Review – “Dolly West’s Kitchen” at TimeLine Theatre

Dolly West Kitchen eggProduction: Dolly West’s Kitchen
Producers: TimeLine Theatre (map)
Review: It’s often said that the heart of every home is the kitchen.  In Dolly West’s kitchen however, this is an understatement – the kitchen comes to an emotional full boil during the extent of this adventursome and often-hillarious work.  The play, taking place in war-time Ireland, revolves around the three West-family women: matriarch Rima, free-spirited Dolly and tightly-wound Esther.  Though all three women appear strong, much of their choices and present-day predicaments stem from theif womanizing father, who has long ago left the family (leaving Dolly to escape to Italy where she ends up running a restaurant, only returning to Ireland when Mussolini comes to full power; Esther marrying a weak but reliable Ned Horgan, who Esther does not love, but chooses because she knows he will never leave her). Soon Dolly West’s kitchen comes to life with the appearance of three mail visitors – Dolly’s bisexual ex-boyfriend Alec Redding, and two American soldiers – the quiet Jamie O’Brien, and his blatantly gay cousin Joshua Rollins. 

Playwright Frank McGuinness creates wide swathes of lyrical dialogue, interspersed with some sexually-charged outbursts, as Dolly West’s Kitchen lays out for us the complex issues occuring in war-time Ireland, juxtaposed with issues of sexual identity and the results of a dysfunctional family history.  

Strengths: This show is a perfect example of the powerful ensemble acting that Chicago is known for.  The womens’ performances are flawless, especially the women on the extremes: the aged, cantankerous matriarch Rima West (played by the mesmerizing Kathleen Ruhl), and the spunky, lower-class teenage maid Anna Owens (portrayed by the energetic Sara Hoyer).  Accompanying these two are the actresses playing the West sisters, Kat McDonnell and Danica Ivancevic, (these two who have shared their impressive talents with Chicago in recent productions  – Kat McDonnell in The Sparrow; Danica Ivancevic in Faith Healer).  The set is brilliant – a cozy kitchen which thrusts out diagonally into the audience, a subtle garden on one side of the kitchen and an overturned boat near the shore on the other side of the kitchen. Director Kimberly Senior should be commended for harnessing all of this talent into one eloquent voice.   

Weaknesses: Even a strong cast and ingenious set can’t totally rescue the weaknesses of the script. For example, we are immediately asked to accept that a World War II era Irish family administers full acceptance of the several gay characters in the play – including Dolly’s brother, Dolly’s ex-lover (actually presented as being bisexual) and an American soldier who consequently becomes the brother’s lover.  Oddly, then, when looking at the historical display in the lobby during intermission, we are told that homosexuality was abhorred in Ireland at the time.  Furthermore, the play’s final scenes occur once the war is over, and we witness the psychologically debilitating effect the war has had on all of the men (including the two Americans who, one would think, would have gone home after the war rather than back to Dolly’s kitchen).  Considering how complex such issues of distress caused by seeing the ugliness of war, the playwright chooses to end the play with several Hallmark-moments as each soldier miraculously gains their samity, and life is beautiful once more.      

Aside: Altough this specific play didn’t work for me, I have always enjoyed TimeLine’s exemplary productions.  Their plays reliably present a historic viewpoint, including the creation of study guides and lobby displays.  In a whacky way, I like to think of TimeLine as a theatrical version of “School House Rock” – where as a child I was greatly entertained by these Saturday-morning cartoons, while coercively learning how a bill gets passed in Congress, the anatomy of a conjunction, and when to use an exclamation point !! 

Summary: Though Dolly West’s Kitchen is impeccably performed, looks great and has a plethora of hilarious lines, the play sabotages itself through a confusing depiction of 1940’s gay acceptance as well as a Hallmark-esque view of complex catastophes which are conveniently mended in the end. 

