Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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REVIEW: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Shattered Globe)

     
     

Shattered Globe is back, better than ever

     
     

Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

      
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
   
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by
Steve Scott
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Feb 27  | 
tickets: $25 – $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh has crafted one of drama’s greatest monster mothers, a matriarch of such suffocating dominance and staggering selfishness that she almost makes Medea look like June Cleaver. At least Medea had decency to put her children out of their misery at a fairly young age. Mag Folan, by contrast, seems to live solely to make her grown daughter Maureen’s life as close to hell on earth as one can get. It’s no wonder things get blisteringly, destructively hot in the Folan kitchen by the shocking finale of McDonagh’s tragic-comedy.

With a pair of intensely complex roles for women whose ingénue days are well behind them, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an excellent vehicle to usher in the rebirth of Shattered Globe to the Chicago theater scene. One of the most dismaying arts stories of 2010 came with the announcement that the off-Loop powerhouse was disbanding. The dissolution surely wasn’t for lack of talent – with shows including Requiem for a Heavyweight (our review ★★★★) and Suddenly Last Summer (review ★★★★) and Days of Wine and Roses, the company consistently delivered dramatic riches.

Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo Credit: Kevin ViolMany of Shattered Globe’s best productions were anchored by the team of Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai, whose reunion as (respectively) mother Mag and daughter Maureen is reason for a bit of post-holiday rejoicing.

As stories of survival and sanity go, Beauty Queen’s a corker. And just when you think McDonagh has shown the plot’s full hand, the tale takes a twist that’ll stand the hair on the back of your neck on end. In those final moments, key events are called into tantalizing question, and the foundation of what you thought to be true turns out to be no firmer than shifting quicksand.

Equally disconcerting is the sudden, scary revelation McDonagh implies about the stranglehold the twin hands of fate and genetics can have on society’s most economically and emotionally vulnerable. The rich and the strong may have the means to escape heredity and circumstance. The poor and the fragile get crushed by them.

Director Steve Scott keeps a nicely controlled rein on the storytelling here: Less is infinitely more as Niccolai’s Maureen simmers in a slow but inexorable burn toward an explosion of rage. Under the ruthlessly demanding edicts of her mother, Maureen moves with precise control but has the wild-eyed, feral look of a fox desperate enough to chew off its own leg to escape the trap it is entangled in. As Mag, Reiter scrunches her face into a permanent gargoyle grimace, making the character both monstrous and pathetic – and making Maureen’s plight all the more untenable. Something has to give between mother and daughter before the last scene, and so it does, with all the violence and horror one expects from a McDonagh play.

     
Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Linda Reiter (Mag) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol. Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

Of course, Beauty Queen wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it was a relentless grimfest. There’s more than a little humor threaded through McDonagh’s text – although humor of the dangling gallows variety to be sure. The cast is mostly up to the demands of the script, from its bleakly absurdist lighter moments to the irrevocable tragedy of its darker ones.

As Pato, the loving young man who represents Maureen’s only chance of escape, Joseph Wiens provides the narrative’s tender moments, portraying just the sort of gentle, understated and stout-hearted hero one suspects could heal Maureen’s deepest wounds. As Pato’s brother, Kevin Viol was a bit too tightly wound at the production’s final preview. Hopefully, his exaggerated jitteriness will lessen as the run continues.

Here’s hoping that run is long and prosperous for Shattered Globe, and that many more SG seasons are in store.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Kevin Viol (Ray) and  Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane running through February 27, 2011, at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport in Chicago. Photo Credit: Roger Smart

     
     

Delicate Balance fits in nicely with Redtwist Theatre season

An unraveling of damaged souls

 

 (L-R) Chuck Spencer (Harry), Cece Klinger (Claire), in A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 005

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
A Delicate Balance
   
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 24th  |  tickets: $   |  more info

by Allegra Gallian 

“The Redtwist 2010-11 season is about fear – how we try to understand it, cope with it and overcome it. It’s arguably the greatest driving force in the history of mankind,” said Redtwist Artistic Director Michael Colluci of the theatre’s new season.

