Review: The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (Remy Bumppo)

     
     

Albee tragedy hits all the notes, but not always in tune

     
     

Martin (Nick Sandys) stands helplessly by as wife Stevie (Annabel Armour) mourns the loss of their perfect marriage in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
    
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
      
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What an amazing season for Edward Albee fans, as three of his most groundbreaking and influential works have played at some of the city’s most esteemed theaters. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the classic about the lies a couple tells to keep their dying love – saw a brilliant revival at Steppenwolf, featuring a terrifyingly dominant George played with ferocity by Tracy Letts. The Charles Newell-directed Three Tall Women at Court gorgeously exposed the hopes and regrets of one woman’s life, and starred three stunning actress particularly skilled at capturing the musicality and poetry of Albee’s script. Now Remy Bumppo joins the fray with The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Albee’s tragedy about one man’s love for a goat and the cataclysmic damage it inflicts on his perfect marriage.

Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Lies, hopes, regrets, secrets – these are the universal ideas that Albee operates with, but his plays are genius because of their specificity in plot and style. The game George and Martha play in Woolf, the fluid, interwoven recollections of A, B, and C in Women, and the utter physical destruction of Sylvia are all precisely structured to maximize the impact of their themes. George and Martha’s lie deceives the audience, the memories of the tall women are mirrors of the human experience, and the ruins of Martin (Nick Sandys) and Stevie’s (Annabel Armour) living room represent the devastating effects sexual secrets have on a marriage, bestial or otherwise.

Albee has often compared writing to composing music, and his plays have a specific rhythm in the dialogue that sets the cadence for the action: Woolf tense and discordant like a Bernard Herrmann movie score, Women delicate and aching as a Beethoven sonata, and Sylvia an explosive Wagnerian epic. Dynamics and articulation change, themes are passed around characters like sections of an orchestra. This specificity requires exceptionally skilled actors to capture the complexity of the script, and while Remy Bumppo’s cast of actors plays with passion and commitment, sometimes they have trouble finding the beat.

The opening scene finds Martin preparing for an interview with his good friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) as Stevie tidies up the living room. The couple jokes about Martin’s failing memory, acts out a Noel Coward pastiche – the perfect picture of a happy marriage, except for the unsavory scent of barn in the air. The British Sandys speaks in an American dialect that occasionally wavers during the quiet moments, like the opening scene, but while distracting, it is not the main problem with the start of the show. There’s an ease to the dialogue that the actors haven’t quite found, and that ease helps cultivate a sense of familiarity and comfort between the husband and wife. Martin and Stevie are accustomed to the wordplay and good-humored jokes of their repartee, but Sandys and Armour have difficulty finding the scene’s relaxed pace. The quiet moments are the most difficult for the cast, but they become stronger as the actors begin to expound their energy in the later scenes, using the rare instances of calm to get a much needed breather.

     
Billy (Will Allan) and Stevie (Annabel Armour) struggle to accept the reality of Martin's betrayal in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.   Martin (Nick Sandys) tries to comfort troubled son Billy (Will Allan) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) confronts Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Martin struggles to get through his interview with Ross, showing little pride or enthusiasm for his architectural achievements and displaying a guarded detachment that forces Ross to probe into the source of his unease. When Ross learns about Martin’s affair with Sylvia, a goat, the play switches into a heightened emotional mode that the actors are most comfortable in. Mitchell’s combination of disgust and disbelief is spot on, while Sandys begins to show the tortured, conflicted soul of Martin’s character. And when Ross sends Stevie a letter detailing Martin’s affair, their lives are shattered beyond repair. All three of the mentioned plays have these breaking points, but they are never the climax of the play: Martha mentions their son, A/B/C disowns her son for being gay, and Ross sends Stevie the letter. After the breaking, the characters are vulnerable enough that Albee can strip them down and reveal their deepest wants and fears.

Annabel Armour shows remarkable depth as she navigates Stevie’s breakdown, portraying a woman whose defenses are slowly worn away as she realizes she isn’t strong enough to hold her marriage together. She finds herself in a situation she could never conceive, her husband now a sexually deviant stranger. Armour and Sandys find the show’s rhythm in the chaotic second scene, one of the best in contemporary theater, spanning the entire emotional spectrum and sparking intense, intellectual debate about sexuality, marriage, and love. Albee takes the extramarital affair to its extreme, and the characters’ honest, painful reactions resonate even stronger in the absurd circumstances. Armour’s deterioration is heartbreaking, recalling her marriage’s joyous past in the context of its sordid present, and lashing out violently as Martin elaborates on the history of his relationship with Sylvia.

