Review: The Hot L Baltimore (Steppenwolf Theatre)

     
     

Grit and sass can’t carry a play

     
     

Molly Regan, Yasen Peyankov, Allison Torem, Namir Smallwood

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
The Hot L Baltimore
 
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Tina Landau
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

For the most part, there are two types of plays: character-based and plot-based. But the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new production, The Hot L Baltimore, exemplifies a third category—the thematic play. Rather than focus on fleshing out characters or exciting the audience with a compelling story, this third category aims to meditate on a concept. What plays out is a dramatic allegory that is rooted more in poetry than prose.

Kate Arrignton and Namir SmallwoodAnd although there certainly is beauty to be found in such an ethereal script, there’s not a lot of meat. The Hot L Baltimore, which was written by recently deceased playwright Lanford Wilson, features a cast of more than a dozen characters. With so many personalities and such surface level characterization, it’s difficult to develop a fondness for anyone in particular. And the story, which revolves around the impending demolition of an old hotel, is definitely existential in nature. But rather than having the absurd charm of a Waiting for Godot, The Hot L Baltimore is a slice-of-life. So we’re stuck in this realistic drama, left to watch the hotel’s inhabitants wait. And watching a bunch of people wait doesn’t really fuel a play forward.

The Hot L Baltimore centers around a once grand hotel that has become old and dilapidated. It has been announced that it will be demolished, which riles up its eclectic cast of inhabitants, including a number of prostitutes, a sickly kvetching old man and a brother-sister duo with big dreams. The motley crew interact in the hotel’s lobby, their sad pasts and unfortunate presents always undulating beneath each conversation.

Not much really happens throughout the course of the play. A few incidents arise that register a slight uptick on the EKG meter of entertainment. For instance, a young man (Samuel Taylor) arrives looking for information on his missing grandfather. Suzy (Kate Arrington), one of the hotel’s hookers, gets into a fight with a client. Meanwhile, Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) discover, to their chagrin, that the farmland they purchased is as fertile as the Sahara.

Don’t get me wrong. These are interesting people. And the parallel between the tarnished glitz of the hotel and the residents’ destitute lives is an interesting metaphor. But that’s just not enough steam to power this locomotive. And so by the end of the very long first act, I hoped that what I just saw was lengthy exposition and that the pay off would come in act two. But the pay off never came. The play just ends, as eventfully as it started.

    
Ensemble member James Vincent Meredith and Jacqueline Williams Ensemble member Kate Arrignton, De'Adre Aziza and Allison Torem
Ensemble member Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza Namir Smallwood, ensemble member Alana Arenas and ensemble member James Vincent Meredith Ensemble member Molly Regan, Jacqueline Williams and Samuel Taylor

As esteemed as Wilson may be, I fail to see how this is a good script. It’s got a lot of potential. Attitude, sass, grit and humor. But these things are intangibles. Without a character or a story to ground us, all the sass in the world can’t save a play.

Director Tina Landau, who is also incredibly accomplished, faced a challenge with bringing this work to life. I enjoy the simultaneous action she injects into the production. Characters meander around the two-story set, exemplifying the vibrancy that inhabits this dying hotel. But there is something lost here that not even Landau can find, and that’s providing an explanation for why we should care. Landau tries to address this by spotlighting characters and underscoring monologues with sappy music. But these devices come off as awkward and contrived.

If there is any reason to see this play, it’s because of the acting. The entire cast delivers fantastic performances. Standouts include de’Adre Aziza as the feisty smart-talking call girl April, and Namir Smallwood as the feeble young man who is in the custody of his hotheaded sister.

The Hot L Baltimore is one of those plays that has lost its relevance with time. The grit of yesterday is today’s old news. And the concept of a dying America has been portrayed more artfully. Meanwhile, Landau’s heavy-handed treatment isn’t much of a help. At least some redemption can be found in the cast.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, Allison Torem and Jacqueline Williams. Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Hot L Baltimore continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 29th, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm.  Wednesday matinees on May 11, 18 & 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are $20-$73, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 335-1650.

 

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

Extra Credit:

     
     

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Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

 BroSis-03

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays

 

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

BroSis-21 BroSis-02
BroSis-09 BroSis-23 BroSis-05

The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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YouTube: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf)

The Brother/Sister Plays, opening this weekend at Steppenwolf Theatre, are a breakthrough theatrical event: three interconnected plays by a brilliant new American brother-sistervoice, Tarell McCraney. Grand in scope, yet intimate and heartfelt, the plays are daring, funny and genuine. 

Steppenwolf presents The Brother/Sister Plays, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Ora Jones, with Phillip James Brannon, Rodrick Covington, Glenn Davis, Jeff Parker, Tamberla Perry and Jacqueline Williams.

 

 

Tarell McCraney on his Trilogy: The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Tarell McCraney on ensemble work

 

Getting to know Tarell McCraney, playwright of "The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Working with director Tina Landau

Video: Aerial training for Steppenwolf’s “The Tempest”

Came across this YouTube video featuring Emma Rosenthal and Miles Fletcher discussing their aerial training for “The Tempest“, which opens this weekend at the Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau.  Heard on the video, this tamer-than-it-sounds quote from cast member Miles Fletcher:  

“I can’t tell you how many times we were told to wear tight-fitting clothing to our callback and audition.”

Who needs the health club when you have rehearsals like the one in the video!!

 

 

“The Tempest”, by William Shakespeare, also features ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Frank Galati, Jon Michael Hill, Tim Hopper, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov, Lois Smith and Alan Wilder with Eric James Casady, Miles Fletcher, Stephen Louis Grush, Emma Rosenthal and Craig Spidle

Steppenwolf at Millenium Park – Free!

Dream Chicago

by Laura Eason

Steppenwolf Traffic presents Dream Chicago, a collection of short stories and songs exploring the “Chicago Dream.” Dream Chicago highlights the visionary dreams from the past that gave character to the “City of Big Shoulders” and inspired its people to imagine a collective future.

Dream Chicago will be presented Monday, September 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion as part of the 4th annual Blockbuster Week. Admission is FREE.

millennium_park

Directed by associate artist Jessica Thebus; featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, Ian Barford, Robert Breuler, K. Todd Freeman, Frank Galati, Ora Jones and Martha Lavey with Maggie Brown.