Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Eurydice (Filament Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Beautifully poetic, yet occasionally off key

     
     

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

 

Filament Theatre Ensemble Presents

 
Eurydice
 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Julie Ritchey
Original music by Peter Oyloe and Shannon Bengford
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport (map)
thru May 29  |  tickets: $10-$35 sponsorship |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Sarah Ruhl’s work can be seen all over Chicago this year, from The Court’s Orlando—to The Goodman’s premiere of Stage Kiss opening in May. All the while, she is not only being staged in our big name venues, but also in the fringe with Filament Theatre Ensemble’s remount of her 2003 play, Eurydice (in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate). And rest assured, the Pilsen space of the Lacuna Lofts is pure fringe with its unfinished, exposed and vacant expanse. It’s the type of building that’d be perfect for hide-n-seek, or the filming location for the next movie in the Hostel series. In this instance, director Julie Ritchey’s production, and Ruhl’s text, has something in common with the space, in that it is visually interesting, ignites curiosity, but in the end, it’s mostly empty.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, you’ll not be out of the loop, as Ruhl extracts the more romantic and sentimental aspects, expounding on them in a contemporary fashion. The play opens with Orpheus (Peter Oyloe) and Eurydice (Carolyn Faye Kramer) in 1950’s swimsuits (costumed pitch-perfect by Mieka van der Ploeg). His love is so boundless that he offers her the world, literally, by giving her the sea, the sky and the stars. The only two thoughts ever on his mind are Eurydice and music, for Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world. After some lovely staging by Ritchey in the opening scene, Orpheus ties a string around Eurydice’s finger to which she responds amusingly, “That’s a very particular finger.” And so, the worry-free couple is to be wed.

Eurydice’s father (played with great heart by Patrick Blashill), is dead, yet he successfully manages to get a letter sent to Eurydice from the underworld. In a chain of events related to the letter, and ‘A Nasty Interesting Man’ (Nathan Pease), she takes a tumble to her death. And thus, she is transferred to the underworld, by way of a raining elevator version of the River Styx. Here we meet our chorus of three stones (played with dedicated physicality by Ted Evans, Brandon Cloyd and Ashley Alvarez), who unfortunately come off more annoying in their childishness than anything else.

The rest of the narrative plays out much the same as any version of the myth, as Orpheus gains entry to the underworld in search of Eurydice. However, in Ruhl’s imagining, there is a certain “through the rabbit hole” element to the underworld. Nothing is as it seems, everyday objects have lost their meaning, and it is a world void of emotion. Ruhl also takes her time to languish in stripping meaning from words like “father” and “love.” She writes a wonderfully lyrical monologue in a letter from Orpheus to Eurydice in which he ponders, “Eurydice is dead….who is Eurydice?…what are people?”

The direction and acting in Ritchey’s production is decidedly set in the two-dimensional, which in part works well with the Greek morality tradition. While it highlights Ruhl’s wit and verse, it sacrifices some of the heart and what’s at stake for each of these characters. Still, Carolyn Faye Kramer’s performance is smart and uninhibited. Nathan Pease’s turn as an “interesting” man is creepy yet intriguing, however as the Lord of the Underworld, Ritchey may have steered Pease’s character too far in the obvious direction with Ruhl’s childlike depiction. The doe-eyed Oyloe has wonderful focus with Orpheus’ unconditional loyalty to love and music. His naïve ambitions are committed to fully.

The overall mise-en-scène is starkly beautiful with the interplay between the cold industrial aesthetic of the space and the warm whimsical poetry in the costume, light and scenic design. Joe Schermoly uses minimal elements within the barren space, such as white tree branches, that are intriguing yet not fully transformative. The freight elevator serves as the perfect mode of transportation to the underworld. Sitting in silence, listening to the clanking of the approaching elevator—waiting—provides for a few of the more exhilarating moments of the night.

One fatal flaw in this production is the recorded music. Too often, it sounds more like the background music in an informational video for a time-share. The composition and design come off as unoriginal (I swear I heard the theme from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast quoted at one point on the piano), and falsely produced—the overly computerized MIDI sound to every note played on the strings takes away the possibility for any emotional response to the music or authenticity. It also underscores a bit loudly during key monologues and scenes. While this may seem a minor point, in a play that relies upon one of the main character’s abilities to create the most beautiful music in the world, it unfortunately takes the wind out of the sails of Orpheus’ journey. When Oyloe is alone on stage conducting a computerized orchestra, we do not believe he has tugged at the heart strings of any person or creature. Oyloe’s live acoustic guitar playing is far more effective than any of his and Shannon Bengford’s arrangements.

Ultimately, Filament may not have the resources to meet the necessities of Ruhl’s play. The lyricism of the dialogue can only sustain the story so far. The light playfulness of the text requires a higher level of theatricality and spectacle to maintain interest, and to achieve the intended emotional effect, and create a separation of the two worlds to flesh out Eurydice’s journey. The play wants to float along in a dream world in which anything can occur, time and language are rendered meaningless, and the desires of the characters are unbridled. In this fanciful, yet uneven production, I was woken up, and taken out of this dreamlike place a few too many times to consider the journey refreshing and worthwhile.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Peter Oyloe as Orpheus and Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is directed by Filament’s Artistic Director, Julie Ritchey. It will run Friday through Sunday April 22 through May 29th in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. All performances are at 7:30pm. Tickets are a $10 – $35 sponsorship. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.


