Review: 42nd Street (Marriott Theatre)

  
  

Shuffle off to Buffalo Lincolnshire

  
  

Drew Humphrey as Billy Lawlor with Ensemble

  
Marriott Theatre presents
  
42nd Street
     
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Al Dubin 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
at Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

We can’t, it seems, get enough of The Understudy Who Becomes A Star, especially when the hokey, sappy and satisfying story is stuffed with thrills like "Lullaby of Broadway" and "Young and Healthy." Some clichés justify themselves, if only because nothing less than hokey can fill the sentiment completely.

Kaitlyn Davidson as Peggy SawyerWhen Busby Berkeley‘s 1933 film classic "42nd Street" (with its superb score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) became in 1980 a successful, Tony-winning musical, the last offering from the great Gower Champion, it proved you don’t need a Depression to justify a good time (though the number "We’re in the Money" sounds more like wishful thinking than ever).

Almost 80 years later, Peggy Sawyer, the tap-dancing chorus girl from Allentown who makes it big on the Great White Way, replays her all-American success story in Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s electric revival. Rachel Rockwell’s staging provides, as if needed, more proof that an arena staging can hold its own with a proscenium one for sheer moxie, showbiz savvy and pure pizzazz. (It helps to have a revolving stage to imitate the motions of Busby Berkeley’s overhead cameras.)

Peppy, perky, breezy and campy in the cutest way, the musical also preserves the film’s hungry edge and desperate-to-please energy. The big change is to downplay the chirpy Ruby Keeler-William Powell romance between plucky chorus girl and smiling juvenile and to play up (to please original producer David Merrick) Peggy’s fixation on her hard-boiled, devilishly driven director Julian Marsh. It gets in the way of the show’s chief interest–how Peggy can overcome her shyness, discover her undeniable talent and sell it–and the show ”Pretty Lady”–to the world.

The tribute to the "glittering gulch" of Times Square is as fine a hymn to showbiz solidarity and team spirit as A Chorus Line, 42nd Street glows with solid showmanship in Rockwell’s knowing, loving revival. If the arena production lacks Robin Wagner’s showy sets from the Broadway production (most notably in the mirrored "Shadow Waltz," here clumsily done with silhouettes on a screen, and the awesome Broad Street terminal where "Lullaby" gets hoofed out), Tammy Mader’s pulse-pounding choreography supplies its own heart-stopping spectacle.

     
Tom Galantich as Julian Marsh Drew Humphrey as Billy, Kaitlyn Davidson as Peggy
Drew Humphrey as Billy Lawlor with Ensemble 2 Roger Mueller as Abner, Catherine Lord as Dorothy

The opening tap dance rouser is enough to bring down the house but the house continued to tumble with the Ziegfeld spectacle of "Dames," the chaotic precision of "Getting Out of Town," the marquee-bright splendor of the title song and the vaudeville hijinks of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (complete with tiny sleeping cars that revealed chorus girls in salacious lingerie). The chorus boys and girls are worth their weight in Kruggerands.

Carrying the show as no understudy ever could is Kaitlyn Davidson, a platinum-blond Peggy Sawyer whose inexhaustible tap dancing and lyrical assurance can only improve on Ruby Keeler’s wooden original. Drew Humphrey, as her adoring but muted Billy, smilingly exploits what’s left of a role that was virtually handed over to Julian. Tom Galantich plays him with the right mix of messianic rigor and paternal regard, but Julian remains a character who seems warmer on the page than he ever is in life.

Making up for Thomas Ryan’s clever but minimal set pieces (some perhaps dating back to Marriott’s first production in 1993) are Nancy Missimi‘s time-travelling costumes, Depression elegant in their flouncy escapism.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Cast of 42nd Street - Marriott Theatre

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Review: The Conquest of the South Pole (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

The Ultimate Downer

  
  

Tom Hickey, Michael Dailey, John Ferrick in Strawdog Theatre's 'The Conquest of the South Pole'. Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Conquest of the South Pole
   
Written by Manfred Karge
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 28  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The title suggests a sprawling epic, not this intriguing 90-minute allegorical comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge (a Brecht protege who has worked for the Berliner Ensemble). A richly surreal trove, The Conquest of the South Pole is an action portrait of four unemployed workers who, vaguely sensing they’ve lost their usefulness, pass their time recreating Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the bottom of the earth.

Strawdog Theatre presents 'The Conquest of the South Pole' by Manfred Karge and directed by Kimberly Senior.With no glory to seek themselves, they ape a long-gone fame. (It beats playing pinball, swilling schnapps or pretending that they’re force-feeding political prisoners.) This borrowed lusters is one of many pungent ironies archly detailed in Kimberly Senior’s staging for Strawdog Theatre.

