REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


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Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: A True History of the Johnstown Flood (Goodman Theatre)

Design team is all that’s left above water

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
A True History of the Johnstown Flood
 
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Rebecca Gilman’s  latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.

johnstown-flood_007 Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets.  The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it  might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic  emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.

Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of  explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.

The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama.  But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.

Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first  Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster.  It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.

johnstown-flood_012The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing:  James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.

The worst instance of  this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful  climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall)  -  are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.

Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?)  the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.

Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.

Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.

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Later comes a  potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation.  Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.

In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.”  Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.

 
Rating: ★½
 

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Goodman Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

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It’s "The Best of All Possible"! Artistic Director Robert Falls announces Goodman Theatre’s initial five-play line-up, including two reimagined classics and three world-premiere productions (two of which are Goodman commissions) that define the theater’s new 2010/2011 season; three plays are still to be announced. The new season marks the Goodman’s 10th in its home at 170 N. Dearborn and anchor of Chicago’s revitalized North Loop Theatre District—and its 85th year as the city’s largest not-for-profit producing theater.

Highlights:

  • Mary Zimmerman reimagines Bernstein’s Candide in a major fall musical event
  • Robert Falls re-exmines Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
  • New works by Sarah Ruhl 
  • Major new revival of the musical masterpiece Candide by Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler

Says Artistic Director Robert Falls:

"Our 2010/2011 season showcases the artistic breadth and variety for which the Goodman is noted, and the quality and diversity that our state-of-the-art facility has helped us achieve over the past ten years in this incredible new home. I am particularly pleased to welcome back three of my favorite collaborators—Manilow Resident Director Mary Zimmerman, Artistic Associate Regina Taylor, and playwright Sarah Ruhl—and excited to welcome Thomas Bradshaw to the Goodman for the first time."

 

The 2010-2011 Goodman Theatre Season

  Candide
  September and October, 2010 (Albert Theatre)
  Directed and adapted by Mary Zimmerman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler
New adaptation by Mary Zimmerman
  Tony Award and MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s breathtaking new production of Candide is the theatrical event of the season. In addition to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Candide features contributions from the greatest lyricists of the 20th century, from Richard Wilbur to Stephen Sondheim. In this racy musical satire, naive Candide is banished for romancing the Baron’s daughter, only to be plagued by a series of absurd hardships that challenge his optimistic outlook of life and love.
   
  The Seagull
  October and November, 2010 (Owen Theatre)
  by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Robert Falls
  Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls directs an intimate new production of Chekhov’s masterwork The Seagull, whose unforgettable characters reveal the passion and pathos of everyday life. When famed actress Irina visits her family with her young lover Trigorin in tow, they become ensnared in a tragicomic tangle of romance, intrigue and unrequited love. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience a 20th century masterpiece, interpreted by one of America’s outstanding directors—in the Owen Theatre.

   
  Rain
  January and February, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Regina Taylor
A World Premier
  Rain is Regina Taylor‘s most personal and intimate work to date. Fiercely independent Iris has made a successful life for herself as a journalist in New York City, but when her marriage fails, she begins to unravel. In search of solace, Iris returns to her mother’s house in Texas, but her homecoming proves more confounding than consoling when her mother makes a shocking announcement. As long-buried family secrets come to light, Iris must face her past and make some difficult decisions about the future.
   
  Mary
  February and March, 2011 (Owen Theatre)
  by Thomas Bradshaw 
Directed by May Adrales
A World Premiere
  Outrageous. Ruthless. Explosive. Named "Best Provocative Playwright" by The Village Voice, Thomas Bradshaw pulls no punches in his comic absurdist drama Mary. At the height of what Time magazine dubbed "AIDS hysteria" in 1983, college student David invites his boyfriend home to his parents’ house in Virginia where nothing has changed since the 1800s—including the slave quarters. Confronting hypocrisy and oppression with exhilarating wit, Bradshaw’s incendiary work is "likely to leave you speechless!" (The New York Times).
   
  Stage Kiss
  March and April, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Sarah Ruhl 
A World Premiere Goodman Theatre commission
  In this quirky new comedy by MacArthur "Genius" Award-winner Sarah Ruhl, art imitates life—or is it the other way around? When ex-lovers HE and SHE are thrown together as romantic leads in an outrageously dreadful melodrama, they quickly lose touch with reality as the story onstage begins to follow them offstage. Stage Kiss is a hilarious, off-beat fairy-tale about what happens when lovers share a stage kiss-or when actors share a real one.

An Opening Benefit launches the milestone season on Monday, September 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing—the location of the theater’s former home of 75 years. Honored will be those who paved the way for the new Goodman and made possible its myriad artistic, economic and community engagement achievements over the past decade. The evening will culminate with a performance of Candide. For tickets and more information about the Season Opening Benefit, call 312.443.5564. This will be the first in a season-long series of commemorative happenings.

