Posts Tagged ‘theatre’
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.”
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 I think the BFI profile gets it right when it commends “his ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humor (that) makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler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 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.
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 TimeLine 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Chicagoans currently can see two solo tour de force performances on the boards: Brian Dennehy in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” at the Goodman and Mary Beth Fisher in “The Year of Magical Thinking” at Court Theatre. While more theater-goers have seen Dennehy’s performance, you should head to Hyde Park this week for the final performances of the Joan Didion play.
While I’ve usually viewed Didion’s writing as too cool, controlled and detached, I found the move from page to stage made her story more gripping. Fisher’s remarkable portrayal mad it easier to picture Didion navigating the various stages of grief she endured during the year in which she lost both her long-time husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, but also her daughter, Quintana or Q-Roo.
We witness the dispassionate journalistic observer, Didion’s preferred identity, give way to a traumatized woman who adopts a form of denial, called “magical thinking”, to convince herself that Dunne has only gone out and will soon return. Eventually she admits, “I was crazy for a while”.
Fisher holds the stage—and audience—in her grip for 90 minutes (45 minutes longer than Dennehy) using the full range of her acting repertoire–movement, voice and gesture–to tell Didion’s tale. Fisher has appeared at Court in six previous productions.
However, director Charles Newell, in an after-performance discussion, said that he did very little directing and let Fisher find the character and the play’s heart in what he called, “The Gospel According to Joan”. I experienced an emotionally-charged moment at the very end when Fisher, who had been speaking to the audience throughout, moves to a chair and turns away from them. She has nothing more to say and must now face her solitude and grief alone.