Archive for the ‘Literary – Theatre’ Category

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.

PostHeaderIcon People Who Hate People

I first came to know Alan Bennett as a member of “Beyond the Fringe”, the smash 1960 comedy revue that revolutionized British satire. Back then, Bennett was the forgotten Fringe member, ceding the spotlight to Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Yet, as the years passed, Bennett has achieved his share of fame as a playwright, screenwriter and author. He even enjoys the status as one of England’s “national treasures.”

His name is not well-known outside Britain or theater circles but, in recent years, he has enjoyed great success with two plays, “The Madness of George III” (1992) and “The History Boys” (2006), both of which were made into films. And a British Film Institute biography calls several of his television scripts “amongst British television’s greatest achievements.”

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett

Watching his television and Broadway plays, I admire his compassion for downtrodden or unfortunate characters who often fail to connect with others, particularly in intimate relationships. I think the BFI profile gets it right when it commends “his ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humor (that) makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler of a certain kind of English ordinariness, whose outwardly placid surface conceals inner turmoil.”

I thus went with high expectations on Tuesday evening to see his latest play, “People,” which premiered at London’s National Theatre last October and has been a big hit, prompting TNL to film a live performance for screening internationally under the National Theatre Live banner.  Locally, TNL productions began screening at The Music Box Theater in 2011 with Danny Boyle’s adaptation of “Frankenstein”.

TNL’s ambitious plan closely resembles the successful effort of  The Metropolitan Opera’s theater telecasts. For this production, Bennett was reunited with his “History Boys” director and National Theatre head, Nicholas Hytner.

The People

"The People"

The play opens in the living room of a crumbling South Yorkshire country estate stacked high with furnishings under wraps and a bath on top of the billiard table. Dorothy Stacpoole (the delightful Frances de la Tour) and her companion, Iris (Linda Bassett) are facing a tough decision. Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, June, wants to hand the estate over to the National Trust to manage but Dorothy finds the idea distasteful. She abhors all the people traipsing through the house on a National Trust tour, something to be avoided at all costs. “People spoil things,” she says. That reminded me of  the famous line by Jean Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.” But what is she to do?

I wish I had a better report to deliver. However, I found the action plodding, the dialogue lacking punch and the wit too British for my taste. Things do pick up in Act Two but the story had lost me by then. The English harbor a fondness for such drawing room comedy. Yet, for me, this genre just doesn’t travel well. Readers may feel differently, given the tremendous popularity of British fare aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater.

“People” will be shown again at the Music Box this Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance at the theater’s box office, $18 at the door and online at www.musicboxtheatre.com/events/people (click Special Events).

However, I still plan to be in the audience for the NTL’s next two presentations: a political thriller, “This House,” which enjoyed two sold-out runs at the National, on May 16 and Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” once more portraying QE II on June 13.




PostHeaderIcon Catch This “Motherf**ker” Pronto

Editor’s Note: This review marks the 75th post on this site since I began blogging three years ago this month. Many bloggers hit that mark within a few months but not posting 600-700 word essays. I hope you continue checking the site and sharing your thoughts  so that my humble effort ignites a dialogue.

Maybe you’ve heard about the language (the word “fuck” rolls off tongues like a musical riff at least 60 times), the tenement setting (maybe El Barrio in New York’s East Harlem), or Steppenwolf”s proclivity toward dark tales and have not yet seen “Motherf**ker With the Hat”. Whatever has kept you away, you’re making a big mistake. Here’s a play that opens with a jolt and races like a locomotive to its inevitable  end, taking you hostage on its wild ride. “Motherf**ker” is a poetic and passionate play, very funny, real with a capital “R” and utterly absorbing!

Although the show’s signature image is of a hat marked by a smoking bullet-hole, no gun goes off in the show. The damage is all emotional.

As soon as we take our seat, we spy what to my New York eyes is a tenement in the Puerto Rican barrio of East Harlem. Todd Rosenthal’s must-see set becomes the play’s sixth character though it has no lines.  It vividly captures and immediately locates us in that world with its outside fire escapes, apartment furnishings, and giant iron billboard frame atop the building while screeching subway sounds pierce the night.  Jazz artist, Terence Blanchard, earns kudos for his original, pulsating score.

Veronica in Jackie's arms

Veronica in Jackie's arms

The action starts within seconds. Jackie (played by John Ortiz) races into his girlfriend’s apartment with good news. He has just landed a job after being released from prison for selling drugs. He is full of romantic plans to share with Veronica (Sandra Delgado).  The bathroom door opens and Veronica sashays out in her panties and bra, a sight that raises Jackie’s– and every male viewer’s–testosterone. This is one hot dame.

