Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

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Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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Review: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Court Theatre)

     
     

Ruhl’s ‘Orlando’: A decent romp

     
     

Amy J. Carle as Orlando (Michael Brosilow).

  
Court Theatre presents
  
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through April 10  | tickets: $10-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with a protagonist that flips sexes and a narrative that slithers through time and space, is required reading for any student of women in literature. The genre-twisting novel, a thinly-veiled biography of Woolf’s sometimes-lover Vita Sackville-West, is Woolf’s most accessible and popular book. The light tone and fantastical story make Orlando ripe for the stage; however, putting the broad and populous novel on stage requires an innovative touch. The Court Theatre put the task of writing a stage adaptation in the very capable hands of Sarah Ruhl. To direct, they snapped up Jessica Thebus, always full of fascinating theatrics.

Kevin Douglas, Amy J. Carle, Erica Elam, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow).The end product has six actors, loads of quick scenes, heavily-thematic design, and a tendency to stuff the audience full with exposition.

The plot spans 500 years, from the rule of Queen Elizabeth to today. Orlando (the ever-energized Amy J. Carle) is a young and restless poet, looking to write an ode to an oak tree but never finding the right verses. His shapely legs and youthful vigor catch the eye of the Queen (Lawrence Grimm, part of a four-man chorus that plays a galaxy of roles), who brings the kid into her court. There Orlando falls for Sasha (Erica Elam), who is visiting England with the Russian embassy. She departs for Moscow, and Orlando is restless once again. He travels the world, only to awake one morning in Constantinople to find that he has transformed into a woman. She then must navigate the new social implications and a whole new set of suitors. Along with the switch in gender, Orlando also must deal with living for hundreds of years and her ever-pressing need to finish her poem.

Ruhl and Thebus use plenty of theatrical magic to sail Orlando’s story. The stage is nearly bare for most of the time, allowing for quick transitions from place to place and time to time. Collette Pollard’s set contains many tricks; for example, a rolling bed becomes both a ship and a chrysalis for Orlando’s transformation. Linda Roethke’s monochrome costumes evolve with the time periods, but also play with gender roles. The four male chorus members begin the show strapped up in corsets, and there isn’t a real effort to hide Carle’s gender. It’s intriguing to watch Orlando go from loose trousers and vests to frilly, voluminous dresses.

Ruhl’s adaptation has a bad case of telling rather than showing. The characters often narrate to the audience about feelings, as well as discuss where the story is traveling. Much of this direct address is full of Ruhl’s trademarked lyricism, but it still leaves one yearning for more dramatization. It seems she unable to exactly figure out how to put Woolf’s tale up, so she uses the direct address as a crutch.

Ruhl’s adaptation is also hampered by a lowered stakes in the second half. The first act – which showcases Orlando’s romances with the Queen and Sasha – builds until Orlando becomes a woman. After intermission, the play can’t quite find its footing again. The second act hurriedly leaps through centuries to reach a rather bland conclusion.

     
Amy J. Carle, Adrian Danzig, Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow). Kevin Douglas (Michael Brosilow).
Kevin Douglas, Thomas J. Cox, and Adrian Danzig (Michael Brosilow). Adrian Danzig, Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth, Thomas J. Cox, and Amy J. Carle (Michael Brosilow).

The actors are all eager and willing. Carle never disappoints as Orlando, and she has a huge journey to take every night. Orlando starts as wide-eyed and lusty and ends as darkly meditative and matured over his 500 years; Carle can nail every aspect of the character. The four chorus members, Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas, and Grimm, make their constant character-swapping look easy. They carry the show, both literally and figuratively. Although not on-stage very much, Elam does decent work as Sasha, alternating between sexy and innocent.

Woolf claimed she started Orlando as a joke, a way to tease Vita. Ruhl’s adaptation captures this light mood, and Orlando’s prevalent attitude through the centuries seems to be “just go with it.” This tone and Thebus’ antics are sure to amuse and inspire, even if Ruhl’s writing gets a tad clunky.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
       
  

Orlando meets "The Great Queen" featuring Amy J. Carle as Orlando and Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth I:

 

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REVIEW: Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Court Theatre)

What defines identity, your name or your soul?

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Court Theatre presents
  
Sizwe Banzi is Dead
 
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jon OJ Parsons
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets:  $35-$56  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The grand, although accidental, Athol Fugard Chicago experiment ends this season with Court’s production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, one of the South African writer’s lesser-produced works. Like The Island (which closed at Remy Bumppo in March – our review ★★½), Sizwe was co-written by the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who ended up with Tony Awards for both plays.

sizwe-banzi-is-dead008 Court Theatre’s production is anchored by two masterful actors as well, Chike Johnson and Allen Gilmore. It’s a powerful, if slow, exploration on what makes us human beings. Director Ron OJ Parsons’ steady hand keeps the course of the verbose piece, which could easily be upset by weak performances. Johnson and Gilmore mire themselves in Fugard’s semi-absurdist world, though, and make the gritty political play shine and resonate.

One of the most striking features of Fugard’s drama is the lack of action. Instead, it works as a dissertation on the sins of apartheid, as well as linking into some bigger issues like identity and freedom. The play starts with a half-hour monologue from Johnson as Styles, who used to work at a New Brighton Ford plant but now owns a photography studio. He opens his door to the next customer, the weathered Sizwe Banzi (Gilmore), who needs a picture to send to his wife. We then see the taciturn visitor’s backstory, revealing how Banzi’s ID booklet expired, which makes him an illegal resident of the city. While out with his friend Buntu (Johnson again), the two come across a dead body. Things get really complicated when they discover the body has a booklet stamped with the work permit Sizwe needs to stay. Buntu hatches up a plan to steal the identity, and Sizwe must decide if he wants to kill off his old self.

