REVIEW: Mid-Winter’s Tales ‘09 (ShawChicago)

Unwrap This Holiday Present NOW!

 

ShawChicago presents

Mid-Winter’s Tales 09

At the Ruth Page Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn)
Adapted and directed by Belinda Bremner

December 18th-21st (ticket info: 312-587-7390) 

By Katy Walsh

Before the age of electronic entertainment, communities gathered around the fireplace to tell stories. With the wind howling outside and increased hours of darkness, families told tales to amuse themselves and brighten the long nights of winter. ShawChicago presents Mid-Winter’s Tales 09, a collection of multi-generational stories and songs. Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 mixes it up with a variety of author samplings from a W.B. Yeats’ poem followed by a column snippet from Chicago’s own Mike Royko to, of course, words of wisdom from George Bernard Shaw. Although the show celebrates the winter solstice with cultural representation leaning in an English direction, it balances out the traditional Christmas fruitcake focus with a double helping of lakes (pronounced la keys).

With the aid of DVDs to set the holiday mood, I’ve memorized many lines from the retelling of stories, like; “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “Christmas in Connecticut.” To my delight, Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 shares an unfamiliar collection of holiday stories. “The Wise Men of Chelm and the Miracle Lakes” is a stone soup rofendition about potato pancakes entertainingly led by ensemble member John Francisco. Mary Michell is hilarious in corresponding with her true love and his clever gift-giving in “Not Another Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Living in the generation of holiday gluttony, the moments that melt icicle-hearts are the recalling of children’s holidays in “Hilda Sutt Polchek Remembers Christmas at the Hull House” and “Scarlett Ribbons.

Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 is performed on a bare stage with guitar (Rachel Schiff) and violin (Blake Hackler) accompaniment. This strings-only music adds an undertone of sad winter quiet – that at times the amplified music competes with the non-miked cast. The actors are a talented band of storytellers. In the dreary winter evening, without a Christmas tree and a menorah to look at, the audience focuses on the actors’ facial expressions and their words. Spoiled lately from the grandeur of big musical productions, it’s hard to adjust to the sparse stage. Because Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 represents simpler times of storytelling, the plainness has an authentic and intimate quality.

Although an exploration of multi-religious representation of winter solstice could prove to be even more interesting, this 2009 focus on Jewish folklore promotes both understanding of its traditions and strong cravings for lakes (even though and I don’t like potatoes!).

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review – "Hizzoner" at Beverly Arts Center

[This review submitted by Michael Fielding, editor of SouthwestObserver.com]

Hizzoner_button “This is a city of neighborhoods,” barks Neil Giuntoli, the man who has resurrected this city’s first big Daley, Richard J. “I can’t go changing the way people think.”

So begins Giuntoli’s production of “Hizzoner,” now staging an encore run at the Beverly Arts Center through Sunday.

The two-hour memory play chronicles the second half of the elder Daley’s 21-year run as mayor – a time that saw the rise of both Jesse Jackson and Jane Byrne, of his legendary bouts with the press (namely the late columnist Mike Royko), of the taut 1968 Democratic convention and of the rise and fall of the neighborhood pals invited into Daley’s inner circle.

It’s a portrait of the ethnic street gangs all grown up and inhabiting the penthouse of municipal politics – City Hall – at a time when the city’s Irish, Italians, Czechs, Polish and the rest found solace in their shared backgrounds and rewarded loyal behavior with honest-to-goodness patronage.

“Hizzoner” opened at Prop Thtr on the North Side nearly two years ago, but despite the city’s fascination with the Daley dynasty as a whole, there’s no doubt the production is at home in Beverly. In this city of neighborhoods, there’s only one place where they don’t ask what neighborhood you grew up in but what parish you grew up in. That’s right here on the South Side. Giuntoli’s characterization of Daley as the prolific altar boy no doubt is appreciated here more than anywhere else in Chicago.

He is at home in the heart of the city’s 19th Ward, where, to this day, there are politics behind the politics, and anyone who knows what’s good for him doesn’t miss Sunday Mass.

Giuntoli, a burly veteran actor and Prop founder, is startling in his bits of “Da Mare’s” legendary outbursts. He clenches his mouth, frowns and slams a fist or points willfully at his target. He turns red – intensely red – and explodes. It’s a superb, inimitable performance. Royko himself is said to have written that Daley exhibited a “blend of smile and scowl,” and Giuntoli has resurrected Daley’s mannerisms to near-perfection, almost eerily, in fact.

The ghost of William J. Daley still lingers in the shadows of the city’s high rises and in the dark corners of Machine offices. He haunts Chicago from City Hall to Cabrini-Green. And he comes alive every time Giuntoli emerges into the spotlight.

Giuntoli interprets well the contradiction between Daley’s no-nonsense South Side values and his belligerent encounters with his adversaries.

The result is a portrait of a man who is flawed and complex but remains bigger than life. And although I’m convinced that Giuntoli has created a drama sprinkled with bits of comedy, Friday night’s Beverly Arts Center audience disagreed, punctuating much of the performance with fits of laughter that were broken only briefly by moments of solemn silence. (Seriously, there was even laughter after the shoot-to-kill order during the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) But let’s agree to disagree.

Daley himself was a man of contradictions, at once stoic and unpredictable, gregarious and introverted. Yet he was far from the tyrant his critics have long suggested, Giuntoli suggests. Rather, Daley himself was burdened by the anxiety of not completely being in control of his city.

Giuntoli doesn’t feign the tears that well up behind the thick spectacles when he relates to an audience member the nights he spent with his sons at Comiskey Park. They’re real, those tears. And so are the trivial outbursts that pop like firecrackers throughout the performance.

Although Giuntoli’s renowned performances have attracted admirers from across the country, the play as a whole – and a couple of its actors – need some work. It is set almost entirely in the mayor’s office, which is fine, but it lacks a cohesiveness, a flow, that might move it along more efficiently between scenes.

In particular, Gordon Gillespie, who plays Earl Bush, Daley’s press secretary, adds too many theatrics to his performance, coming off more vaudevillian than anything else and seeming oddly out of place. Yet William Bullion (City Clerk Matt Danaher and Daley’s patronage coordinator) and Whit Spurgeon (Ald. Tom Keane) turn in notable performances as the Daley loyalists eventually charged with corruption. “Hizzoner” is a play whose characters should be understated. Let the motives of the characters speak for themselves, the philosophy goes, and act as if you’re performing in a closet with an audience of three.

Most of Giuntoli’s cast understands that – and that likely is the reason the production still has plenty of gas.

Giuntoli also cleverly uses multimedia effects (including audio clips and raw video footage) that, when paired with his full use of the stage and house (actors playing reporters during press conference scenes pop up in the aisles), make for an intelligent production.

You might love him, or you might hate him, but if you don’t understand Richard J. Daley, you’re probably not from Chicago.

“Hizzoner” –  written by Neil Giuntoli and directed by Stefan Brun – runs through June 29th, and seats are still available. For ticket information call (773) 445-3838 or visit www.beverlyartcenter.org.  For general info regarding the play, visit www.hizzonertheplay.com.

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