REVIEW: As You Like It (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

An ardent Arden blooms beautifully

  
  

Orlando (Matt Schwader) surprises Rosalind (Kate Fry) with a kiss after she and Celia (Chaon Cross) praise his wrestling victory at Court, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre 
 
As You Like It
   
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gary Griffin
at CST’s
Courtyard Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Through disguise or intrigue, Shakespeare’s driven lovers test each other until they finally earn their fifth-act wedding. In As You Like It, an unconquered forest is the neutral playground for the romantic reconnoiters that will bind the exiled lovers Rosalind and Orlando. In this shelter for simple innocence, artificial privilege defers to natural merit.

The shepherdess Phoebe (Elizabeth Ledo) falls in love with Ganymede (Kate Fry), unaware "he" is actually Rosalind in disguise, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's As You Like It. Photo by Liz Lauren.If love, joy or melancholy were to vanish from the world, you could reconstruct them from Shakespeare’s merriest and wisest comedy. The play’s genius is its artful dispersion of the good and, later, bad characters from the corrupt court to the enchanting trees of Arden. There the Bard imagines the perfect play–and proving ground for Rosalind, strategically disguised as the bisexual cupbearer Ganymede, to test her Orlando by teaching him how to woo the woman he takes for a man.

Sensing how Rosalind’s high spirits and good humor could overwhelm even this teeming forest, Shakespeare balances her natural worth against the snobbish clown Touchstone, the darkly cynical Jaques and the sluttish goatherd Audrey. By play’s end every kind of attachment–romantic, earthy, impetuous and exploitive–is embodied by the four (mis)matched couples who join in a monumental mating.

All any revival needs to do is trust the text and here it triumphs. Vaguely set in the Empire era, Gary Griffin’s perfectly tuned three-hour staging moves effortlessly from the artificial wood façade of the bad Duke’s cold palace to Arden’s blossom-rich, Pandora-like arboreal refuge. Over both the city and country hangs a mysterious pendulum, tolling out the seconds without revealing the time.

Disguised as the young man Ganymede, Rosalind (Kate Fry, center) listens to Orlando (Matt Schwader) unwittingly proclaim his love for her as Celia (Chaon Cross) looks on in amusement, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

But then time stands still here: The refugees in these woods have been displaced by the pursuit of power. Very good, then: It gives them all the more leisure for four very different couples to reinvent love from the inside out with all the unmatched and dynamically diverse eloquence that the Bard could give them,

Griffin is an actors’ director and he’s assembled an unexceptionable ensemble as true to their tale as their wonderful writer could wish. Though a tad older than Orlando is usually depicted, Matt Schwader delivers the non-negotiable spontaneity of a late-blooming first love. Above all, he’s a good listener and here he must be: Kate Fry’s electric Rosalind fascinates with every quicksilver, gender-shifting mood swing, capricious whim, resourceful quip or lyrical rhapsody. Fry also plays her as postmaturely young, a woman who was happy enough to be a maiden but won’t become a wife without a complete guarantee of reciprocal adoration. All her testing of Orlando as “Ganymede” is both flirtatious fun and deadly earnest. It would be all too easy to watch only her throughout and see this again for the other performances.

Kate Fry as Rosalind (Ganymede) and Matt Schwader as Orlando in William Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', directed by Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Peter Bosy.The contrasting characters are a litany of excellence, with even the supporting actors attractive despite any lack of lines. Kevin Gudahl’s noble exile of a banished duke, Matt DeCaro’s elaborately evil one, Phillip James Brannon’s flippant and almost anachronistic clown Touchstone, Chaon Cross’ pert and well-grounded Celia, Patrick Clear’s dignified bumpkin, Steve Haggard’s infatuated Silvius and Hillary Clemens as his less than adorable Audrey, Dennis Kelly’s venerable Adam—these are masterful portrayals drawn from life as much as literature.

Shakespeare’s most brilliant creation is the anti-social Jaques, who darkly balances the springtime frolic of Shakespeare’s unstoppable love plots. Oddly social as he waxes with misanthropic melancholy, Jaques is cursed to see the sad end of every story: He can never enjoy the happy ignorance beginning and middle. Ross Lehman gives him the right enthusiastic isolation. He’s dour but never dire.

