Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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Chicago Shakespeare announces 2010-2011 Season

Chicago Shakespeare - Taming of Shrew Taming of the Shrew, performed in the Courtyard Theater through June 2010

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater announces their

 
2010-2011 Season

 

As Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) finishes the run of its acclaimed world-premiere family musical The Emperor’s New Clothes (our review ★★★½) this month, it looks forward to the season ahead. Further information for all of the productions listed below is available on the Theater’s website at www.chicagoshakes.com or by calling the CST Box Office at 312.595.5600.

 

Mainstage Shows

 

September 15–November 21

   
   
  Romeo and Juliet
  By William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gale Edwards
In the
Courtyard Theater
   
  Opening the 2010/11 Subscription Series, world-renowned Australian director Gale Edwards stages William Shakespeare’s iconic romantic tragedy in her CST debut. Edwards, whose work has been seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in theaters across America, has assembled a talented ensemble including Canada’s Dora Award winner Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary in the title roles. CST veterans returning for Edwards’ production include: Ora Jones, last seen in Twelfth Night (our review ★★★½), as Nurse; Brendan Marshall-Rashid, who delivered Richmond’s memorable final soliloquy in Richard III (our review ★★★★), as Paris; Judy Blue as Lady Capulet; Steve Haggard as Benvolio; and David Lively as Friar Laurence, who previously played King Henry IV in CST’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, marking the Theater’s debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. An award-winning creative team joins Edwards for this landmark production, including Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic, Lighting Designer John Culbert, Original Music and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones, Wig and Makeup Designer Melissa Veal, Properties Master Chelsea Meyers, Fight Director Rick Sordelet and Verse Coach Barbara Robertson.
   
Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary will play the title roles in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Romeo and Juliet from September 15–November 21, 2010.  Photo by Peter Bosy.Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary will play the title roles in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet from September 15–November 21, 2010.  Photo by Peter Bosy.

 

 

January 5 – March 6, 2011

   
   
  As You Like It
  By William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gary Griffin 
In the
Courtyard Theater
   
  CST Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin directs Shakespeare’s beloved pastoral comedy set in the magical Forest of Arden. This season marks Griffin’s ten-year anniversary with CST, an illustrious history that includes his acclaimed CST Olivier and Jeff Award-winning Sondheim musicals and productions of Private Lives (review ★★★) and Amadeus.
   
   

 

April 13 – June 12, 2011

   
   
  The Madness of George III
  By Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropolus
In the Courtyard Theater
   
  The three-play Subscription Series concludes with The Madness of George III by Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys). This masterpiece of royal intrigue about a monarch’s slide into insanity will be directed by Penny Metropolus, whose work has been seen for nearly two decades at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The production marks Metropolus’ return to CST, where she staged The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2000.
   
   

World’s Stage  and   CST Family

Below the Fold:  World’s Stage productions from Scotland and Ireland, and a CST export to Australia. Additional CST Family programming includes an abridged Shakespeare production and family concerts.

 

Chicago Shakes - Black Watch 2 Chicago Shakes - Cripple of Inishmaan 1
Chicago Shakes - Funk it Up 1 Chicago Shakes - Black Watch 4

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REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

 FarnsworthInvention_130

 
TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

FarnsworthInvention_178 FarnsworthInvention_248

Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

FarnsworthInvention_157

Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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REVIEW: The Illusion (Court Theatre)

A Love Letter for the Theatre

the-illusion_001

 
Court Theatre presents
 
The Illusion
 
Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a the-illusion_008 hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.

The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.

Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.

In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.

the-illusion_014 the-illusion_011
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Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.

Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.

Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Extra Credit

 

View (2010-03) The Illusion - Court Theatre
         

REVIEW: The Year of Magical Thinking (Court Theatre)

Fisher mesmerizes in Didion’s ethereal examination of grief

 MB Fisher H

Court Theatre presents:

The Year of Magical Thinking

 

by Joan Didion
directed by
Charles Newell
through February 14th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self pity.
       –
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Renowned novelist Joan Didion‘s heartwrenching memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking astonished critics with its unflinching portrayal of the author’s grief following the death her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in the midst of a medical crisis surrounding their daughter, Quintana, garnering Didion a National Book Award and becoming the foundation for the writer’s first stage play. Shortly before the novel’s publication, Didion lost Quintana to pancreatitis, and the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking expands the scope of the novel by including the playwright’s MB Fisher V IIstruggle to rationalize her daughter’s death while coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Directed by Charles Newell and starring Mary Beth Fisher in a career-defining performance, Court Theatre‘s production maneuvers the intense emotional shifts of Didion’s script with an artistic precision that bristles with elegance, overcoming the insular nature of the script to create a work of art with graceful resonance.

