Monday, November 30, 2009

Inferior Box Office

As has been widely reported, the producers of Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts have announced that it will be closing on January 3rd. This is not a huge surprise: the week of November 16-22 saw only 43.9% of the seats filled (more detailed information here). While the grosses may have been higher Thanksgiving weekend, and may continue to pick up at the end of the year when everyone's grosses rise, January is historically the worst month for Broadway, and it's unlikely they could have made it until things picked up in the spring. Still, it's quite a shame. One would hope that the success of August: Osage County would have made Tracy Letts into enough of a name to sell a play, but apparently that hasn't quite happened. The show got generally positive reviews, but not the ecstasies that August inspired, and that combined with the lack of stars were probably enough to do it in. It's a real shame. It's a lovely play that was being given an excellent, very well-acted production. Hopefully it will still see a regional afterlife, and the cast and designers will all get career boosts. We can dream.

One Hand Clapping

Those who know me that I'm ambivalent about Martin McDonagh-- on the one hand I think that his dialogue is brilliant, his plots wonderfully constructed, and his ability to take and audience on a thrill ride pretty awesome, but on the other, I think that it can all be a bit facile, nearly always is mean-spirited, and frequently wonder what the point is, after all the carnage. (I also may be one of the few who find The Pillowman one of his weaker works, but I've never seen it staged.) However, I'm very excited about this.

For those who didn't follow the link, it announces the cast for his new play, A Behanding in Spokane, to be produced on Broadway in the spring. The play is his first to be set in the US (presumably Spokane, WA), and his first to debut in Broadway. The cast will include eccentric screen actor Sam Rockwell and rising stage stars Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan, but the real news is the fourth cast member: Christopher Walken. Yes, Christopher Walken, playing a handless man, in a world premiere Martin McDonagh play. That's just really damn cool, and has put the play way higher on the list of the things I wish I could see. And I imagine all the kids who think that Martin McDonagh is the greatest playwright ever have suffered strokes by now. I have no idea if the play will work (what does McDonagh know about the Pacific Northwest, for instance?), but I'd sure love to find out for myself.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Review Posted: The Mystery of Irma Vep

Centerstage has posted my rave review of Sean Graney's production of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Court. A few things there wasn't space to say in the review (curse you, 300 words!):

--The script has been described as a "cult classic" or a "camp classic." The hell with that. Drop the modifiers, this is a classic, full stop. It certainly makes use of camp (see cross-dressing, references to old movies, many jokes with gay content), and Ludlam's admirers can be cultish, but the play makes use of and transcends those elements. It's more than a stunt, it's an exceptional work of theatre.

--How does this show play to a straight audience? It seems to bound up in camp, crossdressing, and gay culture--and my response to it was so connected to my own identity--that I am fascinated how it works for people who don't fall into that category. Sort of like how I can't imagine what the experience of reading Philip Roth is for non-Jews. Anyone care to share their experience?

--The press notes indicated that the stipulation in the rights is that the two performers have to be the same gender, but nothing about that gender being male. I would love to see a production with two women in the parts.

--If I had more money, I'd seriously consider going back to see it again. I might try to figure it out anyway. And I hope that it does well enough they add a week--it is currently scheduled to close on December 13th!

--Wow Sean Graney works a lot. Frankenstein was just a month ago, and what a stirring rebound from that unsuccessful piece. Hopefully he'll continue at this level, and Court will ask him back again.

--Some of you  may find my response hyperbolic. To those people I say: So what? Get your own blog. I'm allowed to cream my jeans for truly extraordinary theatre once in a while.

Here's the text of the review:
The funniest upholstery of the season has been found: a black and white damask that keeps popping up in "The Mystery of Irma Vep," to increasingly riotous effect. And when even the cloth is hilarious, you know that something is going right.

