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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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 Sins of Sor Juana (Goodman Theatre)

No justice for Sor Juana

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Sins of Sor Juana
  
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by
Henry Godinez
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
Through July 25   |  
Tickets: $20–$71   |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Although she is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, little is really known of the life of 17th-century writer and protofeminist Juana In´s de la Cruz. What is known is that she was a remarkable figure for her time — illegitimate, brilliant, accomplished and, for a time, a favorite of the viceroy’s court in Mexico City.

Production_12 At 19, she unaccountably entered a convent, where she spent the rest of her life. The likeliest speculation as to why supposes that she saw it as her best means of conducting a scholarly life — which it was, until her opinionated writings on the rights of women to education fell afoul of the Church and attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. However, no one actually knows what drew Juana to take vows.

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the disappointing centerpiece of Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, playwright Karen Zacarías speculates it was an unhappy love affair. While Sor Juana’s many passionate love poems suggest she might have had illicit lovers, the play’s emphasis on an entirely fabricated and uninspiring love life turns de la Cruz from an extraordinary intellectual and advocate for women to a sappy Silhouette heroine.

In this production, she isn’t even a very effective romance heroine. Scenes between Malaya Rivera Drew, as Juana, and Dion Mucciacito, as Silvio, the handsome scoundrel she falls in love with, fall flat as soggy tortillas — no chemistry whatsoever. There’s more sizzle between Drew and Tony Plana, who plays Juana’s father confessor, although whether we’re supposed to imagine an other than intellectual and religious relationship in that case is more than I can tell.

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Amy J. Carle gives a spunky performance as the upright Sor Sara, bent on bringing Sor Juana to proper nunlike humility. She’s less successful as Juana’s protector, the vicereine, who also has a crush on the young scholar — a fact we’re told by another character rather than shown by any yearning exhibited by Carle.

Zacarías revised her 15-year-old play for the Goodman’s production, supposedly putting more emphasis on the mature Sor Juana, yet that just creates an uneven balance between anguished convent scenes and the cartoonish, cliche-ridden  comedy of the central melodrama, which features out-and-out slapstick from Joe Minoso as the foppish courtier Don Pedro and an evil Production_08scheme hokey enough for a Dudley Do-Right episode.

In another off-kilter element, Laura Crotte puckishly plays Juana’s mystical Mayan maidservant, Xochitl, as well as the Mother Superior of the convent, a conflation oddly emphasized by the director although not reinforced by the plot. Xochitl, whose presence is sometimes actual and sometimes imaginary, adds an intriguing but distracting element of magical realism that Godinez promotes yet which Zacarías barely touches on.

Distractions also extend from Todd Rosenthal‘s large and otherwise lovely set. The pillared setting segues beautifully from austere convent to viceroy’s palace, but continual scene changes involving furnishings rising from below stage or dropping from the fly space begin to seem if they were designed more to showcase the theater’s capabilities than to enhance the drama.

Sor Juana’s story is worth telling and its gaps worth speculating on, but in this piece she’s far more sinned against than sinning.

  
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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REVIEW: The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre)

Bringing humanity to an inconceivable time in history

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
The Good Negro
 
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by
Chuck Smith
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $22-$71  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A despicable act by the police impassions a spontaneous response by the community. It’s really not that black and white. The Goodman Theatre presents The Good Negro, a play about the back story on the movement to end segregation. Three black leaders are looking for a publicity moment to instigate a non-violent protest against discrimination. A four year old girl and her mother are arrested for using the good-negro11 restroom for whites. Because the mother is ‘a good Negro,’ attractive and well-spoken, the incident is prime to rally the troops. This illustration of history would have been poignant enough. A Good Negro adds in other complexities like wire-tapping, marital infidelity, and the KKK – becoming a multi-dimensional story of the internal and external strife of the civil rights movement. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson tells the powerful untold story of the politics… government, hierarchical, sexual… that interfered in the quest for racial equality in the 1960’s.

Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the cast makes an unimaginable time in history relatable. Nambi E. Kelley’s portrayal of a mother (Claudette Sullivan) in anguish is heart-breaking. Billy Eugene Jones appeals as the flawed charismatic leader James Lawrence. Struggling with his own identity issues, Teagle F. Bougere (Minister Henry Evans) effectively engages the audience with his motivational sermons. In minister mode, Bougere adds a little comedy relief as he tells a late intermission returner to ‘sit down.’ Although it’s unclear whether his character is ‘a good Negro’ or not until Act II, Demetrois Troy is perfect as the socially awkward, behind the scenes guy Bill Rutherford. Tory O. Davis (Pelzie Sullivan) portrays the simplicity of his character with surprising depth. Karen Aldridge (Corinne Lawrence) elicits applause in a pivotal scene of strength. Dan Waller (Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.) exploits the lunacy in a KKK recruitment speech based on scientific facts that ‘colored people’s blood can kill.’ The spooks are stereotypical ‘by the book’ nonsense with Mick Weber playing straight-laced and John Hoogenakker as the wise cracking sidekick.

 

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Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has gone floor to wall churchy with wooden planks covering every stage space. It effectively places the audience in a pew to watch the drama. Embedded along the back wall are strips of lighting – Robert Christen’s haunting lighting design illuminates a cross shape during congregation scenes to build the religious ambiance. Throughout the show, projected fortune cookie-like slogans prophesize a scene with ‘This is the something’ and ‘Do what you have to do.’ Mike Tutaj (projections designer) uses a biblical font to reinforce the secular foundation of the movement. Tutaj also flashes iconic imagery of photojournalist Charles Moore to set the time period. Powerful!

Realizing that, less than fifty years ago, discrimination led to unbelievable acts of cruelty to the black community – makes The Good Negro an important show to see. We can’t forget the sacrifices civil rights leaders made to forge the evolution of thought on equality. The Good Negro is an important illustration of an inconceivable time in American history.

  
 
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

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Non-Equity Jeff Awards nominees announced

chicagoatnight

2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award Nominees

 

 

Production – Play
  Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Killer Joe Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ )
The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)

 

Production – Musical
  Chess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James (review ★★½)
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Glorious Ones   Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre 

 

Director – Play
  Aaron Todd Douglas: Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Michael Menendian: Death of a SalesmanRaven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Michael Rohd: Wilson Wants It All House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
Kimberly Senior: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Rick Snyder: – Killer Joe Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)

  

Director – Musical
  Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier: Chess – Theo Ubique Theatre (review ★★½)
Jeffrey CassThe Who’s TommyCircle Theatre
Stephen M. Genovese: The Glorious Ones Boho Rep (review ★★★)
Andrew Park: Evolution/CreationQuest Theatre Ensemble  (review ★★★)

 

Ensemble
  The Glorious Ones Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Red Noses Strawdog Theatre Company
Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Under Milk Wood  Caffeine Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
  Tony Bozzuto: On an Average DayBackStage Theatre Company 
Darrell W. Cox: Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Andrew Jessop: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Peter Robel: I Am My Own Wife Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★★)
Chuck Spencer: Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre  (review ★★★½)

 

Actor in a Principle Role – Musical
  Courtney Crouse: ChessTheo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)
Tom McGunn: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Eric Damon SmithThe Glorious Ones
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Jeremy Trager: Chess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre   (review ★★½)

   

Actress in a Principle Role – Play
  Brenda BarrieMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre  (review ★★★★)
LaNisa FrederickThe Gimmick Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Millicent HurleyLettice & Lovage Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★★)
Kendra Thulin: Harper Regan Steep Theatre  (review ★★½ )
Rebekah Ward-Hays: Aunt Dan and Lemon BackStage Theatre 

 

Actress in a Principle Role – Musical
  Danielle Brothers: Man of La Mancha Theo Ubique Theatre  (review ★★★)
Sarah Hayes: Man of La ManchaTheo Ubique Theatre   (review ★★★)
Maggie PortmanChess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
  Chance Bone: Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago  (review ★★)
Jason HuysmanDeath of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Edward KuffertThe CrucibleInfamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Peter Oyloe: The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre   (review ★★★)
Phil TimberlakeBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Eric Lindahl: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Steve Kimbrough:
Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag
John B. LeenChess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
  Nancy Friedrich: The Crucible Infamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Vanessa Greenway: The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kelly Lynn HoganThe Night Season Vitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★)
Mary RedmonThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Kate GarassinoBombs Away!  – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre  
Danni Smith
The Glorious Ones  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Trista Smith: Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical  -  Hell in a Handbag
Dana Tretta
The Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

