REVIEW: Theater Wit’s “SantaLand Diaries”

Theater Wit presents:

The Santaland Diaries

by David Sedaris
adapted by
Joe Mantello
directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

elf2 Who doesn’t love holiday traditions? Especially if one of your traditions is listening to David Sedaris’ reading of his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries.” When this piece first aired on NPR in 1992, it struck a nerve hard enough to propel Sedaris into a public radio superstar. It’s a true story about the underemployed writer living in New York taking a job as an Elf at Macy’s one Christmas season. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes it so personally appealing, but it’s also Sedaris’ writing, which is confessional, hilarious and honest.

For many lovers of regional theater there is another equally dear tradition: the one-man theatrical production of this piece, which I saw this weekend produced by Theater Wit. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) in 1996, the one act monologue covers Sedaris’ bases but with broader strokes; making it both more theatrical and open enough for voices other than Sedaris’ to crawl into the role of the anonymous narrator.

In this production, our narrator introduces himself right away as Mitch. He’s Mitchell Fain actually, and this is his third year telling this story under the direction of Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. It’s an improvisational, audience interactive production, in which Fain breaks out of character repeatedly to share personal anecdotes and connects with audience members one on one.

Fain’s Crumpet (as the elf names himself) is different from Sedaris’. He’s boozier, more jaded and older. He’s been around long enough to bring a special kind of indignation to his role as an elf. He’s also Jewish, bringing a nice new layer of irony to the already super sardonic show. Mitchell Fain is a bold actor and brings so much of himself to the stage, that even the truest David Sedaris fans will allow themselves to be seduced by his performance. As he switches back and forth between Crumpet and Mitchell, the transitions can be somewhat jarring and at times even awkward at the top of the show. But once he gets going and the asides become hotter and freer flowing, Mitchell and Crumpet flow nicely and the cohesiveness makes for something that is entirely new, and not a retelling of an old holiday favorite. An appropriate presentation of a show that is at its core about the aggravating façade of holiday traditions.

Joey Wade has created an ironically generic set for Fain to play around in, which he does in a mostly compelling way. The crew gets into the fun, at one point someone pulled the lights on Fain during an (I’m guessing) improvised Judy Garland impression. The Theater Building, which hosts the show, has a full bar in the lobby and the audience is encouraged to drink (Crumpet the Elf goes through about a shakers worth of martini in the duration of the show). It’s a festive environment, perfect for anyone who is too jaded for Tiny Tim, but not so jaded that they can’t sit through a one man retelling of a 1992 radio essay. For audiences looking for something subversive enough to stomach but not so subversive that they have to think, this is a perfectly pleasant night at the theater.

 

Rating: ★★★

REVIEW: Lyric Opera’s “The Merry Widow”

 Shopping around for a second husband can be so much fun!

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents:

The Merry Widow

Libretto by Viktor León and Leon Stein
Based on Henri Meilhac’s comedy “L’attache’ d’ambassade”
English lyrics and dialogue by Sheldon Harnick
Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume
Stage directed by Gary Griffin
Thru January 16th 

Review by Katy Walsh

mw9 Boy loves girl. Family won’t let him marry her because she’s penniless. She marries another and becomes a wealthy widow. Boy still loves girl. Now, his country wants him to  marry her because she has 20 million francs. Girl loves boy but fears he loves her for her money. Add in a cheating wife, French lover, overbearing Baron and dancing girls and the results are the Lyric Opera of Chicago presents The Merry Widow. Originally produced in German in 1905, The Merry Widow is sung in English as an operetta in three acts.

Arguably, an operetta basically stands for “opera lite.” Tastes great, less filling. With its origins in the 1800’s, an operetta introduced a less dramatic version of opera to audiences. Utilizing comedy, simpler plots and happier tunes, the operetta became the precursor to contemporary musicals. For diehard opera fans, an operetta is like drinking Miller Lite when you prefer a Guinness. For opera newbies, an operetta is like sipping your first beer to acquire a taste for hops. For all, The Merry Widow is a lively romantic comedy presented with all the grandeur and majesty as is the Lyric Opera hallmark.

