REVIEW: Bus Stop (The Den Theatre)

  
  

Love, Apple Pie and a Cup of Joe

 
 

Bus_Stop5555

   
The Den Theatre presents
  
Bus Stop
  
Written by William Inge
Directed by
Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen
at
The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Some people will want to step into The Den, a newly established Wicker Park theater venue founded by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen, for the sheer joy of steeping oneself in pure, unadulterated Americana. William Inge’s Bus Stop will wrap up on January 22, so there’s still time to catch a vision of bygone America in the loving care of a solid cast carrying out intricate, commendable ensemble work. The Den’s waiting area has a comfortable and homey feel, but step inside the theater space and be greeted by the same pleasurable warmth evoked by Caleb McAndrew’s set design. Only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee could complete the perfection of its mid-Twentieth Century rural diner.

Bus_Stop-122Another significant advantage of the new stage space is that it’s set in deep enough to give well-rounded, 3-D perspective to Martin and Mortensen’s direction. Actors play a scene in one area, up or downstage, without interfering with the relationships of other characters continuing on speechlessly in another. Characters move apart to give each other needed, but uneasy, space – only to rejoin once détente is established, verbally or nonverbally. Bus Stop is Inge’s meditation on love, after all—what brings people together and pushes them apart. So, when it comes to maintaining realistic emotion between the transient souls showing up at Grace’s Diner, give them land, lots of land, under starry skies above. The rest is left up to the cast’s impeccable timing—Martin and Mortensen’s direction keeps the pace real and each scene as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting.

Here Grace, played robustly by Liz Zweifler, comes across as the coffee-refilling mother of all waitresses. Elma (Elise Walter), her earnest, college-bound, naïve employee, learns the romantic ways of men and women never far from Grace’s protective wing. Parts of Bus Stop were surely scandalous in their day. Yet, considering the rapid-fire way kids are thrown into sexual maturity by our internet age, the whole play seems preserved in amber innocence through Elma’s enduring optimism about the human race, Grace’s common sense take on sex and marriage and Will (Ed Smaron) the sheriff’s watchful eye, weather-beaten sage demeanor and looming physical presence.

Into this quasi-family spill the bus driver, Carl (Karl Pothoff), and his hodge-podge collection of passengers. Here they must ride out Kansas’ worst snowstorm in years until the highway can be cleared. Cherie (Arianne Ellison), a low-end nightclub singer, is on the run from Bo (Brian Kavanaugh), a rodeo cowboy who basically forced her onto the bus to take her to his ranch in Montana. His pal, Virgil (Will Kinnear), and the sheriff have to talk him down from going through with his kidnapping plans, which he has made under the astonishingly naïve presumption that a one-night stand with Cherie means everlasting love.

Even in 1955, when Bus Stop first opened, Inge’s premise must have been notoriously hard to sell. The intervening years have not made it any easier. Bo may now be the hardest character to play sympathetically in Bus Stop. Indeed, if Kavanaugh can’t quite reach the credibility necessary to convey it, it’s not for want of trying. His technique is fine, his body language rough and tumble enough to suggest a life of hard work and hard play, but his portrayal of the character’s mentality is still just short of the full-on bullheaded ignorance and cocksureness to make his presumptions about Cherie absurdly real.

Thankfully, scenes between Bo and Virgil become grounded through Kinnear’s low-key, almost Zen-like approach to Virgil. Arianne Ellison’s interaction with Kavanaugh also provides a firmer foundation, giving Cherie a lot of pin-up girl charm and helplessness in the face of Bo’s advances.

Ellison also realistically rounds out Cherie’s quiet, pining confessions to Elma with her need for love and respect, her waning faith in getting either. What’s more, throw away every memory of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the movie version. Ellison brings authentic goods to Cherie singing “That Old Black Magic” during the diner’s impromptu variety show. She really is a small town girl with a pretty face, a nice body and a little talent, struggling her way through an American songbook classic. The whole scene is transformative, actualizing the emotional connections between Cherie and Bo, so that their rapprochement at the end of the play rings with clarity and vitality.

