Friday, December 17, 2010

Ask Not For Whom The Phone Tolls

A cellphone went off during the final minute of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Steppenwolf, at the press performance. The end of Virginia Woolf is about as intense a moment as the modern theatre has, and I can only imagine how awful and jarring it must have been for the audience and cast. And of course, since it was the press performance, it got into the papers--Hedy Weiss, in the Sun-Times, called for the offender to be tarred and feathered, and Chris Jones wrote and entire piece on the interruption and others he has suffered. (Not to mention the one he has perpetrated.) He ended with a call for forgiveness, though many of the commenters were not so charitable.

I was among the commenters, and shared my worst cellphone memory:

In 2005, I was at the Shaw Festival, in Canada, watching a production of R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End. The play is set in the trenches in World War One, and it was being produced in the Court House Theatre. The theatre has 340-some seats, but it's a very intimate space, and the design was particularly immersive. It was a wonderful production, and the audience was rapt in attention for most of the show. During one scene, the characters were discussing the worst part of living in the trenches: the awful quiet, and the attendant uncertainty. You can guess the rest--that's when the endless cellphone ringing started. To the infinite credit of the actors, they never broke character, and avoided the temptation to make a cheap joke. (I would not have been so virtuous.)

Audience rudeness, of course, extends beyond phones: Dobama Theatre in Cleveland once did a production of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. The theatre was a smallish thrust space, so you could always see the set before the show started. This particular set included a body under a blanket--the title character. At a performance I ushered, a curious audience member wandered on to the stage and pulled back the blanket, curious as to whether it was a real body. I was taking tickets, so I wasn't able to stop them--it never occured to me we'd need stage guards as well.

So what are the worst instances of audience rudeness that you've ever witnessed, with phones or otherwise? Have you ever accidentally been a perpetrator yourself?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Dismantling of the DCA

Now this is disturbing: according to this article, this past Friday saw 20 employees of the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs laid off, raising to 29 the total number laid off since October. This was apparently a result of both budget cuts and an upcoming merger with the Mayor's Office of Special Events. Jim DeRogatis, the author's article, noted that while Lois Weisberg, the city's legendary Cultural Commissioner, will lead the newly-merged department, the Mayor's Office of Special Events lost only one staff member (who was reassigned to another city department) to the DCA's 29.

There's a lot more political backstory to all of this that I won't go into here, and I highly recommend you read the story I linked and the four preceding it for a look at it all.

DeRogatis is a music writer, so perhaps it's no surprise that one very important question to Chicago theatregoers is being left unanswered: what will become of the DCA's theatre programs? They operate the Storefront and Claudia Cassidy Theatres, right in the Loop, and give some of the best companies in town a wonderful space in which to work. They consistently present really strong work--this year alone saw The Hypocrites' stunning Cabaret, one of the year's best shows. It's a beautiful space and a consistently excellent slate of shows, and it would be a serious loss to the community to have it go away. A press release indicates that shows are scheduled through July, but will these still happen with such a diminished staff? And will there be anything happening in the fall of 2011 and beyond?

Please post in the comments any thoughts you have, and especially if you know any more information.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Quote on the NY Times Theatre Blog

And now for a moment of shameless bragging:

The New York Times periodically offers the chance to ask questions of a theatre-related figure, some of which get answered. I was fortunate to get a question answered by Charles Isherwood back in February, and I've been fortunate enough to do so again. It was one of three questions answered yesterday after the three he answered Tuesday. 

You can read the whole piece over at the site, but here's the question I asked:

Is there any figure — writer, performer, director, designer — who you feel has not been given enough credit for his or her influence on musical theater, or the quality of his or her work? Similarly, is there anyone you think gets too much credit? — Zev Valancy, Oak Park, Ill.

He answered as follows:

Too little credit? Yes, but may I call attention to a category of show contributors rather than to any one figure? I speak of the musicians who create the sound of Broadway. These are the more or less unknown men and women who take the work of a show’s songwriter(s), usually written at a keyboard, and flesh it out instrumentally (and sometimes even compositionally) to arrive at the way we hear it in the theater.

Among orchestrators I’d single out for starters Hans Spialek, Don Walker, and Jonathan Tunick; among arrangers, Genevieve Pitot and, above all, Trude Rittmann. Leonard Bernstein once referred to such musicians admiringly as the “subcomposers who turn a series of songs into a unified score.”

He's completely on-target in the assertion that orchestrators and arrangers are wildly underappreciated. It's easy to give the composer all of the credit for the way a show sounds, but listen to different versions of the same song to realize how untrue this is. Jonathan Tunick's huge orchestral arrangement for the original cast of Sweeney Todd gives a powerfully different impression from Sarah Travis' lean chamber version in the 2005 revival. The different sounds are one aspect of powerfully different experiences. (The contrast of Tunick's gorgeously varied orchestrations for the original production of Nine with the painfully generic ones by Doug Besterman for the misbegotten film version are a more unpleasant example of the same principle.)

I find Stempel's phrasing a little awkward and unclear (which doesn't bode well for the book itself), and would certainly add many names to his list, but it's a wonderful thing that he's helping orchestrators and arrangers get the attention they so richly deserve.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dimond Steps Down

Here's a pretty major piece of news for the Chicago Storefront scene: Nic Dimond is stepping down as Artistic Director at Strawdog Theatre. He's been in the ensemble there since 1995, and has been Artistic Director since 2003. There's an excellent interview with him up at "Reviews You Can Iews," which details the reasons, including his impending marriage (Mazel Tov!) and the growing company's need for an AD with somewhat different skills. He'll continue to be involved with the theatre, which is good news.

Strawdog, which has been producing since 1988, has made itself into one of the most reliable storefront companies in town: they have a lot of exceptionally talented people in their ensemble, a fun and welcoming 70-seat theatre that has the grit of a classic storefront while still being a comfortable place to see a show and a place where some really spectacular productions can occur, and a consistently audacious selection of shows that work more often than not. They're unafraid to do difficult plays, and frequently ones with very large casts, which is thrilling to behold. Two of my favorite shows of the year--The Good Soul of Szechuan and Red Noses--were at Strawdog, and while I missed their fall production of State of the Union (damn you, overscheduled October-November!), I'm going to do my best to see The Master and Margarita and The Conquest of the South Pole in 2011.

So congratulations to Nic and everyone at Strawdog for the work you've done so far, and I hope you all will continue to make great shows.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Open Letter

Dear Diane Keaton,

You have a new movie coming out on Wednesday. Congratulations, and I hope it does well for you. The trailers make it look okay, if nothing worthy of your talents. And let's be honest--what movies you've made in the past 15 years have been worthy of your talents? I mean, you made Something's Gotta Give more fun than it deserved to be, but it was a pretty thin piece. And sure The First Wives Club was cute, but come on. You're Diane Keaton. You were Kay Adams. You were Sonja in Love and Death.  You were effing ANNIE HALL. You deserve WAY better than Because I Said So!

So I have a suggestion for you. Do a play. Historically, playwrights have had a much better idea of what to do with women over 40 than Hollywood executives. Find something juicy and classical to do, or better yet, a new play. I'm sure playwrights would be salivating over the chance to write something for you. And a number of actresses in later middle age have found success in theatre--Annette Bening does a show in LA every few years to great success, Susan Sarandon had a major success in Exit the King on Broadway a few years ago. Phylicia Rashad has turned herself into a major stage actress over the past decade. It's fun, it's probably a better part, and it's likely to be quite successful.

So please, Diane. Theatre audiences of the world await you with open arms. Come to the theatre, where we're fans of women over than 40 60. I mean, do you really want to do more movies like Smother?

Or if not, at least knock out Meryl Streep and play Violet in the film version of August: Osage County.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Remember Me?

So funny story. You know what's even harder than maintaining a blog while looking for work? Maintaining a blog while working. So the good news is that I have a job (temp for now, possibility of permanent in future, reasonably enjoyable work and quite pleasing pay), recently dramaturged a play I'm really proud of, and am acting in another play I'm really proud of. The bad news is that leaving the house every morning at 7:30 and not getting back until after 11 rather takes away the time and desire to write. (I had a few ideas that fell by the wayside--a post on the Jeffs, a piece on literary adaptations that I started and never finished. Ah well.) But I've returned to plug, and plug I shall. And hopefully then I will get back to the work of chronicling theatre in Chicago and beyond.

