Review: The Hot L Baltimore (Steppenwolf Theatre)

     
     

Grit and sass can’t carry a play

     
     

Molly Regan, Yasen Peyankov, Allison Torem, Namir Smallwood

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
The Hot L Baltimore
 
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Tina Landau
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

For the most part, there are two types of plays: character-based and plot-based. But the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new production, The Hot L Baltimore, exemplifies a third category—the thematic play. Rather than focus on fleshing out characters or exciting the audience with a compelling story, this third category aims to meditate on a concept. What plays out is a dramatic allegory that is rooted more in poetry than prose.

Kate Arrignton and Namir SmallwoodAnd although there certainly is beauty to be found in such an ethereal script, there’s not a lot of meat. The Hot L Baltimore, which was written by recently deceased playwright Lanford Wilson, features a cast of more than a dozen characters. With so many personalities and such surface level characterization, it’s difficult to develop a fondness for anyone in particular. And the story, which revolves around the impending demolition of an old hotel, is definitely existential in nature. But rather than having the absurd charm of a Waiting for Godot, The Hot L Baltimore is a slice-of-life. So we’re stuck in this realistic drama, left to watch the hotel’s inhabitants wait. And watching a bunch of people wait doesn’t really fuel a play forward.

The Hot L Baltimore centers around a once grand hotel that has become old and dilapidated. It has been announced that it will be demolished, which riles up its eclectic cast of inhabitants, including a number of prostitutes, a sickly kvetching old man and a brother-sister duo with big dreams. The motley crew interact in the hotel’s lobby, their sad pasts and unfortunate presents always undulating beneath each conversation.

Not much really happens throughout the course of the play. A few incidents arise that register a slight uptick on the EKG meter of entertainment. For instance, a young man (Samuel Taylor) arrives looking for information on his missing grandfather. Suzy (Kate Arrington), one of the hotel’s hookers, gets into a fight with a client. Meanwhile, Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) discover, to their chagrin, that the farmland they purchased is as fertile as the Sahara.

Don’t get me wrong. These are interesting people. And the parallel between the tarnished glitz of the hotel and the residents’ destitute lives is an interesting metaphor. But that’s just not enough steam to power this locomotive. And so by the end of the very long first act, I hoped that what I just saw was lengthy exposition and that the pay off would come in act two. But the pay off never came. The play just ends, as eventfully as it started.

    
Ensemble member James Vincent Meredith and Jacqueline Williams Ensemble member Kate Arrignton, De'Adre Aziza and Allison Torem
Ensemble member Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza Namir Smallwood, ensemble member Alana Arenas and ensemble member James Vincent Meredith Ensemble member Molly Regan, Jacqueline Williams and Samuel Taylor

As esteemed as Wilson may be, I fail to see how this is a good script. It’s got a lot of potential. Attitude, sass, grit and humor. But these things are intangibles. Without a character or a story to ground us, all the sass in the world can’t save a play.

Director Tina Landau, who is also incredibly accomplished, faced a challenge with bringing this work to life. I enjoy the simultaneous action she injects into the production. Characters meander around the two-story set, exemplifying the vibrancy that inhabits this dying hotel. But there is something lost here that not even Landau can find, and that’s providing an explanation for why we should care. Landau tries to address this by spotlighting characters and underscoring monologues with sappy music. But these devices come off as awkward and contrived.

If there is any reason to see this play, it’s because of the acting. The entire cast delivers fantastic performances. Standouts include de’Adre Aziza as the feisty smart-talking call girl April, and Namir Smallwood as the feeble young man who is in the custody of his hotheaded sister.

The Hot L Baltimore is one of those plays that has lost its relevance with time. The grit of yesterday is today’s old news. And the concept of a dying America has been portrayed more artfully. Meanwhile, Landau’s heavy-handed treatment isn’t much of a help. At least some redemption can be found in the cast.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, Allison Torem and Jacqueline Williams. Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Hot L Baltimore continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 29th, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm.  Wednesday matinees on May 11, 18 & 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are $20-$73, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 335-1650.

 

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Review: From Generation to Generation (Genesis Theatricals)

     
     

Genesis generates amateurish night of theatre

     
     

From Generation to Generation - Genesis Theatricals poster

  
Genesis Theatricals presents
  
From Generation to Generation
   
Book by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis
Music and Lyrics by Karen Sokolof Jatitch
Directed by David Zak
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The basic premise behind From Generation to Generation, the newest musical offering from Genesis Theatrical Productions, is solid. An old, ailing woman battles time to record everything she wants to tell a granddaughter she may never meet. In execution, the show, penned by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis and directed by David Zak (artistic director for the old Bailiwick), is hobbled by a lame script and a tendency to dumb down anything challenging. Leaving Stage 773, I was left wondering how this show got productions on both coasts already (and, apparently, awards). This is not a world premier, just a Chicago premier. Not only are there new musicals out there that dig deeper, there are sappy, easy shows that do sentimentality better.

