REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

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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★★★★)

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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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REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

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Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

REVIEW: Steppenwolf’s “American Buffalo”

Steppenwolf displays Mamet mastery

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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

American Buffalo

by David Mamet
directed by Amy Morton
thru February 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

No one would ever accuse David Mamet of being a feminist. Yet Amy Morton’s direction of American Buffalo, now onstage at Steppenwolf, so skillfully teases out the masculine value systems that both inspire and defeat the play’s characters, one might easily conceive of it as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist tract. Assistant Director Jamie Abelson, in an after-performance discussion, revealed how Morton engaged in a bit of Meisner technique during rehearsal and threw out the infamous pauses and italicized words originally written into the script—so that the cast could find organic rhythms with the words alone.

Mamet’s language and its rhythms can be the bugbear of any production. But thankfully, with this well-balanced cast, each actor displays sure and deliberate internal mastery, never resorting to stereotypical staccato delivery that sometimes plagues Mamet performances. Instead, each interchange between actors is smoother, seemingly more effortless, neither delayed in pacing nor rushed in feeling. The action proceeds with quieter, subtler intensity—each incidental phrase or action naturally contributing to the play’s crescendo.

Organic is the quintessence of Morton’s direction but do not read from that any concept of a kinder, gentler American Buffalo. If anything, from design to performance, Steppenwolf’s production is a sterling model of good, old-fashioned hardcore Realism.

AmericanBuffalo-1Three down-and-out men, Don (Francis Guinan), Teach (Tracy Letts), and Bobby (Patrick Andrews), conspire in a basement junkshop to steal a recent customer’s coin collection. The customer had found a Buffalo nickel among the detritus of Don’s shop and bought it off of him. For perceiving its value, right out from under his nose, Don feels “taken” and diminished. Robbing the mysterious customer is only fair payback, in which both Bobby and Teach, each for their own reasons, want to play a pivotal role.

These are characters that could have just as easily stepped out of a 19th century novel as this 1970s play. The audience can neither escape from their seedy, depressed reality nor from the worlds they weave with the language they have at their disposal. Language–and the masculine values they have about loyalty, toughness, and cunning–proves to be both their doing and undoing. With the exception of a few moments, this American Buffalo delivers a taut, energetic, densely layered, and finely realized work.

The cast has earned all the accolades that can be heaped upon them, but it’s Tracy Letts’ performance as Teach that brings the fireworks. From the moment he first tromps down the junkshop’s steps in a wide, cumbersome stride, Letts immaculately controls his role, pulling humor naturally and fluently from it, reaching powerfully into the depths of Teach’s desperation. He can turn on a dime according to Teach’s shifting moods. From cock-sure complaint over the cheating that goes on at Don’s poker table to garrulous lecturing on how to pull the most professional heist, from jealousy to creeping paranoia to unleashed rage, Letts hits all the marks in one seamless pyrotechnic performance.

All of which would be for nothing if not flanked by the terse, fierce energy of Andrew’s Bobby or the quieter bulldog toughness of Guinan’s Don. I’m especially grateful for Andrew’s (and Morton’s) complete commitment to realism regarding Bobby. As the young, slow drug addict Don has taken under his wing, realistically grounding Bobby’s character, without pity or sentimentality, lends a sharper, more authentic edge to the cruel world inhabited by these characters. There is something especially refreshing about Realism in an era of “truthiness” and I appreciate the opportunity to see it done full-bore and without compromise.

Compared to other productions, Francis Guinan’s interpretation of Donny may be the biggest surprise. His Don would rather talk softly and carry a big stick—or talk softly and carry a big pig slaughtering thingy. But for all the discussion of Don being the play’s Alpha Male on Steppenwolf’s website, Guinan’s performance looks far more like an older alpha dog facing the precariousness of his dominant status. While never openly contested, Don’s rule, such as it is, seems more like the sun setting in the west.

Don is clearly contending with the encroaching limits of age, of being surrounded by people one can never completely trust, of being attached to souls as flawed and incomplete as Teach and Bobby. It’s vulnerability Don dare not show or confess to; it’s vulnerability that blossoms like a neglected flower in the final exchange between Don and Bobby. Certainly Guinan’s performance is not perfect—his opening moments at the top of the first and second acts feel somewhat stiff and the classic Mamet fight scene exposes some anticipation on his part. But the last exchange of tenderness between aging crook and young junky is the play’s crowning glory. Guinan makes it shine beautifully and mercifully through the play’s momentary gap in its dark atmosphere.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

 

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WTF? Steppenwolf’s Patrick Andrew is gonna kick Tracy Letts’ ass!?!

Actor Patrick Andrews gets pumped up for “stage violence” day

 

 

Opening this Saturday, December 12th, Steppenwolf Theatre presents American Buffalo, written by David Mamet, directed by ensemble member Amy Morton, featuring ensemble members Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts with Patrick Andrews.

 

Earlier weirdness:

   

 

Also, the director and cast discuss their thoughts regarding American Buffalo, also Tracy Letts’ discusses his creative process.