REVIEW: The Illusion (Court Theatre)

A Love Letter for the Theatre

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Court Theatre presents
 
The Illusion
 
Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a the-illusion_008 hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.

The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.

Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.

In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.

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Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.

Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.

Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Extra Credit

 

View (2010-03) The Illusion - Court Theatre
         

REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

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Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

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Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

 Recommended production links:

Openings-closings this week

BeanwithChicago-onit

show openings

 

Abagail’s Party A Red Orchid Theatre

The Analytical Engine Circle Theatre

Cocktails with Larry Miller Paramount Theatre

The Gimmick Pegasus Players

Katrina: The “K” Word Loyola University Chicago Theatre

Kenny Rogers Paramount Theatre

Love Song Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Monks in Trouble Apollo Theater Studio

Mrs. Caliban Lifeline Theatre

The Old Settler Writers’ Theatre

Over the Tavern Noble Fool Theatricals

The Ring Cycle The Building Stage

Valentine’s Weekend Engagement River North Chicago Dance Company

What Once We Felt About Face Theatre

 

Downtown%20Chicago 

show closings

 

American Buffalo Steppenwolf Theatre

The Artist Needs a Wife the side project

August: Osage County Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre

Determination Bruised Orange Theater

F.A.T. People Gorilla Tango Theatre

Frindle Griffin Theatre

The Glass Menagerie Chicago Heights Drama Group

Keymaster/Gatekeeper Gorilla Tango Theatre

Minna Trap Door Theatre

Phedra New World Repertory Theatre

A Raisin in the Sun Merle Reskin Theatre, Depaul Theatre School

The Wedding TUTA Theatre

The Year of Magical Thinking Court Theatre

 


special ticket offers

 

$20 tickets to Distracted at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street.  American Theater Company is offering $20 tickets to the following performances only: Thursday, February 11 at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 13 at 3 p.m. and Sunday, February 14 at 3 p.m.  To purchase tickets, call (773) 409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org and use the code "extras".

$10 tickets to Phedra by Jean Racine at Theatre Building Chicago,

1225 W Belmont.  New World Repertory Theater is offering a limited number of discount tickets for their Thursday and Friday 8:30 p.m. performances through February 14.  Call the box office at 773-327-5252 and use the code "EXTRA."

Print this email for $5 off one (1) regular priced admission for The Flaming Dames Mardi Gras themed revue, "Bourbon Street Burlesque" presented by New Millennium Theatre Company at The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway.  Show runs Friday and Saturday nights  through February 27 at 10:15 p.m. (NO PERFORMANCES FEB 12-13) and a special performance on Fat Tuesday, February 16 at 10:15 p.m. $5 dollar discount taken at box office in exchange for printed email blast.  Call 312/458-9083 for reservations or visit  www.nmtchicago.org for more information.

$15 tickets to Diamante Production’s world premiere of Lucid at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.  Diamante Productions is offering a limited number of discounted tickets for the Sunday, Feb. 14, 3 p.m. performance. The discount is available for these three performances only.  This offer is only valid at the door.

REVIEW: The Year of Magical Thinking (Court Theatre)

Fisher mesmerizes in Didion’s ethereal examination of grief

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Court Theatre presents:

The Year of Magical Thinking

 

by Joan Didion
directed by
Charles Newell
through February 14th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self pity.
       –
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Renowned novelist Joan Didion‘s heartwrenching memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking astonished critics with its unflinching portrayal of the author’s grief following the death her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in the midst of a medical crisis surrounding their daughter, Quintana, garnering Didion a National Book Award and becoming the foundation for the writer’s first stage play. Shortly before the novel’s publication, Didion lost Quintana to pancreatitis, and the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking expands the scope of the novel by including the playwright’s MB Fisher V IIstruggle to rationalize her daughter’s death while coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Directed by Charles Newell and starring Mary Beth Fisher in a career-defining performance, Court Theatre‘s production maneuvers the intense emotional shifts of Didion’s script with an artistic precision that bristles with elegance, overcoming the insular nature of the script to create a work of art with graceful resonance.

