REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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Nov 16: Porchlight Music Theatre will celebrate 15 years with benefit and revue

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PORCHLIGHT MUSIC THEATRE CELEBRATES ITS

15TH ANNIVERSARY WITH A

HOMECOMING BENEFIT & REVUE

On November 16th at the Theatre Building Chicago

Porchlight Music Theatre celebrates the company’s 15th Anniversary with a Homecoming Benefit & Revue showcasing alumni performers reprising their favorite roles from shows through the company’s fifteen fabulous seasons. The benefit will take place at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 West Belmont, on Monday, November 16.

The celebration evening will begin at 6pm. as guests mingle over libations and a buffet with alumni performers sharing favorite Porchlight production stories. The anniversary performance begins at 7:30 p.m. as alumni actors will take to the stage reprising their favorite role. Suzanne Getz, who most recently starred in Elegies during the Finn Festival of the tenth anniversary season, will sing a number from William Finn’s A New Brain. Porchlight presented the Chicago premiere of this show in 2002 and revived it in the Finn Fest of 2005. Getz received an After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance for her role in the 2002 production. Heather Townsend who starred in this season’s Macabaret will reprise her show-stopping “My Husband Makes Movies” from Nine: The Musical. Presented in 2008, Nine earned five Jeff Award nominations including best production and best ensemble. Charissa Armon will sing “Back to Before” from Porchlight’s celebrated and multiple award-winning production of Ragtime. Armon received an After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance and a Jeff Award Nomination for Outstanding Actress in a principal musical role. A host of other Porchlight alums will also take to the stage for this special revue.

The benefit will feature an open bar—beer, wine, and soft drinks—along with a  buffet catered by Bespoke Cuisine. Guests and alumni will be able to bid on a variety of restaurant, spa, and cultural gift certificates at the benefit’s silent auction.

theatrebuildingTicket Information

Porchlight Music Theatre will present a Homecoming Benefit & Revue at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 West Belmont (at Racine), on Monday, November 16. Advance tickets at $40 and $25 (actors’ rate) are currently on sale and can be purchased by calling 773.325.9884 or emailing info@porchlighttheatre.com (leave call back information). Advanced reservations must be made by 5:00 pm, November 14. At door tickets are $50.


Porchlight Theatre Mission

Porchlight is Chicago’s Music Theatre.

By uniting the arts of music, drama, dance, and design we transform stories into thrilling, passionate and relevant events, which affect the lives of artists and audiences alike.

As professionals and leaders in this field, we nurture and develop new artists and works, expanding and redefining the music theatre genre while matching artistic vision with fiscal responsibility.

Think Fast:

  

da3bfdbbd2d196d4 Rumor has it that Showtime and Steven Spielberg are considering creating a show about putting on a Broadway production.

 


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Facebook has added Latin to list of available languages.

 

 


Playwrights Bruce Norris, Tarell Alvin McCraney and David Adjmi are the first recipients of the Steinberg Playwright Awards. The awards were established in 2008 by The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust to recognize up-and-coming playwrights at various stages of their early careers whose professional works show great promise. The playwrights’ Chicago connections include:

  • Bruce Norris’s works: The Infidel (2000), Purple Heart (2002), We All Went Down to Amsterdam (2003), The Pain and the Itch (2004), and The Unmentionables (2006) all had their premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre. His newest play, titled A Parallelogram will premiere at Steppenwolf in July 2010. His work has also been produced at Lookingglass Theatre, and he has received two Jeff Awards for Best New Work
  • Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays will be produced this year at Steppenwolf Theatre.

New team announced for Theatre Building Chicago’s ‘Musical Theatre Writers Workshop’

Theatre Building Chicago announces it new team of Steinhagen, Holland and Chambers

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Theatre Building Chicago is pleased to announce that Jon Steinhagen and Patrick Holland will join Artistic Director Allan Chambers to “team teach” TBC’s Musical Theatre Writers Workshop. The workshop’s curriculum will continue to focus on the development of the artist in specific fundamentals related to creation of new musicals. The Fall semester focuses on lyrics, music and book and the Winter/Spring semester Practicum takes workshop members through the planning, writing and rehearsal process of a new musical. The introductory workshop sessions will be team-taught by Jon Steinhagen, Patrick Holland and Artistic Director Allan Chambers. This triumvirate of theatre artists brings a wealth of musical theatre writing, directing, and teaching experiences to the workshop. Their years of experience will guide members as they instruct and lead the critique sessions for the introductory first year members.

The 2nd year members and alumni writers will also have the opportunity to work with the three instructors separately or as a team, as they present scenes and songs from full length musicals and one-act children’s musicals. There will usually be two of the three at all session of the 2nd year and alumni workshop. The leader of this group will function as dramaturg/moderator to keep workshop feedback sessions focused and on task.

