Next Theatre announces their 30th-Anniversary Season

Next Theatre - War With Newts 

Scene from last season’s “The War With the Newts ★★★½

Next Theatre announces their

 

30th-Anniversary Season

 

Next Theatre Company announces their 30th  anniversary season, complete with three main stage plays receiving their Midwest premieres, along with their What’s Next Series focusing on new Chicago artists.  All productions, plus the What’s Next Series, are presented at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston.

 

Main Stage Shows

 

November 4 – December 5, 2010

 

  The Piano Teacher
   
  Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  When the sweet, cookie loving Mrs. K, the epitome of the caring grandmotherly piano teacher, reaches out to her old students, she discovers a chain of startling secrets that she can no longer keep hidden inside her piano bench. With breath-taking theatricality and stunning language, Julio Cho takes us on a journey of discovery that brings international responsibility into the sanctity of our family kitchen.
   

 

January 20 – February 20, 2011

 

  Madagascar
   
  Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Kimberly Senior
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  Director Kimberly Senior and internationally recognized playwright J.T. Rogers, the pair who brought you The Overwhelming, team up again to offer audiences another gripping thriller. In the same hotel room overlooking the Spanish steps in Rome, three Americans across three different moments in time find themselves alone.  A sister, a mother and a family friend grapple with loss, regret, and the nature of truth. Using his trademark cunning insight and grippingly eloquent characters, J.T. Rogers weaves a haunting story about the mysterious disappearance of a loved one, and the unexpected consequences that bring a family closer together.
   

 

April 14 – May 8, 2010

 

  The Metal Children
   
  Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  What responsibility do artists have for the impact of their work? Provocative New York playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp offers a powerful portrait of small-town censorship and the American divide over family values in his newest play fresh from a sold-out Off-Broadway run, The Metal Children. A gifted New York writer attempts to defend his young adult novel to the same small American town hell bent on banning his work, causing an explosive encounter from which no one in the small Midwestern town will recover.
   

Tickets

All tickets for Main Stage shows are $20 – $40 with subscriber and student discounts available. Tickets may be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

 

After the fold (click on “Read more”):

  • 30th Anniversary Season new programming
  • “What’s Next Series” schedule
  • What’s Next” Lab
  • Panel Discussions

Next Theatre - Magical Exploding BoyDean Evans in last season’s “Magical Exploding Boy”  ★★★

  

     
     

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REVIEW: Carousel (Light Opera Works)

Industrial Strength Nostalgia

 

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 03

  
Light Opera Works presents
   
Carousel
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Directed by Stacey Flaster
at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston (map)
through August 29 |  tickets: $32-$77  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Some candies may melt in your mouth, but practically every song in this glorious 1945 gem of heartfelt Americana melts in your heart. Filled with what’s now post-war nostalgia for an even simpler America (a sea town in Maine in the late 19th century), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lovely and loving masterwork is an inspired reworking of Ferenc Molnari’s Liliom, a knowing drama about an abusive husband who’s given one last—posthumous—chance to redeem himself to the wife he abused and the daughter he never knew but still might save.

Maybe because it’s hard to believe in 2010 that a husband can “hit [his wife] so hard and still not have it hurt” (as Billy Bigelow supposedly does to the too trusting Julie Jordan), the seemingly tender plot of this beloved musical Carousel can also register an ugly shock of recognition. It’s nothing like the vicious menace that Jud Fry offers   Laurie and Curly in the earlier hit Oklahoma!  But this is even closer for discomfort–domestic violence Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 01nurtured by Billy’s need to strike out at anyone but at the real threat, the loser he feels he is.

The question of whether carnival-barker Billy Bigelow will find posthumous redemption–by offering a star to the daughter he never knew–seems less important than the fact that soon after this unreformed bruiser returns to earth, the abuser slaps his daughter, as he did her mother 15 years before. If he helps his daughter Louise, it doesn’t happen on stage. And this, though Billy knows that his return to the living (like Jimmy Stewart’s in a film from the same year) is his one chance to make up for the cruelty and crimes that shortened his earthly sojourn–and escape the pangs of hell.

