Review: Lyric Opera’s “Ernani”

Masterful Execution of a Verdi Unknown

 Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Ernani 10/24/09.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

Ernani

At the Civic Opera House
By Giuseppe Verdi
Based on Victor Hugo’s tragedy Hernani
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Conducted by Renato Palumbo
Stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Thru November 23rd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Ernani09 The Lyric Opera presents Ernani, an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1844. The Italian opera with projected English subtitles tells the tale of Elvira’s suitors, all fighting for her love: Ernani, Don Carlo-King of Spain and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The outlaw, Ernani storms Silva’s castle to abduct Elvira. He runs into the King and an Elvira abduction already in progress. Silva enters furious that his fiancé is being double-abducted in his own home. In love with Ernani, Elvira escapes her marriage to Silva by becoming a hostage of the King’s. Because Silva keeps him from being arrested, Ernani pledges his life to him. In Ernani terms, this promise means Silva gets to decide when Ernani will die. So, after the King pardons everyone and orders Elvira to marry Ernani, who shows up as the wedding crasher? Silva appears and asks Ernani, “poison or dagger?” Ernani chooses a dagger, stabs himself and dies in Elvira’s arms.

A brief announcement at the beginning of Act II informs the audience that Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) begs forgiveness at his inability to sing at his optimal level. Because of the faulty microphone, it’s unclear what the issue is. The person next to me asks, “did he say tracheotomy?” I’m certain it is a trace of bronchitis or another ailment. No matter what Licitra’s struggle is, his performance is stellar. Only in duets with the powerful soprano performance of Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) did it occur to me that Licitra might be in a challenging match. Along with the King (Boaz Daniel) and Silva (Giacomo Prestia), the opera is sung magnificently. Adding to the grandeur of the performance, set and costume designer Scott Marr uses the huge cast adorned in finery or cloaked in black to contrast a wedding from the catacombs. With multiple wardrobe and set changes, the dynamic production is eye candy to the audience. Elvira’s costumes, designed by Donna Langman, are particularly exquisite.

 

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Ernani is a must see for its magnificent performances, beautiful costumes, and elaborate sets. The actual opera? Not so much. Verdi wrote Ernani early in his career at age 31. It doesn’t have the memorable arias of his later works, like; La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The story is clunky. In Act II, Elvira tells Ernani she decided to marry Silva when she heard he was dead. What? I want Ernani to ask, or rather sing, “what happened during the intermission that made you think I was dead?” It’s also unclear why these three men all want Elvira when it’s obvious she only wants Ernani. Is it because she dresses nice? I don’t get it. And because it’s an opera, I’m ready for a tragic ending to a love story. Possible alternative endings after Ernani and Elvira’s wedding: Silva kills Ernani, the king kills Ernani, Elvira chokes on a piece of cake and because Ernani thinks she’s dead, he kills himself, she spits out cake realizes he’s dead and kills herself. But Ernani’s suicide because he promised Silva, his nemesis, that he would? Elvira totes around a dagger threatening to kill herself throughout the show but ultimately doesn’t as Ernani dies in her arms. Unsatisfying, Verdi!

Rating: «««

 

More: Watch the Ernani video trailer.     |     Listen to Ernani scene commentary.

 

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Pictures by Dan Rest

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See “A Steady Rain” on Broadway with Chicago Dramatists


More than 100 generous donors and friends will be joining Chicago Dramatists on Broadway for Resident Playwright Keith Huff’s A STEADY RAIN, starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman – and you can be one of them.

Although tickets for the show are virtually sold out (except for premium tickets at $375 per ticket) you’ll be able to attend the play AND a pre-show party for just $250.

The production exports a playwright (Keith Huff), whom Chicago Dramatists has nurtured for many years, to Broadway and shines a spotlight on Chicago and the other talented playwrights and plays developed here.  This upcoming benefit will go towards helping other upcoming playwrights being honed through the Dramatists’ programs.