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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: Three Sisters (Piven Theatre Workshop)

   
   

Chekhov’s naturalist classic enjoys lively revival at Piven

 

Nofs-Snyder, Underwood, Batista - H

   
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
 
Three Sisters
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Adapted by
Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Joyce Piven
at
Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
thru November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

For sisters Olga (Joanne Underwood), Masha (Saren Nofs-Snyder), and Irina (Ravi Batista), the road to Moscow is long and bumpy in Piven Theatre’s finely acted, elegantly directed production of Chekhov’s naturalist classic Three Sisters. Tethered to their provincial town by occupation, spouse, and status, they struggle to find the meaning in their tiresome existence, dreaming of a utopian Moscow that is just out of reach. As their hopes fall apart around them, they learn that the only people they can trust are each other, and the three actresses develop the relationship between the Smith, Barnes, Nofs-Snyder - Vwomen beautifully. Under the guidance of director Joyce Piven, the relationships between the sisters and the men around them come to life, creating believable drama that is thick with emotion.

For Olga and Irina, the oldest and youngest, returning to Moscow is not near the fantasy it is for their middle sister Masha, in a loveless marriage with tenuous schoolteacher Kulygin (Brett T. Barnes), and Nofs-Snyder’s melancholic portrayal of Masha captures the sense of helplessness that defines the character. When the handsome Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin (Daniel Smith) enters Masha’s life, she is given a reason to live, and their romance smolders despite Smith’s distracting dialect. The first kiss between the two is one of the highlights of the production, a wonderfully awkward moment filled with hesitation that erupts into lust as the creaking of the wooden sofa breaks through their sensual silence.

Masha is the heart, Irina the soul, and Olga the mind of the play, allowing these core elements to dictate the direction of their lives. Meanwhile, their brother Andrei’s (Dave Belden) wife Natasha (Amanda Hartley) lacks all three, and she sucks them from her husband as the story progresses. A petulant, anxious ice queen with a superiority complex and unhealthy levels of self-righteousness, Natasha is played with villainous gusto by Hartley, who fearlessly depicts the character’s power trip once she marries Andrei. Her treatment of house servant Anfisa (Kathleen Ruhl, mother of adapter Sarah) is appalling, and creates great conflict with Olga, who cherishes Anfisa like a member of the family.

Ruhl, Batista - HDirector Joyce Piven uses the space beautifully, crafting spatial relationships to build tension between characters that explode when they finally come together. Solyony (Jay Reed), the play’s most combustible character, hates everything and never backs down from an argument, his intense misery venturing into comedic territory in its exaggeration. His love for Irina, a love shared by Baron Tuzenbach (Andy Hager), is unreturned by the youngest sister, who is more concerned with discovering fulfilling work than a man. Batista gives an emotionally resonant performance, especially as Irina begins to understand the kind of work available to her in town, but there’s a maturity in her voice and carriage that takes away from the character’s youthful energy. There is an early moment when Vershinin describes the sisters’ old home in Moscow and the older two’s faces become teary-eyed at the memory while Irina struggle to recapture the image, likely too young to truly remember. It’s a small moment, but it helps solidify her position in the trinity.

It’s a good time to be a Chekhov fan in Chicago. Goodman’s The Seagull (our review ★★★★) as the theatrical theory and situational humor, while Three Sisters eloquently showcases Chekhov’s philosophical genius and occasionally nihilist world view. As the lights go down on the three sisters standing united against the world, it’s like they are watching Moscow burn before their very eyes. The power of these three women together is the play’s beauty, the reality of their circumstance its tragedy.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Smith, Nofs-Snyder - H

Cast:

Ravi Batista* (Irina)
Saren Nofs-Snyder (Masha)
Joanne Underwood (Olga)
Brent T. Barnes (Kulygin)
Dave Belden (Andrei)
Marcus Davis (Fedotik)
Kevin D’Ambrosio (Ferapont)
John Fenner Mays (Chebutykin)
Andy Hager (Tuzenbach)
Amanda Hartley (Natasha)
Jacob Murphy (Rode)
Jay Reed (Solyony)
Kathleen Ruhl (Anfisa)
Dan Smith (Vershinin)
Susan Applebaum (Understudy – Anfisa)

 

Production Staff:

Producer: Jodi Gottberg
Production Stage Manager: Wendy Woodward*
Scenic Design: Aaron Menninga
Technical Director: Bernard Chin
Lighting Design: Andrew Iverson & Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Costume Design: Bill Morey
Composition & Sound Design: Collin Warren
Sound Engineer: Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Properties Design: Jesse Gaffney
Asst. Director & Dramaturg: Stephen Fedo
Asst. Stage Manager: Chad Duda
Asst. to the Director: Skye Robinson Hillis
Costume Assistant: Melissa Ng
Production Intern: Nathaniel Williams

* Member, Actors Equity Association

Nofs-Snyder, Batista, Underwood - H

Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


Jade Heart 3

 
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
  
  

Jade Heart 2

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Goodman Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

goodman-facade

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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