REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

 

Private Lives

 

by Noël Coward
directed by Gary Griffin
thru March 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

For delivering comic barbs with Cowardesque suave perfection, it’s tough to beat Robert Sella. One expects he could make even the most insipid rom-com crackle, zing and pop through sheer force of his timing and droll finesse. Noel Coward’s Private Lives – wherein Sella is currently stealing the show with his irresistible irreverent panache – is, of course, anything but insipid. It snaps from start to finish with wisdom and witticisms, many at the cost of so-called conventional morality. As Elyot Chase in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Coward’s sparklingly well-made play, Sella seems born to wear the debonair character’s smoking jacket while tossing off withering repartee with the effortless brilliance of Beethoven practicing his scales. Almost.

private-lives-2 That sterling, razor-witted acumen with Coward’s inarguable wit isn’t quite enough. Yes, Sella can ignite an exquisite maelstrom of delicious comedy simply by flicking a napkin or aping a boxer’s stance. But in addition to humor, Private Lives rests on sexual chemistry, and there, director Gary Griffin’s staging – and Sella – fall short.

When Elyot and his ex-wife Amanda Prynne meet cute whilst on their respective honeymoons to new spouses, the attraction between former spouses is so white-hot that they abandon their new partners and flee for Amanda’s Parisian flat for a solid week of wall-to-wall sex. Or at least, it should be white-hot. Here, Elyot and Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold, worldly, brittle and dry as a perfectly aged Savignon Blanc) are more intellectual than sexual soul mates. Quip for quip, Amanda and her ex- are as perfectly matched as Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio or Albee’s George and Martha. Watching them spar is a joy. Watching them get busy atop a sleek grand piano? Not so much.

As for Sybil Chase and Victor Prynne – the abandoned half of the two newlywed couples – they’re utterly winning in their indignant conventionality. As the new Mrs. Chase, Chaon Cross is an ingénue with delicate yet unmistakable shadings of a harpy in-training – you just know she’s going to turn into her battle-ax mother by the time she hits 40. And as Amanda’s new husband Victor Prynne, Tim Campbell is a pitch-perfect righteous blockhead, a slab of ham and sensible haircut of a man, all tiresome chivalry and hail-fellow-well-met. He’s the opposite of Sella’s Elyot, physically, morally and intellectually, and the results – both visually and verbally – are hilarious.

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Not so effective is the intermittently and slowly rotating turntable that Griffin employs to give the audience a sense of voyeurism. While we do get to see the Prynne/Chase shenanigans from every angle, that rotation is a distraction – particularly when it starts up after being still for a while. It can be difficult to focus on the dialogue and characters when suddenly the set starts spinning on its axis, no matter how leisurely. Furthermore, the in-the-round staging means everyone in the audience spends at least some time staring at the backs of heads or (during scenes involving people prone on that piano or the purple velvet fainting couch) the soles of feet. It’s frustrating,

All that said, Private Lives is worthy of its ticket price. It’s Sella’s show, and chemistry or no, he nails the subversive genius of Coward’s wit. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s sleek 1930s costume design (the hats alone are to die for) and you’ve got a production that’s sumptuously handsome. As well as extremely funny.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Private Lives continues through March 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $55, $68, $75. For more information, call 312/595-5600 or go to www.chicagoshakes.com

Below: First rehearsal – the director talks about staging Private Lives in-the-round

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin

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Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Richard III”

Richard 3

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Richard III is among Shakespeare’s earliest and most enduring successes and Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King of England, perhaps his most thoroughly evil character. Despite the ingratiating manner he can turn off and on at will, Richard’s heart is as ugly and twisted as his body is deformed. Trusting no one, and thinking of nothing but his own gain, he is by turns vicious, conniving, dishonest – and utterly fascinating to audiences since Shakespeare’s colleague Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage to declaim, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

And that tradition continues unabated at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Richard III once again works its magic of simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Briskly paced and sensibly edited, this "Richard III" is relentless in its march towards its anti-hero’s tragic, self-inflicted destiny.

Wallace Acton as the amoral royal of the title brings a surprising amount of humor to his role. His soliloquies and asides to the audience succeed in drawing us in, making us complicit in his mad determination to seize the throne. By the time the culminating battle is approaching, Acton’s Richard has come completely undone, but with a mania and a desperation entirely in keeping with the vicious joker of but a few hours earlier.

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Other standout performers in the generally strong company include Kevin Gudahl as Richard’s cousin and accomplice, the Duke of Buckingham, John Reeger as the steadfast Lord Stanley and Dan Kenney as Catesby, Richard’s personal enforcer. Brendan Marshall-Rashid brings authority and gravitas to the small but pivotal role of Richmond, the future King Henry VII and founder of the royal House of Tudor after Richard’s death.

