Theater Thursday: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Thursday, December 16

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally

Hubris Productions at the Greenhouse Theater Center 

2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago (map)

frankienjohnnieJoin Hubris Productions at the Greenhouse Theater Center before the show for a holiday wine tasting with a renowned wine expert from "In Grape Company" then stay for the critically acclaimed Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (our review ★★★), after which we will conclude with a second wine tasting (both paired with holiday treats) along with a meet and greet with members of Hubris Productions.

Event begins at 7 p.m.  Show begins at 8 p.m.   Tickets: $30

For reservations call 773.404.7336 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

        
       

REVIEW: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Hubris)

     
     

An Ordinary Love Story

     
     

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Hubris Productions presents
   
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
  
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by
Jacob Christopher Green
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through December 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly sentimental about Terrence McNally’s 1987 anti-romance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The titular lovers are not typical rom-com fare. For one, they are both pushing forty. They are famously plain in appearance. Neither has a glamorous occupation nor ambition—they work at a greasy spoon, Frankie as a waitress, Johnny as a short-order cook. Both are heavy with emotional baggage. Not sexy, lurid baggage, but run-of-the-mill, pathetic baggage—domestic abuse, divorce, and alcoholism. Yet, the couple discover, repudiate, and battle for a deep, life-or-death level of love. McNally’s thesis is that this sort of passion is not the exclusive privilege of movie star queens and high school quarterbacks. It can even bloom in a cheap apartment in a dingy New York neighborhood. Hubris Productions’ production, directed by Jacob Christopher Green, captures the essence of McNally’s quirky, utterly ordinary love story.

Window.FandJ copySMFrankie and Johnny has one set, two actors, and two acts. It takes place over one long, emotion-fueled night. Johnny (Dennis Frymire) is a lover of Shakespeare, and is convinced that he and Frankie (Patricia Savieo) are meant for each other. She’s not as sure. In fact, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Johnny is a lunatic. And she may be right. His overwhelming love of romance is unique, to say the least.

Frymire and Savieo, both Hubris ensemble members, seem completely comfortable with the material, even the extended nudity which starts the show with a bang (literally). The characters come naturally to the duo, whether they’re making love or post-coital meatloaf sandwiches. Most importantly, neither falls into melodrama nor overplays Frankie and Johnny’s quiet desperation.

Savieo is definitely the most fascinating to watch of the two. She lights up the stage. We see that her heart has been stomped on before, so she proceeds with caution and, occasionally, cynicism. Her slow warming-up to Johnny is what drives most of the action, and Savieo handles that arc with grace and strength. The powerful need to keep her heart guarded is evident.

Frymire, on the other hand, can be one-note at times. He gets across Johnny’s enthusiasm, but sometimes at the expense of his charm. He pushes the crazy too hard, an easy crevasse to fall into. He is obviously having fun up there, but it makes him come off as a creep more than he should. The audience starts to wonder why Frankie doesn’t get the police on the line. By the second act, however, he regains some composure and we eat up the delightful finale, which doesn’t feel forced at all.

McNally comes from a school of ‘80s playwrights, an academy that includes John Patrick Shanley and Lanford Wilson, which loves gritty, dynamic love stories. If we want to talk superficial genre specifics we would classify Frankie and Johnny as a comedy. But the play isn’t afraid to dwell on ruinous relationships or drop a bag of f-bombs. Green’s biggest problem is finding the humor. There are some mild chuckles here and there, but the comedy never truly pops in Hubris’ production. The probable cause is that Green’s pacing isn’t as tight as it should be. The actors’ energy falls through the cracks. Frymire, when trying to be weird in ill-fated attempts at laughs, is a good example. Fortunately, McNally’s text is also dramatically complex, so the production stays together.

