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: 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 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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August: Osage County set to close on Broadway

The Broadway cast of “August: Osage County” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)August: Osage County, written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, winner of five 2008 Tony Awards, as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and currently starring Tony and Emmy award winner Phylicia Rashad, will play its final performance on SUNDAY, JUNE 28th, 2009. It will have played 648 performances and 18 previews, surpassing The Heidi Chronicles, Master Class, The Real Thing, and Doubt, among many others, to become one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  

 

 

August: Osage County will begin its National Tour, starring Academy award winner Estelle Parsons, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on July 24th, 2009, before travelling to more than 18 locations all around the country. For more information and dates, please visit WWW.AUGUSTONBROADWAY.COM.

The show currently boasts the most Award winning cast on Broadway: Tony winners Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”, Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean), John Cullum (Urinetown, Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century), Elizabeth Ashley (Dividing the Estate, The Best Man), and Frank Wood (Side Man), with Original Cast member (and Tony nominee) Amy Morton, and Anne Berkowitz, Guy Boyd, Kimberly Guerrero, Brian Kerwin, Michael Milligan, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, and Troy West.

august_osage_county The original Broadway company, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, featured Ian Barford, Deanna Dunagan, Kimberly Guerrero, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Dennis Letts, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Rondi Reed and Troy West, with understudies Munson Hicks, Susanne Marley, Jay Patterson, Dee Pelletier, Molly Ranson and Kristina Valada-Viars.

august_01a The design team included Todd Rosenthal (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Ann Wrightson (lights), Richard Woodbury (sound) and David Singer (original music).

The production received 5 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director of a Play – Anna D. Shapiro, Best Actress in a Play – Deanna Dunagan, Best Featured Actress in a Play – Rondi Reed, and Best Set Design of a Play – Todd Rosenthal.

August: Osage County welcomed many prestigious new cast members throughout its run, including Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Tony Award winners John Cullum, Elizabeth Ashley, and Frank Wood. The cast also welcomed Tony nominee Johanna Day, Robert Foxworth, Molly Regan, Michael McGuire, Michael Milligan, Guy Boyd, Scott Jaeck, Anne Berkowitz, Samantha Ross, Jim True-Frost, and Amy Warren, with understudies Aaron Serotsky, Stephen Payne, Avia Bushyhead, Frank Deal, and Emily Walton.

Review: "Twelfth Night" at Chicago Shakes

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic scenes, Malvolio (Larry Yando, left), believing he has found a love letter from his mistress Olivia, fantasizes about his life as her husband, to the amusement of the eavesdropping Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney), Fabian (Dan Sanders-Joyce), and Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck). In the years after the play premiered, the character of Malvolio was so popular that the play was often titled Malvolio and abridged to feature him. William Shakespeare will turn 445 this week and, as Chicago is celebrating with “Talk Like Shakespeare Day,” daring productions of two of the Bard’s best comedies can be seen here in the hippest theatre city in the country. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a decently straightforward production with one major exception: some members of the audience might want to bring ponchos. Combining Shakespeare with Sea World, director Josie Rourke’s Twelfth Night adds a wet level of fun to the already hilarious play.

Shakespeare’s plot, if you recall, centers around the shipwrecked Viola (Michelle Beck), who finds herself stuck in the fantastical Illyria and disguises herself as a male page for the local Duke Orsino (Mark Montgomery) and then goes on to fall in love with him. The duke, though, is in love with Olivia (Karen Aldridge), who actually ends up falling for the Duke’s effeminate page. Of course, hilarity ensues and the misadventures of a few drunks, clowns, and a particularly rigid steward punctuate the romantic chaos.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre imported Josie Rourke and scenic/costume designer Lucy Osborne from Britain, where both of them are acclaimed for their work in classical and contemporary theatre. For Twelfth Night, Osborne filled the thrust stage with 7,000 gallons of water allowing the actors to dive, swim, and slip amidst some of Shakespeare’s wittiest dialogue. Upstage of the thrust, dock-inspired platforms and walls form a giant heart. The production isn’t really anachronistic; the characterizations and costumes are period (although everyone sports bare feet to avoid slipping). Unfortunately, why they chose to set the play in a pool is not really made clear; the wet envisioning of Illyria doesn’t really illuminate much in the text. Rourke and her actors find brilliant ways to use the water, though, including water-wings, inflated pants, and dousing the first few rows. So, with the exception of an accidental trip or two, the pier on top of a (Navy) pier never actually detracts from the play in a significant way.