Director Sean Graney and actors Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellman, along with the exceptional design team and a superheroic stage crew, have achieved something remarkable: broad, exaggerated comedy that doesn't feel slapdash. And it's the right thing for Charles Ludlam's play. The script is a dizzying series of quick changes, extremely dirty jokes and unabashed silliness, and either subtlety or sloppiness would be deadly.

The play has two men playing all of the characters, men and women, in a demented parody of gothic novels, among many other sources. The plot is far too ridiculous to summarize, but it centers on the mysterious doings at the English manor Mandacrest. A werewolf, a mummy and a vampire figure in the plot, along with several helpings of dark secrets.

But plot construction isn't the point: it's the glorious cascade of characters, costumes and jokes. Graney and company understand that what makes this play great is its exuberant theatricality, and they play it to the hilt. The actors create extraordinarily detailed performances, combining stunning vocal and physical control with an outsize joy in putting on a show. The designs work together seamlessly, though special credit must be given to Alison Siple's deranged costumes. And the crew richly deserves the bow it gets at the end for the impossible things that it makes look easy.

But it's Graney, again proving himself one of Chicago's essential directors, who marshals the theatrical forces at his disposal. It's an extraordinary display of both craft and love — and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Review Posted: Rewind

Centerstage just posted my new review of Rewind at the side project. Here's the text:

Music is very different from the music business — indeed the art of music itself is almost incidental to the maneuvering, betrayal and commercialism involved in getting it recorded and sold. The biggest problem with Laura Eason's "Rewind" is that until the last few scenes, the excitement of making and hearing music is barely a factor, subordinated to a rather joyless tale of betrayal and hurt feelings. Though the setting — Chicago's indie scene in the '80s and '90s — is rarely portrayed onstage, the play's plot points are familiar. But without a sense of why the characters keep making music instead of leaving for a less brutal field, the evening becomes a rather dreary trip down a road we've all traveled before.

The play, whose 17 scenes go backwards from 1998 to 1981, opens with Noah (Zack Buell) and Elisha (Cyd Blakewell) finding the body of their former friend and bandmate, the brilliant guitarist Jim (Chip Davis). As the show goes on, we see the events that got them to that sad place.

There are some really interesting ideas in play, including what it's like to be in the orbit of a genius, the compromises made on the way to success, and the toxic combination of personal and professional grievances. And some scenes in the early sections are quite strong; a fight backstage at a concert is riveting. (Director Anna C. Bahow stages the show dynamically throughout, and has a keen eye for how to use the side project's tiny space.) But after a few scenes, the contour of the plot is obvious, and there are few surprises. It's a shame, because Eason has a real skill for dialogue, and the play has the potential to be genuinely moving. But without any changes in tone or surprises in plot, the unrelieved unhappiness comes off as dull instead.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Review Posted: Democracy

Centerstage has my review of the new Eclipse Theatre production of Romulus Linney's Democracy up. It sadly ended up a demonstration of the dangers of adapting novels to the stage. Very sad, because the genuinely good stuff onstage couldn't make up for the weaknesses. Ah well. Text is here:

Adapting one novel to the stage is quite difficult: it's a fine art to decide which plot points to put in, remaining true to the original text without rushing through the story, not to mention dramatizing the characters' inner lives in a compellingly theatrical way. Romulus Linney only compounded the difficulty by basing his play, "Democracy," on two novels by Henry Adams: Democracy and Esther. The result shows the pitfalls of the form. Events rush by, and while there are many worthwhile moments along the way, nothing acquires the depth necessary to be engaging.

The play takes place in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1875. Ulysses S. Grant (Ron Butts) is coming to the end of his disastrous presidency, and two young women are struggling with matters of love and politics. Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), a young widow, is trying to decide whether to marry Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen), while the independent-minded Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe) is mulling a similar proposal from Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale). Unfortunately, each man has political beliefs and connections that the women loathe.

The play should be fascinating, but in trying to cover so much plot in only two hours, it feels like a sketch for a fuller piece. There's no time for events to register or characters to grow, so it's hard to get involved. Things do improve in the second act, but by then too much time has passed for the play to be as gripping as it should be.

