REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Resurrection Blues (Eclipse Theatre)

Beyond the crucifixion

 

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Eclipse Theatre presents
 
Resurrection Blues
 
by Arthur Miller 
directed by Nathaniel Swift
Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 9th
(more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

A little miracle is taking place at the Greenhouse Theatre CenterEclipse Theatre is brilliantly executing a late and oft misunderstood play by Arthur Miller . Don’t be deceived by the primitive set, the rather flat proscenium space or relatively low production values. Director Nathaniel Swift’s vision for Miller’s only satire works around all these shortcomings. Even the monochromatic set design (Steph Charaska ), whose cheesy faux rocks look like they came off the set of the original Star Trek, become imbued with a kind of poetry, as do the silent, dancing Cuentistas (Jazmin Corona, N. K. Gutierrez, and Lizbeth Silva) who pull double-duty pushing the set pieces between scenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With the exception of Jesus geeks, so much about Resurrection Blues could be lost upon the audience—as its 2006 premier in London demonstrates, review after review. By all accounts its unveiling at the Old Vic, under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey and its director, Robert Altman, was an epic fail. What a difference a great or even good production makes for a play’s reception. Michael Billington, critic at The Guardian, who had seen a 2002 production in Minneapolis, calls Resurrection Blues “sparky and neo-Shavian,” sighting predominant problems with Altman’s direction.

However, Paul Taylor of The Independent, upon seeing the same production, surmises that “Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire;” Kate Bassett, in an earlier Independent review calls Miller’s satire “embarrassingly feeble;” and Jeremy Austin of The Stage calls Resurrection Blues a “lumbering, rambling half-finished effort,” speculating that the man problems of one character represents “Miller’s own impotence in the final years of his life.”

Well, they can all sit down to a big plate of crow. Impotent? Feeble? Lumbering? No. This is an American master at the top of his game. Of course, it is not The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 50 years before; he didn’t need to write another. Resurrection Blues is a satire that shares similar themes on religious zealotry, the political or social desperation that leads to either scapegoating or revolution or suicide. Mixed with a soupcon of rampant, hypocritical commercialism; magnified exponentially by reality-show culture; put on steroids; shaken, not stirred–that’s’ precisely how Swift and his cast play it.

Indeed, there were moments when I questioned whether I could keep up with Miller’s tenaciously mercurial wit or Eclipse’s exactingly fast pace. For those feeling up to it, this show will make them feel the burn—and maybe just a little glow afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA No review could possibly do all the performances justice. Let’s just say Nina O’Keefe as Jeanine, the wheelchair-bound, disillusioned Marxist, starts everyone off with an incredible warm-up. “I failed as a revolutionary and as a dope addict,” she says. She also fails at suicide–although that actually turns out to be a good thing. If fact, maybe even her attempt at suicide wasn’t such a bad thing either—especially since, after leaping from her window, Jeanine starts living each passing moment with passionate intensity. At the pavement she meets with the mysterious healing stranger at the heart of Resurrection Blues. He is nothing less than a spiritual revolutionary, whose mystical powers generate more political upset than any Uzi-packing militia.

Attempted suicide as religious experience—that’s only the beginning of Miller’s tasty treats. O’Keefe knows very well the poetic power of Miller’s dialogue. Her concentration never relents.

Want another little taste? There’s Henri Schulz (Ron Butts), Jeanine’s philosopher father, a Hamlet-like intellectual if ever there was. Butts plays a man too overeducated for his poor country’s good . . . or his family’s good . . . or his own good. He portrays Schulz with just the right balance of pompous erudition and guilty, compromised, liberal befuddlement. Especially in his homeland, an anonymous third world country, all he can be is compromised. His extreme privilege, philosophical bent, and vacillating social consciousness reduce him to being the ultimate fish out of water. He returns home only to repair his relationship with his daughter, the suicidal revolutionary. So he tells his cousin, the country’s frenetic dictator, General Felix Barriaux (Matt Welton)—the character with the man problem.

