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: Candide (Goodman Theatre)

Zimmerman fills stage with playful imagery

 

Candide at Goodman Theatre - Rebecca Finnegan, Govind Kumar, Erik Lochtefeld, Margo Seibert, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
Candide
   
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Based on novella by Voltaire
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through October 31  | 
tickets: $25-$85   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production.

Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre production - Photo by Liz LaurenFortunately, Zimmerman has crafted a cohesive, entertaining and visually stunning piece of work. Thanks to her affinity for levity, Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible.

Candide begins peacefully enough, with Candide (Geoff Packard), a young lad of unremarkable lineage, studying with blue-blooded siblings Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld). They are learning metaphysics from their instructor Pangloss (Larry Yando), whose core belief is that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Although wonderfully optimistic, his mantra is also incredibly naïve, a fact that Candide soon learns.

Once the Baron (Tom Aulino) discovers his daughter, Cunegonde, passionately throwing herself at Candide, the young boy is banished (and we witness a scene transition that is surreal as it is stunning). Now Candide is on his own; caught in the middle of war-torn Europe with only Pangloss’ feeble-minded philosophy to guide him from one atrocity to another.

The play does Voltaire’s work justice. Zimmeran does a wonderful job highlighting the short-sightedness of optimism in the face of pervasive human tragedy. For example, the musical’s darkly humorous number “Auto-da-fe,” a song about a town’s eagerness to witness public executions, is instilled with a playful, cartoonish enthusiasm that makes the capital deaths that much more disturbing.

Jesse Perez and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Candide is also very funny. For instance, there’s a running gag with a flock of red sheep, which, although a little silly, provides some light-heartedness to a play that is otherwise filled with people getting maimed and mutilated. There are also some subtle gags, like the use of miniatures to convey the scene’s setting. In one scene in particular, Candide and his travel companions face a storm while at sea. Although the stage does not resemble a boat at all, an actor moves a small boat on a pole to illustrate the tossing and turning of the vessel as Candide and others rock back and forth in unison.

The acting is solid with noteworthy performances from Packard, Yando and Hollis Resnik as the charming and crass Old Lady. Although some performers may fall short of their notes here and there, the singing is still remarkable, considering the amount of energy and endurance that this play requires. Stand out numbers include the hilarious “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the show closer “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Daniel Ostling’s set design is minimal but striking. A large wood-paneled wall occupies all of stage right where secret compartments allow characters and props to easily enter and exit. Trapdoors are used generously, which extends the world of the play farther beyond the extraordinarily roomy stage.

Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Hollis Resnick in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren
Erik Lochtefeld as Maximillian in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Tom Aulina and Geoff Packard in Candide Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Larry Yand and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

Despite all these positives, there is one flaw to Zimmerman’s work that I cannot overlook. By being so close to this production, she has blinded herself to the fact that by infusing Candide with so much comedic sentiment, she guts the characters of relatable qualities. Actors often indicate rather than act and sport affectations that comment on the work rather than serving as part of the work. In making these characters merely pawns in a farce, we aren’t really invested in them, and thus the stakes for Candide to eventually find his lost love Cunegonde are set so low that we really don’t care whether they’re reunited or not.

Still, Voltaire’s work isn’t so much about separated lovers as it is a commentary on the contemporary philosophies of his day. And Zimmerman’s work is effective at bringing Voltaire’s talent for satire to life. So this drawback does not overshadow the fact that Candide is a very good play, not necessarily the best of all possible plays, but a good play nonetheless.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

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REVIEW: The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre)

Bringing humanity to an inconceivable time in history

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
The Good Negro
 
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by
Chuck Smith
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $22-$71  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A despicable act by the police impassions a spontaneous response by the community. It’s really not that black and white. The Goodman Theatre presents The Good Negro, a play about the back story on the movement to end segregation. Three black leaders are looking for a publicity moment to instigate a non-violent protest against discrimination. A four year old girl and her mother are arrested for using the good-negro11 restroom for whites. Because the mother is ‘a good Negro,’ attractive and well-spoken, the incident is prime to rally the troops. This illustration of history would have been poignant enough. A Good Negro adds in other complexities like wire-tapping, marital infidelity, and the KKK – becoming a multi-dimensional story of the internal and external strife of the civil rights movement. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson tells the powerful untold story of the politics… government, hierarchical, sexual… that interfered in the quest for racial equality in the 1960’s.

Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the cast makes an unimaginable time in history relatable. Nambi E. Kelley’s portrayal of a mother (Claudette Sullivan) in anguish is heart-breaking. Billy Eugene Jones appeals as the flawed charismatic leader James Lawrence. Struggling with his own identity issues, Teagle F. Bougere (Minister Henry Evans) effectively engages the audience with his motivational sermons. In minister mode, Bougere adds a little comedy relief as he tells a late intermission returner to ‘sit down.’ Although it’s unclear whether his character is ‘a good Negro’ or not until Act II, Demetrois Troy is perfect as the socially awkward, behind the scenes guy Bill Rutherford. Tory O. Davis (Pelzie Sullivan) portrays the simplicity of his character with surprising depth. Karen Aldridge (Corinne Lawrence) elicits applause in a pivotal scene of strength. Dan Waller (Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.) exploits the lunacy in a KKK recruitment speech based on scientific facts that ‘colored people’s blood can kill.’ The spooks are stereotypical ‘by the book’ nonsense with Mick Weber playing straight-laced and John Hoogenakker as the wise cracking sidekick.