New Work
  Aaron CarterFirst Words  MPAACT (review ★★★)
Ellen FaireyGraceland Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★)
Tommy Lee JohnstonAura  Redtwist Theatre
Andrew Park and Scott Lamps
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Michael Rohd & Phillip C. KlapperichWilson Wants It All  -  The House Theatre of Chicago  (review ★★★)

 

New Adaptation
  Bilal Dardai: The Man Who Was ThursdayNew Leaf Theatre  
Sean Graney:  –
Oedipus  The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Frances LimoncelliBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Frances Limoncelli:  – Mrs. Caliban  – Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
William Massolia: Little Brother  Griffin Theatre

 

Choreography
  Kevin BellieThe Who’s Tommy  Circle Theatre
Brenda Didier
Chess   Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
James Brigitte DitmarsPoseidon! An Upside Down Musical  Hell in a Handbag Productions

 

Original Incidental Music
  Andrew Hansen: Treasure Island  -  Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Kevin O’Donnell:   -  Wilson Wants It All  -   House Theatre   (review ★★★)
Trevor WatkinThe Black Duckling  -  Dream Theatre

 

Music Direction
  Ryan BrewsterChess  – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
Gary PowellEvolution/Creation  Quest Theatre   (review ★★★)
Nick SulaThe Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

Scenic Design
  Tom BurchUncle Vanya Strawdog Theatre  (review ★★★)
Alan DonahueTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Heath HaysOn an Average Day  -   BackStage Theatre Company
Bob Knuth
The Analytical Engine  Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
Bob KnuthLittle Women  -   Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
John Zuiker:   I Am My Own Wife  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Lighting Design
  Diane FairchildThe Gimmick  -  Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Kevin D. Gawley: Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Sean MallarySt. Crispin’s Day  – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Jared B. MooreThe Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre
Katy PetersonI Am My Own Wife
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Costume Design
  Theresa HamThe Glorious Ones  -  Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★)
Branimira IvanovaTreasure Island  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Joanna MelvilleSt. Crispin’s Day  -  Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Jill Van BrusselThe Taming of the Shrew  Theo Ubique  (review  ★★★)
Elizabeth WislarThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Sound Design
  Mikhail FikselOedipus The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Michael GriggsWilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre (review ★★★)
Andrew HansenTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)  
Joshua HorvathMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre (review ★★★★)
Miles PolaskiMouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Artistic Specialization
  Kevin Bellie: Projection Design, The Who’s Tommy  -   Circle Theatre
Elise Kauzlaric: Dialect Coach, 
Busman’s Honeymoon  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Lucas Merino: Video Design, Wilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
James T. Scott:  Puppets, Evolution/Creation Quest Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Fight Choreography
  Geoff Coates: On An Average Day  -  BackStage Theatre Company
Geoff Coates
Treasure Island  Lifeline Theatre   (review ★★★½)
Matt HawkinsSt. Crispin’s DayStrawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
R & D ChoreographyKiller Joe  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½  )

 

More info at the Jeff Awards website.

   
   

REVIEW: The Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre)

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep

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Goodman Theatre presents:

The Long Red Road

 

by Brett C. Leonard
directed by
Philip Seymour Hoffman
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep. Such is the sad, irrefutable wisdom of The Long Red Road, where that reason proves relentlessly elusive. In playwright Brett C. Leonard’s stark, devastated landscape, bodies are physically wrecked by alcohol, hearts spiritually wracked by alcoholics.

Production_08 “I’m afraid I’ll always be thirsty,” says Sam (Tom Hardy), an alcoholic for whom every new day offers a thousand good reasons to die. Hardy’s delivery of the line sends shivers down the spine. There is no quenching this kind of thirst, only the temporary escape of blackouts. Sam isn’t alone in the conclusion that the unbearable heaviness of being is all but unendurable. Each of the six tormented souls in The Long Red Road is wandering through a desert, the unshakable ache of the relocation muscatel blues chasing them like arid Furies.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman orchestrates the piece like a conductor shaping a symphony. A slow, deliberate crescendo of damage builds shock upon shock, none of them gratuitous, all of them wrenching. Leonard’s dialogue is spare; some scenes are all but monosyllabic, others entirely wordless. With the economy of poetry, Leonard makes every word count. The suffering on stage hits hard, the lack of extraneous frills in the staging making it all the more intense. A small oval of light in a sea of darkness pinpoints the stunning damage to a 13-year-old girl as she’s being raped by a close family member. An overflowing ashtray and a small FedEx box indicate the pathetic remnants of a life lost to whiskey. A barn ladder is an entry try way to the sins of the father, monstrosities inflicted through generations, ensuring generations of monsters to come.

