Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Graceland Heads East

Ellen Fairey's Graceland, which opened in May and is now set to run through November 15th, is set to move to New York.

The play opened at Profiles Theatre in May and has been extended four times, moving just down the street to the National Pastime Theatre. More information on that run here. (By the way, check out the "reviews" tab there, and compare their quote to my actual review. None of the words change, but the tone sure is different when you add exclamation points.)

According to Playbill, the play will be staged Off-Broadway at the Duke Theatre as part of Lincoln Center Theatre's LCT3 program, devoted to smaller-scale productions of emerging works. It is set to run May 3-29, with an official opening the 17th of that month. No casting announcement has been made, but given that it is to be directed by Henry Wishcamper (who has done some work in Chicago, most recently the Goodman's Animal Crackers), rather than Profiles' Matt Miller, it's a fair bet that the cast will be all New Yorkers.

A huge congratulations to Fairey and everyone at Profiles on the continued success of the play. I'm still a bit mystified--I thought the play had great dialogue and interesting characters, but  found some of the behavior inexplicable and the plot in general pretty predictable, though the strong acting and direction helped a lot. Still, it's never bad when a show strikes a chord, and I hope that Graceland goes on to more success--and Fairey's next play is even better.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

That's FRAHN-ken-steen!

New review posted on Centerstage, of the Hypocrites' production of Sean Graney's adaptation of Frankenstein. It's not consistently successful--in fact, in places it's pretty much a mess. But there's still enough of value to make it probably worth a trip for those who enjoy Graney's style, and avant-garde theatre in general. And if you're going, you might as well attend a late-night show. Here's the text:

Take Mary Shelley's original novel, quotes from its influences and adaptations, the 1931 film projected in the background, a few creepy songs, moments both of visceral terror and high-flown intellect, and a staging that has the audience alternately following the actors around and jumping out of their way, throw them all in a blender, and you'll have some idea of what you'll get at this version of "Frankenstein," adapted by director Sean Graney and his four-member cast. There is an awful lot going on during this show's swift running time, and not all of it works. The parts that do are hugely exciting, but it hasn't yet formed a satisfying whole.

Graney's four-actor adaptation shows its alternately grim and playful tone from the beginning, when the audience enters to see both bloody dolls hanging from the ceiling and a game of balloon-toss in process. This mix continues when the play proper begins—it can switch from moments of stomach-turning violence (brilliantly choreographed by Matt Hawkins) to Frankenstein (John Byrnes) and his monster, here called Daemon (Matt Kahler), joking that the pen used to sign an oath in blood is "ginormous."
 And for the first 25 minutes or so, it's brilliant. But the play never follows through on its best parts. It goes in too many directions without follow-through, and there are a few too many sections of speechifying that don't satisfyingly tie in to the play. (The huge space at the MCA also dissipates the energy, leaving too much of the audience too far away to really engage.) There's no doubt that this is a group of intelligent, talented artists and it's wonderful that they have the chance to explore their ideas on such a large scale. It's just that the whole is less than the sum of its often stunning parts.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cromer Watch

So David Cromer's production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs opened last night at the Nederlander on Broadway. The Times gave it a mixed but respectful review, others are generally more positive, with the relationship between the two brothers and the set coming in for the the most praise. And all of the reviews focus specifically on how Cromer's direction impacted the play. Some variation on the same formula--that the original production was a comedy with dramatic moments, while the current one is a drama with comic parts--was repeated in nearly every review. Cromer's quieter style was mostly praised, though some thought it attempted to give the play a depth it couldn't support and the Times thought he managed the two-person scenes much better than the full-cast ones. (My favorite quote comes from NY1's Roma Torre, saying that Cromer "could probably locate the human qualities in a head of cabbage.")

So Cromer's career is booming--once Broadway Bound the third part of of Simon's autobiographical trilogy, opens in rep on Broadway, he'll be directing the American premiere of Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling at Lincoln Center's Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse in February, followed by A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers' Theatre north of Chicago in the spring, and, amazingly, Kirk Lynn's Cherrywood at Mary-Arrchie, a tiny storefront in Lakeview above a liquor store. (By the way, I got to appear in Cherrywood at Northwestern, directed by the awesome Shade Murray as his first-year MFA project, and it's an amazing show. It's written as a series of lines without any attribution or dramatis personae, and it's up to the director and actors to figure out who says what and what the play is. I can't wait to see a different interpretation of it.) Then once fall 2010 rolls around, he'll be back on Broadway, in a just-announced revival of Picnic by William Inge, based on his production at Writers' last fall. (The producers of this revival are giving credit to Writers' for originating it, which is an improvement over the producers of Our Town, who as far as I know gave no credit or money to The Hypocrites, who put up the cash and resources for the Chicago production on which the current New York revival is based. That's showbiz.)

So talk about a local boy making good! From the sadly small amount of his work I've seen, Cromer is a hell of a director, and it's great to see him being recognized, particularly since he is continuing to direct in Chicago, not abandoning us for New York. (Or film? Who knows...) I hope he continues to do well in both cities.

One other interesting note--I think that this is a rare, heartening example of the power of critics to actually affect the theatrical discourse in a positive way. I'd say it was the raft of positive reviews for Cromer's Our Town in spring 2008 that first put him on the national radar, and Charles Isherwood's laudatory profile of him in the Times that really put him in the New York theatre consciousness. (Terry Teachout's rave about the Writers' production of Picnic doubtless is the reason that production is the next to make the move, but Teachout is a twit, so I'm reluctant to give him any credit.) It's all too rare, but critics served a part of their purpose--recognizing excellence and helping it to be seen on a wider scale. Hopefully Cromer will continue to produce at a level that justifies the hype he's gotten so far--and we'll be able to continue seeing the work.