Interestingly enough, it is the women of this "Richard III" who truly shine – women who give lie to the assumption that politics in the Fifteenth Century must have been a man’s game. Wendy Robie, as Richard’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to the soon-deceased Edward IV, and Mary Ann Thebus as his mother, the Duchess of York, are fine, strong actors and women to be reckoned with; they deal with Richard on their own terms. Angela Ingersoll as Lady Anne Neville brings a delicate intensity to a notoriously difficult role. One can feel her chaotic emotions as she is wooed literally over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, by the monster who killed not only that monarch, but Anne’s husband and her father. Ms. Ingersoll makes Anne’s impossible choices seem understandable – not an easy task.

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Gaines makes terrific use of the sleek, heavily reflective multi-level set clad in plexiglass – designed by Neil Patel and lit beautifully by Robert Wierzel – including inventive use of exits and entrances all through the CST’s auditorium. Special mention needs to be made of Susan E. Mickey‘s brilliant costuming. Evocative of traditional Elizabethan shapes and silhouettes, but executed in muted palettes and of lighter weight fabrics, these are clothes that suggest and reference, without encumbering actors in layers and layers of detail (see video of Ms. Mickey’s perspectives on the visual world of the play here). The director and this designer all star team continue to surprise with images of startling beauty, right up to the closing moments.

Richard III may be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar vehicles, but this is a "Richard III" to remember.

Rating: ««««

 

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Review – “Carter’s Way” at Steppenwolf

Carter’s Way 1Carter’s Way

Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre  

Set-up: It’s 1935.  In America, it’s the middle of the Great Depression.  In Kansas City, it’s the peak of the city’s legendary jazz era.  The Kansas City jazz scene is hopping with recording deals and jam-packed clubs like Planet Mars, owned by Peewee Abernathy (ensemble member K. Todd Freeman).  Here at the Planet Mars, life revolves around Oriole Carter (James Vincent Meredith), a brilliant black saxophonist, who leads the house band.  Carter is falling head over heels for the white girlfriend Eunice (Anne Adams) of a local mobster, just as a brand new invention called the radio can possibly make Carter a nationally-recognized star.  Will this taboo relationship ruin Carter’s expectant success?

plus Great performances: Meredith’s Carter is dead-on as the talented, agonized saxophonist (and he plays the saxophone riffs himself); ensemble member Ora Jones’ portrayal of piano-playing caretaker Marilyn Stokes offers up nuanced surprises throughout; Freeman’s impersonation of Peewee adroitly displays the character’s struggles between running his nightclub at a profit all the while appreciating the talents of the club’s band.  Neil Patel’s set works wonderfully, most of the action taking place on the first floor of Planet Mars, with extra scenes using a room built directly above the club.  Darrell Leonard’s original music is remarkable in that one senses that the tunes must have been originally written during the 1920’s era.  Barry Funderburg’s sound design is exemplary and flawless.  Finally, this rave review would not be complete without mentioning the multi-talented ensemble-memberEric Simonson, the playwright and director of Carter’s Way – kudos in every definition of the word.

minus From my inspection, there are/were two weaknesses inherent in the production, although all of them can be remedied (though not during Steppenwolf’s run).  The first, less formidable weakness falls on the performance from Anne Adams, playing love-interest Eunice – she comes across second-rate when lined up with the rest of the ensemble powerhouse; unconvincing in presenting a case for her reckless and selfish behavior and choices.  Secondly, the role of the up-and-coming mobster Johnny Russo (Keith Kupferer) really demands a deeper exploration – the character, exhibiting an imaginative entrepreneurism that goes against the grain of the mobster culture, proves intriguing. 

Summary:  In the end, Carter’s Way is a well-crafted, moving play – one that effectively played games on my emotions, as I nervously told myself “Don’t do it.  Don’t screw this up”. The production looks and sounds great, and the overall talented, adept performances propel this drama tragically forward, much like a snowball rumbling down a hill.  Without hesitation, I proclaim Carter’s Way as highly recommended.

Rating: «««½

Related Links: Chicago Tribune review, Sun-Times review

UpdateIt appears that I made a mistake in my review regarding my misgivings with Peewee’s final dialogue.  I have thus made an adjustment. Carter’s Way at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre

Personnel and Show Times

Playwright: Eric Simonson
Director: Eric Simonson
Sets: Neil Patel
Lights: Keith Parham
Costumes: Karin Kopischke
Sound Design: Barry Funderburg
Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
Stage Manage: Malcolm Ewen
   
Featuring: K. Todd Freeman (Peewee Abernathy)
James Vincent Meredith (Oriole Carter)
Ora Jones (Marily Stokes)
Keith Kupferer (Johnny Russo)
Anne Adams (Eunice Fey)
Robert Breuler (Boss Jack Thorpe)
  Scott Cummins (Corky, Henry, Billings, Andy)
Calvin Dutton, Curtis M. Jackson, Michael Pogue (ensemble)
   
Dates: Through April 17, 2008
Show Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30pmSaturday and Sunday matinees at 3pmAdditional matinees on April 9, 16 and 23 at 2:00pm (Wednesdays)
Tickets: $20 – $45
Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre