Review: Mary (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Unflinching comedy makes you flinch

     
     

(l to r) James (Scott Jaeck), David (Alex Weisman), Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and Dolores (Barbara Garrick) sit down to a family dinner while Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tends to them in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
  
Mary
  
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by May Adrales
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

In his short time as a professional playwright, Thomas Bradshaw has developed a reputation as one of the foremost provocateurs in the theatre. And after having seen the Goodman Theatre’s production of Mary, it’s a title that is well deserved.

Bradshaw obviously is not one to shy away from such controversial topics as homosexuality, race relations, religion and AIDS, all of which he tackles in the exceedingly dark comedy. But he also is able to deal with these subjects in a way that isn’t sensational. His handling may be over-the-top, taking notions of racism, for example, to absurd heights in order to comically portray the realities of racial inequality. But he never loses sight of the point he is trying to make. In other words, the material isn’t shocking merely to be shocking.

College sweethearts (l to r) Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and David (Alex Weisman) embrace as they get ready to leave school for winter break in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.Mary begins in the year 1983. A collegiate gay couple, David (Alex Weisman) and Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), are preparing for the holidays. When David asks if Jonathan would like to spend the Christmas season with his family, Jonathan apprehensively agrees. The two decide to hide their sexuality from the parents, insisting instead they are just really good buddies.

To say David’s family is unusual is an understatement. His extraordinarily over-the-top WASPy parents (played by Barbara Garrick and Scott Jaeck) keep a black maid on hand who they endearingly refer to as Nigger Mary. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) embodies the mammy caricature, that portly maternal good-natured but simple black woman that has permeated white representations of blacks for decades. She is subservient with a smile and treated as a member of the family.

Jonathan is our fish-out-of-water in this scenario, and so we view David’s bizarre family dynamic through his eyes. Of course, seeing a black woman who is affectionately referred to as a nigger and who lives in a cabin on the property doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. And so he urges David to convince his parents to make some changes. David eventually confronts his mother, pleading with her to send Mary to community college so that she may learn to read.

Meanwhile, Mary and her husband Elroy are uncomfortable with David’s obvious homosexuality. The notion of two men engaging in a sexual relationship goes against their strong Christian roots. And so Mary vows to do God’s work and instructs Elroy to shoot Jonathan in the crotch with a BB gun.

     
Dolores (Barbara Garrick) surprises her husband James (Scott Jaeck) with an early Christmas present in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) recites the Biblical story of Lot to her husband Elroy (Cedric Young) in Thomas Bradshaw’s 'Mary'.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

It certainly sounds like we’re venturing into sitcom territory here. And that seems to be Bradshaw’s intention. But I can assure you that the play does not end on a hearty laugh and a freeze frame. In fact, the ending is quite possibly one of the most unsettling endings to any play I have ever seen. Without giving too much away, Bradshaw in essence pulls the rug out from under the audience, delivering a big "Fuck you!" It’s both ingenious and sadistic.

My problem is that, although I think the ending is a brilliant concept, it feels like the punch line to a very long sketch. It’s a little glib; a little out of left field. It doesn’t entirely make sense when you really sit and think about the characters and the journey they have undergone. And so as much as I really do appreciate the ending as a conceit, I can’t say it was necessarily good playwriting. Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Nigger Mary, struggles with her relationship with the Jennings family in Thomas Bradshaw's 'Mary'. Photo by Liz Lauren.It just makes too big of a leap in logic in order to express how religion and good intentions can send people on misguided missions.

Kudos to the actors, all of whom hold their own in this topsy-turvy play. Weisman and Bennett are good at playing up the puppy love of their relationship, while Bennett scores big laughs with his nimble prancing and shocked facial expressions. Meanwhile, Taylor is incredibly likeable as Mary, even when her character is scheming to shoot a man in the testicles. This likeability makes the play’s conclusion that much more revolting.

May Adrales‘ direction is adept. She keeps the play in motion constantly, giving little time for pause between scenes. It’s exceptional pacing that makes this 90-minute one act breeze by.

