REVIEW: A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

History and make-believe, perilously intermixed, lack focus

     
     

Felicia P. Fields with the cast of A Civil War Christmas

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
A Civil War Christmas
   
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by
Henry Godinez
at
Northshore Center for Performing Arts (map)
Through Dec 19  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Paula Vogel is a playwright who divides in order to conquer: Her plays depict our socio/political/sexual differences, only to connect us to a larger linkage. How I Learned To Drive, Desdemona, The Baltimore Waltz and And Then There Were Seven scrutinized, respectively, incest, miscegenation, AIDS and same-sex love to put them in a context that discourages kneejerk repudiation and warrants something like understanding bordering on tolerance (well, not for child sex abuse, of course).

001_Khori Faison and Mildred Marie LangfordSet in the grim, war-torn winter of 1864 and on the supposedly special night of Christmas Eve, Vogel’s latest work in progress, now at Northlight Theatre, recalls Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as it depicts a fugitive slave searching the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. for the daughter from whom she was separated after her arrival on the Underground Railroad. In ironic contrast, a mood-swinging Mary Todd Lincoln is on her own search—for the perfect Christmas tree to ensure domestic tranquility.

Since Vogel’s plays separate only in order to reconnect, their paths are bound to connect and connect and connect. Vogel contrives to create at least two non-factual Christmas miracles before these busy 150 minutes finally end. Before then she opens a time capsule that’s both absorbingly actual and problematically imagined. The result is a cross-section of life in wartime Washington that’s enriched immeasurably by carols like Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells” and “What Child Is This?,” spirituals like “There Is A Balm in Gilead” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a guide for escaping slaves), and Civil War anthems (“While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “The Liberty Ball”).

Between the songs the often cluttered action depicts both sides of a dangerously divided capital circa December 24, 1864. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab) and his clumsy conspirators try to kidnap Lincoln. Lincoln (Will Clinger) improbably wanders off in the middle of the night to his Summer Cottage, reciting deathless phrases from his upcoming inaugural address and briefly glimpsing the lost former slave girl. Manic, extravagant, and driven, Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano) manages to find her rare fir tree, which should have gone to the orphan home run by her African American seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), to socialize at a Washington charity event, to chat with Anna Surratt (who’s related to one of her husband’s future murderers), and to visit a dying boy in a soldiers’ hospital. (Maybe there were three Mary Todd Lincolns wandering Washington on this holy night.)

Less well known characters mix with the historical. Willy Mack (Samuel Robertson), who remembers how the Rebels slaughtered the black soldiers at Fort Pillow after they’d peacefully surrendered, vows to take no prisoners: Will he kill a 13-year-old Southern farm boy who wants to fight for Moseby’s Raiders but got lost? Two black soldiers are delegated to steal the much-moving Christmas tree from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t the White House for another half century) and surprisingly succeed. Jewish soldiers hold a seder.

On this busy night we also catch name-dropping glimpses of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s advisor and former law clerk Nikolai, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton , Clara Barton (bringing in the wounded by ship), conspirators Lewis Payne and John Surratt, Elizabeth Thomas (who founded a shelter for wartime refugees), Longfellow, the ghost of Elizabeth’s murdered son, and Walt Whitman (dressing soldiers’ wounds and doubling as St. Nicholas).

In short, A Civil War Christmas lives up to its generic name with awesome specificity, not that the revelations it delivers can be entirely trusted. In the second act the overlapping and sprawling scenes become overcharged as well: The script, bent on at least two happy endings and as many messages of hope, slowly sprouts more contrived coincidences than Dickens would have dared. At least Ragtime, which this show most closely resembles, restricted its mix of historical and imaginary characters to four easily followed and separate-but-equal plotlines, eventuating in a believable but very different family from the traditional one seen at the musical’s beginning.

Director Henry Godinez and a superb cast of Chicago pros and young acolytes work like plow horses to shape and sort out this A.D.D. plethora of multiple narratives and messages. But it still helps if you’re a Civil War buff specializing in the winter of 1864. The point beyond the plots is a strong one. As Vogel says, in 2010 as well as 146 years ago, community values count just as much or more than family values. But if manufacturing feel-good resolutions and ignoring the horrible context of a fratricidal national insurrection is the way to preach that gospel, I’m not a believer. But the ballads, like the exquisite “Yellow Rose of Texas,” are glorious stuff. This show sings far more powerfully and persuasively than it speaks.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

003_Cast of A Civil War Christmas

  
  

REVIEW: Doctor’s Dilemma (ShawChicago)

A timeless treatise on today’s healthcare debate?

