REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: A Parallelogram (Steppenwolf Theatre)

An astonishing message from the future

       
  

Parallelogram-1

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
A Parallelogram
  
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
at
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $50  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Forgive me, but I am going to use a cliché blurb: If you only see one play this year, see Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Parallelogram.

I know. You might be put off by the title. But I swear, this is not a dramatic telling of geometric principles. It is partly a lesson in physics, but really it’s more of an existentialist drama with a science fiction tinge. Like, have you ever wondered what it  would be like if Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut got together over a bottle of whiskey and hashed out a play? Well, this is that play.

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 09 Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper.

At the top of the play, Jay lectures Bee about smoking in the house. The only problem is, Bee doesn’t smoke. Enter the other Bee (Marylouise Burke) who watches this action from a place that is beyond time. She is Bee from the future and is visible and audible to young Bee only. Sitting in a chair stage left, she smokes and fills up on Oreos while providing her own personal commentary.

How is it possible for Bee to see herself from the future? Although we as the audience must suspend our disbelief, we do get an explanation. Time, as we know it, is merely a construction of the human mind. Therefore, the moment you are born and the moment you die are the exact same moment. Taken a step further, these moments are happening right now and will happen now forever. Add to this Einstein’s theory of the universe and that parallel lines if extended to infinity would eventually intersect, and you have the answer. Okay. So it’s a little confusing. But does it matter?

Younger Bee wants the Future Bee to tell her about her life. Future Bee obliges, even using a special remote control to give Younger Bee the chance to change the present in order to influence the future. But as Future Bee continually iterates, you may be able to alter the short term, but the long term is pretty much set.

There’s also tension due to Younger Bee’s dwindling sanity, her inability to have children and a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race. It’s definitely a lot to cram into one play, but Norris is a master of economy. He consistently manages to give a scene or a conversation just the right amount of time, his pacing is impeccable and he can tie together disparate elements in a way that makes perfect sense.

 

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 01 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 03
Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 05 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 07

The acting is phenomenal. You can feel the audience get giddy every time Burke opens her mouth. She plays Future Bee with a rare sort of comedic brashness. When she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, it plays like a George Carlin stand-up routine.

Arrington pulls us into her character, making us feel the pain of knowing, knowing how relationships will end and knowing how people will die. And Irwin makes a great sympathetic jerk who wonders if his future-seeing girlfriend is God’s punishment for his past infidelities.

Director Anna Shapiro knows this material well. She comes at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieves the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play

And although I don’t often comment on it, the set design is amazing. A Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.

If you don’t already have your tickets, get them now. But then again, what is now? And if you are going to see it, doesn’t that mean you’ve already seen it or that you are seeing it right now? Who knows? Whatever the case may be, go see this play.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

 

       

      
     

 

Continue reading

Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

Continue reading

Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Up’

To dream or to be responsible…

Up-1Ensemble member Ian Barford and Tony Hernandez in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Up

By Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Anne D. Shapiro
Runs through August 23rd
Steppenwolf Theatre

Review by Timothy McGuire

We all struggle between our desire to chase after our dreams and personal aspirations, and the responsibilities we have to take care of our finances and personal relationships. Bridget Carpenter’s “Up” now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre follows the balancing act of a middle aged man with no specific conventional goals as he tries to turn his dreams into reality and support his family in the middle of a tough economic climate. Along with the “dream chaser,” Up follows an average middle-class family proudly in love with the unconventional passions of their husband/father, but questioning the practicality of such a lifestyle as they mature and their financial security is at stake.

Ensemble member Ian Barford and Lauren Katz in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow. Walter Griffin is thoughtfully played by Ian Barford. In Walter’s youth he once achieved “stardom” when he attached 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and took flight solo, 16,000 feet in the air. Years later Walter is still chasing after those dreams of greatness and that sense of freedom. Now married and with a teenage son, Walter spends his time brainstorming and trying to think of his next big idea while his wife provides for the family by working as a mail carrier.

IanBarford-JakecohenIn their youth Walter’s Wife Helen (Lauren Katz) fell in love with Walter due to his adventurist heart and his relentless pursuit for greatness. Their son Mikey (Jake Cohen) idolizes his father’s passion for the joys in life and his courage to pursue an unconventional lifestyle. They have always understood and respected their husband/father but when Helen’s hours get cut at the post office and Mikey meets a new friend that opens his eyes to the necessity of being able to financially provide, their patience with Walter wears thin.

With the daily stresses of bills and constantly having to be the rational mind in the family Helen asks Walter to get a job. Once smitten with the dream chaser inside her husband she now finds herself desiring the stability of a conventional man and pleads for just one day to relax and not have to worry. Helen speaks about her imaginary husband, which represents the change in her feelings towards the man that Walter is. In a flashback you hear Helen refer to her imaginary boyfriend as boring, being someone that is not as stimulating as the actual man she is with. Now married, she refers to her imaginary husband as a provider and a man that supports and takes care of his wife’s needs. Her imaginary husband represents the characteristics that Walter does not posses, but now she wishes he did.

Rachel-Brosnahan-Jake-Cohan Starting his sophomore year of high school Mikey meets a talkative pregnant classmate Maria (Rachel Brosnahan) who thoroughly makes an effort to get to know him through direct questions and honest interest. Rachel Brosnahan gives a wonderful performance of a non-stop curious teenage girl, to the point of driving you crazy as a teenage girl can do. As his relationship with Maria grows, Mikey recognizes the responsibilities that he would have to take on if he was to love her. Loosing faith in his father’s ethos of finding happiness outside of the “establishment,” Mikey wants to make plans to earn money and the stability that a 9-5 job can provide. Secret from his family, he takes on employment from Maria’s fiercely independent Aunt (Martha Lavey) and he finds a means to be a provider with his successful sales skills.

Lauren-Katz-Rachel-Brosnahan Eventually, to appease his wife and take care of his responsibilities as a father, Water accepts conventionality with a new job, and you can see his spirit breaking as he appears somber dressed in a suit and tie. Months later Walter appears up-beat and content with his new employment when he is on stage with Helen, but he demonstrates the overwhelming sense of defeat and depression when alone. His actions are peculiar for a hard working man, he still privately holds to his personal values and spits in the face of conventionality by burning and tearing-up his own money.

MarthaLavey-JakeCohen How does this family move forward as one when they all desire to walk in different paths? Can their love for one another overcome their differences in values?

Bridget Carpenter has written a creative story that captures the details of an average American family and brings to stage the struggles that occur as the demands of family life take precedent over one’s individual dreams and what to do when your life partner does not choose the same path as yourself as you mature. Each character’s situation in the play and their personality are used to explore the different viewpoints, and the direction that they desire to go.

tony-hernandez-tightropewalker The director, Anna D. Shapiro, does a fantastic job as usual taking the time to develop each character and constructing a performance that uses the details in the dialogue and the ability of the actors to capture the emotional states of their characters to build the turmoil this family is going through.

The end of the play might leave you a little lost as to what just happened to Walter, although the symbolism of the French tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (Tony Hernandez) being incorporated in the final scene points the audience in the direction of what is taking place on stage.

Rating: «««

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650
Through: August 23rd
Ticket Prices: $20-$70
For tickets and info: http://www.steppenwolf.org

A scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Lauren Katz

A select scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Tony Hernandez.

 

After the fold: Info regarding Steppenwolf’s Up, including all creators and personnel involved with the production, can be found after the jump (click on “read more”). Also an informative video featuring playwright Bridget Carpenter, explaining her inspirations for Up.

Continue reading