REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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Wednesday Wordplay: Mary Tyler Moore and Oscar Wilde

mary-tyler-moore

 

Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges make life worth living.
           
Mary Tyler Moore

 

 

The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business. You’ve got to keep on working that talent. Someday I’ll reach for it and it won’t be there.
            — Irving Berlin, 1958

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
            — Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

 

Oscar Wilde

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
           
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

 

Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.
            — Amy Lowell

For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
            — Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mayor’s banquet speech, 1954

 

diane-houston 

Only some people get what they want. Those are the people who show up to get it.
            — Dianne Houston, Take The Lead, 2006

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
            — Amy Bloom

May I never miss a sunset or a rainbow because I am looking down.
            —
Sara June Parker

 

george-burns

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
            — George Burns

 

 

   
   

REVIEW: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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Remy Bumppo announces 2010/2011 Season

rb-top

REMY BUMPPO THEATRE COMPANY ANNOUNCES 2010/2011 SEASON

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company Artistic Director James Bohnen and Executive Director Kristin Larsen announced today the company’s line up for its 14th consecutive year of think theatre:

 

  Night and Day  
      by Tom Stoppard
    directed by James Bohnen 
    September 22 – October 31
   
   The Importance of Being Earnest
      by Oscar Wilde
    directed by Artistic Associate Shawn Douglass
    November 24, 2010 – January 2, 2011
   
  The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
      by Edward Albee 
    directed by James Bohnen
    March 30 – May 8, 2011

All shows presented at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

REVIEW: A Love Lost Life (Theatre Building Chicago)

‘Love Lost Life’ Fails to Explore the Brando Family Tragedies

 

David Barnes as Christian Brando-1

 

T.M.R. Inc. presents:

A Love Lost Life

by David Nathie Barnes
directed by Susan Felder
through March 14th at Theatre Building Chicago (more info | tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

“The first two days with Marlon, I pushed him the wrong way, and as a result I lost him. He hated me, and it was my fault. I was too confrontational, too strong . . . All actors are frightened that they won’t give you what you want. It was a sad way for me to learn that even Marlon Brando was scared.

Frank Oz, on directing The Score

“He didn’t want to be treated like an icon. When you dealt with him you had to talk to him like a regular guy—he was very anti-Hollywood. But then the other part of him—he wanted a little gift to be brought. It was Persian caviar, imported cheeses and red wine. He loved it.

–Writer/director Bob Bendetson of Big Bug Man

“My family’s weird . . . We had new additions all the time. I’d sit down at the table with new people and I’d have to ask: ‘Who are you?’ Invariably they were a brother or sister I had never met.”

Christian Brando, to his probation officer

Beau Forbes as James Dean-1During the filming of “Last Tango in Paris,” director Bernardo Bertolucci became so overwhelmed at the range, rawness and immediacy of Marlon Brando’s talent, he momentarily lost faith in his ability to direct the intense, dynamic actor. Anyone who considers writing a full and accurate account about the Brando family must surely have as much trepidation. Even in his own words, Brando’s tangential and unreliable understanding belies a mind at the mercy of shifting moods, aspirations and desires. Plumbing the depths of his mercurial and inscrutable personality would require the expansive and agile faculty of Oscar Wilde and, without a doubt, the built-in, shockproof, shit detector of Earnest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, actor/playwright David Nathie Barnes only renders for us a meager slice of Marlon Brando’s life—with as many holes as Swiss cheese. But for the exception of a few well-written monologues, A Love Lost Life—the Unauthorized Story of Marlon Brando, overdoses on the kind of shallowness and superficiality one finds on E! True Hollywood Story. Especially in handling Brando family dynamics, so much goes unexpressed and undeveloped, it’s hard not to suspect that Barnes either has been cowed into pulling punches out of fear of litigation or is utterly blinkered in his characterization by poor-rich-kid clichés.

More’s the pity, because the talented cast of Theatre Building Chicago’s latest production is obviously capable of taking on more than what’s demanded of them here. Like a reigning triumvirate, Michael Perez, Jamie Asch, and Robert Ashkenas capture Marlon Brando at 20-30, 40-60, and in his 80s, respectively. Perez exudes the young, insouciant Brando, with all the defiant masculinity that awakened the ‘50s out of its white-bread stupor. Asch gives a full-throttle performance of an impossible Brando, nihilistically grinding down his career and personal life until “The Godfather” pulls him out of a rut. Ashkenas poignantly evokes an infirm, bloated and pathetic Brando, wheezing and rationalizing his way toward a regretful and sorrowful exit.

As an actor, Barnes strikes fire with his sullen, edgy interpretation of Christian Brando. Claudia Di Biccari sympathetically gives total commitment to the limited material as his doomed sister, Cheyenne Brando. Director Susan Felder has done her best to pull out humanizing characterizations from the cast. But strong performances alone can’t make up for lack of a dramatic structure hefty enough to pull together Brando’s groundbreaking, but uneven, career and bizarrely troubled family life.

Robert Ashkenas as Marlon Brando age 80 -1 Finally, it must be said, too often Barnes’ writing leaves holes a Mack truck could drive through. Accuracy vs. poetic license–yadayadayada–but nothing should be sacrificed from a drama that substantially informs its action or characters. Among the least of them: Marlon Brando had at least 11 children–legitimate, illegitimate and adopted. A Love Lost Life is written as though Christian and Cheyenne were the only ones. It’s as if, in play’s memory, the other siblings—and their impact on Christian’s mentality—have disappeared down a rabbit’s hole.

Then, there are Cheyenne’s struggles with schizophrenia, which Barnes’ play doesn’t acknowledge until well after Christian goes to jail for shooting and killing her boyfriend, Dag Drollet. The truth is, Cheyenne began having violent bouts of schizophrenia at 16, one of them inducing her to recklessly crash her car–an accident that so damaged her face, all her hopes for a modeling career were ruined. Most likely, schizophrenia influenced Cheyenne’s fallacious tales to Christian about Dag assaulting her, which in turn led to the shooting. Barnes cover none of this in his play.

Also not touched upon: a history of domestic violence in Christian’s own marriages; Christian’s stockpile of weapons, including illegal automatic weapons, that police uncovered in his home upon arrest; forensics which disclosed that Dag had been shot in the back of the head, not in the face in the middle of a struggle, as Christian confessed–that Dag died with his tobacco pouch in one hand and a TV remote in the other.

There’s more, so much more, to the Brando family saga than Barnes can tell or is willing to tell. It’s not just another spoiled-celebrity-children-gone-wild tale; it should never, ever be treated as one. Perhaps the answer lies, not in Brando’s chic home on Mulholland Drive, but in the unexplored chapters of Brando’s family life in Tahiti. Wherever it may be, nothing less than madness itself holds sway over this family. To dramatize this family’s story, one needs a playwright brave enough to head into that heart of darkness.

Rating: ★★

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Wednesday Wordplay: Quotes by Bette Davis (and others)

Lots of great quotes:

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
            — George Burns

I can resist anything but temptation.
            — Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892, Act I

Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.
            — Cecil B. DeMille

Fresh clean sheets are one of life’s small joys.
            — Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata, Animal Crossing: Wild World, 2005

This became a credo of mine…attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.
            — Bette Davis