Writing about the recent Broadway revival of Carousel, the late William A. Henry III dismissed the 1945 classic as a musical where nothing important happens when it should and in which a rotter’s reformation occurs after it’s too late to matter.

But that’s the lure that drew Oscar Hammerstein to Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom: We need to believe that, unlike letters, love is never lost.

Refusing to dispute her dependency ("What’s The Use of Wondr’rin’?"), Julie Jordan, a lovestruck Victorian millgirl, clings to her seemingly worthless Billy. In real life, Julie’s dogged devotion to a thug would gain her a worse beating. But the musical’s make-believe, plus the powerful persuasion of a deathless anthem like "You’ll Never Walk Alone," improves on fact–at least until you think of Simpson.

Sturdy and sometimes impassioned, Light Opera Works’ revival – very down to earth and up to heaven, unlike the famous and deliriously lyrical Lincoln Center revival of a decade ago – finds a strong moment at the start: The famous waltz accompanies the millgirls’ happy deliverance from work and riotous escape to the carnival, complete with the title amusement. That–and the passionate “dream” dance duo between Nicole Miller and Todd Rhodes–are superb bookends for a literally moving musical.

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 05The casting seems made to matter. Cooper David Grodin makes a lean and menacing Billy, with a body language as confident as his tenor and more so than his acting. (He’s trying so hard to be tough that we miss the tenderness that clearly draws Julie to this “bad boy.”) Innocent until ardent, Natalie Ford gives Julie the pole-axed passion that makes this unschooled woman endure so much for her premature prince. But since they don’t connect when it counts–in the wonderful 11-minute "bench scene" that blooms into "If I Loved You"–it’s hard to wish them a second chance.

Ably inhabiting the supporting roles, Elizabeth Lanza enjoys her merry moments as conventional Carrie, a millgirl who enters into a risk-free contract with proper Yankee entrepreneur Enoch Snow (played with gawky rectitude by George Keating). As maternal Aunt Nettie, Winifred Faix Brown makes much of the unstoppable anthem "You’ll Never Walk Alone." Katherine L. Condit as Billy’s true soulmate, the randy Mrs. Mullin, and Jeremy Trager as his nemesis Jigger Craigin suggest the dark side of Billy Bigelow that Julie alone can’t tame. Happily, that doesn’t apply to the musical itself. These songs are surefire charmers and mellow a plot that almost too abruptly changes from flinty New England realism to moonspun and quicksilver wishful thinking. But then “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
     
     

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 04

Extra Credit:

   
   

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REVIEW: No Exit (The Hypocrites)

Looks like hell to me

 

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

   
The Hypocrites present
   
No Exit
   
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by
Sean Graney
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through July 11th  |   tickets: $20-$25   |   more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

In order to receive a degree in theatre at my university, every student has to take an Intro to Design class. In this class, every student had to come up with a design concept for Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spiel No Exit. And then we spent long hours drawing costume sketches and pinning together a model box. I’ve seen Sartre’s vision of hell set in a pirate-themed hotel, an emptied-out swimming pool,  and an Arkansas basement (in case Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exityou’re wondering, my own stayed pretty close to the stage direction’s Second Empire-style, with a few liberties, of course). So I was pretty excited to see how a full production of the play would pan out, especially in the hands of director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites.

Featuring a massive nude statue and bright pink walls, the ridiculous design did not disappoint.

For those that weren’t in my Intro to Design class, No Exit paints a grim picture of the afterlife, where you’re locked in a garish room with people you soon learn to hate. Trapped in the tiny dwelling are the journalist Garcin (Robert McLean), the Sapphic postal-clerk Inez (Samantha Gleisten), and the coquettish Estelle (Erin Barlow). They attempt to deal with the situation, forging and shattering alliances like Dante combined with “Survivor.” They famously learn that “hell is other people.” There’s a reason existentialists aren’t known for their cheerfulness.

