Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Court Theatre)

     
     

Ruhl’s ‘Orlando’: A decent romp

     
     

Amy J. Carle as Orlando (Michael Brosilow).

  
Court Theatre presents
  
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through April 10  | tickets: $10-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with a protagonist that flips sexes and a narrative that slithers through time and space, is required reading for any student of women in literature. The genre-twisting novel, a thinly-veiled biography of Woolf’s sometimes-lover Vita Sackville-West, is Woolf’s most accessible and popular book. The light tone and fantastical story make Orlando ripe for the stage; however, putting the broad and populous novel on stage requires an innovative touch. The Court Theatre put the task of writing a stage adaptation in the very capable hands of Sarah Ruhl. To direct, they snapped up Jessica Thebus, always full of fascinating theatrics.

Kevin Douglas, Amy J. Carle, Erica Elam, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow).The end product has six actors, loads of quick scenes, heavily-thematic design, and a tendency to stuff the audience full with exposition.

The plot spans 500 years, from the rule of Queen Elizabeth to today. Orlando (the ever-energized Amy J. Carle) is a young and restless poet, looking to write an ode to an oak tree but never finding the right verses. His shapely legs and youthful vigor catch the eye of the Queen (Lawrence Grimm, part of a four-man chorus that plays a galaxy of roles), who brings the kid into her court. There Orlando falls for Sasha (Erica Elam), who is visiting England with the Russian embassy. She departs for Moscow, and Orlando is restless once again. He travels the world, only to awake one morning in Constantinople to find that he has transformed into a woman. She then must navigate the new social implications and a whole new set of suitors. Along with the switch in gender, Orlando also must deal with living for hundreds of years and her ever-pressing need to finish her poem.

Ruhl and Thebus use plenty of theatrical magic to sail Orlando’s story. The stage is nearly bare for most of the time, allowing for quick transitions from place to place and time to time. Collette Pollard’s set contains many tricks; for example, a rolling bed becomes both a ship and a chrysalis for Orlando’s transformation. Linda Roethke’s monochrome costumes evolve with the time periods, but also play with gender roles. The four male chorus members begin the show strapped up in corsets, and there isn’t a real effort to hide Carle’s gender. It’s intriguing to watch Orlando go from loose trousers and vests to frilly, voluminous dresses.

Ruhl’s adaptation has a bad case of telling rather than showing. The characters often narrate to the audience about feelings, as well as discuss where the story is traveling. Much of this direct address is full of Ruhl’s trademarked lyricism, but it still leaves one yearning for more dramatization. It seems she unable to exactly figure out how to put Woolf’s tale up, so she uses the direct address as a crutch.

Ruhl’s adaptation is also hampered by a lowered stakes in the second half. The first act – which showcases Orlando’s romances with the Queen and Sasha – builds until Orlando becomes a woman. After intermission, the play can’t quite find its footing again. The second act hurriedly leaps through centuries to reach a rather bland conclusion.

     
Amy J. Carle, Adrian Danzig, Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow). Kevin Douglas (Michael Brosilow).
Kevin Douglas, Thomas J. Cox, and Adrian Danzig (Michael Brosilow). Adrian Danzig, Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth, Thomas J. Cox, and Amy J. Carle (Michael Brosilow).

The actors are all eager and willing. Carle never disappoints as Orlando, and she has a huge journey to take every night. Orlando starts as wide-eyed and lusty and ends as darkly meditative and matured over his 500 years; Carle can nail every aspect of the character. The four chorus members, Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas, and Grimm, make their constant character-swapping look easy. They carry the show, both literally and figuratively. Although not on-stage very much, Elam does decent work as Sasha, alternating between sexy and innocent.

Woolf claimed she started Orlando as a joke, a way to tease Vita. Ruhl’s adaptation captures this light mood, and Orlando’s prevalent attitude through the centuries seems to be “just go with it.” This tone and Thebus’ antics are sure to amuse and inspire, even if Ruhl’s writing gets a tad clunky.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
       
  

Orlando meets "The Great Queen" featuring Amy J. Carle as Orlando and Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth I:

 

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REVIEW: Sex With Strangers (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

The perils of blogging while shagging

  
  

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Sex With Strangers
   
Written by Laura Eason
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Steppenwolf Theatre’s remount of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which enjoyed its first success during their 2009 First Look Repertory of New Work, is framed as another installment in their seasonal exploration of the public and private self. Now if only Eason’s play had the depth and strength to take on that weighty mantle. As is, Sex with Strangers is a nice and gentle play about an older generation’s discomfort with a younger generation, their new technological toys, and the exponential expansion of sexual frankness as the result of those toys. The play might “spark dialogue” about where the private self has gone in this internet age but it will hardly give body, clarity or insight to that discussion.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.As a result, the play is rather tepid and pleasant but just as easily forgettable. Shy, neurotic and old-school novel writer Olivia (Brenda Barrie for our performance) runs into brash, young, self-promoting blogger Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) at a writer’s retreat. She’s completing her second novel many years after her first and Ethan, who’s compiled his blog of sexual exploits into a bestselling book, has arrived to work on the screenplay for which he already has a Hollywood contract. The scenario is set for seduction—something the audience can see coming a mile away. But Olivia’s seduction isn’t just about booty calls or–what’s that old 70s phrase? The “zipless fuck”? Olivia is introduced, through Ethan, to the whole world of blogging, social media, and no longer relying upon the gatekeepers, i.e., critics, or those dinosaur editors of print publishing.

