Review: The Hot L Baltimore (Steppenwolf Theatre)

     
     

Grit and sass can’t carry a play

     
     

Molly Regan, Yasen Peyankov, Allison Torem, Namir Smallwood

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
The Hot L Baltimore
 
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Tina Landau
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

For the most part, there are two types of plays: character-based and plot-based. But the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new production, The Hot L Baltimore, exemplifies a third category—the thematic play. Rather than focus on fleshing out characters or exciting the audience with a compelling story, this third category aims to meditate on a concept. What plays out is a dramatic allegory that is rooted more in poetry than prose.

Kate Arrignton and Namir SmallwoodAnd although there certainly is beauty to be found in such an ethereal script, there’s not a lot of meat. The Hot L Baltimore, which was written by recently deceased playwright Lanford Wilson, features a cast of more than a dozen characters. With so many personalities and such surface level characterization, it’s difficult to develop a fondness for anyone in particular. And the story, which revolves around the impending demolition of an old hotel, is definitely existential in nature. But rather than having the absurd charm of a Waiting for Godot, The Hot L Baltimore is a slice-of-life. So we’re stuck in this realistic drama, left to watch the hotel’s inhabitants wait. And watching a bunch of people wait doesn’t really fuel a play forward.

The Hot L Baltimore centers around a once grand hotel that has become old and dilapidated. It has been announced that it will be demolished, which riles up its eclectic cast of inhabitants, including a number of prostitutes, a sickly kvetching old man and a brother-sister duo with big dreams. The motley crew interact in the hotel’s lobby, their sad pasts and unfortunate presents always undulating beneath each conversation.

Not much really happens throughout the course of the play. A few incidents arise that register a slight uptick on the EKG meter of entertainment. For instance, a young man (Samuel Taylor) arrives looking for information on his missing grandfather. Suzy (Kate Arrington), one of the hotel’s hookers, gets into a fight with a client. Meanwhile, Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) discover, to their chagrin, that the farmland they purchased is as fertile as the Sahara.

Don’t get me wrong. These are interesting people. And the parallel between the tarnished glitz of the hotel and the residents’ destitute lives is an interesting metaphor. But that’s just not enough steam to power this locomotive. And so by the end of the very long first act, I hoped that what I just saw was lengthy exposition and that the pay off would come in act two. But the pay off never came. The play just ends, as eventfully as it started.

    
Ensemble member James Vincent Meredith and Jacqueline Williams Ensemble member Kate Arrignton, De'Adre Aziza and Allison Torem
Ensemble member Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza Namir Smallwood, ensemble member Alana Arenas and ensemble member James Vincent Meredith Ensemble member Molly Regan, Jacqueline Williams and Samuel Taylor

As esteemed as Wilson may be, I fail to see how this is a good script. It’s got a lot of potential. Attitude, sass, grit and humor. But these things are intangibles. Without a character or a story to ground us, all the sass in the world can’t save a play.

Director Tina Landau, who is also incredibly accomplished, faced a challenge with bringing this work to life. I enjoy the simultaneous action she injects into the production. Characters meander around the two-story set, exemplifying the vibrancy that inhabits this dying hotel. But there is something lost here that not even Landau can find, and that’s providing an explanation for why we should care. Landau tries to address this by spotlighting characters and underscoring monologues with sappy music. But these devices come off as awkward and contrived.

If there is any reason to see this play, it’s because of the acting. The entire cast delivers fantastic performances. Standouts include de’Adre Aziza as the feisty smart-talking call girl April, and Namir Smallwood as the feeble young man who is in the custody of his hotheaded sister.

The Hot L Baltimore is one of those plays that has lost its relevance with time. The grit of yesterday is today’s old news. And the concept of a dying America has been portrayed more artfully. Meanwhile, Landau’s heavy-handed treatment isn’t much of a help. At least some redemption can be found in the cast.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, Allison Torem and Jacqueline Williams. Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Hot L Baltimore continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 29th, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm.  Wednesday matinees on May 11, 18 & 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are $20-$73, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 335-1650.