Friday, October 23, 2009

New Review Posted: Votes For Women!

Centerstage posted my new review of ShawChicago's production of Elizabeth Robins' Votes for Women! from 1907. I love Shaw, and really wanted to enjoy this reading of a  lost political play from his era. The effort to find old plays that have fallen from the repertory is very valuable--Canada's Shaw Festival does it all the time, often to great effect--but wow does this play not need to be resurrected. The resulting review was pretty harsh, but sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is. Here's the text:

Talky, political plays don't have to be boring. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, wrote nothing else, but they are full of peerlessly witty dialogue, fascinatingly idiosyncratic characters, debates between strong, well-expressed viewpoints, and high, dramatic stakes. ShawChicago, which has the laudable goal of producing plays by Shaw and his contemporaries in staged reading form, has given us Elizabeth Robins's Votes for Women!, a 1907 drama about the Suffrage movement. Unfortunately, it possesses none of the qualities that distinguish Shaw's work, and is quite boring indeed.

The play concerns Jean Dunbarton (Barbara Zahora), a wealthy young woman engaged to Geoffrey Stonor (Matt Penn) a conservative politician in a tough reelection campaign. She is inspired by Vida Levering (Suzanne Lang) to join the suffrage movement, but Vida and Geoffrey have a past that impacts both love and politics in the present.

The story, however, is of secondary importance to the politics — in fact, the plot comes to a dead halt for most of Act II as the characters attend a public demonstration. Political content is exciting when it's dramatic, but there is no surprise or debate in the play. Aside from people being heckled while giving speeches, there is no serious opposition to women's suffrage, only disagreements over tactics. Since debate over whether women should vote has long since been settled, and the presentation is too narrowly focused to have many contemporary resonances, it's hard to get involved. The plot itself comes from the school of Victorian melodrama that was clichéd in the 1890's, so there is precious little to keep the audience engaged.
Director Robert Scogin and his cast do what they can, but in a staged reading format, there isn't much chance to enliven the script. Trying to find lost scripts that can stand with Shaw's masterpieces is a valuable pursuit, but some scripts should be left in the archives.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Review Posted: Days to Come

The Artistic Home is doing a production of a rarely done Lillian Hellman play--it ran a week on Broadway and nobody could find records of it ever being produced in Chicago. Days to Come is Hellman's take on the labor play, and it doesn't quite mesh with her usual family drama, but there's some really entertaining and involving stuff along the way. The review is here. Benno, you're not allowed to read this til you finish your review. Here's the text:

Lillian Hellman's plays were often informed by her leftist politics - it's hard to miss the dim view of capitalism in "The Little Foxes" - but she rarely wrote straightforward political plays. "Days to Come," her 1936 play about a labor strike in a small town in Ohio, is one exception to that rule. This story of a factory owner who hires strikebreakers and is horrified by the consequences and the effect it has on his tortured relationships ran only a week on Broadway and has rarely been seen since. Though The Artistic Home is producing a very entertaining revival, it's not hard to see why the play failed. Hellman's venture into Clifford Odets territory is seriously confused in its tone. It doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.

But what parts! Nobody wrote juicy dialogue like Hellman, and the plotting, while not as satisfying as her best work, still offers the unapologetically melodramatic plot twists that modern plays rarely offer. The cast, under the sure-footed direction of Kathie Scambiatterra tears into the play with gusto, though a few moments meant to be high drama do get giggles rather than gasps from a modern audience. But when the play shifts to earnest discussions of the problems of workers and anguished denunciations of violent exploitation by the owners and strikebreakers, it simply doesn't work as well, and the transition is jarring. This makes for a play that is unavoidably lopsided.

 Still, there is plenty of satisfaction to be had. The performances are almost universally strong, with Leavey Ballou, as the factory owner's chronically unsatisfied wife, and Justine Serino, as his stuck-up sister, particularly vibrant. The play won't ever join the ranks of Hellman's classic works, but for those with an affection for exciting 1930s theatre performed with conviction, it's well worth a visit.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jeff Awards Preview

Tonight will see the Equity Jeff Awards given out at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The nominations follow, as well as my commentary on the various categories. We'll see how my predictions do!


"The Arabian Nights" - Lookingglass Theatre Company
"Boleros for the Disenchanted" - Goodman Theatre
"The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of King Edward II ..." - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
"The Lieutenant of Inishmore" - Northlight Theatre
"The Piano Lesson" - Court Theatre
"Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club
"The Seafarer" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
"Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

This is a pretty exceptional slate--all of the shows were very well-received, and some were quite adventurous. While every production deserves to be on this list, I'm particularly gratified to see the wickedly violent Lieutenant of Inishmore and the stunningly audacious Edward II on the list, as either could easily have turned off more conventional audiences. As much as I'd like to see Lieutenant, which I worked on, win, I think it's down to either Arabian Nights or Ruined. The former had the advantage of being directed by hometown girl Mary Zimmerman, while the latter went on the win the Pulitzer in April (and was exceptionally moving). I'm gonna guess Ruined gets it.