I got the impression that there was some environmental theatre going on here—the hot, stuffy Athenaeum studio theatre provided the audience with their own Hell. Or maybe it’s all coincidence. Even if there really was no deliberate plan to find the most uncomfortable seats possible, the Hypocrites would be smart to take responsibility. The experience definitely helps you connect to the characters.

Graney and scenic designer Tom Burch demand intense physical acting from the cast. The room is tiny and crowded with furniture and bodies. On top of all this, the whole set is on a steep rake. The design requires accuracy and focus; any sloppiness could end in making the chaos too chaotic.

McLean, Barlow, and Gleisten clamor and climb wonderfully, conquering the walls, sloped floor, and sofas. The three claw at each other in lust, anger, and desperation. More importantly, they can balance their characters’ evil qualities with vulnerability and rational thinking. Sometimes they can’t get a firm grasp on Sartre’s lyrical language. McLean is particularly guilty here, sounding wooden and dull at bits. He clearly gets the pettiness and jealousy of Garcin, though. All three add enough personal quirks and charms to make these borderline psychopaths engaging. John Taflan, clad in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, is endlessly fascinating as the valet. He’s tall, weird, and intimidating, which is what I think the Craigslist ad for a doorman in Hell would ask for.

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

As with most Graney productions, there are exciting conceptual impositions on the text. Many work beautifully. All of the characters carry loads of cash on their person, but, alas, money doesn’t do much for you postmortem (it seems you can either flip coins or operate the vibrating chair). There’s one wonderful moment where Estelle throws fistfuls of change out of her purse, creating visual and aural bedlam.

Other choices don’t stick as well. For example, there’s a globe-stereo-thing the valet brings in. I appreciated the soundtrack it provided (Gaga, Beach Boys, the Police), but it just sort of ended up there. Then there is the cheetah-inspired costuming that begins to appear about three-quarters through. Graney also doesn’t quite find the ending—the story resolves a bit too much for a tale of eternal woe.

Basically, the concepts behind this No Exit were way better than the ones formulated by any freshman in my class. It could’ve been the weather, but I’d like to believe it was the fiery energy and dedication of the cast and team that made that theatre so sweltering. Graney’s version of Hell is no place I’d want to be.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  

REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


Jade Heart 3

 
Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Jade Heart 2

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Non-Equity Jeff Awards nominees announced

chicagoatnight

2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award Nominees

 

 

Production – Play
  Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Killer Joe Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ )
The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)

 

Production – Musical
  Chess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James (review ★★½)
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Glorious Ones   Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre 

 

Director – Play
  Aaron Todd Douglas: Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Michael Menendian: Death of a SalesmanRaven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Michael Rohd: Wilson Wants It All House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
Kimberly Senior: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Rick Snyder: – Killer Joe Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)

  

Director – Musical
  Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier: Chess – Theo Ubique Theatre (review ★★½)
Jeffrey CassThe Who’s TommyCircle Theatre
Stephen M. Genovese: The Glorious Ones Boho Rep (review ★★★)
Andrew Park: Evolution/CreationQuest Theatre Ensemble  (review ★★★)

 

Ensemble
  The Glorious Ones Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Red Noses Strawdog Theatre Company
Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Under Milk Wood  Caffeine Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
  Tony Bozzuto: On an Average DayBackStage Theatre Company 
Darrell W. Cox: Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Andrew Jessop: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Peter Robel: I Am My Own Wife Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★★)
Chuck Spencer: Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre  (review ★★★½)

 

Actor in a Principle Role – Musical
  Courtney Crouse: ChessTheo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)
Tom McGunn: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Eric Damon SmithThe Glorious Ones
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Jeremy Trager: Chess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre   (review ★★½)

   

