REVIEW: End Game (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Beckett’s got game

Endgame-1

 
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
 
Endgame
 
by Samuel Beckett 
directed by
Frank Galati
in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through June 6th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was an emblematic play of the 20th-century, it very well could be Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The play captures defining aspects of the past hundred years: the unspeakable horror, the monotony, the inclination towards self-reference. The human crisis is all there, presented as a 75-minute nihilistic chess game (sort of). Steppenwolf throws some of their best talent at Beckett for their production of Endgame. Frank Galati directs, and the play features Ian Barford, William Petersen, Martha Lavey, and Francis Guinan. Steppenwolf concocts a recipe for on-stage brilliance—great theatre artists working with one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The existentialism sure can get depressing, but the talent involved here is a marvel.

Endgame-3 Beckett’s earlier Waiting for Godot is far more accessible and probably more inherently funny. I would put forth, though, that Endgame is the better play. It’s more primal, more desperate. Complete despair looms just out of reach. The world is dense and merely getting through each day seems the ultimate goal for everybody. This is still pretty hard—one guy can’t stand, one guy can’t sit, and two folks are amputees living in garbage cans.

Galati doesn’t throw any crazy tricks at the play; there is nothing here that would invite legal action from the Beckett estate. Hamm (William Petersen), the protagonist as Beckett points out in his character description, sits blind and regal in a throne/DIY wheelchair. His parents, Nell (Martha Lavey) and Nagg (Francis Guinan), live in non-descript trashcans. They’re all serviced by the only mobile inhabitant, Clov (Ian Barford). In typical Beckett fashion, Sammy has constantly denied that the play is post-nuclear apocalypse. James Schuette’s drab set tiptoes around this fact, however, and places the play in an underground room that looks a lot like a fallout shelter. The set works wonders for the play; Schuette doesn’t distract from Beckett’s language but still throws in his own thematic two cents (the dingy room also looks uncannily like the inside of a face).

Petersen and Barford conquer the stage with their intricate chemistry. The relationship between Hamm and Clov is one of the most complex and layered ever penned for the stage. Seen through the chess-metaphor lens, Hamm is a losing king, commanding around the only pawn he has left. But Hamm also suggests ‘hammer,’ and Clov is often linked to the Latin word for ‘nail’ (clavus, for the Latin nerds out there—Nag and Nell’s names also connect to various European terms for nail). And no one can deny the father-son dynamic between the two.

Endgame-2 Endgame-3

For the past few year, Petersen seems set on proving that he’s not just a television actor by treating Chicago to wonderful performances in Dublin Carol (our review ★★★½) and the considerably twisted Blackbird (our review ★★★½) at Victory Gardens. Even though he is stationary and clad in sunglasses, Petersen glides through Beckett’s world as the lonely king. It’s a delight watching him play off Barford, who makes an infinitely relatable Clov. Stuck in a metal drum, Guinan commands our attention whenever he pops open his lid. He’s an ancient relic yet as helpless as a child. For the short bit she’s in, Lavey does good work feeding on Guinan’s vulnerability and hot temper.

Galati clearly knows this game. However, the production seems to favor the philosopher Beckett instead of the clown. While this forces us to contemplate our own mortality (isn’t this everyone’s ideal Friday night plan?), everything gets a little too mired in the existential muck. As bleak as it is, though, there is a ton of genius at work over at the Steppenwolf right now. It is well worth a glimpse, even if you also have to stare at your own imminent demise.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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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.

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Steppenwolf at Millenium Park – Free!

Dream Chicago

by Laura Eason

Steppenwolf Traffic presents Dream Chicago, a collection of short stories and songs exploring the “Chicago Dream.” Dream Chicago highlights the visionary dreams from the past that gave character to the “City of Big Shoulders” and inspired its people to imagine a collective future.