Mired in the dying industrial town of Herne, the twentysomethings congregate on their crowded tenement rooftop (evoked by Jack Magaw in a sparely neutral dormer set design). Their make-believe offers them a refuge from the bleak life of the Ruhr valley. (Envying the boredom of "unemployed millionaires," one worker comments: "They don’t even want to work. I want to, and I can’t!") Well, they’re not attacking immigrant workers like so many German skinheads.

But, far from offering an escape, their ritualized polar saga perversely mirrors their own dark plight and it’s easier to connect with Scott’s doomed expedition than Amundsen’s successful one.

Led by gruff Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the crew–skeptical Buscher (John Ferrick), mysterious Seiffert (Michael Dailey) and very married Braukmann (Tom Hickey)–are joined by the dimwitted but doglike Frankieboy (Joel Ewing), as they meticulously recreate the Norwegian’s race to the Pole, scrounging around for antarctic-ish costumes, using a laundry line as an icy landscape, rappelling across the stage, breaking into song and dance.

Inevitably the fantasy must be paid for or, as they put it, "Watch out for crevasses." Sexually confident even if strapped for funds, Slupianek seduces Brauckmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery), who’s furious that their boyish “monkey games” are keeping her husband from going to work.  Buscher almost derails the pageant by demanding that they enact Scott’s doomed expedition, a reflection of failure a lot closer to their own.

Oddly, the event that renews their ardor to resume their "play" is an ugly encounter with Rudi (Anderson Lawfer), a boorish and fatuous Hitler lover and his divorced trull Rosi (Justine C. Turner); nothing could be worse than his idea of fascist pleasure.

When they finally "reach" the Pole, it’s a glorious, redeeming moment, followed all too quickly by the inevitable let-down (even a suicide). Clearly art was not enough.

In its pell-mell energy and kinetic stage pictures ”Conquest” strongly recalls past Chicago productions of English plays about bored and wasted youth–Road, Stags and Hens, Bouncers, (It also resembles Marat/Sade in its inspired yoking of an historical event with a dysfunctional present.) What’s unique to Karge’s 1986 work is the depiction of untapped ingenuity; in the desperation of the men’s elaborate theatrics, midlife crises and frenetic male-bonding, you taste the loss of so much thwarted art, squandered by hard times and bad luck.

With a translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt, the script is a volatile mix of cascading street poetry, no-nonsense confessionals, and the rigid, haunting prose of the original antarctic journals.

Unfortunately, this revival is much less thrilling than the play’s first Chicago production in 1992 by the late Famous Door Theatre. The Strawdog stage just isn’t big enough for the men to take real risks in recreating their polar hero journey. The script’s adventurous aspects get short shrift and we’re left with undiluted desperation.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Review: The Madness of George III (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

The real King Lear

  
  

King George III (Harry Groener) and the royal family greet their subjects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
The Madness of George III
   
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropulos
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 12  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Talk about life imitating art. Like the fictional King Lear of Shakespeare’s harshest imagination, in the late 18th century King George III of the troubled House of Hanover descended into madness, then briefly emerged from it as he realized that a king is mortal and that others have suffered as much as he. He too had vicious offspring: two sons – the fat and foolish Prince of Wales, later George IV, and the foppish Duke of York – were every bit as ungrateful as Goneril and Regan (and he had no Cordelia to redeem the curse). George was temporarily “cured” by a tough-love regimen: A monarch who had never been contradicted in his life was restrained by strait-jackets and strapped to a chair like a thief in a pillory. If not worse, the treatment was as vicious as the malady.

Harry Groener as the ailing King George III and Ora Jones as his devoted Queen Charlotte in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. Photo by Peter Bosy.If Lear’s story is tragic, George’s is pathetic, so great is the gulf between his real illness (porphiria, a medical and not a mental degenerative disease) and the neo-medieval physicians who think the solution is just a question of bloodletting, poultices, and a daily inspection of the chamberpot. It’s too easy to say that George was unhinged by the ingratitude of his American subjects in daring to revolt—or that his peace of mind was subverted by parliamentary plots hatched by his enemies the Whigs (under the unscrupulous Charles Fox). (The government’s Tories, under William Pitt, were not above exploiting the addlepated king as he forfeited control over almost all his functions and functionaries.) His was a classic case of hubris: The body’s conditional state betrayed the monarch’s absolute power.

