Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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REVIEW: To Master the Art (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Delectable Julia Childs biography feeds the soul (if not your belly!)

 

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TimeLine Theatre presents
   
To Master the Art
   
By William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Through Dec. 19   |  
Tickets: $28–38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t go hungry to see To Master the Art, TimeLine Theatre Company’s sparkling, heartwarming play about culinary icon Julia Child. Director William Brown and co-author Doug Frew have created a masterful, multi-layered experience that excites all the senses. Its tasty imagery and food talk, the loads of fresh ingredients displayed and the onstage cookery that wafts the scent of sauteed onions out to the audience will leave you ravenous.

ToMasterTheArt_187This world premiere covers the decade Child wrote about in ‘My Life in France’, beginning with her first exposure to French food and cookery, when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris while he worked for the United States Information Service. We see Child’s sensual pleasure in her first French lunch. We learn with her how to choose vegetables and cook the perfect scrambled eggs. We see her frustrations as she works on the manuscript that would ultimately become the seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Brown’s staging is impeccable, and his cast first-rate. Though a little young for the part — Child is 39 at the start of the play, and 50 by the time her first cookbook is published — Karen Janes Woditsch has Julia down, voice and mannerisms all exactly right. As her husband, Paul, Craig Spidle appears a bit more than 10 years his wife’s senior, but there’s plenty of sizzle between them. This is a love story, not just a food history.

It also touches on politics. Set in the 1950s, when the Red Scare was in full swing, the play chronicles the difficulties that even Americans abroad had with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Amy Dunlap expressively plays the Childs’ bohemian and possibly Communist artist friend, Jane Foster Zlatovski, persecuted by the witchhunt, and a dramatic scene shows an interrogation Paul Child underwent. We also see Paul’s increasing dissatisfaction with his government overseers. And, sometimes, his impatience with what becomes his wife’s sometimes overwhelming obsession. Spouses of food writers, chefs and other avid cooks will empathize with his heartfelt cry at yet another iteration of onion soup: "How many gallons of this stuff do I have to eat?"

 

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You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy this show. But those who love to cook and to eat will find lots to delight them. Designer Keith Pitts has created a quaint and workable Parisian kitchen that forms the backdrop for much of the action, complete with antique stove and pots hanging on the wall. (A culinary friend of mine spotted a ringer in the kitchenware, but it doesn’t matter.)

Terry Hamilton doubles in a delightful performance as Child’s mentor Chef Max Bugnard and her conservative, xenophobic father. Jeannie Affelder gives French fire to Child’s collaborator Simone Beck.

Ann Wakefield portrays the stuffy Madame Brassart, who balks Child’s progress at her cooking school, and wonderfully, Child’s wildly enthusiastic penpal Avis DeVoto. (In a minor flaw, the origins of the correspondence between DeVoto and Child, who had not met when they began writing to each other, is explained only in the program: Child had written to DeVoto’s husband, Bernard, about a magazine article he’d penned about knives — and received an answer from Avis, who had inspired the piece.)  In an excellent piece of staging, Wakefield appears to act out DeVoto’s letters to Child. Juliet Hart also appears in an epistolary role as Judith Jones, the editor who ultimately shepherded Child’s work to print.

Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross and Ethan Sacks fill out the cast, each ably playing a variety of roles.

TimeLine waited a long time before it commissioned a play — To Master the Art is the first in the 14-year-old company’s history — but it certainly started out with a flourish. Kudos also to dramaturg Maren Robinson and others who provided the excellent information about Child and her world contained in the program and lobby displays.

My only quibble: The show runs roughly two and half hours. It’s tough to sit through such a long, delectably food-centric play with nothing to eat. It ought to be dinner theater. At least, they should serve a snack at intermission!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Free post-show discussions take place on selected Thurdays and Sundays. An hour-long panel discussion will occur on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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Extra Credit:

     

REVIEW: Jeeves in Bloom (First Folio)

Overblown ‘Jeeves in Bloom’ grows on you

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First Folio Theatre presents:

Jeeves in Bloom

By Margaret Raether
Based on the characters of
P.G. Wodehouse
Directed by
Alison C. Vesely
At the
Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oak Brook
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In the opening scene of First Folio Theatre’s Jeeves in Bloom, the characters pursue each other around the garden set in a goofy, stylized chase scene so exaggerated it made me want to run out of the theater. The broad, affected campiness Director Alison C. Vesely has imposed on this Equity production really put me off at first, but after a while, the show began to grow on me.

Margaret Raether’s script does P.G. Wodehouse proud. Loosely grafted and considerably pruned from the British author’s 1922 comic novel “Right Ho, Jeeves,” and light as dandelion fluff, this Chicagoland comedy premiere revolves around the amiable but asinine Bertie Wooster, a London man about town, and his keen-witted  gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. Bertie’s old school-chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, a painfully tongue-tied nerd with a passion for newts, has unaccountably fallen in love jib3with a dippy debutante called Madeline Bassett, a sappily romantic girl who believes in fairies, and appealed to Bertie and Jeeves for advice on wooing her. Meanwhile, Bertie’s intrepid Aunt Dahlia enlists the duo’s aid in stealing her own diamonds as a means of hiding her gambling losses from her irascible and dyspeptic husband, Tom Travers. However, their schemes inadvertently entwine Bertie with Madeline and touch off the Travers’ volatile French chef, Anatole, with disastrous consequences for Tom’s digestion. (James Leaming doubles as the bluff Tom Travers and excitable Anatole so ably that I didn’t realize he wasn’t two actors until only one of him turned up for ovations.)

Kevin McKillip’s portrayal of Gussie Fink-Nottle really won me over. As he moaned, “If only I were a male newt!” and bodily demonstrated the mating habits of the minute amphibians, I twigged to the value of the histrionic approach. McKillip’s expressive face and physical comedy constantly delight.

Christian Gray’s hammed-up rendition of Bertie takes some getting used to. With McKillip, Leaming and Melanie Keller as Madeline all chewing the scenery, one would think Bertie could be more understated. When he’s not spitting chunks of backdrop, Gray comes off admirably Woosterian. And my reaction to his over-the-top mugging is perhaps not entirely Gray’s or the director’s fault.

Chicago-area Wodehouse lovers must be forgiven if the vision of Bertie and Jeeves imprinted indelibly on our brains is that of Mark Richard and the late Page Hearn, who played those roles with brilliantly nuanced humor over some nine years at City Lit Theatre. They’re a tough act to follow.

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Jim McCance, in what seems like a rather small role for the title character, presents an older, stouter and stiffer Jeeves than Hearn’s (or the image drawn in the iconic Penguin paperbacks by Ionicus), but his deadpan tone and facial expressions are impeccable.

However, the real stars of this production are McKillip and Jeannie Affelder as Aunt Dahlia. Although I always picture Dahlia as an Englishwoman of the large, horsey and hearty type, the diminutive Affelder dominates the stage in a smart and subtly comic performance.

Everything about this production shows an attention to detail, from Elsa Hiltner’s period costumes to the stage properties. Scenic Designer Angela Miller has beautifully integrated a garden terrace into the high-ceiling event hall of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate, complete with working fountain, statuary and realistic plants.

So, by the time that thorny opening chase scene was reprised at the end of the first act, I could take it without wincing.

Though more of an overblown rose than a tight bud of comedy, “Jeeves in Bloom” is a fun and enjoyable show.

Rating: ★★★

Note: The performance is 2½ hours, with intermission.

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