REVIEW: Travels With My Aunt (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

‘Travels’ a fun journey if a dated theme

     
     

Jeremy Sher, Sean Fortunato, LaShawn Banks and John Hoogenakker in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Travels With My Aunt
  
Adapted by Giles Havergal
From
novel by Graham Greene
Directed by
Stuart Carden
Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe (map)
Through March 27  | 
tickets: $45–60 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Written at the height of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" era, Graham Greene’s 1969 novel, "Travels with My Aunt",now being staged in a whimsical, well-theatrical adaption by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, has not aged well. And not only does its theme — a decorously straight-laced man discovering the enlightening aspects of kicking off the traces of comfortably respectable morality — come across as dated in these straitened times, when comfort, respectability and morality seem both highly desirable and all too rare. but the notoriously philandering Greene’s depiction of women is unflattering, chauvinistic and antediluvian in the extreme.

Sean Fortunato and John Hoogenakke in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.There are four female characters of any significance in Greene’s novel, and all but one of them is relentlessly pursuing a man. First and foremost, we have Aunt Augusta — who for all her vigorous unconventionality, can’t travel without a man beside her — bent on reuniting with Mr. Visconti, the war criminal who has already once relieved her of a fortune. Then, there’s the hippie girl Tooley, bound for Kathmandu in the wake of a boyfriend who walked out on her in anger because she got pregnant. And Miss Patterson, so taken with her brief encounter with a married man that she’s spent her lifetime drooping beside his grave. Only Miss Keene, a kind of wistfully idealistic figure in the novel, holds back from degrading herself for the sake of a man, and that seems mainly because she’s too timid to do otherwise.

In his clever, 1989 theatrical adaptation, Giles Havergal tries to solve this flaw by doing away with women altogether: The female characters are still there, but they’re all played by men. Four male actors, identically clad in three-piece, gray, pin-striped suits and derby hats, portray some 25 characters, male and female, minor and major, as well as alternating as the retired-banker antihero, Henry Pulling. Pulling, a mild-mannered stay-at-home, encounters his elderly and surprising Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than 50 years at his mother’s funeral, and winds up led by her on a series of unlikely adventures across England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Argentina and Paraguay, bending his mind and his morals.

While sticking rather closely to the novel, Havergal nevertheless freshens the story by decentralizing Pulling’s emotional journey and the then-shocking-now-bland aspects of Greene’s mildly salacious novel and putting an emphasis on the ridiculous. He doesn’t quite fix the problems, but watching Travels with My Aunt becomes much more entertaining than reading the book. At Writers’ Theatre, Director Stuart Carden and his fine cast give us an intimate journey with sharp staging and wonderfully nuanced comic acting.

While each of the four players — LaShawn Banks, Sean Fortunato, John Hoogenakker and Jeremy Sher — portray Henry at various times, sometimes rapidly switching off from one to another, each also portrays multiple other characters, and specializes in one of the major roles.

John Hoogenakke and Sean Fortunato iin TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Banks gives us Wordsworth, Augusta’s often buffoonish African valet and lover, whom she cruelly dismisses for Visconti. His performance in that role sometimes seems tentative, as if he’s uncomfortable in it. He’s terrific, though, as a Cockney cabbie, a fortunetelling friend of Augusta’s and in other roles.

Fortunato stumbled over a few lines on opening night, but that scarcely impaired his wonderfully evocative performance as Augusta, a switchover he accomplishes seemingly effortlessly, just by body posture, even before he opens his mouth. Hoogenakker’s comic switches run more deadpan as he portrays Tooley with a flat Midwestern accent and her father, the CIA man, with a sort of Texan twang that contrast ideally with the British tones of the other characters.

Perhaps funniest of all, the stone-faced Sher’s mostly voiceless primary role is one of onstage sound-effects man, using everything from wine glasses to an umbrella to enhance the on-stage action. (Kudos also to sound designer Mikhail Fiksel.)

The foursome travels together brilliantly, making this a trip worth going on, even if you don’t care for the journey’s final destination.

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

John Hoogenakke, LaShawn Banks and Sean Fortunato in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

 

  
  

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REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare)

Framed ‘Shrew’ no improvement

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
 
The Taming of the Shrew
 
By William Shakespeare with new induction scenes by Neil LaBute
Directed by Josie Rourke
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
Through June 6  |  tickets: $44-$75 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fog spews out over the stage almost ceaselessly throughout Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new version of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is set in sunny Italy, so why all this London-style mist? It’s emblematic of the hazy thinking that clearly CST_SHREW_IMAGE_1prevailed throughout the creation of this deeply flawed production.

In enlisting Neil LaBute to write a new frame for this broadly humorous but troublesomely sexist play, Director Josie Rourke said her goal was to "create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew [and] make the play more relevant to us now…. What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now."

So to reconfigure a play offensive to feminist sensibilities, Rourke hires a man. And his idea of bringing a relevant, contemporary viewpoint to this story about a strong, if bitchy, woman browbeaten into subservient docility by her husband is to introduce a catfight between shrilly vituperative lesbians.

In the frame, which echoes the play-within-a-play format of Shakespeare’s original, we get an unhappy sexual triangle of the Director (a cool performance by Mary Beth Fisher); her long-term partner, the actress playing Katherina (Bianca Amato, turbulent and a little muddy in both roles); and the latter’s latest fling, the ingenue playing sister Bianca (Katherine Cunningham, whose sly performance barely changes from part to part). The Director confronts her partner with infidelity; the actress accuses the Director of trying to control her by casting her in this submissive role.

Just about everything about this production is annoying, from the interminable noisy vacuuming that sets the stage for the frame to the ridiculous conclusion. The lumbering frame promotes the age-old, wrongheaded notions that women have no professionalism or moral fiber, that they’re unreliable and prone to hysterics, and that they’ll do anything for love. Moreover, the new scenes intrude unpleasantly and disruptively into the main show, not least by making it difficult to separate the inner play’s Katherina from the outer play’s actress character.

Having heard the actress in a man-hating tirade against the actor playing her husband and his weakly whimpering response — for all that Ian Bedford does delicious job as Petruchio — it becomes difficult to imagine any sexual tension between the couple. And hot sex is one of the few plausible reasons for Kate’s giving way to her spouse’s abuse.

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The huge, waggish codpieces worn by the actors are absurd and amusing in themselves, but added to the frame’s stereotyped intimations that many of these men are gay, they start to present a somewhat ugly picture.

No show at Chicago Shakespeare is ever wholly without merit, however. Rourke has a nice hand with staging. Even my seat far around to stage right had good views of the action throughout, although in a few spots it seemed unnatural, with characters facing away from the people they were speaking to.

It’s always a pleasure to see Mike Nussbaum, and he’s in fine, funny form as Bianca’s rich and wizened old suitor. Other highlights include Sean Fortunato’s wry Hortensio, another suitor; Larry Yando’s aggravated Baptista, the sisters’ father; and Stephen Ouimette and Alex Goodrich as comic servants.

And then there’s the rich language of The Bard — no matter how wrongheaded his plots, his words resonate.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Extra Credit

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Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

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