Upturning furniture and smashing pottery, Stevie turns the living room into a physical representation of her marriage, as each new revelation from Martin is another dagger in her side. Going back to the music metaphor, when the characters have the melody, during those big moments when everyone is at a forte, the James Bohnen directed Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. production achieves greatness. Stevie has a series of powerful monologues that Armour performs flawlessly, culminating in a series of screams that will give audience members goosebumps. The main conflict succeeds because Martin truly loves both his wife and Sylvia, and Sandys is completely believable in his affections. He performs his monologues with conviction and truth, and it’s easy to see how Stevie could fall in love with such a passionate man. And then you realize he’s talking about sex with a goat.

After Stevie and Martin duke it out, their seventeen year old son Billy (Will Allan) suffers a breakdown of his own, as his parents’ collapsing marriage coincides with his own sexual crisis. There’s a tension in Allen’s physicality that may be a character choice, but is ultimately a distracting one as he occasionally appears uncomfortable and stiff. In light of his father’s attitude toward his homosexuality, Billy reacts to his father’s affair with an appropriate mix of fury and repulsion, but the disturbing shift in Billy and Martin’s relationship is natural because of Sandys and Allen’s chemistry. When Ross returns, Mitchell enters at a lower emotional level than his costars, but he is able to reach their level of intensity by the time Stevie reenters. The play’s final moments build to a stunning release of emotion, and the actors hit all the right notes for the tragic end. As the 100-minute long demolition of a family concludes, the audience is left with a slew of questions regarding the nature of human sexuality, which may be the best part of an Albee play. Long after the production has ended, it’s themes resonate and resurface when we least expect them, because of the powerful experience within the theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Martin (Nick Sandys) comforts son Billy (Will Allan) in a moment of turmoil while family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) looks on.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? continues through May 8th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, with performances Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30-$45, and can be purchased online, or by calling 773-404-7336. For more info, go to www.remybumppo.org.

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Review: Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland)

  
  

An intense, poignant examination of harsh reality of war

  
  

Stuart Martin (Nabsy) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland present
   
Black Watch
  
Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by John Tiffany
at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (map)
through April 10  | 
tickets: $38-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Theater and war are two of humanity’s oldest institutions, but rarely do the two come together with as much emotional force as playwright Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. In the gym of the Broadway Armory, the soldiers of Scotland’s senior infantry regiment Black Watch relive their time in Iraq as a writer interviews them about their experiences in the Middle East. Probing the emotional and mental effects of war on the soldiers, Burke’s script is a deeply powerful look at the history of the Scottish regiment, and captures all the tension, danger, and ennui of their recent campaign in Iraq. Enemy combat is rarely seen, with the play focusing on the conflicts amongst the troops and within the soldiers’ minds, creating a brutally honest portrayal of the horrors of war. Incorporating music, movement, and video, director John Tiffany creates a visceral, multi-sensory experience that will shake audience members to their core, and not just because of the booming sound system. Black Watch is the type of play that shows the transcendent, transformative power of theater, and kudos to Chicago Shakespeare for bringing this play to our city.

Scott Fletcher (Kenzie) and Jamie Quinn (Fraz) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.Black Watch begins with six soldiers awaiting the arrival of a female writer in a pub, disappointed to learn that they will be interviewed by a male writer (Paul Higgins), who becomes the target of their especially harsh brand of derogatory humor. Once the men settle down, they begin to share their memories, switching into their army fatigues and Tam o’Shanters with the characteristic red hackle as the play moves from the bar to the battlefield. Beyond showing the day-to-day trials of the division, Burke provides political and historical context throughout the play, and gives the play an epic scope that still retains a profoundly human element in the script.

The war in Iraq remains a hot-button issue in the U.S., and a press conference between two conflicting politicians is a familiar sight to anyone that watched the presidential debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections. Despite the Scottish dialects and setting, it is easy to relate to Burke’s script, and that connection is what makes Black Watch such a powerful production. The history of the Black Watch regiment is shown through a fantastic sequence where Private Cammy (Jack Lowden) is stripped down and outfitted in the various uniforms of the regiment as he describes their past. The flawless execution of the technically difficult scene is representative of the production as a whole. Lowden is flipped, twisted, and turned by his colleagues as they dress him in the black kilt of the original Black Watch, then continue to strip and redress him until he is wearing the contemporary uniform. Their precision and speed is impressive, and by the end of the scene Lowden has given the most visually dynamic history lesson I’ve ever had the experience of sitting through.