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Jon Steinhagen is an author, actor, composer/musician, and Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists. His plays and musicals have been produced or workshopped from Manhattan to Seattle; his plays include The Applewood Pistols (an “original Chekhov comedy” based on Chekhov’s notebooks), The Velvet Gentleman, Something More Comfortable, Second Mouse, Dating Walter Dante, Aces, Ponzi on Sunday, Perfectly Natural, a collection of his shorter plays, was produced at the Midtown International Theatre Festival (NYC) in July 2009. Jon wrote the music and lyrics for the musicals The Arresting Dilemma of Mr. K (based on Kafka’s The Trial), The Circus of Dr. Lao, Emma & Company (all developed at TBC and STAGES) and the Jeff and After Dark Award-winning Inferno Beach and People Like Us. Jon is also an award-winning musical director, arranger, and actor who has received four Jeff Awards, six After Dark Awards, and three Jeff nominations for writing, musical direction, or acting. Jon is a graduate of the New Tuners Workshops led by John Sparks. He is an associate member of
The Dramatist’s Guild, a member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and ensemble member of Signal Ensemble Theatre.

Patrick Holland is a professional Music Director, Conductor, Arranger, Orchestrator, Musician, and Educator has had the pleasure of working with Theatre Building Chicago on many projects over the past 10 years on such STAGES projects as Crazy Mary, Bringers, Continental Divide, The Hard Road, Take Me America, Hunger, and Rex. Patrick has also had the pleasure of working with Allan Chambers on Saints & Sinners as part of the workshop mini-musical project in conjunction
with Loyola University of Chicago. Patrick’s Broadway and National Tout credits include The King and I (with Yul Brynner), Hello Dolly (with Carol Channing), Guys and Dolls (with Leslie Uggams), A Chorus Line, Annie, The Pirates of Penzance and La Cage aux Folles to name a handful. He has had the honor of working in New York and Chicago with industry giants Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Tommy Tune. In the Chicagoland area Patrick has worked with The Goodman Theatre, Light Opera Works, Bailiwick, Theatre Building Chicago, and Chicago Cabaret. He has taught music and musical direction at
Northwestern University, Loyola University and Roosevelt University.

Allan Chambers, Artistic Director of TBC, has served in many capacities for Theatre Building Chicago including dramaturg, director, workshop coordinator and actor. Allan oversees theatre company client services and now directs the musical program. He is the past-president of the Illinois Theatre Association,
a founding and former board member of Chicago Alliance for Playwrights, and artistic consultant for Creative Musical Theatre, an honors class dedicated to the development of new music theatre voices at Valparaiso High School. Allan has served as an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris College and at North Park University, and has worked in various capacities with the Goodman Theatre, Music/Theatre Workshop, Our Town Productions, Prologue Theatre, American DreamWorks, Different Drummer Theatre, Bailiwick Repertory, The Western Stage, Cabrillo Stage, Bigfork Playhouse and North Shore Music Theatre. M.F.A., musical theatre, San Diego State University. B.S., theatre acting/directing, University of Idaho.

 


About the Workshop

The first workshop will be the weekend of September 26-27.

Aspiring composers, lyricists and book writers are encouraged to contact TBC’s Artistic Director, Allan Chambers to schedule a personal interview to assess your skill level and to learn if the Musical Writer’s Workshop can benefit you in your quest  to create new musical works.

Allan can be reached at 773-929-7367 ext 229 or at allan@theatrebuildingchicago.org

Theatre Building Chicago has plans to strategically grow the musical program from the ground up. The Musical Theatre Writers Workshop is the first stage in the development of new projects that will then be ready for Monday Night Musicals, STAGES Festivals, Intensive Workshops,  and eventually onto full-scale productions.

The New Musicals for Kids development pipeline is filling up with exciting new projects from TBC’s workshop as well as the NYU Tisch School MFA program.
TBC also produces the Monday Night Musicals series of concert readings of works in progress. The first Monday Night Musical of the 2009/2010 season is The Spark, October 26, 2009. TBC’s New Musicals for Kids series will open with Tantrum on Tracks October 14, 2009.

TBC’s Musical Theatre Writers Workshop produces the STAGES festival of new musicals. STAGES will be held August 20-22, 2010.  Attendees include producers, directors, writers, composers and musical theatre aficionados from all over the country. STAGES is an opportunity for authors and composers to see and hear their work interpreted by a production team and performed for Chicago audiences. It is also an opportunity for producers and directors to assess new musicals
and musical theatre talent.

