REVIEW: A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

History and make-believe, perilously intermixed, lack focus

     
     

Felicia P. Fields with the cast of A Civil War Christmas

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
A Civil War Christmas
   
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by
Henry Godinez
at
Northshore Center for Performing Arts (map)
Through Dec 19  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Paula Vogel is a playwright who divides in order to conquer: Her plays depict our socio/political/sexual differences, only to connect us to a larger linkage. How I Learned To Drive, Desdemona, The Baltimore Waltz and And Then There Were Seven scrutinized, respectively, incest, miscegenation, AIDS and same-sex love to put them in a context that discourages kneejerk repudiation and warrants something like understanding bordering on tolerance (well, not for child sex abuse, of course).

001_Khori Faison and Mildred Marie LangfordSet in the grim, war-torn winter of 1864 and on the supposedly special night of Christmas Eve, Vogel’s latest work in progress, now at Northlight Theatre, recalls Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as it depicts a fugitive slave searching the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. for the daughter from whom she was separated after her arrival on the Underground Railroad. In ironic contrast, a mood-swinging Mary Todd Lincoln is on her own search—for the perfect Christmas tree to ensure domestic tranquility.

Since Vogel’s plays separate only in order to reconnect, their paths are bound to connect and connect and connect. Vogel contrives to create at least two non-factual Christmas miracles before these busy 150 minutes finally end. Before then she opens a time capsule that’s both absorbingly actual and problematically imagined. The result is a cross-section of life in wartime Washington that’s enriched immeasurably by carols like Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells” and “What Child Is This?,” spirituals like “There Is A Balm in Gilead” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a guide for escaping slaves), and Civil War anthems (“While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “The Liberty Ball”).

Between the songs the often cluttered action depicts both sides of a dangerously divided capital circa December 24, 1864. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab) and his clumsy conspirators try to kidnap Lincoln. Lincoln (Will Clinger) improbably wanders off in the middle of the night to his Summer Cottage, reciting deathless phrases from his upcoming inaugural address and briefly glimpsing the lost former slave girl. Manic, extravagant, and driven, Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano) manages to find her rare fir tree, which should have gone to the orphan home run by her African American seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), to socialize at a Washington charity event, to chat with Anna Surratt (who’s related to one of her husband’s future murderers), and to visit a dying boy in a soldiers’ hospital. (Maybe there were three Mary Todd Lincolns wandering Washington on this holy night.)

Less well known characters mix with the historical. Willy Mack (Samuel Robertson), who remembers how the Rebels slaughtered the black soldiers at Fort Pillow after they’d peacefully surrendered, vows to take no prisoners: Will he kill a 13-year-old Southern farm boy who wants to fight for Moseby’s Raiders but got lost? Two black soldiers are delegated to steal the much-moving Christmas tree from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t the White House for another half century) and surprisingly succeed. Jewish soldiers hold a seder.

On this busy night we also catch name-dropping glimpses of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s advisor and former law clerk Nikolai, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton , Clara Barton (bringing in the wounded by ship), conspirators Lewis Payne and John Surratt, Elizabeth Thomas (who founded a shelter for wartime refugees), Longfellow, the ghost of Elizabeth’s murdered son, and Walt Whitman (dressing soldiers’ wounds and doubling as St. Nicholas).

In short, A Civil War Christmas lives up to its generic name with awesome specificity, not that the revelations it delivers can be entirely trusted. In the second act the overlapping and sprawling scenes become overcharged as well: The script, bent on at least two happy endings and as many messages of hope, slowly sprouts more contrived coincidences than Dickens would have dared. At least Ragtime, which this show most closely resembles, restricted its mix of historical and imaginary characters to four easily followed and separate-but-equal plotlines, eventuating in a believable but very different family from the traditional one seen at the musical’s beginning.