Upcoming productions in the 2009/2010 Season include:  the world premiere of the Goodman commissioned A True History of the Johnstown Flood by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls (March 13 – April 18, 2010 in the Albert); The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Chuck Smith (May 1 – June 6, 2010 in the Albert); and The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, directed by Henry Godinez (June 19 – July 25, 2010 in the Albert) which launches the Goodman’s 5th Latino Theater Festival.

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Think Fast: Rebecca Gilman, Rondi Reed and Mary Poppin’s walking tour of Avenue Q.

 

  • Audience members were in for an unexpected treat regarding yesterday’s final performance of the Tony award-winning August: Osage County: Rondi Reed, the originator of the role of the boozy Mattie Fae Aiken, returned to play the role for the last time.  Ms. Reed is currently performing the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked, which she returned to later on Sunday for an evening performance.
 
 
  • Oops – the main computer of Broadway in Chicago’s Mary Poppins crashed.  After 45-minutes of unsuccessful IT support, the audience was told the performance would have to be canceled.  Double oops.
 
 

Review: Goodman’s “The Crowd You’re In With”

Gorgeous Set and poignant generational depictions
make this crowd memorable

 

The Crowd You’re In With
By Rebecca Gilman
Goodman Theatre, Owen Stage (buy tickets here)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Linda Gehringer (Karen), Coburn Goss (Jasper), Rob Riley (Tom), Kiff Vanden Heuvel (Dan), Stephanie Childers (Windsong) and Janelle Snow (Melinda). Photo by Eric Y. Exit With the entrance of June, summer moves into full swing and very soon schools will be out until the fall. In a little while, beaches, parks, and shopping malls will be teeming with families. The constant presence of kids will confront those younger couples who have yet to conceive. The choice to have a family is one of the most consequential decisions we make in our lives. That major life stepping stone is penetrated by Rebecca Gilman’s new play, The Crowd You’re In With.

The Chicago premier matches the setting of the play, which takes place in a Chicago backyard on the 4th of July. Three couples gather for a pre-fireworks barbecue. The conversation moves to the subject of kids, and the festivities fall apart. The hosts then clean up while making crucial life decisions.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Janelle Snow (Melinda), Stephanie Childers (Windsong) and Linda Gehringer (Karen). Photo by Eric Y. Exit     Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Rob Riley (Tom) and Sean Cooper (Dwight). Photo by Eric Y. Exit

When it comes to children, the three couples differ in opinion immensely. Jasper and Melinda (Coburn Goss and Janelle Snow) comprise the hosting couple. They’re still on the fence, having not succeeded at conception quite yet. Dan and Windsong (Kiff Vanden Heuvel and Stephanie Childers) are the hip, pregnant couple excited to get their family started. The party is rounded out by Tom and Karen (Rob Riley and Linda Gehringer), childless 60-somethings and Jasper and Melinda’s landlords. All three are forward-thinking, left-leaning, culture aficionados, discussing Bob Dylan and unionization over sangria and classy beer. Yet they all have different ideas when it comes to families, different enough to ruin everyone’s holiday.

Director Wendy Goldberg Director Wendy C. Goldberg handles the debate well, presenting each couple’s rhetoric with care. However, the point where the 4th of July fun turns into an open melee is unclear. Friendly jokes morph into personal attacks without much explanation. The embittered bickering comes out of nowhere, which seems to be an issue with the script. The play picks up after the barbecue dissolves, and the discussion is significantly more grounded and reasoned.

The best part of the production is the gorgeous set, designed by Kevin Depinet. The back of the two-story flat is created with meticulous attention to detail, complete with a hummingbird feeder. Brought to life by Josh Epstein lighting, it is the perfect location for a barbecue. If only our actual Chicago summer so far matched the summer on the Owen Stage.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Linda Gehringer (Karen) and Rob Riley (Tom). Photo by Eric Y. Exit The most interesting couple on stage is the older generation. Gehringer is delightfully corrosive as Karen, and Riley is her perfect match, balancing her tactlessness with goofy-old-man charm. Both of them do a great job stirring up discontent among the younger couples. Jasper comes out as the pensive protagonist of the play, and Goss plays him with depth and inquisitiveness. As his wife Melinda, Snow plays against him well; you can feel her biological clock tick away. Heuvel and Childers impart their couple with a youthful vibe, childlike in energy but also in temper. Sean Cooper makes a short appearance as Jasper’s and Dan’s single friend and bandmate, Dwight. With a delayed reaction time and slacker voice, Cooper seems to have based his performance on Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused.” Although the role doesn’t seem to actually have much of a point to it, he does get a hilarious monologue describing families at restaurants. With the exception of a few lulls in energy, the cast feed off each other and the couples all have a bonding underlying chemistry.

The production suffers from its brevity. Clocking in at just 85 minutes, the issues aren’t really given enough time to do them justice. Gilman fits in enough touching moments to make the play memorable, and the topics at work are relevant to everyone. The choice to start a family is a life-changing decision; “The Crowd You’re In With” explores the many repercussions of those choices.

Rating: «««

Running May 23 – June 21, 2009 (Buy tickets here).  All actors bios here.  Watch video here.