It should be mentioned first that the cast puts a lot of heart out on the stage—I would be amiss to call them lethargic or disinterested. But they are fighting to keep adrift a boat that sunk before it left the harbor.

Javitch and Jabenis’ tale (Javitch also composed) revels in Jewish tradition and culture, throwing out Yiddish aphorisms and staging several ceremonies. The protagonist Rose (the lovable Susan Veronika Adler) even begins the show with a conversation with the Lord, a la Fiddler. But Joseph Stein’s classic contains far more dramatic heft and emotional vigor. From Generation to Generation forgets its premise halfway through, instead choosing to dally in a loose collection of memories until randomly slamming the lid close on the story. Along the way, the writers try to jerk some tears or get those gears of nostalgia churning. There’s a song where the old ladies remember how great things were in “simpler times”—hula hoops, Audrey Hepburn, etc. Quite a few slap-your-forehead obvious sections abound, along with several unintentionally funny moments. Other choices come out of nowhere, like a doo-wop tribute to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Mier?

Rose’s story could be very touching—she struggles with terminal cancer and faces the harrowing fact that she may not live merely nine months more to see the birth of her granddaughter. There are more possible layers to Rose; she’s a widow and a faithful Jew, even in her bleak circumstances. Here, however, she gets inexplicably better and the heartfelt messages become more of a “remember that one time…” game between Rose and her friends, then her health inexplicably deteriorates again. It’s as if the creators forgot she was sick and then remembered her fatal illness when there were two scenes left to go. The two hour running time could probably be cut in half and we’d still get the general plot.

Zak’s cast does about as well as a show like this can let them. Many of them still pander to the audience (like Michelle McKenzie-Voigt as Rose’s zany best friend, Norma), set on showing us how much fun they are having. Others are woefully miscast into roles twenty years older than their range, such as Kris Hyland, struggling as the unconvincing former hippie Eliot, and Bobby Arnold as an embittered, anti-Semitic coach. The most satisfying performance in the show is Ashley Stein as Marsha, Rose’s daughter. Adler can carry the show, but she rushes moments and often fails to make true connections with the other actors.

This show would be fine if it came to your local synagogue and starred your neighbors. That’s where it belongs, in communities that need all the theatre they can get. Unfortunately, Chicago is not one of those towns. There’s a high bar, and at $30 a ticket, there are some high expectations. Genesis simply does not deliver.

   
  
Rating: ★½
  
   

From Generation to Generation continues at Stage 773 through May 1st, with performances Sundays Thursdya through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-327-5252. 

  
  

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Review: Always, Patsy Cline (Fox Valley Repertory)

     
     

Patsy not the star of her own show

     
    

Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Trademan Photography

  
Fox Valley Repertory presents
  
Always, Patsy Cline
  
Created by Ted Swindley
Directed by John Gawlik
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $29-$39  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Fox Valley Repertory performs Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the late country music darling Patsy Cline through a haze, literally and figuratively. For one, generational, tertiary colored lights penetrate fog above the stage, making for a nice effect not unlike watching a “Lawrence Welk” type television show on an analog set. The edges around the singers and band are softened, and the space is filled with nostalgic ambiance.

The other haze is selective memory.

Whatever events that caused the lonely heartbreak that drives Cline’s most moving songs—listen to “Faded Love, ” for god’s sake—as well as the struggles she suffered attaining her success are left deep in the background. No, the stakes in Swindley’s play couldn’t be lower, but one gets the sense that’s where he wants them. Always, Patsy Cline is inspired by the real life letters kept between Cline (Megan Long) Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valley Rep's 'Always, Patsy Cline'. Photo by Trademan Photography.and her close friend Louise Steger (Kate Brown), and just like pouring over the letters of a departed friend, he only wants us to remember what was good. Cline’s actual biography is a tragic story of a legendary artist dying in a senseless accident at 30. Director John Gawlik’s show is the recounting of a friendship and the joy that carries on after someone passes.

We’re first introduced to Patsy in boots at the Grand Ol Oprey, with Louise miles away seated in a Lucy Chair in her kitchen. Listening to Cline sparks a bit of a love affair in Steger, and she quickly closes the gap.

As the narrator and primary means of moving the play’s light plot forward, Brown is engaging and affable. She makes a balanced duo with Megan Long, countering Long’s authoritative pettiness with broad shoulders, an admiration for cigarettes and coffee, and an unabashed willingness to wiggles, shake, and slap her tuckus. Getting the mostly older audience at Fox Valley Rep to actively engage can be a process akin to pulling dentures teeth, but Brown actually gets a few of them to their feet.

