REVIEW: Bus Stop (The Den Theatre)

  
  

Love, Apple Pie and a Cup of Joe

 
 

Bus_Stop5555

   
The Den Theatre presents
  
Bus Stop
  
Written by William Inge
Directed by
Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen
at
The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Some people will want to step into The Den, a newly established Wicker Park theater venue founded by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen, for the sheer joy of steeping oneself in pure, unadulterated Americana. William Inge’s Bus Stop will wrap up on January 22, so there’s still time to catch a vision of bygone America in the loving care of a solid cast carrying out intricate, commendable ensemble work. The Den’s waiting area has a comfortable and homey feel, but step inside the theater space and be greeted by the same pleasurable warmth evoked by Caleb McAndrew’s set design. Only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee could complete the perfection of its mid-Twentieth Century rural diner.

Bus_Stop-122Another significant advantage of the new stage space is that it’s set in deep enough to give well-rounded, 3-D perspective to Martin and Mortensen’s direction. Actors play a scene in one area, up or downstage, without interfering with the relationships of other characters continuing on speechlessly in another. Characters move apart to give each other needed, but uneasy, space – only to rejoin once détente is established, verbally or nonverbally. Bus Stop is Inge’s meditation on love, after all—what brings people together and pushes them apart. So, when it comes to maintaining realistic emotion between the transient souls showing up at Grace’s Diner, give them land, lots of land, under starry skies above. The rest is left up to the cast’s impeccable timing—Martin and Mortensen’s direction keeps the pace real and each scene as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting.

Here Grace, played robustly by Liz Zweifler, comes across as the coffee-refilling mother of all waitresses. Elma (Elise Walter), her earnest, college-bound, naïve employee, learns the romantic ways of men and women never far from Grace’s protective wing. Parts of Bus Stop were surely scandalous in their day. Yet, considering the rapid-fire way kids are thrown into sexual maturity by our internet age, the whole play seems preserved in amber innocence through Elma’s enduring optimism about the human race, Grace’s common sense take on sex and marriage and Will (Ed Smaron) the sheriff’s watchful eye, weather-beaten sage demeanor and looming physical presence.

Into this quasi-family spill the bus driver, Carl (Karl Pothoff), and his hodge-podge collection of passengers. Here they must ride out Kansas’ worst snowstorm in years until the highway can be cleared. Cherie (Arianne Ellison), a low-end nightclub singer, is on the run from Bo (Brian Kavanaugh), a rodeo cowboy who basically forced her onto the bus to take her to his ranch in Montana. His pal, Virgil (Will Kinnear), and the sheriff have to talk him down from going through with his kidnapping plans, which he has made under the astonishingly naïve presumption that a one-night stand with Cherie means everlasting love.

Even in 1955, when Bus Stop first opened, Inge’s premise must have been notoriously hard to sell. The intervening years have not made it any easier. Bo may now be the hardest character to play sympathetically in Bus Stop. Indeed, if Kavanaugh can’t quite reach the credibility necessary to convey it, it’s not for want of trying. His technique is fine, his body language rough and tumble enough to suggest a life of hard work and hard play, but his portrayal of the character’s mentality is still just short of the full-on bullheaded ignorance and cocksureness to make his presumptions about Cherie absurdly real.

Thankfully, scenes between Bo and Virgil become grounded through Kinnear’s low-key, almost Zen-like approach to Virgil. Arianne Ellison’s interaction with Kavanaugh also provides a firmer foundation, giving Cherie a lot of pin-up girl charm and helplessness in the face of Bo’s advances.

Ellison also realistically rounds out Cherie’s quiet, pining confessions to Elma with her need for love and respect, her waning faith in getting either. What’s more, throw away every memory of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the movie version. Ellison brings authentic goods to Cherie singing “That Old Black Magic” during the diner’s impromptu variety show. She really is a small town girl with a pretty face, a nice body and a little talent, struggling her way through an American songbook classic. The whole scene is transformative, actualizing the emotional connections between Cherie and Bo, so that their rapprochement at the end of the play rings with clarity and vitality.

Set designed by Caleb McAndrew for Bus Stop by William Inge - The Den Theatre ChicagoElma’s connection with Dr. Lyman (Ron Wells) builds and proceeds without a hitch—due, in no small part, to Walter’s ability to express unadorned curiosity and excitement blooming under Lyman’s attentions, as well as Wells’ instinctive ability to depict a love-lost man contemplating life from the bottom of a glass. Lyman’s drunken breakdown during his Romeo and Juliet scene with Elma hits with profound and poetic truth. So does his first act finale monologue where, sauced beyond any ability to remember what he’s saying, he admits to his own cowardice and selfishness. Wells’ portrayal of Lyman’s self-loathing leaves an indelible memory.