"The History Boys" - TimeLine Theatre Company
"The Little Foxes" - Shattered Globe Theatre
"A Moon for the Misbegotten" - First Folio Theatre
"Not Enough Air" - TimeLine Theatre Company
"Our Lady of the Underpass" - Teatro Vista . . . Theatre with a View
"The Overwhelming" - Next Theatre Company
"These Shining Lives" - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

History Boys is a pretty prohibitive favorite. All of the productions were well-received (and in The Overwhelming's case, rapturously), but none had anything like the success of History Boys, which just completed a sold-out six-month run yesterday. The fact that it was also a stunningly good production of an extraordinary and extremely tough play can only help its chances. The Overwhelming also had some hugely enthusiastic responses (and could have run much longer if the space had been available), and is the only one that seems able to beat History Boys.


"The Boys from Syracuse" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
"Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" - Marriott Theatre
"Million Dollar Quartet" - Dee Gee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights, Inc.
"A Minister's Wife"- Writers' Theatre
"Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" - Marriott Theatre

I'm not sure what the favorite is, but I'm pulling for Caroline, or Change. It's one of the truly great musicals of the past decade, and Court's production could not have been better--brilliantly performed, staged with heartbreaking simplicity, and, in the fall of 2008 when "change" was on everyone's mind, stunningly timely. Spelling Bee, the only other of the nominees I saw, was delightful (and should really have gotten a nomination for Ensemble), but Caroline is something we won't see again soon. On another note--where is Grey Gardens on this list? Northlight put on a gorgeous, subtle productioin of a very difficult show, both scenically spectacular and emotionally intimate, with exceptional work from everyone in the ensemble. It's odd not to see it here.


"Once on this Island" - Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago
"Tomorrow Morning" - Hilary A. Williams, LLC

I'm not sure--I saw Once on this Island, which was decent but not extraordinary. The response to Tomorrow Morning was critically mixed, and I didn't hear much of any buzz from someone who saw it. Couldn't say.


"America: All Better!" - The Second City
"Forbidden Broadway: Dances with the Stars" - John Freedson, Harriet Yellin and Margaret Cotter
"Studs Terkel's Not Working" - The Second City e.t.c.

Another one I can't call. Forbidden Broadway had brilliant moments, but parts were not so great and it closed very quickly. I'm guessing that the mainstage Second City show has an edge on the e.t.c. production, but I don't know for sure.


"The Arabian Nights" - Lookingglass Theatre Company
"The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of King Edward II..." - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
"Forbidden Broadway: Dances with the Stars" - John Freedson, Harriet Yellin and Margaret Cotter
"The History Boys" - TimeLine Theatre Company
"Million Dollar Quartet" - Dee Gee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights, Inc.
"Scenes from the Big Picture" - Seanachai Theatre Company
"The Seafarer" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
"Studs Terkel's Not Working" - The Second City e.t.c.

This is often considered the most sought-after award at the Jeffs, as Chicago particularly prizes ensemble acting. While I'd love to see the fearless work done by the ensemble of Edward II or Scenes from the Big Picture, a smaller show, get recognized, I'm guessing it will be between Arabian Nights and History Boys. If the former doesn't win Best Production--Play, it may end up recognized for Ensemble. 


Lisa Dillman - "The Walls" - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Lynn Nottage - "Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club
Masha Obolensky - "Not Enough Air" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Tanya Saracho - "Kita y Fernanda" - 16th Street Theater
Tanya Saracho - "Our Lady of the Underpass" - Teatro Vista…Theatre with a View

Interestingly, and all-female category this year--maybe Chicago is less afflicted than the rest of the country by the lack of opportunities for female playwrights? It's particularly gratifying to see local author Tanya Saracho get two nominations. However, it looks pretty likely that New Yorker Lynn Nottage will win for Ruined. As it's already won the Pulitzer and seen great success here and in New York (and look for it to be done everywhere in the 2010-11 season), adding a Jeff to its mantel seems likely. (And it doesn't hurt that it's a gorgeous, moving play abut an important subject.)


Seth Bockley - "Jon" - Collaboraction
Frank Galati - "Kafka on the Shore" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Frank Mahon & Milissa Pacelli - "The Quiet Man Tales" - Libby Adler Mages, Tony D'Angelo and Smock Alley Theater Company

Kafka on the Shore and The Quiet Man Tales got some positive attention, but Jon was one of the real sensations of last fall. Seth Bockley's been making a real name for himself recently, and Collaboraction is one of the hippest companies in town, so I'm betting on Jon to take this one.


David H. Bell, Jeremy Cohen & Aaron Thielen - "The Bowery Boys" - Marriott Theatre
David H. Bell & Keith Harrison Dworkin - "The Boys from Syracuse" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Josh Schmidt, Jan Tranen & Austin Pendleton - "A Minister's Wife" - Writers' Theatre

First off I have to give my hearty congratulations to David H. Bell, a professor of mine at Northwestern, for his double nomination--not to mention Keith Harrison Dworkin, a classmate of mine there, for his nomination for The Boys from Syracuse. However, A Minister's Wife, based on Shaw's Candida, was a critical and popular smash, being extended several times, so it looks likely to take the prize.


Randall Arney - "The Seafarer" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Nick Bowling - "The History Boys" - TimeLine Theatre Company
David Cromer - "Picnic" - Writers' Theatre
Sean Graney - "The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of King Edward II…" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Ron OJ Parsons - "The Piano Lesson" - Court Theatre
John Tillinger - "Don't Dress for Dinner" - The British Stage Company
Alison C. Vesely - "A Moon for the Misbegotten" - First Folio Theatre
Rachel Walshe - "These Shining Lives" - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Kate Whoriskey - "Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club

This one is pretty up in the air--it could be Bowling for his dynamic staging of History Boys, Cromer adding to his shelf of awards for his fine-grained work on the nationally-acclaimed Picnic, or Whoriskey for the thrilling, vibrant world she created in Ruined. My sentimental favorite is Graney for his unapologetically director-centric and fearlessly bizarre promenade staging of Edward II, but really it seems wide-open to me at this point.


