Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Broadway Items

To those who don't like non-Chicago news, move along. But I just can't not report this.

As reported by Playbill, there's a chance that the current revival of A Little Night Music won't close June 20th when the contracts of its current starts, Catherina Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, end. Because the producers are currently in negotiations with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.

Yes. Truly.

Now one could argue that both of them are sort of a stretch to play, respectively, Desiree and Madame Armfeldt. I have some sympathy with the idea, though I can see them both working. But more importantly, I don't care. I'm pulling my musical theatre dork card here. Both are stunning performers and utterly brilliant interpreters of Sondheim. And it's in A Little Night Music. Even if it doesn't work, it will be the awesomest train wreck ever.

Anyone want to buy me a ticket?

On a less interesting note: as Playbill also reports that the Tonys this year will open with a medley of pop songs currently featured on Broadway, describing the number thus:

Expect to hear tunes from most of the musical productions that debuted on Broadway this season, including Million Dollar Quartet (one of the 22 well-known songs featured in the production); Come Fly Away (one of the Frank Sinatra standards), Promises, Promises (one of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classics), A Little Night Music (perhaps Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns"), American Idiot (one of the Green Day hits), Fela! (possibly the song "Zombie!") and more.

I am so tired of the efforts to make the Tony's popular with people who don't care about Broadway. It's not happening. Especially since none of those artists, with the possible exception of Green Day, is near the charts at this point. I doubt that many Bachrach/David fans are out there who will suddenly choose to watch the Tonys now. The same with the celebrity presenters. It won't work. I wish that CBS would just give up and give the Tony's to PBS, who could spend time actually getting into interesting theatre stuff. The current combination doesn't work at all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New Review Posted: Body Awareness

Centerstage has posted my review of Annie Baker's Body Awareness at Profiles Theatre. It's really something special. Baker has blow up in the past couple of seasons in New York--indeed just last week she won the Obie award for best new play for both of the plays she premiered Off-Broadway last season, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. By the way, I'm shocked that neither has yet been announced for a Chicago production, particularly the former, which was extended repeatedly and made it on to multiple best of 2009 lists. (Though I notice open slots in the seasons of both the Goodman and Victory Gardens...)

Anyhow, this is very much worth checking out. Based on the evidence of this show, Baker is really a wonderful playwright, with an exceptional ear for dialogue and understanding of how people behave, blundering into ways of hurting people and moments of real beauty and caring. She definitely deserves the press she's been getting, and I hope we see more of her stuff soon.
Here's the text of the review:

It's a disconcerting and thrilling experience to watch human behavior under a microscope. Revelations that would pass unnoticed in everyday life are clear, seemingly routine conversations have huge stakes. "Body Awareness," the first play by rising playwright Annie Baker to be produced in Chicago, puts its characters under the theatrical microscope, making us care about four fascinating, flawed people while letting us see the minute ways they sabotage their own happiness. Though the play is brief in length and low on plot, it's moving and absorbing, particularly in Benjamin Thiem's sensitively acted production. It's easy to see why Baker's already so acclaimed.

Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) is a professor at small college in Vermont, running "Body Awareness Week," and losing control of the proceedings: she didn't pay attention to all of the artists she invited. When she finds out that Frank (Joe Jahraus) takes pictures of nude women, she ignores his contention that they are non-exploitative and condemns him. Unfortunately, he's the artist staying in the home she shares with her partner Joyce (Barb Stasiw) and Joyce's son Jared (Eric Burgher), who appears to have Asperger's, despite his vehement protests to the contrary. Frank's stay causes tempers to flare and people to start the painful process of growth. It may not be groundbreaking material, but it's all presented with uncommon intelligence and heart.

While the production looks and feels completely natural, a lot of skill went into it. Baker subtly highlights important moments, giving the effect of reality with the volume just slightly raised. (Though the ending does paste an abrupt and surprisingly happy resolution on an unresolved situation.) And the ensemble is simply wonderful, effortlessly inhabiting the characters and relationships and keeping the audience enthralled, with Stasiw's performance particularly heartbreaking. It's not perfect, but it's a lovely, moving show, and reason to hope for even better work from Baker in the future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Plot Thickens At Next

On the heels of the announcement that Jason Southerland is leaving Next Theatre comes this article in PerformInk. You should really read the whole thing, but here is the condensed version:

After the company's plans to produce Boaz Gaon's adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani's novel The Return to Haifa fell through, Next hired local playwright M. E. H. (Margaret) Lewis to write a new adaptation, only 3 months before the scheduled opening. (It's unclear from the article whether they had the rights to do that.) Late in the rehearsal process, he altered Lewis' script, adding in passages from Gaon's adaptation, without her knowledge, and without permission from or attribution to Gaon. She removed most of them, but some stayed in the show. Gaon found out and threatened suit against Southerland and Next, and the settlement will involve a press release taking responsiblity (which exonerates Lewis without quite saying that Southerland was responsible) and an agreement that Lewis' adaptation can never be produced again.