Here’s the info:

Saturday, November 14, 2009
The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street
8:00 pm Curtain
Pre show Cocktail Party, PS 450, 5:15 – 7:15 pm

Limited Tickets Available at $250.  A  very limited number of prime seats are available at $500 each

For more information, contact Cynthia Frahm at cfrahm@chicagodramatists.org or 312.633.0630 ext: 3#

 

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Development Director Cynthia Frahm with A Steady Rain star Daniel Craig


Read the rave reviews of A STEADY RAIN in Time Magazine, Variety, and USA Today

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1927540,00.html
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117941264.html?categoryid=33&cs=1
http://www.usatoday.com/life/theater/reviews/2009-09-29-steady-rain-jackman-craig_N.htm

Congress passes $12.5 million increase for the arts

Yesterday, Congress passed a $12.5 million funding increase as part of the FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  President Obama is scheduled to sign this bill into law by October 31, which concludes National Arts and Humanities Month. The nation’s two federal grant-making cultural agencies will now each have budgets of $167.5 million, their highest funding levels in 16 years. As so many state and local governments have had to cut arts budgets across the country, this well-timed federal appropriations increase for the arts is a welcome infusion of funds.


FY09 vs. FY10 Difference

NEA

$155 million  raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase

NEH

$155 million – raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase!!


The FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 2996) was passed in the House by a vote of 247­­-178 and in the Senate by a vote of 72-28.  Please play your part and send a quick e-mail to your members of Congress at the Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center and let them know how much the arts will benefit from this funding increase.

Review: Chicago Dramatists’ “Lucinda’s Bed”

Many Beds in Lucinda’s Life

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Chicago Dramatists present:

Lucinda’s Bed

By Mia McCullough
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The world premiere of Lucinda’s Bed by Mia McCullough is a dark tragic comedy that explores the anger in a girl who tries her whole life to be good, with no reward for her choices and no break from her relentless temptations. Confined by the expectations of others, Lucinda fights to identify herself and recognize her personal desires. She is constantly growing through her painful experiences and continuing to “sleep in the bed she made.” She questions the benefit of her choices and tiptoes on to the dirty lucindaportraitside of morality. As we travel through the different stages of Lucinda’s life we see the pain and conflicting emotions of a girl just trying to see if it is possible to do the right thing and be true to her self.

At nine years old, Lucinda (Elizabeth Laidlaw) is a pure child who has an innocent yet intimate friendship with a nice young boy Adam (Doug Mackechnie) who is kind, supportive and predictable. It is at this young age that the monster under Lucinda’s bed (Lucas Neff) introduces himself to her and her temptations begin. Throughout her life the monster visits Lucinda, challenging her automatic response to do the “right” thing and presents her with the possibility to follow her raw desires.

Mia McCullough tells an honest (even when exaggerated) portrayal of the horrifying hardships that a female may encounter while becoming a woman. Through the physical, emotional and mental conflicts that arise in Lucinda’s journey, McCullough tells a story about how much it takes out of a woman that constantly tries to love and please everyone. She shows the strength one gains from loving and caring for everyone around you, but also the toll that it takes on that person’s spirit.

Director Jessi D. Hill has smoothly strung together a long series of events covering a Lucinda’s lifetime. The quick transitions between scenes are creative, finding ways to enhance the sense of a time lapse. However, the overly consistent changes dragged on after a while even with the witty effects. Scenic designer Grant Sabin scatters outlandishly clever pieces through out the set, changing the room to exemplify the time in Lucinda’s life that each scene took place.

play3393 Lucinda lives through a painful sequence of events as she grows older, but the moments in between had me bent over laughing. Elizabeth Laidlaw connected with the audience, making Lucinda’s aging relatable. Laidlaw is sexually tantalizing on stage, as she spends a large portion of the show in her bra and panties.  But her ability to find the tragic depth in each moment she encounters, and cope with the hurdles in front of her with changing reactions due to her constantly evolving life experience, is what stands out in her performance.