Chicago shows currently Jeff-Recommended

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Equity Wing:
Learn more about the Equity Wing

All My Sons
TimeLine Theatre Company
» our review here

Cabaret
Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre
» our review here

High Fidelity
Route 66 Theatre Company

Million Dollar Quartet
Apollo Theater Chicago
» our review here

Mistakes Were Made
A Red Orchid Theatre

Studs Terkel’s Not Working
The Second City e.t.c.

The Fantasticks
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

The History Boys
TimeLine Theatre Company

The Light in the Piazza
Marriott Theatre

 

Non-Equity Wing:
Learn more about the Non-Equity Wing

Graceland
Profiles Theatre
» our review here

POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical
Hell in a Handbag Productions

The Night Season
Premiere Theatre and Perf. i/a/w/ Vitalist Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew
Theo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Michael James
» our review here

Under Milk Wood
Caffeine Theatre
» our review here

Review: Theo Ubique’s “The Taming of the Shrew”

Making the most of a risky venture

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Theo Ubique presents:

The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare
directed by Nick Minas
thru October 4th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Plopping Shakespeare into a cabaret setting seems like a very risky venture. However, so does paring down Andrew Lloyd Weber to fit into a tiny café. Theo Ubique had wild success with that, though, recently reeling in a massive amount of non-equity Jeff Awards for their spring production of Evita. To open this season, the spunky company tackles The Taming of the Shrew, a work a few centuries older than their usual musical flavored fare. The earnest performances tear down the fourth wall and make the intimate space work for the famous comedy, but a flimsy handling of the language keeps this innovative production from reaching its full potential.

Taming_of_the_Shrew2 In the director’s note, Nick Minas describes what Elizabethan theatre-goers would witness at one of William Shakespeare’s original productions: food, musicians, and jugglers— not unlike the cabarets of later centuries. And the cabaret style that Theo Ubique has nailed down works well for Shakespeare’s comedic styling. For a few hours in the cozy No Exit Café tucked away in Rogers Park, clowns, lovers, and ludicrous lords traipse around the tables and drink at the bar.

Minas and his cast do a brilliant job with the using the entire space and engaging the audience. The show begins with the backstage curtain being removed, revealing Lucentio and Tranio staring through the windows facing Glenwood Avenue. The use of this window is the highlight of the show. The audience watches characters peer into the café, run from entrance to entrance, and Kate (Jenny Lamb) even graffitis the building. It also adds a street performance vibe to the production: we watch how people walking by react. Whenever possible, the actors reference this unsuspecting audience, seeking support or sympathy. Opening up the window was a truly inspired choice; it adds another facet to the production and totally redefines the performances.

Taming_of_the_Shrew8 However, many of the actors are unable to wrangle down Shakespeare’s language. While the concepts are fleshed out and the cabaret style is vibrantly portrayed, the actual text is muddled and unclear. This serves as a painful reminder that the scrappy little company has its limits. Ben Mason’s Hortensio has a great physicality, but much of his lines are sped through and the story suffers. Ryan Jarosch as Grumio also rushes through some lines, but no one in the cast has a great grasp on Shakespeare’s words. More attention should have been paid to studying the verse. Considering the text is already full of puns and references that don’t make instant sense to a modern audience, failing to give it the proper respect can be disastrous. Fortunately, the cast is talented and charismatic enough that some of the hurried or imprecise lines can be forgiven, but these missteps add up and blur the story.

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Theo Ubique has played up the original compositions by Ethan Deppe that appear throughout the production. Much of the music is acapella and has a fun, carnival-like atmosphere. A few monologues are turned into song lyrics, these feel more unnecessary than enlightening. The production is also filled with sound effects—cymbals, slide whistlers, shakers of various kinds—that are used throughout. This adds a “Loony Toons” quality to this “Shrew,” but they are used too often. Some restraint would make this stylistic choice a lot funnier.

Taming_of_the_Shrew7 Besides stumbling with the language, the performances are pretty solid. Jeremy Van Meter makes a powerful, sexual Petruchio. Lamb’s Kate is terrifying, yet can reach into the vulnerability the character needs. The two match each other’s energy beautifully, and Minas fills their interactions with intensely physical combat and seduction. Matthew Sherbach is cross-cast as Bianca and does a great job capturing her brattiness. This adds another degree of comedy when she is courted by Steve Gensler’s wide-eyed Lucentio. His Tranio (Mike Oleon), though, can’t connect to the audience as well as the rest of the cast, and Oleon’s performance falters.

The final flaw with the production comes with Kate’s monologue at the end. If played too seriously, the monologue, describing how women should obey their husbands, comes off as backwards for modern audiences. Lamb and Minas couldn’t find the right way to make the finale work, we’re not sure if Kate has been beaten into submission or is tricking Petruchio. In the end, we’re just left feeling uncomfortable.

