REVIEW: Wicked (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

WFF: Wicked Friends Forever

or

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Enjoy Regime Change!

  

  
     

Chandra Lee Schwartz and Jackie Burns - Wicked - Broadway in Chicago

   
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Wicked
   
Music/Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Joe Mantello
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through January 23  |  tickets: $35-$105  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Big, bold Wicked is back in town. Broadway in Chicago launched its surefire holiday winner with military precision Friday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Not a wrong note. Not a misstep. Not a hair out of place–and they’ve got a million fabulous wigs (Tom Watson) to keep in check, y’all.

Jackie Burns and chanra Lee Schwartz as Elphaba and Glinda in WickedJoe Mantello’s direction follows the Powell Doctrine of “overwhelming force,” so that audiences can be assured of Wicked as the one-stop shopping place for big talent, over-the-top pageantry, feel-good humor, and blow-your-hair-back music. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Plus, the production displays no shame in borrowing from the Disney playbook. So, do you desire dueling divas with the lungs and control to belt out those power ballads? Check. A suave male lead to fight over? Check. A goofy headmistress who turns into Cruella De Vil? Check. Gorgeous lighting (Kenneth Posner) and fun special effects (Chic Silber)? Check and check.

Don’t forget the tight and driven orchestra (P. Jason Yarcho) or the most excessive, blatantly overdone, asymmetrical costuming (Susan Hilferty) in the world. So, for those still on the lookout for a really, really big show to entertain family or those out-of-town guests, your ship has come in.

Naturally, Wicked is also really, really lite entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, revisiting Wicked creates a curious opportunity to re-examine the recent historical conditions under which it developed. Opening a month and a half after the US invasion of Iraq, Wicked throws a few blunt jabs at the War on Terror. Winnie Holzman (book) tried to throw a little politics into the mix without disturbing the musical’s overall feel-good vibe. It’s interesting to gage how well that has held up over the years. For the most part, since Wicked plays it both ways, its safe, bland pronouncements against oppression, increased surveillance, First Amendment violations and picking on people who are different come across like a beauty queen telling you that she wants world peace.

     
Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda the Good Witch Photo 6
Richard H. Blake as Fiyero in Wicked The Wonderful Wizard Jackie Burns as Elphaba in Wicked

But, hey, Wicked’s not about politics, right? Heck, no! It’s about two young women of radically different temperaments discovering that they can be best friends forever. Since Oz society casts the girls as “Good’ and “Evil”–and since they themselves never publicly buck that casting–the musical then becomes a rough and sloppy allegory on the moral ambiguities of Good and Evil becoming best friends forever. Now, there’s a fine fairy tale for a nation that cannot make up its mind. Are we the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan or are we just making the world safe for Halliburton, BP, etc?

I only ask because, you know, not to be a buzz kill or anything but we are still in the middle of the same wars. Very. Very. Expensive. Wars.

Never mind. It’s the holidays and what better to take our minds off our troubles than a mongo production about two girls who loathe each other but, through a merry mishap, become college roommates, who then learn to love each other. I know it sounds predictable and, frankly, lesbian – but relax, parents, even the heterosexuality in this show earns only a G-rating. So, on that cheery note, Wicked is fun for the whole family, especially if your family is made up of girls or gay boys who’ve memorized the soundtrack from beginning to end.

I kid. Straight males can also get a lot out of Wicked, like finding out how the female mind works.

One of the most important rules of feminine society is “be nice.” Always be nice, no matter what. Even if people absurdly hate you for your green skin, even if your family rejects you, even if you’re a social pariah the moment you walk in the door, always, always be nice. Niceness is the perpetual feminine social criteria and niceness always kills.

Elphaba (Jackie Burns) delivers a deliciously sinister witchy laugh but, for all that, her outsider bad girl suffers from a distinct lack of personality. Whatever power Burns exhibits—and she is a (whew!) powerful Broadway songstress—she’s still straitjacketed into a role where nice victimhood is the order of the day. Even Elphaba’s breakout moment in the second act, when she operatically vamps into a fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West with “No Good Deed,” is a transformation that goes nowhere because we never get to see her act wicked.

Chandra Lee SchwartzClearly, the creators of Wicked had far more fun developing Elphaba’s foil. Galinda/Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) overtakes the show. Glinda has mastered nice so well she can be nasty, two-faced, empty-headed and hypocritical yet still retain the love of the hoi polloi. Glinda gets star treatment, not just from the people of Oz, but also in the production’s visual quotations of Legally Blonde during “Dear Old Shiz” and Evita during “Thank Goodness.” “Popular” is a wonderfully funny, sassy and knowing number, not just for its humorous critique of popularity, but also because the song just tells it like it is. Schwarz’s easy control over her part vivifies Glinda’s zany pretentiousness without making her ridiculously clownish. Her classical voice training certainly plays pink princess Elphaba’s green girl next door, but the real mastery she exhibits comes from her comic timing.