 

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REVIEW: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Hubris)

     
     

An Ordinary Love Story

     
     

Kitchen.FandJ copy

   
Hubris Productions presents
   
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
  
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by
Jacob Christopher Green
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through December 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly sentimental about Terrence McNally’s 1987 anti-romance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The titular lovers are not typical rom-com fare. For one, they are both pushing forty. They are famously plain in appearance. Neither has a glamorous occupation nor ambition—they work at a greasy spoon, Frankie as a waitress, Johnny as a short-order cook. Both are heavy with emotional baggage. Not sexy, lurid baggage, but run-of-the-mill, pathetic baggage—domestic abuse, divorce, and alcoholism. Yet, the couple discover, repudiate, and battle for a deep, life-or-death level of love. McNally’s thesis is that this sort of passion is not the exclusive privilege of movie star queens and high school quarterbacks. It can even bloom in a cheap apartment in a dingy New York neighborhood. Hubris Productions’ production, directed by Jacob Christopher Green, captures the essence of McNally’s quirky, utterly ordinary love story.

Window.FandJ copySMFrankie and Johnny has one set, two actors, and two acts. It takes place over one long, emotion-fueled night. Johnny (Dennis Frymire) is a lover of Shakespeare, and is convinced that he and Frankie (Patricia Savieo) are meant for each other. She’s not as sure. In fact, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Johnny is a lunatic. And she may be right. His overwhelming love of romance is unique, to say the least.

Frymire and Savieo, both Hubris ensemble members, seem completely comfortable with the material, even the extended nudity which starts the show with a bang (literally). The characters come naturally to the duo, whether they’re making love or post-coital meatloaf sandwiches. Most importantly, neither falls into melodrama nor overplays Frankie and Johnny’s quiet desperation.

Savieo is definitely the most fascinating to watch of the two. She lights up the stage. We see that her heart has been stomped on before, so she proceeds with caution and, occasionally, cynicism. Her slow warming-up to Johnny is what drives most of the action, and Savieo handles that arc with grace and strength. The powerful need to keep her heart guarded is evident.

Frymire, on the other hand, can be one-note at times. He gets across Johnny’s enthusiasm, but sometimes at the expense of his charm. He pushes the crazy too hard, an easy crevasse to fall into. He is obviously having fun up there, but it makes him come off as a creep more than he should. The audience starts to wonder why Frankie doesn’t get the police on the line. By the second act, however, he regains some composure and we eat up the delightful finale, which doesn’t feel forced at all.

McNally comes from a school of ‘80s playwrights, an academy that includes John Patrick Shanley and Lanford Wilson, which loves gritty, dynamic love stories. If we want to talk superficial genre specifics we would classify Frankie and Johnny as a comedy. But the play isn’t afraid to dwell on ruinous relationships or drop a bag of f-bombs. Green’s biggest problem is finding the humor. There are some mild chuckles here and there, but the comedy never truly pops in Hubris’ production. The probable cause is that Green’s pacing isn’t as tight as it should be. The actors’ energy falls through the cracks. Frymire, when trying to be weird in ill-fated attempts at laughs, is a good example. Fortunately, McNally’s text is also dramatically complex, so the production stays together.

Frankie and Johnny is about finding magic in a very un-fairy tale world. Green, Frymire, and Savieo all find it, and they present it to us on a platter. The last few moments, which feature Johnny and Frankie watching the sun rise on another day in the city, are pure joy. Out of incredibly everyday people and emotions, Hubris is able to whip up romance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Ghosts (Boho Theatre)

    

The Burdens of Shame and Seasonal Affective Disorder

 

Saren Nofs-Snyer and Cast

  
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Ghosts
  
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by
Lanford Wilson
Directed by
Peter Marston Sullivan
through July 18th  | 
tickets: $17-$20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps most of Henrik Ibsen’s work can be summed up thus: a study of driven, lusty and regretful Norwegian birds, trapped in their gilded (sometimes not so gilded) bourgeois cage. Hence, the removal of the fourth wall, which isn’t really removed, just made transparent–theatrically turned to glass in order to examine these lovely, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Steve O'Connell haunted Norwegians under glass, as if they were the subjects of scientific inquiry. Make no mistake, the fourth wall is just as imprisoning as the other three and perhaps it is crueler, since it allows for the audience’s voyeuristic attentions.