The first thing to greet the viewer’s eye is John Culbert‘s minimal, yet refined, set – an elevated rectangular platform floating in a dark void. A flesh-colored wood floor, desk, and chair are the only set pieces; a teacup, saucer, and flower atop the table the only props. Fisher appears on stage wearing cream slacks and a blue blouse that, aside from the occasional light cue, is the production’s sole use of color. The design elements of the production enhance the script beautifully, the set creating a physical representation of Didion’s isolation surrounded by the blackness of grief, the blue of her costume recalling the ocean and sky imagery of her memories with husband and daughter in Malibu and beyond. Jennifer Tipton‘s lighting design further reinforces the changes in the character’s psyche; inky projections during moments of "magical thinking" show the pervasive effects of grief by dirtying the pristine stage, and lights are turned to full power when she enters the "vortex" of memory that paralyzes her, blinding the audience as much as the character.

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Carrying the show on her shoulders, Mary Beth Fisher gives a technically astounding performance. Newell has blocked her in a way that gives her freedom to dramatize events, immensely helpful to a script that is completely centered around the inner workings of one woman’s mind. Fisher is particularly skilled at capturing the obsessively rational side of Didion, a woman that memorizes the names of every drug her daughter is given, who obtains hospital records and doorman’s logs so she can recreate the moments following her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table. As a person that operates from a primarily intellectual position, there are not many instances when Didion lets her heart override her brain. The moments in the "vortex" are fueled by the photographic recall of specific events rather than an emotional response to these memories, making Didion’s mind her greatest enemy. Unable to control the flood of memories attached to certain stimuli, "the question of self-pity" becomes impossible to ignore.

Towards the end of the show, Fisher recalls a vacation in Hawaii with her husband and daughter. Rather than attempting to escape as she has the past recollections, she sits at the downstage edge of the stage and dips her foot into the darkness. The small gesture is a huge step for the character, and by finally venturing into the unknown – the uncontrollable – Didion can finally live outside the shadow of death.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

marybethfisher-yomt

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Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Court Theatre

Brilliant and Balanced, Ma Rainey Raises the Roof

 Olglesby, Roston, Johnson, Smith, Alfred, Young, Cox and Spencer - H

Court Theatre presents:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
directed by OJ Parson
runs thru October 18th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

 

Alfred and Johnson - V In the Court Theatre program introduction to their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Ron OJ Parson contrasts his previous experience at Court with August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been a different kind of experience . . . it feels to me like the work of a younger playwright . . . Ma Rainey’s is fast and brash like Levee, its central character.”

Not a bad analogy, between protagonist and play. But it’s not as if Wilson’s first major drama shortchanges the audience in layers of dilemma and meaning. Parson, for his part, deliberately and meticulously draws out every nuance and tier possible between those characters with power and those with less, and less.

John Culbert’s weathered, stressed and architectural set design surely assists Parson in establishing the play’s hierarchies of privilege and power. At its very bottom, the musicians wait and wait for Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby), the Mother of the Blues, to arrive and hold court—at least for as long as the recording session goes on.

Time and generational differences, as much as races or genders, hold the crucial center to this play. The older musicians of Ma’s band, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Cutler (Cedric Young), and Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) have long since learned how to bide their time by swapping stories and friendly BS; choosing the path of least resistance seems to be their life-long technique for deliberately surviving arduous, uncertain times and territory. But their low-key endurance may be too much for Levee (James T. Alfred), who aspires to make his mark with his own jazz compositions and band. To him, such coping strategies smack of compromise with the thousand indignities being black was (is) heir to.

Oglesby and cast - H Levee has far more going on with him than simple impatience or cocksure youthful arrogance. Parson’s direction starts Levee off at a low boil; but it is Alfred’s control, intensity, and fire which succeeds in pulling off Levee’s assault on Cutler, and his rant against God, with crucifying realism.

The play inexorably builds to this, through all the excruciating little deferrals and detours of Ma Rainey’s recording session. Humorous as it is, given Ma’s demand that her stuttering, country nephew Sylvester (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) intro her lead song, running underneath it all is the realization that Ma’s moment of glory is fleeting.

The recording company’s neurotic owner, Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), insistently presses for fresher, faster music, whether he will pay decently for it or not. The money and privilege that Ma is flush with cannot last forever. There is something quite Biblical about this aspect of Wilson’s play, just as there is something downright Greek tragedy about Levee railing against God. It’s here we truly see the marks of a younger playwright.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V Oglesby II - V

Oglesby, for her part, plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career, which doesn’t endear her to the audience, however deeply we identify with her pent up rage when she signs the release forms. She may lord herself over Levee and thwart his ambitions; she may boss her band, her entourage, and her manager; but the limits she bumps into truly close around her. Play the queen as much as she may, true power, which can only come from control over her own work, is not hers to have in this world. The same power denied her, is also denied Levee; what should make them natural allies ends up setting them against each other. The generational divide between Levee and the band also holds devastating consequences.

