REVIEW: The Trinity River Plays (Goodman Theatre)

  
  

A hilarious yet complicated bouquet of family and tradition

  
 

Iris (Karen Aldridge) (center couch) returns home to find nothing has changed in the past 17 years as (l to r) Daisy (Jacqueline Williams), Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) and Jasmine (Christiana Clark) dance around the house. Photo by Eric Y. Exit

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Trinity River Plays
  
Written by Regina Taylor
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $25-$78  |  more info 

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘You don’t start a garden by digging. You start it by dreaming.’ Goodman Theatre presents the world premiere of The Trinity River Plays. Playwright Regina Taylor has penned three one act plays: Jarfly, Rain, and Ghoststory. The compilation follows Iris Spears from happy, precocious, awkward seventeen year-old to detached, reserved, successful thirty-six year old. Iris is a budding storyteller. Rose has nurtured her daughter’s growth from bulb to bloom. Aunt Daisy tends the hothouse in her sister’s absence. Cousin Jasmine pushes a little weed to get Iris to blossom. Deflowering! Jack (Samuel Ray Gates) comes over to thank Iris (Karen Aldridge) for helping him with his schoolwork. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.Iris pulls up her roots and transplants away from her family. Fifteen years later, a return home digs up buried secrets and withering relationships. The Trinity River Plays is a complicated and hilarious bouquet of family drama.

The playwright has picked distinct, rich characters for a colorful arrangement. Taylor’s dialogue is organic and natural. Under the direction of Ethan McSweeny, this talented cast IS family. The relations are the familiar and unexplainable ties that bind and sometimes suffocate. In the lead, Karen Aldridge (Iris) engages as a lovable geek. In Jarfly, Aldridge’s ability to connect as a confident, cock-eyed optimist makes her later severed linkage to home and self that much more tragic. At the end of Jarfly and Rain, Aldridge’s movements haunt with raw emotion. Bringing continuous comedy relief, Christiana Clark (Cousin Jasmine) is a delicious combination of grandiosity and audacity. Aided visually by Valerie Gladstone (wig and hair design) and Karen Perry (costume design), Clark is a hot mess! Bringing more humor, Jacqueline Williams (Aunt Daisy) cackles with the wise musings of a woman on psychotropic medication. Williams delivers one liners to sassy perfection. Not appearing until the second play, Penny Johnson Jerald (Iris’s mother Rose) gives a complex portrayal as estranged mother, loving sister and enabling aunt.

Jerald stays indifferent to Aldridge making the mom-daughter alienation difficult to understand. Without spoiling a plot point, a story shift helps Jerald to showcase a softer and playful side.

     
Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) tries to understand her niece while coping with her sister's illness. Photo by Eric Y. Exit. Jasmine (Christiana Clark) dreams of moving to New York City and becoming a famous dancer/choreographer.
Frank (Jefferson A. Russell) makes a surprise visit to see Iris at her Texas home. Photo by Eric Y. Exit. Karen Aldridge and Penny Johnson Jerald - Goodman Theatre Iris (Karen Aldridge) is reacquainted with her high school crush Frank (Samuel Ray Gates). Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

From entry into the theatre, it’s all about the garden. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has a 70’s ‘Brady Bunch’-like house as a backdrop. In front of it is a beautiful garden. An abundance of vibrant flowers is a delightful sight (especially during Chicago winters). And it’s real! Throughout the show, dirt is shoveled and flowers are planted. The garden is watered by hose and rain. The effect is impactful realism.

Playwright Regina Taylor has written and promoted The Trinity River Plays as three separate plays. In actuality, it’s one play about one family. Taylor’s solid family dysfunction is experienced the best possible way with a lot of laughter. Trying to keep The Trinity River Plays separate entities adds to the length and loose pacing. Scene transitions have prolonged black-outs that sometimes confuse as intermission cues. Pulling it together as “The Trinity River PLAY”  (singular!) will tighten up the action – including eliminating one of the two intermissions – allowing this work to bloom and flourish from daisies to rose bushes. I do love daisies but roses make a stronger statement.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

(l to r) Iris (Karen Aldridge) and Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) prepare dinner while Frank (Jefferson A. Russell) and Jack (Samuel Ray Gates) get acquainted in the yard. Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Trinity River Plays continues through February 20th, playing Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $25-$78.  Go to www.goodmantheatre.org for more info.

Running Time: Three hours and fifteen minutes, which includes two intermissions.

        
        

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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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Review: "Twelfth Night" at Chicago Shakes

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic scenes, Malvolio (Larry Yando, left), believing he has found a love letter from his mistress Olivia, fantasizes about his life as her husband, to the amusement of the eavesdropping Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney), Fabian (Dan Sanders-Joyce), and Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck). In the years after the play premiered, the character of Malvolio was so popular that the play was often titled Malvolio and abridged to feature him. William Shakespeare will turn 445 this week and, as Chicago is celebrating with “Talk Like Shakespeare Day,” daring productions of two of the Bard’s best comedies can be seen here in the hippest theatre city in the country. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a decently straightforward production with one major exception: some members of the audience might want to bring ponchos. Combining Shakespeare with Sea World, director Josie Rourke’s Twelfth Night adds a wet level of fun to the already hilarious play.