Arden is a forest well worth escaping to and never leaving. The most regretful part of the play is happily never seen, when this enchanted company must return from these miracle-making groves to the workaday world. But that’s just how the audience feels leaving the Courtyard Theatre, reluctantly relinquishing so much romance.

   
  
Rating: ★★★★
     
   

Celia (Chaon Cross), Touchstone (Phillip James Brannon) and Rosalind (Kate Fry), disguised as the young man Ganymede, celebrate their arrival in the Forest of Arden, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chaon Cross as Celia, Kate Fry as Rosalind, and Matt Schwader as Orlando in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Peter Bosy

     
     

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REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays

 

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

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The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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YouTube: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf)

The Brother/Sister Plays, opening this weekend at Steppenwolf Theatre, are a breakthrough theatrical event: three interconnected plays by a brilliant new American brother-sistervoice, Tarell McCraney. Grand in scope, yet intimate and heartfelt, the plays are daring, funny and genuine. 

Steppenwolf presents The Brother/Sister Plays, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Ora Jones, with Phillip James Brannon, Rodrick Covington, Glenn Davis, Jeff Parker, Tamberla Perry and Jacqueline Williams.

 

 

Tarell McCraney on his Trilogy: The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Tarell McCraney on ensemble work

 

Getting to know Tarell McCraney, playwright of "The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Working with director Tina Landau

Review: Porchlight’s “The Fantasticks”

The Fantasticks disappoints more than it thrills

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Porchlight Theatre presents:

The Fantasticks

by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
directed by Sean Kelly
through November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

 Fantasticks-7 The 1960 musical The Fantasticks, the longest running performance in American theatre history (almost 50 years!), was built-up to be spectacular production. Every musical theatre actor I know wanted to be a part of Porchlight Theatre’s production and long time musical fans praised The Fantasticks as a must see musical in Chicago. However, this production, now playing at Theatre Building Chicago, is a disappointment.

The story is about two innocent kids: Matt (Sean Effinger-Dean) and Luisa (Emma Rosenthal,) who naively fall in love due to the manipulation of their fathers. Knowing that all kids will do the exact opposite of what their father wants them to do, the fathers: Hucklebee (Dan Ferretti) and Bellomy (Ryan Lanning). pretend to despise each other and forbid Matt and Luisa from interacting. They insult one another in front of their children and build a tall fence to separate the two young neighbors. Of course, now that their interaction is forbidden, the two seek out each other’s company and there is a new passion that fills their shared moments. The fathers then plan their ultimate bizarre plan to bond the two lovers in marriage, but it all blows up in their faces when the kids realize that they have been manipulated. But don’t fear, all seems to work out in the end.

The set is cold and bare (maybe this is a  common element for the show), leaving the backyards of Matt and Luisa up to our imagination. The blue lighting softens the set a little bit, and being able to watch the pianist and Harpist play in the back of the stage provided the only magical romantic feeling to the scenery.

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The story is filled with catchy songs with fun satirical lyrics and beautiful accompaniment by the pianist and harpist. The vocal talent on stage is top-notch. The song “Try To Remember” is absolutely one of my favorites from any musical I have seen. I am still singing it in my head and, lucky for me, I can still hear Jeff Parker’s (El Gallo) soothing voice singing it. Unfortunately, the quality of songs is lost in the randomness of the choreography. The characters flit around in dance moves that have nothing to do with what the songs are about, adding nothing to the words or the feeling of the songs. At one point it looks as if jumping-jacks are substituted for actual dance. The bare stage offers the opportunity for the choreography to add to the play’s atmosphere and provide the emotion behind the music, but this opportunity is missed, coming off as childish fun.

Additionally, individual character development is lacking. There is no chemistry on stage – so there is a lack of believability to the emotional moments between Matt and Luisa. Many times Luisa appears to be pretending to have feeling for Matt, rather than truly falling in love with the boy in front of her. Luisa’s character is oddly cast. Emma Rosenthal’s voice, although beautiful, was too powerful and makes Luisa sound too womanly and older than her character. Ms. Rosenthal’s movements project a resolute maturity that surely would be lacking in a teenage girl – her strength then does not match up with the shy boy she is supposed to be fantasizing about.

