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: Candide (Goodman Theatre)

Zimmerman fills stage with playful imagery

 

Candide at Goodman Theatre - Rebecca Finnegan, Govind Kumar, Erik Lochtefeld, Margo Seibert, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
Candide
   
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Based on novella by Voltaire
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through October 31  | 
tickets: $25-$85   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production.

Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre production - Photo by Liz LaurenFortunately, Zimmerman has crafted a cohesive, entertaining and visually stunning piece of work. Thanks to her affinity for levity, Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible.

Candide begins peacefully enough, with Candide (Geoff Packard), a young lad of unremarkable lineage, studying with blue-blooded siblings Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld). They are learning metaphysics from their instructor Pangloss (Larry Yando), whose core belief is that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Although wonderfully optimistic, his mantra is also incredibly naïve, a fact that Candide soon learns.

Once the Baron (Tom Aulino) discovers his daughter, Cunegonde, passionately throwing herself at Candide, the young boy is banished (and we witness a scene transition that is surreal as it is stunning). Now Candide is on his own; caught in the middle of war-torn Europe with only Pangloss’ feeble-minded philosophy to guide him from one atrocity to another.

The play does Voltaire’s work justice. Zimmeran does a wonderful job highlighting the short-sightedness of optimism in the face of pervasive human tragedy. For example, the musical’s darkly humorous number “Auto-da-fe,” a song about a town’s eagerness to witness public executions, is instilled with a playful, cartoonish enthusiasm that makes the capital deaths that much more disturbing.

Jesse Perez and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Candide is also very funny. For instance, there’s a running gag with a flock of red sheep, which, although a little silly, provides some light-heartedness to a play that is otherwise filled with people getting maimed and mutilated. There are also some subtle gags, like the use of miniatures to convey the scene’s setting. In one scene in particular, Candide and his travel companions face a storm while at sea. Although the stage does not resemble a boat at all, an actor moves a small boat on a pole to illustrate the tossing and turning of the vessel as Candide and others rock back and forth in unison.

The acting is solid with noteworthy performances from Packard, Yando and Hollis Resnik as the charming and crass Old Lady. Although some performers may fall short of their notes here and there, the singing is still remarkable, considering the amount of energy and endurance that this play requires. Stand out numbers include the hilarious “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the show closer “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Daniel Ostling’s set design is minimal but striking. A large wood-paneled wall occupies all of stage right where secret compartments allow characters and props to easily enter and exit. Trapdoors are used generously, which extends the world of the play farther beyond the extraordinarily roomy stage.

Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Hollis Resnick in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren
Erik Lochtefeld as Maximillian in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Tom Aulina and Geoff Packard in Candide Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Larry Yand and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

Despite all these positives, there is one flaw to Zimmerman’s work that I cannot overlook. By being so close to this production, she has blinded herself to the fact that by infusing Candide with so much comedic sentiment, she guts the characters of relatable qualities. Actors often indicate rather than act and sport affectations that comment on the work rather than serving as part of the work. In making these characters merely pawns in a farce, we aren’t really invested in them, and thus the stakes for Candide to eventually find his lost love Cunegonde are set so low that we really don’t care whether they’re reunited or not.

Still, Voltaire’s work isn’t so much about separated lovers as it is a commentary on the contemporary philosophies of his day. And Zimmerman’s work is effective at bringing Voltaire’s talent for satire to life. So this drawback does not overshadow the fact that Candide is a very good play, not necessarily the best of all possible plays, but a good play nonetheless.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

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