is grating rather than funny.

A few more thoughts on elements surrounding the production:

1) InnateVolution is so named because of the Buddhist concept that all people have the innate ability to evolve. In fact, the entire company is animated by the principled of Nichiren Buddhism. It's a lovely idea, but the company's name crosses the name between intriguing and silly.

2) Serving drinks in the lobby is always a good idea, even if they are flavored vodka. I hear that Thursdays and Sundays also have appetizers. Excellent decision.

3) Don't read the program notes before the show--they spell out the plays' ideas, and the production is quite clear on its own.

So should you go? If you've never seen The Zoo Story live, absolutely--it's a hugely important play, and this is a very strong production. And what's heartening is that this is a production that takes risks. Some succeed, some bellyflop, but the desire to try something new is definitely something to encourage.

The production plays Thursday-Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through August 9th at the Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway. For tickets ($10 Thurs and Sun, $20 Fri and Sat) call 312-513-1415 or visit

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

DrekFest is tonight!

To those of you checking this in the next few hours--please come by ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W Belmont, tonight, to see DrekFest. Stage Left and ComedySportz have sent out a call for the most intentionally terrible 10-minute plays that the playwrights can manage. We've picked 4 finalists, which will be seen tonight. One grand winner will be chosen, to win fabulous prizes! It'll be a whole lot of fun, and you just may get to see me in a a dress.

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door or by calling (773) 883-8830 before 6 or so. I can't wait to see you there!

Monday, July 20, 2009

New Review Posted: The Ruby Sunrise

Centerstage posted a new review on Friday of Gift Theatre's production of Rinne Groff's The Ruby Sunrise. It's not a perfect play, but Groff has a great ear for dialogue and can write a fantastic scene. The show is utterly charming and the production really pops off the stage. It's a long journey out to Jefferson Park (at least for people who live off the Red Line like me), but it's really worth it for this show. These are some of the best actors in the non-equity scene (plus two equity people) doing a play that's both fun and intellectually engaged. Seriously, take the trip. The full review is here:

Much art, especially in the US, focuses on the necessity of following your dreams, against all odds. But what of the costs? Rinne Groff's utterly charming, surprisingly moving "The Ruby Sunrise" delves into this disturbing question with wit and a light touch. The dramatic scenes and big revelations may come too easily to really sting, but John Gawlik's robust production makes the best of Groff's rewarding play.

The first part centers on Ruby (Maura Kidwell), a young woman in 1927, struggling to create an all-electric television system in her Aunt Lois's (Alexandra Main) barn. She seems on the verge of breakthrough, but her status as a woman in science and her growing attraction to Lois's boarder, Henry (Patrick De Nicola), intervene.

The play then shifts to 1950s New York, in the early years of television. Lulu Miles (Brenda Barrie), is a "script girl" for Martin Marcus (John Kelly Connolly), a television producer. When she convinces him and writer Tad Rose (Michael Patrick Thornton) to produce Ruby's story in a TV play, all seems well—until commercial pressures and the blacklist intervene.

The scenes in Indiana sometimes skirt cliche, and the New York section covers very familiar thematic territory. But Groff writes vibrant, exciting dialogue and has created rounded, fascinating characters (with one grating exception, portrayed by the valiant Caitlin Emmons), so the show is consistently fun to watch and often engaging on a profound level.

Gawlik's production helps significantly; he's guided his actors to exceptional work, with Barrie, De Nicola, Main, Connolly and Thornton particularly strong. He also has the great advantage of Ian Zywica's set, which packs a wide variety of locations into a tiny space, and set changes that are wonderfully fun to watch; the show never slows down or gets dull. The play may not quite reach what it intends, but it sure is exciting to watch it get close.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New Reviews Posted and Me Quoted

I had two reviews posted on Centerstage yesterday--products of my seeing shows Thursday and Friday nights. Last night's play still needs to be written up...hopefully the review should be posted sooner than later. For now, the link to Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw, the lengthily named new meditation on Macbeth being produced by Idle News at The Side Project is here and Never The Sinner, produced by the brand New Project 891 Theatre Company at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy is reviewed here. The full texts of the reviews are below.