This is a shame. Margaret is a colleague of mine through Stage Left Theatre, and she is a scrupulously honest person. (She's also a fantastic playwright.) Return to Haifa was produced to great critical success and sold out houses, and it seems like it would have had a very strong chance of getting produced elsewhere. The fact that her work and reputation were damaged because of Southerland's actions is terrible. Hopefully things will only improve from here.

Next Theatre's Artistic Director Resigns

Hate to distract from the news below (which is much more fun) but: Chris Jones reported today that Jason Southerland, who has been Artistic Director at Next Theatre for only 18 months, resigned this morning, citing a relationship with the board that "didn't click." Jones' article also cites financial troubles at the theatre, with staff members being asked to take pay cuts.

It's worrisome stuff. Next has been a major force in Chicago theatre for decades (indeed, the upcoming season is the 30th), and it wold be very sad to see them fall victim to these perilous times. Hopefully things will stabilize and improve for them soon.

However, all of this should make the opening of War With the Newts, which I'm reviewing on Monday, more interesting.

Cherrywood. Is. COMING.

David Cromer, whose career has been on a meteoric ascent recently (Our Town is into its second year Off-Broadway, he has two shows scheduled on Broadway next season, and his production of A Streetcar Named Desire is getting raves and selling out at Writers') has not forgotten where he came from. And that would be tiny storefront theatres, like Mary-Arrchie, which has been producing for 25 years and performs above a liquor store in Lakeview.

The play they're doing is Cherrywood, a remarkable piece by Kirk Lynn, which premiered at the Rude Mechanicals in Austin, in 2004. It's written as a series of lines, with no characters listed at all. The cast and director decide who says what and the story they tell. It takes place at a party, where people who feel their lives aren't what they want gather to drink, dance, and fall in love. Except there are jello shots, a gun goes off, and people are turning into werewolves. It's pretty wild, and exactly the kind of thing that thrives in awesome Chicago storefronts.

On an interesting side note, I have a history with this show: I actually appeared in the first Chicago production, which was Shade Murray's first-year MFA project at Northwestern. I was playing a character of surpassing social awkwardness and poor fashion sense: I grew out a full, bushy beard, wore ugly, scotch-taped glasses, a too-small polo shirt tucked into too-baggy pleated courduroy pants, in clashing shades of beige, and sandals with socks. There are some awsome blackmail photos of me out there.

The show runs June 24-August 8, and Mary-Arrchie just announced the cast. Of 49 people.

Seriously, 49 actors. How will anything else in town run? I'm not sure how many seats the theatre has, but if there are more than 50, it's not by much. And while the stage is very deep, it's certainly not huge. Not to mention the storytelling difficulty--wrangling 49 people and creating an arc for all of them, not to mention telling the story coherently, is going to be a monumental task. I trust they are up to the task, and am crazy excited to see what the result is.

For those who didn't follow the Time Out link, by the way, here's the cast list:

Adam Hinkle, Aileen May, Alexander Ring, Alice Wedoff, Allison Cain, Andre LaSalle, Andrew Hanback, Anthony Demarco, Brian Hinkle, Briana De Giulio, Bries Vannon, Candice Gregg, Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Caroline Neff, Chris Ward Blumer, Colleen Miller, Craig Cunningham, D’wayne Taylor, Dereck Garner, Derek Brummet, Ebony Wimbs, Eileen Montelione, Elliot Ivins, Gavin Robinson, Geoff Button, Jennifer Santanello, Jeremy Noll, Joseph DeBettencourt, Kasia Januszewski, Katherine Schwartz, Keely Brennan, Kevin V. Smith, Leslie Frame, Lindsey Barlag, Lindsey Pearlman, Marika Engelhardt, Michael Dice, Michele Gorman, Molly Reynolds, Nick Mikula, Noah Simon, Ramon Madrid, Raymond Shoemaker, Richard Cotovsky, Rob Fenton, Rudy Galvan, Ryan Bourque, Ryan Martin and Shannon Clausen.

Okay, here's one blackmail photo. Not the worst, at all.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Closing Weekends!

My two favorite shows of the year thus far are both closing this weekend. If you haven't seen them yet, you should.