Director Henry Godinez and a superb cast of Chicago pros and young acolytes work like plow horses to shape and sort out this A.D.D. plethora of multiple narratives and messages. But it still helps if you’re a Civil War buff specializing in the winter of 1864. The point beyond the plots is a strong one. As Vogel says, in 2010 as well as 146 years ago, community values count just as much or more than family values. But if manufacturing feel-good resolutions and ignoring the horrible context of a fratricidal national insurrection is the way to preach that gospel, I’m not a believer. But the ballads, like the exquisite “Yellow Rose of Texas,” are glorious stuff. This show sings far more powerfully and persuasively than it speaks.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

003_Cast of A Civil War Christmas

  
  

REVIEW: The Sins of Sor Juana (Goodman Theatre)

No justice for Sor Juana

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Sins of Sor Juana
  
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by
Henry Godinez
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
Through July 25   |  
Tickets: $20–$71   |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Although she is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, little is really known of the life of 17th-century writer and protofeminist Juana In´s de la Cruz. What is known is that she was a remarkable figure for her time — illegitimate, brilliant, accomplished and, for a time, a favorite of the viceroy’s court in Mexico City.

Production_12 At 19, she unaccountably entered a convent, where she spent the rest of her life. The likeliest speculation as to why supposes that she saw it as her best means of conducting a scholarly life — which it was, until her opinionated writings on the rights of women to education fell afoul of the Church and attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. However, no one actually knows what drew Juana to take vows.

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the disappointing centerpiece of Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, playwright Karen Zacarías speculates it was an unhappy love affair. While Sor Juana’s many passionate love poems suggest she might have had illicit lovers, the play’s emphasis on an entirely fabricated and uninspiring love life turns de la Cruz from an extraordinary intellectual and advocate for women to a sappy Silhouette heroine.

In this production, she isn’t even a very effective romance heroine. Scenes between Malaya Rivera Drew, as Juana, and Dion Mucciacito, as Silvio, the handsome scoundrel she falls in love with, fall flat as soggy tortillas — no chemistry whatsoever. There’s more sizzle between Drew and Tony Plana, who plays Juana’s father confessor, although whether we’re supposed to imagine an other than intellectual and religious relationship in that case is more than I can tell.

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Amy J. Carle gives a spunky performance as the upright Sor Sara, bent on bringing Sor Juana to proper nunlike humility. She’s less successful as Juana’s protector, the vicereine, who also has a crush on the young scholar — a fact we’re told by another character rather than shown by any yearning exhibited by Carle.

Zacarías revised her 15-year-old play for the Goodman’s production, supposedly putting more emphasis on the mature Sor Juana, yet that just creates an uneven balance between anguished convent scenes and the cartoonish, cliche-ridden  comedy of the central melodrama, which features out-and-out slapstick from Joe Minoso as the foppish courtier Don Pedro and an evil Production_08scheme hokey enough for a Dudley Do-Right episode.

In another off-kilter element, Laura Crotte puckishly plays Juana’s mystical Mayan maidservant, Xochitl, as well as the Mother Superior of the convent, a conflation oddly emphasized by the director although not reinforced by the plot. Xochitl, whose presence is sometimes actual and sometimes imaginary, adds an intriguing but distracting element of magical realism that Godinez promotes yet which Zacarías barely touches on.

Distractions also extend from Todd Rosenthal‘s large and otherwise lovely set. The pillared setting segues beautifully from austere convent to viceroy’s palace, but continual scene changes involving furnishings rising from below stage or dropping from the fly space begin to seem if they were designed more to showcase the theater’s capabilities than to enhance the drama.

Sor Juana’s story is worth telling and its gaps worth speculating on, but in this piece she’s far more sinned against than sinning.

  
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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Goodman Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

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It’s "The Best of All Possible"! Artistic Director Robert Falls announces Goodman Theatre’s initial five-play line-up, including two reimagined classics and three world-premiere productions (two of which are Goodman commissions) that define the theater’s new 2010/2011 season; three plays are still to be announced. The new season marks the Goodman’s 10th in its home at 170 N. Dearborn and anchor of Chicago’s revitalized North Loop Theatre District—and its 85th year as the city’s largest not-for-profit producing theater.

Highlights:

  • Mary Zimmerman reimagines Bernstein’s Candide in a major fall musical event
  • Robert Falls re-exmines Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
  • New works by Sarah Ruhl 
  • Major new revival of the musical masterpiece Candide by Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler

Says Artistic Director Robert Falls:

"Our 2010/2011 season showcases the artistic breadth and variety for which the Goodman is noted, and the quality and diversity that our state-of-the-art facility has helped us achieve over the past ten years in this incredible new home. I am particularly pleased to welcome back three of my favorite collaborators—Manilow Resident Director Mary Zimmerman, Artistic Associate Regina Taylor, and playwright Sarah Ruhl—and excited to welcome Thomas Bradshaw to the Goodman for the first time."

