REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare)

Framed ‘Shrew’ no improvement

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
 
The Taming of the Shrew
 
By William Shakespeare with new induction scenes by Neil LaBute
Directed by Josie Rourke
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
Through June 6  |  tickets: $44-$75 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fog spews out over the stage almost ceaselessly throughout Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new version of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is set in sunny Italy, so why all this London-style mist? It’s emblematic of the hazy thinking that clearly CST_SHREW_IMAGE_1prevailed throughout the creation of this deeply flawed production.

In enlisting Neil LaBute to write a new frame for this broadly humorous but troublesomely sexist play, Director Josie Rourke said her goal was to "create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew [and] make the play more relevant to us now…. What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now."

So to reconfigure a play offensive to feminist sensibilities, Rourke hires a man. And his idea of bringing a relevant, contemporary viewpoint to this story about a strong, if bitchy, woman browbeaten into subservient docility by her husband is to introduce a catfight between shrilly vituperative lesbians.

In the frame, which echoes the play-within-a-play format of Shakespeare’s original, we get an unhappy sexual triangle of the Director (a cool performance by Mary Beth Fisher); her long-term partner, the actress playing Katherina (Bianca Amato, turbulent and a little muddy in both roles); and the latter’s latest fling, the ingenue playing sister Bianca (Katherine Cunningham, whose sly performance barely changes from part to part). The Director confronts her partner with infidelity; the actress accuses the Director of trying to control her by casting her in this submissive role.

Just about everything about this production is annoying, from the interminable noisy vacuuming that sets the stage for the frame to the ridiculous conclusion. The lumbering frame promotes the age-old, wrongheaded notions that women have no professionalism or moral fiber, that they’re unreliable and prone to hysterics, and that they’ll do anything for love. Moreover, the new scenes intrude unpleasantly and disruptively into the main show, not least by making it difficult to separate the inner play’s Katherina from the outer play’s actress character.

Having heard the actress in a man-hating tirade against the actor playing her husband and his weakly whimpering response — for all that Ian Bedford does delicious job as Petruchio — it becomes difficult to imagine any sexual tension between the couple. And hot sex is one of the few plausible reasons for Kate’s giving way to her spouse’s abuse.

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The huge, waggish codpieces worn by the actors are absurd and amusing in themselves, but added to the frame’s stereotyped intimations that many of these men are gay, they start to present a somewhat ugly picture.

No show at Chicago Shakespeare is ever wholly without merit, however. Rourke has a nice hand with staging. Even my seat far around to stage right had good views of the action throughout, although in a few spots it seemed unnatural, with characters facing away from the people they were speaking to.

It’s always a pleasure to see Mike Nussbaum, and he’s in fine, funny form as Bianca’s rich and wizened old suitor. Other highlights include Sean Fortunato’s wry Hortensio, another suitor; Larry Yando’s aggravated Baptista, the sisters’ father; and Stephen Ouimette and Alex Goodrich as comic servants.

And then there’s the rich language of The Bard — no matter how wrongheaded his plots, his words resonate.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Extra Credit

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REVIEW: Awake and Sing (Northlight Theatre)

Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at

 Nussbaum, Gold, Whittaker

Northlight Theatre presents

Awake and Sing

 

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.

Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold v From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.

Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.

Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.

In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.

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When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.

Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."

Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.

Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.

Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.

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Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.

Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.

Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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Review: Remy Bumppo’s “Heroes”

“Heroes” is a 4-star salute

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Remy Bumppo Theatre presents:

Heroes

by Gerald Sibleyras
translated by Tom Stoppard
directed by James Bohnen
thru November 29th  (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

A head of shrapnel, gimp leg and derangement have never been funnier. Remy Bumppo’s Heroes brings three World War I vets together for convalescent camaraderie. Set in an old-soldier home, our heroes amuse each other with tales of heroes-cast2nun slapping, terrace invasion defense strategies and escape plans with a 200-pound dog statue in tow. It’s not your grandpa’s war show about reliving the glory days of WW I. Instead, Heroes is about three outcasts (four if you count the dog) banning together in united tolerance for the final battle, old age.

The attack happens instantaneously. You are held prisoner to hysterical dialogue from the first few lines. Witty repartee and strong character development is the ammo used by playwright Gerald Sibleyras and translator Tom Stoppard. Director James Bohnen sends his best men to the front with inspirational guidance. The troops don’t disappoint. Insane ideas presented in a logical manner, David Darlow (Gustave) leads the charge with dead pan precision in delivery. Goading his buddies to go to Indochina instead of on a stupid picnic or reading and responding to other people’s mail, Darlow is a lovable and hysterical curmudgeon. Paranoid that the head nun is trying to kill him, Roderick Peeples (Phillippe) brings a physical comedy element that includes continuously fainting during the show until he rouses himself by shouting, “Take them from the rear, Captain!” (You learn late in the show that has nothing to do with war.) Completing the nonstop able squadron, Mike Nussbaum (Henri) is the charming 25 year resident vet of the institution. Shy but sane, Nussbaum ultimately commands the trio’s every activity with blunt acceptance and quips like, “You are all barking mad except for the dog.”

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I’ve never served in a war, but I most definitely bond with friends over enemy activities. Heroes is an experience in friendship. Observing the ensemble’s interaction, you can’t help but find comparisons to your own life. Everyone has that friend who always asks “Am I getting worse?” to which your group responds, “I haven’t noticed.” Or the pal who hates everything, refuses to participate and then wants to know if anyone missed him to which your group responds, “Nobody gave a damn.” Or the buddy who goes along with the crazy plan right up until someone wants to transport a 200 pound dog statue up a mountain. Friends are the heroes that help you conquer life’s battles. Go with one to see this show! Hint for the show: watch man’s best friend during the final scene and curtain call.

 

Rating: ««««

 

Aside: The hero to my left, James, says Heroes was an “all star salute.”

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