Pothoff and Smaron admirably fill in the rest of the play with their own variations on masculinity. Carl and Grace delight with their gentle, no-nonsense flirtation, their assignation an open secret that Will charmingly scores laughs on and Elma accepts without judgment. Inge’s presentation of American sexuality–with its sympathetic portrait of Lyman, its acknowledgment of Bo’s sexual immaturity versus Cherie’s experience, and its acceptance Grace’s extra-marital dalliances–definitely reveal a country ready to peal back assumptions on gender roles and Victorian sexual morality.

But in another sense, the play is a snapshot of sexual and relationship innocence we can never and probably should never return to again. Grace may celebrate Cherie leaving with Bo in the end, but no one today can be that celebratory about a man so completely clueless about a woman’s rights over her own person. A guy like that might have as much propensity for battering as good old boy fun–and that’s something that today’s audiences can’t ignore, for all the nostalgic yearning that Bus Stop fulfills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Bus Stop runs Dec. 3 – Jan. 22, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. NO SHOWS Dec. 23-26, 31, and Jan. 1. The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Floor in Wicker Park.

 

     
Bus Stop at the Den Theatre Chicago - poster

 

Cast

Arianne Ellison
Brian Kavanaugh
Will Kinnear
Ed Smaron
Elise Walter
Ron Wells
Liz Zweifler

     
     

 

Review: Oak Park Theatre Festival’s “Fifth of July”

The sequel to Wilson's acclaimed Talley's Folly, which was produced by Festival Theatre in 2007. Set in rural Missouri in 1977, it revolves around the Talley family and their friends, and focuses on the disillusionment with America in the wake of an unpopular war. At once poignent and marvelously funny, Fifth of July is a compassionate portrait of a generation trying to decide whether to abandon their past or find the courage to cope with it and to begin anew. In 1978 Fifth of July was nominated for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play and the Tony Award for Best Play. For 35 years, the Oak Park Theatre Festival has used its outdoor location to give their productions an authentic vibe and to allow their audiences to enjoy the summer weather while enjoying theatre. This works particularly well for staging Shakespearean works, which, after all, were originally produced in an open-air setting. In more recent years they have staged more modern plays in their slice of Austin Gardens’ park, carefully selecting plays that already have an outdoor setting, like William Inge’s “Picnic.” Set in the front rooms and yard of an old Missouri home, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July is a perfect fit for the festival’s aesthetic. Considering the production runs through June and July, it also helps that the play takes place on Independence Day and the morning following. The play is perfectly suited for a staging in a park, but the story and themes are muddled in their current production by some indecisive approaches to the play.

Fifth of July is part of a trilogy documenting the American experience of the Talley family living in Lebanon, Missouri, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, Talley’s Follies. The play takes place in 1977 and showcases the disillusionment of that era. The protagonist, Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Stef Tovar), is a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His sister, June Talley (Lydia Berger), was a former hippie and now is struggling as a single mom. Both of them find little to celebrate on Independence Day. They have a big gathering of family and friends, including their Aunt Sally (Kate Kisner) and married friends John and Gwen (Brandon Dahlquist and Rebekah Ward-Hays). The holiday festivities quickly sour when friends and family start bickering about jobs, custody, and the price of the Talley household.

5th of July - poster Pamela Maurer and Alexis Vejar’s set, basically a house with select cuts made in a few of the walls, makes great use of the surroundings. The setting allows for some great stage pictures; conversations could be happening in one area of the house while other characters can be chilling out on the porch or lawn, lighting up the entire space instead of just one corner.

While director Michael Weber succeeds at balancing the stage, he fails at telling a truly cohesive story. It was difficult for me to follow any particular narrative. Important plot points weren’t really served up in any way, voiding the production of an accessible story. Instead of juggling the multiple subplots while supporting Ken’s main story (a decision of whether or not to return to teaching at his old high school), all of the stories were muddled together and none of them came out fully formed. Most of the performances were decent, although some were too over-the-top. A problem that a couple of actors had, which also contributed to the garbled narrative, was synthesizing high emotional distress almost without warning. Instead of building the tension, characters would be chatting to one another and then one would be shouting or crying all of a sudden, which doesn’t work with Lanford’s script. A technical issue that might have added to this was that the set was littered with floor mics, which I suppose helped the actors’ voices compete with passing planes and cicadas, but they also amplified every step and door slam to a distracting level. It might be a necessary evil in order for the dialogue to be heard, but it also took a toll on the overall storytelling.