Through Elphaba we get a bad girl who isn’t really threatening. Through Glinda, Wicked gets to poke fun at the feminine rules of niceness without raising hairs on parental necks. Through Wicked we all get to laugh at the emptiness and shallowness of our social and political order without really altering it. We feel more helpless now than ever to alter it and that helplessness, in turn, reflects in all our entertainments, lite or otherwise.

We hope and change but nothing really changes. That’s the malaise we share with Oz. No matter how shallow we know popularity is, popularity is politics and popularity ultimately wins. Sure, Madame Morrible and The Wizard (Chicago natives Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt) get their comeuppance once Glinda takes over. But, no matter what regime change goes down in Oz, Good Glinda, who was never really good, still has to live out her central casting as Good–however limiting that is for her—while wicked Elphaba, who was never really evil, still has to live fugitive from the angry mob.

It seems that, at least according to Wicked, the marginalized are to stay marginalized for the sake of maintaining order. (Does that go for the talking animals as well, the ones who were oppressed under The Wizard’s regime? We never find out.) Plus, it’s not just that Elphaba or Glinda find themselves thrust into unyielding roles; it’s that they accept these artificial roles without trying to correct their fellow citizens about them or they accept them under the pretense of serving a “greater good.” For the greater good, truth has to be sacrificed. For the greater good, you stay in your artificial, socially constructed role and I’ll stay in mine.

Accept the role society has placed you in, even if you know it’s false. I’m not sure that’s a message that I would want any girl or boy to take away from an evening’s entertainment.

Sacrifice the truth. Um, no. That never leads to anything good.

Accept that there are some things the people are better off not knowing—they’re just a bunch of dummies anyway. No, I think I’d prefer something that encouraged young people to stand up to the crowd, as well as to their leaders, and I think I’d want them to engage with their fellow citizens, rather than write them off as impossible ignoramuses.

I’m obviously asking too much of Wicked. It’s just a friggin’ musical, for cryin’ out loud; a musical made for fun, a musical for girls and boys who don’t feel popular and who want a heroine of their own, a playful diversion from reality. But in a way, with the topics it attempts to examine, Wicked asks for it.

In the face of America’s continuing economic malaise, its stalemated Congress and its continued involvement in demoralizing, resource-sucking wars, I don’t see the value of a production that teaches either kids, or the adults that brought them, mournful helplessness over imbedded social structures or the chicanery of the powerful. After all, one good witch or, rather, two good witches are not going to get us out of this mess. 

But hey, at least we get to see the Wizard!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Scene from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz - Broadway in Chicago

     
     

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REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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REVIEW: Gross Indecency – Oscar Wilde (Black Elephant)

A Modern Take on Indecency


Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 001

 
Black Elephant Theatre presents
 
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
 
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by
Michael Rashid
Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through November 14 | tickets: $18-$22   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

We humans love a good scandal. We love to put people on the pedestal of fame and notoriety and then topple the perch. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde puts a modern slant on the Victorian era scandal that was made of Wilde’s personal life. There is a preamble of sorts set in present day at the Green Carnation Bar on karaoke night. The Green Carnation is a gay bar and the men are mostly Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 015 young and a study in beauty. The characters are happily drunk and indulging in what could be at best naughty behavior but the fact that they are all men still leaves a dangerous edge to this drama.

The walls of the bar are covered in art that scandalized the Victorians. Aubrey Beardsley’s line drawings of engorged phalluses are joined by a portrait of a Greek boy, an absinthe advertisement, and, of course, Oscar Wilde at his languid best. This preamble serves as an unnecessary distraction – we are not needing a peek behind the walls of what is no longer forbidden, and I find drunken karaoke to only be fun when I am also inebriated. When the lights finally go down, the people in the bar become the characters in Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial.

Wilde made no secret of his love for young men and found a willing partner in Lord Alfred Douglas who he affectionately called Bosie. The Marquis of Queensbury , Bosie’s father, called Wilde a Sodomite and was subsequently sued for libel. It is certain that Wilde was more upset at being called something so common. He was also famous for his wit and aestheticism. To be a mere Sodomite was beneath Mr. Wilde.