Director Stephen Fedoruk and his cast do what they can, and there are some strong performances — Prescott and Steinhagen, having the better-written plot, turn in the most memorable work — but in addition to the flawed script, they are hobbled by a clumsy set and sloppily constructed costumes. There is excellent work being done in places, but it never coheres into a satisfying play.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Review Posted: 1985

Centerstage just posted my review of Factory Theatre's 1985, a mashup of Orwell's 1984 and the history of the year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. I have no interest in football (though I did appreciate the program's shout out to Clevelanders as the only sports fans with more reason to be miserable than Bears and Cubs fans), and it's been over a decade since I read Orwell's novel (and by the way, it's pretty intense for a seventh grader), but I still had fun. It's very funny, with some very strong, very broad acting, and despite some real flaws (mostly in the second act), worth a trip. Here's the text:

Rabid sports fans watching a game can often seem like brainwashed citizens in a dictatorship. The Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season.

Individually these facts might seem unremarkable, but playwright Chas Vrba had the inspired idea of combining the history of the Bears' 1985 triumph with the plot of 1984, George Orwell's classic dystopian political fantasy. The result is "1985," a sharp and very funny new play that is both faithful to Orwell's novel and rewarding on its own terms.

Winston Smith (Vrba), a journalist, lives in the play's frightening version of Chicago, Bear Nation. He writes laudatory articles about the Bears and Cubs as instructed by his superior, O'Brien (Scott OKen), and knows that Papa Bear (the play's Big Brother stand-in) is always watching for traitors from The Resistance, seeking to undermine the integrity and resolve of Bear Nation. But he's getting discontented — the constant losing would get to anyone — and new arrival Julia (Laura McKenzie) is turning his head.

The script works both as a witty commentary on the novel and a feast of jokes and references for Chicago sports fans (I missed a fair number of them), but it's worthwhile even for those unfamiliar with either. The exceptional ensemble attacks their vividly written roles with gusto. It's a rare pleasure to see nine people, working in the broadest comic style, getting their own laughs without detracting from the play as a whole. Director Eric Roach deserves much credit for keeping them all on the same page.
The production certainly has its flaws; a seduction scene in the second act falls flat, and the last scenes don't pack the punch they should. But the premise is still brilliant, and the execution undeniably strong, making the show worth a trip — and not only for dispirited Bears fans.

Superior Coverage

The New York Times has published a very flattering profile of Jon Michael Hill, who plays Franco Wicks in Superior Donuts, newly open on Broadway after its successful run at Steppenwolf, with the whole Chicago cast intact. Hill was incandescent the first time around, and by all reports has gotten even better since. It's the sort of life story all young actors dream about (Steppenwolf ensemble member and acclaimed Broadway debut by the age of 24? Really?), and luckily Hill really has what it takes to make the best of the opportunity.

My only request is this: I know that this show will open up a lot of opportunities for Hill, and he'd be a fool not to take advantage of them, but please Jon, don't forget us in Chicago. You grew up here, this city gave you your big break, and we'd be pissed if you pulled a Sinise and abandoned us. Just saying. Be a pal?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dan Savage Interviews Frank Rich About Stephen Sondheim

This interview is three weeks old, and I somehow missed it when it came out, but it's entirely brilliant. One of my very favorite journalists interviews another about one of my favorite theatre artists. It's a beautiful thing, and you should read it right now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tony Kushner at Symphony Center

Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America, Caroline, or Change, Homebody/Kabul and others (though not nearly enough), won the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, given out as part of this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. (Incidentally, he's the third playwright to receive the prize in its 20 years of being awarded, after Arthur Miller and August Wilson.) The presentation of this award took the form of an hour-long conversation between Kushner and Chris Jones, theatre critic at the Trib, at Symphony Center. (Jones' feature on Kushner which ran last week is here, and it's definitely worth a read. Their recap of the event can be found here)

Kushner is high on my list of favorite living playwrights (hell, he's high on my list of favorite paywrights, period), so I jumped at the chance to see him speak. Here are some thoughts from the speech.

