Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

Continue reading

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:

 

Continue reading

Review: Sketchbook Reverb (Collaboraction)

  
  

High-energy company serves up so-so sample platter

  
  

Dan Krall, James Zoccoli, Kim Lyle, Saverio Truglia, Collaboraction, Sketchbook Reverb

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook Reverb
  
Directed by Anthony Moseley
at
Flat Iron Arts Building, 1575 N. Milwaukee (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Collaboraction has to be one of the most energetic theatre companies on the planet. If you’ve ever seen a past Sketchbook, the company’s signature showcase for new avant-garde works, you understand what I’m talking about. Anthony Moseley and his band of merry artists are like a bunch of teenagers who have forgotten to take their Adderall. The creativity bubbles forth, frequently with a lack of clear direction and focus, making the final product a sight to see but not always a comprehensible sight.

Saverio Truglia, Sketchbook Reverb, Amy Speckien, CollaboractionSketchbook REVERB certainly delivers on whimsy and inventiveness. And just like the eponymous annual series from which its one acts have been borrowed, its inconsistent. Some of the pieces are absolutely brilliant, reaching intense levels of poignancy through bare-knuckled honest comedy. Other times, the wackiness of the plays feels put on in a desperate attempt to appear cutting edge and quirky. When it works, it works. And when it doesn’t, you eye the program seeing what’s next on the menu.

Let’s first discuss some of the winners. “My Yeti Dreams”, written by Lisa Dillman, is a soliloquy delivered by a woman (Laura Shatkus) who falls in love with a grunting, half-naked Yeti (HB Ward). It’s an absurd premise with honest and relatable underpinnings. This woman finds freedom in her love for something so free of social mores. Shatkus delivers a breathy, heartfelt monologue as Ward jumps and grunts with gusto.

Another highlight of the night was “I’ll Never Tell You”, written by Stephen Cone. In this short, a man (HB Ward) is mourning privately over his wife’s corpse (Laura Shatkus). The man reveals to his wife things he regrets not telling her, specifically his many infidelities. Despite the fact that he’s a chronic cheater, the man’s awkwardness and sadness overshadow any judgment we may reserve for him. Instead, we are compelled to sympathize. This time, Ward delivers the monologue, and he does it with great patience and passion. It’s a beautiful performance.

The last high point of the night was “The Lurker Radio Hour”, written by Drew Dir. The short takes the form of an old radio show, which is always a fun format to see staged. The show’s host Steve Larker (James Zoccoli) dawns a sinister-sounding voice while his assistant Alice (Amy Speckien) creates the sound effects. Steve’s wife has left him, and so he uses the radio show as a platform to beg her to return. Meanwhile, Steve is blind to the fact that Alice pines for him. It’s a tale of unrequited love, played out with comedic sincerity by the talented Zoccoli. Speckien does a great job with amplifying the laughs as the timid sidekick.

Cast of "The Untimely Death of Adolf Hitler," part of "Sketchbook REVERB." Photo by Saverio Truglia.

The show’s five other plays range from mildly amusing to aggravating. “The Deep Blue Sea”, by Keith Huff, is bloated with stale, overwrought dialogue. “Tuning in El Paso”, by Ellen Fairey, tries too hard to appeal to our emotions. “Dating: A Cautionary Tale for Facebook Users”, by Ira Gamerman, is like a stand-up routine that doesn’t know when to stop. “A Domestic Disturbance at Little Fat Charlie’s Seventh Birthday Party”, by Andrew Hobgood, is a poor man’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And “The Untimely Death of Adolph Hitler”, by Andy Grigg, is a decent sketch that quickly wears out its premise.

If you’re a fan of past Sketchbook shows, you’ll definitely enjoy Reverb. If you’ve always wanted to see a Collaboraction performance, Reverb is a great introduction. If you enjoy consistently good, grounded theatre, then Reverb probably isn’t for you. Personally, I applaud Collaboraction for taking risks and not always succeeding, and I appreciate the opportunities they give to new playwrights. They serve to remind other companies that artistic vision should always come before critical recognition.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pictured: HB Ward (Yeti) and Laura Shatkus (Christine) in "My Yeti Dreams," part of "Sketchbook REVERB" presented by Collaboraction. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

Continue reading