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!

Tony Award Post-Mortem (Literally)

Alright, I think I've recovered from Sunday night.

(And first off, sorry for the two week layoff of posting. For reasons that will become clear soon, what little creative energy I have was already taken, and blogging wasn't going to happen.)

I've been watching the Tonys yearly since 1994 (taping the show when I was too young to stay up for it), and this may be the worst ceremony I've ever seen. There are many reason, and I'll go into them, but we need to start with the primary problem:

The Tonys are a niche show. The best of that year's Broadway season will never have a wide audience, because most people simply don't care. We can try to get the word out, we can pray, but it will never have the same cultural centrality that it once did. So let go of this idea that by putting famous people with minor connections to theatre onstage, you can get people to watch. There is no fan of Will Smith rabid enough that they will watch a 3-hour award show because he is one of the presenters. Some rabid "Glee" fans might have tuned in because Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele performed, but they would probably have watched anyway. So what results is a show whose essential identity, a celebration of Broadway theatre, is constantly obscured, pissing off the people who actually care, while doing absolutely nothing to bring in people who don't give a shit. So please, CBS and producers, stop pretending. It won't work. Satisfy the people who will actually enjoy it.

(And by the way, why were they humping Green Day that hard? It's nice that they performed 2 numbers, but added to the song in the medley and the full production number, that's four in the total evening, which is pretty excessive. They fail to realize that Green Day doesn't count as edgy or revolutionary anywhere outside of 44th Street.)

But if it has to be that conceptually flawed, can't it at least be done competently? The sheer number of technical mistakes on this show was horrifying. Mikes went out repeatedly, lip-syncing got catastrophically off, shots revealed other cameras more than they did the stage, Sean Hayes sort of cut off Memphis' acceptance speech, and, in my favorite moment of the night, Katie Finneran won Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, while Karine Plantadit's name was displayed on screen.

And even when there weren't technical snafus, it was just poorly made: most of the numbers were shot in such a way as to minimize their good points (Fela! for instance had only a fraction of the electricity as its number that was on "The Colbert Report" last fall), the camera swung nauseatingly during the Play and Play Revival description segments, and the weird "scenes from plays remix" thing was just unfortunate.

The hosting was okay, I guess--Sean Hayes was a pleasant personality, and did a decent job with the lines he had. (Him showing up dressed as Billy Elliott with a gigantic bulge was a little tasteless, though.) Most of the actual laughs involved Kristin Chenoweth, his costar in Promises, Promises, who is hilarious. (Her dead faint on finding out she wasn't nominated for a Tony was priceless.) But Neil Patrick Harris was sorely missed. Presenters were a mixed bag, with Angela Lansbury, Nathan Lane, and Bebe Neuwirth being the most entertaining. Acceptance speeches were generally lovely, with Katie Finneran, Scarlett Johansson, and Viola Davis giving the highlights.

But the essence of the problem was...the season for musical sucked. There were, notoriously, only two musicals with original scores on Broadway this season: The Addams Family and Memphis. The score for the former is not as bad as its reputation (if nothing that special), but the number from the latter that we saw was sorely disappointing. The music and lyrics were so generic that I honestly can't recall them at all, except for the fact that the lyrics were dumb, and eventually just gave up and went "na na na na na na na".

And that left the jukebox shows. (And didn't we think they were on their way out?) None came off that well in performance: Million Dollar Quartet looked perfectly fine, but not that exciting (though Levi Kreis' Jerry Lee Lewis playing the piano backwards was pretty nifty), Come Fly Away looking more athletic than inspired (though my lack of fondness for Sinatra may be a factor), and Fela!, as I said above, not nearly showing off to its best advantage. American Idiot sounded good, and was certainly intense and stimulating, but I spent the whole number thinking how Spring Awakening and (especially) Passing Strange did it all way better.

As for the musical revivals, the brief number from Promises, Promises was eh, La Cage Aux Folles looked like fun and showed off Douglas Hodge, but "The Best of Times" is just not a very interesting song. Remarkably, the shortened "Back to Before" from Ragtime ended up the evening's best, simply because it didn't get fucked up by distracting camera movements.