While she excuses herself to “freshen up,” Jackie continues his excited monologue on her bed. Suddenly, his gaze goes to a night table on which a hat is resting. When Veronica reappears, the good mood has vanished and jealousy is in the house. Who’s been in the apartment and probably sharing her bed, he demands. Veronica denies any infidelity, the language gets intense and charges fly back and forth.

We might assume, at first, that the play’s purpose is to unravel whose hat it is. But playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intent is to explore something else–truth, friendship and the wages of sex. The hat is merely an overlay for the dysfunctional choices these people make that mess up their need for connection and love.  The New York Times accurately depicted the play as a “fast and furious study of lives in collision…at the intersection of love and hate.”

Jackie & Uncle Julio

Jackie & Uncle Julio

The ensemble acting is a joy to observe. Ortiz is utterly natural as Jackie, making us care for his dreams and fevered quest for  revenge. Delgado as Veronica nails the right interplay of sexuality, vulnerability and hair-trigger emotions. Jimmy Smits shines as Jackie’s shifty parole officer (Ralph D.). Sandra Marquez gives an impassioned portrayal as Ralph’s love-starved wife who has squandered her dream. Gary Perez as Jackie’s Uncle Julio provides delightful contrast as Jackie’s finicky, gay uncle who transforms into an unlikely enforcer.

Anna Shapiro

Anna Shapiro

Director Anna D. Shapiro, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, directed the original New York production of Guirgis’ play in 2011. She succeeds again in this remounting making sure each character’s complex interplay of sympathy and destructive self-interest comes through. She finds both the humor and the humanity in these lives. Shapiro also won the 2008 Tony for her direction of Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County”.

I regret that commitments on other reporting assignments kept me from posting this rave review sooner. So, don’t delay. You have until March 3 to catch this “motherf**ker” before it closes. Tickets are available at www.steppenwolf.org. Twenty $20 tickets are available beginning at 11 a.m. on the day of each performance. Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. And student discounted tickets for $15 are available online using the promo code “HAT 15”.

PostHeaderIcon A Living Hell in the Basement

It’s hard to believe but the League of Chicago Theaters boasts more than 225 member companies. They run the gamut from pop-up venues and modest storefronts to more established mid-size companies all the way to name-brand ensembles such as Goodman, Northlight, Court, Steppenwolf and Shakespeare Repertory. This happy state of affairs, nurtured over the past 25 years, has made Chicago America’s most vibrant theater town, though New York and Broadway remain the industry’s capital.

Amid such a theatrical jumble, it’s difficult to stand out and create a distinct identity. A troupe that has carved out a unique niche is timelineTimeLine Theatre Company. I recommend that you put it on your must-go list for consistently engaging evenings at the theater. The company, now celebrating its 15th Anniversary, made Chicago Magazine‘s 2011 list of “Best Theatre in Chicago” and was named one of the nation’s top 10 emerging professional theatres by the American Theatre Wing which administers the Tony Awards.

TimeLine’s mission is “to present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues.”  Over its 15-year history, it has presented 51 productions, including 16 Chicago premieres. TimeLine has received 46 Jeff Awards (Chicago’s Tonys), including an award for Outstanding Production eight times.  A few acclaimed productions in recent years have included The History Boys“, “Frost/Nixon“, “The Farnsworth Invention” and “The Front Page”.

Given such an illustrious history, you’d think the company would be more-widely-known. It already is within Chicago’s theater community and among committed theatergoers.  Yet I often encounter blank stares when I mention their name to friends and have to deliver an elevator pitch endorsement. Perhaps the lack of a large marketing budget for banner ads in the Chicago dailies and a house seating only 99 viewers a night might explains why TimeLine has had to build its reputation show by show, season after season. It even took me more than 10 years to discover them.

John Conroy

John Conroy

TimeLine’s newest production, its eighth world premiere, is “My Kind of Town” by veteran investigative journalist, John Conroy. Conroy has turned his long-running expose about a Chicago police torture scandal into riveting and disturbing drama. It asks its audience to have what TimeLine calls “a new conversation about today’s culture of law and order.”

Entering the theater, we see a stage with only a table, some chairs and a typewriter off to the side. The set consists of black, interlocking pipes, resembling construction scaffolding. Within the play’s first moments, you realize it is the basement interrogation room at Chicago Police Area 2 station house. Beginning in 1973 and over the next dozen years, Commander John Burge and other detectives tortured suspects employing suffocation and electric shock (shades of Abu Ghraib) to gain coerced confessions to crimes the suspects were alleged, often mistakenly, to have committed.