 

doctors-dilemma

 
ShawChicago presents
 
Doctor’s Dilemma
 
Written by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Robert Scogin
DCA Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington (map)
thru May 10th  |  tickets: $10-$22  | more info 

By Katy Walsh

Who to save? If allotted only enough serum to cure one patient, how to choose who is worthy of it? ShawChicago, in conjunction with DCA Studio Theatre in the Cultural Center, presents Doctor’s Dilemma. Illustrating a lifelong disdain for the healing profession, George Bernard Shaw pens a comedy about doctors debating the sanctity of healthcare for a price. Under the enchantment of a pretty lady, four doctors struggle with the decision to save her charming husband or their bumbling colleague.

shawportrait Although Shaw first produced the play in 1906, his viewpoints are still prevalent one hundred years later. Economics still influences healthcare in adequate coverage for the poor and research interests of the wealthy. Doctor’s Dilemma illustrates the timeless issues of healthcare and arrogant doctors; ShawChicago injects a talented cast. The result is a robust tonic sure to cure any ailment.

In the ShawChicago tradition, the show is a public reading. No costumes. No scenery. It’s just Shaw, Scogin and the ensemble. Under the direction of Robert Scogin, the entire cast adds their own version of razzle-dazzle. The doctors are a variety of superior condescension. Jack Hickey (Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington) is hilarious as the know-it-all physician with one basic prescription, “stimulate the phagocytes.” Hickey is riotous rambling his lunatic theories then stopping abruptly to utter “I’ve lost the thread of my conversation.” Will Clinger (Cutler Walpole) is in turn outrageous with his repeated diagnosis of ‘blood poisoning’ and his declaration that he is, “not a doctor. I’m a surgeon.” Skip Lundby (Sir Patrick Cullen) is the delightful retired doctor who starts an argument with, “when you’ve killed as many people as I have…” Matt Pen (Sir Colenso Ridgeon) is the smug bachelor with the God complex. The patient is Christian Gray (Louis Dubedat). Gray is the fast-talking scoundrel and the arrogant match for the doctors. In his immorality justification, Gray argues that lawyers threaten prison, parsons threaten damnation and doctors threaten death. Gray is deliciously unapologetic for his rogue ways. Barbara Zahora (Jennifer Dubedat) is the loyal wife and object of the doctors’ affections as she pleads for healthcare for her husband. In smaller roles but with superior accents, Mary Michell (Emmy) and Kaelan Strouse (Newspaper Man/Mr. Darby) are outstanding.

Sixteen years ago, ShawChicago started its artistic initiative with Doctor’s Dilemma in the DCA Studio Theatre in the Cultural Center. Back then, it was Clinton and healthcare. Now, it’s Obama and healthcare. But then and now and since 1906, Doctor’s Dilemma is a Shaw timeless classic.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Extra Credit:

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

Continue reading

REVIEW: Noises Off (Theatre at the Center)

You gotta have heart

 

noisesoff2

Theatre at the Center presents:

Noises Off

by Michael Frayn
directed by
William Pullinsi
Theatre at the Center, Munster
through March 21st (more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, is one of the most popular farces of all time, concerning a traveling play whose actor’s backstage antics are so outrageous that they can’t get through a performance without a totally zany mishap. It is a regional theatre favorite because of its light-as-a-feather demeanor and broad appeal, and audiences love the wacky English humor. Theatre at the Center’s production, directed by Artistic Director William Pullinsi, hits all noisesoff1the right marks in this fast-paced, technically demanding play, but loses a little heart amidst the hubbub on stage.

It’s a show that relies on physical props: phones ringing, opening and closing doors, putting props in exactly the right place every time, and it’s a pleasure to marvel at the athleticism of the actors when they pull it off. Just hitting those marks consistently is amazing work, and Pullinsi’s staging is masterfully organized and effective.

The humanity in these performances, however, is lacking. Everything in this show is done correctly, but sitting in the audience I barely cracked a smile. Too much focus has been placed on the technical proficiency here, and not enough as been paid to acting. During the crazy second act – the funniest, wildest scene in the show – there are times when one can’t even tell actors Jeff Cummings and Clay Sanderson apart because their relationships and characters are so muddled. The women had an easier time of distinguishing themselves. Laura E. Taylor and Anna Hammonds are both charming as rival love interests for the hotshot director played by hit-or-miss Will Clinger. But if one is to choose the show’s standout performance, it is no doubt the stage manager, Rebecca Green, whose role job includes calling sound and light cues, props placement and basically running the entire show.