The first thing to greet the viewer’s eye is John Culbert‘s minimal, yet refined, set – an elevated rectangular platform floating in a dark void. A flesh-colored wood floor, desk, and chair are the only set pieces; a teacup, saucer, and flower atop the table the only props. Fisher appears on stage wearing cream slacks and a blue blouse that, aside from the occasional light cue, is the production’s sole use of color. The design elements of the production enhance the script beautifully, the set creating a physical representation of Didion’s isolation surrounded by the blackness of grief, the blue of her costume recalling the ocean and sky imagery of her memories with husband and daughter in Malibu and beyond. Jennifer Tipton‘s lighting design further reinforces the changes in the character’s psyche; inky projections during moments of "magical thinking" show the pervasive effects of grief by dirtying the pristine stage, and lights are turned to full power when she enters the "vortex" of memory that paralyzes her, blinding the audience as much as the character.

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Carrying the show on her shoulders, Mary Beth Fisher gives a technically astounding performance. Newell has blocked her in a way that gives her freedom to dramatize events, immensely helpful to a script that is completely centered around the inner workings of one woman’s mind. Fisher is particularly skilled at capturing the obsessively rational side of Didion, a woman that memorizes the names of every drug her daughter is given, who obtains hospital records and doorman’s logs so she can recreate the moments following her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table. As a person that operates from a primarily intellectual position, there are not many instances when Didion lets her heart override her brain. The moments in the "vortex" are fueled by the photographic recall of specific events rather than an emotional response to these memories, making Didion’s mind her greatest enemy. Unable to control the flood of memories attached to certain stimuli, "the question of self-pity" becomes impossible to ignore.

Towards the end of the show, Fisher recalls a vacation in Hawaii with her husband and daughter. Rather than attempting to escape as she has the past recollections, she sits at the downstage edge of the stage and dips her foot into the darkness. The small gesture is a huge step for the character, and by finally venturing into the unknown – the uncontrollable – Didion can finally live outside the shadow of death.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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Shows Opening/Closing this week

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Show Openings

 

“Master Harold”…and the Boys

TimeLine Theatre

The Alcyone Festival 2010 Halcyon Theatre

The Castle Oracle Theatre

Desperately Seeking Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Dreamgirls Cadillac Palace Theatre (Broadway in Chicago)

First Words Greenhouse Theater Center (MPAACT)

The Dames Storm Division New Millenium Theatre

Glitter in the Gutter Annoyance Theatre

Harper Regan Steep Theatre

Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape Goodman Theatre

King of the Mountain Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Nighthawk Sandwich Storefront Theater (DCA Theatre)

Phedra New World Repertory Theatre

Real Bros of DuPage County Gorilla Tango Theatre

Savage in Limbo Village Players Performing Arts Center

Short Shakespeare! The Comedy of Errors Chicago Shakespeare

WHACK! Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Year of Magical Thinking Court Theatre 

 

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Show Closings

 

Annie Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Capitol Steps North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan Dance Center of Columbia College

Give Us Monday Gorilla Tango Theatre

Icarus Lookingglass Theatre

Little Women Circle Theatre

Mamma Mia! Rosemont Theatre

Mark and Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special Gorilla Tango Theatre

 

Openings/Closings list courtesy of League of Chicago Theatres

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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Chris Jones announces 10 best plays of 2009

The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009

For the complete description, explanations and reviews of these plays (and others), be sure to visit Chris Jones’ excellent blog: The Theater Loop


1. The Arabian Nights by Mary ZimmermanLookingglass Theatre  (our review)

 

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2. The History Boys by Nicholas HytnerTimeline Theatre 

 

3. The Overwhelming by J.T. RogersNext Theatre 

4. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer DiazVictory Gardens (our review)

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5. Blackbird by David HarrowerVictory Gardens (our review)

 

6. Cabaret by Kander and EbbDrury Lane Oakbrook (our review)

 

7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean GraneyCourt Theatre (our review)

 

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8. Graceland by Ellen FaireyProfiles Theatre (our review)

 

9. Oh Coward!devised by Roderick CookWriters’ Theatre (our review)

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10. Stud Terkel’s Not WorkingSecond City e.t.c.

 

Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”

Desire Under the ElmsGoodman Theatre

Little Foxes Shattered Globe Theatre 

Miss SaigonDrury Lane Oakbrook

Old Glory Writers’ Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass Teatro Vista Theatre

Rock ‘n’ RollGoodman Theatre

Top Dog/Underdog American Theater Company and Congo Square Theatre

 Twelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theatre 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Marriott Theatre