Fantasticks-3 Sean Effinger-Dean’s character, however, is thoroughly enjoyable. Matt is not the typical “pretty boy” that may be found in a commercial love story. A 22-year old biologist, Matt sings and acts with the insecurity and social awkwardness that a 22 year old who is in love with a teenage girl would have. His role might not be as charming as it could have been, but the portrayal of the immaturity in a 22 year old boy is thoroughly convincing.

Jeff Parker’s El Gallo brings the only inspiring dramatic moments and sense of continuity to the play , but my favorite character in the play is the elegant mute (Tanya McBride).  Her subtle additions to the staging help create the feelings that surround the play, and it is incredible to witness her expressive face and fluid balletic movements, providing more magic to the stage than the interaction between characters.

This production makes one question the relationship between the two fathers. Do they have a fondness for each other beyond friendship? Do they want their offspring to marry just so that they can share a sense of a domesticated relationship they could not achieve in their current situations, or did their characters just lack the masculinity that I expected from a play written in the 1950’s?

I am skeptic when it comes to musicals (I don’t enjoy the fluff,) but I have seen good musical theatre and this is not it. This play has been successfully performed well for over 40 years, so the book would seem strong, so don’t turn your back on The Fantasticks as a whole, just this production.

Rating: ««½

Playing at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through November 15, 2009.

 

View The Fantasticks

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What happens in Chicago goes to Kansas City?

About Face Theatre’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Musical Opens in KC

Broadway’s Nancy Anderson, Leslie Dennison, James Judy and Geoff Packard are in the cast of 13. Previews began March 13.

Eric Rosen, who wrote book and lyrics for Winesburg, Ohio, directs the musical based on the novel of the same name by Sherwood Anderson about the desire, hopes and dreams of this small Midwestern town’s residents. Performances continue through April 5th at Spence Theatre, one of the performances spaces of Kansas City Repertory Theatre .

The project marks the final Kansas City production of beloved local musical director Molly Jessup, who died March 15 at the age of 66, after a battle with cancer. The music (and additional lyrics) by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman “is based on a century-old American folk style that is steeped in the land and the people of the Midwest and evokes memories of earlier and simpler times.”  

The show was conceived by and developed in collaboration with Jessica Thebus. Winesburg, Ohio had a successful run in Chicago, where it was created, and received a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play. A subsequent production in Philadelphia won the Barrymore Award for Best Musical.

 The cast of Winesburg, Ohio includes Nancy Anderson (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) as Alice Hindman; Lesley Bevan (of the show’s world premiere for About Face/Steppenwolf Theatre and the Arden Theatre production in Philadelphia) as Kate Swift; Leslie Dennison (of Broadway’s City of Angels) as Elizabeth Willard; Seth Golay (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol, The Pirates of Penzance and The Front Page) as Seth Richmond; Gary Holcombe (the Rep’s in The Drawer Boy) as Wing Biddlebaum; Gary Neal Johnson (an artistic associate at the Rep who has appeared in many productions) as Tom Willard; James Judy (Broadway’s Into the Woods) as The Writer; Jessalyn Kincaid (making her Rep debut) as Young Elizabeth; resident actress Ashlee LaPine (Our Town at Coterie Theatre ) as Helen White; Geoff Packard (an understudy in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera and the national tour of Wicked) as George Willard; Chicago actor Jeff Parker as Rev. Curtis Hartman, a role he created for the original Steppenwolf Theatre Arts Exchange production and the full-length version for About Face Theatre; Bruce Roach (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol and To Kill a Mockingbird) as Joe Welling; John-Michael Zuerlein (making his Rep debut) as Enoch.

The musicians are Ryan Fisher (guitar I), Aaron Fry (guitar II), Michalis Koutsoupides (conductor/piano), Rick Willoughby (bass) and Michael Winer (violin). All but Fisher, who is from Chicago, are Kansas City performers.

The creative team for Winesburg, Ohio is Molly Jessup (music director), Jack Magaw (set designer), Janice Pytel (costume designer), David Lander (lighting designer), Joshua Horvath (sound designer) and Jennifer Martin (choreographer).

For more information call the Rep box office at (816) 235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.

Courtesy of Kenneth Jones of Playbill Online. Photo by Don Ipock Photography

Related articles:

New Musical “Winesburg, Ohio” Opens at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, infozine.com

Winesburg, Ohio Opens At Kansas City Rep On 3/20, BroadwayWorld.com