Alan Bennett’s much-praised 1991 dramatization of this unpleasantness (made into Nicholas Hytner’s superb 1994 film with Nigel Hawthorne as the humbled king) recalls Thomas Hogarth’s most vicious caricatures: It conjures up a dysfunctional dynasty as fraught with friction as any family and a political circus in which Whigs and Tories behave just as badly as our bad boys do in 2011, not 1785.

Penny Metropulos’ all-engrossing staging is a marvel of perpetual motion. Its energy is coiled and concentrated in Tony-nominee Harry Groener’s piledriving performance in the dual title role (the madness as much as the king). In this awesome fall from grace we watch the symbol of the then-world’s greatest empire lose authority as he does his bowels, brain and locomotion. The well-named Groener makes us feel his pain in each particular (and Bennett is nothing if not graphic in his depiction of a body breaking down).

The king’s sole help comes from Ora Jones’ magnificent Queen Charlotte, George’s fearlessly loyal, unjustly neglected wife, his faithful equerries (Kevin Gudahl and Erik Hellman), and his principled and frustrated prime minister (Nathan Hosner). All do legion work above and beyond every theatrical expectation.

     
King George III (Harry Groener) celebrates his recovery with his devoted Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. King George III (Harry Groener, center) handles government affairs with Prime Minister William Pitt (Nathan Hosner, far left) as Fortnum (Mark D. Hines) awaits orders, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.
King George III (Harry Groener) embraces his straitjacket as he struggles to regain control of his mind in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) warns her ailing husband, King George III (Harry Groener), of his government's impending plan to revoke his political powers, as Captain Fitzroy (Kevin Gudahl, center) and Captain Greville (Erik Hellman, left) look on, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As devious as the disease that wracks the king, Richard Baird plays his heir with odious opportunism, matched by Alex Weisman as his corrupt and corpulent younger brother. David Lively’s Lord Chancellor is amusingly caught in the crossfire between both factions, while the four doctors (Brad Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) display a cornucopia of ignorance that Moliere would envy.

The near-three hours fly by as pell-mell conflicts ebb and seethe under William Bloodgood’s immense Palladian portico. Its most telling moment is when a recovering George experiences the only good treatment he received: He plays a dying King Lear, suddenly realizing that another man wrote about and an imaginary one felt his plight. That, of course, was to know how powerless you are when fate toys with you and your own body turns on you worse than any enemies could imagine. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this scatological and scandalous story unfold, but you can’t take your eyes away for an instant.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Suspecting a plot to dethrone him, King George III (Harry Groener) attacks his son, the Prince of Wales (Richard Baird), attended by Dr. Richard Warren (Patrick Clear, left), as Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones, right) rushes to quell him and the Duke of York (Alex Weisman) tumbles to escape the fray, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

All photos by Liz Lauren and Peter Bosy.

     

 

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Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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Review: Death and the Powers (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Avatars create their own opera

  
  

Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda; Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - in Chicago Opera Theater's 'Death and the Powers'. Photo credit: Paula Aguilera

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera
   
Written by Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky
Directed by Diane Paulus
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $30-$120   |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You could call it an elaborate futuristic puppet show or a techo triumph that pushes opera deep into the 21st century. But you won’t confuse Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera with any staging you’ve seen. Developed by composer Tod Machover’s Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab, this 90-minute cyborg concoction, a Midwest premiere, is based on a libretto by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and staged by Diane Paulus, who recently revived Hair on Broadway. Together they’ve created a curious amalgam, a sci-fi one-act opera that could also pass for a domestic tragedy.

James Maddalena, baritone: Simon Powers in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera TheaterThe plot quirkily combines our fear of death with our ardor for and reliance on technology. Though apparently unwilling to risk consigning his dying body to frozen cryonics, multi-billionaire inventor Simon Power still refuses to die in the flesh when he can live in the circuitry. As dying focuses his faculties, he devises a scheme to “download” himself into the world he refuses to leave behind, to escape from matter into the machine. It’s called The System: This Matrix-like hive of embedded memories and personality will perpetuate Powers indefinitely. You CAN take it with you, it seems.

Of course, those left behind can’t help but feel a bit abandoned, especially his doting daughter Miranda (an allusion to the magician Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest). She clings to the world of “sweat and death,” but her mother Evvy, now a semi-widow, is gradually captivated by the System: Evvy cherishes how well this sprawling motherboard has cloned Simon–even though she still craves to be touched. Behind all the Frankenstein-like wizardry is a bionic boy named Nicholas whose arm was transformed by Simon’s benevolence and who wants to repay the favor with electronic immortality.

