Archive for the ‘Literary – Theatre’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Paradise’s Case of the Blues

The time is 1949. Inside the Paradise nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, the five characters in “Paradise Blue” act out their personal dramas unaware that their lives are about to be turned upside down. Outside, Southern blacks have been migrating to Black Bottom at the rate of 1,000 a month for the past 30 years, turning the area from predominantly white to black.

An estimated 350 black-owned businesses exist in the neighborhood. It is a vibrant part of the city that blacks call their own but politicians call “blight”. Like many Northern cities at this time, Detroit’s power brokers are planning an “urban renewal” project to tear down Black Bottom’s dilapidated buildings, displace the current residents and erect an expressway to take the city’s fleeing white residents to the suburbs.

Paradise Blue--Timline Theatre

Al’Jaleel McGhee as “Blue”

Dominique Morisseau  situates the reality of this racial/political dynamic, only six years after Detroit’s race riots, inside Club Paradise.  It opens with the jazz club’s owner, Blue, playing runs on his trumpet. The club was started by his father but is having financial troubles in the face of newer competition. Blue also has personal troubles of his own that he hides with blustery, bullying outbursts at his fellow musicians and faithful lover, Pumpkin.

“Paradise Blue” is one of a cycle of plays that focus on Detroit, playwright Morisseau’s, hometown. The first was “Detroit ’67”, another riot-filled year. This is the second of Morisseau’s plays that Timeline has presented following last season’s “Sunset Baby”. “Paradise” is a more gut-wrenching production than “Sunset” and features two first-rate portrayals by the female leads, Tyla Abercrombie as the sassy, worldly Silver and Kristin Ellis as the innocent, poetry-loving Pumpkin. Ronald Conner delivers the best male performance as Corn, a kindhearted piano man. The titled protagonist, Blue, played by Al’Jaleel McGhee, delivers a disappointing, one-note performance dominated by anger. If that is how Ms. Morriseau wrote the part, Blue deserves to be a more complex personality so we can sympathize with his plight.

Tyla Abercrombie as “Pumpkin”& Al’Jaleel McGhee as “Blue”

Aside from Blue, the play’s characters are well-drawn and the dialogue sounds true. The action is smartly-paced and keeps the audience anticipating what comes next. While Blue is plotting the sale of the club and leaving his loyal drummer and pianist behind, Silver is busy making Pumpkin aware of her own agency. The arc of Pumpkin’s transformation from a mousey figure to a woman who finds her voice to challenge Blue is the drama’s essential core. When the group learns of Blue’s plan to abandon them, he pays the price.

This second of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy clear parallels the Pittsburgh play cycle of August Wilson. A key difference is that women, rather than men, predominate and drive the action. Timeline is clearly interested in supporting this playwright’s promising development and so should we. “Paradise Blue” makes for a gripping night of theater that ends Timeline’s 20th anniversary season on a high note.

“Paradise Blue” plays at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Avenue, through July 23rd. For tickets and information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call the box office at 773/281-8463, x6.

 

 

PostHeaderIcon The Disappearing Mathematician

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was a mathematical genius whose contributions to the theory of numbers include pioneering discoveries related to the partition function. He was mainly self-taught and his mastery of fractions, infinity and string theory was unequaled by living mathematicians of the time.

Such a topic does not sound like the makings of an award-winning drama. Yet, the renowned British theater company,  Complicite, conceived and mounted this homage to Ramanujan in London in 2007 where it captivated critics and took home several prestigious honors. Complicite was founded in 1983 and is known for a highly-physical brand of performance. It characterizes its key working principles as “seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, images and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre.”

Juliet Hart as Ruth

Juliet Hart as Ruth

Timeline’s production of “A Disappearing Number” is remarkably faithful to that mission of surprise and disruption. It opens in a classroom where Ruth, an infectious  math teacher, is rhapsodically lecturing about the beauty of prime numbers, Fibonacci sequences and the like. The atmosphere is charged for actors and audience alike. At lecture’s end, Al, a clearly-captivated stranger, sticks around. The first inklings of what becomes an intense relationship take root, paralleling the intellectual connection of Ramanujan and famed Cambridge mathematician, G.H. Hardy.

The production’s staging is quite thrilling as it hurtles forward at breakneck speed, bombarding viewers with visual stimuli that use all four walls of the theater and often leave the audience racing to keep up between Ramanujan’s struggles at Cambridge one moment and Ruth and Al’s star-crossed love affair the next. Timeline’s staging is a tour de force and a strong scenic design by William Boles.

However, I grew increasingly frustrated at the constant disruptions for updates on Ruth and Al. Al, we learn late in the show, is not a student but a hedge fund executive who appears in Ruth’s classroom one day and becomes infatuated by her intensity. While figures play a major role in both their lives, the lovers exist on two different planes that can never meet. The attempt to make Ruth a modern counterpart of her Indian idol struck me as flawed on Complicite’s part since it drew attention away from the true protagonist.