Set designed by Caleb McAndrew for Bus Stop by William Inge - The Den Theatre ChicagoElma’s connection with Dr. Lyman (Ron Wells) builds and proceeds without a hitch—due, in no small part, to Walter’s ability to express unadorned curiosity and excitement blooming under Lyman’s attentions, as well as Wells’ instinctive ability to depict a love-lost man contemplating life from the bottom of a glass. Lyman’s drunken breakdown during his Romeo and Juliet scene with Elma hits with profound and poetic truth. So does his first act finale monologue where, sauced beyond any ability to remember what he’s saying, he admits to his own cowardice and selfishness. Wells’ portrayal of Lyman’s self-loathing leaves an indelible memory.

Pothoff and Smaron admirably fill in the rest of the play with their own variations on masculinity. Carl and Grace delight with their gentle, no-nonsense flirtation, their assignation an open secret that Will charmingly scores laughs on and Elma accepts without judgment. Inge’s presentation of American sexuality–with its sympathetic portrait of Lyman, its acknowledgment of Bo’s sexual immaturity versus Cherie’s experience, and its acceptance Grace’s extra-marital dalliances–definitely reveal a country ready to peal back assumptions on gender roles and Victorian sexual morality.

But in another sense, the play is a snapshot of sexual and relationship innocence we can never and probably should never return to again. Grace may celebrate Cherie leaving with Bo in the end, but no one today can be that celebratory about a man so completely clueless about a woman’s rights over her own person. A guy like that might have as much propensity for battering as good old boy fun–and that’s something that today’s audiences can’t ignore, for all the nostalgic yearning that Bus Stop fulfills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Bus Stop runs Dec. 3 – Jan. 22, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. NO SHOWS Dec. 23-26, 31, and Jan. 1. The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Floor in Wicker Park.

 

     
Bus Stop at the Den Theatre Chicago - poster

 

Cast

Arianne Ellison
Brian Kavanaugh
Will Kinnear
Ed Smaron
Elise Walter
Ron Wells
Liz Zweifler

     
     

 

After the Fall – a YouTube interview with Eclipse Theatre

Hurry! Only 4 more chances to see “After the Fall”!!

 

Cutting Close to the Bone:

 

A conversation about Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

 

with Director Steve Scott and lead actor Nathaniel Swift

Elicpse Theatre - After the Fall

by Paige Listerud

After the Fall is Arthur Miller’s most personal play. He exposes the implosion of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, set off by addiction, driven by the demons of childhood sexual abuse and Hollywood exploitation. It’s a play in which Miller acknowledges his own failed attempts to save her from any of it. In the play, Miller’s persona, Quentin (Nat Swift), marvels at and abhors the sexual fascination that Maggie (Nora Fiffer), Monroe’s persona, casts over men—a power that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. But even as he attempts to protect her, he acknowledges his own culpability and morally compromised state in succumbing to her bombshell beauty and erotic, childlike nature.

After the first production of After the Fall, taking place one year after Monroe’s death, Arthur Miller was savaged in the press for exploiting his wife. But the play really is a purge and cathartic release of all sorts for Miller. Of all his works, After the Fall cuts closest to the bone. Furthermore it’s a play that covers other purges and other morally compromised states—such as America’s purge of communists, fellow travelers, and other leftist thinkers during the McCarthy Era. It was an era in which the outrageous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) met with collusion by some fearful Americans, ready to surrender names in order to save their careers, while other fearful Americans maintained their silence about McCarthy’s witch hunt under the peer pressure of Loyalty Oaths.

It was an era for all sorts of moral compromise—not something that Miller’s intelligent and incredibly moral protagonist Quentin can live with very well. If you want to know how Eclipse Theatre has done one of Miller’s most cinematic and impressionistic works, you can now read an array of critical acclaim from the Chicago theater press. (You can also see our in-depth review here ★★★½).  As for diving even deeper into the challenges of rendering this difficult play so well, enjoy our video interview below. Then get thee to Eclipse Theatre before the production closes.