The play is marked by discourse and meditation on identity and what and who defines it. Athol Fugard questions the importance of a name. According to Gilmore and Sizwe, the decision to envelop someone else’s humanity is a tough choice, a struggle of the soul. Buntu, always the pragmatist, sees it as a simple issue of survival. Pride, he attests, isn’t for those who have to support a family.

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The play definitely sits in the world, trudging towards Sizwe’s final decision. The pacing of the production is right for the play, which is a slow-burning piece. If not very exciting, it is very powerful. But it helps to be prepared. Compared to Fugard’s more based-in-reality Master Harold…and the boys (put on TimeLine Theatre, the first of the Fugard Chicago productions – our review ★★★½), Sizwe drags us through the muck. The payoff is worth it, but it can be a tough journey.

Gilmore and Johnson have brilliant chemistry between them. Gilmore’s Sizwe is awkward and a bit slow, but he has a puppy-dog quality about him. Johnson is sharp and brimming with charisma as Styles and Buntu—he is the one who really forces the play forward. There is a great scene in the middle of the play where the two enter the audience and share their excitement of being treated like human beings at a bar, adding some theatrical spice to the mix.

The two actors carry the burden of this production on their shoulders, as well as the audience. They do it in grand fashion. The only glaring issue with the production stems from the play itself, which can lull rather than incite. Considering you are now forewarned, you can prepare yourself to see a moving theatrical dissection of the politics of racism, which brings to mind events taking place over in Arizona. Does our identity boil down to what’s on our birth certificate? Or does our humanity burn somewhere deeper in our conscious?

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   

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Extra Credit:

Related articles and Interviews:

 

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Review: Court Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Just go see it. Now.

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Court Theatre presents:

The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Charles Ludlam
directed by Sean Graney
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Irma Vep 1 Productions like Court Theatre‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep are the reason why theater will always survive as an art form. The rush of watching two actors play multiple characters in a live setting with rapid fire costume (and gender) changes while telling a story about werewolves, vampires, ancient Egyptian princesses, and missing wives is unbelievable. This is an experience that you can’t find at the movies, can’t stream on YouTube, and can’t download to your PS3. The amount of energy required to successfully pull off Charles Ludlam‘s penny dreadful is astounding, and Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan give masterful performances as the play’s six characters. Whether they’re playing "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, crawling over audience members transported to the pyramids of Cairo, or fondling mummified breasts, the actors never drop their energy, and the result is two of the most hilarious and exhilarating hours seen on the Chicago stage this season.

Sean Graney has established himself as one of the city’s best directors when it comes to high energy, high manic productions, and the fact that he can seamlessly transition from a heartwarming children’s theater production like The 100 Dresses (our review) to the risque, raunchy Irma Vep while maintaining a consistent directorial voice is mind boggling. Graney loves to get his actors in the audience at some point during his productions, and a scene where Hellman, as widowed archaeologist Lord Edgar, and Sullivan, as Muppet-browed Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, move through the rows of the house on their way to the stage at the start of Act II is a riot. Graney tears down the barrier between audience and actor, and Hellman sat on the laps of my guest and I, offered me his hand as he reached across audience members to shake Sullivan’s, and leapt over bags and jackets in the aisles, never dropping character.

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Hellman and Sullivan are two of the sharpest actors in Chicago theater, and they are insanely good in this production. Their vocal work is spot on, playing with exaggerated dialects and wildly varied pitches, and their physical work is outstanding. Casting a man of Chris Sullivan‘s size as the ingenue Lady Enid is guaranteed funny, but Sullivan captures the femininity of the character so well that the humor is amplified. The same goes for Hellman, playing the maid Jane with a hilarious mix of dainty, dirty, and sassy. But what makes these actors so phenomenal is their commitment to the world of the play. Hellman is supposed to dust everything, and he dusts everything: chairs, flowers, walls, books, footlights. Sullivan is handed a Pringle at the end of the play and delivers the line "I have a Pringle" with such seriousness that the viewer can’t help but wonder the symbolic importance of the potato chip. And the aforementioned dulcimer duet is bizarre yet completely captivating; the entire house sat in awed silence until the absurdity of the situation awakened hysterical laughter.

A show like Irma Vep has a huge "How’d they do that?!" factor, and Graney answers any questions about how such a technically complex show is put together with an absolutely genius final scene. The actors take the stage for the last time, but they are joined by the backstage crew and the production’s most valuable player: the costume rack. As the two men tie up the loose ends of Ludlam’s ridiculous plot they switch between characters and costumes on stage, stripping away illusion and revealing the magic that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an amazing sequence that is further amplified by the actors’ commitment to their roles, juxtaposing the actor’s job of creating reality with the inherent artifice of theater that is being presented to the audience. It’s intelligent, it’s hilarious, it’s brilliant. And that is The Mystery of Irma Vep in a nutshell.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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 Creative Team

Sean Graney – Director
Jack Magaw – Scenic Designer
Alison Siple – Costume Designer
Heather Gilbert – Lighting Designer
MIchael Griggs – Sound Designer
Ellen Hay – Production Stage Manager
Sara Gammage – Stage Manager