Thursday, November 23, 2017

Letts’ Look at Ourselves: Taking Its Time to Percolate, Steppenwolf's ‘The Minutes’ Stings With Sly Brilliance — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Minutes
a world premiere play
by Tracy Letts
directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 7

If we accept that Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret for decades in Hollywood, why didn’t anybody say something sooner?

Clearly, given reports of the producer’s elaborate efforts to quash damning allegations, many—including women directly victimized by him—undoubtedly felt threatened to remain silent, and perhaps were coerced and/or compensated to do so.

Others likely felt that they lacked sufficient evidence or realistic channels to report Weinstein’s alleged sexual—and serial—misdeeds. Remember, for much of his reign of terror, alerting the world via Twitter or Facebook wasn't an option.

But as per screenwriter Scott Rosenberg’s screed alleging that “everybody f'ing knew” but—himself included—did nothing, many, many people kept mum out of self-interest.

Although it's repulsive that Weinstein--and now many others of his ilk--got away with what he did for so long even as a wide range of people were seemingly aware, this isn’t meant as condemnation, at least when considered on an individual level.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Let's say you're aware of repeated and believable insinuations that the president of your company is harassing, even abusing women, or embezzling money, or discriminating against minorities, or otherwise engaging in criminal practices.

What would you do? Or I?

Not theoretically but literally.

Especially if it meant, in all likelihood, that you would be disbelieved and threatened, perhaps even harmed. Or fired. Or even if not, that as a result your company would collapse and 1,000 people, including close friends of yours, would be out of work and unable to feed their families or have health insurance. Or that you would be terribly jeopardizing your own family's well-being.

As much as I would want to, I can't say I would open my mouth. 

Which isn't what Tracy Letts' latest play, The Minutes--now in a Steppenwolf world premiere under the direction of Anna Shapiro--is an acute sense.

It was obviously written well before the allegations about Mrssrs. Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, et. al, became public. Though given that Letts has appeared in many TV shows & films--including significantly in the current Lady Bird--and is married to an increasingly popular actress (Carrie Coon), the decades of whispers had likely reached his savvy ears.

On the surface, The Minutes is a 100-minute one-act comedy that chronicles the often farcical proceedings of the city council in fictional Big Cherry, a small town anywhere in the United States.

And with this show already slated to hit Broadway next year, much of the fun at Steppenwolf--for much of the show--is simply in watching several ensemble stalwarts and other wonderful actors verbally spar in the guise of their quirky, mostly oddly-named characters.

Within an astonishing set designed by David Zinn.

William Petersen of CSI fame is Mayor Superba, who feels like a venal, power-hungry figurehead--though far from Trumpian levels--as he runs the meeting with effrontery veiled as efficiency.

The always wonderful Francis Guinan (Mr. Oldfield), Penny Slusher (Ms. Innes) and Sally Murphy (Ms. Matz) provide comic relief as they bicker about parking spaces and struggle to remain awake and focused on the matters at hand.

It's great to see Kevin Anderson (Mr. Breeding) back on a Steppenwolf stage, as with Ian Barford (Mr. Carp) and James Vincent Meredith (Mr. Blake), the latter of whom offers a particularly wacky suggestion for a new attraction at the town's annual Heritage Festival.

The council's sense of shady ineptitude is abetted by Mr. Assalone (well-played by Jeff Still)--who repeatedly reminds the clerk Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch) that the "e" at the end of his name isn't silent--while as Mr. Hanratty, Danny McCarthy brings a great sense of hyperkinetic unease.

Driving much of the play's narrative is Mr. Peel (a stellar Cliff Chamberlain), a new-to-town dentist and alderman who had missed the previous council meeting due to a family emergency and returns vaguely aware of happenings no one seems eager to divulge.

Per the play's title, the meeting minutes taken by clerk Johnson play a part in the mystery.

There is also an amusing enactment of a crucial moment in the town's history, gleeful for those familiar with the playwright's propensity for going "over the top."

Yet despite shrewd political satire that provides much laughter across many minutes of The Minutes, the play doesn't feel like a Letts' masterwork--he won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf, and I thought last year's Mary Page Marlowe was even better--until slyly, but quite profoundly, it does.

Theatrically, what unfolds demands that I be circumspect about specifics.

But given that it's a story as old as time, let's just say that people of a certain persuasion have mistreated and maligned those they perceive as unlike them, demanding--for individual and communal self-interest--the conformity and complicity to which I allude above.

