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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REVIEW: A Separate Peace (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The drama begins when the summer ends

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Steppenwolf For Young Adults presents:

A Separate Peace

 

by John Knowle
adapted by Nancy Gilsenan
directed by Jonathan Berry
through March 19th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s production of John Knowle‘s A Separate Peace, adapted by Nancy Gilsenan and directed by Jonathan Berry, becomes more engaging as its characters are exposed to the world outside the boundaries of their boarding school, particularly the looming threat of World War II. The opening scenes, effective in conveying the rambunctious energy of the boys during the summer, lack a strong conflict, but once the seasons change and adulthood inches closer, the show gains emotional resonance.

Roommates Gene (Jake Cohen) and Finny (Damir Konjicija) are holding onto the vestiges of their childhood, inventing ball games and jumping out of trees, and while Gene prepares for life beyond their boyish existence, Finny deludes himself with ideas of eternal youth. Konjicija’s energy nears obnoxious levels as he leaps around the stage cajoling his schoolmates into participating in his juvenile antics, but moment of vulnerability prevent Finny from grating on the nerves. The character’s denial of the war overseas reveals a young man afraid of his mortality beneath the charismatic, carefree exterior, but when tragic events prevent him from ever serving his country, his fear is replaced by a greater feeling of shame.

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At the core of the play is Gene and Finny’s relationship, and while Gene is overshadowed by his roommate, both actors are equally captivating. The emotional depth that Cohen brings to his character prevents him from seeming malicious when camaraderie becomes jealousy, and there is genuine remorse for his actions in the later half of the play. The production is bookended by Gene’s monologues, and Cohen does an admirable job setting the tone of the production: a bittersweet journey through one man’s memories. 

Berry’s direction of the opening and closing sequences captures the free flowing imagery that constitutes the mind’s recollections, further emphasized by Chelsea Warren‘s set. An amalgamation of the primary locations of the play, it features an epic tree branch hanging over the boys’ dorm room, the branch’s presence both a reminder of youth and a foreboding harbinger of doom.

As Finny’s life is forever changed, so is classmate Leper’s (Will Allen), the bookish wallflower who enlists when he turns 18. When Leper escapes from basic training, the play explores the emotional and mental damage of military culture, demystifying the boys’ illusions about the service. Allen’s terror as Leper recognizes his deteriorating mental state is chilling, and gives the final image of the play, men in military uniform marching toward an uncertain fate, incredible strength.

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: American Theatre Company’s “Yeast Nation”

 A Mucking Good Time

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American Theatre Company presents:

Yeast Nation

by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
directed by PJ Paparelli
runs through October 18th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Yeast Nation is an innovative musical production unlike anything I have ever seen before. Greg Kotis (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann (a veteran of Chicago Theatre Building’s Musical Theatre Workshop), the same creators of the Tony-winning musical Urinetown, tell a provocative story about the creation of life based on an absurd premise of single celled yeasts living in a primordial soup. There are no  stories of life before these yeasts; these yeasts are the beginning of time.

yeast-nation-3These vocally gifted yeasts are living under the dictatorial rule of the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), he being the yeast that produced all other yeasts. They are starving yet the Elder forbids them to rise to the top where plenty of nourishing food is available. The Elder believes that his oppression is for the good of all yeasts and life as a whole. He even kills a yeast (Sweet yeast’s father) for disobeying him and eating from the top of the liquid surroundings. The Elder’s son Second (Andrew Keltz), the second in command, sees no sense in his fathers orders. He ventures off to discover and take advantage of all the wonderful things available near the top, such as delicious fulfilling muck. He promises Sweet (the name of the sweet yeast) a new world, not knowing what lies ahead. Second’s engulfment of muck results in the birth of a fantastic pink creature (Stephanie Kim), sparking the beginning of the progress to a new multi-celled organism.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes any sense – the creators were aware of their own craziness in the foundation of their story and the even more incredible plot. In the beginning I was getting a little nervous as I had no idea what was going on, and then the scary-eyed grey-haired yeast (Barbara Robertson) poked fun at how weird it is to believe in a story about yeasts. Throughout the play the creators slide in small little jokes recognizing the lack of believability and completely insane premise of a society of single-celled yeasts. This is theatre, not school. Have some fun with it.

