REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

 

Private Lives

 

by Noël Coward
directed by Gary Griffin
thru March 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

For delivering comic barbs with Cowardesque suave perfection, it’s tough to beat Robert Sella. One expects he could make even the most insipid rom-com crackle, zing and pop through sheer force of his timing and droll finesse. Noel Coward’s Private Lives – wherein Sella is currently stealing the show with his irresistible irreverent panache – is, of course, anything but insipid. It snaps from start to finish with wisdom and witticisms, many at the cost of so-called conventional morality. As Elyot Chase in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Coward’s sparklingly well-made play, Sella seems born to wear the debonair character’s smoking jacket while tossing off withering repartee with the effortless brilliance of Beethoven practicing his scales. Almost.

private-lives-2 That sterling, razor-witted acumen with Coward’s inarguable wit isn’t quite enough. Yes, Sella can ignite an exquisite maelstrom of delicious comedy simply by flicking a napkin or aping a boxer’s stance. But in addition to humor, Private Lives rests on sexual chemistry, and there, director Gary Griffin’s staging – and Sella – fall short.

When Elyot and his ex-wife Amanda Prynne meet cute whilst on their respective honeymoons to new spouses, the attraction between former spouses is so white-hot that they abandon their new partners and flee for Amanda’s Parisian flat for a solid week of wall-to-wall sex. Or at least, it should be white-hot. Here, Elyot and Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold, worldly, brittle and dry as a perfectly aged Savignon Blanc) are more intellectual than sexual soul mates. Quip for quip, Amanda and her ex- are as perfectly matched as Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio or Albee’s George and Martha. Watching them spar is a joy. Watching them get busy atop a sleek grand piano? Not so much.

As for Sybil Chase and Victor Prynne – the abandoned half of the two newlywed couples – they’re utterly winning in their indignant conventionality. As the new Mrs. Chase, Chaon Cross is an ingénue with delicate yet unmistakable shadings of a harpy in-training – you just know she’s going to turn into her battle-ax mother by the time she hits 40. And as Amanda’s new husband Victor Prynne, Tim Campbell is a pitch-perfect righteous blockhead, a slab of ham and sensible haircut of a man, all tiresome chivalry and hail-fellow-well-met. He’s the opposite of Sella’s Elyot, physically, morally and intellectually, and the results – both visually and verbally – are hilarious.

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Not so effective is the intermittently and slowly rotating turntable that Griffin employs to give the audience a sense of voyeurism. While we do get to see the Prynne/Chase shenanigans from every angle, that rotation is a distraction – particularly when it starts up after being still for a while. It can be difficult to focus on the dialogue and characters when suddenly the set starts spinning on its axis, no matter how leisurely. Furthermore, the in-the-round staging means everyone in the audience spends at least some time staring at the backs of heads or (during scenes involving people prone on that piano or the purple velvet fainting couch) the soles of feet. It’s frustrating,

All that said, Private Lives is worthy of its ticket price. It’s Sella’s show, and chemistry or no, he nails the subversive genius of Coward’s wit. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s sleek 1930s costume design (the hats alone are to die for) and you’ve got a production that’s sumptuously handsome. As well as extremely funny.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Private Lives continues through March 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $55, $68, $75. For more information, call 312/595-5600 or go to www.chicagoshakes.com

Below: First rehearsal – the director talks about staging Private Lives in-the-round

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin

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Chicago theater openings and closings this week

show openings

Bonbs Away! Bailiwick Repertory

Boys Life Gorilla Tango Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Circle Theatre

Draft Gorilla Tango Theatre

Plaza Suite Eclipse Theatre

The Second City’s Girls Night Out Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Visionfest 2009 LiveWire Chicago Theatre

 

show closings

Bye, Bye Birdie Northwestern University Theater 

El Grito del Bronx Collaboraction 

Honest Steppenwolf Theatre

The Last Barbecue 16th Street Theater

Macbeth First Folio Theatre

The Mistress Cycle Apple Tree Theatre

Sex With Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre

The Siren Song of Stephan Jay Gould Gorilla Tango Theatre

Ski Dubai Steppenwolf Theatre

Spinning Yarns the side project

Trignity Donny’s Skybox

Tupperware: an American Musical Fable The New Colony

Viva Che Latte Donny’s Skybox

What the Weird Sisters Saw the side project

This week’s Chicago theater show openings/closings

2437303-Skyline-Chicago

show openings

The 9/11 Report La Red Music Theatre

Bikerman and the Jewish Avenger Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Bye Bye Birdie Northwestern University Theater

Ching, Chong, Chinaman Silk Road Theatre Project

Fun O’Clock: A Very Special “That’s Weird Grandma” Barrel of Monkeys

Honest Steppenwolf Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying St. Celestine Theatre