The accolades that Bradshaw has received have been earned. Mary really is a thought-provoking and important piece of theatre. I just wish Bradshaw could have found a way to draft his ending so that it wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the characters. Still, the point is made. Just don’t expect to leave the Goodman feeling uplifted.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

(l to r) David (Alex Weisman) plays his new violin for his mother Dolores (Barbara Garrick), his father James (Scott Jaeck), Elroy (Cedric Young) and Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren

All photos by Liz Lauren

         
           

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REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

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REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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Designers get their due at 17th Annual Merritt Awards

Designers celebrate theatre accomplishments

 

2010 Merritt Awards 

By Katy Walsh

Scenery, lights, sounds, costumes; theatre design is devising storytelling beyond the dialogue. On Monday, May 3, 2010, Chicago gathered at the Goodman Theatre to celebrate the role that designers play in the theatre community. The festivities brought together veteran and rookies in the theatre design world for networking and fellowship. The focal point of the evening was the 17th Annual Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration. The award honors the memory of Michael Merritt. Best known for collaborative work with David Mamet, Merritt was a Chicago theatre designer who died at the age of 47 in 1992. The Michael Merritt Endowment Fund preserves Merritt’s legacy with awards acknowledging established designers, nurturing emerging designers and encouraging design students.

The evening started with the 4th Annual Theatre Design Expo. Design students from across the country, along with a handful of Chicago designers, set up displays in the Goodman foyer to showcase their theatre portfolio and aspirations. After viewing the colorful and imaginative exhibits, guests trooped into the Owen Theatre for the Dialogue with the Designers panel discussion. Moderated by the Goodman’s Artistic Director Robert Falls, the group discussed the challenges and accomplishments of collaborative efforts in theatre. The panelists were Michael Bodeen (composer, sound design), 1997 Merritt Award winner John Boesche (projection designer), 2007 Maggio Award and 2004 Merritt Award winner Ana Kuzmanic (costume designer), The House’s Artistic Director Nathan Allen, and tonight’s Merritt honoree Collette Pollard (scenic designer). Following the panel discussion, the awards ceremony commenced.

First, the Michael Merritt Student Scholarships were bestowed on students from Chicago theatre programs:

Costume Design

Jeremy W. Floyd, Northwestern University

Lighting Design

Wade Holliday, Columbia College
The John Murbach Scholarship for Collaborative Design

Scenic Design

Williams G. Wever, The Theatre School at DePaul University 

 


2010 Merritt Awards

Next, the 2010 Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award was awarded. The award honors the memory of Goodman’s Artistic Director Michael Maggio. This year’s recipient:

Scenic Designer

Collette Pollard, 2010 Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award

Pollard’s recent design credits include The Illusion (review ★★★) at Court Theatre, Stoop Stories (review ★★★½) at Goodman Theatre and The House on Mango Street at Steppenwolf Theatre. Her next production opens next week at Writers’ Theatre, Streetcar Named Desire. Pollard has also worked with many Chicago companies, including; The House Theatre of Chicago, Timeline Theatre, Northlight Theatre, and About Face Theatre. Pollard earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts with honors in scenic design from The Theatre School at DePaul University and her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from Northwestern University. Currently, she teaches at Columbia College Chicago.


The evening climaxed with the Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration presented posthumously in honor of the lighting and scenic design work of Michael Philippi.

Lighting and Scenic Designer

Michael Philippi (1951-2009)

2010 Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration

Philippi passed away suddenly on his way to a technical rehearsal for High Holidays at Goodman Theatre on October 27, 2009. His most recent work was enjoyed at Goodman Theatre in productions of Desire Under the Elms, King Lear, Finishing the Picture, A Life in Theatre, Moonlight and Magnolias, and The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Philippe also worked with many Chicago, national and international companies including: Northlight Theatre, Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Guthrie Theatre, Berkley Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He was a recipient of Jefferson Awards for Terra Nova and In the Belly of the Beast, both at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, and Hollywood Drama-Logue Awards for Kabuki Medea at Berkley Repertory Theatre and Changes of Heart at Mark Taper Forum.

The 2010 awards program and fundraising event was co-hosted by the Michael Merritt Endowment Fund Steering Committee at Columbia College Chicago and Goodman Theatre. Sponsors included Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc., J.R. Clancy Inc., Schuler Shook, Rent Com, Rose Brand and Steppenwolf Theatre.

2010 Merritt Awards