REVIEW: To Master the Art (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Delectable Julia Childs biography feeds the soul (if not your belly!)

 

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TimeLine Theatre presents
   
To Master the Art
   
By William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Through Dec. 19   |  
Tickets: $28–38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t go hungry to see To Master the Art, TimeLine Theatre Company’s sparkling, heartwarming play about culinary icon Julia Child. Director William Brown and co-author Doug Frew have created a masterful, multi-layered experience that excites all the senses. Its tasty imagery and food talk, the loads of fresh ingredients displayed and the onstage cookery that wafts the scent of sauteed onions out to the audience will leave you ravenous.

ToMasterTheArt_187This world premiere covers the decade Child wrote about in ‘My Life in France’, beginning with her first exposure to French food and cookery, when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris while he worked for the United States Information Service. We see Child’s sensual pleasure in her first French lunch. We learn with her how to choose vegetables and cook the perfect scrambled eggs. We see her frustrations as she works on the manuscript that would ultimately become the seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Brown’s staging is impeccable, and his cast first-rate. Though a little young for the part — Child is 39 at the start of the play, and 50 by the time her first cookbook is published — Karen Janes Woditsch has Julia down, voice and mannerisms all exactly right. As her husband, Paul, Craig Spidle appears a bit more than 10 years his wife’s senior, but there’s plenty of sizzle between them. This is a love story, not just a food history.

It also touches on politics. Set in the 1950s, when the Red Scare was in full swing, the play chronicles the difficulties that even Americans abroad had with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Amy Dunlap expressively plays the Childs’ bohemian and possibly Communist artist friend, Jane Foster Zlatovski, persecuted by the witchhunt, and a dramatic scene shows an interrogation Paul Child underwent. We also see Paul’s increasing dissatisfaction with his government overseers. And, sometimes, his impatience with what becomes his wife’s sometimes overwhelming obsession. Spouses of food writers, chefs and other avid cooks will empathize with his heartfelt cry at yet another iteration of onion soup: "How many gallons of this stuff do I have to eat?"

 

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You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy this show. But those who love to cook and to eat will find lots to delight them. Designer Keith Pitts has created a quaint and workable Parisian kitchen that forms the backdrop for much of the action, complete with antique stove and pots hanging on the wall. (A culinary friend of mine spotted a ringer in the kitchenware, but it doesn’t matter.)

Terry Hamilton doubles in a delightful performance as Child’s mentor Chef Max Bugnard and her conservative, xenophobic father. Jeannie Affelder gives French fire to Child’s collaborator Simone Beck.

Ann Wakefield portrays the stuffy Madame Brassart, who balks Child’s progress at her cooking school, and wonderfully, Child’s wildly enthusiastic penpal Avis DeVoto. (In a minor flaw, the origins of the correspondence between DeVoto and Child, who had not met when they began writing to each other, is explained only in the program: Child had written to DeVoto’s husband, Bernard, about a magazine article he’d penned about knives — and received an answer from Avis, who had inspired the piece.)  In an excellent piece of staging, Wakefield appears to act out DeVoto’s letters to Child. Juliet Hart also appears in an epistolary role as Judith Jones, the editor who ultimately shepherded Child’s work to print.

Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross and Ethan Sacks fill out the cast, each ably playing a variety of roles.

TimeLine waited a long time before it commissioned a play — To Master the Art is the first in the 14-year-old company’s history — but it certainly started out with a flourish. Kudos also to dramaturg Maren Robinson and others who provided the excellent information about Child and her world contained in the program and lobby displays.

My only quibble: The show runs roughly two and half hours. It’s tough to sit through such a long, delectably food-centric play with nothing to eat. It ought to be dinner theater. At least, they should serve a snack at intermission!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Free post-show discussions take place on selected Thurdays and Sundays. An hour-long panel discussion will occur on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Opera)

     
     

Britten adds tonal mysticism to terrestrial Shakespearean comedy

 

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
   
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
     
Composed by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Ardis Krainik Theatre, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through Nov. 23  |  tickets: $43-$204  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fairies clash, couples quarrel, actors fight, the forest is a hotbed for ‘tragical mirth.’ The fates of happy endings rest in the hands of one nymph and he better not puck it up!  Lyric Opera of Chicago presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an English opera composed by Benjamin Britten based on the Shakespearean comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream crashes three worlds together. In the shadow land, the king and queen of the fairies are fighting over a newly acquired child-servant. In the A Midsummer's Night Dream - Lyric Opera 10mortal realm, a runaway bride flees with her lover. She is chased by her lawfully-intended groom, who is being stalked by the bride’s best friend. On the theatrical stage, an acting troupe disputes over roles in rehearsals. It’s become one disenchanted forest. To cast a spell on the woods’ inhabitants, the king has an underling push a little herb. Puck gets all the parties stoned. It turns into a swingers’ love fest where one guy ends up quite the ass. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Shakespearean mystical comedy played out with a hazy melody.

The show opens in an Avatar-type world designed by Dale Ferguson. The green fabric walls and ceiling are breathing organisms with rhythmic movement. The backdrop is a see-through tapestry showcasing silhouettes for the dreamy ambiance. A beautiful silky stage-size ribbon acts as a top cover to the action. It ripples and flows to frame the story. To add to the magical surroundings, the Anima – Young Singers of Chicago – are multiple white- ghosted cherubs. The young voices blend heavenly with their master and mistress. David Daniels (Oberon) sings the counter-tenor role with an otherworldly sound. As he floats above his dominion, Daniels’ eerie vocal range sets the whimsical tone for the elfin world. With an exquisite long- trained gown, Anna Christy (Tytania) is a regal presence even when making love to a donkey. A Midsummer Night’s Dream breaks operatic form for the role of Puck. Esteban Andres Cruz (Puck) is perfect as the impish sprite delivering his verses without singing.