(L-R) Jacqueline Grandt (Julia), Brian Parry (Tobias), in A Delicate Balance by Edgar Albee - Redtwist Theatre 002 Redtwist Theatre opened its season this past weekend with Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-Prizing winning play A Delicate Balance.

A Delicate Balance, directed by Steve Scott, opens on Tobias (Brian Parry) and Agnes (Millicent Hurley), an upper-middle-class couple, in their home. The couple discusses their daughter Julia (Jacqueline Grandt) and Agnes’s sister Claire (CeCe Klinger). Agnes and Tobias are burdened but obliged to their family members in need. Claire is an alcoholic and Julia has walked out on her fourth marriage.

The family is joined by Agnes and Tobias’s best friends Henry (Chuck Spencer) and Edna (Jan Ellen Graves). Harry and Edna are overly anxious and show up announced to stay with Agnes and Tobias after having to leave their home due to an unexplained terror they felt.

With a house full of unsteady people in one way or another, each person tiptoes around until breaking points are reached.

A Delicate Balance fits in nicely with Redtwist’s theme of fear as the characters face (or run from) their own demons both literally and figuratively. Edna and Harry have run away from home based on an irrational and sudden fear they both felt. Agnes confronts her fear of possibly going mad and Julia delves into her fear of losing her place in her parent’s lives. Each character at some point faces their fears out in the open in front of all the others, shattering pretenses and politeness in the way of truth.

Redtwist does not disappoint with this fine production.  It’s definitely worth a look-see.

A Delicate Balance at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., plays through October 24. Tickets are $25 to $30 and can be purchased through the theatre’s Web site.

 

A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 007 A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 003 A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 006
A Delicate Balance - Redtwist Theatre 008

Running Time: approx. 2:35 
Tickets: Thursdays, $25; Fridays & Sundays, $27; Saturdays, $30 (Seniors & Students, $5 discount)   URL: www.redtwist.org/Ticketsdelicate.html

Schedule:
Runs: Thu, Fri, Sat 7:30pm; Sun 3pm Please Note: There is no performance on Sat, Oct 23. There is an add’l performance on Sat, Oct 16 at 3pm
Closes: Sun, Oct 24

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After the Fall – a YouTube interview with Eclipse Theatre

Hurry! Only 4 more chances to see “After the Fall”!!

 

Cutting Close to the Bone:

 

A conversation about Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

 

with Director Steve Scott and lead actor Nathaniel Swift

Elicpse Theatre - After the Fall

by Paige Listerud

After the Fall is Arthur Miller’s most personal play. He exposes the implosion of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, set off by addiction, driven by the demons of childhood sexual abuse and Hollywood exploitation. It’s a play in which Miller acknowledges his own failed attempts to save her from any of it. In the play, Miller’s persona, Quentin (Nat Swift), marvels at and abhors the sexual fascination that Maggie (Nora Fiffer), Monroe’s persona, casts over men—a power that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. But even as he attempts to protect her, he acknowledges his own culpability and morally compromised state in succumbing to her bombshell beauty and erotic, childlike nature.

After the first production of After the Fall, taking place one year after Monroe’s death, Arthur Miller was savaged in the press for exploiting his wife. But the play really is a purge and cathartic release of all sorts for Miller. Of all his works, After the Fall cuts closest to the bone. Furthermore it’s a play that covers other purges and other morally compromised states—such as America’s purge of communists, fellow travelers, and other leftist thinkers during the McCarthy Era. It was an era in which the outrageous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) met with collusion by some fearful Americans, ready to surrender names in order to save their careers, while other fearful Americans maintained their silence about McCarthy’s witch hunt under the peer pressure of Loyalty Oaths.

It was an era for all sorts of moral compromise—not something that Miller’s intelligent and incredibly moral protagonist Quentin can live with very well. If you want to know how Eclipse Theatre has done one of Miller’s most cinematic and impressionistic works, you can now read an array of critical acclaim from the Chicago theater press. (You can also see our in-depth review here ★★★½).  As for diving even deeper into the challenges of rendering this difficult play so well, enjoy our video interview below. Then get thee to Eclipse Theatre before the production closes.