 

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Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has gone floor to wall churchy with wooden planks covering every stage space. It effectively places the audience in a pew to watch the drama. Embedded along the back wall are strips of lighting – Robert Christen’s haunting lighting design illuminates a cross shape during congregation scenes to build the religious ambiance. Throughout the show, projected fortune cookie-like slogans prophesize a scene with ‘This is the something’ and ‘Do what you have to do.’ Mike Tutaj (projections designer) uses a biblical font to reinforce the secular foundation of the movement. Tutaj also flashes iconic imagery of photojournalist Charles Moore to set the time period. Powerful!

Realizing that, less than fifty years ago, discrimination led to unbelievable acts of cruelty to the black community – makes The Good Negro an important show to see. We can’t forget the sacrifices civil rights leaders made to forge the evolution of thought on equality. The Good Negro is an important illustration of an inconceivable time in American history.

  
 
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

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REVIEW: Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape (Goodman Theatre)

Masterful production suffers from too large of performance space

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Goodman Theatre presents:

Hughie / Krapp’s Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill
directed by
Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver
through February 28th (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Hughie_06Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape are the results of two Nobel Prize winning playwrights exploring the idea of loneliness. Both works dive headfirst into aching, despondent, cringe-worthy isolation—not sexy loneliness or quirky loneliness, but the brand of depressing loneliness caused by years of self-inflicted solitude. Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill, neither of whom is known for their sunny view of life, are masters in illustrating this theme in their plays. Pairing up the American O’Neill and the Irish Beckett was a bold decision, but the Goodman’s choice to put these plays together makes a lot of sense. Especially when you add to the mix adept directors Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver and have the two plays carried by one Brian Dennehy. The finished product steals the breath away from the audience by the end, like if we had just witnessed a star implode on itself.

Although both plays could conceivably be described as one-man shows, they are both actually powerful, two-person dialogues. Hughie takes place long after midnight in a fleabag hotel lobby. The hotel’s night clerk (Joe Grifasi) stands alone behind the counter. Enter the drunken Erie Smith (Dennehy). Although the conversation is decidedly one-sided, the night clerk’s presence is essential to Erie’s booze-fueled tirade. Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-person show, but the sole character, also soaking in alcohol, is still having a dialogue. Instead of chatting with another flesh and blood human, Krapp (Dennehy again) interacts with himself, 30 years earlier, through an ancient tape player. Having the characters discourse with someone does the opposite of brightening the situation; the exchanges highlight the fact that these characters are completely starved for an authentic human connection. These plays are definitely not for the easily disturbed. After viewing, some bourbon and Prozac might be necessary to help you fall asleep.

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Hughie, arguably the weaker of the two, is more plugged in to the real world. It’s fascinating to watch Dennehy rattle off stories of past friends, female conquests, and gambling victories. He mostly rambles about his only confidant in recent memory, the former night clerk, Hughie. Falls’ staging is brilliant. He is able to create viable stage pictures with only one moving actor, yet the production never feels unmotivated or scattershot. Grifasi is spot-on as the spaced-out clerk. Dennehy owns his role, layering bravado and self-assurance on top of Erie’s agonizing stabs at companionship.

Beckett is a much different writer than O’Neill, and requires a distinct approach in all aspects. Dennehy’s Krapp is a 180-turn from Erie. He’s a clown—a very lonely clown that let the opportunities of relationships slip by years ago. This production, directed by Canadian impKrapps_06ort Tarver, snaps together. Every second on stage is fraught with purpose. Dennehy’s dealings with a banana, his tape player, or his door are all significant. It also contains one of the most genius directing choices of this entire theatre season. Whenever Krapp leaves the main room to fetch a drink, he leaves the door open. The only movement on stage is the swinging light pull. There is something so Beckett, so existential, about that moment.

Hughie tends to drag a bit and the powerful silences of Krapp’s Last Tape are often interrupted by coughs and shifting, which is more of a comment on the audience than the production. The Albert stage seems a bit large for these plays. The size works for capturing the crushing, Atlas-scale solitude, but the anguished details are occasionally lost in the abyss. Still, the double-bill is remarkable. Nothing is overblown or glossed over; all aspects of both productions are painstakingly devised. Even the show is just over 90 minutes, you’ll have plenty of fodder for hours of therapy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

The Design Team for Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape includes Eugene Lee (Sets), Patrick Clark (Costumes), Robert Thomson (Lights) and Richard Woodbury (Sound). Joseph Drummond is the Production Stage Manager, and T. Paul Lynch is the Stage Manager.  All photography by Liz Lauren.

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