Rating: ««½

Personnel and Show Information

Playwright: Frank McGuinness
Director: Kimberly Senior
Sets: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Lights: Charles Cooper
Costumes: Christine Conley
Sound Design: Tamara Roberts
Props: Galen Pejeau
Stage Manage: Ana Espinosa
Dialect Coach: Eva Breneman
Featuring: Cliff Chamberlain (Alec)
Aaron Golden (Jamie)
Sara Hoyer (Anna)
Danica Ivancevic (Esther)
Kat McDonnell (Dolly)
Niall McGinty (Justin)
Mark Richard (Ned)
Joshua Rollins (Marco)
Kathleen Ruhl (Rima)
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Dates: Through March 22, 2008
Show Times: Wednesday-Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 4 and 8pm, Sunday 2pm.

Review – “Cadillac” at Chicago Dramatists

Craig Spidle and Ian Forester as used car salesmen arguing over a commissionProduction: Cadillac

Producers: Chicago Dramatists 

Review: In the world-premier of Bill Jepsen’s Cadillac, we are presented with a quandary: How does one keep true to his principles and values while employed in a profession where deception and manipulation are an industry standard – in this case, a used car lot? Attach to this a changing of the guard if you will – where car sales are beginning to be initiated on the internet rather than through the usual schmoozing with the walk-in customers. The play takes place almost entirely in the office of the business manager, Howard Austin (adeptly played by Craig Spidle). It is the end of the month, when final sales are totaled, and commissions are tallied. Only one more car, and the cocky upstart Gary (Ian Forester), will have tied the all-time sales record of rosy-eyed old-timer Art (Rob Riley), and receive a huge bonus. And if the lone female salesman, Robin (Kathy Logelin), does not meet her quota (only one more car), she will lose her job. In the middle of all this is a long-time customer, newly-retired Fred (Gene Cordon), who shows up to finally follow through with his life-long dream – owning a Cadillac (unfortunately his credit record does not want to cooperate with this wish).

Edward Sobel’s directing talents are on full display here, especially in the work’s best scene, a sort of “phone fugue” – all of the dealership’s employees are on their respective phones, talking at once. This scene is so remarkable in that playwright Bill Jepsen has melded 4 different simultaneous conversations in such a way that many pertinent aspects of the different characters are revealed. Jepsen has a talent in creating believable and approachable characters – even though we may find the young Gary quite caustic, we still understand him. Production-wise Cadillac looks great. Kevin Depinet’s set is well-adapted for the small space, using windows in the back of the office to allow us to see into other parts of the dealership. Keith Parham’s lighting is rightfully unobtrusive.

Summary: Cadillac is a very solid piece of theatre – one of the most satisfying new works I’ve seen in quite a while. The ending of the play shares a similarity with HBO’s Sopranos finale in that – though many questions are left unanswered – we’re still content. I’m guessing that we’ll be seeing Cadillac appearing on many a regional theatre’s future seasons. Recommended.

Rating: «««½

Personnel and Show Information
Playwright: Bill Jepsen
Director: Edward Sobel
Sets: Kevin Depinet
Lights: Keith Parham
Costumes: Debbie Baer
Sound Design: Miles Polaski
Props: Daniel Pellant
Stage Manage: Tom Hagglund
Featuring: Gene Cordon (Fred)
Craig Spidle (Howard)
Kathy Logelin (Robin)
Rob Riley (Art)
Ian Forester (Gary)
Steve Ratcliff (James)
Laurie Larson (Ellen)
Location: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. (map )
Dates: Through February 24th
Show Times: Thursday-Saturday, 8pm. Sunday matinee, 3pm
Craig Spidle closes the deal on a used car sale with customers Laurie Larson and Steve Ratcliff
Craig Spidle, Kathy Logelin, and Rob Riley as used car salesmen gearing up for the last sales day of the month
Craig Spidle and Ian Forester as used car salesmen arguing over a commission
Kathy Logelin and Ian Forester (on floor) as used car salespersons having a tough time
Craig Spidle as Howard, the best used car salesman in town

Sunday Night Sondheim – “Ladies Who Lunch” – Elaine Stritch

“The Ladies Who Lunch” as sung by Elaine Stritch.

Theater Thursdays – “Good Boys and True” at Steppenwolf

For this week’s Theater Thursday, the League of Chicago Theatre has chosen Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premier “Good Boys and True” (see my review here).   As the League describes the play:

A sex tape scandal. Secret lovers. A privileged childhood breeding a reckless adult. No, we’re not talking about Paris Hilton. Golden boy Brandon’s charmed life threatens to collapse when a disturbing videotape is found on campus. As the resulting scandal takes unexpected turns, Brandon’s mother (played by ensemble member Martha Lavey) must sort fact from fiction from family. 

