Review: The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (Remy Bumppo)

     
     

Albee tragedy hits all the notes, but not always in tune

     
     

Martin (Nick Sandys) stands helplessly by as wife Stevie (Annabel Armour) mourns the loss of their perfect marriage in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
    
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
      
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What an amazing season for Edward Albee fans, as three of his most groundbreaking and influential works have played at some of the city’s most esteemed theaters. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the classic about the lies a couple tells to keep their dying love – saw a brilliant revival at Steppenwolf, featuring a terrifyingly dominant George played with ferocity by Tracy Letts. The Charles Newell-directed Three Tall Women at Court gorgeously exposed the hopes and regrets of one woman’s life, and starred three stunning actress particularly skilled at capturing the musicality and poetry of Albee’s script. Now Remy Bumppo joins the fray with The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Albee’s tragedy about one man’s love for a goat and the cataclysmic damage it inflicts on his perfect marriage.

Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Lies, hopes, regrets, secrets – these are the universal ideas that Albee operates with, but his plays are genius because of their specificity in plot and style. The game George and Martha play in Woolf, the fluid, interwoven recollections of A, B, and C in Women, and the utter physical destruction of Sylvia are all precisely structured to maximize the impact of their themes. George and Martha’s lie deceives the audience, the memories of the tall women are mirrors of the human experience, and the ruins of Martin (Nick Sandys) and Stevie’s (Annabel Armour) living room represent the devastating effects sexual secrets have on a marriage, bestial or otherwise.

Albee has often compared writing to composing music, and his plays have a specific rhythm in the dialogue that sets the cadence for the action: Woolf tense and discordant like a Bernard Herrmann movie score, Women delicate and aching as a Beethoven sonata, and Sylvia an explosive Wagnerian epic. Dynamics and articulation change, themes are passed around characters like sections of an orchestra. This specificity requires exceptionally skilled actors to capture the complexity of the script, and while Remy Bumppo’s cast of actors plays with passion and commitment, sometimes they have trouble finding the beat.

The opening scene finds Martin preparing for an interview with his good friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) as Stevie tidies up the living room. The couple jokes about Martin’s failing memory, acts out a Noel Coward pastiche – the perfect picture of a happy marriage, except for the unsavory scent of barn in the air. The British Sandys speaks in an American dialect that occasionally wavers during the quiet moments, like the opening scene, but while distracting, it is not the main problem with the start of the show. There’s an ease to the dialogue that the actors haven’t quite found, and that ease helps cultivate a sense of familiarity and comfort between the husband and wife. Martin and Stevie are accustomed to the wordplay and good-humored jokes of their repartee, but Sandys and Armour have difficulty finding the scene’s relaxed pace. The quiet moments are the most difficult for the cast, but they become stronger as the actors begin to expound their energy in the later scenes, using the rare instances of calm to get a much needed breather.

     
Billy (Will Allan) and Stevie (Annabel Armour) struggle to accept the reality of Martin's betrayal in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.   Martin (Nick Sandys) tries to comfort troubled son Billy (Will Allan) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) confronts Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Martin struggles to get through his interview with Ross, showing little pride or enthusiasm for his architectural achievements and displaying a guarded detachment that forces Ross to probe into the source of his unease. When Ross learns about Martin’s affair with Sylvia, a goat, the play switches into a heightened emotional mode that the actors are most comfortable in. Mitchell’s combination of disgust and disbelief is spot on, while Sandys begins to show the tortured, conflicted soul of Martin’s character. And when Ross sends Stevie a letter detailing Martin’s affair, their lives are shattered beyond repair. All three of the mentioned plays have these breaking points, but they are never the climax of the play: Martha mentions their son, A/B/C disowns her son for being gay, and Ross sends Stevie the letter. After the breaking, the characters are vulnerable enough that Albee can strip them down and reveal their deepest wants and fears.

Annabel Armour shows remarkable depth as she navigates Stevie’s breakdown, portraying a woman whose defenses are slowly worn away as she realizes she isn’t strong enough to hold her marriage together. She finds herself in a situation she could never conceive, her husband now a sexually deviant stranger. Armour and Sandys find the show’s rhythm in the chaotic second scene, one of the best in contemporary theater, spanning the entire emotional spectrum and sparking intense, intellectual debate about sexuality, marriage, and love. Albee takes the extramarital affair to its extreme, and the characters’ honest, painful reactions resonate even stronger in the absurd circumstances. Armour’s deterioration is heartbreaking, recalling her marriage’s joyous past in the context of its sordid present, and lashing out violently as Martin elaborates on the history of his relationship with Sylvia.