Lies and LiarsTheatre Seven of Chicago

Lorita and Other Dances Theatre Building Chicago

The Mistress Cycle Apple Tree Theatre

Sex with Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre

Six Degrees of Separation Eclipse Theatre

Ski Dubai Steppenwolf Theatre

Waiting for Godot Redtwist Theatre

 

chi-skyline-narrow

show closings

Anti-Social Darwinism and High School Musical 4: Come Hell or Heil Water Donny’s Skybox

Boleros for the Disenchanted Goodman Theatre 

Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre

Cloclo Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

The Conduct of Life The Viaduct

Consume Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Death Roast Annoyance Theatre

Hedda Gabler Raven Theatre

Hitched! Donny’s Skybox

Posers Donny’s Skybox

A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre

Super Happy Fun Show Corn Productions

Uncle Vanya TUTA Theatre Chicago

Wanted Gorilla Tango Theatre

What We May Be Gorilla Tango Theatre

special ticket offers

$15 tickets to The Great American Nudie Spectacular! by Scratch Media at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. TBC is offering a limited number of discount tickets for the following performances:  Friday, July 24, and Saturday, July 25, both at 10:30 p.m. The discount is available for these two performances only. Call the box office at 773-327-5252 and mention this offer.

Megon McDonough and “The Mistress Cycles” at the Auditorium Theatre stage

This Saturday – On Stage with Megon McDonough

 

On stage with…Megon McDonough

Dates: Saturday, July 18, 2009
Times: 8:00 p.m.
Price: $50; $75

Step ONTO our stage, take a seat at a table, order a drink and enjoy the show. Our summer series treats the audience to an unforgettable performance while enjoying a rare vantage point typically reserved for the performer – the stage.

"Megon is truly one of the most gifted and authentic of performers." – Bill Campbell, ABC7

Best known for her work as one of the inaugural members of the Four Bitchin’ Babes, singer, songwriter and entertainer Megon McDonough will perform signature songs of platinum divas who sang from stage, screen, music halls and clubs right into the hearts of audiences around the country. Her debut Auditorium performance will include songs by the ladies of the British Invasion – Petula Clark, Lulu and Dusty Springfield, along with American counterparts Judy Collins, Janis Ian and Janis Joplin.

THREE EASY WAYS TO PURCHASE TICKETS:
Online:
TicketMaster.com
Phone: 312.922.2110 ext. 300
In person: Auditorium Box Office, 50 E. Congress Parkway (open Monday-Friday noon-6pm)

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Coming up next on the Auditorium Theatre Stage:

 

mistress-cycleThe Mistress Cycle

Dates: July 22 – August 8
Times: various, see below
Price: $49

 

The Auditorium presents Apple Tree Theatre‘s production of Jenny Giering and Beth Blatt’s The Mistress Cycle

For this event, the Auditorium stage is transformed into an intimate black box theatre-in-a-theatre, seating 200. 

The Mistress Cycle breaks the mold of the traditional book musical, instead offering audiences a “song cycle” that illuminates stories of passion, sacrifice and strength of spirit. The Mistress Cycle explores the lives and loves of five notorious mistresses: Tess Walker, a contemporary Manhattan photographer; Anais Nin, the famed sexual adventurer of the early 20th century; Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II of 16th century France; Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello Madame; and Ching, a 14-year-old concubine in 12th century China.

Directed by Kurt Johns
Musical Direction by Diana Lawrence

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Opening this week in Chicago

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal 500 Clown

Boleros for the Disenchanted Goodman Theatre

A Celebration of Hope and Peace Chiesa Nuova

A Celebration of Johnny Mercer Northwestern University Theater

Dead Wrong The Factory Theater

Earth: TTFN?!WWS Productions

The Hollow Lands Steep Theatre

In Your Facebook Prop Thtr

Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds) Redmoon Theater

Over the Rainbow Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus

Snubfest 2009 Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

Summer Music Series Drury Lane Theatre Watertower

Two Torn Apart Gorilla Tango Theatre

Up Steppenwolf Theatre

 

Show closings after the fold.

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Review – “Graceland” at Profiles Theatre

The highly-recommended "Graceland", now playing at Profiles Theatre

Graceland
By Ellen Fairey
Now extended through August 16th
Profiles Theatre

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Four lonely lives in the northside of Chicago intersect in Ellen Fairey’s creative story Graceland. The buzzing of fighter jets flying high above in the air show and the non-stop mention of the characters displeasure with the new smoking ban reminds us that the story takes place here at home. Sara (Brenda Barrie) and Sam (Eric Burgher) are struggling to understand their father’s recent suicide, and to cope with their own isolated lives. Frequently taking place at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, the story touches on the loneliness that that one can feel even while surrounded by people in a large populated city.