Frankie and Johnny is about finding magic in a very un-fairy tale world. Green, Frymire, and Savieo all find it, and they present it to us on a platter. The last few moments, which feature Johnny and Frankie watching the sun rise on another day in the city, are pure joy. Out of incredibly everyday people and emotions, Hubris is able to whip up romance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Three Decembers (Chicago Opera Theater)

Fredericka von Stade soars above score’s weaknesses

    

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Three Decembers
  
Jake Heggie, Composer; Gene Scheer, Librettist
Based on a short play by
Terrence McNally
at
Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 16th  | tickets$30-$120  | more info

Review by Mark D. Ball

Criticism comes easy. Composition does not. In fact, this opera’s composer, Jake Heggie, colorfully writes in his program notes that sometimes he has to “[smash his] head…on a keyboard to get any notes out at all”. So, with due respect to the difficulty and nobility of the enterprise, and to those who passionately answer the call anyway, I’m going to offer what is probably a minority opinion among critics and opera-lovers alike in questioning the outcome in the case of Heggie’s opera Three Decembers.

COT-three-decembers003 Librettist Gene Scheer based the story on a short play by Terrence McNally. An adult brother and sister (Charlie and Bea) are struggling with their relationship with their mother (Madeline), a famous actress who neglected them to advance her career. Eventually, the mother reveals a surprising family secret that clarifies her behavior and makes forgiveness possible. Unfortunately, as a portrayal of family dysfunction, the story is simplistic and trite. Despite its aspiration to depict a fascinating but fractured family in the manner of Tennessee Williams, the libretto is largely an exercise in resentful adolescent whining.

Nevertheless, this production did have some strengths. First, the legendary mezzo-soprano Fredericka von Stade sang the role of the celebrated actress and indifferent mother. Her blithe, graceful singing testified to her status as one of the world’s great lyric sopranos. Stade’s Madeline was both selfish and charming, a result of skillful acting that wove flamboyance and naivete into a single fabric. There was no dissimulation in her character – just obliviousness. Hers was a classic diva whose narcissism was almost benign, being tempered by a dormant conscience.

Matthew Worth sang the role of Madeline’s gay son, Charlie. His character’s indignation and stubbornness were explicit, and I heard the ring of sincerity in the fear that Charlie felt during his partner’s illness and the sadness after his death. Because Worth didn’t hyperbolize the affectivity in his role – and despite the driving petulance written into his lines – he delivered some touching moments.

In the role of Bea, Sara Jakubiak did what she could with bad material. Her good singing notwithstanding, she couldn’t overcome the banality of her character.

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Reaction depends on expectation. Not having heard Three Decembers before, but being aware of Heggie’s postmodernist tendencies, I didn’t go to the performance expecting Puccini. Rather, I was looking forward to interesting musical surprises, perhaps dissonance, fragmentation, or structural disunity, while hoping for enough neoromanticism to give some meaning to those surprises.

The tonality of the score would probably please Puccini after all, but the totality might appeal more to Janáček . Within the strong dissonances of Heggie’s music there are passages of long, lithe melodies with pleasant lyricism, especially in the duets and trios. Sophisticated harmony is present, along with tantalizing unpredictability. Even so, however, most of the vocal lines give the impression of confused and aimless arioso. Whether musicologists ultimately classify it as such, or as Sprechstimme or recitative, the music feels arbitrary and unstable, as though trying hard not to be hummable just so it can claim originality. Furthermore, the frequent screeching of dissonant woodwinds made me wince. What wasn’t boring was downright irritating.

Three Decembers could be a compelling opera if the story were fresher and the music shaped by what Heggie’s modernist/premodernist predecessors (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bernstein, and others) understood about antagonism and synergism as they apply to convention and innovation. As it is, Heggie’s score assaults or frustrates the senses more often than it uses them to frame an emotion or an idea. Disappointment wasn’t among my expectations as the curtain rose, but, I regret to say, it was my reaction as the curtain fell.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  
COT-three-decembers004 Production Team

Conductor:
Stephen Hargreaves
Production by:
Leonard Foglia
Costume Designer:
Cesar Galdino
Original Lighting Designer:
Brian Nason
Lighting Designer:
Keith Parham

Cast List

Bea:
Sara Jakubiak
Madeline:
Frederica von Stade
Charlie:
Matthew Worth