Beginning in January, 1990, Conroy published “House of Screams”, the first of 22 articles in The Chicago Reader, drawing attention to the torture allegations . For many years, the charges of police brutality against Burge were dismissed by authorities, the media and an indifferent public. Finally, in January, 2003, as the evidence became too great to ignore, Governor George Ryan pardoned four men tortured at Area 2, all of whom were sitting on Death Row. The next day, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death penalty prisoners. Chicago, to date, has paid more than $37 million in civil suits to settle lawsuits by victims against Burge and detectives under his command. Burge was recently sentenced to serve 4 1/2 years in prison. (A PDF Study Guide about the scandal’s history and legislation is on the TimeLine website, www.timelinetheatre.com).

This is all disturbing and highly volatile history, the kind we prefer to turn away from. Yet, theater can be a teacher. Ever since the Greeks, it has examined issues of morality and, at its best, supplied healing catharsis. Conroy and TimeLine handle this material by focusing on the humanity and incredible pain that the suspect, detectives and family members endure. Burge doesn’t appear at all. Instead, we come to know and care about the defiant suspect, the supportive detective’s wife who begins to have her doubts, the anguished mother of the suspect who never gives up fighting for her son and the State’s Attorney whose report can gain a new trial.

Derek Gaza as Otha Jeffries

Charles Gardner (center) as Otha Jeffries

The result is gripping theater due to superb acting by every ensemble member, particularly Charles Gardner as suspect Otha Jeffries (the characters’ names are composites of several accounts) and David Parkes as Detective Dan Breen. Director Nick Bowling keeps the narrative tension taut and builds the action expertly to a fever pitch in the second half. He uses the stage’s table prop imaginatively. In one scene, it is the interrogation table; later it becomes  a family dining table. I especially admired his staging in the second act when the suspect’s parents and the detective and his wife sit around the table each planning their courtroom strategy. Though the finale left me slightly deflated, Conroy rejects a pat ending in favor of having the audience exit with the issues of corruption and our complicity in its continuance swirling around our brain.

David Parkes & Maggie Kettering

David Parkes (Det. Breen) and Danica Monroe as his wife.

“My Kind of Town” plays through July 29 with performances Wednesdays thru Sundays. A post-show discussion follows every performance. In addition, TimeLine will host several programs dealing with the play’s themes and issues. On Sunday, June 10, a free one hour post-show panel discussion at the theater will feature Rob Warden of Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, accompanied by some of the men who were wrongfully convicted due to torture. On Monday, June 25, playwright Conroy sits for a conversation with Tribune reporter and WGN radio personality, Rick Kogan, at the Chicago Cultural Center. Admission to both events is free but reservations are recommended. To register for these events or to order tickets for the show, call the TimeLine box office at 773/281-8463 or email www.timelinetheatre.com.

PostHeaderIcon “The Girl In The Yellow Dress”

NextTheatre

Savvy theatergoers know Next Theatre in Evanston offers provocative and artistically adventurous work without fail. Next, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last season, is a company that, along with Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge and a host of small, storefront troupes, put Chicago Theater on the national map in the 1980s.

Though housed in modest quarters at the Noyes Cultural Center, Next has always had outsize ambitions, choosing works by gifted playwrights and mounting top-flight productions.  Its latest, “The Girl in the Yellow Dress,” is a smart, erotically-charged drama in which language fuels intense interactions between an English tutor and her French-Congolese student.

Celia is an Englishwoman in her 20s, living in Paris and offering English lessons, we assume, to help cover expenses. When we learn her family is quite wealthy, her motives become more mysterious.  Pierre is a handsome black man who says he wants to master English because it “is the language of the world,” a place that seems foreign and closed to him.

girl yellow dress

Carrie Coon & Austin Talley

So far, all seems quite innocent and reasonable. But, as the one-act drama unfolds, this initial facade falls away and the audience is plunged into the realm of psychodrama. By the second scene, Pierre begins his seduction of Celia who, at first, uses the rules of English grammar for self-protection and to keep him at bay.

She keeps quizzing Pierre on English’s convoluted verb constructions like the conditional and subjunctive tenses. The lessons, however, are a mere pretext for verbal foreplay.  As they trade life stories, Celia and Pierre strive to make a human connection but differences of race, class and gender intrude.

South African playwright, Craig Higginson, has written an intelligent and lively drama full of revealing twists and turns. “Girl” was a praised and much-talked-about entry at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival.

The two-person cast delivers convincing performances. While Austin Talley moves capably from hesitant student to silky seducer, it is Carrie Coon who captures Celia’s complex personality most convincingly. Director Joanie Schultz ably finds the wit amid the tension in Higginson’s script and keeps the action taut and gripping.

A special tip of the hat goes to scenic designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod whose Paris flat looks like a million bucks and is the perfect bachelorette pad.  Next’s second play of the season is a winner. If sharp dialogue and intriguing characters are your preferred theater fare, rest assured that “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” delivers.

The play runs through February 26th. Tickets can be ordered at www.nexttheatre.org or by calling the theater office at 847/475-1875, ext. 2.

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