David H. Bell - "The Boys from Syracuse" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Michael Halberstam - "A Minister's Wife" - Writers' Theatre
Charles Newell - "Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
Marc Robin - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" - Marriott Theatre
Rachel Rockwell - "Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook

Again, I'm pulling for Newell and Caroline, or Change. The staging wasn't out there in the way some Court shows are, choosing instead to focus on both the political and emotional resonances of the story. However, it was the only of the productions I saw, so I can't really say for sure. By the way, where is B. J. Jones on this list and the previous ones? He did spectacular work on both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Grey Gardens, each of which could easily have floundered without spot-on direction, and didn't get a nod for either. It's a shame.


Gerald Alessandrini & William Selby - Forbidden Broadway: Dances with the Stars" - John Freedson, Harriet Yellin and Margaret Cotter
Matt Hovde - America: All Better!" - The Second City
Matt Hovde - Studs Terkel's Not Working" - The Second City e.t.c.

Another one I'm not sure of, but I'll take the safe route and bet that Matt Hovde will win it.


Maury Cooper - "Buried Child" - Shattered Globe Theatre
Russell G. Jones - "Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club
Timothy Edward Kane - "Rock 'n' Roll" - Goodman Theatre
Larry Neumann, Jr. - "A Moon for the Misbegotten" - First Folio Theatre
William L. Petersen - "Blackbird" - Victory Gardens Theater
Robert Sella - "Amadeus" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Another strong field without an oveerpowering frontrunner, but I'm guessing that Petersen's star power and being willing to return to Chicago and do a few shows a year, making some companies a whole lot of money, will win it for him. Not to mention that he apparently did superb work.


Joseph Anthony Foronda - "Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Sean Fortunato - "Curtains" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Nick Garrison - "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" - American Theater Company
Brian Sears - "The Bowery Boys" - Marriott Theatre
Richard Strimer - "Crazy for You" - Theatre at the Center

I didn't see any of these productions, and haven't heard overwhelming buzz for any of the performances, so I won't hazard a guess.


Janet Ulrich Brooks - "Not Enough Air" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Saidah Arrika Ekulona - "Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club
Mary Beth Fisher - "Rock 'n' Roll" - Goodman Theatre
Kirsten Fitzgerald - "Pumpgirl" - A Red Orchid Theatre
Mattie Hawkinson - "Blackbird" - Victory Gardens Theater
Peggy Roeder - "Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory & The Thanksgiving Visitor" - Provision Theater
Rebecca Spence - These Shining Lives" - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

A very full category with some excellent work, but Hawkinson got the most positive attention--some even saying she outdid Petersen, her much more famous costar. I think she'll win it, and we'll see a lot of her soon.


E. Faye Butler - "Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
McKinley Carter - "John and Jen" - Apple Tree Theatre
Mary Ernster - "The Light in the Piazza" - Marriott Theatre
Mary Ernster - "Wings" - Apple Tree Theatre
Hollis Resnik - "Grey Gardens" - Northlight Theatre

This may be the most competitive category of the night, with Resnik and Butler both having given hugely acclaimed, extraordinary performances. I'm guessing that Butler's more naturalistic work will beat out Resnik's star turn--Butler also has the advantage of Caroline, or Change being one of the great musicals of the new century and Grey Gardens being merely (ha) a wonderful show--but it's really anybody's guess.


Taylor Mac - "The Young Ladies of . . ." - About Face Theatre
Max McLean - "Mark's Gospel" - Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Tom Mula - "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" - Theater Wit
Gwendolyn Whiteside - "The K of D: An Urban Legend" - The Route 66 Theatre Company

Another one I don't have a guess for.


Lance Baker - "Mauritius" - Northlight Theatre
Jake Cohen - "Up" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Jon Michael Hill - "The Tempest" - Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Ross Lehman - "Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Ron Rains - "The Quiet Man Tales" - Libby Adler Mages, Tony D'Angelo and Smock Alley Theater Company
Alex Weisman - The History Boys" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Larry Yando - Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

This one could go any way--Baker's delicious villainy, heartfelt work from Cohen and Weisman (both of whom are friends from Northwestern--good job guys!), Lehman and Yando's hilarious character work...I bet whoever wins does by a nose. I'm going to pick Weisman, but I can't say for sure.


Malcolm Durning - "Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
Sean Fortunato - "The Producers" - Theatre at the Center
Levi Kreis - "Million Dollar Quartet" - Dee Gee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions, and Northern Lights, Inc.
Dennis Moench - "All Shook Up" - Marriott Theatre
Max Quinlan - "The Light in the Piazza" - Marriott Theatre
Alan Schmuckler - "A Minister's Wife" - Writers' Theatre
Bernie Yvon - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" - Marriott Theatre

Another full category (and another ecent Northwestern grad in Alan Schmuckler), but Kreis apparently sets the stage aflame every night in Million Dollar Quarter--and is still doing it in the open run at the Apollo--so I'm voting for him.