I was privileged to serve as the dramaturg for Kingsville, by Andrew Hinderaker, at Stage Left. It's a really stunning show. The plot imagines an America where, in the wake of a string of school shootings, children are allowed to carry guns into the classrooms. But the play's not really about gun policy--it's a more complex moral inquiry into what strength and masculinity really mean, and how to live in a dangerous world. But the structure and pace are that of a thriller, and it definitely succeeds--every time I've seen it or house managed, there have been gasps of shock from the audience. It's a show that gets people incredibly excited, and the production is really excellent--Vance Smith cast a really exceptional ensemble (and the two teens in this will be seen a lot in coming years, I promise you) and helped them to do excellent work, while creating a compelling production. It's also Stage Left's first show at Theatre Wit, and fits the space beautifully--the set is fantastic, the staging fits the larger stage beautifully, and the more comfortable seats and ample bathrooms make everyone happy. The responses from the audience have been hugely enthusiastic, and I hope you'll be able to see it between now and November 21st, when it closes. As and extra bonus, three of the upcoming performances will be part of our Symposium Series, featuring conversations with experts on elements of the play, including a professor whose work on masculinity influenced the show, a lawyer for the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned Chicago's handgun ban, and a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre who now is a gun control and campus safety advocate. The show runs Thursday-Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through November 21st, at Theatre Wit, 1229 West Belmont. You can get tickets and more information here.

Meanwhile, on the acting front, tonight's the press opening for Halfshut, by Randall Colburn, at The Right Brain Project. I'm hugely excited about this. I've mentioned that I'm a fan of Randall's work a few times now, so you can imagine how thrilling it is to get the chance to act in one of his plays (one of his full-length plays, that is, though I did have the time of my life in Town Our at this year's DrekFest). What makes it particularly exciting is the process we've all been a part of: Randall took stories from the cast, the crew, and himself, and combined them with a fictional narrative thread to create a gorgeous play that blurs the lines between actor and character (and cast and audience) to exciting and moving effect. We're all playing characters based at least somewhat on ourselves, with relationships at least somewhat like our own. It's risky but incredibly exciting for me as an actor, and I think it makes for a show that's uncommonly involving and funny. I am incredibly proud of this play. We run Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 7 PM, tonight through November 4th at the Right Brain Project, 4001 N Ravenswood, Suite 405. That's just east of the Irving Park Brown Line stop or right off the 80 Irving Park bus. Our capacity is tiny (I think 28 if we squeeze), so I highly recommend that you make reservations soon by emailing or calling 773-750-2033.

Thanks for listening to my plugs, and I hope to see you at the shows soon. Soon, hopefully, it will be back to my regular blogging!

Sunday, September 26, 2010


You could also call this post "Ch-ch-ch-changes" if you were someone who liked that kind of thing. And if you are, kudos, it's an awesome damn song.

I've been rather neglectful of this blog recently. It's a damn shame, especially since I seem to have a decent number of readers who follow the site even when I don't write anything. Which is pretty cool. I appreciate it. But there have been some changes in my life, which will lead to some changes in this site, that I thought I should discuss with y'all.

The most important change is this: on September 1st, I left theatre criticism. It was a tough decision to make: I think I was pretty good at it, I enjoyed getting my take on things out there, and I loved the free tickets. It felt cool to be at opening nights, and it helped me to see a huge amount of theatre, which has introduced me to the awesome stuff being done in the city and helped me think and talk more intelligently about how theatre is made and how it affects the audience. I loved doing it, and I'd love to keep doing it.

However, criticism was never the only thing I did. I've been working steadily to get into dramaturgy and literary management, and recently restarted an acting career that I'd left behind. And in addition to my decent success in criticism, I've been fortunate to do well in these areas. My dramaturgy got me into the ensemble of Stage Left Theatre, which has been an incredible, sustaining artistic home for me over the past year and a half. I've worked with a number of other great groups, including Theatre Mir and Marriott Theatre, not to mention a hugely educational internship with the literary department at Northlight Theatre.

A few months ago, I stepped in to the position of Co-Literary Manager at Stage Left. It's an incredibly exciting job, but also a huge commitment. And the most crucial part of the job is building relationships with playwrights. Doing this while there's always the possibility I could turn around and criticize one of their shows in public would be a significant problem. This isn't to mention sheer time commitment issues, which are significant.

And just when I was getting used to my new work at Stage Left (not to mention the new apartment, which I discussed a few posts ago), I got let go from my temp job. I'd been working as a temp at one place for 11 months, and they'd kept put off hiring me due to budgetary constraints. Two weeks ago on Friday, I got a call from my agency, telling me that the company had decided to go another direction and I wasn't to return on Monday. I never heard any complaints about my performance on the job--and apparently that wasn't the issue. Someone who had previously worked the position contacted them with an interest in returning, and they took up that offer. (I'm guessing it was cheaper for them, though I don't know for sure.) Luckily I've gotten a decent amount of shorter-term temp work since (I worked two days last week and have four this coming week), and am slowly starting to look for full-time jobs (I wish I were more self-motivated.)

And I'm keeping myself busy with plenty of theatre work--I'm dramaturging Kingsville at Stage Left (which is completely bloody brilliant and I will keep promoting as the time comes closer), acting in Randall Colburn's new play Halfshut at the Right Brain Project (which is really exciting), and in process of finding scripts for next spring's LeapFest. If only some of it paid.

And what of this blog? I'm determined it will continue. There won't be any more straight-up criticism, but I'm going to continue discussing news, analysis, and commentary. I love writing, and have no plans to stop. So thanks to all of you for reading, and let me know if there's anything you want to see on the blog some time soon!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Playing In The Woods, Part 3

And now, the long-awaited (or at least long-delayed) review of Another Part of the Forest, the last show I saw at American Players Theatre. Great apologies for the delay--explanations are forthcoming.


Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, her 1946 prequel to 1939's classic The Little Foxes, was made for a proscenium stage--preferably one inside. It was the only production we saw that was a matinee Up The Hill, and certain moments suffered from the fact that it's impossible to have a blackout when the sun is shining. (The last moment of the play, particularly, though the musical cue still gave it a nice kick.) And the fact that it was quite hot and sunny didn't help, noticeably thinning the audience after the first intermission. So it's undeniable that the show had a tougher task than any of the others in the festival. But it certainly overcame the difficulties--Lillian Hellman wrote a tasty slab of melodramatic ham, and William Brown's production was just smashing, with everyone involved having a great time and keeping the audience entertained.

The play follows the scheming Hubbard family in 1880, 20 years before the events of The Little Foxes. The play delves into how they made their money and what made them who they became. It's often quite funny, but it's full of the "Old Testament Fury" that Brown mentions in his program notes: they may be absurd, and their antics fascinating, but there's no question that the Hubbards' ruthless scheming and acquisition of money and power is horribly destructive. That doesn't mean it's not fun to watch, though.

However, the melodrama takes a little time arriving. One of the strange adjustments for a contemporary audience watching the show is the delibarateness with which Hellman sets up the story. Act 1 isn't dull, but it certainly take some patience to get through it, as the script methodically sets each part of the plot in place. Authors don't take this methodical approach to exposition any more, but after adjusting, it's fun, raising anticipation for the explosions to come. And when the plot does get moving, it's delightful watching Hellman knock down what she just set up.

The cast has a fine time with their parts, making the characters pop from the stage even when they aren't entering through the aisles. Tiffany Scott makes a grandly manipulative Regina (though not nearly so dangerous as the older version), Marcus Truschinski chills the blood as the calculating elder brother Ben, Eric Parks and Tracy Michelle Arnold are hilarious as the feckless younger brother Oscar and Laurette, his lady love (who's also a lady of the evening), and Susan Shunk brings real pathos to Birdie. But the play belongs to the parents--Jonathan Smoots' Marcus, unshakably powerful in his own home until he isn't, and Sarah Day's Lavinia, seemingly addled and  powerless, but with a few aces up her sleeve.

Some just won't take to the stately pace and reliance on plot twists. But for those who like it, this is a damn fine version of a hugely entertaining show.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Playing in the Woods, Part 2

Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, attacked the apartheid system with great force in his plays. Indeed, he was one of the country's most renowned artists during that shameful period. (Chicago saw productions of three of his plays from that era earlier this year.) But his work didn't stop when Nelson Mandela was elected president. APT is presenting Exits and Entrances, his two-character play from 2004, in the Touchstone. And while it doesn't have the raw power of his earlier works, it's still and entertaining and moving play, with sterling performances from David Daniel and Ken Albers.

Exits and Entrances is a memory play, exploring the relationship between the young Fugard (Daniel) and Andre Huguenet (Albers), one of the greatest South African actors of his era. By the time the play starts, in 1956, his career is on the decline. His Capetown production of Oedipus the King has a cast of miscast locals including Fugard, only 24, a ludicrously young version of the Old Shepherd, who also serves as Huguenet's backstage assistant. In conversations through the course of the run, as well as a reunion five years later, the playwright learns about Huguenet's life, regrets, and views on theatre, and shares his own theatrical dreams, life regrets, and fierce desire to change the country's horrible injustices.

The script's real advantage is in the characters: Fugard supplies a clear-eyed version of himself as a romantic young man, and a titanic Huguenet. This is the kind of part that actors dream of--grandiosity whipsawing into insecurity, dreams and desires beaten but not destroyed. And Albers makes a meal of it, making us care about this larger-than-life man and feel for his pain and disappointment. Daniel, though clearly somewhat older than his character, provides an appealing audience surrogate, full of ideals and artistic fire.