Each scene is filled with graphic sexual innuendos hidden in Kotis and Hollmann’s brilliant writing. Though tempted to share with you some of these tastefully shocking lines, I would not want to ruin the experience of the live delivery. Considering the depth of this unordinary script and lyrics, I am looking forward to discovering the jokes that were intelligently hidden beyond my comprehension the first time seeing the performance.

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There is no distinct set on stage. The scenery is composed of purple lights hanging from the ceiling and rafters creating Disney-like prehistoric stars. The stage is cluttered with scaffolds and equipment displaying the result of a Broadway-style performance being compressed into the small storefront space of American Theatre Co. This design allows for the yeasts to utilize a variety of heights and abstract placements on the stage, providing the sense of a large production cramming itself into the small set.

The lighting and special effects add the change in atmosphere to each various style of song. The musical variety in this bizarre tale includes a little bit of everything. The style of each song had its own vibe from a tune sang at a church choir, downtown disco, a rock concert, Christian rock, Gospel, rock video and more. I am pretty sure they did a parody of Meatloaf’s music video for “I Would Do Anything for Love.”

Before I even had an idea of what was going on in the plot, I already felt I was watching the beginning of a spectacular new musical. The confusion is part of the fun. The costumes were a little hokey, but the quality of talent on stage combined with the unique incomparable writing by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann is a combination for success. Go see the birth of the next hit musical that you cannot believe someone could imagine to produce.

Rating: «««½ 

Playing at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays, through October 18, 2009.

 

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"History Boys" Reviews – TimeLine delivers a triumph!

The Chicago-premiere of the Tony-Award winning play The History Boys , by Alan Bennett, held its opening night this past Saturday, and I can personally say that it was a highly-imaginative, stellar production of an enthralling, rambunctious play.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Pictures and a compendium of reviews (as they are produced) follow:

Hector (Donald Brearley, center) teaches his students (from left) Scripps (Will Allan), Crowther (Govind Kumar), Dakin (Joel Gross), Rudge (Michael Peters), Lockwood (Rob Fenton), Akthar (Behzad Dabu), Timms (Brad Bukauskas) and Posner (Alex Weisman) in rather unconventional ways in  

Dennis Polkow, NewCity

I don’t know what kind of techniques director Nick Bowling might have employed to have the eight-ensemble cast seem as if they know each other as well as a group of students who have been together in class together for what always seems like an eternity while it is happening, but the way these young men interact is extraordinary.  No less an accomplishment is that the teachers and the headmaster who are preparing these students for their Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams also interact with the students and each other with the needed familiarity necessary for Alan Bennett’s witty and thought-provoking play to work its special charms.  Recommended                     (Full review here.)

Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times:

TimeLine fills your head: Actors revel in the wit and energy of ‘History Boys’

Enter TimeLine Theatre – where The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s Tony-Award-wining play is receiving one of those Chicago productions that exults in the glory of the ensemble – and you instantly become part of its hothouse world. 

At issue here is the whole notion of education – intellectual, emotional, sexual.  The veteran literature teacher, Hector (Donald Brearley, in a remarkable mix of subdued passion, volatility and self-loathing), believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, even if that include groping his favorite students.  As he notes: “The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act.”                           (Full review here)

Donald Brearley, Michael Peters, Govind Kumar, Brad Bukauskas, Behzad Dabu, Joel Gross, Will Allan, Rob Fenton and Alex Weisman 

Artistic Director PJ Powers comments:
“Alan Bennett’s provocative script tackles essential questions we regularly grapple with as we explore TimeLine’s unique mission — ‘how do we benefit by dissecting, studying and examining history?’” Powers said. “Whether audiences have seen this production in London, on Broadway or on film, or are coming to it for the first time, The History Boys will have a fresh and powerful impact at TimeLine’s intimate theater.”

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