Tarrell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays is closing its lengthy run at Steppenwolf this weekend. It's utterly brilliant, and worth seeing one part or both, in order or out. McCraney's utterly brilliant, and I doubt Tina Landau's production can be bettered. We'll see a lot more of McCraney in the future (he's just joined the Steppenwolf  but don't miss this.

The Hypocrites' production of Cabaret at the Storefront Theatre isn't brilliant because of how it's reconceived (with a female Emcee and a three-act structure and various other changes). Nearly every production of Cabaret does that. It's brilliant because it balances caring about the characters with stylized theatrical moments, and brings home the horror of a country sliding into fascism with visceral (if unsubtle) power. Plus strong design, singing, and acting. It's more that worth a trip.

Sorry, by the way, for my lack of posts--I haven't felt the need. Hopefully it returns soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Guy Adkins, 1968-2010

I never had the privilege of seeing Guy Adkins perform onstage or meeting him, so for a tribute to his acting gifts you'll have to go to the obituary written by Chris Jones. You can also visit his personal site to learn about his career. All I can say is that he was widely respected and loved in Chicago and around the country, known as an extraordinary actor, musician, and human being. And he died of colon cancer last night at the age of 41. A death from cancer is awful at any age, but at 41, it's particularly distressing. He wrote a blog about the last months of his life. I've only read a little bit, but I bet it will make me cry.

To Guy's partner Sean and all of his family, please accept my deepest sympathies.

Those who knew Guy or saw his work, please post memories here.

To everyone, go hug your loved ones.

And to Guy, I wish I could have known you and your work, and I hope you are at peace.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New Review Posted: The Ghost Sonata

Centerstage has posted my review of The Ghost Sonata at Oracle. Sadly it didn't do much for me, though there was interesting stuff going on. I do want to point out something cool that Oracle is doing, though: starting next season, every single seat is going to be free, funded entirely by donations. This is something a lot of theatres have discussed, but very few do--Mike Daisey would be pleased. This is certainly worth attention and support, so those of you with cash to spare, please go help them out. Anyhow, here's the text of the review:

It's not necessarily a bad thing for a play to be confusing. Indeed, for a bizarre script like August Strindberg's "The Ghost Sonata," a clear story is entirely beside the point. So it's no criticism to say that the production directed by Max Truax is virtually impenetrable: such basic questions as who people are, what their relationships are, what they are doing, and where it's happening are only clear after much time and thought on the audience's part, and then only partially. The problem is that the audience is only rarely drawn in to the experience. Without that engagement, the evening never hits the notes of existential horror and disturbing imagery that are necessary to care. Despite the obvious theatrical intelligence of Truax and his collaborators, the audience is left in a state of mild bewilderment, leavened only by the occasional laugh or startling image.

The story, as far as can be gathered, concerns an Old Man (Rich Logan), who uses an innocent Student (Federico Rodriguez) to infiltrate the home of the Colonel (Sean Ewert). The Student loves the Daughter (Stephanie Polt), but by the time he reaches her, he has seen a world of corruption and endless frustration.

There is much to admire. The actors are completely committed (with Logan's creepy, twitchy performance particularly strong), and sometimes find the thread of horror that runs through the script. The design creates the play's skewed world, particularly Brieanne Hauger's perspective-skewing set, Jonathan Guillen's pervasive underscoring and Michael Janicki's bizarre video design. But it never goes beyond admiration. For a work pitched to this emotional intensity, it's vital that the audience be drawn in, whether by the characters' emotions, the language's potency, or the sheer weirdness of the affair. And while the production is sometimes impressive, it's stubbornly uninvolving.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

DrekFest! Call For Entries!

Hey there playwrights, theatre folk, and people who like to laugh,

So Stage Left Theatre, where I'm in the ensemble, decides each year to take a break from all of the good plays we do on a regular basis and produce some total crap. But since we're nice people, we produce plays that are intentionally bad. Thus: DrekFest, the national competition for the most intentionally awful 10-minute play.

But we need playwrights to do it! And you, yes you, could be our winner. Here's a full description of the festival and the entry requirements. (By the way, if you do write something, don't tell me anything about it--I'm probably going to be on the selection committee.) Happy writing!

Don't miss your chance to be part of Stage Left Theatre's annual laugh riot!

Presented in association with
The ComedySportz Theatre.

Stage Left's Forth Annual National Contest for the WORST Ten-Minute Play. This year, it’s not just a one-night engagement, it’s a


That’s right, there’s just so much crap out there that we’ve decided to make it a bigger competition.

There will be 2 rounds of Semi-Finals one on 8/2 and one on 8/9.

Four plays will be read each night and the worst 2 from each night will go on to the Finals on 8/16!!!