It’s sad that we don’t get to know these characters beyond their types. Sadder still is that the chemistry between Barrie and Grush is just not believable. Their relationship has be to set up fast so that the rest of the play can continue—one accepts their sexual interaction just to let the story unfold—but by far there isn’t enough of an instantaneous connection of passion between them to make their relationship credible. Grush is a dynamic actor who gives Ethan’s impetuousness and arrogance the right balance of self-effacing candor. Barrie, meanwhile, has the nuance to convey Olivia’s introverted low self-esteem down pat, but missing is Olivia’s sexual, as well as intellectual, allure. If Olivia is the kind of character who only reveals herself on the page, it’s no wonder that even after the first act she seems a kind of cipher.

So far all the you-know-the-internet/I-don’t-know-the-internet stuff is concerned, that’s really just fluff on top of a much older kind of story about the fickle nature of fame and success, about the envy that springs up between friends over who is making it in their careers and who isn’t, about who has more power in the relationship and who doesn’t. While this is the real dynamic of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, it’s one in which the characters sleepwalk their way through, never pausing to observe themselves, what they are doing with each other or why.

Plus, Sex with Strangers sets up a strange dichotomy between what’s old and young but then fails to examine that dichotomy or whether it’s even valid.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Ethan falls in love with Olivia in part because of the excellence of her writing. So, the older writer is associated with excellence while Ethan’s blog is emblematic of flash-in-the-pan dreck that gets rewarded with fame and success. Missing from the play’s interrogation is any recollection of old school pulp novelists and young, excellent, intelligently written blogs—or intelligent blogs written by oldsters. Gone is any acknowledgement that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writers old and young out there who may be every bit as talented, if not more, than the august Olivia—not all of them are going to get publishing contracts, even with a blog to promote their work.

The simplicity of Eason’s set-up is also her play’s downfall. No doubt, many in the audience will find her dialogue humorous and enjoyable, but whether this play will be remembered more than the usual date movie rom-com is anyone’s guess.

  
  
Rating ★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: Peter Pan (A Play) – Lookingglass Theatre

     
     

Endearing young cast creates a playful Neverland

 

 

Kay Kron as Wendy in Peter Pan at Lookingglass Chicago

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Peter Pan (a play)   
     
Written and directed by Amanda Dehnert
Based on the books by
J.M. Barrie
at
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map)
through Dec 12  |  tickets: $24-$62  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Amanda Dehnert has adapted and staged a very faithful version of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic (well, almost–it’s too politically correct to retain the island’s Indian tribe). It’s not just faithful to Barrie, with its multiple narrators describing the exotic and imaginary topography of Neverland, detailing the psychology of its make-believe, and providing back stories on the lesser characters like Tootles, Slightly and Smee. It’s even more faithful to the challenges of childhood, all those non-negotiable, first-time joys and fears where from moment to moment everything that happens can seem the end of the world.

It’s not just the runaway or throwaway Lost Boys who are clueless and compass-less in Neverland. It’s also the Darling siblings, the equally abandoned Pirates and their “leader of monsters” Captain Hook, still hurting from being considered nice when he knew he was nasty. Above all, it’s Peter Pan who is terrified of being “grown up and done for.” He is rightly described as “young and innocent and heartless,” which is just how the author saw the beautiful Davies brothers who he immortalized in “Peter Pan.” Barrie, more than Pewter, didn’t want them to grow up–specifically old and ugly. Only one died young and that was because he perished in World War I.

Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art workThat doesn’t mean that Lookingglass’ rampaging staging is really children’s theater, however much the inventive hijinks recall a school pageant. The few kids in the opening night audience seemed more perplexed than enraptured by the pell-mell action. A bit too hip and flippant for its good, this slickly knowing, slyly winking staging is full of in-jokes for former children. But it does capture the renegade power of children’s imagination , as remembered after the fact by Barrie and Dehnert. Practically everything that Ryan Nunn’s Peter – a true and stalwart Alpha boy with cockiness and superiority to spare – proposes is a game, if only because he’s never had anyone older than himself to sober him up into something like seriousness.

The second act in particular slows down enough to really consider the question of whether there’s a point to all these endless adventures that offer no lessons beyond winning or losing. Peter recruits Wendy to be the mother who the boys lost along with everything else (making them pockets, tucking them in, etc.). For him that mostly means telling stories even as they’re actually living them from action-packed day to dream-laden night. The stories provide stability, but then Neverland is nothing but stories: Lacking a context and contrast, they gradually lose their power to charm. At first Wendy (Kay Kron) just revels in the anarchic freedom of Neverland’s total lack of rules and expectations (”I want to DO EVERYTHING FOREVER!”). But slowly she finds that she’s becoming the thing she pretends to be, a nurturing and protective person whose homesickness is just another way to grow up. (The text says that they had no word for “love” and had to make do with “home” instead.) Neverland is a misnomer because, except for Peter, it must end and the lost boys must be found.

