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. 

     
     

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Music Man (Marriott Theatre)

         
        

Iowa Splendid

 

 

Bernie Yvon and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

    
Marriott Theatre presents
   
The Music Man
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Directed by
Gary Griffin
at
Marriott Theatre, Linconshire (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

For reasons we can only guess at, Marriott Theatre has picked it for their holiday offering. But if ever a show spelled out summer, it’s Meredith Willson‘s 1957 masterpiece The Music Man. Throughout the rollicking story the title character exudes sunny optimism, a flimflam that "Professor" Harold Hill wants to believe as much as the suckers who take it in. His buoyant drive fits the season like a picnic. You’ll forget about the winter completely over the next 150 minutes.

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott TheatreOf course Hill is a 1912 confidence man who hornswaggles a ragtag band into playing music, a shy boy into speaking, a town into believing in itself and a librarian into love. The sturdy story is perfectly embedded in a very particular time capsule, with Willson meticulously employing with glorious abandon assorted slang, celebrities and colorful metaphors from the era and the state.

Helping this miracle worker Hill cast his spell, Willson gives him such powerful persuasion as "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Trouble," the famous snake-oil sermon. By the musical’s end Hill has sold far more than he knows, a passel of dreams for River City to grow on. It’s a great formula: A mysterious stranger comes to town and changes everyone for the best, including himself when he realizes that what he gives is worth far more than what he sells.

Few shows strike such a shrewd balance between downhome decency and showbiz savvy. Because The Music Man wears its songs on its sleeve, it can’t seem too slick or smooth. What matters is the tender loving care.

The heart comes through like a charm in Marriott Theatre’s easy-winning, arena revival. Intimately homespun yet always knowing, Gary Griffin’s staging trusts the material, Willson’s fast-moving book, deceptively clever lyrics and unimprovable melodies–and gets them right throughout.

The look, for instance: Tom Ryan‘s clever, flexible and detailed set pieces combine to create a richly nostalgic Iowa setting, and Nancy Missimi’s fashionplate period costumes complete the illusion.

The human illusions are equally on target. Conning with unforced charm, Bernie Yvon offers a Harold Hill who listens as much as hoodwinks; like a good salesman he connects with the townsfolk until you see how much he means it. His charm is non-negotiable, though the changes he undergoes are a bit harder to measure under Yvon’s boundless confidence.

Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones notwithstanding (comparisons are odious), Johanna McKenzie Miller nicely inhabits Marian’s rich mix of spinster standoffishness and idealistic yearning. Her "Till There Was You" is earned by every line she’s said. (The fact that she also sounds just like Cook in her perfect prime doesn’t hurt in the least either.)

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 2

Johnny Rabe and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 3

Like the leads, the supporting roles betray much more life than art, even the hammy stock roles like John Reeger‘s pompous mayor, Iris Lieberman as his starched-blouse wife, Mary Ernster as Marian’s matchmaking mother and Andy Lupp as Hill’s gleeful trickster accomplice.

As the decent local kids whom Harold helps, Adrian Aguilar and Amanda Tanguay carry the romantic subplot with goofy grace. Special credit goes to little Johnny Rabe whose bashful Winthrop wails out "Gary, Indiana" as if he just made it up.

Finally, Matt Raftery‘s unshowy choreography reminds us that these are unpretentious Iowans whooping it up as best they can: There’s no showoff hoofing here. The “Shipoopi” explodes with prewar pep and a palpable joy that makes the most difficult dancing seem a gift to perform as much as perceive. David Kreppel’s musical direction is assured, especially in the barbershop-quartet offerings.

 

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1pm and 8pm, Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4:30pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 5pm.  There will be an added performance Tuesday, 11/23 at 8pm and Friday, 11/26 at 4:30pm.  No performances Tuesday-Thursday, Nov 24th and 25th.

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

 

 

Continue reading

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
the-illusion_017 the-illusion_005

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: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Richard III”

Richard 3

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Richard III is among Shakespeare’s earliest and most enduring successes and Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King of England, perhaps his most thoroughly evil character. Despite the ingratiating manner he can turn off and on at will, Richard’s heart is as ugly and twisted as his body is deformed. Trusting no one, and thinking of nothing but his own gain, he is by turns vicious, conniving, dishonest – and utterly fascinating to audiences since Shakespeare’s colleague Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage to declaim, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

And that tradition continues unabated at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Richard III once again works its magic of simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Briskly paced and sensibly edited, this "Richard III" is relentless in its march towards its anti-hero’s tragic, self-inflicted destiny.

Wallace Acton as the amoral royal of the title brings a surprising amount of humor to his role. His soliloquies and asides to the audience succeed in drawing us in, making us complicit in his mad determination to seize the throne. By the time the culminating battle is approaching, Acton’s Richard has come completely undone, but with a mania and a desperation entirely in keeping with the vicious joker of but a few hours earlier.

Richard 3

Other standout performers in the generally strong company include Kevin Gudahl as Richard’s cousin and accomplice, the Duke of Buckingham, John Reeger as the steadfast Lord Stanley and Dan Kenney as Catesby, Richard’s personal enforcer. Brendan Marshall-Rashid brings authority and gravitas to the small but pivotal role of Richmond, the future King Henry VII and founder of the royal House of Tudor after Richard’s death.

Interestingly enough, it is the women of this "Richard III" who truly shine – women who give lie to the assumption that politics in the Fifteenth Century must have been a man’s game. Wendy Robie, as Richard’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to the soon-deceased Edward IV, and Mary Ann Thebus as his mother, the Duchess of York, are fine, strong actors and women to be reckoned with; they deal with Richard on their own terms. Angela Ingersoll as Lady Anne Neville brings a delicate intensity to a notoriously difficult role. One can feel her chaotic emotions as she is wooed literally over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, by the monster who killed not only that monarch, but Anne’s husband and her father. Ms. Ingersoll makes Anne’s impossible choices seem understandable – not an easy task.

Richard 3

Gaines makes terrific use of the sleek, heavily reflective multi-level set clad in plexiglass – designed by Neil Patel and lit beautifully by Robert Wierzel – including inventive use of exits and entrances all through the CST’s auditorium. Special mention needs to be made of Susan E. Mickey‘s brilliant costuming. Evocative of traditional Elizabethan shapes and silhouettes, but executed in muted palettes and of lighter weight fabrics, these are clothes that suggest and reference, without encumbering actors in layers and layers of detail (see video of Ms. Mickey’s perspectives on the visual world of the play here). The director and this designer all star team continue to surprise with images of startling beauty, right up to the closing moments.

Richard III may be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar vehicles, but this is a "Richard III" to remember.

Rating: ««««

 

Continue reading