Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

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Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

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McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

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REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: “Cuba and His Teddy Bear”

Chilling and tragic examination of father-son dynamics

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UrbanTheater and People*s Theater of Chicago presents:

Cuba and His Teddy Bear

by Reinaldo Povod
directed by Marilyn Camancho
thru December 13th (ticket info)

review by Oliver Sava

Joseph-CubaA family drama in unfolding at Humboldt Park’s Batey Urbano (map), the storefront theater currently home to the midwest premiere of Reinaldo Povod’s Cuba and His Teddy Bear. At the heart of the dysfunction is Cuba (Madrid St. Angelo), a small time drug dealer, and Teddy (Christian Kane Blackburn), Cuba’s artistic son with a major monkey on his back. When Cuba’s friend Jackie (Hank Hilbert) unloads two pounds of marijuana on the pair, drug dealing becomes family bonding, but it’s only a matter of time before things go to hell. The buyer that Teddy has lined up, heroin addict/Tony award winning playwright Che (Julian Martinez), has no intention of paying for the product, and he’s brought along the Dealer (Kamal Han), a stickup artist who walks with a skull-adorned cane due to of an abscess in his leg from repeated injections.

If your character is in the title of the play, you better be damn good. Luckily, St. Angelo and Blackburn are. The success of the production hinges on the relationship of these two characters, and the two actors have great chemistry that comes from having truly explored the circumstances of these characters. St. Madrid plays Cuba with equal parts concerned family man and dangerous drug dealer, creating an incredibly realistic portrait of a father trying to do the best he can with the limited skills he has. Cuba tells Teddy that if he wants to do drugs he can just ask him and they’ll do them together. He wants his son to become a federal agent because it’s good, honest work. Cuba sees the potential in his son and when he sees it being extinguished it drives him to the edge of sanity; the play’s climax is a tense standoff between father and son that ends in a gunshot and a flood of tears.

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Blackburn’s Teddy has an introverted intensity throughout Act I that hints at the character’s secret shame, and watching him confront his demons in Act II is heartbreaking. He grooms his father with a gentle touch that is both tender yet unnerving, and the character’s willingness to throw away his future in exchange for human affection is fully realized by Blackburn, especially in the scene with Martinez’s Che. Martinez, dressed like a pachuco with two huge black circles around his eyes, is wonderfully menacing and tragic, content with living on a Central Park bench and exploiting the emotions of misguided youth so he can score. When Teddy tells Che, "You should come to me because you want to see me, not because you want to get high," the audience knows that will never be the case, and so does Teddy, but he clings to his desires in the face of utter futility.

The biggest flaw with the production is the length – the playwright’s ambitious script packs so much material in two and a half hours that the weight begins to slow down the pace and lessens the casts energy. The show could use about a half hour of cutting, but the ensemble that director Marilyn Camancho has assembled captures the gritty intensity of Povod’s script, resulting in a chilling examination of father-son and dealer-junkie dynamics.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

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The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: Redtwist Theatre’s “The Pillowman”

Unrelenting yet still insufficient

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We like to execute writers . . . It sends a message . . . I don’t know what message it sends. I don’t know where it sends a message—that’s not my department—but it sends a message.”       –Detective Tupolski

 

Redtwist Theatre presents:

The Pillowman

by Martin McDonagh
directed by Kimberly Senior
thru December 27th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

A local playwright once told me that productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays in Ireland are different from American ones–they are actually very funny. “What you have to remember about Waiting for Godot,” she told me, “is that it’s all pub talk.” Mad Irish humor shuffles side by side with bleak existentialism.

Sons Somewhere in the middle of Martin McDonagh’s bleak, sadistic writing is the fun and play of talk–storytelling for the pure hell of it. Even if the story is supposed to shock, laughter comes somewhere before or after the gasp. Actors in Chekhov’s plays have to balance between making the audience laugh or cry. Here actors have to balance on the razor’s edge between laughter and horror. Suspended in the tension of the moment, audiences must be caught between the discomfort they feel over the violence before them and their own sadistic, humorous reaction to it.

As guest director for Redtwist Theatre’s production of The Pillowman, Kimberly Senior has successfully crafted an exhibition of unrelenting tension and suspense. Nothing disrupts the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room that police officers Tupolski (Tom Hickey) and Ariel (Johnny Garcia) have dragged Katurian (Andrew Jessop) into to account for his life’s work as a writer. A few children have been murdered according to methods described in his macabre and unpublished stories. Protesting his innocence, the author gradually discovers just how he is implicated in those crimes.

A writer’s murder fiction becomes reality. How many times have we seen that device? But The Pillowman springboards from worn-out premise into reason-defying psychological depths. The audience is plunged into the black pool of connections between horror and childhood. According to psychologists, the very state of being shocked or horrified recreates in the victim a childlike state of frozen powerlessness, passivity, and surrealism. McDonagh’s work draws no distinction between that paralyzed, surreal consciousness and the world of childlike creativity and play. In The Pillowman, both are inextricably enmeshed. Horror gives birth to, or deeply informs, creativity and even when creativity seems to transform or redeem the impact of horror, it is, in fact, planting the seeds for more.

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Redtwist’s production achieves the suspension of time required to create deep horror. In deep horror, there is no future–only an oppressive present that never improves. Nothing describes The Pillowman’s totalitarian state better than a nameless land, much like the land in many fairy tales, of uninterrupted horror, whose residents are kept in childlike submission. Even the agents of the state, like the good cop-bad cop team of Tupolski and Ariel, reveal their childlike natures through the stories they tell about themselves. Here the production shows its greatest strength. Hickey captures all the nuances of a cop who playfully revels in the arbitrary, meaningless nature of state sanctioned sadism, and then revises in front of Katurian a story about himself, in which he goes from heartless mastermind to ingenious savior. As unwavering bad cop, Garcia gives earnest pathos to a man who yearningly hopes his perpetual brutality will reap the love and adoration of children in old age.

ArielKat The relationship between Katurian and his mentally challenged brother, Michal (Peter Oyloe), does not continue that wicked thread. We learn the authorities have dragged in Michal in order to force a confession. Even if Katurian suffers shock from police brutality and the revelation of real child murders, Jessop’s performance is still a little too somnambulant to realize any core of brotherly connection. For my money—and this is a matter of personal taste—I prefer a realist performance of a mentally handicapped person to a performance that simply alludes to it. At least readers can be aware of my bias. In any case, the scene between Katurian and Michal lacks the emotional range to raise the stakes.

Above all, the cast must go further to pull out all the dark humor that inhabits this play, dancing on that razor’s edge between laughs that undermine and laughs that reinforce its sadism. To this end, the side theaters that depict Katurian’s stories are quite impressive. Special attention should be given Marissa Meo’s depiction of the little girl who believes she is Jesus and willingly goes to violent limits to fulfill that belief. Her performance reflects the essence of play, something this production could use a little more of.

Rating: ★★★

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