1) An hour is not nearly enough time. As anyone who has seen one of his plays knows, he is not a spare writer--words cascade from the mouths of his characters, and the man himself is even more voluble. With such a short time, his responses seemed constrained. I would have loved to see him go on even bigger tangents.

2) Which is not to say he didn't have some great lines. At the start he mentioned his joy whenever "anything I've done succeeds in butch Chicago," especially as he's an "effete New Yorker." He was also capable of being much more serious, describing how in our interconnected world, "no part of the world isn't worth our attention"--and whenever we decide some country is, we're liable to regret it keenly. (The subject was Afghanistan, but the application is quite wide.)

3) Kushner definitely seems to have mellowed a bit. (By the way, how did he get to be 53? He's somehow become an elder statesman.) Perhaps married life agrees with him, but he didn't show quite the same appetite to offend that he used to have. However, Kushner still collowed his own advice from A Bright Room Called Day: "Overstatement is your friend. Use it." Anyone with even the slightest sympathy for the Republican Party would not enjoy his characterization of it today--essentially, that it has been reduced to a repository for "cranks...and Sarah Palin."

4) He also threw plenty of red meat to the left--in addition to his jabs at the Republican Party, he referred to the many morasses that President Obama received from "President Morass" and spoke of those who funded Prop 8 as "Pseudo-religious organizations like the Mormons and the Catholic Church." In addition to the humor, there was plenty of stirring rhetoric: again discussing Prop 8 and Question 1 in Maine, he reminded us that "it is unconstitutional to make a minority group earn its rights." That is to say--gays have the right to marry already, and it is the job of the government to recognize it. It may be a little cheap to say so many obvious applause lines to a mostly liberal group, but I don't care. It felt good.

5) He's thoroughly obsessed with Lincoln. He recently finished a screenplay on the last months of Lincoln's life for Steven Spielberg (the film will supposedly star Liam Neeson, filming has not been scheduled), and in addition to the first question being about Lincoln, he kept circling back to him. This may also be a factor in his mellowing--despite maintaining a Marxist ideology, he seems to have lost faith in revolution, and gained a belief that centrist priogressives are the most likely to achieve real progress.

6) He didn't talk much about theatre. Except for some brief advice for young playwrights (actually do the writing, rather than sitting with the play in your head, get work produced however you can, and don't read Shakespeare when you're writing, as it will only make you depressed), he didn't really discuss theatre much, focusing more on politics. Not surprising perhaps--based on the fact that the previous winners were Miller and Wilson, the prize is frequently given to those with a political perspective--but it would have been great to hear more of Kushner's thoughts on the state of theatre today and his own work. Ah well.

So it was short of being a transcendent talk, but hearing Kushner is always worthwhile. I just hope that whenever he comes by next, he'll have more time to do his thing. (And Court, when are you bringing back Caroline, or Change?)

Barely Believable

There are a lot of things I could be posting on: I could add my voice to the chorus of blog postings on the early closing of Brighton Beach Memoirs (it is a sad statement about how the business has changed and how it hasn't, and shocking that a play can close that fast after getting positive reviews) or I could write about seeing the last performance of Animal Crackers at the Goodman (Short version--completely hilarious. More to come eventually.) But I was distressed by this piece of news on Playbill, and felt I needed to comment on it immediately.

For those who didn't follow the link, it states that the appropriately named Martian Productions, a production and management group, has announced four productions it is aiming for Broadway in the next few years. I've never heard of one (a new rock musical called The Thief), and two sound promising (A show for young audiences called Wanda's World was well-received Off-Broadway, and Marc Camoletti's sex farce Don't Dress For Dinner was a huge hit in Chicago). But the first one on the list shocked me: Damon Intrabartolo and John Hartmere's pop opera bare.

