REVIEW: Stage Door (Griffin Theatre)

Huge, hugely talented cast gives their all to ‘Stage Door’

 JeanineBowlwareMechellemoeStacieBarraErinMeyerSkylerSchremmpJenniferBetancourt

 
Griffin Theatre Company presents
 
Stage Door
 
By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Robin Witt
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
though May 23 | tickets: $18-$28 | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the most overlooked and underrated writers of the 20th century, Edna Ferber brilliantly showcased the lives of working women in her keenly stories. In the 1936 Stage Door, Ferber and George S. Kaufman crafted an impressive and charming drama about one such downtrodden group.

MechelleMoeatpaino Set in the Footlights Club, a New York boardinghouse for theatrical women, the story follows the lives of the young contenders of Broadway. Hoping for their big break, they subsist on hope and pennies … and often succumb to temptations away from the stage. For the luckiest, Hollywood lures; for others, love, or security, or pure hopelessness.

No one would write a play like this today, and Griffin deserves tremendous props for producing it all. It’s not that its themes haven’t been covered in subsequent plays — 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, for instance, takes on similar Broadway vs. Hollywood issues — but that the cast is huge. There are 32 distinct characters, played in this production by a cast of 27. Quite literally, they don’t make ’em like this anymore!

What’s more, when I say "distinct characters," I mean just that. Each is skillfully introduced, significant and a unique personality that adds to the heart and spunk of this rich play. Director Robin Witt brings out those traits to the fullest.

Mechelle Moe stars as the central character: plucky, generous Terry Randall, who’s been trying to make a go of it on Broadway for three years. Despite her lack of success, she remains stagestruck. "We live and breathe theater and that’s what I’m crazy about," she says.

Her friends tell her she’s talented, but she hasn’t managed more than a few weeks of work in all her time in New York. The play suggests that’s because she’s not beautiful and doesn’t appear well offstage. It’s perhaps a slight flaw in the script that we never see Terry acting, and can’t judge for ourselves. Moe’s own performance occasionally seems too gung-ho, like the young Judy Garland enthusing about putting on a play in the barn, but she makes the audience care about Terry.

We do get to judge the talents of Olga Brandt, a classically trained pianist who earns a living playing for dance rehearsals. "For that I studied fifteen years with Kolijinsky!" she says in disgust, and solaces herself by playing Chopin on the boardinghouse piano. Janeane Bowlware is both a skilled musician and delightfully funny in this difficult role. (In a nice theatrical in-joke, during most of the play, the piano’s music stand displays sheet music from Show Boat, the Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein musical based on Ferber’s 1926 novel.)

We also see some fine comic turns from Sara McCarthy as Bernice Niemeyer, the house busybody; Erin Meyers as the man-hating Ann Braddock; Ashley Neal and Christina Gorman as Big Mary and Little Mary, a Mutt and Jeff duo; and Kate McGroarty as Pat Devine, a leggy dancer earning her living in nightclub shows.

Other notable performances include Stacie Barra, archly dry as Terry’s cynical friend Judith Canfield, and Jeremy Fisher, strong as Keith Burgess, the earnest young playwright on whom Terry pins her hopes. Lucy Carapetyan is ardent as Jean Maitland, who urges Terry to go with her to Hollywood.

mechellemoeJamesFarruggio Maggie Cain gives us a matter-of-fact Mattie, the boardinghouse’s maid of all work, and Chuck Filipov a subtle performance as Frank, a teenage household helper, while Mary Anne Bowman alternately fawns and frowns as Mrs. Orcutt, a one-time actress turned boardinghouse manager.

Judith Lesser and Mary Poole play a compelling scene as Linda Shaw, sneaking in after a night with wealthy married man, and her unexpectedly visiting mother.

Marika Engelhardt plays Madeleine Vauclain, an actress from Seattle, trying to find a double date for visiting hometown conventioneers — Jeff Duhigg and Paul Popp, as a pair of buffoonish Pacific Northwest lumbermen. Rakisha Pollard is brave as Louise Mitchell, an unsuccessful actress sadly leaving Broadway to marry the boy back home in Wisconsin.

It feels like hair-splitting to point out the few flaws. James Farruggio seems a little stiff as David Kingsley, the moviemakers’ agent who urges Terry to stick to the stage, and Caroline Neff is a bit too detached as Kaye Hamilton, Terry’s desperate and destitute roommate.

D’wayne Taylor doubles as a Hollywood producer and as Terry’s father, a small-town Indiana doctor. He acts well in both parts, but he stands out oddly as the one African American in the company, making me wonder what led Witt to cast him. Color-blind casting works well when it’s done with consistency, but if you’re going to suspend historical accuracy for the sake of diversity, you need more than a token. When all the rest of such a large cast is white, it jars suspension of disbelief to have the sole black person in the show play the father of a white woman.

Filling out the cast, Jennifer Betancourt plays Bobby Melrose, a Southern belle; Morgan Maher is her boyfriend, Sam Hastings, an actor from Texas. Joey deBettencourt portrays Jimmy Devereaux, a confident would-be actor who hasn’t ever auditioned for a professional part; Skyler Schrempp, Susan Paige, perpetual understudy; and Erin O’Shea Kendall Adams, daughter of a family of Boston Brahmins.

Witt stages the show in three acts, with two intermissions — a 1930s convention that always makes feel as if I’ve really been to the theater — and blocks it beautifully, particularly in a wonderful Act III scene that puts nearly all the cast onstage. Marianna Csaszar‘s convincing set, built around a central staircase, helps to give the wide-ranging scenes focus.

Stage Door was the basis of the 1937 film of the same name, but the movie’s plot bears little similarity to this delicious play (which seems rather a meta-joke in itself). Don’t miss this rarely performed gem.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

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The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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