Still, the Oak Park Theatre Festival is a good time, and is especially suited to summer in Chicago. One thing I learned from the locals, though, is that you should bring plenty of wine, food, and bug spray. Enjoying theatre al fresco, even if it’s not of the highest caliber, is still its own fun experience.

Rating: ««½

 
Cast and Crew
Lydia Berger (June)
Danny Bernardo (Jed)
Brandon Dahlquist* (John)
Charles Gardner (Wes)
Glynis Gilio (Shirley)
Rebekah Ward-Hays (Gwen)
Kate Kisner (Sally)
Stef Tovar* (Ken)
Kieran Welsh-Phillips (u/s Gwen & June)
Director: Michael Weber*
Stage Manager: Robert W Behr*
Costume: Ricky Lurie
Lights: Jeremy Getz
Sound: Kyle Irwin
Set: El Fish
House Manager: Jeff Weisman
Box Office: Mary Liming
* denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

Allison Torem – a theatre star in the making?

UPDATE:  Excerpts from Hedy Weiss’s new article regarding Ms. Torem has been added at the bottom of this post.

I am always incredibly impressed by young theatrical talent that can hold their own among a group of professional actors.  Often these young prodigies easily steal the Torem_Cox_GreatFalls show.  Past examples include Edward Heffernan in American Theatre Company‘s The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs, by William Inge, as well as Lillian Almaguer in Steppenwolf’s controversial production of The Pain and the Itch, by Bruce Norris.

It looks like we have another one of those Chicago prodigies, per Hedy Weiss‘s glowing review of Profiles Theatre‘s Great Falls, by Lee Blessing – that being Allison Torem.

Says Weiss:

One crucial reason to catch the Profiles Theatre production of Lee Blessing’s two-character play “Great Falls” is to witness the astonishing performance by Allison Torem.  An actress of dazzling skill, fierce emotional honesty and breath-taking sophistication, she also just happens to be a senior at the Whitney Young Magnet High School.     (emphasis mine)

Ms. Weiss goes on to say that Torem “triggers memories of the young Jodie Foster“.  Wow.

Kudos to Ms.Torem, and to Profiles for presenting such an exemplary production.

Great Falls continues through March 1st. Starring Darrell W. Cox and Allison Torem, direction by Joe Jahraus, Chelsea Meyers (set design), and Kevin O’Donnell (sound design).

Read the entire review here.  Other reviews: Trib, ChicagoCritic,

Great Falls, by Lee Blessing

UPDATE: Chicago Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss has also written a post regarding Allison Torem on her blog.  A few quotes:

She didn’t see much theater as a child, but when she broke a finger in a bowling accident at age 9, she stopped taking karate and violin lessons and enrolled in classes at Prologue Children’s Theatre. In eighth grade she took classes at the Second City, but confesses: “I was seriously insecure. It would be a whole lot more fun for me now.” She also tried her hand at musicals as part of the youth-oriented Entertainment Project.

At first I was taken aback when reading this:

Torem, a slight girl with an interesting face that can shift between beauty and something far more challenging, admits to being stunned by her glowing reviews.

But then I realized that, for the stage, an actor’s ability to manipulate their expressions is an a coveted talent.  Read the entire article here.

Once again – bravo!

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

 Requiem - smaller 1  

 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

 columbinusruinedcolumbinus2 amadeus

Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune’s main theatre critic, Chris Jones, presents his top 10 plays of 2008:

 

1. A Trip to Bountiful  (Goodman Theatre)
by Horton Foote
Standouts: Harris Yulin (director), performance: Lois Smith
     
2. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director), actors: Jennifer Grace (as Emily), David Cromer (narrator)
 
     
3. Picnic  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Inge
Standouts: David Cromer (Director)
 
     
4. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); actors: Kate Fry, E.Faye Butler
 
     
5. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Standout: Kate Whoriskey (director)
 
     
6. Four Places  (Victory Gardens)
by Joel Drake Johnson
Standouts: Sandy Shinner (director)
 
     
7. Sweet Charity  (Drury Lane Oakbrook)
by Cy Coleman
Standouts: Jim Corti (director), Mitzi Hamilton (choreographer)
 
     
8. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
9. The Seafarer  (Steppenwolf Theatre)
by Conor McPherson
Standout: Francis Guinan (says Jones: probably the best male performance of the year)
 
