REVIEW: The Wind in the Willows (City Lit Theater)

 
 

Another triumph in Toad Hall

 
 

Wind in the Willows - City Lit Theater

  
City Lit Theater presents
   
  
The Wind in the Willows
  
Written by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted and Composed by
Douglas Post
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You can never weary of a good old friend. This is the latest of many times that The Wind in the WillowsDouglas Post‘s delightful musical play based on Kenneth Grahame’s beloved animal fantasy – has trod the boards (its first, 1983 version was called “Toad of Toad Hall”). City Lit’s last revival was only last year.

With each mounting, it’s increasingly obvious how faithful Post’s supple score and rollicking "story theater" script remain to the strengths of Grahame’s beloved tale, particularly the author’s delight in the English countryside and its evergreen changes of season. The animals are perfect British stereotypes, especially Toad’s upper-class twit, as is the class consciousness that pits the underclass of the Wild Wood (weasels, stoats, and ferrets) against the more civilized creatures of the riverbank and underground.

The story, you might recall, concerns the much tested friendship of the plucky Water Rat, gentle Mole, and gruff Badger for Grahame’s most whimsical creation, the self-inflated Mr. Toad (a very spoiled animal who grew up scarcely changed). A creature of unbridled appetite and nettled by a boundless ego, Toad is always hot after some new obsession, particularly motorcars, which he loves to steal and wreck. His loyal if frustrated friends break their brains trying to save him from himself, even when it means an intervention right out of A&E. They must rescue his elegant Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets who infest it when Toadie is incarcerated. Only after his friends’ concerted effort does Mr. Toad learn some late humility. (But how long until the next obsession?)

Ranging from honest Sondheim ”homage” (the Wildwooders’ "Down with the Toad") to the tenderness of the "My Home" ballad sung by a homesick Rat and Mole, Post’s score (nicely sung against a recorded accompaniment) supports its story splendidly. Terry McCabe

 serves it equally well as director of a revival that spins its tale with inexhaustible grace and charm (though the scene containing the mystical "Song of the Piper," however rich with Grahame’s love of nature, doesn’t fit the story). But the lovely “Christmas Carol, sung by the field mice, hedgehogs, mole, rat and otter, is a perfect holiday touch.

Alan Donahue’s set is redolent of giant cattails sewn together with patches of an earth-colored quilt, and with the British accents accurately in place, Post’s recipe loses none of its flavor. Tom Weber delivers sturdy work as the water-loving Rat who’s plucky, resourceful and the ultimate friend in need. An enchanting portrayal, Catherine Gillespie‘s Mole is full of wonderment at the great world above ground. Though lacking the critter’s usual Scottish accent, Edward Kuffert‘s Badger well conveys the elder animal’s irascible dignity, tough love and no-nonsense common sense, and Sean Knight is a funny and spirited duffer as good old Otter.

But the ongoing pleasure remains Mr. Toad, and in this revival Ed Rutherford , his rubber face conveying all the devious intensity of this paragon of pomposity, has made the role all his own. Children love his hammy selfishness and adults will see in Toad no small amount of human

”déjà vu”. Mr. Toad is forever.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Citi-Lit Theater logo

Production Artists

 

Ensemble

Kate Andrulis, Sarah Bright, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Catherine Gillespie, Sean Knight, Edward Kuffert, Aaron Lawson, Brian LeTraunik, Lauren Noelle Morgan, Shawn Quinlan, Lauren Romano, Ed Rutherford, and Tom Weber

Wild In The Willows logoProduction Team

The musical arrangements are by Kevin O’Donnell with additional vocal arrangements by Andra Veils Simon, musical direction by Nick Sula, and choreography by Andrew Waters

The designers are Matthew Cummings (props), Alan Donahue (set), Sarah Hughey (lighting), and Ricky Lurie (costumes).

REVIEW: Kennedy’s Children (Promethean Ensemble)

  
  

Kennedy’s Children, all grown up

 

 scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath

       
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
   
Kennedy’s Children
   
Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Dec. 5   |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In a theatre world where children of the ‘60s are being edged out by Millennials, Robert Patrick’s 1974 eulogy for the Kennedy era, Kennedy’s Children, seems a tad dusty. It touches on over-exploited “what did the flower children really achieve” themes, but can keep its freshness more often than not. Although the play—more of a series of monologues, really—could easily fall into becoming another diatribe bemoaning the 1960’s, Patrick’s skilled use of language and narrative saves us from that fate. Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, directed by Terry McCabe, sees a link between the disillusionment of the 70’s and the disillusionment of post-“Yes We Can” America. The connection is there, although the relevance is clouded by the history lessons. Promethean’s production never escapes being a period piece, but it’s one that still resonates.

Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2 McCabe and his team don’t mess with Patrick’s script at all, refusing to deconstruct, overanalyze, update – or whatever the kids are doing this season. Instead, they opt for a straightforward production that presents the play much like it might have been seen in the tiny off-off-Broadway venues Patrick loved so much. On a dreary night in 1974, Valentine’s Day (an absurdly specific choice that is not utilized enough as it should be by the text), five world-weary souls take over a dive bar in a dingy section of New York (pretty much any part during the ‘70s).

Taking turns, the quintet orate their tales, thoughts, and philosophies straight to the audience, never acknowledging the others on-stage (apart from hailing down the silent bartender, of course). There’s the Marilyn Monroe-fixated Carla (Devon Candura), a starlet who never made it and never will, even though she’s slept with enough producers. Then there’s Mark (Nick Lake), a drug-addled, slightly insane Vietnam veteran who reads letters to his mother and entries in his diary. Of course, Patrick includes a hippie past her prime, Rona (Anne Korajczyk). The most autobiographical character is Sparger (Tom Weber), a gay performer who’s worked in just about every back room, church basement, and community center. The play is rounded out by Wanda (Shawna Tucker), an aging schoolteacher with a Kennedy obsession.

As you probably guessed, this isn’t a very uplifting experience.   Kennedy’s Children is sort of about Kennedy, but it’s really about a collective consciousness, one that’s been battered and bruised into depression. It’s not surprising that the play dabbles in over-the-top disenchantment and cynicism. Maybe when Kennedy, King, and Hendrix were recently buried Patrick’s tribute tapped into unspoken ideas, but by now a lot of the ground has been covered multiple times. That’s not to say this play should be tossed in the garbage. The first half is clunky and exposition-heavy, but the stories heat up in the second act, causing the whole production to suck in the audience.

 

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 5 Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 4

This play needs outstanding performances to survive, and McCabe’s cast is up to the challenging, direct-address style piece. Tucker is the highlight of the production, lending her portrayal of Wanda some skittish neurosis and just a dab of blind hope. If any character is constructive, it’s Wanda, who went out to teach children, inspired by the memory of the fallen president. Weber and Candura are also engrossing; they’re prone to tragedy and histrionics, but so are their characters. Korajczyk and Lake are weaker performers. Korajczyk revels in Rona’s cynicism too much, and Lake pushes the crazy too hard.

In the end, McCabe’s search for relevance is successful. I’m not a child of Kennedy, but Patrick’s sad stories still struck a nerve. The bar patrons’ mopeyness teeters on self-indulgent, but the disappointment rings true.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2

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REVIEW: The Crucible (Infamous Commonwealth Theatre)

Minimalist “Crucible” finds hope amid darkened righteousness.

 

Crucible1

 
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents:
 
The Crucible
 
by Arthur Miller
directed by
Chris Maher
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The intriguing thing about a good production of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible – and Infamous Commonwealth‘s definitely falls in this category –  is how distant it feels from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was so infamously intertwined and on Miller’s mind as impetus for this composition.

The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials, an historical event that took place in Massachusetts back in the days of Puritan Theocracy (circa 1690).  Tituba (Adrian Snow), a slave from Barbados, and a bunch of goodly Puritan girls are caught dancing in the woods – at the time, some are even allegedly naked. And since Puritan foulplay of any sort is rewritten as Satanic rite, the whispers reverberating through Salem are about much more than a little naked dancing in the woods.

Abbigal Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) and John Procter (Craig C. Thompson) -Infamous Commonwealth TheatreNumerous accusations begin to fly that girls have even been consorting with the Devil himself.  There are some murmurs that say Abigail Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) did it.  Or was it the Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty (Glynis Gilio), as others say?  No, they insist, contradicting and indicting one another in a back and forth game of guilt and blame:  it was this girl and not that one, or it was Goodie Proctor (Jennifer Matthews) leading them all to the Devil! 

The accusations babble as sourceless and incoherent as a Massachusetts brook.  Townspersons accuse each other of increasingly sinful behavior, eventually metastasizing from the realm of the accused adolescent girls to grown women and eventually to the men as well.  Before long the small New England town appeals to an out-of-town minister to bring some order and some God to the whole mess – but it only gets muddier, further from the event and any sensible resolution.

As the play’s four Acts (though there’s only one intermission) unfold, the audience watches this small New England town shred itself, its children, its ministers, even the rule of law in hot pursuit of the Devil’s involvement, if any, in civic affairs.  The action moves from a villager’s home to the courtroom and then the prison at dawn on a day scheduled thick with hangings for witchcraft. Nick Rastenis‘ spare, white, post-and-beam, wood-colored set makes movement from one setting to another an effortless rearrangement of bodies on stage, and perhaps a table or a chair.  Rachel M. Sypniewski‘s costumes match the barren quality of Rastenis’ set, making it clear that Crucible-Prepress-Cropped-sThe Crucible is a kind of minimal costume drama; it’s a period piece where bare white walls and exposed wood beams do wonders. 