I was shocked for a very simple reason: I saw this show at the Bailiwick a few seasons back, and it's terrible. The production was decent--well-acted and sung, though the rave scene was hilariously stilted--but the show itself is just not good.

I suppose I should alert you to spoilers in the plot summary below, but it's predictable enough that you'll probably see them coming scenes in advance. Still, fair warning.

The plot focuses on a closeted gay couple at a fancy catholic school, dealing with external and internalized homophobia--causing one to impregnate a girl. Angst ensues, as well as scheming, fights, drugs, an abortion, and a suicide onstage during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. And yes, every possible plot point and character is tied in to poor Shakespeare's play.

Now I'm all for angsty gay teens--hell, I was one not too long ago. I'm likely to be kindly disposed to a play about how very very hard it is to be a gay teen, especially if you put hot boys making out in the show--and, this being a show produced at Bailiwick, they did.

But I do have some standards. Power-pop music, for instance, is doubtless to the taste of many (after all, it is called popular music). I am not one of those people. More to the point, the songs in bare tend towards lyrical generalities, which is a serious flaw in their storytelling ability. Especially since bare (are you tired of the lowercase yet?) has no book whatsoever. The whole story is told through songs, and those songs are frustratingly low on clarity and specificity.

But worse than all this is the script's manipulative air of tragedy. It's like sitting for two hours while people yell about how very sorry for them you should feel. Of course, it would be hard to care otherwise--the plot is too unbelievable to get the interest of an audience on its own.

So good luck to Martian Productions--and anyone still risking doing new shows on Broadway. But if they want to produce a show about young people, they should really choose another one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Theatre Is Life, Television Is Furniture"

Last night was the annual benefit for Stage Left, and what a night it was! It was at the Theatre Building, and there was delicious food and drink, a large group of people, and a wonderful roast of our own Kevin Heckman. He was our Producing Artistic Director from 2004-2008, so there was plenty of material, as well as brief parodies of the plays he directed at Stage Left. It was hilarious--especially the surprise roast from his parents. At the end, Kevin got to deliver his rebuttal, but he mostly stayed away from the chance to get back at everyone (though they all certainly deserved it) in exchange for some ruminating on why he loves theatre and how to give a live, immediate experience to more people. It included the quote from the title of this post. I found out this morning that it's apparently also on a t-shirt, but that doesn't make it less true.

So thanks to everyone at Stage Left who helped to plan and execute this fantastic evening, and I hope all of you in the blogosphere will come see our final show in the old space on Sheffield, M.E.H. Lewis' Here Where It's Safe, February 13-April 3, 2010.

(See M. E. H.? I told you I'd put you in my blog!)

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Mother Bear" Reading: TONIGHT! FREE!

Alright, shameless plug time.

Jayme McGhan, whose play The Fisherman I assistant directed at Stage Left in LeapFest in 2008, has written a new play, called Mother Bear. It's a sort of Western-Noir-Thriller about a salt man (an organizer) for the Teamsters trying to sign up the most notorious trucker gang in the West. But, of course, nobody is what they seem and there are many surprises in store. It's a really exciting show, with an exceptionally twisty plot, five exciting characters, and fantastic dialogue.

And it's getting a reading tonight, at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N Broadway, in Chicago. (It's accessible from the Sheridan Red Line station or the 36 bus.) I'll be reading stage directions and leading the discussion afterwards, where you can let Jayme know what you thought to help him improve the play.

By the way, the reading also has a great cast:

Freely- Stephen Crandall
Mother- Jim Ferrell
Delia- Dana Cruz
Vera- Morgan McCabe
Bones- Justin Cagney

Jayme's a good friend and a fantastic playwright. He's only going to improve, and with any luck we'll be seeing his plays produced soon. You'd be wise to get to know his work soon.

And if you are there, stick around for the discussion say hi to me afterwards. If we haven't met, please introduce yourself--it will be a pleasure to get to know you.

See you tonight!