The submission deadline for

DrekFest: Worstament 2010

entries is
Friday, June 25th, 2010.

All entries must be RECEIVED (not postmarked) by the entry deadline.

For clarity's sake, we are not out to make fun of writers or those who love them! What we are doing is asking good writers to intentionally write awful plays that make us laugh on the inside (especially if that's noted in the stage directions) - and out loud.


Submission Guidelines

If it's not already painfully clear, we want the funny! Preference will be given to scripts that make us laugh. Here are the submission guidelines:

DEADLINE: Submissions must be received by Friday, June 25th, 2010 (note, this is not postmark date, it is a "received by" date).

Plays must perform at ten minutes or less (remember that stage directions will be read aloud). Maximum of 5 actors per script (however, write as many characters as you please). There are no limitations on genre or subject matter.

Even though we're spoofing the development process, plays do NOT need to about play development. And...even though Stage Left's mission is about political and social debate, we know that bad writing knows no genre, so don't worry about adhering to the mission for this contest.

We will be using a Blind Submission process. Please include the following materials with your submission:

--A cover letter on a separate sheet of paper, included in the envelope with your play (or as a separate attachment, if emailing). Envelopes and emails will not be opened by judges, only by non-judge staff members. List your contact info, including name, phone, email & street address on your cover letter.

Cover letter should include your availability to be in Chicago on August 2, 9, and 16, 2010. Given this year's economy and the state of arts funding, Stage Left cannot provide travel support. You do not need to be able to travel to Chicago in order to send a submission to DrekFest; however, most of the fun is in being there!

--Your resume.

--Your play(s). Do NOT include your name, by-line or contact info on the play itself. If mailed, plays must be clipped or bound in such a way that the pages can be easily separated for copying - no spiral bindings.

--Your submission fee of $10.00 per play (e.g., $20.00 if you submit two plays). All submission fees will go towards the cash prizes awarded to the winners - we won't make a dime off your dimes.If mailing, include a check made out to "Stage Left Theatre." If emailing, call us at 773-883-8830 by Friday, June 25th to charge your fee to a Visa or MasterCard.

A Note About Cash Prizes:
One hundred percent of the submission fees received are paid out as cash prizes. Therefore, the amount of the prizes will depend on the number of submissions we get. All 8 of the plays chosen will receive something, the 4 finalists will receive a bit more and the winner will receive the BIG check. In past years, the Grand Prize has ranged from $300.00 to $400.00, and may be less or more as submissions warrant.

Please mail your submissions to:
Stage Left Theatre
Attn: DrekFest
3408 N. Sheffield Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657

-- OR --

Email your submissions to:

Friday, May 7, 2010

New Review Posted: The Love of the Nightingale

Centerstage has posted my new review of The Love of the Nightingale, performed by Red Tape Theatre at St. Peter's Church. There's a lot to recommend it, even if the script's quality is variable. Still, James Palmer directs his cast to some really exceptional moments, and the design is working at an extremely high level for storefront theatre. Comparing this to Mouse in a Jar, the previous show of theirs I saw in that space, is quite impressive--the spaces are completely different. (This is yet another of William Anderson's fantastic sets. I don't know how long he'll be working in storefronts.) Now if only they were working with a script that didn't descend into obviousness with such frequency (or if they cut the bits that did), this would be an even more impressive experience. Here's the text:

Young authors are always instructed to show, rather than tell. Timberlake Wertenbaker's "The Love of the Nightingale," as directed by James Palmer, is a perfect example of why: when it is showing, through theatrical metaphor, stage pictures, music, movement and action, it's often breathtaking. But when the invention pauses for characters to tell us exactly what the story means and underline every point, the audience interest flags severely. It's not enough to wipe out the play's many impressive points, but it keeps the show from living up to its own potential.

The story is adapted from Greek myth: Thracian king Tereus (Vic May), after saving Athens in battle, chooses as his bride Procne (Kathleen Romond), the elder daughter of King Pandion (John Rushing). Years later, bringing Procne's sister Philomele (Meghan Reardon) to Thrace for a visit, he is overcome by desire and rapes her. In an effort to keep her quiet, he cuts out her tongue, which leads to an even more disturbing ending.

