Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre)

  
  

Sympathy for the Curmudgeon

  
  

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Jacob Marley (Anish Jethmalani)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
A Christmas Carol
   
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by
Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Christmas stories always frightened me as a child. I was the kid peering from beneath the blankets, too terrified to sleep on Christmas Eve. A fat jolly man was slipping into our apartment to leave me stuff based on my behavior. I was supposed to be happy and grateful – so much so as to leave cookies for the guy. All of this was exacerbated by special showings of “A Christmas Carol” on Family Classics. You mean there are ghosts too? Every rendition of the Dickens classic has always made my heart beat faster and sigh in relief when old Ebenezer made his turnaround.
The Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol thankfully gave me, instead of anxiousness, a sense of relief and a warm fuzzy. This beautifully staged play adds an element of humor that I had not previously seen in the story.

The ghost from Christmas Present (Susan Shunk)Dickens’ tale has become an allegory for redemption and forgiveness through the spirit of Christmas. The hardscrabble lives of 19th-century England have not gone away. It is more in our faces than ever with high definition. Goodman’s production suspends belief for a couple of well spent hours and in turn makes the story more relevant. This is brought to light by a really great cast, musicians, gorgeous sets and meticulous costume reproductions.

This is veteran actor John Judd’s first appearance as the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Judd has the scowling and gravelly visage of a first-class crank. His Scrooge is tightly wound and a first class crank. Judd imbues the character with an undertone of sarcasm and sardonic humor as he suggests the workhouses and prisons as an alternative for homelessness. I most enjoyed Mr. Judd once the character was taken down a few pegs by the ghostly visits. He has wonderful comic timing and the karmic retribution that befalls Scrooge is also done quite well in spite of some visual histrionics. The hellfire tombstone is over the top; I would have preferred the neglected gravestone etched with Scrooge’s name. It’s nice to have money for opulent sets this seems to pander to spectacle-seekers, and was not worthy of such an otherwise beautifully dressed set.

There is plenty of to enjoy in this show thanks to some cast standouts. The ghostly visitors were wonderful and backed by glowing special effects. Anish Jethmalani plays Jacob Marley with fiendish anger. The visual effects contain strobes and projections blasting out of the painting over Scrooge’s bed. The painting looks like Andrew Jackson on the $20, which I found sardonically funny (though I don’t know if it was intentional or not). Jethelmani’s appearance is brief but powerful, especially his descent into the fireplace standing in for hell.

Susan Shunk as Christmas Past gives a delightful performance as she takes Scrooge flying. I was impressed that it was the only use of aerial effects. Ms. Shunk is dressed in Dickensian boy attire and has the glee of a sprite as she reveals the history of Ebenezer’s angst and closed heart. Judd is hilarious as he flounders in the air, terrified and then in awe.

   
Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Christmas Past shows Scrooge an earlier Christmas
Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) John Judd as Ebenezer Scrooge

The next spirit is my favorite – Penelope Walker as Christmas Present was a joyful and ebullient delight. This is spectacle done beautifully. Scrooge wakes up in a bed laden with shiny wrapped presents and Ms. Walker sprinkling glitter and musical laughter. Christmas Present is seen against a cyc wall exploding with stars and then a street filled with the townspeople. Ms. Walker does a wonderful turn as she portrays Dickens’ indictment of poverty. It’s astounding to see the switch from glee to desperate darkness. Two impoverished waifs seem to crawl up from the earth from under her cloak. It reminds one of the old lithographic styles of newspaper editorial cartoons from Dickens’ time.

Christmas Future is properly ominous – dark, hooded, and at least 15 feet tall. With no face seen or dialogue uttered, I was taken back to my childhood terrors. Christmas Past also leads to the best visual effects of a giant tombstone with blazing letters, perpetuating the terror of being bad around Christmas.

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Tiny TimRon Rains as Bob Cratchit is a standout of comic gifts and subtle pathos. He seems to channel Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr. Bean’ when he tries to retrieve his hat without disturbing Scrooge. It’s a comic gem that gets a well-deserved hearty applause. Rains avoids the downtrodden treacle of Cratchit portrayals past. He portrays a family man using the power of gratitude to keep the family spirits aloft in spite of poverty. There isn’t one maudlin misstep in his performance and he plays a pretty mean guitar as well.

I give the same applause to the children in this play. It’s hard to be a child and play a child without being too cute. I call it the ‘awww effect’. I give credit to Director William Brown for keeping this in check and for directing a smoothly executed classic production. It stands on its own merit and is worthy of being an annual family excursion. Speaking of families – you can take yours to this, but please teach the kids that it is not okay to chatter throughout the performance. Childlike awe is expected of children and adults but ask questions over ice cream after the show, not during. The same goes to the grown man with the rumbling bass voice behind me. I send you a whack of the wet soba noodle-hush.

 
    
Rating: ★★★½     
      
  

Scene from A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Chicago

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in beautiful downtown Chicago. Call 312-443-3811 or log on www.goodmantheatre.org for more details on tickets and performance times. Go early for dinner before the show because most Loop eateries shut down by 9:00pm. There is a nice theatre gift shop as well. Perhaps you can find something for the jolly guy on Christmas Eve…sleep well and Happy Holidays!

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REVIEW: Awake and Sing (Northlight Theatre)

Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at

 Nussbaum, Gold, Whittaker

Northlight Theatre presents

Awake and Sing

 

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.

Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold v From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.

Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.

Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.

In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.

Lazerine, Francis Francis, Whittaker

When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.

Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."

Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.

Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.

Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.

Gold, Gallagher Gallagher, Nussbaum at table, h

Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.

Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.

Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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