Archive for the ‘Literary – Theatre’ Category

PostHeaderIcon The ATF Goes Fishing

For its newest play, Timeline Theatre tells a tale literally ripped from yesterday’s headlines. The setting for “To Catch a Fish” is Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, the time is Spring, 2013. Terry Kilbourn is a sweet, young black man who suffers with a traumatic brain injury. He’s mentally slow and finds it hard to keep a job but, when he is hired to distribute leaflets for a new shop in town, he gives it his all.

Terry (Geno Walker) and Rochelle (Tiffany Addison)

Terry (Geno Walker) and Rochelle
(Tiffany Addison)

The job lifts his self-confidence and his relationship with Rochelle, his girlfriend, gets better. The shop owners, though, are undercover ATF agents (the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency) and the shop is a sting operation, aimed at entrapping people caught selling guns. The ATF agents then enlist Terry to move from handing out leaflets to finding people with guns to sell. Terry, who trusts the agents as his “friends,” complies against the pleas of Rochelle and his brother, Dontre. Ultimately, the plot unravels with dire consequences for Terry.

Playwright Brett Neveu has turned the story, the basis of a months-long investigation by two Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters, into a rich melodrama filled with appealing characters, down on their luck, who are prey for illegal, get-rich-quick schemes. Neveu shows small fish caught up in an entrapment scenario and are the ones who suffer the consequences–a harsh indictment of our justice system. (However, as a result of the ATF’s misuse of a mentally-challenged figure in this case, the government changed its rules and suspended such entrapment tactics).

The play is both the first full production from Timeline’s Playwrights Collective and a world premiere. The acting is gripping all-around and elevates whatever weak spots exist in the writing. I found the revealing moment ATF agent, Regina ‘G’ Whitehall, learns Terry has an incapacitating brain injury came and went too quickly. Neveu might have been developed the revelation more fully. Instead, the play ends soon after and questions are left hanging. Oxverall, I enjoyed watching the story unfold and admired Neveu for injecting an impersonal news story with three-dimensional life.

Grandma Cameron and Dontre

Grandma Cameron and Dontre

The dramatist, with director Ron OJ Parson’s help, sets numerous affecting, explosive scenes between Rochelle and Terry, Grandma Cameron and Dontre and Regina and her two male counterparts. He also writes dialogue that rings true for its mostly black cast. Playgoers will get caught up in the drama and root for Terry and Rochelle to make it against the odds. Special plaudits go to Geno Walker, who conveys Terry’s innocence and sweetness convincingly and Stephen Walker who plays the gruff, terrifying shopkeeper/ATF agent to a tee.

See the trailer for the play here.

“To Catch a Fish” plays Wednesday thru Sunday evenings with a matinee on Sundays thru July 1 at Timeline Theatre, 615 West Wellington Ave. For tickets and information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call the box office at 773/281-8463, x6.

PostHeaderIcon A Born-Again Opera Company

As I was watching Chicago Opera Theater’s fascinating production of “Elizabeth Cree” in February, I almost had to rub my eyes and make sure I wasn’t dreaming. This co-production with Opera Philadelphia of a suspenseful, ghoulish tale with overtones of Lizzie Borden and Sweeney Todd had a well-crafted libretto, a polished musical score, accomplished singing actors and touches of theatrical flair worthy of Harold Prince. This was not the COT I remember from prior seasons.

Under previous artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, I had come to expect unconventional operatic choices, highly creative stagings that didn’t always hit the mark. Credit must be given to Mitisek for generating major donations to the company, including an $800,000 award from the MacArthur Foundation and erasing  a nearly million dollar debt. I will remember his stagings of “Orpheus and Eurydice” in a swimming pool in 2013, a retelling of the Tristan/Isolde story at the Music Box Theatre and “The Invention of Morel” in 2017. But I will easily forget “Macbeth” and Philip Glass’ Walt Disney opera, “A Perfect American”.