Upturning furniture and smashing pottery, Stevie turns the living room into a physical representation of her marriage, as each new revelation from Martin is another dagger in her side. Going back to the music metaphor, when the characters have the melody, during those big moments when everyone is at a forte, the James Bohnen directed Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. production achieves greatness. Stevie has a series of powerful monologues that Armour performs flawlessly, culminating in a series of screams that will give audience members goosebumps. The main conflict succeeds because Martin truly loves both his wife and Sylvia, and Sandys is completely believable in his affections. He performs his monologues with conviction and truth, and it’s easy to see how Stevie could fall in love with such a passionate man. And then you realize he’s talking about sex with a goat.

After Stevie and Martin duke it out, their seventeen year old son Billy (Will Allan) suffers a breakdown of his own, as his parents’ collapsing marriage coincides with his own sexual crisis. There’s a tension in Allen’s physicality that may be a character choice, but is ultimately a distracting one as he occasionally appears uncomfortable and stiff. In light of his father’s attitude toward his homosexuality, Billy reacts to his father’s affair with an appropriate mix of fury and repulsion, but the disturbing shift in Billy and Martin’s relationship is natural because of Sandys and Allen’s chemistry. When Ross returns, Mitchell enters at a lower emotional level than his costars, but he is able to reach their level of intensity by the time Stevie reenters. The play’s final moments build to a stunning release of emotion, and the actors hit all the right notes for the tragic end. As the 100-minute long demolition of a family concludes, the audience is left with a slew of questions regarding the nature of human sexuality, which may be the best part of an Albee play. Long after the production has ended, it’s themes resonate and resurface when we least expect them, because of the powerful experience within the theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Martin (Nick Sandys) comforts son Billy (Will Allan) in a moment of turmoil while family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) looks on.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? continues through May 8th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, with performances Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30-$45, and can be purchased online, or by calling 773-404-7336. For more info, go to www.remybumppo.org.

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REVIEW: Bordello (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Superbly cast and acted, ‘Bordello’ exposes a claustrophobic world

  
 

Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris - in 'Bordello' at Chicago Dramatists.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
  
Bordello
  
Written by Aline Lathrop
Directed by
Meghan Beals McCarthy
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If prostitution is performance, then Aline Lathrop’s world premiere play, Bordello, at Chicago Dramatists gives audiences a backstage pass to the reality of sex workers at a legal Nevada brothel. Director Meghan Beals McCarthy drives Lathrop’s intricate, tightly woven script forward with beautifully humanized performances from a taut all-woman ensemble. The show opens with the women lined up to present their hooker aliases during the bordello’s yearly “customer appreciation night.” But what happens in the front of the house stands in sharp contrast to the stark reality these women reveal in the break room, where they unglamorously dress down in t-shirts, sports bras, exercise pants and bathrobes.

A scene from 'Bordello' by Aline Lathrop, playing at Chicago Dramatists.Far from being a source of titillation, Bordello is a study in claustrophobia. Each character’s individual circumstances restrict her as surely as the bordello’s bizarrely regulated sex work environment. Indeed, the women call their workplace “Pussy Penitentiary.” No phone calls allowed from Thursday through Saturday. No privacy in their rooms since locks on the doors are forbidden. Every room is bugged. Of what they earn, 50% goes to the house; 20% goes to transportation if the johns take a cab all the way from Vegas. Even though they live at the bordello and pay its overhead, meals are $7. Further restricting their liberty is the fact that so many work for a pimp outside the brothel. Indeed, “Who’s your pimp?” becomes the first question asked of a new inmate. Finally, there’s the bell that summons the women to the line-up like a cattle call.

Like all good prison dramas, once it’s been established how thoroughly the characters are controlled, how they attempt to control and upstage each other becomes the central dynamic. Sisterhood isn’t terribly powerful in Lathrop’s drama—an extremely depressing thought, considering all the other conditions the women endure. But Lathrop’s dialogue is tough, fast-paced, and humorous as well as cutting. As much as the characters jealously defend their place in the bordello’s hierarchy—particularly with regard to Andy, the owner–they also exhibit tremendous vulnerability and capacity for nurturing in the middle of a dog-eat-dog environment.

It would be difficult to find more well cast production. Joanne Dubach plays Kitten for all the heartbreak the role has in store, turned out by her pimp Jimmy at 11, now struggling to find her way at the bordello at 18. Katherine Keberlin plays Jewell, the bordello’s porn star celebrity, with tough and glorious panache. Dana Black’s rendering of Mandy seals her problem child attitude with spontaneous vulnerability. Her relationship with the sharp and sassy Lotus (Melissa Canciller) is an inspired choice. Ariana Dziedzic strikes the right note of desperate and exploited co-dependency as Michelle. Kyra Morris’ Godiva, an Iraq War veteran, is rendered with fierce assurance and nuanced cracks in her otherwise strong facade. Honey (Marguerite Hammersley) warmly and sensually rounds out the cast as the older working girl of the bunch.