The script isn't quite as strong plot-wise. While the characters sometimes disagree, their main conflicts are either internal or with South African society. Most of the dialogue, therefore, consists of telling stories from the past and arguing issues. It's interesting to watch, but a little short on drama. Even though the show is less than 90 minutes long, it sometimes sags.

But it's really a chance to watch two actors doing great work up close. And for those who love great acting, it's definitely worth a trip.


As You Like It is not named after its protagonist, like King Lear or Hamlet. But like them, it's unusually dependent on one performance: a production won't get far without a wonderful Rosalind. And the production at APT has found one in Hillary Clemens. She's completely lovable and delightful, with an easy command of the language and wonderful chemistry with Matt Schwader's Orlando. She's a strong center to Tim Ocel's lovely staging of one of Shakespeare's most complex comedies. The play is by turns hilarious, melancholy, philosophical, and life-affirming, and this production nails all of its moods.

Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior (Brian Mani), who was overthrown by his usurping younger brother, Frederick (Mani again), and exiled to the Forest of Arden. However, due to her friendship with Celia (Tiffany Scott), she is allowed to stay in the court. Orlando (Schwader) is the younger brother of Oliver (Darragh Kennan), who denies him his inheritance or any education and keeps him as virtual slave labor. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love at first sight when he comes to court and defeats the fearsome Charles (Michael Huftile), in a wrestling match. But just afterward Rosalind finds that she is being banished from the court. She, dressed as a boy, and Celia, dressed as a farmgirl, flee to the forest, where they encounter her father and his transplanted community, a group of lovestruck shepherds, and Orlando, on the run from his murderously angry brother.

The script balances a complex, quite silly plot with deep philosophical revelations and dizzy clowning, and it's tough to get them all right. But Ocel and company do it in the simplest way--playing the characters as real people with real problems. They're immensely likable, and our laughs are of recognition at frailties we share with the characters, rather than condescension. (One occasional exception is David Daniel's Touchstone, the fool: his clowning is often hilarious, but occasionally goes way too far outside the play's world, to jarring effect.)

Clemens leads the cast (which is excellent throughout), with able support from Scott, Schwader, James Ridge as the melancholy lord Jacques, and Nicholas Harazin and Ashleigh LaThrop as an unlikely rustinc couple. It's funny, exciting, and, in the end, deeply moving.


Check back soon for my review of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, the last show I saw at APT.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Playing in the Woods, Part 1

This past weekend, I passed a major milestone in my life as a Chicagoan. (Or, given my move, a Chicagolandian.) I visited Wisconsin for the first time. This is something that absolutely everybody in Chicago does--it's close enough for a weekend car trip, it's cheaper than a lot of vacations, and it's gorgeous. But I had never had the chance to take advantage of it, and so felt like I was missing out on an experience common to all natives of this fine city.

But no more! Adam and I visited Wisconsin this weekend, and a particularly wonderful part thereof: The American Players Theatre near Spring Green, not far from Madison. The people of APT invited me to visit this past weekend. I saw four plays over three days, and will herein be reviewing them for you, along with the experience in general.

So what is APT? It's a classical theatre, in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. The Up The Hill Theatre--so named because it is in fact a quarter-mile hike up a hill to get there--is an open-air amphiteatre with 1148 seats and excellent acoustics. The Touchstone, which opened in 2009, is a lovely 200-seat indoor space.

APT starts with an absolutely unfair advantage: When the weather is nice (and it was absolutely perfect this weekend), the entire audience is in a great mood. Particularly for the shows I saw in the evening, I have rarely been in an audience that was happier and more excited to see a show. It certainly didn't hurt that all of the shows I saw lived up to that expectation, but the setting itself is an invaluable part of the company's success.

First, a few words on food: Picnics are part of the tradition at APT--there are tables all over the place--and with good reason. It's not a first-rate food town. There are a few places with fine-but-not-exceptional diner and pub food, and some fancy restaurants that are reportedly pretty wonderful (we didn't want to pay to find out), but the only really excellent meal that we had was at the Spring Green General Store, which has a delicious menu of salads, sandwiches, and soups, very fresh and tasty. (If you want a drink and snack, though, I highly recommend the Bird of Paradise Tea Room for some tea and pie. Oh man, that was good pie. And I'd have spent so much time picking a tea if they hadn't been about to close.) Premade picnics are available to order from the box office, and there are certainly enough grocery stores around to prepare one for yourself. If we are able to return, that's certainly what we'll do.

As for lodging: we were fortunate that the theatre put us up at the House on the Rock Resort. It's a lovely hotel (all of the rooms are suites), and certainly recommended for those who have the means, or a love of golf--the resort has 27 holes. However, there are more reasonable options available as well, though none so close to the theatre.

And if you are in the area, I recommend The House on the Rock. It's a hugely popular tourist attraction, and something that really must be seen: it's the creation of a possibly mad visionary who build a gigantic house and filled it with...stuff. There's a room that extends out hundreds of feet over open air, a giant carousel, and way more. It's unlike anything you've seen, and certainly an American original.


After The House on the Rock, we saw the first show of the weekend, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. It's often known as one of his problem plays, and with good reason: the plot can potentially be quite off-putting. Helena (Ally Carey, who is remarkably only a year out of her BFA and still non-equity), a commoner and the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, is the ward of the Countess of Rossillion (Tracy Michelle Arnold), and in love with her son, Bertram (Matt Schwader). When she uses her father's medicines to cure the King of France (Jonathan Smoots), previously thought terminal, he grants her any husband she wants in the kingdom. She chooses Bertram, but he's horrified at the thought of marrying someone below his station, and just after their wedding runs away to war, the marriage unconsummated. She follows him to war, and initiates a scheme to win him back.

It would make sense to play this as bitter comedy, but director John Langs goes a different route. He emphasizes the characters' humanity and the reconciliation that comes at the end. There are many laughs, but rarely at the characters' expense. (The one exception is Jim DeVita as Parolles, Bertram's big-talking hanger-on, whom the script thoroughly humiliates. However, even he sees some redemption at the end.)

And it did wonders for a play I thought I knew--this production was more moving than I thought possible. I'd always thought of it as an odd, bitter little show, and the previous versions I saw didn't change my mind. But by emphasizing the characters' humanity and their consequences, without ever judging or dismissing them, Langs and his cast have given the show uncommon depth.

The acting is strong throughout, as it was in all four shows--the rotating repertory format clearly ups the game of everyone involved, and I wish there were more of it to be found in Chicago. Carey leads the way with an assured performance, making Helena's seemingly self-destructive decisions understandable, while Schwader makes you understand both why she wants him and why he doesn't deserve it. Arnold and Smoots bring moral authority to the play's older generation, and DeVita and John Pribyl are just hilarious, without taking the audience out of the play.

Langs' production does sag a bit in the second half--there were several sections when it seemed to take far too long to get through each plot point--but he's created a funny and moving production of a Shakespeare that often doesn't get the credit it deserves.


I hope you enjoyed the first installment--check back soon for the other three productions we saw in Spring Green!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where I've Been

Well, the answer is, not on this blog. To the people who read the blog (and I'm hoping some are left after this three-week absence), I'm sorry to have left for so long. I tend to get very tense when my favorite bloggers don't update daily, so I would judge my own three-week absence as utterly inexcusable.

However, I haven't been completely lazy. Most importantly, I've been moving. My boyfriend Adam and I have finally taken the plunge into domesticity, and have gotten an apartment together in Oak Park. Leaving the city limits initially met with some qualms from me, but Adam's job is in Naperville, and the commute from the north side would have been brutal. Also, seriously, the place is gorgeous, and my commute is virtually the same duration now as it was when I lived in Uptown. And I live right north of the main library and across from a park! Anyhow, as you can imagine, my time and brain have been largely occupied with that. Indeed, I still sometimes burst out with spasms of real-estate speak, despite the fact that we moved into the place on the 15th. It's hard to retrain your mind.

As a side note, one of the bizarre side effects of my lurches into adulthood is that I'm getting excited about things that I never imagined being excited about. The most recent example is cleaning products. It's sad to say, but Mr. Clean Magic Erasers had me almost giddy with joy this weekend. It's like a sponge, but you wet it and rub it on stains on a wall (i.e. from furniture--pretty prevalent at the old apartment) and they DISAPPEAR! It's amazing! And I can rationalize my excitement by the fact that it's not really the cleaning product that excited me so much as not having to scrub. Oy, I'm becoming mature whether I like it or not.

What time I didn't spend moving was occupied with the various theatrical ventures I'm working on, rather than writing about. The biggest time investment was DrekFest, which had three utterly delightful evenings, and presented eight fantastic plays, four of which went on to become semi-finalists. The grand loser was Jake Lindquist's hilarious Man Vs. Carp. The whole event was a whole lot of fun, despite a few mishaps along the way, and I can't wait for next year.