Well, since there is no escape for the birds, you might as well watch. Plus, what could be more diverting than a family’s shameful secrets? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bohemian Theatre’s production of Ghosts is to make the burdens of shame, judgment and disgrace experienced by these characters as immediate and tangible to the audience as it is for them.

Peter Marston Sullivan’s direction is meticulous and forthright; it gives Ghosts’ excellent cast the right structure to work their naturalist chops to the max; and the new translation that they work with by Lanford Wilson is fresh and clear. Yet the overall production, while artful and technically accurate, still feels far too removed and lacking in immediacy. Make no mistake—this is a jewel of a production, a pretty jewel with interesting, exact and glimmer facets. But it also misses that special something that compels a viewer toward empathy; it feels far too removed in its period setting to involve the audience in its web of secrets and lies, judgments and shame.

If there is one thing that Boho’s particular experiment/production proves, it’s that what scandalized the general public a little more than a century ago no longer comes close to shocking us. Bohemian prodigal son Oswald Alving (Charles Riffenburg) spars with Reverend Manders (Steve O’Connell) over the naturalness and appropriateness of family life among his unmarried Parisian artistic friends. But, in spite of its power to scandalize in 19th-century terms, heterosexual cohabitation without “the benefit of clergy” no longer raises an eyebrow in these sexually amorphous times. Love the 60’s Sexual Revolution or hate it, the bohemian life isn’t bohemian anymore; it’s mainstream.

Even a boyfriend or husband enjoying pornography doesn’t hold the charge that it once did. Now, a boss cheating on his wife with his assistant, under the same roof as the wife; then marrying her pregnant ass off to someone else—that definitely still holds potent sleazy power. All the same, bosses and their mistresses are such a common alternative to heterosexual monogamy they practically deserve their own healthcare plan.

 

Sean Thomas and Florence Ann Romano Charles Riffenburg, Saren Nofs-Snyder, Steve O'Connell
Florence Ann Romano and Sean Thomas Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder 2

Finally, Ibsen’s hint of incest in this play could tantalize our modern audience, but even that scandalous element becomes diffused when our tragic heroine, Mrs. Helen Alving (Saren Nofs-Snyder) considers the potential of marriage between her son Oswald to her maid, his secret half-sister, Regina (Florence Ann Romano). For her, it would be no worse than any everyday match between first cousins in rural Norway.

So much for sexual shock and awe.  So the question needs to be asked: what remains now to draw audiences to this work again? When all else fails, try the relationships. There is a time to produce an elegant tribute to an old master and then there’s a time to present the play for what it is—melodrama. Sophisticated, psychologically adept and intellectually stimulating melodrama, but melodrama nevertheless—we have come to observe these birds in order to learn the heart’s filthy lesson.

Sadly, the central relationship in this play between Mrs. Alving and Reverend Manders just doesn’t have the chemistry to propel this play’s excessive exposition forward. O’Connell knows how to strike Manders’ stiff, controlling and judgmental pose but one finds, through the bulk of the play, not enough contrasting nuance within his performance as to self-doubt within the good reverend over the validity of his own views.

Mrs. Alving has grown in her intellectual thinking since the first day she ran, a shocked and impressionable newlywed, from her perverse husband’s side to Reverend Manders for succor and advice. But Manders’ parochial views on sexuality, family and duty seem to have frozen him in time. Any possible romance between them becomes thwarted by a horrible lack of timing. Yet in some ways this play is about a little revolution in the reverend’s perspective—brought on by Mrs. Alving’s disabuse of his man-crush on her husband. It’s a change in Manders that is too little, too late for Mrs. Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder Alving to reap anything like the hope of love in her life. I am afraid that O’Connell’s final reveal of Manders’ feelings for Mrs. Alving, in the second half of this one-act, is also too little, too late. Underneath the stiff control that the Reverend demonstrates and advocates, the audience still must see some turmoil of the uncertain man.