It’s not as preciously philosophical as it sounds because Dehnert wisely distracts from the darker doings with all the romper-room exuberance that a young and athletic cast can bring to this escape fantasy. Of course there’s the usual flying (though not on wires but rope lifts). Wendy’s house is created, as children would, entirely from chalk Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art work2drawings by the cast prettily scrawled across the stage. Lily’s (“Tiger” is now missing) escape from Skull Rock and Hook’s final showdown with Peter are performed on dangling ramps and rolling scaffolding. It’s hectic fun and child’s play in the best sense of the term.

Deliberately or unintentionally, the cast could not be more endearing. Kay Kron’s radiant Wendy shows everything she feels with all the naked honesty of open-hearted children. Jamie Abelson’s no-nonsense John recalls his father (a respectable Raymond Fox), while Alex Weisman’s silly Michael seems little more mature than this nursemaid Nana (Royer Bockus, speaking rather than barking). Thomas J. Cox’s Hook is evil incarnate, a caricature built from memories of the meanest adults the children ever met. Aislinn Mulligan’s tomboyish Tinkerbell is mute but memorable as she evolves from fairy petulance to something like battlefield heroism. Above all, Nunn’s valiant, resourceful and incorrigible Peter sets the standard for this young and able cast. We don’t want him to grow up anymore than Barrie did.

   
   
Rating: ★★★ 
   
     

 

 

Extra Credit:

        
     

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About Face announces 2010-2011 Season, future plans

Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar Announces 15th Season

 

about face logo

Including Three World Premieres, New Artistic Associates, and XYZ Festival

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of About Face Theatre, it looks like Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar and new Executive Director Jason Held have upped the ante for the start of their next 15 years.  Included in the upcoming season is Float by Patricia Kane, Pony by Sally Oswald and The Homosexuals by Phillip Dawkins, are their second annual XYZ Festival of New Works

 

 

 

 

About Face is excited to roll out our 15th anniversary with a season that examines individuals at the precipice of change,” says Bonnie Metzgar. “As our organization and society at large both make pivotal choices, this season looks at the risks and exhilarating possibilities available to us in periods of transformation.

 

October 2010

XYZ Festival

The XYZ Festival will introduce Chicago audiences to the most innovative LGBTQA artists and artworks at all stages of development. Presented over the month of October, projects will include a workshop production of TINY ROOMS by Carson Kreitzer, and new works from AFT About Face Artistic Associates Tanya Saracho and Patrick Andrews, as well as a performance lounge series featuring AFT Artistic Associate Dan Stermer’s performance art/dance trio Double DJ, curated by AFT Marketing Director Jane Beachy. From the hundreds of scripts received for the XYZ Readings Series, four new plays by acclaimed emerging playwrights round out the festival.

XYZ Logo

November 11 – December 12

Float

FLOAT, a new play written by About Face Theatre (AFT) Artistic Associate Patricia Kane and directed by 500 Clown founder Leslie Danzig with dramaturgy by Jessica Thebus. The all-female cast includes Wendy Robie, Adrianne Cury, Peggy Roeder, Rengin Altay and AFT Artistic Associate Amy Matheny. FLOAT will run from November 11 – December 12 at Theater Wit (1229 West Belmont).

 

April-May 2011 

Pony

 

In April/May, About Face Theatre will present the world premiere of PONY by Sally Oswald, a play inspired by Georg Büchner, at the Chopin Theatre. Directed by Bonnie Metzgar, PONY will be featured as part of The Woyzeck Project, a city-wide festival hosted by About Face Theatre, The Hypocrites, and Collaboraction in which artists around the city will produce hybrid works inspired by the classic anti-war play. Set near the location of the famous murder scene in Woyzeck, PONY is a tale of shifting gender roles and the dangers of obsessive love.

 

June/July 2011

The Homosexuals

About Face Theatre will conclude its season in June/July with The Homosexuals by Chicago playwright Phillip Dawkins, starring Patrick Andrews at Victory Gardens Studio. The Homosexuals presents the interwoven lives, friendships, and relationships among six homosexual men over six years. Set at present time in a Midwestern city, Dawkins’ comedic and heartbreaking work examines the fears, doubts, and hope among the gay community in a 21st century perspective on the queer classic, The Boys in the Band.

About Face Theatre’s 15th Anniversary Season exemplifies how far the LGBTQ community has come from being defined by one issue to being seen as complex. In our 15 years, AFT has given voice to that changing dialogue around issues facing the queer community. As we move forward, we understand the need to bring the conversation around sexuality and gender to all people,” says Executive Director Jason Held.

 

 

 

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Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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