I also spearheaded my first major initiative as Co-Literary Manager at Stage Left: several valiant ensemble members and I slew the dragon that is our pile of script samples. It had grown far beyond the ability of one person to read and sort through them, so a bunch of us took piles of ten and decided which ones merit a further reading. It was huge--and still has to be followed by the huger task of letting the playwrights know if we want to read their plays or not. On into the breach.

Anyhow, more than enough personal nattering has happened. What of the wider world of theatre! Well, August is a pretty quiet time for it. Most of the more established companies are briefly dormant, and as I took the month off from Centerstage, I didn't get to see what the smaller ones were up to. The one show I did see that really stuck out was the remount of Red Noses at Strawdog. Overall, it was really wonderful--a defiant statement in favor of joy and laughter, even when perched on the edge of the abyss. The cast was fantastic and the awesome Matt Hawkins (Is he directing anything in the 2010-2011 season? If not, why not?) staged it with immense creativity and incredible passion and punch. I had some issues with it--there were apparently significant script cuts, and while they did wonders for the running time and sense of pacing, they sometimes left characters and relationships feeling a little sketched-out. But overall I really loved it. After this and The Good Soul of Szechuan, Strawdog is fast getting onto the list of my favorite companies in town. I'm excited to see what they have coming up.

And finally, a small note on the coverage of theatre in Chicago. Chris Jones has managed to make his blog at the Trib into what is probably the most-widely read single source of press coverage on Chicago theatre. It's doubtless where a lot of people turn first, and a rave review from him can seriously alter the fortunes of a show for the better. (Just ask Suicide, Incorporated or Harper Regan.) Some take issues with his critical skills and style, but that's an occupational hazard of the profession. Few would deny that he's one of the fiercest and most public advocates for Chicago theatre. And part of his professional project appears to be a promotion of Chicago theatre as a brand. Someone might reading his articles would probably use adjectives like smart, scrappy, gutsy, intimate, in-your-face, fearless, making up in quality what it sometimes lacks in flash. (Not that he only praises shows with this type of aesthetic, or finds them in shows that don't have them, but he certainly mentions them when they are present and promotes them as Chicagoan.) People could certainly argue over whether such qualities are more present in Chicago's thatre than in other cities'--a question I couldn't even begin to answer. But I still think the promotion of a Chicago brand is a good thing--especially for people whose ideas of theatre are limited to a narrow aesthetic. The coverage promotes Chicago's home-grown shows and hopefully creates interest in everything the city has to offer.

But, as with many concepts, this Chicago brand can be over-used. Another issue is the fact that the nebulous concept of the Chicago brand is often evoked with a simple phrase: "Chicago-Style." And that's unfortunate. I love theatre in this town, but when I read the phrase "Chicago-Style," I think of pizza. And hot dogs. And when you put "Chicago-Style" in both the headline and the final sentence of a review, it's awfully difficult to concentrate on Frost/Nixon and keep the mind off of Lou Malnati's.

I understand that space is at a premium and punchy phrases are hugely useful to getting across ideas, and I certainly am in favor of Chris Jones' work in helping to promote the brand of theatre in Chicago. It's a wonderful thing and I hope he continues. I just think this particular phrase doesn't quite work.


Monday, August 2, 2010

DrekFest Starts Tonight!

As you should know, tonight marks the first evening of DrekFest 4 at Stage Left. You really need to come. 7:30, ComedySportz at 929 W Belmont, tickets available at the door, you can bring your drinks into the theatre. And four hilariously bad new plays, not to mention the reprise of the winner from 2008. Here's tonight's program:

You Didn’t See This Coming: The play with a twist ending you won’t see coming,  by Kate Black
Untitled Brilliant Play (The Title Should Sound Very Artistic if You Have any Ideas): A True Opus Worthy of All the Greats, by James Thomson
Town Our: A Post-Structuralist Deconstruction of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, by Drekfest 2009 winner Randall Colburn
Women & Men & Women: Or, I am Totally not a Misogynist, by Robert Karol.

While the votes are tabulated, an encore reading of The Worst Play from 2008 The Frenzied Beating of the Jungle Tom-Toms Once More, Once More, by Rob Kozlowski.

Next week sees four more hilarious plays and the return of the 2009 winner, and the following sees the top two shows from each night (by popular vote), with the grand loser winning a cash prize!

Oh, and if you want to see me act, this would be a very good chance. Especially if you want to see me as a supremely egotistical and insecure playwright attempting to win his ex-girlfriend back through pretentious theatrical deconstruction. Just saying.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Les Enfants Terribles: Prom Night

Sometimes Infantile, Not Terrible

(left to right) Scott Ray Merchant, Casey Kells, Chris Mueller, Alex Kyger, Eric Swanson, Brian Rad. Photo by Tom Hartmon.

When my roommate, brilliant actor/playwright/novelist Jessica Cluess, and I see a particularly strange piece of theatre or film, she generally turns to me with a shrug and says "Well, that happened." In a way it's a compliment: the art has, after all, provoked a reaction that's hard to put into words. There are many worse things a play or movie can do than weird you out. But if that's all it does, it's hard to argue that it's really effective--weirdness alone doesn't stick for long.

Well, Les Enfants Terribles: Prom Night certainly happened. What exactly was it that happened? Well, we're in a gym, decorated in patented tacky prom style (Shaun Renfro did the witty set). Just as a group of students (Jonathan Helvey, RyanLempka, and Amanda Beth Miller) are about to draw the name of the Prom King, Les Enfants burst in. Les Enfants, played by Casey Kells, Alex Kyger, Scott Ray Merchant, Christopher Paul Mueller, Brian Rad, and Eric Ryan Swanson, are a group of grotesque figures. They are wearing brownish, stained unitards, with foam-rubber growths of various kinds underneath--one has large, clunky feet, another gigantic breasts, the third a phallus that goes straight up to his sternum and what appear to be giant rabbit ears on his head. They chase out the people and proceed to enact a grotesque parody of the processes of courtship and prom royalty election, interspersed with bizarre a cappella performances of songs ranging from "All You Need Is Love" to "Tubthumping", violent beatings, and declarations of "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." In less than an hour, it's done.

It's hard to make a recommendation on this show, because it depends so thoroughly on the taste of the audience members. For those who like aggressive, grotesque, bizarre humor, it's sidesplitting (and there were some in the audience). Others are likely to find it intensely unpleasant. I fell somewhere in between--moments made me laugh, others made me uncomfortable, and there were sections where I just got bored or felt like the show was repeating itself. The cast is clearly talented: they create clear and sharp characterizations and throw themselves into the show with complete commitment and unwavering intensity. (All are recent graduates of Roosevelt University.) It just doesn't add up to much, in the end. It's too weird to be silly, escapist comedy, but if there was any satirical point or commentary on humanity, it didn't come through to me. The show may just be going for "bizarre provocation with uncomfortable laughs", in which case it succeeds on those limited grounds--it's certainly bizarre and provocative, and often funny. It hasn't yet cohered into a compelling show, but it will be interesting to see how the group matures over time.

One important note: if you do go, dress as lightly as possible. The night we went, it was absolutely stifling in there, despite the best efforts of a few fans. Hopefully Red Tape will come up with another plan to keep the place cool, but for now, wear shorts and sandals if possible, and bring water.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Hesperia at the Right Brain Project

Full Disclosure: Playwright Randall Colburn is a friend of mine, and I'm friendly with director Nathan Robbel as well. I stand by the fairness and honesty of the review, but take it as you will.

Searching for Redemption

(Billy Fenderson and Katy Albert)

The desire for redemption is powerful: who hasn't felt they have sins that need to be washed away? But the drive to get away from your own sins can hurt other people horribly. That's the conflict that animates Hesperia, the second play in the Randall Colburn season at the Right Brain Project. It's not a perfect play, but it does enough things exceptionally well to be well worth a trip.

Claudia (Natalie DiCristofano) used to be a porn star named Jess. But one year ago, she fled L. A. and her old life and ran to Hesperia, a small, conservative, evangelical midwestern town near the one where she grew up. She's engaged to Trick (Nick Freed), the local youth pastor, and feels that she's gotten beyond her past. But now Ian (Billy Fenderson), her former lover and porn partner, who went to LA with her, has also come to Hesperia, looking for the same solution.

It's a plot setup ripe for sensationalism, which Colburn entirely avoids. In fact, the play does a remarkably good job at showing the appeal of religious conservatism. It was quite a surprise for someone, like myself, who has never been particularly religious--I felt the sense of belonging, of having one's toughest problems cared for, that must make an overwhelmingly religious communities so sustaining. The play is full of revelations like that--Colburn has a razor-sharp eye for the details of human behavior, and it's a joy to see moment after moment that's funny, moving, and painfully recognizable. (The production certainly helps in this respect.) It's rare for a play to have so many uncomfortably honest moments, and something special for this reason alone.