Cline, on the other hand, is written to be viewed from a distance. Long shines in the music numbers with her strong voice and well-trained little yodels and yips, but she’s given little opportunity to be the star any place else. Perhaps the playwright is trying attain some sense of mystique for the title-character. Trouble is, that choice forces Brown’s character to continually grab for exposition instead of action to tell the story about a friendship, and leaves our deep connection to their relationship out of reach.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Kate Brown as narrating friend Louise Steger and Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valey Rep's "Always, Patsy Cline". Photo by Trademan Photography. Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Tradman Photography

Always, Patsy Cline: The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven runs through May 15th at Pheasant Run Resort, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, with selective Thursdays either 8pm or 2pm.  Tickets are $29-$39 (dinner package: $49), and can be purchased online or by calling (630) 584-6342.  More info at www.foxvalleyrep.org.

All photos by Trademan Photography

     
     

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Review: El Nogalar (Teatro Vista at Goodman Theatre)

  
  

A fresh, visceral update of Chekhov classic

  
  

Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

  
Teatro Vista i/a/w Goodman Theatre presents
  
El Nogalar
  
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Cecilie D. Kennan
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

‘”They’ve taken our Mexico. They’ve taken our days, our nights.”   –Valeria

Breakout Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho has taken Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and planted it in contemporary Northern Mexico. Change the cherries to pecans, keep the once-wealthy family and the rigid class divisions, hang on to willful blindness to a way of life changing and you have the Silver Age of Russia all over again. One notable exception: Madame Ranevsky and her household never had to contend with the violence spawned by drug cartels vying for control of their territory. Bracingly directed by Cecilie D. Keenan, Saracho’s adept variation takes Chekhov’s premise from the frying pan and throws it directly into the fire. The result is an exciting new work that speaks with immediacy and passion to our times.

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Yunuen Pardo - El NogalarDunia (Yunuen Pardo) and Guillermo Lòpez (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) maintain the house and land belonging to the once-prosperous Galvan family. Only the older daughter of the clan, distraught, anxious and overworked Valeria (Sandra Delgado), has stayed on to manage the property. Her mother Maité (Charin Alvarez) and sister Anita (Christina Nieves) have long lived up north in America, Anita attending various schools and Maité absorbed in an abusive affair with an American intellectual—a man who says “Mexican” like it’s a dirty thing. “You know he means other kinds of Mexicans,” says Valeria to her returning sister, hanging on to those little shreds of the past and class distinction that once defined her family. The past hangs on like a ghost they can’t shake and, in the past, their home played host to governors and senators. An upstairs bedroom contains a bed rumored to have held a former president of Mexico. Now, Valeria fights Dunia to keep the lights off during the day to save electricity and she desperately relies on Guillermo for physical protection and financial solutions.

Maité and Anita return to the shell of their family’s former ease and grandeur—a condition symbolically reinforced by the oversized, intricately detailed dollhouse that centers Brian Bembridge’s set design. Their friends, the old rich and influential families of Mexico, have fled. Only those too poor to leave, like Dunia and Guillermo, have stayed to endure the ravishment of their lives and futures by ongoing drug wars. Drug lords have grabbed surrounding lands and now set their claws on the Galvan’s land, which sports a once-glorious pecan orchard that Guillermo Lòpez worked in barefoot as a child.

     
Charín Alvarez and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar Sandra Delgado and Yunuen Pardo - El Nogalar
Charín Alvarez, Christina Nieves and Sandra Delgado Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

Pardo and Garcia do a brilliant job setting up the brutal and dangerous reality that informs their every action and choice. “Who would believe the news?” says Dunia about the kidnappings and slayings that are a constant occurrence, “It seems like a movie.” Lòpez tells her she talks too much and will no doubt end up dead in a ditch for it, but he himself seems ambivalent about his own tough pose. “Words are for idle people, people who don’t have to work for a living,” he mutters as he strokes a book that he longs to have the security and leisure to read and absorb, like his wealthy employer before him.

Yet, nothing heightens the dangers facing the Galvan family like mother Maité’s entrance. Here is a woman on the edge, who still dresses and acts like a jet-setter from a lost era of affluence. Alvarez subtly captures Maité’s mania and pushes it over that edge at precise moments, but never overplays it. Here is a woman with her head in the sand, with a manic faith in the belief that just acting the part of a jaded millionaire will pay her way and protect her from the losses to come. “Look at this place. It’s breaking my heart in two,” she says of the house and her dried out, untended pecan trees, yet we know she will never take responsibility for its neglect. Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves in El NogalarStill absorbed in a vision of herself from 20 years ago, she jogs the hills in tight mini-shorts heedless of the risk she’s putting herself in.