Janet Ulrich Brooks - "Weekend" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Hillary Clemens - "Picnic" - Writers' Theatre
Linda Gehringer - "The Crowd You're In With" - Goodman Theatre
Spencer Kayden - "Don't Dress for Dinner" - The British Stage Company
Eileen Niccolai - "The Little Foxes" - Shattered Globe Theatre
Roxanne Reese - "Magnolia" - Goodman Theatre

The three performances I saw--Brooks, Niccolai, and Reese--were all extraordinary in different ways. Brooks somehow made loathsome bigotry positively hilarious, NIccolai really got to the core of Birdie, and Reese showed her lifetime in the smallest things--especially when she sang. I'm giving this one to Brooks, an off-Loop stalwart finally getting the attention she deserves, but we'll see.


Liz Baltes - "A Minister's Wife" - Writers' Theatre
Melanie Brezill - "Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
Alene Robertson - "Mame" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Summer Smart - "The Light in the Piazza" - Marriott Theatre
Laura E. Taylor - "The Producers" - Theatre at the Center
Nancy Voigts - "Curtains" - Drury Lane Oakbrook

Brezill (yet another former classmate) and Smart were the only ones I saw, and both were fantastic. If the committee wants to encourage young talent, either would be a popular choice. If they go for a beloved performer with a long time in the business, Robertson--who was reportedly deliriously funny as Vera Charles--should get it.


Mark David Kaplan - "Forbidden Broadway: Dances with the Stars" - John Freedson, Harriet Yellin, and Margaret Cotter
George Andrew Wolff - "Side by Side by Sondheim" - Light Opera Works Second Stage

Kaplan was very funny, but I didn't see Wolff's work, so it's an open question.


Amanda Blake Davis — "Studs Terkel's Not Working" - The Second City e.t.c.
Anne Gunn — "Side by Side by Sondheim" - Light Opera Works Second Stage
Leisa Mather — "Forbidden Broadway: Dances with the Stars" - John Freedson, Harriet Yellin, and Margaret Cotter


Most of the design categories I don't have the expertise to comment on, but here are the nominees with limited commentary.


Christopher Ash - "Pump Boys & Dinettes" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Brian Sidney Bembridge - "The Maids" - Writers' Theatre
Linda Buchanan - "Boleros for the Disenchanted" - Goodman Theatre
Kevin Depinet - "The Crowd You're In With" - Goodman Theatre
Jack Magaw - "Picnic" - Writers' Theatre
Lucy Osborne - "Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The work here was doubtless excellent, but the lack of nominations for either Grey Gardens' rotating house or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's door-filled set is mystifying. I'm guessing it goes to Twelfth Night's giant pool, though.

Brian Sidney Bembridge - "The History Boys" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Melania Lancy - "The Little Foxes" - Shattered Globe Theatre
Angela Miller - "A Moon for the Misbegotten" - First Folio Theatre
Courtney O'Neill - "Talk Radio" - The Gift Theatre Company
Keith Pitts - "Weekend" - TimeLine Theatre Company

TimeLine frequently uses its space in creative ways, and Bembridge's set was particularly inventive and well-suited to the show.


Mara Blumenfeld - "The Arabian Nights" - Lookingglass Theatre Company
Dona Granata - "Turn of the Century" - Goodman Theatre
Virgil Johnson - "Amadeus" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Lucy Osborne - "Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Tatjana Radisic - "Mame" - Drury Lane Oakbrook

Notice that they're all lavish period shows. Wonder if any contemporary-set shows had good costume design?


Rachel Laritz - "The Voysey Inheritance" - Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Bill Morey - "Candide" - Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago
Alison Siple - "The Marriage of Figaro" - Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

Another set of period shows. The costumes for Candide were about the only salvageable parts of that show, so maybe they'll be recognized.


Lindsay Jones - "Macbeth" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath - "Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Andre J. Pluess - "Ghostwritten" - Goodman Theatre
Josh Schmidt - "The Tempest" - Steppenwolf Theatre
Darron L. West - "Radio Macbeth" - Court Theatre

Macbeth's sound design was about the most creative and best-thought-out part of the evening, but Radio Macbeth was apparently all sound, so I'm guessing it will take the prize.


Joe Court - "The Unseen" - A Red Orchid Theatre
Andrew Hansen - "Not Enough Air" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Lindsay Jones - "The K of D: An Urban Legend" - The Route 66 Theatre Company


Christopher Akerlind - "Rock 'n' Roll" - Goodman Theatre
John Horan - "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" - Northlight Theatre
James Ingalls - "Kafka on the Shore" - Steppenwolf Theatre
Natasha Katz - "Turn of the Century" - Goodman Theatre
Jesse Klug - "Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Philip S. Rosenberg - "Amadeus" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater


Matthew Gawryk - "The Unseen" - A Red Orchid Theatre
Jeremy Getz - "El Grito del Bronx" - Collaboraction and Teatro Vista i/a/w Goodman Theatre
Shelley Strasser Holland - "The Glass Menagerie" - Shattered Globe Theatre
Jesse Klug - "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" - American Theater Company
Tyler Micoleau - "The Screwtape Letters" - Fellowship for the Performing Arts

David H. Bell - "The Boys from Syracuse" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Brenda Didier - "Once on this Island" - Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago
Linda Fortunato - "Crazy for You" - Theatre at the Center
Matt Raftery - "The Bowery Boys" - Marriott Theatre
Marc Robin - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" - Marriott Theatre


Andrew Hansen - "Not Enough Air" - TimeLine Theatre Company
Alaric Jans - "Twelfth Night" - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Dominic Kanza - "Ruined" - Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club

The music in Ruined, largely performed live, was practically another character, so it will probably take the prize.