But while the truth of the characters and situations and the quality of the acting (more on that later) make the show consistently interesting to watch, the plotting doesn't always help. There isn't much plot tension to hold the show together. A plot strand that should provide an air of tension and sense of urgency feels perfunctory and is poorly devloped, such that when it gets resolved it almost doesn't register. It's not that it was ever supposed to be a highly plotty show (or at least it doesn't seem that way). But at this point it still has moments where it feels meandering, even though it's less than 90 minutes long, and the ending doesn't pack quite the punch that it should. (I'd also like another play, or a second act, to see what happens to these characters in the next few years, but that's beyond the scope of this review.)

Robbel knows Colburn's work (they collaborated on Pretty Penny a few months ago), and he leads his actors to excellent performances. DiCristofano has the least knowable character onstage (Claudia keeps a lot back), but she's always believable and sympathetic, even at her worst. Fenderson is likable, if a little frightening, as a man overwhelmed by the chance to will his past away. Freed is exceptional, making a character who could easily be a buffoon into the most sympathetic one onstage. Katy Albert, as a potential love interest for Ian, gives a hugely appealing and natural performance, despite the fact that her subplot needs more development.

Hesperia isn't a perfect play (and I think that Pretty Penny was better), but it's still damn impressive, and the folks at the RBP clearly know how to showcase Colburn's work to its best advantage. It's worth checking out for anyone interested in quality new plays, and hopefully a prelude to bigger things from all concerned.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Write Lots of Things

Here are two posts I wrote for other sites:

The first is "My Cherrywood Nights or David Cromer Stole My Childhood," a short essay on my experiences in the cast of Cherrywood that I wrote for Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer's very funny "Cherrywatch" blog.
I've also got a new review up, of Bruised Orange Theatre's Daddy Long Legs. It's a one act noirish comic thriller performed at the on the lakefront in Rogers Park. It doesn't always work (the ending falls flat) but there's a lot of fun to be had in sitting on the beach and watching the proceedings.

Here's the Cherrywood piece:

Many of you, reading the various articles about Cherrywood (some of which are even based on fact, and interviews which actually took place) might have gotten the impression that David Cromer’s production is the Chicago premiere of Kirk Lynn’s 2004 Austin-set mindfuck. But it is not so. Shade Murray directed it as his first year directing project while getting his MFA at Northwestern. This is the production that Cromer saw, which got him interested in the script in the first place. Cromer then worked on it in a student production at Act One Studios, and now here it is at Mary-Arrchie, the Greatest Chicago Theatre Event In History.

But who remembers the previous productions? I do. I was in Shade Murray’s Cherrywood (and who hasn’t wanted to get in Shade Murray’s Cherrywood?), and I can tell the tale. Cromer used my experiences, from when I was a tender lad of 21, to create his play, and I feel used. And sort of exhilarated.

Shade chose twelve of the best and brightest—or at least twelve of the hardest to embarrass and least likely to ask “what’s the point of this?”—to be his intrepid cast. We viewpointed, we created unscripted moments, we did sun salutations, we didn’t know how the show was ending until about three nights before we opened. It was a little bit of a cult.

We had no budget for tech and no stage manager, so there were no light cues, the set was mostly made of cardboard boxes, the costumes were pulled from storage, and the sound cues came from Shade running his iPod from the booth, with speakers sitting on the back of the stage.

And it was pretty awesome. Yes, twelve people doesn’t make a realistic party, and yes, the script can get a little bogged down and/or weird. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same kind of ownership over a play again. We built that damn show with our bare hands. We had three performances in a hundred-some seat theatre and were done. (And it was the last show I did before my graduation the next month.)

But then Cromer saw it, and suddenly we weren’t so special any more. He just had to do it with a greater degree of difficulty: four times the cast size, an actual set, a reconfigured theatre, critics, and on and on. And of course he’s David Cromer, so he’s watched like a hawk by everyone, and doing something like this…well, that’s newsworthy.

So I’m torn between being happy that more people will get to know this show and being jealous that Cromer’s version has gotten way more attention. I’m no longer special for having in Cherrywood—in fact, theatre people in Chicago who haven’t are harder to find these days. And doubtless Cromer took some stuff from our production, or made some changes that feel wrong, or generally messed with my memories of the show. Things will doubtless drive my crazy about the production.

But fuck it. I’m still going.

And here's the review of Daddy Long Legs:

As far as set designs go, it's hard to compete with Lake Michigan. Daddy Long Legs sets up a few rows of chairs on Leone Beach in Rogers Park, overlooking the water, and unfolds a tasty little gangster story for 50 minutes. The setting sometimes bolsters the story and sometimes distracts, but even when interest flags, it's easy to enjoy an early-evening hour on the beach.

For those with a taste for noirish tales, the show's a lot of fun. It's 1929, shortly after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Bobby Widdle (Clint Sheffer, who also wrote the play) is meeting Mars Streznick (John Arthur Lewis) on the beach. Streznick arrives hauling a burlap sack filled with body parts — the remains of a hit. Bobby wants to find his wife, and Mars seems to know where she is. But he's not saying much, trying to convince Bobby to leave town while he can.

Sheffer does a good job teasing the audience with each morsel of information, keeping us hooked into the twisty plot. The script balances funny and suspenseful moments, while offering up some delightfully stylized dialogue and razor-sharp wordplay. He and Lewis each create compelling portraits of the feckless hoods: They are tough and dangerous, with something to hide, but aren't quite as smart or hard boiled as they think they are. Both are greatly helped by Anne Sonneville's costumes and Wes Clark's fight choreography. Unfortunately, the last 10 minutes, when the answers are revealed, manage to be both predictable and confusing. It's a disappointing end to an otherwise fun show.

And then there's the setting. The panorama is huge, and we could see everything from bright skies to dark clouds spewing lightning was visible at once. It was gorgeous and dramatic — and at its best moments, so was the play.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Exclusive Interview: Nathan Robbel of the Right Brain Project

The much discussed problem with the new play process in America is one of lots of development that rarely leads to actual production. Plays get workshopped to death. Well, this isn't happening at the Right Brain Project. Not only has artistic director Nathan Robbel programmed a three-play season of world premieres, they are all by the same playwright: Randall Colburn. The season started with Pretty Penny, which I really enjoyed. It now continues with Hesperia, the surprisingly tender story of a former porn star who seeks a redemptive future in the midwestern town where she was born. I talked to Robbel about why Right Brain chose to devote their season to Colburn's work and the process they've been using to bring his plays to life. I'll be seeing the show Friday, so I'll report back.

How did you first encounter Randall's work?
I was first introduced to Randall through a mutual friend of ours who felt I would take to his scripts and his style. She had been familiar with his work for some time, and I had directed her in a number of projects in the past few years. The first time I saw his work, however, was at a short play festival with Dream Theatre Company. The piece was short, obscure and non-traditional. But I remember being impressed at how quickly and efficiently he was able to create deep characters with so little.

What made you decide that he fit with Right Brain's mission and aesthetic, and how would you describe them?
The primary tenet of our mission statement has always been to find unique and unexpected ways to connect the audience to the actor. Whether that has been through breaking the fourth wall, physically touching the audience, or simply delivering something non-traditional, we've always felt that theatre should be a communal experience beyond simply sitting in the dark and watching a story unfold. It excites us when we can find ways to get the audience closer to the story, characters, and the overall "theatrical experience" than might be expected.

As far as our aesthetic is concerned... The short answer is that our aesthetic is highly influenced and dictated by our resources. We're constantly asking ourselves how can we best serve the story and deliver a satisfying, sometimes larger-than-life theatrical experience within our limitations - and how do we turn our limitations into an advantage? We've often labeled our shows (rather tongue-in-cheek) as "epic minimalism." Instead of apologizing and finding ways to hide our limitations, we choose to embrace them and find ways to weave them into the fabric of the production as a positive means to an end - which is telling a story as strongly and as emotionally truthful and resonant as possible. I would like to think that if our productions were mounted in a larger space or with significantly larger resources, that they wouldn't be nearly as effective. We strive to make choices that embrace what we have to their fullest potential.

Randall's work fits this mission and aesthetic particularly well. Take Pretty Penny, for example. While I'm always hesitant to apply labels to scripts, one could call the script grounded in realism. It could easily be done on a huge budget with multiple sets and loads of props to accurately depict the "real" world, and that may be the obvious choice. And we could have exhausted ourselves attempting to make that happen. But due to our limited budget, we chose to forgo all of those things. By committing to miming everything in the show, hopefully the audience accepted the convention from the very first scene and instead concentrated fully on these characters and their inner struggles. Suddenly Randall's characters, which are full of nuance, complex motivations, and deep-rooted issues, were a force to be reckoned with. There is literally nothing in between the audience and the psyche of these people. We watch their faces and their eyes, as there is nothing else on stage to see. Suddenly quiet moments between characters become extremely important. In fact, a scene can become ABOUT those quiet moments. And when we're forced to slow down and give over our full attention, a great actor can take us with them on their emotional journey. Randall's work is full of these tender, quiet moments, and given what we have to work with, they become the centerpiece of the production.