So does anyone remember my review of 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal? It was basically a rave, and apparently they appreciated it too: If you visit their site you can see a quote from me, "Bypassing the mind and going straight to the guts," right on the front page. Now I know this is just marketing, and if I pan their next show they won't love me so much. But it still feels sorta nice. By the way, the show closed. If you missed it, you lost out. Hope they return with this one.

Here's the review for Weird Sisters:

Who were the three witches in Macbeth? What forces led them? Idle Muse's "What The Weird Sisters Saw" tries to answer those questions, but aside from isolated compelling moments, it's far too confusing to be illuminating.

Co-adapters Evan Jackson and Tristan Brandon have woven lines from Macbeth into a story that depicts the three witches (also known as the Weird Sisters) before Shakespeare's story actually starts. A working knowledge of the original seems necessary to have the slightest understanding of what is going on in the play, yet that knowledge is also distracting. Hearing the original lines spoken by different characters in changed situations keeps taking the audience out of the story being presented onstage.

What that story is, however, is a question I still can't answer. The witches (Elizabeth MacDougald, Carolyn Jania, and Mara Kovacevic) appear to be assaulted by the characters from the play, forced into setting the story's events into motion. However, it's not clear who is responsible for this happening, or even how it's taking place. It also leaves the central characters essentially passive and reactive, which makes it hard to get dramatically involved.

The evening is not without excitement, though. There are sections of strong verse and Jackson, who is also the director, has used the small, deep stage quite well. The fact that the stage is covered with cedar chips also makes it the best-smelling show in town.

Unfortunately, the sisters have not been provided with distinguishable personalities, and the audience gets no clear idea of exactly what they want and what they're fighting against. And without a clear dramatic spine, this often-intriguing exercise in reimagined Shakespeare remains uninvolving.

And here's my take on Never The Sinner:

The true story of the Leopold and Loeb murder seems tailor-made for the stage. Two wealthy, young men from Chicago, embroiled in a toxic combination of Nietzsche's philosophy, obsessive sexual desire and criminal impulses, captured and killed a 14-year-old boy from their neighborhood. They were convinced that, as supermen, they were superior creatures, above the law, who would never get caught. It didn't work out that way.

The lurid tale has proved irresistible, and has been adapted frequently since the 1924 events. John Logan's "Never The Sinner" has seen substantial success, and is now being revived by the brand-new Project 891 Theatre Company. It's a creditable first effort.

It's a compelling piece that successfully gets inside the heads of these profoundly disturbed characters. It has one major flaw, however: Logan's tendency to use his characters as mouthpieces for competing arguments rather than allowing them to have full organic life.

The production is a clear, vigorous interpretation of the events - director Michael Rashid wisely avoids directorial tricks to keep the focus on the central couple. (Though his choice to put blackouts between each of the 20-plus scenes severely hurts the story's flow.) Matt Hays captures Loeb's dangerous energy, but misses the seduction that kept him above suspicion for so long. Anyone that obviously unhinged would have been caught immediately. Matt Popp's Leopold is more convincing—you can see the cold, emotionally starved boy who'd latch onto the slightest hint of excitement.

Even a strong play like "Never The Sinner" can't really explain Leopold and Loeb, but this production offers two chilling hours in their company.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Still Alive

Hello loyal readers.

I know, I've been bad--I've been temporarily low on the desire to blog. Not that lots hasn't been going on--check out the Times' coverage of a very provocative study of the lack of plays by women being produced in the US, and even more so Time Out Chicago's interviews with women who run theatres in Chicago and their reactions to the news. One of the great things about the internet is that it gives the space to go in depth, and let people speak in their own words, about an important issue. Kudos to Kris Vire for getting these interviews!

Also, I just saw the first section of Lawrence of Arabia. Hot damn is that a whole lot of movie. I want to see it on the big screen some day.

And look forward to lots more writing from me in the next week or so: I'm reviewing shows Thursday and Friday, seeing Second City's Blagojevich show on Saturday as a civilian, going to a Cubs game on Sunday (which I'll be writing up for Decider--I've never been to a Cubs game before) and reviewing another show on Monday. So fear not, those who love my scribbling--I'll be scribbling my ass off in the next week. I hope you're happy.