Black Watch doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure, but rather gives short, concentrated looks at the soldiers’ Iraq experiences that are broken up by abstract movement sequences that build on the thematic themes of the piece. The soldiers’ opinions of American soldiers, suicide terrorism, and the reasons they fight (porn and petrol, of course) are depicted with truth and humor, with Burke especially succeeding in bringing the latter to the war-heightened drama. This is a very funny play, and the comedy is often offensive and crude, but these are soldiers on the front lines in the Middle East. Any chance to see them smile is appreciated. The men tell jokes, fantasize about the take-out they’ll eat when they get home, and read half-paperbacks of “Laurence of Arabia”, all to make the desert bearable. The older men of the unit, Officer (Ian Pirie) and Sergeant (Higgins), don’t share their subordinates’ naïve ability to find joy in the bleak environment, and they serve as the catalysts for the production’s movement sequences, which reveal the emotional undercurrents of the daily routines.

Cameron Barnes (Macca) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the play’s most powerful moment, after Officer recites an e-mail sent to his wife, a soldier enters, sorting through a stack of envelopes, looking for the one addressed to him. As he opens the letter, he stops, and another soldier enters, takes the stack, and repeats. One by one each member of Black Watch finds the letter addressed to him, stops, reads, and then begins an intricate movement cycle that is full of delicate affection but teeming with a sad sense of longing. It must be seen to truly feel its emotional power, but the image of the ten men, built up as pillars of masculinity up to this point, engaging in a shared moment of tender unity is hauntingly beautiful, especially when some of them will never see the faces belonging to those letters again. Associate director of movement Steven Hoggett incorporates elements of modern dance to make this scene especially gentle, and he later combines dance with fight choreography to portray a set of emotions on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

When a fight breaks out between Private Granty (Richard Rankin) and new recruit Kenzie (Scott Fletcher) in the back of the wagon, Sergeant has the two settle their dispute in a ten second brawl. The clock counts down on the video screens, hitting Paul Higgins (Writer/Sergeant) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.zero but restarting as the fighting continues, spreading through the other soldiers of the regiment like a virus. The choreography is extremely physical and the actors perform impeccably, building in intensity until the clock finally strikes blood red, an ominous warning of tragedy to come. After this point the soldiers no longer wear street clothes when speaking to Writer, and their army uniforms blur the lines of past and present. These are the moments when the PTSD comes out, when the violent outbursts and crippling depression happen. These are the symptoms of the disease called war, and, as Officer says, “For some of us, it’s in the blood.”

Black Watch ends with the soldiers marching in a parade of regimental solidarity backed by thunderous drums and bagpipes, and with the intense echo of the Broadway Armory, the volume reaches rock concert levels. As the music grows louder they march across the stage, helping any fallen men back to their feet, always returning to two lines of five soldier arms-width apart,. Their exactness in formation makes physical the strong emotional bonds built over the course of the play, and the roar of the music vibrates through the floor and into the crowd. The pride of the troop is now the pride of an audience, a brotherhood of theatergoers united by one magnificent production.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

All photos by Manuel Harlan

        
        

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Review: Star Witness (House Theatre)

  
  

When bad scripts happen to talented people

  
  

Mary Redmon, Briana DeGiulio

      
The House Theatre presents
  
Star Witness
  
Written by Joe Meno
Directed by
Sean Graney
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stories about young women that escape their mundane existences by embarking on fantastic journeys are fairly common in pop culture. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Dorothy flew over the rainbow, and just this past weekend, the ladies of Sucker Punch retreated into videogame cut-scenes as an alternative to their imprisonment in an asylum. In Star Witness, the disappearance of a little girl sends Shelley (Briana De Giulio) on a surreal journey that teaches her to appreciate the world around her, no matter how dull it may be. Sean Graney directs a talented cast of actors, but Joe Meno’s script is a rushed, unfinished mystery that fails to captivate, with the characters never given a real chance to develop as the story races to its finish.

