REVIEW: The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Project 891 Theatre)

    
     

What does it mean to be Jewish at Christmastime?

     
     

Jason Kellerman and Sarah Latin-Kasper

  
Project 891 Theatre Company presents
   
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
   
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
Through Dec. 19  |  
tickets: $15  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Should a Jewish Christmas tree be topped with a star? That argument launches The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry’s delectable examination of Southern Jewish culture in the mid-20th century, now playing in Project 891 Theatre Company’s nearly perfect site-specific production at Edgewater’s historic, 1914 Gunder Mansion (North Lakeside Cultural Center).

The year is 1939 and the place is Atlanta, where the film "Gone with the Wind" is having its premiere, while Hitler has begun his rampages in Europe.

Liz HoffmanHitler seems remote to most of the Freitag family, complacent, long-established, well-to-do Southern Jews of German heritage, as they trim their Christmas tree. They’re part of an ingrained culture so assimilated they barely know what being Jewish is, other than to chafe at the bigotry of the gentiles who keep them from mixing in the South’s highest society. So they create their own, "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians," in turn manifesting their own anti-Semitism against "the other kind" — Jews more recently arrived, more religious, more obviously ethnic.

Uhry mined the true history of the South and his own upbringing here. The play’s name, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refers to the big society event of the season for the well-heeled Southern Jewish younger set, a cotillion at the exclusive Standard Club.

At the outset, anxious, flighty Lala Levy, one of the daughters of the house, doesn’t yet have a date for this important night. Sensitive, prickly and awkward, Lala is a grave disappointment to her bossy, ambitious mother, Boo, who fears her daughter will never "take." Lala suffers in comparison to her prettier, brighter, collegiate cousin, Sunny Freitag, who shares the family home along with her fond, slightly vague mother, Reba. Boo’s bachelor brother, the long-suffering Adolph Freitag, nominally presides over the household, supporting them all in comfort with the family business, Dixie Bedding Co.

Into this mix comes handsome Joe Farkas, a new and highly valued employee at the firm, Brooklyn-born and unmistakably "one of the other kind." He sets the family at odds on a number of levels, ultimately challenging their perception of what it means to be Jews.

Commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was revised for its Broadway opening the following year. It deservedly received both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

   
Darrelyn Marx and Lori Grupp Liz Hoffman and Austin D Oie

Skillfully staged in the mansion’s wood-paneled front parlor, with seating for just 23, this intimate production features superb acting, notably from the senior members of the cast. Darrelyn Marx excels as the acerbic Boo, pushing and goading her daughter with tough love, portraying this unlikable character with power and empathy. Lori Grupp charms as Reba, and Larry Garner puts in a wonderfully wry performance as Adolph.

Liz Hoffman captures Lala’s painful gracelessness beautifully. Sarah Latin-Kasper makes a serene Sunny, and Jason Kellerman gives Joe a perfect balance between brashness and bewildered sensitivity. His smile when Sunny agrees to a date lights up the room. Austin Oie is hilarious as redheaded Peachy Weil, the well-born Louisiana wiseacre whom Boo hopes to capture for Lala.

For those who prefer their December entertainment without cloying overdoses of sentiment and good cheer, The Last Night of Ballyhoo offers everything a holiday show should have: Great performances, depth, humor and pathos.

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Allow time to find street parking

  
  

 

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REVIEW: A Crowded House (State Theatre of Chicago)

   
   

Inside each room lies a literary genius gasping for breath

 

State Theatre - A Crowded House - Image

  
State Theatre presents
  
A Crowded House
   
Adapted from a collection of Virginia Woolf novels
Directed by Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher
at
Gunder Mansion, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

That Virginia Woolf created anything is a testament to her drive, razor-sharp intelligence and prolific, intense imagination. That her work emerged as a leading voice in Modernism, despite immense social and mental health obstacles, is nothing less than incredible. Being raised in an ultra-literate Victorian household certainly gave Woolf the educational foundation on which to succeed, but recurring nervous breakdowns and perennial depression plagued her from adolescence.

A bit of hallmark Victorian shame and silence, especially regarding mental illness, swathes and muffles the rough sketch of Virginia Woolf (Casey Searles) that is A Crowded House; but that tactic seems only appropriate. State Theatre selected the period perfect Gunder Mansion to present her life, through her work, en promenade. While I’ve seen other theater companies defeat themselves with that sort of set up, State Theatre fulfills their mission with great poetry. One is almost overwhelmed by the production’s impressionistic simplicity and also its meticulous attention to detail. Not one, but eight playwrights sculpt the miniature dramas that take place in each room and each room represents one of Woolf’s novels. But more than that, like Woolf’s novels, each room becomes a moment in time or a place in the mind, a A Crowded Room - State Theatre - posterthought or emotion that exists to be revisited. Mrs. Dalloway (Catherine Bullard) is our guide; Woolf’s perfect hostess, hosting the tour of her creator’s mind—another nice bit of turnabout.

Co-directors Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher succeed in truly breaking down barriers between audience and cast by establishing each character immediately. “The Voyage Out” by Lisa Siciliano throws the audience into the middle of a wedding party celebrating Virginia and Leonard’s nuptials, as well as the publication of Virginia’s novel by the same name. While a tactic like that can feel stagy, it’s surprising how quickly one acclimates to their eccentric, literary milieu. Outrageous Lytton Strachey (Zach Kropp) and Clive Bell (Caleb Probst) dominate the social scene–poor, sweet Leonard (Joe Zarrow) rendered quite meek and unadorned in their company.