I won't tell you more but will share that in a post-show discussion, Shirley Jackson's masterful short story "The Lottery" and William Holding's novel, Lord of the Flies, were cited as among Letts' inspirations, both thematically revolving around "going along with the crowd."

Just as much however, The Minutes made me think of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, in which a key character made a poor choice with deadly consequences, yet defends it by saying--not inaccurately--that his actions were financially essential for his family and also those of hundreds of men who worked for him.

Like in All My Sons, the brilliance of The Minutes comes not so much from what we see happen onstage--though much of it winds up being quite inspired--but due to the central question it asks not just of its characters but of ourselves:

What would we do? Not just theoretically, or in posting PC sentiments on social media, but if it meant true sacrifice or even hardship or danger.  

Minutes to ask; our entire shared history to ponder.

Monday, November 20, 2017

To See or Not to See: Either Way, Lauren Gunderson's 'The Book of Will' Makes One Glad Shakespeare's Plays Continue To Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru December 17

In an acute sense, I am far from the world's biggest Shakespeare fan.

Quite honestly, I often have trouble following--and/or staying focused on--his plays, due to the poetic language, Elizabethan tongue, elaborate plots and multitude of characters, though I mean this far more as self-indictment than criticism.

I have seen several of Sir William's plays, and feel it quite valuable, even vital, to have done so, but my enjoyment typically tends to be academically appreciative rather then emotionally embracing. (This might be heresy to staunch Shakespeareans, but I've found modern-dress productions have considerably aided my grasp.)

Still, given how much I love writing, the poetic, playwriting and theater arts, creativity of all kinds and everything William Shakespeare's plays have directly and indirectly influenced--and, despite the above, I very much concur with his esteem, exaltation and importance--it's hard to imagine the world, and my life, if Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and most other of his masterworks had been lost to history shortly after Will's death in 1616 (at just 52).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
As deeply ingrained as Shakespeare is in our consciousness as a genius, genre and gestalt--or should be; I recently had a debate with someone about the Bard's contemporary scholastic relevance or lack thereof--this hardly sounds plausible.

Or a bit like saying, what if air and water didn't exist?

But the truth seems to be--and the new play, The Book of Will, is based largely on real events--that until the First Folio was published in 1623, only some of Shakespeare's plays had ever been printed, most with the text largely incomplete or inaccurate.

Directed at Northlight by Jessica Thebus, The Book of Will is written by Lauren Gunderson, who at the age of 35 stands as today's most produced playwright in America not named William Shakespeare. (I'm sorry to have missed Gunderson's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley last year at Northlight; it recently earned a Jeff Award for Best New Play.)

Clearly based on detailed historical research as well as considerable imagination, the inventive play chronicles the efforts of Shakespeare's comrades in the King's Men acting troupe and key associates--including wives, daughters, printers and a scrivener--to compile haphazard iterations of his works into a qualitative collection titled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, which modern scholars refer to as the First Folio.

As the play begins, three of the King's Men--Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor), Henry Condell (Gregory Linington) and John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb), all terrifically personified--bemoan a theater troupe's butchering of Hamlet as they know it, due to the reliance on pirated text such as that spuriously recorded in the "bad quarto."

At this point, it should be pretty clear where this leads, and fine characterizations of Heminges' daughter Alice (Dana Black; the role itself is something of a fictionalized composite), wife Rebecca (Rengin Altay) and Cordell's wife Elizabeth (McKinley Carter, fresh from Victory Gardens' excellent production of Fun Home), allow for The Book of Will to explore personal matters providing some breadth beyond the fortuitous discovery of working scripts, search for a suitable printer and repeated concerns about financial shortages.

Yet I found a familial tragedy that occupies a sizable portion of Act Two to be a bit too far beyond the parameters of Act One's narrative for it to fit in smoothly, and the play's last 10 minutes added unnecessary pathos past what should have been a perfectly apt ending.

While I was happy to learn about the preserving of Shakespeare's plays for history, and several of those pivotal to this--including scrivener turned editor Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox), father & son printers William & Isaac Jaggard (Austin Tichenor & Luigi Sottile) and fellow writer Ben Jonson (William Dick)--The Book of Will seems to be missing something.

Partly this is intangible, as despite a beguiling premise there just wasn't enough to make me care deeply across 2+ hours--or afterwards--beyond the core facts.