Shakespeare’s plot, if you recall, centers around the shipwrecked Viola (Michelle Beck), who finds herself stuck in the fantastical Illyria and disguises herself as a male page for the local Duke Orsino (Mark Montgomery) and then goes on to fall in love with him. The duke, though, is in love with Olivia (Karen Aldridge), who actually ends up falling for the Duke’s effeminate page. Of course, hilarity ensues and the misadventures of a few drunks, clowns, and a particularly rigid steward punctuate the romantic chaos.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre imported Josie Rourke and scenic/costume designer Lucy Osborne from Britain, where both of them are acclaimed for their work in classical and contemporary theatre. For Twelfth Night, Osborne filled the thrust stage with 7,000 gallons of water allowing the actors to dive, swim, and slip amidst some of Shakespeare’s wittiest dialogue. Upstage of the thrust, dock-inspired platforms and walls form a giant heart. The production isn’t really anachronistic; the characterizations and costumes are period (although everyone sports bare feet to avoid slipping). Unfortunately, why they chose to set the play in a pool is not really made clear; the wet envisioning of Illyria doesn’t really illuminate much in the text. Rourke and her actors find brilliant ways to use the water, though, including water-wings, inflated pants, and dousing the first few rows. So, with the exception of an accidental trip or two, the pier on top of a (Navy) pier never actually detracts from the play in a significant way.

Under the watchful eye of her household steward Malvolio (Larry Yando, right), and her gentlewoman Maria (Ora Jones, second from left), Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) listens to the clown Feste (Ross Lehman, second from right) as he tries to make her laugh. The forces of rule—the denial of desire and the refusal of ordinary pleasure, as represented by Malvolio—suit Olivia in her mourning. In Early Modern England, the Twelfth Night of Christmas was celebrated as a festival of misrule, with masques and revels presented as entertainment. Shakespeare’s play does not indicate the time of year, but the spirit of the holiday permeates the play. Enjoying the pleasures of misrule and uninhibited appetite, Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck, left), Maria (Ora Jones, center), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney, right) carouse late into the night, and devise a cruel prank to punish the censorious Malvolio. Viola (Michelle Beck, front), who disguises herself as “Cesario,” is sent by Duke Orsino with members of his court (from left, Jonathan Helvey, Brandon Ford, Edgar Miguel Sanchez) to woo Lady Olivia, unleashing a series of secret and inopportune desires. Shakespeare often wrote cross-dressing comic heroines, including Portia, Imogen and Rosalind, but only Viola has the distinction of meeting the man she loves after she assumes her male disguise.

Although the soggy setting doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about Shakespeare’s words, the performances revel in the language. Aldridge makes a fascinating Olivia, ranging from frosty indifference to giddiness. Her unexpected choices allow her to join in the fun. The adorable Beck navigates Viola beautifully, often appealing to the audience for support regarding her bizarre situation. The gang of drunks, knaves, and fools is a major joy of this production. Scott Jaeck’s boisterous convincing performance as the swaggering, constantly inebriated Sir Toby Belch makes one wonder what liquid exactly is in the mugs and Ross Lehman is hysterical as the fool Feste, who seems very aware that he may actually be the wisest person in Illyria. A delightfully narcissistic Larry Yando is their fun-squashing victim Malvolio. The motley crew functions beautifully as a group and provides a ridiculous subplot to the considerably more sober romantic confusion.

A few of the moments fall flat because actors are timid to trust the inherent humor in the language and push the comedy too hard. Dan Kenney as the blockheaded Andrew Aguecheek is one of the guiltiest, although he makes up for it somewhat whenever he trips into the pool.

Twelfth Night begins with three brief scenes in three locations on the coast of Illyria, each introducing a different thread of the complex plotting of the play. In the first scene, pleasure is mixed with pain in both Duke Orsino’s (Mark L. Montgomery, center) love of music and the Countess Olivia, who, in mourning for her brother, refuses to entertain the Duke’s offer of love. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night begins sadly. Viola (Michelle Beck, center), washed ashore after a shipwreck and believing her twin brother Sebastian drowned, appeals to the Sea Captain (John Lister, right) for help disguising herself as a boy. The story of long-lost twins whose unrecognized reunion causes endless confusion has remained a convention of drama since the earliest Roman comedies. Responding to the deaths of their brothers, Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) and Viola (Michelle Beck, right) are a study in contrasts. Life-affirming, Viola dresses as her brother and falls in love with the handsome and rich Duke Orsino. Olivia withdraws from the world, until she is unveiled by the Duke’s page “Cesario”—and, in that exchange, falls in love.

Rourke’s soaked imagining of Illyria isn’t too crazy of a concept; it does work way better than setting it in outer space or in the ‘80’s. However, the supposed metaphor of the water is never very clear; it doesn’t really function as some sort of transformative, mysterious, or magical element. Luckily, Twelfth Night is a fun script, and splashing around in water is really fun. What Rourke does prove is that pool parties, even Renaissance-era ones, are always a blast.

Rating: «««½

All pictures beautifully photographed by Liz Lauren.  A full list of the cast and the creative team can be found by clicking on “Read more”.

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