Review: The Front Page (TimeLine Theatre)

  
  

Updated: Now extended through July 17th!!

TimeLine’s signature dramaturgy venerates classic media satire

  
  

Editor Walter Burns (Terry Hamilton, right) and reporter Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, left) work the phones as the biggest story of the year breaks around them in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

  
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
The Front Page
      
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Directed by Nick Bowling
at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map
thru July 17 (extended!)  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Former Chicago newspaper men Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur took aim at city politics, print journalism, corrupt justice practices, and even themselves in their scathing 1928 comedy about a Windy City press room. So what was their ax to grind?
Far as I could tell, they didn’t have one. Even as they unmercifully and repeatedly jab at their subjects, most of which are barely sheathed caricatures of then-contemporary real-life figures, you can read some smiles between Hecht and MacArthur’s searing lines. The Front Page lampoons Jazz Age Chicago the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerate 21st century pop culture week after week on South Park—with a dash of anarchy and a palpable love for their targets. It’s one of the reasons why this TimeLine revival of a historic work is actually funny.

Peggy Grant (Bridgette Pechman Clarno, left) isn’t so sure that Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, right) is ready to leave his life as a reporter to get married in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara GoetschAnother is director Nick Bowling and artistic director PJ Powers’ willingness to play up the show’s silliness without playing down the characters’ grotesque flaws; these journalists are brash, lazy, immature, dishonest, misogynistic, racist buffoons. Maybe it was my imagination, but at a few points, I swear some were audibly farting on stage. When the most sympathetic man in the office is an escaped murderer, you know you’re working with a real handful…

Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers) makes a break from the boy’s club and heads to New York with his fiancé (Bridgette Pechman Clarno), or at least tries to before a death row inmate escapes from his office’s neighboring jail. The ensuing chaos exposes incompetence and corruption at every level of the city, from the opportunistic editors, to the deal making politicians, to the incapable police officers, to the dishonest reporters. Hilariously, too absorbed in troubles of their own making, the actual threat of the killer on the loose ranks near the bottom of the characters’ group consciousness.

Even near the brink, Powers and Terry Hamilton (Walter Burns) are grounded and convincing, while Bill McGough and Rob Riley get to have a little more fun as Chester Gould-type cartoons.        

Bowling’s production is brisk, clean, driven at just the right speed, and refined with an eye for details, both big—his cast is just right; it’s enough of a challenge to appropriately fill roles in a standard-sized show, and The Front Page is huge; and small—a 100 percent grease-saturated translucent hamburger bag evokes a reminder of why we’re the City of Broad Shoulders.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, right) and Mollie Malloy (Mechelle Moe, left) are determined to hide escaped killer Earl Williams (Rob Fagin, center) before he can be discovered by the police in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling.  Photo by Lara Goetsch

Editor Walter Burns (Terry Hamilton, right) doesn’t want Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, left) to quit his job as a reporter for the Herald-Examiner in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch. Reporter Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers) calls the news desk at his paper the Herald-Examiner to report a scoop on the biggest story of the year in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch
   

The Front Page continues through June 12th at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8:30pm, and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $28-$38 ($18 for students), and can be purchased by phone (773-281-8436 x6) or online. More info at timelinetheatre.com.

All photos by Lara Goetsch.

        

Continue reading

REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

 FarnsworthInvention_130

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

reviewed by Oliver Sava

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

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

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

 

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

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

FarnsworthInvention_178 FarnsworthInvention_248

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

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

FarnsworthInvention_157

Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

Continue reading