As for impotence, it’s not just in generalissimo’s dick, but also in his administration. Nothing much can be done, not even ruthlessly, in an impossible country, where even good plans go to rot with corruption, betrayal and backwardness far before their completion. Welton plays Barriaux with all the manic chagrin and desperation of a tyrant who will bring order by any means necessary, even when he admits it probably won’t stop their downward slide in the face of globalization.

But he still has one small trick up his sleeve: the capture and crucifixion of Jeanine’s mysteriously powerful and dangerously inspiring stranger. And he has sold the exclusive television rights to it to an American network. Millions can be gained, for sorely needed development, at the cost of one spiritually endowed freak. For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

Here’s where the “Miller-can’t-do-satire” thing gets exposed for what it is. Miller guides a character down one road; the character turns tail and runs down another. Just when you think you’ve got the play figured out, it turns into another sort of play. It may all be too much to keep up with, but you’d better keep up or you’ll miss the laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the best laughs occur at the expense of the facile and fecklessness Americans who arrive to shoot the crucifixion. Chief among savaged American prototypes is Skip Cheeseboro (Joe McCauley), the TV producer. His business school mentality can’t be bothered with Schulz’s philosophical quandaries over going through with it. Yet, he’s sharp enough to wield every ounce of industry doublespeak and faux multicultural appreciation in the service of securing the gruesome spectacle for his network. “But, realistically,” says Skip to his startled director, Emily Shapiro (Rebecca Prescott), who presumes that she came to shoot a commercial, “who am I to be disgusted?” McCauley’s cold and slippery performance make us doubt that he ever could be.

At least there’s lots of warmth and play in Prescott’s slightly ditzy director, Emily, whose distaste for the crucifixion gamely leads her to attempt seduction of the smitten General Barriaux. JP Pierson shows us some good, old, hippy practicality in his portrayal of Stanley. Stanley’s interrogation by General Barriaux shapes up to being an odd couple encounter of the oddest kind.

Stanley’s the BFF of the present-day Messiah, a miraculous, sensitive misfit who goes by the name of Ralph or Charlie or whatever he’s feeling that day. In fact Pierson’s performance holds a critical center in the last 15 minutes of the last scene of the play. On the industry night when I saw Resurrection Blues, this was the moment when the cast’s prodigious pace, maintained with accuracy and aplomb throughout, began to drag and lose momentum. It’s a bear of a closing scene, in which each character reveals the hypocrisy or authenticity of their motives for wanting Ralph, or Charlie, to stay and be crucified or to freely go. It has to be artificial enough to maintain the even feel of Miller’s satire, but also natural enough to evoke the spontaneity with which each character addresses their uncertain savior. Such things can be worked out in the middle of production, yet still exact crucial tests on a cast’s concentration.

Miller’s morality tale gets to have it all–worldly cynicism and the possibility of real love, truth told to power and power confessing its own grasping frailties, rage unleashed against stupefying oppression and holy relief from desiccating anger, overwhelming doubt and unyielding faith, and miracles, miracles in the most impossible places–especially in the most impossible places. Would that Miller had lived 50 years more to write comedies of this quality for every tragedy he gave us. We need him now more than ever.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: The Crucible (Infamous Commonwealth Theatre)

Minimalist “Crucible” finds hope amid darkened righteousness.

 

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Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents:
 
The Crucible
 
by Arthur Miller
directed by
Chris Maher
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The intriguing thing about a good production of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible – and Infamous Commonwealth‘s definitely falls in this category –  is how distant it feels from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was so infamously intertwined and on Miller’s mind as impetus for this composition.