Briana DeGiulio, Chris MathewsThe play begins with kindergarten teacher Hazel (Mary Redmon) telling the audience a story about a wily fox and a huntsman as she prepares for a traditional evening of Chinese food, board games, and listening to a police scanner with Shelley. Hazel returns to the story throughout the show, but its connection to the mystery is strained, and slows down the momentum of the present action. After discovering the death of her bird Mr. Peepers and hearing a report of an 1126 – abandoned bicycle – on the police scanner, Hazel is in a volatile mood when Shelley comes home from work. Entering in a her powder blue waitress uniform (one of the many visual and thematic cues taken from “The Wizard of Oz”), Shelley talks about the troublesome day at work for her boyfriend Wayne (Chris Matthews) and herself, before discovering Mr. Peepers and being thrown into the same emotional chaos as her foster grandmother.

As more news comes in over the scanner, Hazel becomes infuriated with God, shouting and throwing down her Bible in rage at the prospect of young Jamie Mae being hurt, while Shelley begins to see an opportunity for the adventure she’d always wanted to have. As various members of the town enter their home, the audience is thrown a lot of exposition, and the hectic pace of the first act doesn’t give the characters much room to breathe. De Giulio and Redmon are given big dramatic moments that allow them to show off their acting chops, but the transitions within the scenes need to be much stronger. It seems as though Meno isn’t quite sure what kind of story he wants to tell. There’s not enough actual detective work to make it feel like a fully realized mystery, and the relationship aspects of the script aren’t developed well enough for it to stand alone as a story about a girl reconnecting with her absent mother by learning to value her small town existence.

Shelley’s monologue about her childhood wish to find a dead body disturbs because of De Giulio’s hauntingly raw delivery, but the moment feels sudden, and slightly inappropriate in the context of the scene. When Wayne comes over and tells Shelley that he plans on taking a job in Indiana, their relationship lacks appropriate definition for the moment to have a strong emotional resonance. It all generally moves much too fast, and when a pair of gym shoes Ghostare found with blood on them (red shoes are a motif throughout), Shelley hops on her bike and begins her journey to find Jamie Mae, signaling the end of act one before it really gets a chance to take off.

The first act of Star Witness takes place in the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs lobby, transforming the space into Hazel’s living room in an unorthodox move by Graney and set designer Lee Keenan. Once Shelley hops on her bike, the door to the main theater opens, revealing an ominous forest that serves as the setting for act two. It’s an ingenious way of involving the audience in a way that the script fails to do, literally forcing them to move into the world of the play. In the second act, Shelley encounters three men, with each one representing different relationships in Shelley’s life. The one-handed toy factory worker Bob Wyatt (Gary Simmers) is a connection to her mother, the flirty, sea monster costume clad Junior (Matthews) symbolizes her romantic relationships, and the creepy baby-mask wearing Norris helps Shelley appreciate her hometown.

The second act suffers from the same problems as the first, but there are some glimpses of what Star Witness could be with some reworking and polish, particularly the scene between Shelley and Junior. De Giulio and Matthews have great chemistry and their flirting is adorable, with Meno slowing down the pace and giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship. As cute as the scene is, though, it’s still a diversion from the main mystery, and Meno’s hectic pacing returns once Junior exits as the play sprints to its conclusion. The story is resolved with almost no investigation on Shelley’s part, which makes the preceding events feel rather pointless, and the rushed conclusion ends up having the same gravitas as a still shot of characters high-fiving at the end of a TV sitcom.

There is potential in Meno’s script, but Star Witness ultimately feels like a rough draft. The idea of a small-town murder mystery influenced byThe Wizard of Oz” is a fascinating one, and while the play does a passable job with the theme of Shelley wanting something fantastic in her life, the rest of the Oz references need to be more fully realized if they’re to be anything more than cosmetic. Thankfully, Graney knows how to get strong performances out of his actors, and his ensemble ultimately saves the show from disaster. In less capable hands, Star Witness would be dead on arrival.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

Mary Redmon, Gary Simmers, Briana DeGiulio

Star Witness continues at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division) through May 7th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-769-3832. More information is available at www.thehousetheatre.com

All photos by Michael Brosilow

           
           

Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: The Merchant of Venice (Broadway in Chicago)

  
  

Centuries later, Shakespeare’s message still rings true

  
  