Actress in a Principle Role – Play
  Brenda BarrieMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre  (review ★★★★)
LaNisa FrederickThe Gimmick Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Millicent HurleyLettice & Lovage Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★★)
Kendra Thulin: Harper Regan Steep Theatre  (review ★★½ )
Rebekah Ward-Hays: Aunt Dan and Lemon BackStage Theatre 

 

Actress in a Principle Role – Musical
  Danielle Brothers: Man of La Mancha Theo Ubique Theatre  (review ★★★)
Sarah Hayes: Man of La ManchaTheo Ubique Theatre   (review ★★★)
Maggie PortmanChess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
  Chance Bone: Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago  (review ★★)
Jason HuysmanDeath of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Edward KuffertThe CrucibleInfamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Peter Oyloe: The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre   (review ★★★)
Phil TimberlakeBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Eric Lindahl: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Steve Kimbrough:
Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag
John B. LeenChess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
  Nancy Friedrich: The Crucible Infamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Vanessa Greenway: The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kelly Lynn HoganThe Night Season Vitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★)
Mary RedmonThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Kate GarassinoBombs Away!  – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre  
Danni Smith
The Glorious Ones  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Trista Smith: Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical  -  Hell in a Handbag
Dana Tretta
The Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

New Work
  Aaron CarterFirst Words  MPAACT (review ★★★)
Ellen FaireyGraceland Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★)
Tommy Lee JohnstonAura  Redtwist Theatre
Andrew Park and Scott Lamps
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Michael Rohd & Phillip C. KlapperichWilson Wants It All  -  The House Theatre of Chicago  (review ★★★)

 

New Adaptation
  Bilal Dardai: The Man Who Was ThursdayNew Leaf Theatre  
Sean Graney:  –
Oedipus  The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Frances LimoncelliBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Frances Limoncelli:  – Mrs. Caliban  – Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
William Massolia: Little Brother  Griffin Theatre

 

Choreography
  Kevin BellieThe Who’s Tommy  Circle Theatre
Brenda Didier
Chess   Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
James Brigitte DitmarsPoseidon! An Upside Down Musical  Hell in a Handbag Productions

 

Original Incidental Music
  Andrew Hansen: Treasure Island  -  Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Kevin O’Donnell:   -  Wilson Wants It All  -   House Theatre   (review ★★★)
Trevor WatkinThe Black Duckling  -  Dream Theatre

 

Music Direction
  Ryan BrewsterChess  – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
Gary PowellEvolution/Creation  Quest Theatre   (review ★★★)
Nick SulaThe Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

Scenic Design
  Tom BurchUncle Vanya Strawdog Theatre  (review ★★★)
Alan DonahueTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Heath HaysOn an Average Day  -   BackStage Theatre Company
Bob Knuth
The Analytical Engine  Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
Bob KnuthLittle Women  -   Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
John Zuiker:   I Am My Own Wife  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Lighting Design
  Diane FairchildThe Gimmick  -  Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Kevin D. Gawley: Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Sean MallarySt. Crispin’s Day  – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Jared B. MooreThe Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre
Katy PetersonI Am My Own Wife
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Costume Design
  Theresa HamThe Glorious Ones  -  Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★)
Branimira IvanovaTreasure Island  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Joanna MelvilleSt. Crispin’s Day  -  Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Jill Van BrusselThe Taming of the Shrew  Theo Ubique  (review  ★★★)
Elizabeth WislarThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Sound Design
  Mikhail FikselOedipus The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Michael GriggsWilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre (review ★★★)
Andrew HansenTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)  
Joshua HorvathMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre (review ★★★★)
Miles PolaskiMouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Artistic Specialization
  Kevin Bellie: Projection Design, The Who’s Tommy  -   Circle Theatre
Elise Kauzlaric: Dialect Coach, 
Busman’s Honeymoon  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Lucas Merino: Video Design, Wilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
James T. Scott:  Puppets, Evolution/Creation Quest Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Fight Choreography
  Geoff Coates: On An Average Day  -  BackStage Theatre Company
Geoff Coates
Treasure Island  Lifeline Theatre   (review ★★★½)
Matt HawkinsSt. Crispin’s DayStrawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
R & D ChoreographyKiller Joe  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½  )

 

More info at the Jeff Awards website.