And Catherine Zeta-Jones singing "Send in the Clowns"...well. She made strong choices. Unfortunately, they just came off weird. Perhaps because her scene partner wasn't on stage, she was whipping her head around like a lunatic, overplaying all of the emotions (and there are few songs less amenable to overplayed emotions), and generally coming off very strange. (And she gave the word "next" at least three syllables, which is an achievement of some kind, I suppose.) There was some surprise when she won Best Actress just after.

So yeah, a compromised core, an incompetent production, and a mediocre set of performances. At least I had friends over and good food. Because the show was pretty worthless

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New Reviews: Neverwhere and War with the Newts

And how was everyone's Memorial Day weekend? Lovely, I hope. Mine was a tad chaotic (and way too much time spent on transportation), but quite good, overall. Though it has left me at a bit of a sleep deficit.

Anyhow, I've got a couple of reviews, one informal and one formal.

First off is Neverwhere, Robert Kauzlaric's adaptation of the novel by Neil Gaiman, at Lifeline Theatre. I've read a number of Gaiman's novels and liked them quite a bit, but I had never read Neverwhere. However, several of my friends have read the novel, and love it, so I got together with a few of them and saw the show this past Thursday. (And paid for it. My word.) Overall, I had a very good time.

I think my unfamiliarity with the novel was both a help and a disadvantage to enjoying the show. On the bright side, I couldn't judge any elements by how well they lived up to my memories of the novel (or the BBC miniseries) so, for instance, the fact that the character of Door was played as somewhat more imperious and no-nonsense (as opposed to more vulnerable) didn't bother me in the least. On the other hand, I think I missed some of the jokes and references, not to mention details of character and plot.

Still, the story was always told clearly and with brio, and the performances were very strong, with Kauzlaric, sporting a flawless Scottish accent as the hero, Kyra Morris, as a truly badass warrior, and Sean Sinitski and Christopher M. Walsh, as courtly assassins, standing out. The design work was truly outstanding overall, creating a wholly convincing world and some really magical effects. (By the way, in the past few months I have seen amazing designs by the fistful in storefront theatres. The people working there really know how to make the most of limiter resources, and I salute their imagination and skill.)

I found that the show didn't always pull me along, and the ending didn't have the intensity it needed, but overall it's a very entertaining show, and there's enough that's beautiful and exciting that it's really worth a trip for those in the mood for fun and involving fantasy. For Gaiman fans (a passionate lot), I'd recommend it even higher.

(And it's clearly connecting with its fans--on the Thursday I attended, it looked to be at least 85% full. On a Thursday!)

As for official reviews: I saw War with the Newts at the sadly beleaguered Next Theatre. Suffice it to say I didn't enjoy it. Didn't have anything to do with the troubles at the theatre--the script just has serious problems. My hopes are still high for things getting restabilized over there--it's a wonderful theatre.

And for what it's worth, my view was not in the majority, so maybe I'm just an incurable grouch. Here's the text:

"War with the Newts," adapted by Justin D. M. Palmer and Jason Loewith from Czech author Karl Capek's 1936 novel, has such potential. After all, it's about a race of amphibious creatures which are discovered and enslaved by humans, until they rise up and menace the world, and the production features water, puppets and projections. Even if it didn't work, one would hope that the sheer variety and bizarreness on display would make it interesting. So it's particularly disappointing to report that, despite the ambition of the project and the obvious intelligence and skill of the creators, the show is deadly dull.

A number of factors bring about this unfortunate turn of events. First off, the script itself is fatally unfocused: the newts are a satirical stand-in for...well, just about everything, from the victims of German racial theories and American lynchings to arrogant imperial powers to illegal immigrants working for low wages. The satire is too scattered to hit any target squarely, but the historical parallels are too obvious and overdetermined to permit much insight into the general human condition. Add the repetitive and strident domestic drama surrounding protagonist Mr. Povondra (Joseph Wycoff), the lengthy descriptions of offstage action shoehorned awkwardly into the script (we don't see a representation of a newt until late in the second act, so everything they do happens offstage), and the confused structure, and the result is a script that makes it very hard to get engaged, despite individual sections that work quite well.

The design and staging are indeed quite impressive, though they often feel lost in the theater, which is much larger than Next's home base in Evanston. The actors do individually strong work but can't give the show shape and clarity. The ambition shown is laudable, but the show just doesn't hold together.