And from there, why a full season of his shows? It's a pretty big risk to take on someone who isn't well known to the general public.
Truth be told, it just felt right. When I saw a staged reading of Hesperia, it knocked my socks off. There was so much nuance happening just in between the lines of the script - it didn't need any bells and whistles. In fact, I can only imagine that layering in elements of that sort could only detract from what I was witnessing. I felt close to these actors, and their struggles resonated. It was powerful stuff. In an intimate space like ours and with committed, excited actors, I knew we could fully harness what I felt Randal was trying to achieve with his scripts. It just seemed right.

And as far as risk is concerned... I fully believe that if one does work they're passionate about, and does it well, the audience will eventually come. I strive to never compromise what feels right artistically for the RBP. Sure, when one considers we could be doing more established work that may draw in larger audiences, there's a risk to devoting an entire season to one local playwright. But I believe in Randall's work, and I believe that we're a worthy vehicle for his scripts. We can only hope that people catch on, and will appreciate what we're doing. I've been completely satisfied thus far, and I believe our actors and our crew feel the same.

Had you done any readings or workshops of his stuff, or did you just jump in to produce?
We held a reading of Pretty Penny for our own sake very early in the process. It was kind of an opportunity to hear it out loud, chat about it, and give Randall a chance to approach the script again with fresh eyes. But really, most of the work on the script came from Randall, our wonderful dramaturg Jamie Bragg, and me chatting about the script and what we wanted to accomplish, and what was within our means to bring to life given our resources. Because this was a new work, our rehearsal time was extended by about a week and a half or so, in case we encountered the need for re-writes. But really, that was about it. I went with my gut. I loved the script, and I loved his style, and I had to trust that our audience would as well. And I felt we could successfully work together as an ensemble to make this work efficiently. In the end, we were extremely lucky to find the cast we did, as they were highly professional, willing to play, and they jumped right in. And we've been just as lucky with the cast and crew of Hesperia. I couldn't be happier with the enthusiastic people I'm working with. It's a joy to produce with people so excited about a project.

Pretty Penny is about a young woman who starts a job at a no-limit phone sex line. It looks at desire and identity, without being exploitative. Do Hesperia and the third play of the season explore similar themes? What can we expect?
Hesperia most certainly follows a similar theme, but down a slightly different path. While it's a very different show, both in terms of story and presentation, its themes are connected, and these characters definitely feel like they exist in the same world - just very different corners of it. Pretty Penny's characters are in various stages of attempting to redefine and reinvent themselves on their own terms, to varying degrees of success - and sex and sexuality is the catalyst. Hesperia explores a woman's attempt to do the same, but more specifically she is trying to find a purity and an innocence that she feels she has strayed from. She is seeking redemption, and in many ways, a return to childhood. She latches onto the small town of Hesperia and the Evangelical Christian environment that permeates the town to do so. But like Pretty Penny, Hesperia delves into some uncomfortable places - specifically in its raw depiction of sexual desire that is refreshing and almost disturbingly innocent in a way I've never before encountered in a script.

Our third show of the season, entitled Halfshut, will hopefully go to some similar places as well. I can't outright say what to expect, except that we're striving to blur the line between actor and character more than ever before, and we hope to continue to dwell on similar themes of identity and the role that sexuality plays in that.

So give your final pitch: why is it important for you to produce a full season of Randall Colburn's plays, and why should audiences come see it?
When so many new scripts attempt to tackle big ideas, political or social trends and upsets, Randall's plays are simple and there is a familiarity to his characters that he achieves through small moments. And it's these small moments that we can all relate to. A song that was playing at our prom when we knew we were in love, or the awkward anticipation of holding someone's hand, or the remembrance of an event that touched our heart. These are good people, with their own private struggles, and our vulnerability can be seen in those small moments. While we're surrounded by large political and social issues, at the end of the day, when we look in the mirror, we're there with ourselves and those private struggles. And really, when we connect to other people, it's these small, personal struggles that we all have in common. We hope audiences will see a show, relate to the character, and by proxy, relate to the actor willing to be vulnerable in such an intimate space. All we have are each other, and if art can take us on a personal journey with another person, that's a beautiful thing.

Hesperia opens July 15th and plays through August 15th, running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM. All shows play at the Right Brain Project, 4001 N Ravenswood, which is accessible by the Irving Park Brown Line stop, the Irving Park, Damen, and Lincoln buses, and the Ravenswood Metra, as well as boasting ample street parking. Tickets are $15, $12 in a group. Tickets at 773-750-2033 or

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Goodbye, Harvey

This post isn't about Chicago or theatre (though American Splendor was adapted for the stage in a production starring Dan Castellanata in the 1980's), but please read it anyway. You should know about Harvey, and might want to check his work out.

Harvey Pekar, a comic book writer best known for American Splendor, a series based on his own life, was found dead by his wife Joyce shortly before 1 AM Monday morning. Pekar was also a jazz writer of renown, writing reviews, liner notes, and pieces for anthologies. (He also wrote at least one jazz-related comic.) He and his wife lived a few blocks from the house where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, and he was a friend.

We weren't close, and I'd mostly lost touch with him and Joyce, but I hung out in the man's living room (overflowing with books and records, of course) and wanted to share a few memories.

I met Harvey and Joyce through Danielle, their foster daughter. We went to camp together (I was 13 at the time, she was a few years younger), and I ended up spending time with the then-new family. We discussed theatre, politics, music and more. They gave me copies of several issues of the comics--which let me tell you, is heady stuff for a 13 year old to read. That kind of insight into life cuts pretty deep at any age, much less when you're a mixed-up, still-sorta-closeted, unsure of how to live out your intense artistic ambitions early-adolescent. Conversations with them had the rare combination of validating my right to hold and express artistic and political opinions (not often something granted to 13 year olds by non-relatives) with challenging me to actually understand and support them. It was exasperating at times, but it helped open my mind.

And of course there was the undeniable, possibly shallow thrill of being friends with a nationally recognized artist. I got to introduce my Uncle Lou, for whom Harvey's comics and especially his jazz writing were touchstones, to him. And for a small group of in the know people, Harvey Pekar was the coolest Cleveland celebrity one could know (Drew Carey be damned).

And of course there was the movie--the 2003 film version of American Splendor, which combined interviews with Harvey and Joyce, fictional scenes in which they were played by Paul Giamatti (some of his best work ever, his lack of an Oscar nomination was shameful) and Hope Davis, and animated sequences to tell the story of his life and work. It was shot in Cleveland, and used a bunch of local actors. Harvey and Joyce generously put my name in the front of the line to audition to be an extra. I was never able to, due to school scheduling issues, but my mother (my ride to the audition) ended up getting called twice--and now appears for 7 seconds in the background of an Oscar nominee for best screenplay. (And for once the film version of a comic book completely lives up to the source material--it's well-acted, well-adapted, funny, creative, and moving. Rent it.)

And of course he meant a lot to Cleveland, especially Cleveland Heights. Cleveland gets a lot of flak (some of it deserved and some of it from me), but his stories showed the city in a much deeper light than the "mistake on the lake" taunts that get slung at it. There's a lot of beauty in Cleveland, and especially Cleveland Heights. And just about everyone in town seemed to have met him at least once, and they all liked him.

So rest in peace, Harvey. You were a brilliant man, a good soul, and a great artist. It was a pleasure to know you as well as I did, and I wish I'd done a better job at staying in contact. My city was better for having you in it, and I'm fortunate for having read your work. You went way too soon, but I hope that more people will get to know your work now. My infinite sympathies to Joyce, Danielle, and all of your family and friends. Thank you.

If any of you have memories of Harvey personally, or were touched by his work, please put them below.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Before It Hits Home

I've still not been in the bloggiest of moods (it happens), but here are a few things of interest from the past week.

--This past Saturday, July 3rd, was Audra McDonald's 40th birthday. (As she was born in 1970, that means she won four Tonys before her 34th birthday. You may commence hating.) She's a truly stunning performer. Not only does she have a surpassingly beautiful voice, but she acts both songs and scenes with complete commitment and honesty. I have yet to be disappointed by her work--or indeed, be anything other than stunned. So if you have one of her discs, listen to it and wish her a happy belated birthday. If not, order a few, and watch her on youtube until they arrive. Also, hope that Private Practice, her TV show, ends soon, so that she can get back on Broadway and in the recording studio. You'll thank me.

--And this past Sunday was July 4th. A day later, I managed to get to my annual tradition for the day: listening to the original cast album of 1776. What a great play. Tuneful songs, a raft of fantastic performances (I believe that William Daniels' John Adams, which can be heard on the album and seen in the surprisingly good film adaptation, is among the greatest musical theatre performances ever.), and a stunningly crafted book, which somehow leaves the audience in nail-biting suspense as to whether the Declaration of Independence will be signed. It's a show I utterly love, and it may even be in my personal top 10 musicals list. So if you're not familiar with the show, go track it down immediately. If you are, listen to it again.

