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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Stuart Carden appointed Writers’ Theatre Associate AD

StuartCarden Writers’ Theatre has appointed Stuart Carden associate artistic director.

I’m so excited to be in collaboration with Stuart,” said Michael Halberstam, executive director the Writers’. “He has a rich background in literary development, a keen and ambitious scope of work as a director and a passion for the administrative challenges that come with supporting artistic direction. In a very short time I believe we will see Stuart’s strength of perspective and influence find its way onto the stages of Writers’ Theatre.”

Says Carden:

“I’m thrilled to be back home in the thriving Chicago theatre community as Writers’ Theatre’s new associate artistic director. Michael Halberstam and Kathryn Lipuma have created something extraordinary in Glencoe and I’m honored to join the passionate and vibrant group of artists and theater-makers that call Writers’ home. Through the course of my career my theatrical raison d’être has been helping bring new and diverse voices to the stage and I’m looking forward to bringing that passion for new work to Writers’ exciting Literary Development Initiative.”

Stuart Carden joins Writers’ Theatre as associate artistic director after two seasons at City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh where he was associate artistic director. As a new play specialist, Stuart has helped to develop over thirty plays, twelve of which he directed in their world premiere productions. Notable regional, U.S., and world premieres include works by Martin Crimp, David Henry Hwang, Tristine Skyler, Jeffrey Hatcher, Shishir Kurup, Richard Dresser and Yussef El Guindi. Last season his production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis garnered five Kevin Kline nominations including “Outstanding Production” and “Outstanding Director.”

In Chicago he directed the world premiere production of Shishir Kurup’s The Merchant on Venice at Silk Road Theatre Project, which was named one of the top ten plays of 2007 by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Time Out Chicago. Other recent new play work includes directing Mary’s Wedding, The Pillowman, Stones in his Pockets, A Picasso, The Moonlight Room, 10 Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, Big Love and Back of the Throat. Classical and classically inspired directing projects include The False Servant, Spring Awakening, Life is a Dream, The Crucible, The Game of Love and Chance, Miss Julie, A Streetcar Named Desire and his own adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.

Stuart has taught acting, directing and movement at Carnegie Mellon University, The Hartt School, Loyola University, Beloit College and Act One Studios. He holds an M.F.A. in directing from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. In the 2009/10 season Stuart is slated to direct David Harrower’s Blackbird at City Theatre Company and a play very familiar to Writers’ Theatre audiences, Crime and Punishment adapted by Curt Columbus and Marilyn Campbell, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

For more info about the Writers’ Theatre, please visit www.writerstheatre

h/t BroadwayWorld.com

“Merchant On Venice” extended through November 18

Merchant on Venice 2 Merchant on Venice 1

One of my favorite theatre companies, Silk Road Theatre Project, has extended their current show, a world-premier of the play Merchant on Venice, written by Shishir Kurup and directed by Stuart Carden. On their website, Silk Road Theatre Project describes the play this way:

Venice, Italy intersects with L.A.’s Venice Boulevard in a wickedly funny, wildly inventive and politically provocative re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Written in iambic pentameter and vividly colored by Indian, American and Latino pop references, playwright Kurup transforms Shakespeare’s original by injecting the story with Bollywood musical numbers, L.A. Punk, Hindu-Muslim tensions, and a distinctly American landscape.

You can find out more about this production at SRTP’s blog.

This play has been highly-recommended by a number of reviewers, including Venus Harris at Gay Chicago Magazine, who said:

Once again, Silk Road fearlessly tackles misconceptions and misrepresentations as only the arts can.  Merchant on Venice is not only exceptionally ingenious in its reinterpretation of this classic tale of brutal bigotry and revenge, but serves the purpose of illuminating the overlooked and thereby emancipating the general perceptions of our all too homogenized body-politic.  Those are some lofty accomplishments in and of themselves, but add to that a theatrical experience that is blissfully entertaining, and you have a unique marvel not to be missed.

Luckily theatre-goers have been given more time to fit the show into their schedule!