Il Pigmalion & Rita

Il Pigmalion & Rita

This season has been an artistic U-turn. COT’s fine opener, “The Consul”, with a star turn by Patricia Racette gave an early indication of good things to come. “Elizabeth Cree” further strengthened that perception. Now, with its final offering, two one-act operas of Gaetano Donizetti, “Il Pigmalione” (1816)    and “Rita” (1841), it is hoping to end a perfect season on a note of success. I am betting they will succeed.

COT’s creative take on these two lesser-known scores is to update these tales of love and romance into a single, seamless score with a modern heroine who bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. Soprano Angela Mortellaro will portray Galathea, the sculpture that Venus brings to life to as well as Rita, a tavern landlady and abusive wife of Pepe, sung by tenor Javier Abreu. Francesco Milioto will conduct and Amy Hutchison will oversee the reworked production.

Doug Clayton

Doug Clayton

COT is celebrating its 45th season since its founding in 1973 by Alan Stone. During its history, it has staged over 125 operas, including 66 Chicago premieres and 36 operas by American composers. It is known for its risk-taking nature of bringing lesser-known and contemporary works to public attention. With the 2017-18 season, under the direction of General Director, Douglas Clayton, the company is entering its sixth or seventh incarnation. Even a cat has only 9 lives.

But this incarnation may be more lasting. Helped by a debt-free balance sheet, Clayton recently announced a new strategic plan to be implemented next season. COT will feature an entire season of three Chicago premieres: Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”, “The Scarlet Ibis” by Stefan Weissman and Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. Clayton told ArtsAndAbout the reasoning driving this decision.

In a statement Clayton provided to Arts and About, Clayton spoke of a “golden age of opera in the U.S.” and cited two ways COT will move in the future. “The first is to focus on fully-realized productions…that have never been produced in Chicago. The second place where COT can contribute in a unique and meaningful way is to be the Midwest home for new opera and new opera composers.” To promote the second objective, COT is establishing the Vanguard Initiative that will put its resources into the development of new operas. Its first orchestral workshop production will be “The Life and Death of Alan Turing” in Spring, 2019.

With Lyric’s season on hiatus, you should explore the exciting new developments at COT. But you need to be quick. “Il Pigmalione” and “Rita” will only be around for three performances, starting this Saturday evening. For tickets, go to www.chicagooperatheater.org.

Post-Opening Night: Wow! COT has ended its 2017-2018 season with a delightful smash hit! The seamless two-act operas had fine singing, especially by soprano Angela Mortellaro, Donizetti’s equally singing melodies and a story with heartfelt emotion in “Il Pigmalione” and broad humor with comedia dell’ arte touches in “Rita”. Director Amy Hutchinson kept all the elements moving perfectly. The production values could rival those seen at Lyric Opera. And “Rita”‘s set design was spectacular. A perfect date night option for even non-opera lovers but you only have until next weekend to catch the final performances.

 

PostHeaderIcon Tragic Tale Between Two Cultures

Silk Road Rising is a theatre company founded in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 the year before. Over the past 16 years, it has produced around 30 plays with two goals in mind. The first was to challenge the hatred that fueled the attacks by the terrorists and the anti-Muslim backlash that soon followed. And the second was to present dramas that showed the similar feelings and aspirations shared by Middle East and South Asian people and Americans.

Its newest production, “Through the Elevated Line”, a world premiere by playwright Novid Parsi, demonstrates he is an accomplished dramatist. The author of at least three other plays, he had the ingenious idea of adapting+ elements of Tennessee Williams‘ masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” to tell the tale of an Iranian refugee who comes to live with his sister and her husband in their Chicago home. What should be a happy occasion turns into a horrendous tragedy with contemporary overtones. Parsi has written a play with gripping action and strong portrayals by the actors.

Catherine Dildilian as Soraya Salar Ardebili as Razi

Catherine Dildilian as Soraya with Razi,
Salar Ardebili

Parsi replaces the delicate figure of Blanche DuBois with Razi Gol. His sister is Soraya and her husband is Chuck, a hunky, sexy brute quite reminiscent of the “Streetcar” role immortalized by Marlon Brando. Parsi, perhaps deliberately, gives only Razi a last name. Yet, in pluralistic Chicago, a last name provides initial clues about someone’s ethnic identity and living circumstances.