Production_06 Yet for all that, The Long Red Road is profoundly optimistic. It gives nothing away to say that in the final scene, there’s a baptism by fire as an inferno consumes a silent, sinister monument to decades of abuse and awful secrets. Sex, throughout most of the play defined by fear, hate, and loss, becomes a powerfully redemptive celebration of forgiveness and unconventional beauty in the last scene. Characters who have been waiting all their lives for confirmation that they are, in fact, human beings of value, potential and goodness receive that confirmation. That it comes from beyond the grave is tragic. That it comes at all is reason for joy.

At the crux of Leonard’s harrowing drama are two brothers: Sammy (Hardy, utterly convincing as a drunk hurtling toward the point of no return) and Bob (Chris McGarry, simultaneously repulsive and profoundly empathetic portraying a man as damaged as he is damaging). Leonard gives us the backstory in atmospheric slashes of exposition, leaving the audience to connect-the-wounds as the picture slowly comes into focus.

After a horrific, completely preventable car accident led Sammy to abandon his wife Sandra (Katy Sullivan, whose flat affect is imbued with infinite shadings of conflicting love, hate, fear and stony self-reliance) and daughter Tasha (10th grader Fiona Robert in an astoundingly nuanced performance that displays range and depth well beyond her years).

Nine years after the accident, Bob is overwhelmed, tortured and enraged by demons warping his desire to do right by his inherited family into something terrible. Sammy is drinking himself to death in the dead-end town of Little Eagle, South Dakota, his school teacher girlfriend Annie (Greta Honold, a near-perfect depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic, trying to save the drunk boyfriend stand-in for her drunk father) patiently, choosing not to see the dead-end in the depths of Sammy’s “drunk, bloodshot, bullshit eyes.”

“You’re probably waiting on someone I ain’t never gonna be,” Sammy says one night, a razor-blade shard of truth slicing up through the seemingly endless torrent of repellent self-delusion that keeps him (barely) alive. That is, of course, exactly what Annie is waiting for. The moment illustrates the power of Leonard’s language and of Hoffman’s astute direction: It is instilled with the sorrow of a million lost drunks, that rare sliver of inescapable reality that propels one irrevocably toward either recovery or death.

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For Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), the Native American bartender at the ironically named Red Road bar (the red road, Clifton explains, is the Native American phrase for sobriety ), Sammy’s increasingly self-destructive binges are the symptoms of a deeply diseased man.

When the bar’s patrons – fed up with Sam’s cringingly offensive rants – decide to tie Sam to a truck axel and drag him through the Reservation (with a sign proclaiming the likes of “I’m a racist honky” around his neck), Clifton steps in and saves him. Akiaten is a largely silent wonder, dispensing tequila shots with the judgment free stony-eyed compassion that comes from a stone-solid foundation inner strength. This is a man who has fought the Furies and won – at least for today in a one-day-at-a-time recovery process that will never pass into the past tense. Clifton’s recovering, never recovered. Akiatenin captures that beautifully, craggy face reflecting the never-ending battle of turning away from a bottle while living with an endless, unquenchable thirst.

Stories of alcoholics are rarely ground-breaking – there’s nothing new about the saga of a drunk who leaves his family in ruins. But this particular tale is so authentic that it transcends its well-trod genre. When Sandra screams that Sammy “took my legs,” the moment is as raw and real as theater get, primarily because Sullivan is a phenomenal actor but secondarily because she was born without legs. The Long Red Road is defined by such veracity – startling,  moving and at times, difficult to bear in its stark authenticity.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Hoffman, he can always fall back on directing.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

VIDEO: Playwright Brett C. Leonard discusses his play

 

 

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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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