Likewise, Riffenburg’s performance of Oswald seems to lack the anxiety of yearning, love-deprived, and blighted youth. Even in Ibsen’s time, the stereotype of the bohemian artist dying from an unnamable, congenital disease was, unfortunately, a cliché, and now it is even more so. Riffenburg has the burden of making this cliché breathe with anxious life, but unfortunately his performance just doesn’t reach the mark. Here is a role rich in longing—longing for life, for freedom, for truth, beauty and, most of all, the sun. “The bad boy is back,” Oswald announces to Reverend Manders as he makes his first entrance. But Oswald is also the SAD boy and by that I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ibsen is so psychologically correct in assigning this condition at a powerful metaphorical place in this drama—unnamed in his own time, much like Oswald’s congenital illness. Despite his youth, Ozzie is resolutely certain about his own views on life in his verbal joust with Reverend Manders. But his uncertainty lies in whether he was ever loved, either by his perverse father or his duty-bound mother, and that should visibly inform his drive for life at its premature end.

That leaves Nofs-Snyder to carry this shows dilemmas of shame, guilt and judgment—especially everyone’s judgment on her choices and behavior under exacting marital conditions. We are fortunate to have a grand actress in this role. Her portrayal of Mrs. Alving virtually writhes with adamant conviction, disgraced and humiliated position, loss of real love or understanding, and total loss of control over the essential affairs and relationships in her life. Dressed in a striking brocaded red gown (Sarah Putnam, costume design), Mrs. Alving comes across as the queen bee of this production—and a brilliant, poor, haunted queen bee she is.

As for the supporting roles, Sean Thomas as Jakkob Engstrand and Florence Ann Romano as Regina Engstrand make a great sleazy father and gold-digging daughter duo. Thomas’ Engstrand is a delightfully cunning Norwegian step-n-fetchit. Who knew that such hackneyed roles were also written for white people?

The production values for this black box theater offer highly imaginative, cunningly wrought and absolutely laudable effects. Anders Jacobson’s scenic design, Katy Peterson’s lighting, and Lewis Miller’s sound design produce an absolute feast for eye and ear. They, like the set, are a house on fire.

Boho Theatre’s production is so lovely to look at, so correct in execution—but still, how badly it needs a filthy, filthy heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Steve O'Connell and Saren Nofs-Snyder

all photos courtesy of Brandon Dahlquist

 

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Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

Review: Oak Park Theatre Festival’s “Fifth of July”

The sequel to Wilson's acclaimed Talley's Folly, which was produced by Festival Theatre in 2007. Set in rural Missouri in 1977, it revolves around the Talley family and their friends, and focuses on the disillusionment with America in the wake of an unpopular war. At once poignent and marvelously funny, Fifth of July is a compassionate portrait of a generation trying to decide whether to abandon their past or find the courage to cope with it and to begin anew. In 1978 Fifth of July was nominated for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play and the Tony Award for Best Play. For 35 years, the Oak Park Theatre Festival has used its outdoor location to give their productions an authentic vibe and to allow their audiences to enjoy the summer weather while enjoying theatre. This works particularly well for staging Shakespearean works, which, after all, were originally produced in an open-air setting. In more recent years they have staged more modern plays in their slice of Austin Gardens’ park, carefully selecting plays that already have an outdoor setting, like William Inge’s “Picnic.” Set in the front rooms and yard of an old Missouri home, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July is a perfect fit for the festival’s aesthetic. Considering the production runs through June and July, it also helps that the play takes place on Independence Day and the morning following. The play is perfectly suited for a staging in a park, but the story and themes are muddled in their current production by some indecisive approaches to the play.

Fifth of July is part of a trilogy documenting the American experience of the Talley family living in Lebanon, Missouri, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, Talley’s Follies. The play takes place in 1977 and showcases the disillusionment of that era. The protagonist, Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Stef Tovar), is a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His sister, June Talley (Lydia Berger), was a former hippie and now is struggling as a single mom. Both of them find little to celebrate on Independence Day. They have a big gathering of family and friends, including their Aunt Sally (Kate Kisner) and married friends John and Gwen (Brandon Dahlquist and Rebekah Ward-Hays). The holiday festivities quickly sour when friends and family start bickering about jobs, custody, and the price of the Talley household.

5th of July - poster Pamela Maurer and Alexis Vejar’s set, basically a house with select cuts made in a few of the walls, makes great use of the surroundings. The setting allows for some great stage pictures; conversations could be happening in one area of the house while other characters can be chilling out on the porch or lawn, lighting up the entire space instead of just one corner.