Richard Carsey - "A Minister's Wife" - Writers' Theatre
Eugene Dizon - "Candide" - Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago
Roberta Duchak - "Miss Saigon" - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Michael Mahler - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" - Marriott Theatre
Ryan T. Nelson - "The Light in the Piazza" - Marriott Theatre
Doug Peck - "Caroline, or Change" - Court Theatre
Doug Peck - "Wings" - Apple Tree Theatre
Malcolm Ruhl - "Pump Boys & Dinettes" - Drury Lane Oakbrook

Great work all around, but Peck has been really exceptional for the past few seasons. I'm guessing the sheer number of styles he got from the pit for Caroline will win for him this year.


Ned Mochel - Fight Choreography - "On An Average Day" - The Route 66 Theatre Company
Steve Tolin - Special Effects - "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" - Northlight Theatre
Mike Tutaj - Video Design - "Jon" - Collaboraction
Mike Tutaj - Film & Video Design - "Tomorrow Morning" - Hillary A. Williams, LLC

Tolin in a walk. The special effects for  Inishmore were staggeringly (and nauseatingly) good.

It's only a couple of hours to the ceremony (these things take a long time to write!) but I hope you enjoy the roundup!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Review Posted: Lettice and Lovage

My review of Redtwist Theatre's Lettice and Lovage has gone up on Centerstage. Whether or not you should go depends on your love of things British, witty, and whimsical. If you're a fan, you'll probably have a great time. If not, the show's flaws may get to you. Here's the text of the review to help you make up your mind:

For some plays, charm is everything. Peter Shaffer's "Lettice and Lovage," for example, would have little to recommend it if produced without a whole lot of charm. Luckily, Steve Scott's intimate production at Redtwist is graced with delightful performances by Millicent Hurley and Jan Ellen Graves, as well as a nimble supporting cast and designs that make the very best of the tiny stage. Together they make for a very fun show that almost covers the script's problems.

Lettice Douffet (Hurley, in a role originated by Maggie Smith) is a tour guide at Fustian House, the dullest of England's historic homes. One day she realizes that if she helps history along with her own inventions, the tour will become far more popular — and she'll get far more tips. This goes well until Lotte Schoen (Graves), from the Preservation Trust, discovers her fabrications, endangering her job. But the play isn't over, and the blossoming of the friendship of these two unusual women makes up the rest of the show.

"Lettice and Lovage" is full of very British witticisms, and for those who love such language (and I count myself a member of that group), there's a lot of fun to be had watching the two actresses deliver the lines. They're clearly having the times of their lives, and it's a joy to witness. But eventually the relentless cheer and inoffensive gentility can get rather tedious. The fact that the second act is virtually without dramatic conflict and the third needlessly protracted contribute to this problem significantly.

But even when things get slow, there is charm to carry the day. Hurley's airy fantasies play beautifully opposite Graves's trenchant wit, and Scott has staged the production gracefully on Jack Magaw's lovely and witty set. The show may not be a fully satisfying theatrical meal, but it's a delicious dessert.

Monday, October 12, 2009

New Review Posted/Thoughts on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

So Centerstage has posted my review of Red Tape Theatre's Mouse in a Jar here. It's a flawed piece that, despite some really interesting work, never quite grabbed me, but it features a really exceptional set by William Anderson. (The set will apparently be the focus of a panel discussion on the Theatre Thursdays night on the 22nd.) After this and his nifty work on Profiles' Graceland (which is STILL running at National Pastime just down the street from Profiles), he's clearly on his way to big things. I'm excited to see his next design! The text of the review is at the end of this post.

Also: on Thursday night, I went to the press opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Writers' Theatre. (For those not familiar with it, the play follows two famous nonentities in Hamlet as they try to figure out a world that makes no sense to them. It's deeply indebted to Beckett in the exploration of two lost souls trying to understand a hostile world, but the dazzling wordplay is all Stoppard. This was his first major play, and he would develop the wordplay and intellectual brilliance even further in his extraordinary work that followed.) I was not on the job, but there as a guest of my wonderful friend Meredith, who works in the box office. (Cathy Taylor, the PR person, was relieved when I told her this, as I was not on her list and extra tickets were not easy to find in a 108 seat theatre.)

It's a very strong production, with excellent work from Sean Fortunato (as Rosencrantz) and Timothy Edward Kane (as Guildenstern). They have great chemistry together. One interesting choice that director Michael Halberstam made, which I'm not sure I agree with, had to do with the character of the Player, entertainingly played by Allen Gilmore. Most productions see him as a slightly menacing figure, who knows something R and G don't--and may even have some control over their fates. In this production, he's played more as an old ham who is more experienced with, and more at peace with, the world in which he moves. It's an interesting idea, and certainly well-executed, but it may take something away from the show.

The rest of the cast does strong work, and I really liked the designs. (Collette Pollard's clever set is particularly notable, but all of the design elements work together uncommonly well.) The night I saw it, though, it was just a few degrees short of brilliant. I don't know if it was low on energy, a little tentative, or what, but many moments didn't quite have the vividness and follow-through they needed to be exceptional. Still though, I'd definitely recommend you see it--it's a great play, and a very satisfying, funny, and involving production.

One question I had after seeing it--are there several versions of the script out there? This was a three-act play, but when I appeared in the show in college, there were only two acts in the script--and a few lines I distinctly remember from the production I was in were not in this version. Does anyone know if this was the choice of the production or due to multiple editions of the play?

By the way, this is my 100th post. That's a nice round number, though when you consider I've been doing this for over a year, it works out to an anemic post average of 1.75/week. Ah well, quality over quantity?