 

The 2010-2011 Goodman Theatre Season

  Candide
  September and October, 2010 (Albert Theatre)
  Directed and adapted by Mary Zimmerman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler
New adaptation by Mary Zimmerman
  Tony Award and MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s breathtaking new production of Candide is the theatrical event of the season. In addition to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Candide features contributions from the greatest lyricists of the 20th century, from Richard Wilbur to Stephen Sondheim. In this racy musical satire, naive Candide is banished for romancing the Baron’s daughter, only to be plagued by a series of absurd hardships that challenge his optimistic outlook of life and love.
   
  The Seagull
  October and November, 2010 (Owen Theatre)
  by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Robert Falls
  Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls directs an intimate new production of Chekhov’s masterwork The Seagull, whose unforgettable characters reveal the passion and pathos of everyday life. When famed actress Irina visits her family with her young lover Trigorin in tow, they become ensnared in a tragicomic tangle of romance, intrigue and unrequited love. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience a 20th century masterpiece, interpreted by one of America’s outstanding directors—in the Owen Theatre.

   
  Rain
  January and February, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Regina Taylor
A World Premier
  Rain is Regina Taylor‘s most personal and intimate work to date. Fiercely independent Iris has made a successful life for herself as a journalist in New York City, but when her marriage fails, she begins to unravel. In search of solace, Iris returns to her mother’s house in Texas, but her homecoming proves more confounding than consoling when her mother makes a shocking announcement. As long-buried family secrets come to light, Iris must face her past and make some difficult decisions about the future.
   
  Mary
  February and March, 2011 (Owen Theatre)
  by Thomas Bradshaw 
Directed by May Adrales
A World Premiere
  Outrageous. Ruthless. Explosive. Named "Best Provocative Playwright" by The Village Voice, Thomas Bradshaw pulls no punches in his comic absurdist drama Mary. At the height of what Time magazine dubbed "AIDS hysteria" in 1983, college student David invites his boyfriend home to his parents’ house in Virginia where nothing has changed since the 1800s—including the slave quarters. Confronting hypocrisy and oppression with exhilarating wit, Bradshaw’s incendiary work is "likely to leave you speechless!" (The New York Times).
   
  Stage Kiss
  March and April, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Sarah Ruhl 
A World Premiere Goodman Theatre commission
  In this quirky new comedy by MacArthur "Genius" Award-winner Sarah Ruhl, art imitates life—or is it the other way around? When ex-lovers HE and SHE are thrown together as romantic leads in an outrageously dreadful melodrama, they quickly lose touch with reality as the story onstage begins to follow them offstage. Stage Kiss is a hilarious, off-beat fairy-tale about what happens when lovers share a stage kiss-or when actors share a real one.

An Opening Benefit launches the milestone season on Monday, September 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing—the location of the theater’s former home of 75 years. Honored will be those who paved the way for the new Goodman and made possible its myriad artistic, economic and community engagement achievements over the past decade. The evening will culminate with a performance of Candide. For tickets and more information about the Season Opening Benefit, call 312.443.5564. This will be the first in a season-long series of commemorative happenings.

Upcoming productions in the 2009/2010 Season include:  the world premiere of the Goodman commissioned A True History of the Johnstown Flood by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls (March 13 – April 18, 2010 in the Albert); The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Chuck Smith (May 1 – June 6, 2010 in the Albert); and The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, directed by Henry Godinez (June 19 – July 25, 2010 in the Albert) which launches the Goodman’s 5th Latino Theater Festival.

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Review: Goodman’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted”

A touching journey of one woman’s quest for love

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Playwright Jose Rivera takes us on an emotionally touching journey through the eyes and soul of his mother as she experiences the raw struggles, joys, flaws, disappointments and selfless choices that love demands. As a young woman in Puerto Rico, innocent and filled with optimism in the strength of love, she leaves her unsuitable fiancé and meets the man she will marry. Boleros for the Disenchanted, Boleros-2playing at Goodman Theatre, is about whether that love can sustain 40 years later, after the truths of life have been unveiled.