One crew member who is sorely missed in this production is a dialect coach. The English dialects are awful across the board in this show, to the point that they are distracting and embarrassing. The life of noisesoff3an English accent in this play is more exciting than the life of any of the characters: it travels across the world and becomes a New York accent, and then Dutch, and then maybe a little Italian and then it falls off completely, only to return when you least expect it. These are extremely competent actors, with a list of Jeff awards and nominations among them, and yet, not one of them makes it through this show without sounding like they have marbles in their mouth at one point or another.

The adept physicality of the ensemble is notable, and director William Pullinsi knows exactly what what Noises Off should look like. It’s a great show for children and theatre newbies because it lays out, in an entertaining manner, just what a play should look like.  But the more seasoned theatre-goer might want to stay clear of this production. Hey, you gotta have heart, even in the silliest of farces.

 

Rating: ★★

 

EXTRA-CREDIT: Check out pics from the opening night reception. Looks like they’re having a well-deserved good time.

Continue reading

Review: “Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living”

 Strong Acting Brings Out the Comedy in this One-Man Show

dr_harlon1

ComedyChicago presents:

Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living

Performed and written by Will Clinger
directed by Kevin Theis
thru December 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

It is in the most desperate of times that we become desperate for our search for happiness. In these cloudy days of economic gloom, war and reality television, many cling to religion or spirituality as a guide to a better tomorrow. The title character in Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living considers himself a sort of shaman, leading the audience on a supposed path to self-fulfillment. In reality, the doctor is much more of a sham than a shaman, and his advice—played out vicariously through characters—is more of a sure-fire path to self-destruction than fulfillment. All this irony, and a very committed actor, makes this one-man show an entertaining spectacle.

dr_harlon3 The brains behind the play is Will Clinger, a veteran of the Chicago stage and screen. He is probably most known for his work as host of WILD CHICAGO, a long-running television show that aired on WTTW.

The play begins with Clinger donning the role of the over-enthusiastic self-help guru Dr. Harlon. Jokes fly fast as the doctor accidentally steps out of the spotlight and receives a call from his good friend David Hasselhoff. Meanwhile a video screen enhances the downstage action, displaying visuals that graphically depict the doctor’s terrible advice, advice that includes such nuggets as the importance of assimilation and suppressing the negative attributes of one’s personality.

After the first scene with the doctor, we never actually see the character again. Yet his advice periodically appears on the screen, serving as transitions from one vignette to the next. These vignettes showcase a variety of followers of Dr. Harlon’s advice. The motley cast of characters includes a father who will go to great lengths to get the perfect Christmas photo of his infant son, an American wine connoisseur dishing about his trip to rural France and a lounge performer who teeters between manic highs and depressing lows.

Clinger’s commitment to the characters represents a skilled comedic actor. Although his range might be narrower than other performers—some of his characters seemed to be slightly altered clones of each other—he does a convincing job of breathing life into each personality, providing them with unique points of view. And with only a matter of seconds between one scene and the next, Clinger pulls off quite the transformative feat.

dr_harlon4 The writing too is worthy of praise, though this praise is tempered by a couple glaring flaws. The play begins with a steady stream of humor with Clinger portraying Dr. Harlon, and there are some big laughs to be had at the wine connoisseur character who delivers a monologue reminiscent of David Sedaris at his best. But there are parts that drag, where the jokes are too dispersed to hold up the scene. There are also a couple of vignettes whose endings undermine the entire scene, particularly one featuring a hack talent agent who’s rehashing days gone by. I won’t give away the scene’s ending, but basically it is an unnecessary cliché that devalues an otherwise rich character.

Director Kevin Theis should be commended for setting vivid scenes when the only props available are a chair, a screen and Clinger. Still images of a landscape with subtle sounds of birds chirping and a frame of a cocktail party accompanied by murmurs and glass clinks help provide vivid, yet minimalist, environments for Clinger’s characters to live in.

Overall, Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living is a comical portrayal of self-destructive self-help. At times the writing falls a little flat, but Clinger knows how to pick up the mood and get the play back on track.

 

Rating: ★★★

dr_harlon2

Continue reading