Lucas Neff’s acting ability is put on display as he convincingly plays numerous characters. His charm effortlessly switches to immature goofiness, giving each character he plays a full range of personality. Meanwhile, Doug Mackechnie was at his best when playing an older Adam closer to his age. While over-embellishing his portrayal of Adam in his youth, he completely captured the innocence in his youthful character.

The Chicago Dramatists are hot right now – their world-premiere of Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain is currently running on Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig -  and they continue to roll with Mia McCullough’s Lucinda’s Bed. This play provides deep insight into the weighty sorrow one feels after trying to live up expectations and move past its cruelty in the world before it sucks the life right out of us. Chicago Dramatists present what would be a dark drama with great humor and an overall entertaining experience. This tragedy is a comedic experience that will give you lots to talk about.

Rating: «««

 

Featuring: Associate Artist Doug MacKechnie, Elizabeth Laidlaw and Lucas Neff
Grant Sabin (Set Designer), Diane Fairchild (Lighting Designer) Nick Keenan (Sound Designer), Jenniffer Thusing (Props Designer and Stage Manager), and Kat Doebler (Costume Designer)

Review: Chicago Dramatists’ ‘Lucinda’s Bed”

Is “being good” all it’s cracked up to be?

 

Chicago Dramatists present:

Lucinda’s Bed

By Mia McCullough
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Chicago Dramatist’s Lucinda’s Bed is a thorough character study of a woman striving to be good and her unrealized desires personified as the childhood monster that sleeps under her bed. The world premier play serves as a psychoanalytic narrative that dissects the self, forcing the title character to struggle between fulfilling the expectations of others and acting upon the very real wants that she secretly harbors within.

The story follows Lucinda (Elizabeth Laidlaw), beginning as a 9-year-old. It is at this early stage that she encounters the monster (Lucas Neff), a nonchalant, smooth-talking seducer who creeps out from under her bed in a pool of red light. It is here that the monster reveals he will be with Lucinda always and that he will never go away, foreshadowing the struggles to come.

Time passes and we see Lucinda go through various life milestones, from meeting her high school sweetheart to college to marriage to motherhood. Throughout these scenes, the monster makes regular appearances, shrouding himself as other characters, each representative of Lucinda’s suppressed desires. Meanwhile, her husband Adam (Doug MacKechnie), a man she herself pigeonholes as a “nice guy,” becomes increasingly frustrated with Lucinda’s erratic behavior, creating havoc within the marriage. Lucinda continues to unravel at the seams as she is perpetually torn between doing what she perceives to be good and what she truly desires. Added to her character’s complexity is the continued realization that being good isn’t very rewarding, while being true to one’s character—regardless of praise or condemnation—might actually be the best way to live one’s life.

Mia McCullough’s script could easily have fallen into the trap of parable, but thanks to her skillful writing, she has done a brilliant job creating real, multi-faceted characters that rise above any sort of archetypical cliché. In addition, she artfully interweaves laugh-out-loud comedic moments throughout, avoiding any feeling of melodrama that might arise from the series of unfortunate incidents that become Lucinda’s life (a scene where a pregnant, bed-ridden Lucinda screams for a popsicle had the audience howling).

Laidlaw brings the complex Lucinda to life, imbuing the character with a rich spectrum of emotions. Slowly and genuinely transforming a naïve little girl into a hardened ice queen is no easy feat. But Laidlaw pulls it off flawlessly, tying together all of Lucinda’s experiences and personality ticks convincingly.

Meanwhile, MacKechnie is believable as Lucinda’s modest and loving husband, but definitely excels most when portraying the character later in life. At times, his interpretation of a love-struck high schooler verges on cartoonish, detracting from the reality of the scenes. Neff has his work cut out for him portraying the various incarnations of the monster, including a chauvinistic college student, a perplexed plumber and a rather forward store clerk. As well executed as these manifestations are, there seems to be a spark lacking from his portrayal as the monster. You would think that passion personified would have more passion, but alas, Neff seems rather bored.