From the first, Razi’s eyes are taking in this strange, new land and its customs. Baseball, beer, beef and bullying are all essential virtues in middle-class America. This is all anathema to a sensitive, strict Muslim who doesn’t drink, is indifferent to sports and reads the poetry of Hafez IbrahimHe is in flight from Iran for some unknown reason, a displaced person in another land and accepted by neither.

While Soraya wants to help her brother adapt to his new circumstances, the situation is soon poisoned by a deep antagonism between Chuck and Razi. A series of shouting brawls soon develop between Razi and Soraya and Razi and Chuck that leave Razi increasingly isolated while Chuck turns evermore hostile.

Parsi does not simply transpose all of Williams’ plot lines but skillfully supplies a few twists of his own. Razi is hiding some dark secrets, being gay is one, and is not as blameless as Blanche. And, while the climactic scene in “Streetcar” is powered by Stanley Kowalski, Parsi has another character supply the tragic denouement.

Joshua J. Volkers as Chuck Catherine Dildilian as Soraya

Joshua J. Volkers as Chuck and
Catherine Dildilian

Deserved kudos must go to the play’s three lead actors: Salar Ardebili (Razi), Catherine Dildilian (Soraya) and Joshua Volkers (Chuck) who endow the production with strong emotion and believability. Philip Winston (Sean) ) was very effective as Razi’s lover. Director Carin Silkaitis kept the pace taut and the tension unflagging.

While I can only rave at the professional staging in Silk Road’s close quarters, I have two reservations which emerged as I watched but which should not keep readers from seeing the show.  I thought Parsi, during the opening scenes, might have provided a more nuanced, building conflict between Razi and Chuck. Rather than have Razi take an immediate dislike to Chuck, the two men might have compared  Iranian customs and its way of life versus American ways rather than yelling at each other right away. It would have been an enlightening argument for the audience to hear. Secondly, Razi had a limited way of expressing anger. His constant high-pitched wails lacked variation and induced a shortness of breath that rendered some of his dialogue incomprehensible.

“Through the Elevated Line” proves that a 1950s play set in New Orleans can address the same themes in 2018 Chicago.

It plays at Silk Road Rising,  77 West Washington Street, lower level, through Sunday, April 15. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SilkRoadRising.org or by calling 312/857-1234 x201.

 

 

 

PostHeaderIcon History the Way it Was or Was It?

Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev)

Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev)

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in 1985. Their Geneva Summit was a high-stakes meeting–two leaders of the only world super-powers at the time–packed with real-world drama. It led to the momentous breakthrough four years later of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We audience members enter the Goodman Theatre’s production of their new play, “Blind Date” knowing these essential facts.

We take our seats eager to learn more of the behind-the-scenes drama; to go beyond the newspaper headlines of the time and catch any interplay between the two main characters. Playwright Rogelio Martinez likes to plumb news accounts for his plays. “Blind Date” is his latest installment in his treatment of Cold War episodes, the others being the trilogy“Ping Pong”, “Born in East Berlin” and “When Tang Met Laika”.

Martinez is being touted as an aspiring playwright able to craft scenes and characters but the ability to generated real dramatic tension is lacking. And, as a political commentator, he struck me as a dud. Thirty years on, we learn nothing new and the action is plodding throughout the first act. In line with those expectations   we brought prior to the curtain, “Blind Date” might better be billed as “Bland Date”.

The play is a slyly comic but only glancing glimpse of  the leaders. We only meet them for the first time after intermission and 90 minutes into the play. Both men had initially been reluctant to meet. Rather than make them the play’s protagonists, Martinez pens an alternate view of the summit. He seems to suggest that the two senior diplomatic advisers, Secretary of State, George Schultz, and Russian Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the leaders’ two wives, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev are the more fascinating figures. Those four characters fuel the play and, only at the end, does Reagan pull a rabbit from his hat and opens a warm relationship with Gorbachev that bears fruit years later.

ary Beth Fisher (Raisa Gorbachev) and Deanna Dunagan (Nancy Reagan)

ary Beth Fisher (Raisa Gorbachev) and Deanna Dunagan (Nancy Reagan)