     
10. Journey’s End (Griffin Theatre)
by Jonathan Berry
 

Honorable mentions: (alphabetically): America: All Better! (Second City), Don’t Dress for Dinner (British American Stage Company – at Royal George), Grey Gardens (Northlight Theatre), If All The World Were Paper (Chicago Children’s Theatre), Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night (Theo Ubique). Les Miserables (Marriott Theatre), Million Dollar Quartet (Deegee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights – at the Apollo Theater), A Taste of Honey (Shattered Globe Theatre), Tomorrow Morning (Hilary A. Williams LLC), The Voysey Inheritance (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company).

 

To see further discussion regarding each show, go to Chris Jones’ The Theater Loop blog posting.

Writers’ Theatre announces 2008/09 season

Writer’s Theatre 2008/09 Season

Nixon’s Nixon

By Russell Lees

Directed by Michael Halberstam

Featuring William Brown and Larry Yando

Just in time for the elections, we bring back our critically acclaimed, award-winning production of Nixon’s Nixon. This box office record-breaking production returns to our most intimate theatre for a limited engagement. Artistic Director Michael Halberstam will once again direct William Brown and Larry Yando as they reprise their tour-de-force performances as Kissinger and Nixon in this thrilling, hilarious and brilliantly imagined story of what might have happened in the Lincoln sitting room the night before Nixon resigned.

September 16 – November 16, 2008

 

 

Picnic

By William Inge

Directed by David Cromer

When a charismatic young drifter arrives in a small Kansas town on the eve of a Labor Day picnic, the simmering repressions of its residents come rapidly to a boil. Frequently hilarious and profoundly mo ing, Inge’s masterpiece chronicles the hopes and despairs that lie between the realization of adulthood and the eternal optimism of youth. This American classic is staged by Chicago’s own David Cromer, whose previous work for Writers’ Theatre includes The Price and Booth, and whose highly acclaimed production of The Adding Machine is enjoying a successful run in New York.

September 16 – November 16, 2008

 

 

The Maids

By Jean Genet

Translated by Martin Crimp

Directed by Jimmy McDermott

When the mistress is away, the maids will play. Two women in service to a younger socialite pass the moments of their day in play-acting and fantasy. As the line between fantasy and reality begins to disintegrate, their games take a deadly turn. Jealousy, resentment, sexual tension and murder converge in this 1947 classic French thriller. Jimmy McDermott, one of the city’s most exciting young directors, brings his trademark edginess to this seminally rebellious play.

November 18 , 2008 – April 5, 2009

 

 

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

Adapted & Performed by Michael Halberstam

Artistic Director Michael Halberstam masterfully recreates the greatest ghost story ever written with his tour-de-force solo performance of Ebenzer Scrooge’s journey over the course of one magical Christmas Eve. Now in its 13th season, this holiday tradition has been extended to nine performances after last year’s sold-out run.

December 13 – 23, 2008

 

 

 

 

World Premiere!!

Old Glory

By Brett Neveu

Directed by William Brown

William Brown, director of last season’s triumphant As You Like It, turns his attention from the old to the new. One of the country’s hottest young playwrights, Brett Neveu, brings us the world premiere of Old Glory.This gripping drama in which a family confronts loss as a conseqwuence of war is brought intensely to life through Neveu’s direct yet poetic language. No government, no politics, just people. Razor sharp wit and fiercely emotional confrontation combine as this viscerally powerful mystery unfolds.

February 3 – March 29, 2009

 

 

 

 

World Premiere Musical!!

A Minister’s Wife

Music by Josh Schmidt, Lyrics by Jan Tranen

Adapted by Austin Pendleton

Conceived & Directed by Michael Halberstam

After his unanimously acclaimed New York debut, The Adding Machine, Writers’ Theatre Associate Artist Josh Schmidt has become the most eagerly anticipated young musical theatre composer in the country. Schmidt’s second creation, in collaboration with artistic director Michael Halberstam, playwright Austin Pendleton and lyricist Jan Tranen, receives its world premiere in Glencoe. A poet, a preacher and his wife enter into a delicious conflict when a fantastical assumption turns an ordinary day topsy-turvy.

May 19 – July 19, 2009

For more information on Writers’ Theatre, call 847-242-6000, or go to www.writerstheatre.org.