If there is any criticism to be made, it’s the way the playwright structures a mystery she’s planted within the plotline. At one point, razor blades are discovered in one prostitute’s bar of soap and the break room becomes tense over who among the women planted them there. But it’s a mystery that becomes lost in the interplay of the women’s lives. By the time the real culprit is revealed in the second act, the discovery lacks impact and the play’s ending cuts short of any time to consider its ramifications for the characters involved. A little editing to build foreshadowing and suspense would make for a more united, cohesive and compelling drama.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bordello at Chicago Dramatists - legs

 

Aritists:

CAST: Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Chicago Dramatists Associate Artist Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris

PRODUCTION: Set Design by Marianna Csaszar, Sound Design by Victoria DeIorio, Costume Design by Christine Pascual, Lighting Design by Jeff Pines, and Props Design by Jenniffer J. Thusing.

  
  

REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)

   
   

A heartfelt lesson on facing the music

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
The Piano Teacher
 
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Next_Piano_Teacher_3 (2)

The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

  
  

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REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: Low Down Dirty Blues (Northlight Theatre)

Cheer up with some low down blues

 Low Down Dirty Blues018

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Low Down Dirty Blues
   
Created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman
Directed by
Randal Myler
Music direction by
Dan Wheetman
through July 3rd  | 
tickets: $39-$54  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘How can I be over the hill if I never made it to the top?’ Life musings are chatted and sang about afterhours at a Chicago South Side nightclub… interestingly, it’s a Saturday afternoon in Skokie. Northlight Theatre presents the world premiere of Low Down Dirty Blues at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Created and directed by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Low Down Dirty Blues is a show  Gergory (2940) vfeaturing a collection of blues songs intermingled with life stories from the singers. Big Mama’s, a fictional nighttime hotspot, has been created onstage with the authentic look that transports the audience from northern suburbs to the urban South Side.

Low Down Dirty Blues is a tribute to a passing musical genre. The performers sing the blues about singing the blues. Originating in the 1920’s, blues songs were a voice for the African American culture during an oppressive time. Over the decades, the musical stylings have been glamorized and made famous by Chicago. Without the severity of segregation and discrimination conditions, the blues have become more playful – no matter what the political or social climate is, men and women will always be trying to get their mojo working. Low Down… is an evening of sultry, sexy fun that makes you ‘Shake Your Money Maker.’

‘My Stove’s in Good Condition” is one of many song titles that would appear mundane. But the way Felicia P. Fields sings about cleaning her range, puts household appliances on the aphrodisiac list. The sexual innuendos are belted out with soul and sass. Fields uses her powerful voice to warn men ‘Don’t Jump My Pony’ if you don’t know how to ride. She’s hilarious! In the very familiar ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ Fields transitions from her bawdy self to melancholy with sweet sadness. The songs are relationship advice with good natured wisdom interspersed with memories of bad times. The charming Mississippi Charles Bevel sings mischievously about where to put his jelly and later poignantly about ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Gregory Porter shares personal despair singing ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ as the target of female angst. Later, his rendition of ‘Change is Gonna Come’ is gospel-quality inspirational. Leading the magnificent singing quartet, Sandra Reaves-Phillips IS Big Mama. Playing an aged singer and nightclub owner, Reaves-Phillips holds court perched on a pile of pillows. From ‘They Call Me Big Mama’ to ‘Lord, I Tried’, Reaves-Phillips has the legendary blues voice. It’s deep and rich with crackly hints of a smoky lifestyle. Throughout the show, Reaves-Phillips makes side comments, slaps her ass and drinks from a flask. She is pure Blues Club Diva!

 

Gregory, Mississippi (front) h Felicia P. Fields, v

Under the musical direction of Dan Wheetman, the singing is sensational. Under the direction of Randal Myler, the performers share personal strife glimpses between songs. A lesson in blues history is mingled in with humor. There is a great joke about a Chicago’s tourist definition of blues. For a genre established in segregation, these blues aren’t your grandma’s depression. Low Down Dirty Blues is high up sexy fun!

SIDEBAR: Two trains, two busses, an hour commute to get to Skokie to hear Chicago Blues. It’s ironic and sad. I live a ten minute cab ride from Kingston Mines. Low Down Dirty Blues reminded me how much I enjoy this type of music. If I don’t start going to blues clubs again, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

   Low Down Dirty Blues013

Running Time: Eighty minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

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Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

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Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

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Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

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