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For some, the real show begins in the third act for the play within the play. The acting troupe performs a farce within a farce entitled “Pyramus and Thisbe”. An extended version has been staged much to the audience’s delight. As the divo, Peter Rose (Bottom) is hilarious in bellowing out his songs and his overacting. His fairy hook-up descends in a surreal swirling exit. The morning after, he awakes in oblivion to magnificently sing “when my cue comes, call me.”  Bottom’s stage love of his life is Keith Jameson’s Thisbe (in drag). Jameson emphasizes over-the-top dainty and is rewarded with mega-laughs. The wall, the moon, the lion, the dog – the entire cast delivers laugh-out-loud comedy on the stage within a stage.

Between being enchanted by fairies and amused by the actors, the mortals place third in the race for attention. In the non-opera version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-cluster of Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena is center stage. For Britten, it’s more of a side to the entrée. His main course is a hearty helping of elfin magic with save-room-the-actors-brought dessert. The real sustenance is the fantasy melodies sung memorably by Daniels and the youthful chorus. These ample portions overpower the familiar sides of girl-chases-boy-chasing- girl-with-other-boy harmonies. Then, it’s time to indulge in the absurd treat that is so enjoyable because it’s way overdone. Dessert: it’s all that with extra nuts. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a visual imagined magical kingdom frolicked with actors looking for work and mortals looking for love. Sweet dreams are made of these, who am I to disagree?

  
  
 Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs November 8th, 10th, 20th, 23rd at 7:30pm, and November 13th, 17th at 2pm

Running Time: Three hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission.

         
        

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REVIEW: Departure Lounge (Bailiwick Chicago)

  
  

Best Friends For Now

 

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Bailiwick Chicago presents
   
Departure Lounge
   
Written by Dougal Irvine
Directed by
Tom Mullen
at
Royal George Cabaret, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
Through Dec 12  |  tickets: $35-$45   |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Turning points are more than just passages in life: They’re the meat and more of vibrant theater. We look back at those paths in the wood we didn’t take to wonder how different we’d be if we did. Or we realize that all along what seemed comforting and secure was just being held hostage by time. Memory and identity are inseparable, but they change at their own pace–and at our peril.

Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  003There’s a big crossroads in Dougal Irvine’s invigorating Departure Lounge, an intimate coming-of-age musical about four 18-year-old Brits returning from a spree week on the Costa del Sol. (They’re one of many “ugly Englishmen” who – awaiting the “A-level” test scores that will determine their college careers or doom them – party hearty in escapist Mediterranean destinations.)

As a hilariously contrived flight delay forces them to wait impatiently in boarding area of the Malaga airport, the quartet of best friends raucously reprise the binge drinking and all-night pub-crawling they’ve inflicted on both themselves and the citizens of southern Spain. They are rich-boy, Oxford-bound JB, orphan lad and general jerk-off Pete, the comparatively quiet Ross who brought and, it seems has lost, his girl Sophie along the way, and closet-case Jordan who’s slept with the most girls and liked it the least.

Brimming over with testosterone and hangovers, these soccer-playing, wanna-be ”guys-gone-wild” celebrate the scary joy of being 18—which means not knowing what’s coming. The opening rouser “Brits on Tour” initially and instantly confirms every stereotype about loutish British hooligans unleashed and abroad. It’s hard to believe they’ve really been friends forever (which is very relative when you’re only 18), what with the Alpha-male rivalry and playful put-downs, especially the repeated use of “gay” as a standard for lameness or weakness. (It gets harder and harder for Jordan to join in the mean fun of “Why Do We Say Gay?”)

But the big question that these merry pranksters wrestle over, sometimes literally, is what happened with and to Sophie on Thursday night. They keep coming up with vastly differing, “Rashoman”-like variations on what went on—and an imaginary Sophie appears to suit each fantasy. The real story, as well as Jordan’s sexuality, tests their friendship and leaves its future in serious question. By the end Departure Lounge wisely sobers up along with the boys. Given this scene and these ex-schoolboys, it’s the only right resolution.

 

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Tom Mullen’s Bailiwick Chicago staging, the U.S. premiere of a work that only got its London premiere on Sept. 28, richly succeeds at conveying the transient confusions of high-stress adolescence, the forced and real camaraderie of chums behaving badly because it’s expected, and the pain of being in between a lot of stuff (Spain and England, a comforting past and unwritten future, boyhood and adulthood, sex and love, men and women, a gay guy and his childhood chums).

Well coached by music director Kevin Mayes, Mullen’s young quartet connect best in the music that unites them (rather than the dialogue that doesn’t). Their “Spanish Hospitality” is an anthem for all the obnoxious and xenophobic tourists who embarrass you abroad. Their “Fe-male” nails their reflexive misogyny as well. Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  005But their bittersweet “Leaving Spain” charts exactly how much they’ve changed because of this milestone-making stress test in a departure lounge.

Erik Kaiko and Dan Beno, as Ross and JB, share the evening’s loveliest moment in the beautifully harmonized duet “Do You Know What I Think of You”; it both confirms their male bonding and their doubts about the differences between them. Jay W. Cullen’s Pete revisits his fantasies of a real rather than foster family in “Picture Book.” Deeply conflicted Jordan, intricately lived in by Devin Archer, conveys his divided loyalty in the intricate solo “Secret.” Finally, as the mercurial Sophie, Andrea Larson stretches the most, as she conveys both the Sophies projected by her teenage suitors and the real deal.

When she comes into her own, it reunites them one last time. But that’s it, mates: We know what they only sense, that more has ended with this summer in Spain than they’ll know for years or forget for much longer.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

 

NOTE: Strong language and sexual content. May not be suitable for children under 16.

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