Tom Nelis, Lucas Hall, F. Murray Abraham - Merchant of Venice

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
The Merchant of Venice
  
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
at
Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $23-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Putting Shakespeare’s plays in a contemporary setting often produces mixed results, and Darko Tresnjak’s corporate take on The Merchant of Venice finds both its strengths and weaknesses in its modern context. The national tour of the 2007 Off-Broadway production, Merchant of Venice stars Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham in the role of Shylock, a chilling portrayal of a man trampled by an oppressive society on a malicious quest for justice. The contemporary context is used by Tresnjak to expand the story beyond Shakespeare’s words, and the social, economic, and political changes of the last 400 years give the script new meaning, particularly with Shylock’s character. The set design is sleek and tech-heavy, the men Jacob Ming-Trent - Merchant of Venicewear three-piece suits, and Portia’s (Kate MacCluggage) caskets are MacBooks that unlock with a USB key, yet the concept never takes over under Tresnjak’s crisp, focused staging. The two main plotlines – the first centralized on Shylock and his socioeconomic troubles, the second on Portia’s romantic exploits – are balanced and grounded by the strength of their principal performances, and together create a story that resonates on both a global and personal level.

The show begins with the title character Antonio (Tom Nelis) in a state of melancholy. As his friends deduce the source of his pain to be his heart, Bassanio (Lucas Hall) arrives to ask Antonio for money so that he can travel to Belmont and woo Portia, earning her sizable inheritance in the process. Scholars have long speculated the romantic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and Tresnjak and Nelis interpret Antonio as a closeted older businessman utterly devoted to the object of his affection. The corporate environment gives new meaning to the casting, with Antonio serving in a CEO position while Bassanio and friends make up the junior executives, with Gratiano (Ted Schneider) as the office drunk for good measure. Antonio’s work relationship with Bassanio prevents their relationship as much as social pressures, and when he lets his affections for his friend overrule his business judgment, he ends up on trial with a pound of his flesh on the scales of justice.

Meanwhile, Portia and her waiting-woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) compare Portia’s various suitors on an iPhone, awaiting the next batch to pick from the three “caskets” of lead, silver, and gold. The two actresses have great chemistry, and MacCluggage’s Portia is so powerful that the moments where she can unwind with Nerissa are a treat. Both actresses use the verse beautifully, and they avoid some of the problems that come up elsewhere in the production as actors modernize the language. One instance where the modernization works is with Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent), Shylock’s stoner assistant that turns Shakespeare’s words into slam poetry, and his fantastic “fiend” monologue is a highlight of the first act.

Bassanio uses Antonio’s credit to acquire a loan from Shylock, a Jewish lender, who despises Antonio’s anti-Semitism and lends the 3,000 ducats on the condition that if the bond is not repaid in the specified time, a pound of flesh will be taken from Antonio in lieu of interest. The corporate setting increases the intensity of the scene where Shylock and Antonio agree to the bond, and Tresnjak uses Shakespeare’s language as a kind of boardroom code, with Elizabethan poetry acting as a form of subversive power play. The modern setting changes the character of Shylock in profound ways, especially considering the struggles of the Jewish people over the last century. This Shylock lives in a post-Holocaust world, fully aware of the devastating damage caused by the irrational fears and prejudices of others. His devotion to his spirituality doesn’t fit in with Antonio’s corporate vision, and his treatment becomes a symbol for the ways in which traditional religious views are being forgotten in modern age. When Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) elopes with Lorenzo (Vince Nappo), an associate of Antonio’s, Shylock loses his stoic demeanor, maliciously going after his promised pound of flesh when Antonio’s ships are lost at sea.

     
Kate MacCluggage, Christen Simon Marabate - Merchant of Venice Lucas Hall, Tom Nelis, Background - Kate MacCluggage - Merchant of Venice
Vince Nappo, Melissa Miller - Merchant of Venice Kate MacCluggage, F. Murray Abraham - Merchant of Venice