Young Anita also returns sorely unprepared for the world she’s come home to. An adolescence spent shifting from boarding school to boarding school has left her as ungrounded and as unconnected to her culture as can be. “I’m a half person,” she complains to Valeria, having only a little grasp of Spanish and a debutante’s understanding of the world. Of the three Galvan women, only Valeria seems to have developed the capacity to survive the loss of the orchard. Delgado deftly runs the gamut of overtaxed emotions that are Valeria’s lot, whether trying to contain her mother’s excesses or get her to accept the reality of their situation. Her crowning moment comes once the place is no longer theirs and she throws the keys that she’s worn as a chatelaine at her mother’s feet.

Saracho’s reworking of Chekhov is vivid in its dialogue and visceral in the chances that it takes. Teatro Vista’s cast renders earthier performances than one will find in a delicately balanced Cherry Orchard, but nothing that isn’t absolutely appropriate to time and place. Not only does the production never veer into overwrought territory, it instead awakens us to a version of ourselves under similar conditions. What could be a more enlightening evening in the theater than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Bert Matias - El Nogalar.

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Review: Sense and Sensibility (Northlight Theatre)

     
      

An enchanting happily-ever-after saga

  
  

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 017

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Sense and Sensibility
  
Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through April 27  |  tickets: $40-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One sister driven by passions.  One sister steering by intellect. Eighteenth century husband-shopping rips the heart with mind games.  Northlight Theatre presents the world-premiere of Sense and Sensibility from the book by Jane Austen.  The death of their father leaves the Dashwood sisters financially-strapped.  Without a proper dowry, marriage prospects dwindle.  Still, the sisters muse potential suitors.  Marianne falls quickly and hard for her dashing rescuer.  Elinor connects wittingly with  her sister-in-law’s brother.  Love gets complicated when ‘marrying for money‘ cashes in on the sisters‘ happiness.  Sense and Sensibility is love by the book…Austen style.

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 008Jon Jory puts his heart and head into a complicated adaptation.  The Austen novel has a bounty of characters with complex lineages speaking in formal prose.  Directing the adaptation too, Jory devises a dynamic play boasting multiple love stories.  On a simplistic set (scenic designer Tom Burch), Jory smoothly and quickly moves in or out chairs, love seats, even a buffet table to show location changes.  (Kudos to stage manager Laura D. Glenn for the ever-shifting action cued up by a piece of furniture or article of clothing).  Jory orchestrates a page-turner pace with a mega-talented cast.

In the leads, these sisters are perfectly novel to the plot.  Helen Sadler (Marianne) is delightfully impulsive and lively.  Sadler punches up the humor with brutal assessments of people’s virtues.  Heidi Kettenring (Elinor) is lovely as the reserved sister.  In contrast to Sadler’s exaggerated drama, Kettenring contains her emotions with subtle nuisances:  clasped hands, half-smile, dead-pan delivery.  Kettenring delivers one of my favorite responses to an inquiry of her sister’s illness.  Kettenring dryly states, ‘she is a victim of expectations.’ Classic wit!  Their mother, Penny Slusher, is adorably maternal.  Slusher frets with a charming romantic simplicity.  Playing her sensibility contrast, Wendy Robie (Mrs. Jennings) is hilarious as the meddling wannabe marriage broker.  Robie zings delivering deliciously improper barbs without malice intent. 

     
Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 006 Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 014
Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 012 Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 016

The bevy of men make the husband selection difficult.  Greg Matthew Anderson (Willoughby) is dashingly charismatic. Anderson pulls on the heart strings as a drunken scoundrel with a hint of remorse.  His opposite, Jay Whittaker (Colonel Brandon) is quiet, handsome dignity.  Whittaker’s non-emotional and abrupt reactions are amusing and endearing.  Understudying the part of Edward Ferrars, Derek Czaplewski does a splendid job as the awkward and honorable man of engagement.  V Craig Heidenreich (Sir John Middleton) is a hearty serving of humorous hospitality. The entire, ever-moving, excellent ensemble performs and schlepps props for a sublime illustration.      

Sense and Sensibility is an enchanting happily-ever-after story.  As a woman with a little of both, the sophisticated dialogue is intellectually riveting and the known outcome still made me weepy.     

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
  

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 013

Sense and Sensibility continues through April 27th, with performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30pm, and Wednesdays at 1pm. Tickets are $40-$45, and can be purchased online or by calling 847-673-6300.  More info at www.northlight.org. Running time:  Two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

3 words: A newbie to Austen’s tale, Jasleen describes it with ‘dear sisterly love.’

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