 

 

        
        

American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

tobacco road 1 tobacco road 2

Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

tobacco road 3

   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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REVIEW: After the Fall (Eclipse Theatre)

When an intellectual looks for love in all the wrong places

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Eclipse Theatre presents
   
After the Fall
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arthur Miller just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? After the Fall, the play that is his sojourn through love’s conundrums and dead ends, bears Miller’s soul for all to see at Eclipse Theatre’s home, the Greenhouse Theater Center. Miller’s devastating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, inextricably intertwined with our country’s descent into OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA paranoid McCarthyism (and Miler’s dealings with this paranoia), really did a number on his head. Shortly afterward, no doubt, the demise of Marilyn herself really, really did a number on his head. The result is After the Fall.

What does one do about conscious or unconscious betrayals—of the heart or of one’s principles? How does one go on after love has died and disillusionment has almost totally taken over? These seem to be the greatest moral pre-occupations for After the Fall’s excessively intellectual protagonist, Quentin (Nathaniel Swift).

But, wait. Perhaps to judge his intellectualism as excessive is a dumbed-down way of looking at him. Arthur Miller flourished in an era when America had many public intellectuals. Those intellectuals were disciplined to constantly interrogate the state of our nation’s cultural and civic life. Now, in the place of public intellectuals, we have talking-point-addled pundits and reality TV show celebrities. In terms of intellectual expression in American civic life, we have become a very cheap date.

Therefore, Quentin’s conundrums may not exactly be ours, whether they are about maintaining a pristine conscience in the middle of fallible human interactions or taking on overwhelming personal responsibility, to the point of seeing the roots of the Holocaust in one’s minute personal betrayals. Quentin suffers from serious survivor guilt. No doubt about it, the man is a survivor—not of the Holocaust per se, but certainly the McCarthy Era.

Apparently, surviving the McCarthy Era can take a lot out of you. As a Quixotic leftist lawyer, tilting against the onslaught of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Quentin is surviving the purge of leftists from American academia, from American media, from the everyday workplace. Indeed, he is surviving the purge of leftists from American thought. But try as he may, the friends he is trying to save are going down.

Quentin is prepared to defend Lou, his old Communist academic buddy—played with spot-on geeky anxiety by Eustace Allen. Lou is a man on the verge–on the verge of having his career decimated, his livelihood pulled out from under him like a magician’s trick. Other lefty friends, like Mickey (Eric Leonard), are ready to cave into HUAC and surrender names. Meanwhile, Lou’s wife, Elsie (Nina O’Keefe), salaciously comes on to Quentin with Lou not far away and further scenes reveal her to be nothing less than a sexual menace–a menace O’Keefe delivers with just one look.

Quentin is discovering, to his uncomprehending shock, his friends’ morally compromised natures. Even Lou admits to espousing lies in his academic work on the Communist Party. Lou’s book was received well enough during America’s World War II alliance with the Soviet Union but now the whole thing is crashing down upon him.

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Amid all this, Quentin’s marriage is souring and failing like all his other relationships. Amid the ruined lives, the cynical hypocrisy of colleagues distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy’s victims–amid self-compromise at every turn—why can’t our hero get a little love?

Quentin’s wife, Louise (Julie Daley), seems to have nothing more to give. Daley’s tight and sharp portrayal of Louise is by turns both sympathetic and bitterly judgmental. We hear the voice of “The Feminine Mystique” when Louise complains that Quentin doesn’t listen to her, only uses her as a sounding board for his own intellect. But we also hear an older, more Puritanical voice in her petty accusations that he finds other women sexually attractive. He has never slept with any other woman and feels guilty feeling attraction to women other than Louise, but Louise sees his straying sexual thoughts as infidelity and she holds them against him, just as she withholds sex from his attempts to ameliorate the growing distance between them.