The minimal quality of the set and the dire consequences of being accused of witchcraft render Stephen Dunn‘s flamboyant gesticulations as Reverend Parris a little too sticky on stage – they tangle up the audience’s attention, making them question his character, and not listen to Reverend Parris’s doublespeak.  Perhaps this is the one instance where Director Chris Maher has pushed too hard – as otherwise the actors successfully achieve and maintain a nearly manic pace and pitch that keeps all four acts clipping along at a pace that makes the piece a borderline thriller – no small accomplishment for a piece where the characters are all too busy attempting to outdo each other’s rhetoric with brimstone polemics on the floor of a courtroom.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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Review: Boho Theatre’s “The Glorious Ones”

glorious-ones2

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents:

The Glorious Ones

by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
directed by Stephen M. Genovese
thru November 21st  (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The Heartland Studio, home base for the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (Boho), is one of the smallest black boxes I have ever been to in Chicago. As you walk in off the street, you find yourself inside a box office not much bigger than a phone booth.  Finding your seat in the theater is more like squeezing your way into a crowded elevator than getting ready to experience high art. And on Friday night, as the lights went down in that small, communal space, and the actors took to the stage to begin performing the regional premiere of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s glorious onesThe Glorious Ones it was the least lonely place in the world. What could be better, on a cold Chicago night, than to see a group of young, vibrant performers fill a small space with their white hot energy? This is a far from perfect production, but the dedication and energy of this vibrant cast is a treat.

Director/set designer Stephen M. Genovese has created a fine and audacious set; a blank old-world-looking wood stage dressed with simple red curtains and the occasional charmingly low tech surprise. It’s a set that screams, “Fill me! Bring the best you’ve got!” – and Mr. Genovese and his cast make a wholehearted attempt…and sometimes succeed.

The play is set in 16th century Venice, during the creation of Comedia del’ Arte. “The Glorious Ones” are a Comedia troupe, led by the pompous and egocentric Flaminio Scala (based on a real-life Comedia performer) played by Eric Damon Smith. The scenes of actual Comedia are great fun. One sketch is repeated three times, as a mapping device for what we know is going on behind the scenes. The best though, is “Armanda’s Tarantella,” slyly performed by the fearless Dana Tretta. Most of the large group scenes have merit. “Flaminio Scala’s Historical Journey to France” is a showstopper, and highlights the energy and force behind these performances that make this show worthwhile.

John Taflan, Katie Siri, Danni Smith, Eric Damon Smith, Dana Tretta, Tom Weber The thing the show is missing, and it is sorely missed, is honesty. The one-dimensional character of Flaminio Scala is prouder than proud and intensely serious. He speaks of his work with dignity and pride, and yet, seems to have no relationship with it. The man as a comedian is never explored, or even dignified with attention. In a pivotal scene, Flaminio embraces a struggling street performer (Courtney Crouse), after watching him perform, and takes him under his wing. Flaminio didactically spells out his lesson plan to build the young raw talent into his protégé. Here, Flaminio gets the opportunity to talk about his work; instead of reveling in it’s humor like a comedian, he discuses it with the wistful dreaminess of a school girl recanting her favorite lines from Twilight. Mr., Smith has the most stage time, and so bears the burden of being an example, but I assure you the lack of truth on stage was a cast-wide epidemic. From the audience, it seems that Mr. Genovese focused too intently on the larger than life aspects of the show and forgot that a show needs honesty to be relatable.

About two-thirds of the way through, Danni Smith as Coloumbina breaks the monotony of disconnected energy and hits one out of the park with “My Body Wasn’t Why,” an empowering and tear-jerking ballad about art, aging and womanhood.

Lynn Ahrens’s interesting book races through the first half of the show, asking the audience to simply accept the characters without working for it. In the second half of the show, when the action finally slows down, it is difficult to muster empathy for anyone.

The wonderful thing about it, though, is the subject matter. We are invited to experience the creation of Coloumbina, the sassy maid; Pantalone, the miserly old man; Dottore, the quack doctor, and Harlequin, the sly prankster, which is a real treat for a theater lover. Stephen Flaherty’s music is full-bodied and emotional, and paired with Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics makes for a great soundtrack. It is in this partnership that these two create strong work, but Lynn Ahrens’s book independently leaves much to be desired in terms of character development.

The thing you have to do to enjoy this show is to understand that it is not a musical comedy. It is a musical about comedy. But the entire cast invites you warmly into their view of history, and you get to see a neat, shiny version of the creation of an art form. If you are a comedy lover (who isn’t?) go see this show. It’s a musical about the creation of something really important, and it is worthy of your attention. For a theater lover, this production is a historical journey worth taking, even if there are a few unintended pratfalls along the way.

Rating: ★★★