Rating: «««

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Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “A Song for Coretta”

The Way We Live Now: Promise and Disillusionment in Pearl Cleage’s “A Song for Coretta”

The cast of Pearl Cleage's 'A Song for Coretta', now being presented by Chicago's Eclipse Theatre Company

Eclipse Theatre Company returns to Pearl Cleage’s work with A Song for Coretta, after successfully featuring her as a playwright, novelist, and poet throughout their 2007 season. Eclipse’s 2007 production of her first play, Blues for an Alabama Sky, won several Jeff Awards, plus a Ruby Dee Award from the Black Theatre Alliance for the actress TayLar.. (who is presently playing the character of Helen in this production).

All the women in A Song for Coretta come to honor and memorialize Coretta Scott King on the rainy evening of her funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church. But what can they do with Coretta’s memory, or memory of the Black Civil Rights era, in the face of the dire challenges that eviscerate their community today? Cleage strives to regenerate the meaningfulness of that memory in the presence of generational divisions, between those for whom the Civil Rights struggle is still within living memory and those for whom it either lives only as a stirring image of African American unity, or does not live at all, since its limited benefits are no match against today’s corrosive injustices.

A Song for Coretta TayLar is pitch-perfect as the stalwart, churchgoing Helen, the only mourner present who has actually met Coretta Scott King; Niccole Thurman’s Zora conveys an earnest college student, covering the funeral for NPR, who is completely unconscious of her own naïveté; Kelly Owens’ Mona Lisa, a resourceful, bohemian Katrina survivor, embodies the kind of soulfulness that truly suggests magic; Kristy Johnson’s Keisha is by turns fiery, obstinate, arrogant, and vulnerably lost; Ebony Wimb’s Gwen comes across as stiff, even for an Iraq War veteran, yet she maintains the power to convey Gwen’s trauma simply with her eyes.

No one can deny the gifts or intentionality of the cast. Still, there is only so much that talent and stagecraft can bring to an incomplete work. The trouble is that they are trying to do so much with so little—an interesting situation, since it stands in direct relation to the dilemmas faced by the characters.

As badly as we need a play like this, Cleage may be trying to pack too much into one act. The result is a severely abridged overview of the African American generation gap, plus gangsta culture, plus Katrina, plus the Iraq war. Sadly, this gives the play a “movie of the week” quality. Characters are introduced as emblems of issues, not in-depth characters in their own right, so the conflicts between them are superficially addressed, as are the issues they are supposed to represent. There are humorous as well as riveting moments, but nothing that comes close to the knowing wit and complex insight with which Cleage has regaled readers and audiences in the past.

Songs-for-Coretta-3 Part of the problem lies in how the Black Civil Rights era is remembered in the play. Much as we may love Helen–with her church lady demeanor, her tailored dress, her tightly coiffed helmet of gray hair, and her outrage over the current generation’s insolent sloppiness, ignorance, and apathy–her representation of that era belies all the dangers of perceiving it through rose-colored glasses. If Helen was a child during the Montgomery bus boycott, then surely she grew into adulthood during the 60s and 70s, during the rise of the Black Power movement, the assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X, JFK, and Robert Kennedy; during the equally devastating crisis of the Vietnam War. There is nothing halcyon about Helen’s past and therefore no real reason to have her only portray that past beatifically to Zora.

Likewise, Keisha’s role in the play is also troublesome. She is supposed to be emblematic of the unrealized promise of the struggle for civil rights. While war metaphors are linked, and rather stiltedly, through an exchange between Mona Lisa and Gwen over Katrina and Iraq, there is hardly any acknowledgement in the play of the gang war conditions that have ravished Keisha’s life of education, opportunity, or a sense of history. A few of her lines just barely suggest it: “Old people are always talking about somebody died for us. Well people die all the time nowadays, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it don’t even matter what for—they still just as dead.” This is why her decision to forego abortion is no more comforting than the song–“This Little Light of Mine”–the women sing together at the end. Both seem like band-aids on interminable problems.

One can only hope that A Song for Coretta is an embryo for future work. We sorely need playwrights like Pearl Cleage, who will question the value of freedom, especially if it only means being free to carry out the state’s imperialistic adventures. Indeed, as there are outlier studies which show that schools are more racially segregated now than during Jim Crow, then in the year 2009, in every way that truly matters, we may be back to square one.

Rating: ««

A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage
Buy Tickets
A Midwest Premiere
Directed by ensemble member Sarah Moeller
June 11 – July 26, 2009
at The Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm

Video footage of A Song for Coretta:   Video 1 and Video 2

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