Archive for the ‘Literary – Theatre’ Category

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 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

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

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 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 (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 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”.