But the System’s scheme requires the reconstituted Power to turn his back on the finite world of flesh. His “departure” causes a worldwide financial depression. When confronted by the Miseries, a wailing crowd of distressed supernumeraries, not so simple “Simon” retreats back into his cyber cocoon. Miranda is left to choose between real life and an authentic simulation.

It’s easy to find the brain behind this bold enterprise, a bit harder to locate the heart. (More on that later.) With its “disembodied performance” of feedback sensors, customized audio system of 143 speakers, analysis software, surround sound, movable and brightly lit robotic androids, collapsible, bird-like Chandelier, and massive rotating control banks (the bookshelf-like “Walls”) that reflect Simon’s every mood change, the production is itself a “system” that dominates the doings. Far more impressive than affecting, Death and the Powers keeps us as detached emotionally as Simon is physically removed from reality.

     
Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera Theater
Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas;  Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

Happily, James Maddalena’s all-controlling Simon refuses to be cowed by the elaborate equipment that surrounds and finally absorbs the mad mogul. He sings up a storm, a swan song that haunts the action. Simon’s “second coming” obsession with a cyber rather than cellular afterlife is echoed by Hal Cazalet’s equally possessed Nicholas. It’s even shared by Emily Albrink’s easily converted Evvy. (This wife loves Simon enough even to feel him in banks of modules and flashing book spines.) It’s up to an anguished and effective Sara Heaton to keep tortured Miranda in the real world. Valiantly and defiantly, she refuses to sacrifice the “meat” of mortality for the sinful pride of becoming your own posterity.

With musical amplification by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose, Mahover’s pulsating score eschews melodic rhapsodies for the coiled intensity of frenetic passages and occasionally rhapsodic outbursts. Pinsky’s brilliant libretto lifts it throughout. This proud poet delivers fascinating riffs on the paradox of running out of matter but not out of time and the hubristic arrogance of Power’s neo-Faustian bargain with the all-sustaining System.

It’s an awesome tour de force, enough to cement C.O.T.’s reputation for enterprising risk-taking, not the usual menu you encounter from an opera company. This state-of-the-art showcase for electronic innovation is probably not the future of opera (it still comes down to singing a story). But it’s a bracing look at a brave new world. Death and the Powers will either soon be dated or depict the shape of things to come. But until the computer writes the review, I pick meat over machinery.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

All photos by Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams

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Review: All in Love Is Fair (Black Ensemble Theater)

  
  

All is fair in Love, Illinois

  
  

All In Love Is Fair - Jenny Lamb and Dwight Neal - Black Ensemble Theatre

  
Black Ensemble Theater presents
  
All in Love Is Fair
  
Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at Beacon Street Theater, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Somewhere near the southern tip of the state, the fictitious Illinois town of Love is crammed with couples in and out of love, straight and (closeted) gay, mixed race and size, seasoned and raw. One is celebrating a 50thanniversary, another is breaking up just after the honeymoon, and another reconnects after a three-month separation. What sets such familiar folks apart in Jackie Taylor’s diverting new 150-minute musical All in Love Is Fair is the score by Luther Vandross: In moments of crisis or ardor they burst out in ballads that amount to emotional meltdowns as naturally as they fight, romance, and reconcile.

All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller - Black Ensemble TheatreTaylor’s song-setting script contrasts these generic couples. But the selections, by far the best excuse for the generic plot lines, connects them, wonderfully. As always, Taylor can find talent and, despite the overmiking that disguises the great chops, lungs, and pizzazz of this 13-member ensemble, this is a showcase to make them stars. Robert Reddrick’s musical direction and arrangements are chartbusting right.

Playing the coy hostess as she narrates the soapy stories, Katrina V. Miller also digs deep into “The Way We Were.” Rhonda Preston, as a 68-year-old marriage survivor, puts a lifetime of devotion into “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” while, as her adoring husband, Zachary Boyd testifies to heaven on the “Power of Love” and in “So Many Ways.” Donald Barnes teaches us to “Wait For Love,” Lawrence Williams is a ladykiller with his sultry “For the Good Times,” and Daryl Brooks pleads, with contagious fervor, that he “Don’t Want To Be A Fool.”

Carrie (her full name) knocks the soul in and out of “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” her love offering echoed by the searing lamentation of Dawn Bless Comer’s “Fools Fall In Love.” Aerial Williams reinvents all the crushing infatuation of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Jenny Lamb takes on “All The Man I Need,” as if introducing it to the world fully fresh.

Bringing down the house is belting phenom Vasily Deris whose “Never Too Much” and “Dance With My Father” had the audience forming a fan club on the spot. As they celebrate their good times at the town’s well-named Diversity Club, the troupe come together triumphantly in the raucous “Bad Boy Having a Party” and Taylor’s own signature creation “Love, Illinois.”

If that sounds like a command as well as place, this is the musical to mean it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
All In Love Is Fair - Dawn Mitchell - Black Ensemble Theatre All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller All In Love Is Fair - Vasily Deris
All In Love Is Fair - Lawrence Williams All In Love Is Fair - Caririe and Vasily Deris All In Love Is Fair - Aeriel Williams and Lawrence Williams

Performances for All In Love Is Fair are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.  Tickets are $45 on Fridays and $47.50 on Saturdays and Sundays. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets, including group tickets, are available by calling the Black Ensemble Theater Box Office at773-769-4451, or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.  All performances take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon Street.

     
     

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Review: Terre Haute (Black Elephant Theatre)

  
  

Two extremes create their own middle

  
  

Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

  
Black Elephant Theatre presents
  
Terre Haute
  
Written by Edmund White
Directed by Michael Rashid
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What if brilliant gadfly Gore Vidal (here called “James”) and mass murdering domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (“Harrison”) had actually met, instead of simply corresponding with each as happened? The very speculative results are on harsh display for 90 minutes, the setting a basically bare stage that suggests the prison contact area where they might have met. It’s neutral ground between opposites that attract in this Chicago premiere of a very telling, if imaginary, encounter between American poles.

Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.71 and suffering from osteosclerosis as he hobbles on a cane with characteristic dignity, Vidal, radical politico and openly, if not happily, gay (a richly nuanced Danne W. Taylor), is drawn to his seeming nemesis (despite being repelled by all of Indiana).

(It’s much as Truman Capote was to the multiple murderer Perry Smith or straight Norman Mailer was to killer Gary Gilmore. All three great writers seemed to shadow the executions of their subjects, though, unlike vultures, their interest was in how they faced the end, not the aftermath.)

28, unrepentant, and possibly a virgin, Cole Simon’s macho McVeigh is attractive and forbidding enough to make daredevil Vidal want to kiss him or at least touch his prison-toned chest. (So it goes at least in this fictionalized treatment by Edmund White.) Showing his usual perverse sympathy with the devil, Vidal understands that the sociopathic white supremacist/survivalist was in fact avenging an equally gratuitous slaughter of scores of supposedly innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco (exactly three years before McVeigh’s 1995 bombing).

They both find common ground in their distrust of the government and the elites who own it. Vidal fears that the American republic is endangered by the American empire and the “constant warfare” by which the populace is distracted from being raped by the rich. McVeigh dreads a “New World Order” in which the U.N. will invade America and give it up to its Jewish “owners” while enslaving the “true” citizens, deprived of guns with which to fight back. For him no sacrifice is too great to thwart the coup, including losing his life to a lethal injection. He calls it a “state-assisted suicide.”

But, as Vidal tapes McVeigh’s halting confessional, it’s clear what really unites them—what Vidal calls “the American loneliness.” Though Vidal argues that life is sacred (even if he’s an unbeliever) and McVeigh dismisses the 19 children his 7,000 fertilizer bomb killed as “collateral damage,” they both agree on the alienation they feel from and for their native land. Both are veterans who distrust the U.S. military and the constant surveillance of civilian authorities. Both are nearing death: Vidal loves life enough to fear it but, like a true jihadist, McVeigh has already crossed to the dark side: The execution will only finish the journey. Most interestingly, McVeigh reminds Vidal of his first lover Bud, who was equally eager to find easy answers and immediate gratification.

     
Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White. Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.
Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.  Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Director Michael Rashid does a fine job of using body language and the caged pacing of inmate and interviewer to reveal the intricate psychodynamics that connect and repel them. (They have a ferocious donnybrook that oddly resembles a lover’s quarrel.) When Gore finally mentions the broken bodies of the many victims, McVeigh almost sees them for the first time, far more real than any abstraction of anti-government revenge could ever be.

It’s not exactly a meeting of minds. McVeigh is too much the militia-minded thug of action to be any more than a nightmare clad in flesh. But, despite its highly imaginative pretend-encounter, Terre Haute goes far to explaining how much American extremes—Vidal’s kneejerk cynicism about American ideals and McVeigh’s lethal paranoia and self-pity—seem to deserve each other. Most of us are happy enough to live in between.

     
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Terre Haute runs through April 10th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available online or by calling 800-982-2787. Terre Haute runs 80-minute with no intermission.

     
     

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