There are more painful scenes to watch in After the Fall, but close in the running are Quentin and Louise’s arguments. They are an accurate depiction of two highly intellectual people so lost in their heads they can no longer open up emotionally. Problems that other couples would solve with a good argument, then a good fuck, Quentin and Louise cannot even negotiate without an interpreter. Perhaps divorce is the only thing, since they can’t generate the sexual interest necessary to get over ideological disagreements or personal flaws. What must have seemed like the ideal match in college has turned into a prison for them both.

Perhaps what Quentin needs is a more free-flowing sexual spirit, a woman with a sensual orientation, a woman who lives in the eternal now–maybe a woman who is the sex symbol of the age, like Marilyn Monroe. But it’s grossly unfair to write off Nora Fiffer’s interpretation of Maggie as a Marilyn Monroe imitation. Fiffer takes the role and makes it thoroughly her own. Any inflections she borrows from Monroe make her performance purely impressionistic and entirely original. One can know everything about Monroe’s life and still see Maggie up there on the stage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The marriage between Miller and Monroe has always seemed like an improbable match; the marriage between Quentin and Maggie, far more realistic. Part of this is Swift’s youthful, corporate, Everyman appeal but another part is Miller’s psychologically acute take on Quentin. If divorce and disillusionment have upset Quentin’s apple cart and dumped him into the realm of uncertainty, then he is starting over almost as new and green as Maggie in her burgeoning singing career.

But Maggie still belongs to a younger, more rebellious, more sexual generation–the 50s generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Monroe, Brando, and Dean emerged just a beat before the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, but that didn’t make them any less rarin’ to go. After the Fall’s Maggie anticipates the qualities of the Boomer generation; sexual openness and adventurousness, full embodiment of a “be here now” attitude, childlike narcissism and arrogance, and a propensity to succumb to drug abuse—although it’s just good, old-fashioned alcohol and barbiturates that drag Maggie and her marriage into hell. Quentin really has gotten in over his head with this one.

Watching Swift and Fiffer play out this doomed pair’s degeneration is like watching two perfectly matched martial artists having it out in the ring. Theirs is a confrontation that could easily slip into the clichés of “Days of Wine and Roses” or a million other addiction dramas, but Scott’s direction keeps their battle taut and economical. Eclipse’s production should sell out for their Second Act scene alone.

Happily, the production doesn’t need to rest on two leads. Quentin’s progress through time and memory is an actor’s Iron Man marathon and Swift stays the course, receiving absolute support from the impeccable cast surrounding him. Cast cohesion is no small feat in an impressionistic and cinematic drama based solely on memory and yearning, but hold together they do. Their characters are the skeletal bones of Quentin’s memory and hold the keys to unraveling his perpetual guiltiness. Guilty memory, especially regret over not being able to save Lou or Maggie, has its claws deep into Quentin—to the point where one wonders whether he has more of a love affair with guilt than he could ever have with any woman.

Is that the cornerstone of Miller’s heart—thoroughly Jewish and unceasing guilt? One might consider Quentin’s survivor’s guilt almost pathological; its presence balanced only by the solid family team of Mother (Susan Monts-Bologna), Father (Jerry Bloom) and brother Dan (Joe McCauley). In them one awakens to Quentin’s ethnic roots, as well as his parent’s survivor’s instinct in the face of the Crash of 1929. Quentin supposes he got his instinct from his Mother, rendered by Monts-Bologna with crafty intelligence and comic intensity. Rather than being able to own it, it’s just another thing that makes him feel guilty.

But the truth is that everyone in Quentin’s family can be called a survivor—certainly of the Crash and of any other personal or political disasters that came afterwards. One is always a survivor, at least until one dies. The real question is if life is still worth living after everything else—including justice, love, and principle—has completely fallen apart. Not to diminish After the Fall as being one, big, Jewish survivor’s guilt fest, but the Holocaust is the play’s constant specter, even in scenes when it is never alluded to. Quentin finally finds another love interest in Holga (Sally Eames-Harlan) because she can confirm for him that no one who survived the Holocaust was innocent. Perhaps more than love itself, he needs another survivor to show him how to go on. It’s his final acknowledgment of his need that makes his survival noble.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

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Extra Credit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal scene of After the Fall

   
   

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Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

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