Under the watchful eye of her household steward Malvolio (Larry Yando, right), and her gentlewoman Maria (Ora Jones, second from left), Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) listens to the clown Feste (Ross Lehman, second from right) as he tries to make her laugh. The forces of rule—the denial of desire and the refusal of ordinary pleasure, as represented by Malvolio—suit Olivia in her mourning. In Early Modern England, the Twelfth Night of Christmas was celebrated as a festival of misrule, with masques and revels presented as entertainment. Shakespeare’s play does not indicate the time of year, but the spirit of the holiday permeates the play. Enjoying the pleasures of misrule and uninhibited appetite, Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck, left), Maria (Ora Jones, center), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney, right) carouse late into the night, and devise a cruel prank to punish the censorious Malvolio. Viola (Michelle Beck, front), who disguises herself as “Cesario,” is sent by Duke Orsino with members of his court (from left, Jonathan Helvey, Brandon Ford, Edgar Miguel Sanchez) to woo Lady Olivia, unleashing a series of secret and inopportune desires. Shakespeare often wrote cross-dressing comic heroines, including Portia, Imogen and Rosalind, but only Viola has the distinction of meeting the man she loves after she assumes her male disguise.

Although the soggy setting doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about Shakespeare’s words, the performances revel in the language. Aldridge makes a fascinating Olivia, ranging from frosty indifference to giddiness. Her unexpected choices allow her to join in the fun. The adorable Beck navigates Viola beautifully, often appealing to the audience for support regarding her bizarre situation. The gang of drunks, knaves, and fools is a major joy of this production. Scott Jaeck’s boisterous convincing performance as the swaggering, constantly inebriated Sir Toby Belch makes one wonder what liquid exactly is in the mugs and Ross Lehman is hysterical as the fool Feste, who seems very aware that he may actually be the wisest person in Illyria. A delightfully narcissistic Larry Yando is their fun-squashing victim Malvolio. The motley crew functions beautifully as a group and provides a ridiculous subplot to the considerably more sober romantic confusion.

A few of the moments fall flat because actors are timid to trust the inherent humor in the language and push the comedy too hard. Dan Kenney as the blockheaded Andrew Aguecheek is one of the guiltiest, although he makes up for it somewhat whenever he trips into the pool.

Twelfth Night begins with three brief scenes in three locations on the coast of Illyria, each introducing a different thread of the complex plotting of the play. In the first scene, pleasure is mixed with pain in both Duke Orsino’s (Mark L. Montgomery, center) love of music and the Countess Olivia, who, in mourning for her brother, refuses to entertain the Duke’s offer of love. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night begins sadly. Viola (Michelle Beck, center), washed ashore after a shipwreck and believing her twin brother Sebastian drowned, appeals to the Sea Captain (John Lister, right) for help disguising herself as a boy. The story of long-lost twins whose unrecognized reunion causes endless confusion has remained a convention of drama since the earliest Roman comedies. Responding to the deaths of their brothers, Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) and Viola (Michelle Beck, right) are a study in contrasts. Life-affirming, Viola dresses as her brother and falls in love with the handsome and rich Duke Orsino. Olivia withdraws from the world, until she is unveiled by the Duke’s page “Cesario”—and, in that exchange, falls in love.

Rourke’s soaked imagining of Illyria isn’t too crazy of a concept; it does work way better than setting it in outer space or in the ‘80’s. However, the supposed metaphor of the water is never very clear; it doesn’t really function as some sort of transformative, mysterious, or magical element. Luckily, Twelfth Night is a fun script, and splashing around in water is really fun. What Rourke does prove is that pool parties, even Renaissance-era ones, are always a blast.

Rating: «««½

All pictures beautifully photographed by Liz Lauren.  A full list of the cast and the creative team can be found by clicking on “Read more”.

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