The actors portray historical characters with a farcical quality and post modern edge. Mark LeBeau Jr. speaks the dialogue of Sir Edward Clark as if he were in a screwball comedy of the 1930’s – talky and fast.  Unfortunately LeBeau garbles some of his words, and the staging has his back to the audience for some his scene.

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 007 Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 009
Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 016 Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 006 Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 004

Casey Chapman is glorious to watch as Sir Alfred Douglas-Wilde’s beloved Bosie. Chapman portrays a glowering and somewhat petulant Douglas who defies his father and revels in his sexuality in the times when even the piano legs were covered in the parlor. Chapman looks the part of an aristocrat in his carriage and his enunciation. He and Kevin Bishop as Oscar Wilde bring erotic shading to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The fact that the staging is in a modern bar takes away the bodice ripping illusion of Victorian times.

Danne W. Taylor is menacing as the Marquis. He dons an eye patch for the role and it is a nice addition. In one moment Taylor is the chicken hawk in the bar and in the next a hypocrite with a title disowning his son.

Jake Szczepaniak is great comic relief as George Bernard Shaw. It is known that Shaw was a champion for equal rights and quite the curmudgeon, but his appearance is a welcome non sequitur to the proceedings.

Alex Polcyn plays one of the judges to great comic effect as well. The hypocrisy of the times and the ridiculous nature of making an example of one man is a great premise for a farce. Polcyn dons a U.K. style court wig and orates like a Monty Python character. The timing and elocution are perfect and a lot of fun to watch in spite of the heavy subject matter.

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 013 In the second act, Kevin Bishop is seen more as Wilde. He is wonderful in the role and portrays Wilde’s famous wit and refusal to be common. Michael B. Woods is very funny as the cardigan -wearing judge in Wilde’s trial that sends him to prison. Woods is the quiet and observant bartender for most of the play and then transforms into a perfect vision of a cranky old man banging on the table for order in the court.

It is fortunate that the comic moments are in this production. Wilde was funny and acerbic with little tolerance for fools. Moises Kaufman incorporates a lot of the trial and Wilde quotes, but runs a bit on the talky side. It’s a razor-thin balance that Kaufman’s dialogue treads. He attempts to show how anyone’s life can be misconstrued as a criminal act just by how they choose to live. Black Elephant Theatre uses the subtitle ‘love is a crime’, recalling the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were targeted as the means by which a plague was unloosed. The same thing happened to Oscar Wilde and just as painful and ignominious death awaited him when he was released from prison.

Michael Rashid’s direction is skillful, though one wonders what he could have done if time were shaved off of the production and if farce and drama were more seamlessly blended. At times the action feels like one of the Beardsley’s exaggerated drawings, and  then suddenly it’s as murky as the absinthe that Wilde supposedly imbibed.

I recommend this production with a caveat. Unless you dig watching drunken karaoke, take a pass on the pre-show. It’s meant to get the audience into the mind frame of the times and the characters, but it adds more time to a production that clocks in at two hours without karaoke.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 002

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a presentation of Black Elephant Theatre and runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sundays at 8:30pm through November 14th. The production is located in the West Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago. A trailer of the play and more information is available at www.blackelephanttheatre.com

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Wednesday Wordplay: Mary Tyler Moore and Oscar Wilde

mary-tyler-moore

 

Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges make life worth living.
           
Mary Tyler Moore

 

 

The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business. You’ve got to keep on working that talent. Someday I’ll reach for it and it won’t be there.
            — Irving Berlin, 1958

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
            — Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

 

Oscar Wilde

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
           
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

 

Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.
            — Amy Lowell

For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
            — Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mayor’s banquet speech, 1954

 

diane-houston 

Only some people get what they want. Those are the people who show up to get it.
            — Dianne Houston, Take The Lead, 2006

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
            — Amy Bloom

May I never miss a sunset or a rainbow because I am looking down.
            —
Sara June Parker

 

george-burns

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
            — George Burns

 

 

   
   

REVIEW: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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Remy Bumppo announces 2010/2011 Season

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REMY BUMPPO THEATRE COMPANY ANNOUNCES 2010/2011 SEASON

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company Artistic Director James Bohnen and Executive Director Kristin Larsen announced today the company’s line up for its 14th consecutive year of think theatre:

 

  Night and Day  
      by Tom Stoppard
    directed by James Bohnen 
    September 22 – October 31
   
   The Importance of Being Earnest
      by Oscar Wilde
    directed by Artistic Associate Shawn Douglass
    November 24, 2010 – January 2, 2011
   
  The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
      by Edward Albee 
    directed by James Bohnen
    March 30 – May 8, 2011

All shows presented at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.