 

 

        
        

Review: SUGAR (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

This ‘sugar’ lacks spice

 SUGAR-Ladies

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
  
Sugar
   
Book by Peter Stone
Music:
Jule Styne, Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Based on movie “
Some Like It Hot
Directed by
Jim Corti
at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook (map)
through August 1st  | 
tickets: $26-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s a play about the filming of a play about a movie. Drury Lane Oakbrook presents SUGAR, a musical version of the film ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In Studio 24, they are filming a speakeasy prohibition era romp. The show starts with Sweet Sue Syncopation SUGAR (vertical)-Rod Thomas & Jennifer KnoxOrchestra in dire need of a new sax and cello player. The all-girl band is heading from Chicago to Miami. Over on Clark Street, two musicians witness a brutal killing by a  mob. To hide from the bad guys, they join Sweet Sue’s band to get out of town. They’ve got the right and wrong instruments. The ‘new girls’ are really dudes. Sugar is the singer. She has a history of falling for deadbeat sax players and wants a future with a non-musician millionaire. A sax player, Josie, is really Joe who is now also pretending to be millionaire. Daphne, aka Jerry, is also interested in Sugar but has millionaire issues of his… her own. SUGAR is a love triangle farce with extra sides of sweet amusement.

In a play about the filming of a play about a movie, there are true glimpses of Billy Wilder’s classic masterpiece. Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon haunt the stage. Jennifer Knox (Sugar) is the sexy blonde bombshell. Knox dances and sings with a sensual allure that would make Marilyn proud. Alan Schmuckler (Jerry/Daphne) is Jack Lemon incarnate. His facial expressions and manner provide pure Lemon comedy that blends perfectly with SUGAR. And he can sing too. Jack would be jealous! One of the best duets is ‘The Beauty that Drives Men Mad’ sung by Schmuckler and his buddy… gal pal, Rod Thomas (Joe/Josie/Junior). Not looking quite as pretty in a wig, Thomas’ height adds its own humor in his masculine drag performance. Tammy Mader (Sweet Sue) is the SUGAR--Jennifer Knox vibrant Charleston dancing conductor. Although her moxie presence gets limited stage time, it leaves a cue-the-band appeal. Joe D. Lauck (Osgood) is charming as a millionaire in love. The entire SUGAR cast, as musicians, gangsters, millionaires, add an extra layer of flavor with melt in your mouth goodness.

Director Jim Corti has remounted the musical SUGAR as a movie being filmed. The curtain is a makeshift studio warehouse door. A film crew is stagehands moving light fixtures. At the end of Act I, two characters meet up on break. As an ingredient, it doesn’t really add or take anything away. It’s like Splenda. I get the concept but I prefer the real thing. SUGAR tastes good. Sure, it’s not one of the major food groups and you couldn’t exist on a diet of just sugar. If life is like a box of chocolates, then SUGAR is a Whitman Sampler. You know what you’re biting into but that does not spoil the pleasure.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

SUGAR--men in hats

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

Continue reading

REVIEW: A Love Lost Life (Theatre Building Chicago)

‘Love Lost Life’ Fails to Explore the Brando Family Tragedies

 

David Barnes as Christian Brando-1

 

T.M.R. Inc. presents:

A Love Lost Life

by David Nathie Barnes
directed by Susan Felder
through March 14th at Theatre Building Chicago (more info | tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

“The first two days with Marlon, I pushed him the wrong way, and as a result I lost him. He hated me, and it was my fault. I was too confrontational, too strong . . . All actors are frightened that they won’t give you what you want. It was a sad way for me to learn that even Marlon Brando was scared.

Frank Oz, on directing The Score

“He didn’t want to be treated like an icon. When you dealt with him you had to talk to him like a regular guy—he was very anti-Hollywood. But then the other part of him—he wanted a little gift to be brought. It was Persian caviar, imported cheeses and red wine. He loved it.

–Writer/director Bob Bendetson of Big Bug Man

“My family’s weird . . . We had new additions all the time. I’d sit down at the table with new people and I’d have to ask: ‘Who are you?’ Invariably they were a brother or sister I had never met.”

Christian Brando, to his probation officer

Beau Forbes as James Dean-1During the filming of “Last Tango in Paris,” director Bernardo Bertolucci became so overwhelmed at the range, rawness and immediacy of Marlon Brando’s talent, he momentarily lost faith in his ability to direct the intense, dynamic actor. Anyone who considers writing a full and accurate account about the Brando family must surely have as much trepidation. Even in his own words, Brando’s tangential and unreliable understanding belies a mind at the mercy of shifting moods, aspirations and desires. Plumbing the depths of his mercurial and inscrutable personality would require the expansive and agile faculty of Oscar Wilde and, without a doubt, the built-in, shockproof, shit detector of Earnest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, actor/playwright David Nathie Barnes only renders for us a meager slice of Marlon Brando’s life—with as many holes as Swiss cheese. But for the exception of a few well-written monologues, A Love Lost Life—the Unauthorized Story of Marlon Brando, overdoses on the kind of shallowness and superficiality one finds on E! True Hollywood Story. Especially in handling Brando family dynamics, so much goes unexpressed and undeveloped, it’s hard not to suspect that Barnes either has been cowed into pulling punches out of fear of litigation or is utterly blinkered in his characterization by poor-rich-kid clichés.

More’s the pity, because the talented cast of Theatre Building Chicago’s latest production is obviously capable of taking on more than what’s demanded of them here. Like a reigning triumvirate, Michael Perez, Jamie Asch, and Robert Ashkenas capture Marlon Brando at 20-30, 40-60, and in his 80s, respectively. Perez exudes the young, insouciant Brando, with all the defiant masculinity that awakened the ‘50s out of its white-bread stupor. Asch gives a full-throttle performance of an impossible Brando, nihilistically grinding down his career and personal life until “The Godfather” pulls him out of a rut. Ashkenas poignantly evokes an infirm, bloated and pathetic Brando, wheezing and rationalizing his way toward a regretful and sorrowful exit.

As an actor, Barnes strikes fire with his sullen, edgy interpretation of Christian Brando. Claudia Di Biccari sympathetically gives total commitment to the limited material as his doomed sister, Cheyenne Brando. Director Susan Felder has done her best to pull out humanizing characterizations from the cast. But strong performances alone can’t make up for lack of a dramatic structure hefty enough to pull together Brando’s groundbreaking, but uneven, career and bizarrely troubled family life.

Robert Ashkenas as Marlon Brando age 80 -1 Finally, it must be said, too often Barnes’ writing leaves holes a Mack truck could drive through. Accuracy vs. poetic license–yadayadayada–but nothing should be sacrificed from a drama that substantially informs its action or characters. Among the least of them: Marlon Brando had at least 11 children–legitimate, illegitimate and adopted. A Love Lost Life is written as though Christian and Cheyenne were the only ones. It’s as if, in play’s memory, the other siblings—and their impact on Christian’s mentality—have disappeared down a rabbit’s hole.

Then, there are Cheyenne’s struggles with schizophrenia, which Barnes’ play doesn’t acknowledge until well after Christian goes to jail for shooting and killing her boyfriend, Dag Drollet. The truth is, Cheyenne began having violent bouts of schizophrenia at 16, one of them inducing her to recklessly crash her car–an accident that so damaged her face, all her hopes for a modeling career were ruined. Most likely, schizophrenia influenced Cheyenne’s fallacious tales to Christian about Dag assaulting her, which in turn led to the shooting. Barnes cover none of this in his play.

Also not touched upon: a history of domestic violence in Christian’s own marriages; Christian’s stockpile of weapons, including illegal automatic weapons, that police uncovered in his home upon arrest; forensics which disclosed that Dag had been shot in the back of the head, not in the face in the middle of a struggle, as Christian confessed–that Dag died with his tobacco pouch in one hand and a TV remote in the other.

There’s more, so much more, to the Brando family saga than Barnes can tell or is willing to tell. It’s not just another spoiled-celebrity-children-gone-wild tale; it should never, ever be treated as one. Perhaps the answer lies, not in Brando’s chic home on Mulholland Drive, but in the unexplored chapters of Brando’s family life in Tahiti. Wherever it may be, nothing less than madness itself holds sway over this family. To dramatize this family’s story, one needs a playwright brave enough to head into that heart of darkness.