The play’s bait and switch tactic means we catch only fleeting, skimpy glimpses of Ramanujan: in India developing his theories, enduring physical hardships and racist attitudes by Royal Society mathematicians save Hardy. The play barely skims the surface of his life. He eventually contracts tuberculosis that leads to his tragic death at the age of 32.

So much of this mathematician’s achievement remains untold. Had I not seen the film, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” last year, I would have little idea about the full story of this great man’s achievement.

Timeline deserves high marks for its faithfulness to Complicite’s conception. Kudos go to Juliet Hart’s portrayal of Ruth and to Nick Bowling for keeping all the play’s story balls moving. The play is a qualified success. Its misdirected focus on Ruth and Al’s doomed affair made the real disappearing number Ramanujan himself.

A Disappearing Number” is playing at Timeline Theatre through April 9th. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 773/281-8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.

PostHeaderIcon The Queen Who Kept Her Head

Last month, I made my way to Timeline Theatre for my latest history lesson. This time, it was a fascinating modern take on the House of Tudor (1485-1603). I do remember enough from my high-school History days about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I can’t recall ever hearing about Thomas Seymour and Katherine Parr. Yet, the latter figure was noteworthy. She was Henry’s sixth wife and the only one who outlived him.

As part of its 20th season, Timeline is presenting a highly engaging re-imagination of her marriage to the tempestuous Henry with the American premiere of Kate Hennig’s play, “The Last Wife”. It was first presented at the Stratford Festival in Canada last year where it enjoyed a three month, sold-out engagement.

Hennig’s play is not some Masterpiece Theater historical drama. Here, the actors are in modern dress and speak modern English. The action is set not at court but in the couple’s private quarters. Integral to the play’s appeal is that the audience, at one moment, is spying on their secret royal lives, complete with young children and raging quarrels, while, a moment later, we seem to be witnessing a 2016 dysfunctional family.

"Henry" grabs "Katherine"

“Henry” grabs “Katherine”

A modern note was struck right at the outset when Henry, convincingly played by Steve Pickering, barges in, grabs Katherine and forcibly kisses her, demonstrating his dominance, while a startled Seymour looks on. Immediately, my mind flashed to Donald Trump and the fresh revelations of his predatory conduct with numerous women.

The play accurately portrays Katherine’s keen mind and love of power.  AnJi White skillfully portrays a modern woman whose voluptuous figure can seduce and reduce two powerful men to her will. Parr must also have enjoyed an alluring figure. She was Henry’s consort before their marriage, carried on an illicit affair with Seymour and had four husbands in her life. She deserves greater recognition for getting Henry to pass the Third Succession Act of 1542 that restored his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to the throne. Without her persuasion, no Queen Elizabeth I. History turns on such twists of fate.

Steve Pckering & Anji White as Henry & Katherine

Steve Pckering & Anji White as Henry & Katherine

There’s no better way to get your English History refresher than to see “The Last Wife”, now playing through December 18. For tickets and information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call 773/281-TIME.

I also want to call attention to the full range of Timeline’s education efforts. I am only familiar with the richly informative outer lobby displays mounted for each production. This time, there was a video about Henry , a life-size depiction of Henry with a cutout for female patrons to insert their face and six panels depicting each of Henry’s wives. In the earlier production, “Bakersfield Mist”, the lobby featured an art history primer on Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. Post-show discussions with company members and a monthly panel discussion, Sunday Scholars, examining the themes of each play are regular features.

Timeline is now celebrating the 10th anniversary of its “Living History Education Program” for students at Chicago Public schools. Students explore the connections between history, art and their own lives. The intent is to teach students theater skills while fostering their capacity to think creatively. Since the program started, Timeline has turned history into Living History for more than 3,500 students.

To honor the theater’s 20th anniversary season and its mission to present stories inspired by history, Timeline was awarded the 2016  MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Bravo!

 

PostHeaderIcon Timeline Finds Play’s Greatness

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

This Saturday marks Arthur Miller’s 100th birthday. Miller ranks as one of the 20th Century’s greatest playwrights, in the select company of Eugene O’Neill, Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams. He wrote numerous plays but three– “Death of Salesman“, “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge-are seen as his greatest achievements.

The Price” is usually not counted among his finest. But, if you see the powerhouse production now playing at Timeline Theater, I’m sure you would add it to his list of classics. Timeline has cast four superb actors–including Chicago theatre legend Mike Nussbaum–who animate the play’s charged emotional and moral complexity in scenes pulsing with hurtful accusation, shrewd bargaining and white-hot anger.

The magic begins as you walk inside the theater and immediately are thrust inside a mid-20th Century apartment, complete with chandelier, old rugs, bureaus and dated furniture. The former occupant has died and his two estranged sons have gathered to dispose of their father’s belongings.

David Nussbaum

David Nussbaum

One brother, a tired cop nearing retirement, has invited a wily, 90-year-old antique dealer  (Nussbaum) to come and make a offer for his late father’s pile of relics and old furniture.

The first act consists of two charged confrontations: one between Walter and his wife, Esther, who is hoping the proceeds will let them change their lifestyle and a difficult back-and-forth between Walter and the appraiser over price. Each invests “price” with a different meaning.