--The Hypocrites have announced their 2010-2011 season, and it looks facinating (and bizarre).Greg Allen of the Neo-Futurists is directing his own adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, called K. Based on the reputations of both Kafka and Allen, it's sure to be a brain-bender. Sean Graney, the company's artistic director (whose work I've usually loved in the past) will direct his own version of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, a seminal, legendariy weird, 19th-century play which has been hugely influential and which I have never gotten around to seeing or reading. (It will be running concurrently with other adaptations of the work at About Face and Collaboraction next season.) Both of those, while ambitious works, sit relatively comfortably within The Hypocrites' aesthetic. The shock in the announcement is the third production: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Yes, the surpassingly silly and slyly satirical British operetta, filled with patter songs, soaring melodies, and ridiculous plot twists. Graney will direct, and whether or not it works, it's sure to infuriate Gilbert and Sullivan purists and be unlike anything else playing in Chicago. I'll be there.

--And finally, a poll question. The AV Club has a discussion question every Friday, which is answered by the staff members and then discussed in the comments section. This past Friday, the question was:

When have you felt like a work hit close to home for you, or almost like something was made just for you?

The staff members responded with a variety of movies, albums, and books. None of them mentioned a play. (This doesn't particularly surprise me.) So I figured I'd open the question up for you guys. What theatrical work, either seen on stage, read as a script, or listened to as a cast album, really hit home for you?

I'll start.

For me it would have to be the character of Posner in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Few plays I've ever seen have been so accurate in their portrayal of how being an adolescent really feels, and few characters have ever felt as much like me as Posner. He's gay, Jewish, and short, he's wracked with desire for an unattainable man, and he never feels truly accepted by the people around him. Now people could argue, quite accurately, that there are significant differences between me and him: I'm not as socially awkward, able to make my way through the world reasonably well, and much more fortunate in love. But that doesn't mean that there still aren't moments--or weeks--when I feel just like him. To see a character with whom I identify so strongly onstage is spooky and moving. To learn that his life turns out badly is devastating.

How about you?

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Review Posted: Lookingglass Alice

Another week of extra-blog worries, another week of no posting. (And my connection to a few of the things on which I might post is a little too personal for me to think of a good way to write on them just yet.) And when I had a  review published on Monday, too! Shame on me.

Anyhow, Lookingglass Alice is pretty damn cool. It has issues in terms of storytelling and emotional heft--any version is necessarily episodic, which this doesn't fix, and few of the poignant moments really connect the way they're supposed to. But damn if it doesn't make you ooooh and aaaah over and over again. It's best for kids (and there weren't that many the night I went), but there's more than enough for adults to love. Who says we don't deserve to go oooooh and aaaahhh too?

Anyhow, here's the text:

There is one thing any adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels must be: full of wonders. And while "Lookingglass Alice" has some flaws, it is a stunning success by that standard. There isn't a show in town with a higher wow-to-minute ratio.
The play, adapted by David Catlin, who also directs, follows the structure of "Alice Through the Looking Glass," using material both from that novel and from "Alice in Wonderland." Using a cast of only five, it embodies scenes from the novels with stunning clowning and circus work. Everything from the Caterpillar to the mad tea party to Humpty Dumpty appears, but none just replicate the images to which we're accustomed — the production re-imagines them in a thrillingly theatrical way.

It suffers from the primary flaw that any adaptation of the source material does: the novels are episodic, lacking any compelling dramatic throughline. This is fine on the page, but can leave any live version feeling like a string of brilliant moments that don't entirely connect. Catlin's version makes connections between the story and the process of growing up, but it doesn't solve the problem. And though all of the displays of circus arts are stunning, some go on too long.

But when the show is this entertaining, it's hard to care. The cast is spectacular, with each member having multiple moments to shine while working as a flawless ensemble (all but Alice play a wide variety of parts). Alice never leaves the stage, and Lindsey Noel Whiting makes us love her while making the acrobatics look easy. Among the many great characters created by the other actors are Molly Brennan's imperious Red Queen (do not check your cell phone when she's onstage), Anthony Fleming III's sinuous Cheshire Cat, Thomas J. Cox's daffy White Knight, and Kevin Douglas' crazed Mad Hatter. All five (and the superb designers and stage crew) make the magic happen, and it's a wonder.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lots of Writing

So I've been a bit quiet on the blog recently, in part because a lot of my time has been going to acting in The Face of a Ruined Woman (See the new play by Mia McCullough! Two performances left, 6/27 at 7:30 PM and 7/3 at 2 PM! Call 773-883-8830 for tickets!), but partially because I've been doing a lot of outside writing. And now it's starting to get published, though one more review is still to come.

So first, and most exciting: I interviewed David Cromer about Cherrywood for the AV Club Chicago. You can read the interview here. Cromer's a fascinating man (though it proved rather difficult to track him down to talk), and I wish I'd gotten more time to speak with him. On the other hand, I had to cut at least 2/3 of our 20 minute conversation to get within the word count, so maybe it's for the best we spoke so briefly. Either way, I'm really proud of the piece. I wish it had gotten a response on the site, but hey, it's not too late to comment. Now I need to get my Cherrywood tickets...

By the way, if there's interest, I can share some interview outtakes.

Additionally, I've got two reviews up. (A third, for Lookingglass Alice is on the way.) These were shows I saw last Saturday and Sunday evenings:

First up was The Tallest Man at The Artistic Home. It was never boring, and there's real talent, but I found the extreme shifts in tone and focus to be extreme problems. I was confounded more than anything else. There's real talent involved, though, so I hope the next show works out better. Here's the text:

Jim Lynch, playwright of The Tallest Man, has a lot of stories to tell. Unfortunately, his new play tells all of them at once.

There’s "drunken Irishman" humor, warm-hearted satire, political commentary, bruising dysfunctional-family drama, deeply felt anguish, and a ghost story. And that’s all before the truly baffling deus ex machina ending. Sections work — some quite well — but overall, it is a confounding experience.

The play takes place in Tourmakeady, a small town in Ireland's County Mayo, in 1895. There are many challenges: Finbar (Shane Kenyon) wants to marry Katie (Marta Evans), but her mother (Miranda Zola) refuses because he is a tinker (an itinerant racial and social minority). Finbar and his cousin Frankie (Nick Horst), who is new to town and still mourning his parents, are trying to safeguard the home of Finbar’s mother (Darrelyn Marx). Everyone is trying to avoid the attention of Thaddeus Newcombe (Eamonn McDonagh), the new representative of the town's English overlord. Well, except for Tommy Joe (Frank Nall) and Johnny (Bill Boehler), who just care that the whiskey keeps flowing.

The problem is not that there are a lot of stories, it's that they all work at cross-purposes. When a plot twist out of an old melodrama butts up against an grief-stricken description of a father’s death, followed shortly by relatives exchanging blows like something out of Martin McDonagh, none of it has impact. Lynch has a real way with dialogue, and there are some appealing performances, notably Horst and Nall.

The designs, particularly Ellen Siedel's costumes, are attractive and effective (though the uncredited fight choreography is remarkably unconvincing). The show is rarely dull, but when every scene seems to have a new tone and narrative focus, it's nearly impossible to make sense of the experience, much less be emotionally involved.

The next night was Sweet and Hot: The Songs of Harold Arlen. I'm a huge fan of Arlen's music, so it was great to hear these songs live. He really was in a class by himself, both musically and emotionally, but so many of his songs are unfamiliar. (Also, a lot of people don't realize he wrote all of the songs he wrote--he doesn't have the same name recognition as Gershwin, Rodgers, or Porter.) Hearing them sung live and unamplified, up close, was enough to make this show fantastic for me. It had definite issues, outlined below, and it never really worked as theatre (attempts to give people characters and relationships just fell flat), but the songs are just so great, and sung so well, that I'm still very glad I went. However, please note: the dinner is $20, and, while good, is not worth it. I'd recommend getting dinner elsewhere first. And as I learned, it is not included for critics. Whoops. But otherwise, by all means go. Here's the text:

There are two kinds of people: those who already love Harold Arlen’s songs, and those who will when they hear them. Arlen incorporated the harmonies and emotions of the blues into the popular and stage music of the 1930s to the '50s to create musically gorgeous and emotionally vibrant songs. He's best known for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but his catalog is full of gems, famous and obscure. Theo Ubique's revue, conceived by Julianne Boyd, gives us three dozen, and it's a thrill to hear each glorious tune. The production has some flaws, but when it focuses on the songs, it's transporting.

The No Exit Cafe is an odd little cabaret space, best suited to the intimate solos and duets. Nearly every production number attempted by director Fred Anzevino and choreographer David Heimann falls flat. This is a shame, but it's still an ideal space to get close to a performer and really hear the song. (The entire show is blissfully unamplified.)