Director Jessi D. Hill artfully uses the simple staging, which entirely takes place within a bedroom, to create vivid and dramatic slice-of-life scenes. Sound effects, such as a ticking clock, are well placed to give a sense of time passing. Meanwhile her use of shifting wall art serves as insightful demarcations of time, both in the physical sense and in the sense of where the characters are in their lives.

Closing October 9th, there’s little time left to see this thought-provoking production.  Perhaps the play will be picked up and moved out East, as two other Chicago Dramatists plays have done: A Steady Rain is currently running on Broadway, while a 2002 production called The Liquid Moon was just optioned by the same producers.

Frightening and fatalistic, the thematic ideas within Lucinda’s Bed speak to all of us who strive to figure out what is good, what is right and whether the two aren’t always overlapping. Actors execute the play with realism while incorporating the fanciful in a compellingly written tale where monsters cry too. Do not miss this play.

Review: The Hypocrites’ “Frankenstein”

Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist

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The Hypocrites present:

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
at the Museum of Contemporary Art Stage
through November 1st (program)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Frankenstein3 From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.

Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.

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It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.

Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.

The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.

Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.

Rating: ★★½

 

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Photos by Paul Metreyeon

Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins

Review: Rivendell’s “These Shining Lives”

Find Time To See It!

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Rivendell Theatre Ensemble presents:

These Shining Lives

by Melanie Marnich
directed by Rachel Walshe
at the Raven Theatre thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Catherine is elated to be starting a new job painting 100+ watches a day at 8 cents a watch. Time is her friend? Or is it? Rivendell Theatre Ensemble remounts its critically acclaimed and Jeff Award nominated These Shining Lives.  Directed by Rachel Walshe,These Shining Lives is the true story of four of the many women who work at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920’s. Unaware of the risk, these workers paint the glow-in-the-dark faces on watches utilizing radium. Women are voting, smoking in public and joining the workforce. Having a well-paying job in a challenging economy brings independence and validation. Later, suspecting that something isn’t quite right, the women struggle to not lose the freedom, security and camaraderie of employment. These Shining Lives uses a tragedy in history to illustrate the strong bonds of marriage and friendship.

As Catherine (Kathy Logelin) tells us at the beginning of the show “this story starts out as a fairy tale.” And she’s right – it’s enchanting!  Playwright Melanie Marnich chooses the non-Silkwood route and focuses instead on the vulnerability and innocence of a young woman’s love for her husband, her job and her friends. The onstage intimacy between Logelin and her husband Tom (Guy Massey) isn’t of the sizzle variety (that never sustains anyway). It’s the “looks like you had a worse day at work than me, Katy, I’ll cook dinner” charming kind. Logelin also shines with her gal pals: Charlotte (Ashley Neal), Frances (Caitlin McGlone) and Pearl (Rani Waterman). They start as a work clique with mindless chatter to fill up the workday. “Gossip is the devil’s radio,” proclaims Frances. “It’s my favorite station,” quips Charlotte. Then, it’s six years later, and the women with whom Catherine has randomly been assigned to have become her family. And her family is dying. Under the direction of Rachel Walshe, the cast does an excellent job of portraying finding joy in the simplistic shininess of the everyday.

Throughout the play, we wonder why these women stick a radium laced paintbrush repeatedly in their mouth. This conjures up the ominous thought that perhaps sometime in the future, people may be surprised, but not shocked, to learn there is a link between cell phones and brain tumors….

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is giving Chicago a second opportunity to find joy in the simplistic times of These Shining Lives. It would be a tragedy to miss it! (Remember to turn off your cell phone during the show.)

Rating: ««««

 

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The offstage Tom described the show as beautiful, ornate and tragic.

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