As the play unfolds, Miller deftly reveals that price is not just monetary but also the emotional price we pay for our life decisions. Walter and Esther both feel trapped by earlier decisions while Walter is resentful of his brother, Victor, a successful doctor.

Miller once said that his legacy was having written good parts for actors. He certainly did so in this production. He has given actors lines they can sink their acting teeth into. The crisp dialogue keeps the conflict and haggling tense while exposing the destructive family dynamics. As the play progresses, we grasp the high personal stakes each character has invested around their sense of price.

Kymberly Mullen & Roderick Peeples

Kymberly Mullen & Roderick Peeples

Roderick Peeples and Bret Tuomi give gripping performances as the two brothers while Kymberly Mellen poignantly portrays an angry wife who feels trapped and wants a new life. And Nussbaum is commanding, imbuing his antique dealer with humor and ever-shrewd calculation. Director Louis Contey deserves high marks for shaping the production and never letting the tension flag.

You will be sorry if you miss this outstanding revival. “The Price” will be a prime contender come Jeff Awards time. It runs now through November 22 at Timeline’s original home, 615 West Wellington. For tickets, call 773/281-TIME or visit TimelineTheatre.com.

PostHeaderIcon My Two Best Holiday Presents

On this, the twelfth day of Christmas, as I look back over the past holiday season, I recall two superb performing arts events best. Each–a chamber music concert and a play–sparked a surge of holiday spirit with their gifts of melody, abundant humor and stellar artistry.

Brandenburg Concertos - Photo by Tristan CookThe first present came on December 18th at the Harris Theater as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performed J.S. Bach’s six glorious Brandenburg Concertos. The concert began with 11 ensemble musicians setting the mood with a bright, sparkling offering of Concerto No. 2 that was champagne bubbly.

And the entire evening continued in similar fashion until the final notes of the lyrical Concerto No. 4 sounded. While Bach’s concerti are almost 400 years old, the musicians played each piece with a vitality and freshness belying their venerable age. And the group’s variation among 20 musicians and their shifting configurations for each concerto resulted in dynamic variety and featured soloists that was musically effective. The large audience responded to the top-drawer performances very enthusiastically.

As I listened, feeling full of holiday cheer, I thought: Give me the Brandenburgs every Christmas and I’ll forego any future Christmas “Messiah” or another “Nutcracker”.  CMSLC’s co-artistic director Wu Han happily announced that Harris has engaged the ensemble for three more seasons into 2017. A smart move that will allow Chicagoans the chance to hear a group Chicago Magazine calls “a New York powerhouse”.

Their next appearance is on March 18 with a program entitled “French Revelations”, featuring works by Ravel, Debussy, Roussel and Tournier. For tickets and more information, go to www.harristheaterchicago.org.

Bravos are also in order for the Harris Theater , celebrating its 10th anniversary year. Over the past decade, this venue has broadened Chicago’s artistic horizon immeasurably. Its adventurous programming has brought international troupes, such as the upcoming Hamburg Ballet and Gidon Kremer’s Kramerata Baltica, that we would not have the chance to see otherwise and provided Chicago’s vibrant dance and music companies, like Music of the Baroque and Chicago Opera Theater, with an attractive and needed downtown home.

The other holiday treat came on the 4th day of Christmas. I sat in the Music Box Theatre watching a delightful, repeat screening from the National Theatre of London of  Alan Bennett’s play, “The Habit of Art”.

Like the Metropolitan Opera’s live presentations, the National Theater’s venture is a giant treat for theater lovers who want to catch top British actors and can’t easily hop a plane to London. The production quality of the screenings is excellent, though they are not in High Definition as the Met Opera telecasts and not precisely “live”, though they capture a live performance.

Bennett, in my mind, is a national treasure. He began his career not as a playwright but as a comic actor 50 years ago with fellow Oxford chums Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in the celebrated revue, “Beyond the Fringe”. He has gained greater, and well-deserved, celebrity in the last 20 years with his hit plays, “The Madness of George III” and “The History Boys”.

“The Habit of Art” recalls an encounter at Oxford between poet, W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (this is his centennial year). They were both great friends but had a falling-out years ago. Britten, afraid of failure, is hoping that Auden would help revise the libretto for his score of  Thomas Mann’s book, “Death in Venice”. Auden refuses unless he can make the connection between the homoeroticism of the book’s protagonist and Britten’s own sexual identity clear. Britten strongly rejects the idea.

That  encounter takes up about 30 minutes of the three-hour production. The rest of the time is filled with Auden’s wit, pronouncements and his own homosexual practices which are delivered with majestic aplomb by the late, great actor Richard Griffiths, who played the teacher in “The History Boys.”

Bennett ingeniously sets the play-within-a-play in a rehearsal room where the actors are learning their lines and flitting back and forth between the play and real life. It was a joy to watch and left me exhilarated.  The NTL’s next live productions at the Music Box are Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” later this month and “The War Horse” in February. Check www.ntlive.com for a full schedule of upcoming screenings.

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