Click to enlarge
But conceivably, I also would have liked for Sir William himself to figure into this play.

Yes, The Book of Will takes place after Shakespeare's death, and Gunderson is clearly a shrewd enough writer to have considered or tried various possibilities, so maybe this really wouldn't work.

But as this is a play "about Shakespeare" and there are multiple scenes involving the King's Men drinking--within an attractive set by Richard & Jacqueline Pernod--perhaps in a flashback or hallucination the Bard could join his buddies at the bar, allowing the audience to get a better sense of Sir Will beyond the classroom factoids.

An illuminating lobby display shares "10 Things You Didn't Know About William Shakespeare," and much as The Book of Will is enlightening in revealing a reality of which I was clueless, I can't help but imagine that a characterization of Shakespeare might also have elucidated richly.

Who knows? I expect audiences should sufficiently enjoy The Book of Will, especially individuals with a proclivity toward Shakespeare and his legend.

But other than some briefly--but rather nicely, particularly by Tichenor as Burbage--recited passages from Hamlet and other works, there isn't a whole lot of or about Shakespeare in this play.

Certainly it does a nice job of celebrating those who ensured his work, and legacy, would be passed on--one hopes--forever.

On that level alone--and to make one ponder, "Are other preternaturally brilliant souls history has completely forgotten?"--it's worthwhile.

But as you like it, you may not quite love it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Perfectly Wilde: At Writers Theatre, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Is Frankly Rather Wonderful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
directed by Michael Halberstam
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 23

Dating back decades, I've been a big fan of the legendary Irish writer, Oscar Wilde.

Even more than other great quotesmiths--Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers, Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali, etc.--Wilde is my favorite for wonderful witticisms. (He purportedly never actually said "I have nothing to declare except my genius," upon passing through U.S. Customs in 1882, but I love the line anyway.)

Among my multiple visits to London--where the scribe spent his prime writing years--a standout memory is an Oscar Wilde tour from London Walks on which the tour guide (Richard Walker) dresses as the debonair raconteur while leading a walk on the Wilde side.

But while I've known the conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray since childhood--when I saw the 1945 film--I've never actually read Wilde's sole novel.

And though, going back a dozen years or so, I did see and enjoy three of Wilde's plays--Salome, Lady Windemere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest--I'd be lying to suggest the specifics had stuck in my memory.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So the truth is that I've regarded Oscar Wilde as one of my favorite writers without really knowing--at least in a present tense--much of his writing.

And while I was excited to see Writers Theatre's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I was a bit worried I might find it too dense, dated, Victorian and hard to decipher & digest given all the British accents.

But as directed by Writers' longtime artistic director Michael Halberstam--with some atypical touches well-explained in the program--it was absolutely delightful from beginning to end.

Thereby serving to justify my perceived penchant for Wilde, whose gift for wit and wordplay is brilliantly on display in lines such as "The very essence of romance is uncertainty."

Although Earnest is a fantastically comedic affair, in which Wilde skewers Victorian society in ways that very much still resonate, I would be remiss not to note the tragic turn of events that accompanied the play's 1895 premiere at London's St. James's Theatre.

At a time when homosexuality was an imprisonable crime in England--where it would remain so until 1967--Wilde, who was married with two kids, maintained a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, cordially known as Bosie.

Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had planned to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables at Wilde when he took his bow at the end of the show.

The writer was able to have Queensberry barred from the premiere, but upon ongoing harassment--including being called a sodomite--Wilde filed libel charges, which backfired terribly.

Queensberry was found not guilty; Oscar and Bosie were immediately put on trial and declared guilty of gross indecency. Upon being sentenced, Douglas went into exile while Wilde served two years of hard labor.

Inarguably weakened, he would die just three years after his 1897 release, at the age of 46. (Several years ago, I saw David Hare's fine play The Judas Kiss regarding the events above, as well as a musical, A Man of No Importance, which incorporates Wilde's clandestine homosexuality.)

Though he would write the long poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, during his incarceration, The Importance of Being Earnest was Oscar Wilde's last major work.

And though one can certainly enjoy the play--especially an exquisite rendition such as now at Writers Theatre--without knowledge of real-life events, the sad reality was never far from my mind (not that it diminished the face value pleasure).

As the play opens, a man ostensibly named Ernest (Alex Goodrich, great here as he's been in musical roles at Marriott Theatre) visits his caddish pal, Algernon (an excellent Steve Haggard).