   
   

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (Light Opera Works)

Rollicking fun, if not quite a glorious thing

Pirates-of-Penzance-1

Light Opera Works presents

The Pirates of Penzance
By W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed and choreographed by
Rudy Hogenmiller
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the few professional Chicago companies to put on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Light Opera Works typically mounts one of their operettas each year, with just eight performances. This year, it’s a solid version of The Pirates of Penzance, one of the duo’s most popular comic operas, full of witty lines and catchy music.

To know W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is to love them. Funny and musically brilliant, every one of their collaborations is a delight.

It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from a well-done production of almost any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas without wanting to see more. Maybe it’s the "opera" in "comic opera" that scares people off. Maybe it’s the technical difficulty and expense of producing shows that require skilled orchestras and large, talented choruses. Whatever it is, it’s rare that Chicagoans get to see these classics done with the splendor they deserve.

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Light Opera Works does a satisfying but not thrilling job of "Pirates," one of the funniest and most timeless of the G&S canon. Its characteristically silly plot revolves around Frederic, an apprentice pirate. Meant to be articled to a ship’s pilot, he was instead mistakenly indentured to a pirate by his hard-of-hearing nursery maid. The dutiful young man has served diligently in the rather soft-hearted pirate band, but now his term of service is up, and he means to dedicate himself to wiping out his former comrades.

He becomes more determined after he meets Major-General Stanley’s bevy of beautiful daughters, whom the lovelorn pirate crew tries to kidnap, and falls in love with the intrepid Mabel. But then, the pirate king points out a technicality that means Frederic’s contract to the pirates is still in force. Delightful songs and comic shenanigans ensue.

A highlight of the production, bass-baritone Michael Cavalieri looks too amiable to be a Pirate King, but he gives us a glorious "Oh, better far to live and die." Musical theater veteran James Harms is the very model of a Major-General Stanley, effortlessly delivering the centerpiece patter song in fine comic style.

As in many productions, this crowd-pleaser gets a speeded-up reprise, although this one rather insults audiences. It’s usual to hint the meaning of the couplet, "In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy — / You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee," by having the singers mime riding horseback on the final rhyme, but when Harms repeats the line, he sings, "never sat a horse" — as if we were too dumb to get it the first time.

Other than that, Director Rudy Hogenmiller steers mercifully clear of modernizing, while aiming at very broad comedy. The police force, for instance, comes straight out of the Keystone Kops. Bass Frank M. DeVincentis, both vocally and comically perfect as the Sergeant of Police, does a bang-up job with "When a felon’s not engaged in his employment."

Tenor Matthew Giebel brings an excellent voice to Frederic. As Mabel, Alicia Berneche trills her way through "Poor wandering one!" and "Stay, Frederic, stay!" at high coloratura pitch. All of the women sound a bit shrill, even the dashing Barbara Landis in the contralto role of Ruth, Frederic’s nurse turned piratical maid of all work.

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Conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s largely workmanlike musical direction stumbles here and there. The orchestra doesn’t excite, and harmonizing, in songs like "When you had left our pirate fold," sung by Landis, Giebel and Cavalieri, isn’t all that it could be. The choristers do fine work, though, with particularly clear enunciation in numbers like "How beautifully blue the sky."

Hogenmiller’s dance sequences sometimes seem cluttered, but that only adds to the fun. Jill Van Brussel‘s costumes shine, particularly the colorful pirates’ garb. Tom Burch‘s cut-out sets neither add much nor detract.

Overall, the flaws of this production are far outweighed by its successes, together with the sheer brilliance of the original score and script. If it’s not the glittering production that Gilbert and Sullivan fans yearn for, it’s still loads of fun and good enough to inspire G&S newcomers to want more.

Are you listening, Chicago thespians?

Rating: ★★★