The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials, an historical event that took place in Massachusetts back in the days of Puritan Theocracy (circa 1690).  Tituba (Adrian Snow), a slave from Barbados, and a bunch of goodly Puritan girls are caught dancing in the woods – at the time, some are even allegedly naked. And since Puritan foulplay of any sort is rewritten as Satanic rite, the whispers reverberating through Salem are about much more than a little naked dancing in the woods.

Abbigal Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) and John Procter (Craig C. Thompson) -Infamous Commonwealth TheatreNumerous accusations begin to fly that girls have even been consorting with the Devil himself.  There are some murmurs that say Abigail Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) did it.  Or was it the Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty (Glynis Gilio), as others say?  No, they insist, contradicting and indicting one another in a back and forth game of guilt and blame:  it was this girl and not that one, or it was Goodie Proctor (Jennifer Matthews) leading them all to the Devil! 

The accusations babble as sourceless and incoherent as a Massachusetts brook.  Townspersons accuse each other of increasingly sinful behavior, eventually metastasizing from the realm of the accused adolescent girls to grown women and eventually to the men as well.  Before long the small New England town appeals to an out-of-town minister to bring some order and some God to the whole mess – but it only gets muddier, further from the event and any sensible resolution.

As the play’s four Acts (though there’s only one intermission) unfold, the audience watches this small New England town shred itself, its children, its ministers, even the rule of law in hot pursuit of the Devil’s involvement, if any, in civic affairs.  The action moves from a villager’s home to the courtroom and then the prison at dawn on a day scheduled thick with hangings for witchcraft. Nick Rastenis‘ spare, white, post-and-beam, wood-colored set makes movement from one setting to another an effortless rearrangement of bodies on stage, and perhaps a table or a chair.  Rachel M. Sypniewski‘s costumes match the barren quality of Rastenis’ set, making it clear that Crucible-Prepress-Cropped-sThe Crucible is a kind of minimal costume drama; it’s a period piece where bare white walls and exposed wood beams do wonders. 

The minimal quality of the set and the dire consequences of being accused of witchcraft render Stephen Dunn‘s flamboyant gesticulations as Reverend Parris a little too sticky on stage – they tangle up the audience’s attention, making them question his character, and not listen to Reverend Parris’s doublespeak.  Perhaps this is the one instance where Director Chris Maher has pushed too hard – as otherwise the actors successfully achieve and maintain a nearly manic pace and pitch that keeps all four acts clipping along at a pace that makes the piece a borderline thriller – no small accomplishment for a piece where the characters are all too busy attempting to outdo each other’s rhetoric with brimstone polemics on the floor of a courtroom.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Arthur Miller Project: Kimberly Senior talks ‘All My Sons’

The convergence of Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov

2009 was an exceptionally busy and sterling year for Kimberly Senior, going from success to success, from Strawdog Theatre’s early spring production of The Cherry Orchard, to All My Sons at Timeline, to The Pillowman at Redtwist Theatre, to the Pegasus Players Young Playwrights Festival. Meeting us at the Strawdog Theatre rehearsal space, Kimberly generously gave a few minutes of her time to CTB reviewer Oliver Sava (minutes before rehearsal on Strawdog’s upcoming Uncle Vanya) to discuss the process of making Miller’s 1947 play, All My Sons, immediate and it’s additional resonance in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

FYI: In a forthcoming interview, Nathaniel Swift, Artistic Director at Eclipse Theatre, will also discuss his process in securing the rights to produce Miller’s later works from the estate. The estate had also noticed the surge in requests for rights in Chicago and found it unusual.

 

Kimberly Senior Interview – Part One

 

Kimberly Senior Interview – Part Two

London theater awards rife with Hollywood stars

Jude Law, James Earl Jones, Keira Knightley, among others

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 file photo, actor Jude Law attends the 

Hollywood heavyweights feature strongly in the race for the 2010 Laurence Olivier theater awards, including nominees Rachel Weisz, Jude Law, James Earl Jones and Keira Knightley.  