 

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Unlike most traditional operas, The Merry Widow has segments of spoken dialogue, dancing sequences and informal familiarity. Breaking the fourth wall, Roger Honeywell (Count Danilo Danilovich) emphasizes a joke by guffawing with the audience. Honeywell, along with Jeff Dumas (Njegus) and Dale Travis (Baron Mirko Zeta), set the playful mood with physical comedy. A particularly fun musical dance number, “Every Woman,” has several of the male cast members commiserating on how difficult women are. Later, it’s the ladies’ turn with dance hall girls performing the Can-Can, a line dance complete with pulled up skirts and leg shaking. Elizabeth Futral (Hanna Glawari) has the vibrant presence to carry the main title The Merry Widow. Although she captivates the audience with her soprano precision, there are moments for her and Honeywell where vocal subtlety is overwhelmed by the orchestra.

From the moment the curtain rises, the audience is treated to spectacular sets (Daniel Ostling). The first act is built around a magnificent staircase, several stories high. Later the scene at Maxim’s features a moving stage on stage within a bi-level dance hall. The costumes (David Burke and Mara Blumenfeld) range from early 1900 elegant aristocrat to vibrant gawdy Can-Can dancer. Visually appealing and lighthearted amusing, this production shows how much fun shopping around for a second husband can be.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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REVIEW: Gorilla Tango’s “Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special”

Lack of Plot Leaves Characters Adrift

 

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Gorilla Tango presents:

Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special

Review by Keith Ecker

There are countless Christmas offerings this holiday season. You have the evergreen classics such as Miracle on 34th Street (our review) and A Christmas Carol (there are actually seven separate productions of the latter). You have plays targeted toward both children and the inner-child, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (review). Then there’s the fringe fare—over-the-top shows that lampoon those things we hold most sacred about the Christmas season from family to Jesus to televised holiday spectaculars.

Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special (ticket info) falls into the latter category. It’s a bare-boned production that can barely be called a play due to its lack of any semblance of a plot. It’s definitely a comedy, though the funniest part of the show is the program, which provides humorous biographic information on the main characters. Yet, the play fails to incorporate this humor and, rather, flounders along on a series of contrived and well-worn comedy conventions.

The play centers on the Gibsons, a family who produces a cable access, relationship advice program. The fourth wall is non-existent as we, the audience, are the in-studio audience for their fictional broadcast, which airs in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mother and father duo Laura (Carrie Bain) and Mark (Ryan McChesney) play the hosts who ooze Midwestern wholesomeness, including Laura’s love for soup and Mark’s passion for toolsets. Their production assistant is their son Sean (Adam Ziemkiewicz), a flamboyant thespian who elicits only derision from his father. The couple’s other son, Mark Jr. (Raymond Bruce Birkett III), is the apple of his father’s eye due to his love of ties and his 3.2 GPA.

Throughout the show, the couple espouses relationship advice, at one point fielding questions from the audience. Yet, it is obvious that hypocrisy is afoot as there are dysfunctions between the Gibsons, both as partners and as a family unit.

We’ve seen all these characters and relationships before in one form or another: the ostracized gay son, the know-it-all dad and the worrisome mother who just wants everyone to get along for the holidays. And although all actors do a good job of making these stock characters come to life, there is no reason for the audience to become invested in them in any way. That’s because there is really no plot, but only what appears to be a skeleton of a script with a few marks the actors agree to hit. There is little tension, despite such melodramatic conflict. There is resolution, but no feeling of relief. We cannot care about four people meandering on stage, directionless.

If there was more time and thought put into creating an inventive story wherein to place the Gibsons, this could have been an entertaining and refreshing addition to seasonal theater. However, as it stands, it’s really just a good way to enjoy an hour of central heating, courtesy of the Gorilla Tango Theater.