While director Michael Weber succeeds at balancing the stage, he fails at telling a truly cohesive story. It was difficult for me to follow any particular narrative. Important plot points weren’t really served up in any way, voiding the production of an accessible story. Instead of juggling the multiple subplots while supporting Ken’s main story (a decision of whether or not to return to teaching at his old high school), all of the stories were muddled together and none of them came out fully formed. Most of the performances were decent, although some were too over-the-top. A problem that a couple of actors had, which also contributed to the garbled narrative, was synthesizing high emotional distress almost without warning. Instead of building the tension, characters would be chatting to one another and then one would be shouting or crying all of a sudden, which doesn’t work with Lanford’s script. A technical issue that might have added to this was that the set was littered with floor mics, which I suppose helped the actors’ voices compete with passing planes and cicadas, but they also amplified every step and door slam to a distracting level. It might be a necessary evil in order for the dialogue to be heard, but it also took a toll on the overall storytelling.

Still, the Oak Park Theatre Festival is a good time, and is especially suited to summer in Chicago. One thing I learned from the locals, though, is that you should bring plenty of wine, food, and bug spray. Enjoying theatre al fresco, even if it’s not of the highest caliber, is still its own fun experience.

Rating: ««½

 
Cast and Crew
Lydia Berger (June)
Danny Bernardo (Jed)
Brandon Dahlquist* (John)
Charles Gardner (Wes)
Glynis Gilio (Shirley)
Rebekah Ward-Hays (Gwen)
Kate Kisner (Sally)
Stef Tovar* (Ken)
Kieran Welsh-Phillips (u/s Gwen & June)
Director: Michael Weber*
Stage Manager: Robert W Behr*
Costume: Ricky Lurie
Lights: Jeremy Getz
Sound: Kyle Irwin
Set: El Fish
House Manager: Jeff Weisman
Box Office: Mary Liming
* denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

This week’s show openings, closings, ticket specials

chicago_from_adler

show openings

Charlotte’s Web Theatre-Hikes

Consume Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Earth: TTFN?! – WWS Productions

Improvised Shakespeare Company Theater on the Lake

An Urban Home Companion Gorilla Tango Theatre

Wanted Gorilla Tango Theatre

What We May Be Gorilla Tango Theatre

 

show closings

Clitoris Stories Cornservatory 

A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians Trap Door Theatre

The Ride Down Mount Morgan Redtwist Theatre 

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change? The Second City e.t.c.

Women with Manners Annoyance Theatre

 

special ticket offers

 

$10 tickets to A Song for Coretta by Pearl Cleage at Eclipse Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Eclipse is offering $10 tickets to the Thursday, July 2nd, Friday, July 3rd & Saturday, July 4th at 8:30 p.m, and Sunday July 5th at 3:30 p.m. performances. Call the box office at 773-404-7336 and mention "industry discount".  Visit http://www.eclipsetheatre.com for more details. 

$5 off tickets to 5th of July by Lanford Wilson at Oak Park Festival Theatre, 100 block of North Forest Avenue, Oak Park. Discount available only on Thursday night performances:  Additionally, Wednesdays July 1 and 8 are student/senior nights: tickets for students/seniors are only $10.  Visit http://oakparkfestival.com for more information.

Theater Thursday: ‘5th of July’

Thursday, July 2

5th of July by Lanford Wilson
Oak Park Festival Theatre
Austin Gardens, Oak Park

5thofjulypicKick off the 4th of July holiday weekend a day early with Lanford Wilson‘s sequel to Talley’s Folly. A compassionate ensemble portrait of a generation trying to decide how to cope with the idealism of the 60’s. At once poignant and marvelously funny.  Prior to the performance there will be an opportunity to meet and talk with actors from the production, with appetizers courtesy of Wishbone Restaurant.

Event begins at 6:45 p.m.

Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $22 for adults, $17 for students and seniors
For reservations call 708.445.4440 and mention "Theater Thursdays" or buy online at http://oakparkfestival.org with code "ThTh."

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Theater Thursday is sponsored by this Chicago-area restaurant guide, as well as Chicago area bar guide,
 a great site for Chicago foodies and theater enthusiasts alike.