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.

        

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Review: Volpone (City Lit Theater)

     
     

17th-century satire is sly like a fox

     
     

Don Bender and Eric Damon Smith in Volpone - City Lit Theater.  Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Volpone
   
Written by Ben Jonson
Music composed by Kingsley Day
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Volpone, or The Fox, was written by Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century in just five weeks. It was first performed by the King’s Men at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606. City Lit Theater’s production is the company’s fourth production of their 31st season.

Volpone tells the story of an old miser, Volpone (Don Bender) who, with his servant Mosca (Eric Damon Smith), fakes a deathly illness in order to convince a handful of wealthy men to shower him with expensive gifts after promising each that they are his sole heir. Bender fits into the part of Volpone like a glove. From his voice to his body language, Bender owns the part as well as the stage. Bender’s Volpone is slimy, greedy and everything you would hope to see from such a character. Likewise, Smith’s Mosca is simply entertaining as Volpone’s faithful servant. He plays up the character and is quite funny as he help to Don Bender as Volpone by Ben Jonson - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.work over the wealthy men as they arrive to pay tribute to the “dying” Volpone. Smith, like Bender, understands just want is required of the character, and Smith is both charming and persuasive as Mosca, like a good salesman who could convince anyone man to buy anything he was selling.

Written in the 1600s, Volpone is written in Early Modern English, but the cast does a wonderful job of making the script accessible to the audience. That being said, the script’s dense at times, and while the energy continues to run high through the performance, the action can seem to drag at times.

Occasionally, Volpone calls on his fool (Ben Chang), Castrone (David Fink) and Androgyno (Chris Pomeroy) to entertain him. Equipped with musical instruments, these three sing and play and are a joy. They never fail to get the audience laughing with the lightness and humor of their performances. They are not the best singers but that fact is pushed aside because they’re so enjoyable to watch on stage.

The men whom Volpone tricks are Corvino (Alex Shotts), Corbaccio (Larry Baldacci) and Voltore (Clay Sanderson). These three men deliver exact portrayals of rich and greedy men who think themselves quite clever when, in fact, there are gullible and easily duped. All three men do a fine job, but Shotts in particular as Corvino takes his character over-the-top, not in an obnoxious way, but in a way that works for a satire. He’s very funny in his characterization and his body language.

For the most part the staging is fine-tuned, although Laura Korn, who plays Corvino’s wife Celia, is stiff in her movements and does not completely commit to her actions.

The set, designed by William Anderson, is simple in its style and coloring. With an art deco style set in the 1920s, the palate is of muted colors like brown, beige, blue and black, and there’s not a lot of flair. The simplicity of the set design offers a nice backdrop for the crazy antics of the show and does not detract from the performance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
       

Patti Roeder and Don Bender in Volpone - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight. Eric Damon Smith (left) as Mosca and Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

Volpone plays at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, through February 27. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 773-293-3682 or visiting citylit.org.

All photos by Johnny Knight

  
  

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REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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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.

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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:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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