HORIZONTALSara is a single middle-class woman with obvious interweaving personal problems, and layers of complicated worries that are untold to the audience. In the opening scene Brenda expresses a sense of anxiety that is within Sara. She speaks and scutters around as if she has so many thoughts running through her head that she is unable to articulate them all. Sara is bothered by her brother’s sense of indifference and she jumps from one topic to another trying to get an emotional reaction from her brother Sam. 

On the exterior Sam is an emotionally cool, even-keeled young adult who does not over-react to the highs and lows in life. He hides his pain with hits from his bowl and tries to act as the rational one in their time of crisis. Sam is also dealing with the loneliness caused by his father before he died, when his father started sleeping with his ex girlfriend Anna (Somer Benson.) Partially to drown their sorrows with a beer and in part to find out more information on their father, the two leave and head to a local northside dive bar that their Dad frequented often.

"Graceland", now being performed at Profiles Theatre Sara’s drunken night at the bar does nothing but worsen her complicated situation. She ends up going back for a night cap with a smooth talking divorced patron from the bar with the motive of finding out more information on her father, but her desire for companionship leads to more. Waking up from a one-night stand with Joe (Darell W. Cox) and wearing nothing but his Chicago Bulls warm-up shirt, she is surprised to run into a familiar boy she met at the cemetery.

Joe’s son Miles (Jackson Challinor) is an only child from a broken home. His loneliness is expressed in his openness with strangers and desire for deeper conversation. Even with Sara’s obvious discomfort, Miles is not shy in talking about his father’s sex life with her or his father’s previous ladies. He his open with his own flirtations and mature in his comfort with older woman, and this leads to trouble.

As the four lives collide, we see the pain of loneliness and the regretful paths that it can cause people to choose. We also see the significance of random encounters, and the importance of the brief connections we make with each other.

Ellen Fairey’s comedic drama entangles a variety of complications within the four characters (and a surprising fifth near the end) to depict the loneliness the can occur even while surrounded by others in a crowded city. Her story moves with constant new developments that keep the personal turmoil within the characters building. Her choice of Chicago’s northside as the setting for her play, makes it that much more enjoyable for Profiles Theatre’s hometown audience.

Matthew Miller direction of Graceland keeps the action simple, and allows the dialogue and story to move the plot along. Mikhail Fiksel must have really enjoyed his role in the play creating the fantastic sound effects of fighter jets screaming overhead. William Anderson’s choice in the smaller details, like the Chicago Cubs Pennants hanging in Joe’s apartment and the floor made to look like grass with slender sidewalks, create a simple yet realistic setting that allows the audience to imagine the scene that is surrounding the characters throughout the different acts.

I wonder about the motive of the consistent rants against the smoking-ban. The cast was allowed to smoke in the last play (Great Falls by Lee Blessing) that I attended at Profiles Theatre, and that was after the smoking-ban took effect, what changed? Were the negative comments regarding the smoking ban a statement by Profiles Theatre due to being forbidden to smoke within their own theatre, or was it part of the script to help identify with the attitude of many middle-class young adults? Something leads me to think this was a personal statement by Profiles Theatre. One that disagrees with the effects the smoking ban has on the realism of performing certain acts.

Overall all of the actresses and actors did a wonderful job of creating distinct individuals. Brenda Barrie gives Sara depth beyond her verbal dialogue. In the beginning of the performance the conversations between each actress/actor felt real and unscripted, although as the play ran on some of the lines came off overly practiced and without sincere emotion behind their words. With the exception of Erick Burgher, who from start to finish stood out with his focus and complete transformation in to his character (Sam.)

Due to popular demand Graceland has now been extended through August 16th, and starting July 11th there will be an additional Saturday Matinee at 5:00pm. This is a great opportunity to see a Chicago-based play that will make you laugh and keep you talking about the events that take place in the play long after you leave the theatre.

Rating: «««

Where: Profiles Theatre
When: through: August 16th
(Thurs, Fri, Sat at 8 pm/Sun 7 pm, Saturday Matinees at 5 pm on July 11, 18, 25, August 1, 8, 15)
Tickets: Buy online at www.profilestheatre.org or call (773) 549-1815

For complete actor bios, click on “Read more”

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Opening This Week in Chicago

  BeanwithChicago-onit

 

$30,000 Bequest –  Organic Theater

Cirque Shangai: Bright Spirit –  Navy Pier

The Duck Variations Theatre-Hikes

Hope VI Chicago Dramatists

The K of D: An Urban Legend A Red Orchid Theatre

The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikola Tesla –  University Theater at University of Chicago

Line Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Little Night MusicLight Opera Works

A Minister’s Wife Writers’ Theatre

Mountain Days: The John Muir MusicalTheatre-Hikes

Next Beer Is Here Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

Phenomenon of Decline Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Ride Down Mount Morgan Redtwist Theatre

Third Apple Tree Theatre

Women of Manhattan The Artistic Home