The cast's three women dominate the show. Stephanie Herman is the ideal ingenue, by turns effervescent and vulnerable, with a crystalline voice. Sarah Hayes is completely honest at every moment, enlivening both comic songs and ballads. And Bethany Thomas continues to prove herself a local treasure with her huge voice and magnetic presence: When she sings "Stormy Weather" and "The Man That Got Away," they stay sung. The men don't fare as well: While Eric Lindahl is utterly lovable (and vocally gorgeous), Eric Martin doesn't get much chance to distinguish himself and Kristofer Simmons' breathy voice and peculiar interpretations simply don't fit with the rest of the show.

But in the end, it's about the songs. And they are stunning. The show does right by them far more often than not, so it's more than worthwhile for Harold Arlen fans, current and soon to be.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

DrekFest Dealine Approaching! And Please Help Stage Left Win Money!

Hey all you budding bad-play writers,

The deadline for DrekFest, Stage Left's nationally recognized search for the worst 10-minute play, is nearly here! You don't want to miss the chance to be performed, winning fame and (a little bit of) fortune! All of the details are here.

And speaking of Stage Left (and when am I not?), don't you want to help us win $20,000, at no cost to yourself? Well you can! If you are on Facebook, you can vote for us at Chase Community Giving. The 200 nonprofits with the most votes at the end of voting on July 12th are guaranteed the money! As of this morning, we are ranked #24, and we currently have 484 votes. But we have to keep up the momentum to win the cash. Click here to get all the instructions and do a wonderful thing!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Big Post About Stage Left

So as most of you really should know by now, I'm an ensemble member of Stage Left Theatre here in Chicago. My particular focus is on dramaturgy and literary work, and I've been working as a Literary Associate for several months to help in the office. Well, to reflect the amount of work I've been doing and allow me to pursue some of my ideas, I've officially been named Co-Literary Manager, along with Kevin Heckman, who has been Literary Manager. He's also brilliant and insanely knowledgeable about how to find and cultivate new scripts, so it's also awesome on the job training.

The two of us working together will be able to wrestle the giant piles of scripts down to manageable size, not to mention getting scripts read and responded to with a briefer lag time. We'll also be more selective about the scripts we call in, so that everyone's limited time is used as well as possible. We're also going to be more proactive about going after the great scripts that are out there and developing the ones that interest us, not to mention creating and maintaining relationships with playwrights worth knowing in Chicago and outside.

I'm incredibly excited to be working with Kevin and Artistic Director Vance Smith on this wonderful work, and personally thrilled that I actually get to put this title after my name. I can't wait.


And now for the part plugging the whole theatre, not just me:

Tomorrow night sees the opening of LeapFest 7, Stage Left's annual festival of workshops of brand new scripts. This year has a really wonderful lineup of plays, and I can't wait to see them all. I recommend you get to as many as possible, but I have to put in a particular plug for The Face of a Ruined Woman by Mia McCullough. She's a brilliant writer, and an emeritus ensemble member at Stage Left, and she's written a play that really stretches her and the audience, exploring the relationship women have with their bodies in a way that's smart, moving, and very funny. Also, I'm performing in it--my first acting gig in 18 months--and I'm unbelievably proud that this is my return to performing. There are performances this Friday, 6/18, at 7:30, next Sunday, 6/27, at 7:30, and Saturday, 7/3, at 2:00 PM.  Make sure to get tickets (only $12!) or Leap Passes, letting you into all five shows as many times as you like (only $25!) soon: performances frequently do sell out. Here's the official press release:

LeapFest is an annual series of emerging plays with socio-political themes, presented as workshop productions in rotating repertory. The festival is the culmination of Downstage Left, a multi-tiered development program with the goal to cultivate and support new and emerging voices and inspire playwrights to address the political and social issues of our day. Join us again this year to see what's next in Chicago theatre!

All performances are at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 North Sheffield Avenue in Chicago. Single tickets are $12. A LeapPass, allowing entry to all five show, is $25. For tickets, call 773-883-8830 or visit


by Scott Woldman
directed by Drew Martin*
assistant directed by Jake Lindquist
starring Kate Black*, Cat Dean*, Ian Maxwell*, Morgan McCabe, and Kelsey McClarnon
Saturday, 6/19 @7:30pm
Sunday, 6/27 @ 2:00pm
Thursday, 7/1 @ 7:30pm
What do you do when your nerdy best friend wants benefits and more, your grandma intends to party until she drops (literally), and your mom is determined to see you succeed even if it kills you? Poignant, disturbing and shockingly funny, BEATEN tells the story of a young woman’s efforts to survive the best intentions of a family who has gone off the rails.

by Mia McCullough †
directed by Greg Werstler*
assistant directed by Gretchen Wright
starring Emi Clark, Melanie Derleth*, Kamal Hans, Jenn Pompa, Allison Torf, and Zev Valancy*
Friday, 6/18 @ 7:30pm
Sunday, 6/27 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, 7/3 @ 2:00pm
In well-to-do Northshore suburb, a local spa causes controversy with a billboard ad featuring a picture of a gorgeous woman in a bikini, superimposed with arrows suggesting how she could be cosmetically enhanced. Some of the key players discuss their involvement in the image being protested, vandalized and ultimately taken down.

by Dan Aibel
directed by Jason Fleece*
assistant directed by Lorenzo Blackett
starring Melissa DiLeonardo, Sandy Elias, Gabe Estrada, and Mark Pracht*
Sunday, 6/20 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, 6/26 @ 7:30pm
Wednesday, 6/30 @ 7:30pm
As their family business hits a dry spell, a father and son receive an intriguing offer that forces them to grapple with globalization and each other.

by Jayme McGhan
directed by Artistic Director Vance Smith
assistant directed by Katie Horwitz
starring Christopher Marcum, Tim Musachi, Brian Plocharczyk*, Rinska Michelle Prestinary, and Margaret Scott.
Sunday, 6/20 @ 2:00pm
Friday, 6/25 @ 7:30pm
Friday, 7/2 @ 7:30pm
A union organizer attempts to recruit a gang of truckers and their notorious leader in the Utah Desert. Mother Bear is a hard-hitting, plot-twisting, pedal-to-the-floor haul down the darkest parts of America's highways.

by Steve Spencer
directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
assistant directed by Rachael A. Schaefer
starring Justin Cagney, Tom Lally, John Luzar, Eric Smies, and Helen Young
Thursday, 6/17 @ 7:30pm
Thursday, 6/24 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, 7/3 @ 7:30pm
Some people get to limp through life. No amount of therapy or Paxil can reach them. If you're one of these unlucky souls, sometimes you just have to kill somebody.

Production Staff:
Production Manager -- Caitlin Parrish
Production Stage Manager -- Christopher Thompson*
Set and Props Designer -- Heather Ho
Lighting Designer -- John Kohn III*
Costume Designer -- Erin Gallagher
Sound Designer -- Justin Glombicki
Fight Choreographer: Brian Plocharczyk*

* Stage Left Ensemble Member
†Stage Left Emeritus Ensemble Member


And finally, as announced on our website, we have chosen our 29th season, the first in our beautiful new home at Theatre Wit, 1229 West Belmont in Chicago. You can read the official press release there, but here's my take on why you really want to subscribe.

Running from October 19-November 21 of this year is Kingsville by Andrew Hinderaker, whose play Suicide Incorporated just opened to great acclaim at the Gift Theatre, and directed by Artistic Director Vance Smith. It starts from the terrifying premise of a United States that, in the wake of a string of school shootings, passed a constitutional amendment allowing children to carry guns. But it's hardly a simple anti-gun tract: it searches deep into questions of what manliness, strength and morality are, and doesn't give any easy answers, all while being a superbly told story that will put a knot in your stomach and send a shiver down your spine. I couldn't be prouder to be the dramaturg.

Our spring show, running March 1-April 3 of 2011 is Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, adapted by Arthur Miller, and directed by ensemble member Jason Fleece. It's a classic play, something we haven't done since 2002, and we are thrilled to expand our mission to allow in older scripts that still speak to contemporary audiences. And this one is just smashing. Miller respects Ibsen's brilliant play while making the stakes and motivations crystal clear for a contemporary audience. It's a big show, with a large cast of vibrant characters (many of whom will be played by our fabulous ensemble members), and a gripping story. It's going to be awesome--and I'm again thrilled to be dramaturging it.

June will see LeapFest 8. Of course we have no idea what the plays will be yet, but work on finding and selecting them will probably start shortly after LeapFest 7 ends. And it will be wonderful.

Don't you want to come see our bold jump into the future? It will be thrilling, I assure you!


And after all that, don't you want a chance to support Stage Left, without any cost to yourself? Just log into facebook, become a fan of Chase Community Giving, and vote for Stage Left to get $20,000 in funding from Chase Bank. You can click here to be taken directly to our page. And if you're with a group that is also involved, post on our wall that you support us and we'll make sure to visit and support you as well! Thanks in advance for your help, and I can't wait to see you at Stage Left!