Here's the Mouse in a Jar review:

It's rarely good news to leave a production talking about the scenery, but then again William Anderson's set for Red Tape Theatre's "Mouse In a Jar" is really extraordinary. The audience descends a staircase into a basement filled with detritus, and is seated in chairs in two corners of the space. There is no escape from the overwhelming environment, or the inches-away action. If the script and production lived up to the set, "Mouse In a Jar" would be exceptional.

Martyna Majok's script tells the grim story of Ma (Kathleen Powers), an illegal Polish immigrant, and her daughters Daga (Tamara Todres) and Zosia (Irene Kapustina), who live in a New Jersey basement. Every night at nine, Ma's husband, known only as HIM (Don Markus, in a truly creepy mask by Sarah Bendix), comes home to brutally beat and rape her. After attempting to defend her mother, Zosia disappears, and Ma is unwilling or unable to run away from HIM's brutality. Daga eventually takes matters into her own hands in a particularly extreme way, with the help of the frightened Fip (Ben Gettinger), who has a dark history of his own.

Majok uses language in fascinating way, and director Daria Davis has created some stunning images, but despite the physical proximity, the audience is always at an emotional remove. As a result, the play is only intermittently scary or involving. It's hard to pinpoint a culprit, though the fact that the realistic and stylized elements of the play don't mesh convincingly is a serious problem. Additionally, the combination of an echoing space and Polish accents make portions of the dialogue hard to understand.

Majok is a playwright worth following and there's a lot of worthy work onstage — it just hasn't yet gelled into a compelling play. I'm still interested to see what's next from Majok and Red Tape.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: American Stage Sessions (ASS)

As you have doubtless gathered from the title, ASS is an intensely silly show. Written and performed by The Plagiarists, a group I've always meant to check out, the evening purports to be a public-access telethon put on by the Muskogee Magic Theatre to raise enough money to save their theatre. Hosted by Professor Nigel Bubblecock-Fatkins (Gregory Peters), the group's alcoholic, pretentious Artistic Director, and Mitch Newman (Ryan Palmer), a smarmy TV star who got his start at the theatre, the telethon features the company performing scenes from three neglected (and fictitious) great playwright. First comes Alabama O'Dell, a hybrid of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, followed by Herzlichen Gluckwunsch Zum Geburtstag, an amalgam of arty Europeans who seems closest to Strindberg, and Elmer Templeton Shirley, apparently a Midwestern Clifford Odets.

Now you might say that, as satirical targets go, public-access telethons, community theatres, alcoholic theatre professors, shallow TV stars, and great, serious playwrights are exceptionally easy. And you'd be completely right. But have I mentioned the beer? Yes, the Viaduct Theatre has a lobby bar, and having a drink of four seems the best way to enjoy the show.

I saw it sober, however, and it still has a lot to recommend it. By the standards of silly, spoofy shows, it does quite well. Moments had me laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath, and the show usually stay on the right side of the line between ridiculous humor and just screwing around.

The only problem is that the company doesn't know when enough is enough. The show would be hilarious at maybe 75-80 minutes, intermissionless. Unfortunately there are two intermissions and it's two hours long. I'd guess the intermissions are there so that everyone has time to buy more drinks, but they sap the show's momentum in pretty damaging ways. The cast and the director, Steve Wilson, are very sharp throughout, but haven't quite distinguished between the best material and the so-so stuff.

This isn't to say I didn't have a great time for most of it. The theatre spoofs are often dead-on (if possibly only funny to insiders--my friend who's not a theatre person was less amused by them than I was) and the entire cast creates sharp characters/caricatures, with excellent timing and physical comedy skills. It's a delightful way to spend a Monday or Tuesday night, especially with a few drinks in you. But if the show cut the intermissions and about 20 minutes of the lesser material, it would be fantastic. Ah well, I'll still try to make it to The Plagiarist's next show--it should be interesting at the least!

ASS runs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 PM through  November 3rd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Avenue in Chicago. Tickets are $15/$10 for Students and Seniors, and can be purchased by visiting or calling (773) 296-6024. The Plagiarists are on the web at

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"I just wish there were marks in it"

I'm about to make an entirely uncontroversial statement: The History Boys at TimeLine Theatre is really, really wonderful. (By the way, thank you Uncle Lou and Aunt Jeanne for this wonderful birthday present!) I could be contrarian, just to go against the nearly six months of sold out houses and bouquet of admiring to ecstatic reviews, and say it's not that great, but that would be perverse. (And it's not that I'm scared to be contrarian--Jersey Boys has met with inexplicable critical and popular success, and that doesn't make it any less of a hash of cardboard characters, melodramatic plotting, and wildly overstated sentimentality.)

That it's been such a success is all the more remarkable for the fact that it's three hours long, filled with obscure references and complex debates, and, despite its high spirits, has a current of darkness and a decidedly downbeat ending.

One of the things that's exceptional about the play is how uncompromisingly intellectual it is--these characters are smart people, and act like it. I can't imagine there are very many audience members who don't get lost at some point--I certainly did. But because the play refuses to talk down to the audience, either intellectually or emotionally, they want to keep up with the difficult parts.

So what about this production (the last two weeks, by the way, are sold out, but trying to get on standby is well worth your time) makes it work so well?

We have to start with the script--Bennett has written an incredibly rich and complex play. It follows eight students, three teachers, and a headmaster at a boy's school in the North of England in the 1980s--Margaret Thatcher is in power, education is changing, and being an adolescent sucks.