Wertenbaker's adaptation never sits still, moving from realism to dreamlike scenes, lyrical monologues to dance. The refusal to stick to one style is exhilarating, but is undercut by the sections of obvious speechifying. When the script works, Palmer's production is stunning, with images and scenes of immense power and thrilling theatricality. (The unfortunate exception to this is an ecstatic celebration of Bacchus that plays like a theme night at a rave club.) Full credit should go to the cast, an eye-popping 23, who commit fully to a challenging script and complex staging. But despite the strong acting and superb designs, especially William Anderson's immersive set and Miles Polaski's discomfiting sound, Palmer's production can't do anything when the play insists on explaining exactly what it means. And it's a shame, because when the show is good, it's wonderful.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

This Movie Has To Open NOW

I read this (and thanks to Robby Karol  for passing it along!) and still don't quite believe it: Roland Emmerich, film director famed for repeatedly destroying the world's major landmarks (2012, Independence Day, and Godzilla are among his credits) has started making his next film--and it's about Shakespeare.

Well, not exactly. In fact, it's about how Shakespeare's plays were not written by Shakespeare himself, but by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. (A frequently repeated, if generally discredited, theory.) Additionally (and this is a new bit), according to the movie, de Vere was the secret son of Elizabeth I! So secret, indeed, that when he grew to adulthood, he became her lover! And they sired Henry Wriothesley, who was the "young man" to whom the sonnets were addressed!

I generally take a dim view of the arguments against Shakespeare having written his own plays--they seem founded on equal parts classism (How could a provincial actor who never traveled the world possibly have the experience needed to write such great plays? It must have beena  nobleman!) and wild conspiracy theorizing. I have yet to find a really convincing argument.

More to the point, I think it's a blind alley. Who cares who wrote them? They were written! That's amazing! And there is so much to find in them, and get from them. This also ties into my belief that far too much energy is spent analyzing them as literary artifacts, rather than theatre. Far too much Shakespeare scholarship mummifies the work, and I'm much more interested in lines of inquiry that bring it to life. But the "who wrote Shakespeare" argument is worse: it makes the work itself almost beside the point: why plumb Hamlet's sould when you can play Da Vinci Code?

All that aside though: Roland Emmerich directing a costume drama! With a plot that loony! And Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I, not to mention the super-human Mark Rylance as one of the Globe's actors! This is going to be an amazing train wreck. (Armada wreck?)

I don't know if I can stand waiting another year

Monday, May 3, 2010

Good News/Bad News

Before my longer post on How Theatre Failed America, I wanted to pass along two pieces of news, one very good and one very sad.

On a good note: the Tony Awards committee has announced that the 2010 Regional Theatre Tony will be going to the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, CT. This is gratifying on a professional level--few theatres have a comparably stellar record for new works, particularly those which go on to production and acclaim elsewhere. But it's also a pleasure personally--I spent two weeks at the O'Neill in 2008 at the National Critic's Institute, which was the genesis of this blog and a major influence on my writing and career. It's a wonderful place to be and work, where you can focus on theatre while surrounded by gorgeous scenery and eating edible cafeteria food. In addition to seeing (and reviewing) at least ten shows in two weeks, I also treasure the friendships I established with the other critics and the way that members of every segment of the festival mixed and had fun. It didn't matter who were the playwrights, the actors, the critics, the interns, the National Theatre Institute students--we all hung out at Blue Gene's, the gloriously cheap bar, played cards and Mafia, and went swimming, before hopping the van to return to our dorm rooms. It was a wonderful experience, and I would love to go back some day. So congratulations to Executive Director Preston Whiteway, the heads of the various divisions, and the entire staff, and thank you to Leonard Jacobs, Dan Sullivan, Helene Goldfarb, and Mark Charney for letting me into the Critics' Institute and making my experience so wonderful.

However, in very sad news, Playbill reports that famed British actress Lynn Redgrave has died at the age of 67. It's not explicitly stated what the cause of death was, but she was treated for breast cancer in 2003, and last fall, when performing her solo show Nightingale, she announced that she was receiving treatments for Stage IV cancer at Sloan-Kettering. (She performed Nightingale seated and with a script in front of her.) She was nominated for the Tony three times and the Oscar twice, and occasionally appeared with her sister, Vanessa, and brother, Corin. Corin died only a few weeks ago, and Vanessa's daughter Natasha Richardson famously died last winter, so this has been a really horrible year for the Redgrave clan. I wish them all comfort, and hope that the family stays intact for a while.

How Zev Failed To Get To Sleep

I just got back from Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America at Victory Gardens, which was followed by a panel discussion, which was followed by people talking in small groups. It's midnight, my alarm goes off at 5:30, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to fall asleep. I'm absolutely buzzing with responses and questions and more, and I plan to work them out on this blog over the next few days. The first response will hopefully be up some time during the day on Monday. Anyway, watch this space. Because if I start writing now, I will sleep even less than I am going to anyway. Those who already saw it and have thoughts are welcome to put them in the comments below--I will join you shortly.