The drama of the Shylock plot is balanced by the humor of Portia’s, and as her suitors choose between the three caskets to find the one with her picture inside, she anxiously awaits the arrival of Bassanio. The suitors are hit and miss, with Raphael Nash Thompson’s towering Moroccan dictator inspiring laughs through his quiet, yet exaggerated aggression, while Christopher Randolph’s lisping Prince of Arragon is too over-the-top and ends up falling flat. Bassanio arrives and picks the right casket, but their celebration is cut short when he learns that Antonio is in prison, awaiting trial for not paying Shylock. Portia offers to pay off the bond times two, and then dresses up like a man with Nerissa and devises a plan to save Antonio from Shylock’s wrath. The image of Antonio in an orange jumpsuit calls to mind real world images of white-collar inmates in prison for their economic deviances, and without the corporate environment Antonio is able to act on his desire for Bassanio. The trial scene is a break neck race to the finish, as Abraham explodes with fury, the years of degradation finally breaking him and forcing him to vengeful action. Then Portia sees Antonio and Bassanio kiss, and the tension skyrockets as she forgets about the mercy she preached earlier. It all comes crashing down on poor Shylock, and his final moments on stage are heartbreaking, stripped of his yarmulke, his daughter, and his dignity.

The Portia plot resolves in typical Shakespeare romance fashion, with the characters misunderstanding each other until they finally end up in handy little pairs, but the emphasis on Antonio and Bassanio ends the play on a bittersweet note. Despite the occasional misstep with the comedic aspects, mostly with jokes that don’t have any scriptural basis and are tech-based, the direction reveals aspects of the play that give it new relevance in modern times. Proving that despite the changes in culture, the fundamental messages of Shakespeare’s plays are still applicable to contemporary issues.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Christen Simon Marabate, Andrew Dahl, Kate MacCluggage, Raphael Nash Thompson, Melissa Miller, Lucas Hall and Christopher Randolph. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

     

All photos by Gerry Goodstein.

     
     

Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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Review: Terminus (Abbey Theatre – MCA Stage)

 
   

Ireland’s best takes to the MCA stage

  
  

Declan Conlon, Catherine Walker, Olwen Fouere - Terminus

  
Abbey Theatre, i/a/w Goodman Theatre presents
  
Terminus
  
Written and Directed by Mark O’Rowe
at
Museum of Contemporary Art Stage, 220 E. Chicago (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $28-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The monologue is a difficult thing to master, both in terms of writing and performance, so I was a little wary when I found out Terminus is only three intertwining monologues. Luckily, Abbey Theatre, the national theater of Ireland, knows how to transform the monologue into riveting theater, as Mark O’Rowe’s poetry is exquisitely performed by the three actors. Standing inside a shattered picture frame, giant shards of glass surrounding them, A (Olwen Fouéré), B (Catherine Walker), and C (Declan Conlon) recount the events of one evening that will change them forever.

A, an emergency hotline operator, explores seedy Dublin pubs as she looks for an ex-student who is trying to abort a child nearly come to term. When a night out goes horribly wrong, B finds herself face to face with the supernatural, and loves what she sees. And C cuts people up without any remorse, so he’s a bit of a wild card in the proceedings. O’Rowe’s evocative language uses rhyme liberally, giving the monologues a bit of a freestyle rap vibe that helps keep the momentum constantly moving forward. O’Rowe is an immensely skilled playwright, and he creates a bleak image of Dublin that is both intensely alive while horrifyingly decayed. The verse allows him to present information in new ways, creating images in segments to build suspense until the big comedic/dramatic reveal.

Catherine Walker, Declan Conlon, Olwen Fouere - TerminusConsidering how serious the subject matter is, O’Rowe’s script is very funny, albeit darkly. There’s a Bette Midler through-line in all the stories that lends itself to comedy but takes on a dark meaning in the context of the plot, and finding the comedy in the midst of all this darkness is why the script is so successful. His characters may speak in verse, but their speech is natural, and the language flows very comfortably from all three actors, who have the unenviable task of keeping an audiences attention on their own. There’s a strength between the three actors that has undoubtedly comes from their time spent in rehearsal, and the connection between them can be felt throughout the entire play, uniting them despite their separate stories.

O’Rowe doesn’t have the same problems as other writer-directors, and that’s because Terminus is a tightly constructed production that doesn’t over-conceptualize or complicate the script with directorial flourishes. The ambition of this play is in it’s script, and the actors turn in beautifully nuanced performances that capture all the ecstasy, terror, and heartbreak of urban life. Often cringe-inducing in its explicitness, O’Rowe’s script is a grim and graphic image of Dublin life, but the poetry of the langue finds the beauty hidden within the darkness of the city’s soul. I didn’t know what to expect from Ireland’s national theater, and now I know not to expect anything less than brilliance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

All photos by Ros Kavanagh