Rating: ★★

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Drury Lane Oakbrook announces 2010 Season

Drury Lane Oakbrook announces 2010 Season

Ragtime
directed by Rachel Rockwell
March 24 – May 23 (previews begin March 18)

A nostalgic and powerful portrait of life in turn of the century America , Ragtime is based on E.L. Doctorow’s distinguished novel.  The musical intertwines the stories of a Harlem musician, a wealthy New York family and a Latvian Jewish immigrant. Ragtime poignantly explores history’s timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair, and love and hate.  Featuring a Tony Award winning book by Terrence McNally, and a Tony Award-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime combines diverse fictional characters with several famous figures of the era to create a stirring musical portrayal of turn-of-the 20th century America.

Sugar
directed by Jim Corti
June 9 – August 1 (previews begin June 3)

Sugar originally debuted as the widely known film “Some Like it Hot, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and the blonde goddess, Marilyn Monroe. The film then was transformed into the musical Sugar, which opened at the Majestic Theater in 1972, running for 505 performances and earning four Tony Award nominations. In this side-splitting musical, two struggling musicians witness what appears to be the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and try to find a way out of the city under the threat of the mob. Unfortunately, they are in no position to finance such a move. Desperate times call for desperate measure and the pair take on the only job available—as an all-female band heading to Florida . The cross-dressing frauds board a train and ride right into a world of trouble.

Hot Mikado
directed by David H. Bell
August 18 – October 3 (previews begin August 12)

Since its opening, thousands of audiences have enjoyed the hilarious Broadway musical Hot Mikado, which is an adaptation of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan tale, The Mikado set in the 1940s. This production will be directed by the writer of the book and lyrics himself, multi-Jeff Award winner and Helen Hayes Award winner David H. Bell.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
directed by Bill Jenkins
October 20 – December 19 (previews begin October 14)

Set in Oregon in 1850, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the story of Adam Pontipee, a man who simply goes to town looking for a bride. He finds Milly working in a restaurant and convinces her to marry him. Milly’s ecstasy quickly sours when she finds she is to also take care of Adam’s six unkempt, burly brothers. Deciding to make the marriage work, Milly sets a plan into motion to marry off the brothers, including teaching them how to court women. This plan turns out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated and leads to a series of madcap events.  A delightfully funny love story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers received a Tony Award for Best Original Score and began its life as a beloved 1954 MGM movie musical that has only improved in its stage adaptation.

Spamalot
directed by William Osetek
January 6, 2011 – March 13, 2011 (previews begin December 31)

With a book and lyrics by Eric Idle and an entirely new score created by Idle and John Du Prez, Spamalot will be directed by Drury Lane Oakbrook’s Artistic Director William Osetek.  Osetek has directed numerous productions at Drury Lane Oakbrook including the annual holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol.  The multi-Tony Award winning Spamalot debuted on Broadway in 2005 and recently made its final appearance after 1,574 hysterical performances. Telling the legendary tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail, Spamalot features a chorus line of dancing divas and knights, flatulent Frenchmen, killer rabbits and one legless knight.


The remainder of Drury Lane Oakbrook’s 2009 season features the Tony Award-winning Cabaret, directed by Jim Corti, previewing August 13, opening August 19 and running through October 11. The delightful Jazz Age musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, directed by Artistic Director William Osetek, previews October 22, opens October 28 and runs through December 20, and the beloved musical Funny Girl, directed by Gary Griffin, previews December 31, opens January 6 and runs through March 7, 2010.

All of Drury Lane Oakbrook shows are produced by Kyle DeSantis, Drew DeSantis and Jason Van Lente; presented by William Osetek, Artistic Director and Gary Griffin, Associate Producer

Today in History – 60 years ago: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” opens on Broadway

aruthurmiller On February 10th, 1949, Arthur Miller‘s classic American play Death of a Salesman opened at Broadway’s Morosco Theater.  This world-premier production of Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan with Lee J. Cobb starring in the leading role, ran for the astounding length of 742 performances.

Often considered the penultimate American play (and making both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names), Death of a Salesman went on to win the following awards:

  • 1949 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play
  • 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • 1949 Tony Award for Best Play
  • 1984 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival
  • 1984 Tony Award for Best Reproduction
  • 1999 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play
  • 1999 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play

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