Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review-a-Palooza, Part Three

Well, that was tough.

(Note to self: when working a full-time day job, don't review three shows on three successive days. It's draining. Particularly if it's January, your motivation level is low, and you're also dramaturging two shows.)

Anyhow, Centerstage has posted my review of WNEP's The (edward) Hopper Project, which is running at the Storefront downtown through February 21. It's an interesting one, alright.

By the way, producer/director and WNEP Artistic Director Don Hall, who blogs as An Angry White Guy In Chicago, has been posting all of the reviews on his website with commentary and reaction. I will certainly fill you guys in on any comments he makes on me, and any responses I give. (And I do plan to do so: despite his internet identity, his comments are respectful and genuinely interested in understanding the criticism offered, and I think that kind of engagement between practitioner and critic is what theatre needs more.) And no, I will not respond to being quoted with a Cease and Desist letter, as happened with one other critic.

Anyhow, here's the text. (but do follow the link to Centerstage to see the pictures!)

There's one important thing that "The (edward) Hopper Project" gets right: it's full of moments that feel like looking at one of his paintings. There's something incredibly moving about Hopper's lonely urbanites and the way he paints them with light, and parts of the show have the same effect.

Unfortunately, the pitfalls of creating theater based on visual art - along with some of the production's choices - make for an inconsistent evening, more akin to an art installation than a conventional play.

Painting is not a narrative art form, so it's obviously a challenge to adapt it to the stage. Don Hall, who produced and directed the show, and the nine playwrights who wrote it, have not attempted to create a single plotline, opting instead for an episodic structure: 6 a.m. to midnight in 1952 Brooklyn. The scenes are all inspired by Hopper, spinning dramatic or comic sketches from his paintings: a businessman considers suicide every morning in his office, a woman attacks a man and his pigeons with an air rifle, a pair of lovers, now married to others, briefly see each other again. Some individual scenes are quite affecting, but the lack of a central plot line makes it hard to stay involved for the entire show. The fact that the sections vary noticeably in tone and quality contributes to this problem.

But there's plenty to savor along the way. There's the sheer joy of seeing 17 actors onstage, inhabiting a wide variety of characters and making them pop from the stage in brief scenes. There's the way Heath Hays' set, Mike Durst's lighting, and Rebecca Langguth's costumes combine perfectly to create the world. There are the lovely mimed transitions where characters from multiple scenes interact. It doesn't add up to a completely successful play, but as a walk through a living gallery there's plenty to recommend it.

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