Overall, this production is too fine for a little critical kibitzing about pacing in some scenes. Court Theatre has a near perfect production on its hands. The entire cast is evenly and indisputably excellent. Even small roles leave lasting impressions, like David Chrzanowski’s smug Policeman, Stephen Spencer’s stressed out but enabling manager, Irvin, and Kristy Johnson, who seems born to play Ma’s woman, Dussie Mae. Now the audience just has to get there before time runs out.

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” – triumphantly captivating and celebratory

Goodman Theatre molds Tom Stoppard’s harrowing play into an incredibly human package

Review by Barry Eitel

 

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell are (l to r) Timothy Edward Kane (Jan) and Mary Beth Fisher (Esme (older)).

If anyone knows about the transitive power of music, it would be the Czechs. In 1989, the oppressive Communist government of Czechoslovakia was peacefully overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution,” termed after the band The Velvet Underground. The subversive yet inspiring properties of rock music played a major role in bringing democracy to the country.

In his newest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, produced by the Goodman Theatre, Tom Stoppard depicts the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution. The play begins amid Soviet tanks rolling into Prague to switch out the progressive government, ending the reformative “Prague Spring” of 1968. However, the play does far more than document Czech history; winding over twenty-two turbulent years, Stoppard intertwines the lives of characters that span different nations, political systems, generations, and ideologies. The Chicago premier of the play, directed by the inspired Charles Newell, stuffs all of the love, loss, and intense intellectual debate into an incredibly human package. And with the best soundtrack on-stage right now, the Goodman production leaves plenty of room for a little rock and roll along the way.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell are (l to r) Gregory Matthew Anderson (Stephen), Mattie Hawkinson (Alice), Thomas J. Cox (Nigel), Susie McMonagle (Candida), Amy J. Carle (Lenka) and Stephen Yoakam (Max).

Set designer John Culbert transformed the massive Albert Stage into a concert venue, complete with scaffolding and speakers so massive they could make every ear in the audience bleed. The colossal scale of the set matches the epic tone of the play, which can move thousands of miles from scene to scene. In order to switch from location to location quickly, furniture on platforms is rolled out from the wings and sometimes huge pieces are dropped from the flies. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design accentuates Culbert’s set smartly. All of the design melds brilliantly together—the space seems more like a Bonnaroo stage than the Goodman theatre.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell is Timothy Edward Kane (Jan). Rock 'n' Roll begins performances on May 2 (Opening Night is May 11) and runs through June 7 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. Timothy Edward Kane is an expressive, vivacious Jan, the Czech doctor of philosophy/rock’n’roll fanatic that the play follows. Kane’s performance captures all of the forces tugging at Jan’s psyche as he attempts to balance his ideals, his relationships with those around him, and his harsh reality under the suppressive regime. Perhaps most importantly, Kane bursts with Jan’s intense passion for music. As Jan’s mentor in Marxism, Max, Stephen Yoakam is fiery. It is heart-wrenching to watch as he clutches to obsolete ideologies as his English world, including his family, abandons them as the Cold War thaws. Another stand-out performance is Goodman veteran Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Max’s wife Eleanor and, twenty years later, his daughter Esme. She differentiates and contrasts the generational gap clearly, as well as having some of the most emotional intense moments in the production.

Rock-n-Roll7 Newell nails the theatricality of Stoppard’s play, punching up the classic rock world as much as possible. He uses a mysterious piper (a limber Greg Matthew Anderson) to string the story together, having him weave himself among the scaffolding. The “enlightened” Esme confuses the Robert Smith look-a-like for the god Pan. It turns out the ghostly figure might be Pink Floyd’s estranged frontman, Syd Barrett. But the piper maintains a spritely aspect about him, staying eternally young as everyone else ages. This is just one of many examples of how the production captures the imagination instead of sticking inside realistic world. Newell’s daring stylistic choices really pay off, keeping the play exciting while also preserving the human struggle.

Like most Stoppard, the play is highly intellectual and not for everybody, and occasionally the pace slackens during the debates. But even if you don’t understand the Sappho references or Socialist theory, the vibrant relationships linking the characters are still extremely powerful. The captivating language also maintains a tight grip on the audience, even if some of the content requires a masters degree.

This is arguably Stoppard’s finest work, and the Goodman’s production celebrates both the rock spectacle and the inspiring humanity of the story. The audience is left reminded that our world is constantly warping and flowing, like a deep ocean of ideas, cultures, and human connections.

Rating: ««««

Video:

 

View Tom Stoppards Rock n Roll

 

Below: Stark differences between “Prague Spring” and the “Velvet Revolution”

Tanks moving in during "Prague Spring", 1968  Policemen_and_flowers

On the left – Molotov Cocktails thrown during the bloody Prague Spring uprising.  On the right, flowers (given to policemen) are used in the peaceful overthrow of the Czech/Soviet Republic in what is now known as the “Velvet Revolution