The entire first act deals with the diplomatic dance between Shultz and Shevardnadze as they plot making the meeting happen. Martinez fails to give either man intelligent, Mamet-like dialogue while Shultz appears as the weaker adversary.  Actor Jim Ortlieb projected little energy in his matter-of-fact delivery of Shultz while Steve Pickering was more combative and forceful. The same dynamic was at play in Mary Beth Fisher’s portrayal of the shrewd Raisa Gorbachev. Deanna Dunagan, a fine Chicago actress, was good but needed to display more of Nancy Reagan’s cunning. Martinez might have made more of her astrological obsession. I wish I had more to say about the acting of actors Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev) but there was too little of it to matter. Both men bore some passing resemblance to their historical counterparts.

As a great admirer of director Robert Falls’ work over several decades, I was truly surprised by how little stagecraft and juice he injected into the script. The action felt under-powered, a trait I don’t associate with Falls’ at all and not how a world summit should be seen. I left the theater knowing no more than when I entered and missing the jolt that genuine political theater generates.

“Blind Date” plays at Goodman Theatre through February 25. For tickets and information, call the box office at 312/443-3800 or go online to GoodmanTheatre.org.

PostHeaderIcon A Boy’s Pursuit of Love & Identity

The bulletin board outside a Hyde Park church featured this challenging quote by renowned author, Elie Wiesel: “Is Silence the Answer? It Never Was.” That truth took me back to the play I had seen a few nights earlier, Timeline Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Boy” by talented playwright, Anna Ziegler.

Anna Ziegler, Playwright

Anna Ziegler, Playwright

I sat through the opening-night performance transfixed by the compelling dramatization of a highly-relevant issue for our times as well as the superb acting of the Timeline ensemble, notably Theo Germaine who plays the lead character, Adam Turner.

The play tells a true and disturbing tale of gender identity, something Americans have become sensitized to in recent years with the case of Bruce (now Caitlin) Jenner and the politically tawdry bathroom choice squabble.

Last January, National Geographic declared America to be in the midst of a “gender revolution”. I recently read that The New York Times had used the term, “transgender”, a total of 1,169 times in 2017 or an average of 100 times each month. In 2016, Oregon became the first state to legally recognize a third gender option of intersexuality. Personally, in the past 18 months, I have been getting acquainted with several acronyms related to different gender roles: Cis, Trans and Non-Binary. At the play’s opening, I added Genderqueer and TGNC, for trans-gender non-conforming identity, to my vocabulary along with the pronoun they/them to refer to an intersex person.

Jenny (Emily Marso) Adam (Theo Germaine)

Jenny (Emily Marso) Adam (Theo Germaine)

“Boy” transfers this biological phenomenon to the stage. Adam Turner’s early life was marked by tragedy. Due to a botched circumcision, he suffered a mutilation. A well-meaning doctor convinced the parents to raise him as a girl and their identical twin as a boy. When the play opens, Adam begins to develop an attraction to Jenny, as finely portrayed by Emily Marso.  As the relationship develops, Adam is increasingly torn between his feelings of desire and his fear of revealing the secret of his gender. The play revolves around Adam’s anguish over his secret and which way to turn.

It’s a testament to the actors’ craft and Damon Kiely‘s sure-handed direction that we audience members share in Adam’s agonizing dilemma and Jenny’s frustration and incomprehension. “Boy” also features a revealing soundscape crafted by Karli Blalock that, if you listen closely, comments very appropriately on Adam’s psychological turmoil. Some of the song snippets played before and during the performance include “Void in My Heart”, “I Want to Know What Love Is”, “Playing with Girls” and “In My Room”. I left the theater feeling uplifted by Adam’s brave struggle and having learned more about this once-hidden topic, now coming out of the shadows.

Don’t be scared away by the subject matter from going to Timeline. You won’t be hectored or lectured. Instead, what’s on view is a gripping portrayal by an accomplished playwright who dramatizes the wrenching humanity behind today’s sensational headlines and the ignorant rants of hateful yahoos.

“Boy” runs through March 18th at Timeline, 615 West Wellington Ave. For tickets and information, visit www.timelinetheatre.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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