But one quickly realizes, by inference, the critical if quiet role that Leonard plays in Virginia’s life and work. “Night and Day” by Rob Smith drives home the monstrous arrangement between Virginia and her half-brothers. George and Gerald Duckworth, who molested both Virginia and her sister Vanessa after their mother’s death, control the publication of her works—at least until Leonard sets up an independent press to produce them instead. Likewise, in “Mrs. Dalloway” by Greg Edwards, Leonard becomes protective of Virginia when the party celebrating the publication of her novel breaks down entirely. The frenzied self-absorption of their guests and the pressure to be all things—great writer, great hostess—finally gets to Virginia.

The perpetual fragility of Virginia’s mental state is the running thread behind each play—in ways large and small A Crowded House attempts to unravel the reasons behind Woolf’s eventual suicide. Indeed, one whole room is devoted to Virginia’s mentality. Even the erotic reverie that is “Orlando” by Lisa Siciliano, regarding Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West (Cara Olansky), centers on Virginia’s isolation from everyone—even the lover closest to her.

Obviously, this is not the whole Virginia Woolf. State Theatre runs the risk of portraying her as just another woman writer, fulfilling the “madwoman in the attic” stereotype. At the same time, Casey Searles is at her best in Virginia’s final act. All that the woman wanted to do was write, but mental illness was stripping that away from her. All that can be offered in reply is silence. The gorgeous shadow puppetry of Tim Speicher’s “Between the Acts” gives us that silence . . . and wonder . . . and beauty.

While one might wish for other, more diverse elements of Woolf’s life and work to be fleshed out, A Crowded House is one to see.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
        
   

 

REVIEW: “Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne”

A poetic play in a perfect setting

John & Fanny B

North Lakeside Players present:

Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Written and directed by Frank Farrell
at
North Lakeside Cultural Center in Edgewater.
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Among the best things about Chicago’s theater scene are wonderful chances to see productions close-up in intimate and sometimes non-traditional settings. Such venues really bridge the gap between audiences and performers. As I overheard a woman say at North Lakeside Players’ charming world premiere, Bright Star: "I felt like I was part of the play."

The Players perform in the historic Gunder Mansion in Edgewater. Built in 1914, reportedly as the lakefront home of an early silent-movie mogul, the house was renovated and opened in 1989 as the North Lakeside Cultural Center.

mrs B & john john & fanny a 12.6.09

The building can accommodate more, but North Lakeside Players Artistic Director Frank Farrell prefers to limit audiences to 20, in part because he likes to stage scenes throughout the house, moving watchers from room to room. Farrell’s Bright Star shifts from the wood-paneled front parlor to the leaded-glass-flanked dining room to a second-floor bedroom, so viewers get something of a house tour along with the play. (Farrell is known for getting his audiences on the move. He’s also the man behind Theater-Hikes, performed during 2-mile walks, and a new project involving bicycle treks.)

North Lakeside Cultural Center forms an ideal setting for historical plays, like "Bright Star," which covers 1818 to 1821, the final years of the short life of British Romantic poet John Keats. Written in 2001, Farrell’s "Bright Star" is based on the 1968 historical novel of the same name by Joan Rees, which was in turn named for Keats’ sonnet, said to have written to his beloved, Fanny Brawne:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

You need not be a student of literature to appreciate this sad, true love story, also the subject of a recent film by Jane Campion. Keats, 23, and Brawne, 18, met in Hampstead in 1818, and gradually fell in love. Then, as now, life was not easy for self-employed writers — particularly unsuccessful, critically reviled poets — and the couple could not afford to marry. Both her people and his discouraged the relationship. Then, Keats’ health began to fail.

Playwright Farrell weaves wonderful lines, both his own and quotations from Keats, into a compact script. He pares the poetry to a minimum, keeping things moving — aJohn_Keats_by_William_Hiltonlthough I would gladly have heard more of Joe Ciresi’s beautifully expressive recitations.

Ciresi makes a handsome, very boyish Keats (though topped with a Struwwelpeter wig whose historical accuracy appears a little dubious). When it comes to dialogue, however, his performance sometimes seems too restrained.

Actor and script keep the love scenes decorous, as perhaps they really were. Yet surely the intense and stormy Keats who poured his heart into famous love letters with lines like, "Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you" and "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," should display more passion? We need some sizzle, especially between Keats and his darling.

Pretty Nicole Richwalsky brings the right coquettishness and emotion to the young and not very deep Fanny, while Christina Thodos plays her widowed mother with matter-of-fact briskness, delightful in scenes such as one quizzing the young poet on his prospects. Christina Irwin is nicely motherly as the busybody neighbor, Mrs. Dilke, and Michael Mercier doubles proficiently as Keats’ dying brother, Tom, and his friend Charles Brown. Frank R. Sjodin and Nada Latoya Steier capably play a variety of supporting roles.

The playwright knows his subject thoroughly, creating a few puzzles for audience members not so deeply grounded in Keats’ biography. For instance, there’s a rather mystifying scene with Mrs. Isabella Jones (Steier), who needs a better introduction (Keats may or may not have had an affair with her); and glancing references to bad reviews don’t adequately prepare us for an unneeded, anticlimactic monologue damning Keats’ literary critics for the poet’s death.

Quibbles aside, "Bright Star" is a lovely play in a lovely setting, well worth the modest ticket price.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Note: The production is not wheelchair accessible. Paid parking is available across the street; parking passes must be reserved with tickets. Possible future performances may be in February. 

fanny & john bed Photos by Frank Farrell