(By the way, reading the program essay of Margaret Thatcher reminded me of what a horrible leader she was--particularly because of her closeness to Ronald Reagan. Which takes me back to one of my favorite themes: we don't spend nearly enough time or energy hating Ronald Reagan these days. He may be gone, but his ideas live on, and they make things worse and worse. So think about it--have you thought or said anything mean about Reagan or Reaganism today? Have you worked against his legacy of disdain for anyone who isn't white, straight, male, Christian, and wealthy? Have you combatted the fiction that he was anything other than a disaster as president? If not, DO. Your country needs you. Now, back to our regularly scheduled meditation.)

Though some students are inspired by the "knowledge for knowledge's sake" Hector (Donald Brearley) and others by the "anything to get ahead" Irwin (Andrew Carter), this is anything but an "inspirational teacher" story--both men are horribly flawed. But that doesn't make their achievements less real. And perhaps the best part of the script is this willingness to accept complexity. Nobody is all good or all bad, most brilliant things come with a catch, and that's simply how it is. This lack of sentimentality is all too rare--in theatre and other media, now and in the past--and it's what's making the show so popular.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that it's very funny, and makes the audience feel smart for enjoying it and keeping up with it, and gives twelve actors the chance to do wonderful work.

And this brings us to Nick Bowling's production. The most discussed part is doubtless how he and set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge use the space: the area that is usually TimeLine's lobby is taken up by representations of the boys' bedrooms, and there is no separation between that area and the rest of the stage. With the audience seated on two sides of the action, that leaves a lot of space for the staging, and Bowling uses every inch. He's created some exceptional visual moments, and the play always feels like it's in motion--it evades the trap of being static that such a talky play could easily fall into. But in addition to the big-picture sweep of the play, the production gets the little details--the atmosphere of the staff room, the casual cruelty in the boys' banter, and on and on. Every character gets an arc and has real depth. I would mention the excellent parts about individual performances, but then this would be even longer than it was. Suffice it to say that everyone on that stage has a chance to do exceptional work, and they all take advantage of it.

So congratulations to everyone who worked on the show--particularly the cast replacements, who meshed perfectly with those who've been in it since April--and TimeLine, for getting such an exceptional run out of such a difficult piece. We need more like History Boys in this town, and I hope that the theatres here will step up to such a great example.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ma Rainey Review/Blogs to Read

A couple of days ago Centerstage posted my review of Court Theatre's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom here. Very strong production, and I'd never gotten to see the show before. (In fact, this is only the third of Wilson's play's I've seen live, after Two Trains Running in Cleveland and Radio Golf at the Goodman.) Here's the text:

How does an African-American succeed in a white world? August Wilson asks this question in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the 1920s-set installment of his 10-play cycle on black life in 20th-century America, but finds few answers. No matter the material success the characters find, they know they only have power as long as they can make money for their managers. The idea is a grim one, but Wilson's 1984 play, the one that announced his extraordinary talent to the world, is vibrant and gripping.

The play is set in a Chicago recording studio, where personal, professional and racial tensions threaten real-life blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's (Greta Oglesby) recording session. While the plot has many moments of high drama, it also has many sections when the story pauses to focus on interactions among Ma, her band (James T. Alfred, A. C. Smith, Alfred H. Wilson and Cedric Young), her female lover (Kristy Johnson), her hapless nephew (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), and the white men who work as her manager (Stephen Spencer) and run the record company (Thomas J. Cox). They talk about music, about religion, about history. This is all to the good; Wilson has an extraordinary ear for dialogue, and every single cast member offers a full, magnetically fascinating performance. It's remarkable how entertaining, dramatic and enlightening sections with little obvious incident can be.

If the script has a flaw, it's that the more intensely dramatic sections don't quite fit with the bulk of the script. Ron OJ Parsons's production makes every moment involving; they just don't all always seem to fit in the same play.

But that's a small complaint next to the richness onstage. I've already mentioned the cast, and the show also offers gorgeous onstage blues music (Oglesby's singing is really something) and an unflashy but spot-on design scheme. And when the whole package leaves the audience stung by some uncomfortable questions, it's hard to fault the smaller flaws.

Also, I wanted to let you know about a few new blogs being added to the blogroll that you should check out:

First of is Monica at Fragments. She's an exceptionally intelligent lady who just got to Chicago to start her first year at DePaul. And if she's this sharp and skilled of a writer and critic at 17...well, I'm feeling threatened already. Best of all, she has the dedication to a career in criticism that I probably lack, so who knows where she'll end up, even in these perilous times? I also met her for coffee a few weeks ago, and she's lots of fun in person, too! Thanks to the ever-awesome Leonard Jacobs for introducing us!

Next up is actually a film blog--Tim's Antagony and Ecstasy. Film isn't a passion for me the same way theatre is, but he writes in an exceptionally funny and fluent way on it. He makes me want to see a whole bunch of movies. I think my favorite thing in his archives may be his reviews of genre pictures--even terrible ones--because he spends so much time and verbiage on films that others would dismiss out of hand. If you're interested in film, do check it out.

Finally, lest you think I'm the only Chicago theatre blog (I am certainly not), make sure to check out this one: the clearly named Chicago Theatre Blog. It's a great center for reviews of all sizes of shows in town.

Coming soon (hopefully, you never know): Thoughts on the opening of two Chicago shows on Broadway, an elegy for the delicious pork-barrel job I won't get now that the Olympics are in Rio, and my thoughts on finally seeing The History Boys, as I will tonight!