For more information regarding special-priced tickets and reservations for cocktails, appetizers and talks with the actors, go to the League’s website: www.chicagoplays.com

Steppenwolf’s Laurie Metcalf interviewed by NY Times

Entitled “From Steppenwolf to Broadway“, the New York Times has posted a short audio interview with Steppenwolf ensemble-member Laurie Metcalf, including a slide show of pictures from her latest Broadway show, “November” (where she stars alongside Nathan Lane).  Check it out!

(interview produced by Erik Piepenburg)

Goodman Theatre announces “Talking Pictures” cast

Goodman Theatre has announced their cast for the upcoming Horton Foote play Talking Pictures, which will play in rotation with two other Foote plays – Blind Date and The Actor.  The play will be directed by Henry Wishcamper, and will run from January 29th through March 2nd.

Review – “Songs for a New World”

from-left-jess-godwin-alanda-coon-michael-arthur-and-jays-small.jpgProduction: Songs for a New World

Producers: Bohemian Theatre Ensemble 

Whazzit About? Songs for a New World is a musical review with a very loosely-connected theme, first performed in 1995, featuring songs written by young composer Jason Robert Brown, a precursor to his highly-acclaimed epic musical Parade. Bohemian Theatre first presented this show in late 2007, selling out its last two weeks.  Because of this success, they have (thankfully) reprised the production at the Theater Building for a limited run.    

Strengths: Chicago has always been a great musical-theater town, and this fact is largely evident in this show – the four young performers (Jayson Books, Michael Arthur, Jess Godwin and Alanda Coon) offer up soaring vocals and dead-on ensemble singing.  Jayson Brooks (seen recently as Colehouse Walker in Porchlight’s award-winning Ragtime) is at his best in the energetic second act opener “King of the World”.  Mezzo-soprano Jess Godwin brings sweetness and vulnerability to the lovely “I’m Not Afraid”.  Michael Arthur brings an edginess to the contemplative “She Cries”.  And Alana Coon champions the show with the most variant musical styles, from the punchy “Surabaya-Santa” to the determined “The Flagmaker 1775”.  Though all have great solo voices, the talents of musical director Andra Velis Simon are apparent in the impeccable blend of their group vocals, many of the chords are tight, with dissonant intervals.  In addition to the vocal work, the show looks great, with the set built with wooden ramps and floors, and interwoven slats as a backdrop, giving one the feeling of being inside the hull of a wooden ship.    

Weaknesses: There is little here not to like.  As one of my favorite Chicago theatre critics, John Olson of TalkinBroadway.com, so eloquently put it: “The performances only disappoint in that there still seems to be not enough time to hear each of the four performers sing as much as we’d like. With voices like these in performers who can act the heck of our Brown’s character-driven songs, it’s tempting to wonder why we need dialogue in musical theater at all and to resent it for taking time away from hearing more of these four in their previous musical theater work.”.

Summary: Thankfully for Chicago, Boho has reprised this gem of a show, following their sold-out run at Heartland Studio.  No, it’s not an evening of revelatory aha moments, but the glorious voices and performances of the character-driven material makes for a wonderful evening.  Recommended.

Rating: «««½ 

 Personnel and Show Times

Composer:

Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elizabeth Margolius
Music Director: Andra Velis Simon
Musicians: Kevin Brown, Sean Burke, Nick Sula
Set Designer: John Zuiker
Lights: Julian Pike
Costumes: Theresa Ham
Stage Manager: Meg Love
   
Featuring: Jayson Brooks   (Man 1)
  Michael Arthur   (Man 2)
  Jess Godwin   (Woman 1)
  Alanda Coon   (Woman 2)
   
Dates: Through February 10, 2008
Location: Theatre Building (map)
Show Times: Thursday through Saturday, 8:00pm.  Sunday matinee at 2pm. 

(From Left) Alanda Coon, Michael Arthur, and Jess Godwin