Rating:

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REVIEW: “Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne”

A poetic play in a perfect setting

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North Lakeside Players present:

Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Written and directed by Frank Farrell
at
North Lakeside Cultural Center in Edgewater.
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Among the best things about Chicago’s theater scene are wonderful chances to see productions close-up in intimate and sometimes non-traditional settings. Such venues really bridge the gap between audiences and performers. As I overheard a woman say at North Lakeside Players’ charming world premiere, Bright Star: "I felt like I was part of the play."

The Players perform in the historic Gunder Mansion in Edgewater. Built in 1914, reportedly as the lakefront home of an early silent-movie mogul, the house was renovated and opened in 1989 as the North Lakeside Cultural Center.

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The building can accommodate more, but North Lakeside Players Artistic Director Frank Farrell prefers to limit audiences to 20, in part because he likes to stage scenes throughout the house, moving watchers from room to room. Farrell’s Bright Star shifts from the wood-paneled front parlor to the leaded-glass-flanked dining room to a second-floor bedroom, so viewers get something of a house tour along with the play. (Farrell is known for getting his audiences on the move. He’s also the man behind Theater-Hikes, performed during 2-mile walks, and a new project involving bicycle treks.)

North Lakeside Cultural Center forms an ideal setting for historical plays, like "Bright Star," which covers 1818 to 1821, the final years of the short life of British Romantic poet John Keats. Written in 2001, Farrell’s "Bright Star" is based on the 1968 historical novel of the same name by Joan Rees, which was in turn named for Keats’ sonnet, said to have written to his beloved, Fanny Brawne:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

You need not be a student of literature to appreciate this sad, true love story, also the subject of a recent film by Jane Campion. Keats, 23, and Brawne, 18, met in Hampstead in 1818, and gradually fell in love. Then, as now, life was not easy for self-employed writers — particularly unsuccessful, critically reviled poets — and the couple could not afford to marry. Both her people and his discouraged the relationship. Then, Keats’ health began to fail.

Playwright Farrell weaves wonderful lines, both his own and quotations from Keats, into a compact script. He pares the poetry to a minimum, keeping things moving — aJohn_Keats_by_William_Hiltonlthough I would gladly have heard more of Joe Ciresi’s beautifully expressive recitations.

Ciresi makes a handsome, very boyish Keats (though topped with a Struwwelpeter wig whose historical accuracy appears a little dubious). When it comes to dialogue, however, his performance sometimes seems too restrained.

Actor and script keep the love scenes decorous, as perhaps they really were. Yet surely the intense and stormy Keats who poured his heart into famous love letters with lines like, "Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you" and "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," should display more passion? We need some sizzle, especially between Keats and his darling.

Pretty Nicole Richwalsky brings the right coquettishness and emotion to the young and not very deep Fanny, while Christina Thodos plays her widowed mother with matter-of-fact briskness, delightful in scenes such as one quizzing the young poet on his prospects. Christina Irwin is nicely motherly as the busybody neighbor, Mrs. Dilke, and Michael Mercier doubles proficiently as Keats’ dying brother, Tom, and his friend Charles Brown. Frank R. Sjodin and Nada Latoya Steier capably play a variety of supporting roles.

The playwright knows his subject thoroughly, creating a few puzzles for audience members not so deeply grounded in Keats’ biography. For instance, there’s a rather mystifying scene with Mrs. Isabella Jones (Steier), who needs a better introduction (Keats may or may not have had an affair with her); and glancing references to bad reviews don’t adequately prepare us for an unneeded, anticlimactic monologue damning Keats’ literary critics for the poet’s death.

Quibbles aside, "Bright Star" is a lovely play in a lovely setting, well worth the modest ticket price.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Note: The production is not wheelchair accessible. Paid parking is available across the street; parking passes must be reserved with tickets. Possible future performances may be in February. 

fanny & john bed Photos by Frank Farrell

Mental Health Break: Silent Monks Singing Hallelujah Chorus

This is absolutely hilarious and incredibly original!  Take a look to see how a monastery of silent monks would sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”:

And starting at the 2-minute-30-second marker, here’s a group of (cross-dressing?) nuns performing the same piece. Very funny, especially the nun to the far-right. What a hoot!!