Rivera’s story begins in the early 1950’s in Puerto Rico with a breathtaking set designed by Linda Buchanan filled with an assortment of flowers, and bright simply constructed housing. This Puerto Rican set is electrified with the romantic colors of the sky created by lighting designer (Joseph Appelt.)

The cast of six actresses and actors each take on multiple roles as the play ages itself through the years. With the outstanding direction of Henry Godinez, the transition of the characters’ lives over forty years has a natural fluidity and builds in intensity as it pushes various emotional nerves each act.

As the story begins, young Flora (Elizabeth Ledo) is engaged to marry the smooth talking charismatic machismo Manuelo (Feliz Solis) but she recently discovered that he has been cheating on her with another woman. Raised in a strict Catholic household, Flora was keeping herself pure for him. Flora’s mother warns her about being with a man like Manuelo but also speaks about the role of a woman in a marriage and dismisses the hurtful actions of men as it being in their nature. This conversation between Young Flora and her mother is continuously funny and made boleros_eusebioand floramore so by their ability to act as if they see no humor in their lines. Flora has witnessed, as we witness, her father’s (Rene Rivera) emotional flar-ups and how her mother copes with these individual moments and maintains their marriage.

Her father’s brash actions towards his wife and daughter leave the audience with a bit of distaste for his character, but the portrayal is realistic for the social norms of the time and emphasizes the social suppression of women. He also represents the Boleros-4sentiment of the elder Puerto Rican society, a disappointment in the deterioration of their country, which is mainly blamed on the United States. Neighbors with in the community are leaving for places like New York and Chicago, produce is being taken to the United States and being sold back to them at inflated prices, and the traditional values of the past are being taken for granted. The value of family, honor and happiness over wealth remains in Flora’s household, and her parents hope she will marry a good Puerto Rican who will remain in Puerto Rico.

Manuelo also attempts to justify his polygamous actions by explaining the biological nature of men, but his refusal to Boleros-6remain faithful to her forces her to leave him. Manuelo’s charismatic style of saying something ridiculous but making it sound romantic and sincere is gut-wrenchingly funny as he tries to romanticize his promiscuous ways.

Heart broken but uplifted with the excuse to visit her free-spirited eccentric cousin Petra (Liz Fernandez) Flora takes a trip to the “big” city. Against her traditional upbringing of female purity Flora and Petra are sitting alone outside when they meet a young soldier who is interested in Flora. Young Eusebio (Joe Minoso) is a kind patient man who draws the audience’s affection through his sincere love for Flora and desire for her happiness.

Boleros-3 Does Eusebio grow up to be the man and husband that Flora believes he is? Does their love still flourish with the same excitement and electricity that they had in their youth while meeting under the Puerto Rican sun?

Nine children later, living alone in America, and taking care of her now disabled husband, Jose Rivera tells us the story of how his mother champions love in its most beautiful and encouraging states along with the most ugly and defeating moments that life brings.

Jose Rivera’s ability to tell his parent’s story with heart-felt honesty astounds me. The inclusion of multiple themes such as migration, the loss of traditional values in individual progress, the roles of men and women and the meaning of true happiness all created a complicated mix much like the lives of his parents. The strength and vulnerability shown in Flora and her husband Eusebio are beautifully played by Boleros-7Sandra Marquez and Rene Rivera. They capture the depth and contradicting emotions that come with forty years of marriage.

This beautiful story had me laughing for 2 hours and crying at the end. It left a knot in my stomach and throat that only a story capturing the deepest truth of love can create. This play represents love in real relationships and the truth that lies behind the stories of our lives. In the end we see the strength that can surface when we choose to love.

Rating: ««««

Where: Goodman Theatre

Through: July 26th

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Henry Godinez named as Northwestern University artistic director

Henry Godinez, celebrated playwright and resident artistic director at the Goodman Theatre, has just been named as the artistic director of NU’s Theatre and Interpretation Center on the Evanston Campus.  Although this is a new position for Godinez, he is more-than-familiar with Northwestern, as he has held a position of assiciate professor there for 2 years. 

Congrats are in order for Godinez’s new position. And with his Henry Godinez’s new play The Cook opening this week at the Goodman, can anyone say busy man????

Godinez also curates the Goodman’s biennial Latino Theatre Festival and has produced plays for the Chicago Children’s Theatre as well as Teatro Vista Theatre.