Dream Chicago will be presented Monday, September 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion as part of the 4th annual Blockbuster Week. Admission is FREE.

millennium_park

Directed by associate artist Jessica Thebus; featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, Ian Barford, Robert Breuler, K. Todd Freeman, Frank Galati, Ora Jones and Martha Lavey with Maggie Brown.

Theater Thursdays – “Good Boys and True” at Steppenwolf

For this week’s Theater Thursday, the League of Chicago Theatre has chosen Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premier “Good Boys and True” (see my review here).   As the League describes the play:

A sex tape scandal. Secret lovers. A privileged childhood breeding a reckless adult. No, we’re not talking about Paris Hilton. Golden boy Brandon’s charmed life threatens to collapse when a disturbing videotape is found on campus. As the resulting scandal takes unexpected turns, Brandon’s mother (played by ensemble member Martha Lavey) must sort fact from fiction from family. 

For more information regarding special-priced tickets and reservations for cocktails, appetizers and talks with the actors, go to the League’s website: www.chicagoplays.com

REVIEW – “Good Boys and True” at Steppenwolf

Brandon Hardy shares a vulnerable moment with his mother ElizabethThe world-premier of Good Boys and True, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, starts out benign enough – the athletically handsome and privileged Brandon Hardy (earnestly played by the talented Stephen Grush) is giving a tour of his school, the elitist St. Joe’s Prep in Washington, D.C.  He points out the postcard-perfect school campus, and revels in the regurgitation of the school’s historical traditions, academic status and scholastic prowess.  We soon find out, however, that there is nothing benign about Brandon Hardy’s world.  Indeed, a tense and ominous malignancy slowly emerges, one that involves deep emotional wounds kept covered for over 20 years – wounds involving sexual abuse and manipulation.  And as this occurs, Brandon’s introspective mother Elizabeth (Martha Lavey – who is also Steppenwolf’s artistic director.) sees her family, and hence her world, crumble around her.  Good Boys and True, in the end, relays in a powerful way the tragic abuse of power by those drunk with hubris. Strengths: Top-notch acting, most notably in a poignant scene involving a meeting between the mother and the maligned lower-class high-school girl, Cheryl Moody (Kelly O’Sullivan).   Special mention also must be made to Tim Rock playing Brandon’s best friend and clandestine boyfriend.  Director Pam MacKinnon has done an excellent job bringing out many character nuances, especially as much of the dialogue is terse. 

Reservations: It’s understandable what playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is attempting – working the play around the relationship between Mother and son.  But this leaves a gaping emotional fissure in that the main protagonist is never seen on stage.  It is the father who is the most powerful and antagonistic of all of the characters; the root cause of the Hardy family’s choking dysfunction.  Yet Mr. Hardy is never seen.  And in keeping the father off-stage, Auirre-Sacase deprives us – and the play – of potentially implosive scenes and character development.

Summary: Even with its shortfalls, Good Boys and True remains a haunting and jarring piece of theatre.  Director MacKinnon has paced the ensemble well, as secret after tragic secret is uncovered.  Recommended.

Rating: ««« 

Related articles:

  • TimeOut Chicago – “Generation Next
  • YouTube interview with director Pam MacKinnon
  • Personnel and Show Times

    Playwright: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
    Director: Pam MacKinnon
    Sets: Todd Rosenthal
    Lights: Ann G. Wrightson
    Costumes: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
    Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
    Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
    Asst. Director: Jonathan Templeton
    Featuring: Martha Lavey   (Elizabeth Hardy)
    Stephen Louis Grush   (Brandon Hardy)
    Tim Rock   (Justin Simmons)
    John Procaccino   (Coach Shea)
    Kelli Simpkins (Maddy)
    Kelly O’Sullivan  (Cheryl Moody)
    Nick Horst, Mark Minton, Trevor Reusch   (Ensemble)
    Dates: Through February 16, 2008
    Show Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30pmSaturday and Sunday matinees at 2pmAdditional matinees on January 23, 30, February 6 (Wednesdays)