Among the nominations:

  • James Earl Jones is a best-actor favorite for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams
  • Jude Law is also up for best-actor for his lead role in the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet
  • James McAvoy for Three Days of Rain, Mark Rylance for Jerusalem, Ken Stott for  Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Samuel West for Enron.
  • Rachel Weisz received a best-actress nomination for her performance as faded belle Blanche Dubois in Willams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Also included in best-actress nominations are Gillian Anderson for Henrik Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House, by  Lorraine Burroughs for The Mountaintop, Imelda Staunton for Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Juliet Stevenson for Duet for One.
  • "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Keira Knightley is nominated in the supporting actress category for her turn as a manipulative movie starlet in The Misanthrope.
  • Melanie Chisholm — better known as Mel C of the Spice Girls — is nominated for best actress in a musical, for Blood Brothers.
  • “Mr. Bean" star Rowan Atkinson is up for best actor for playing Fagin in Oliver!
  • Along with these Hollywood stars, sexy song-and-dance drama Spring Awakening received seven nominations, including best new musical. Lucy Prebble‘s Enron, about the collapse of the Texas energy giant, and Jez Butterworth‘s raucous state-of-England play Jerusalem lead the drama field with six nominations each, including best new play.
  • New-musical contenders are Spring Awakening, Dreamboats and Petticoats, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sister Act.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on March 21.

Arthur Miller Project

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The Arthur Miller Project – An Exploration

by Paige Listerud

In fall, at the start of the 2009-2010 Season, it became quite apparent that the Chicago theater community was responding to the economic crisis and the shifting political tone of Washington with works that depicted hardship, deprivation, and introspection over the meaning of American identity.

Profiles Theatre produced Neil LaBute’s response to 9/11, The Mercy Seat; Eclipse Theatre brought back the political corruption of the Grant Administration with Romulus Linney’s Democracy; Brain Surgeon Theatre reconstructed a cramped Depression Era tenement with their world premiere 1512 West Studebaker Place; Northlight Theatre will take their turn at the Clifford Odets’ classic Awake and Sing this January; eta Creative Arts Foundation examined the American Dream through African American eyes with Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill; while These Shining Lives, produced by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and The Artistic Home’s production of Lillian Hellman’s Days To Come touched on the dynamics of American labor.

Into the mix, it seemed striking that not just one or two, but seven productions of Arthur Miller’s work emerged on the roster for the 2009-2010-theater season. In a world-class theater city like Chicago, one is accustomed to seeing plenty of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, and even a production of The Crucible each season. But this time, it was clear that something was in the air. True, almost half of the productions are from Eclipse Theatre’s seasonal selection; but to see so much attention by individual theaters devoted to the playwright known for his piercing examination of the American mythos signaled both a return to basics and an interrogation into who we are and where we are going.

Here at ChicagoTheaterBlog, we took this as an excellent opportunity to create dialog about Miller’s work; to ask what still remains vital and provocative about the issues his plays bring up. And, of course, to get more people out to the theater, talking about theater and participating with their theater community. To this end, we’ve embarked on our first videotaped interview, with more to come. Our goal is to interview directors, actors, and scholars regarding the Arthur Miller productions of this season and to give you a chance to respond to our findings. We hope that our coverage of Miller’s works through our “Arthur Miller Project” will prompt you to engage in the exciting exchange that live theater can bring and is so accessible to us in this great city.

Arthur Miller Plays in the Chicago 2009-2010 Theater Season

Aug 31 All My Sons at Timeline Theatre (our review)

Oct 6 Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (our review)

Mar 25 Resurrection Blues at Eclipse Theatre

Mar 27 The Crucible produced by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre (at Raven Theatre)

July 8 After the Fall at Eclipse Theatre

July 24 Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre

Sept 2 A Memory of Two Mondays at Eclipse Theatre


 Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

 

Raven Theatre’s artistic director Michael Menendian, talks with Paige Listerud regarding their critically successful production of Death of a Salesman