Both men soon reveal perpetuating  falsehoods, with Ernest really named Jack--and utilizing both alter egos--and Algernon pretending to have an invalid friend named Bunbury whom he can opportunistically claim to visit.

This gave rise to the term "bunburying" to denote maintaining the pretense of being somebody else--or visiting someone who doesn't exist--often to enable engaging in behavior that could damage one's reputation.

Especially with notes in Writers' thorough show program sharing that early drafts of The Importance of Being Earnest had Algernon named Lord Alfred, it's not hard to see how Wilde's fictional comedy contains slyly autobiographical elements.

At least overtly, in the play Ernest and Algernon aren't drawn to each other, but rather pursue--with some degree of duplicity--two beautiful young women, Gwendolyn (Jennifer Latimore) and Cecily (Rebecca Hurd), with both actresses being terrifically engaging.

Lady Bracknall (Shannon Cochran, first-rate in a role in which a man is often cast, per the program), who is Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt, represents a rather snobbish and totalitarian obstacle that must be overcome.

I won't reveal any more details about Wilde's convoluted narrative--which feels a bit like a high-brow episode of Three's Company (itself a 40-year-old reference)--as laughing out loud as the farcical escapades unfold is much of the fun.

But I admittedly found it beneficial to have perused the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before attending, as some of the chicanery may be a bit hard to follow.

Also contributing several LOL moments is local theater legend Ross Lehman in playing two separate servants, one rather soused.

Anita Chandwaney (as Miss Primm) and Aaron Todd Douglas (Reverend Canon Chasuble) round out the stellar cast.

Though there is a whole lot going on in The Importance of Being Earnest in terms of surface-level deceit and between-the-lines social commentary, watching it--in the Nichols Theatre within Writers' stunning complex--was never arduous.

I often have some trouble catching jokes, smoothly following accented speech or staying focused on period pieces, and that this rendition felt completely accessible bespeaks the wonders of Wilde's script, the talent of the performers--who at times seemed close to cracking each other up--and the skillfulness of Halberstam's direction.

Along with the "long-time pattern of casting men in the role of the formidable Lady Bracknell," Halberstam's program notes indicate that "Cecily and Gwendolyn and Jack and Algernon are frequently played as almost interchangeable in type."

But as cast and embodied here, that clearly is not the case.

My recollection of a 2005 viewing of Earnest is far too scant to gauge just how much difference these choices made, but my sense is that the aptly named Writers Theatre really gets it right.

Not only is one in for a delightful night of hilarious theater, but the genius--and importance--of Oscar Wilde is acutely rendered in ways readily understood and appreciated.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parrotheads in Paradise? Lively 'Escape to Margaritaville' Should Delight Jimmy Buffett Fans — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Escape to Margaritaville 
a new musical featuring Jimmy Buffet songs
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 2

With due respect to his vast popularity over several decades, his legions of adoring fans known as Parrotheads, his seemingly quite genial personality and the truth that I've never delved too deeply into his music, let's just say that Jimmy Buffett has never been my cup of tequila.  

Despite attending well over 700 concerts by more than 300 different artists, I have never considered seeing him, even as he continues to fill arenas, amphitheaters and the occasional stadium--e.g. Wrigley Field, my favorite venue--at the age of 70.

I haven't particularly enjoyed my rare visits to the Cheeseburger in Paradise or Margaritaville restaurants & bars--named for Buffett's two best-known songs--and while I agree with his seeming philosophy that sometimes you just have to slow down and savor things, I haven't ever bought into his "way of life" brand.

Call me a killjoy, dweeb, whatever, but I'm happier spending hours in an art museum than a few minutes drinking on a tropical beach. Yet I honestly have no antipathy toward Buffett or his fans, just apathy.  

Still, excited to see any new musical, especially one heading to Broadway, I Spotifamiliarized myself with several Buffett songs incorporated into Escape to Margaritaville's World Premiere in San Diego earlier this year--the songlist seems to have changed a bit--and arrived at the ornate Oriental Theatre with an open mind.

And I genuinely enjoyed the show.

Not in an "OMG! It's the best thing I've ever seen" sort of way, or even a "I can't wait to see it again" sense, but though not brilliant theater, I found it to be rather well done.

And quite likable without thinking about it too deeply. 

Sure, its contrived storyline built around several tunes Buffett wrote or recorded is slight even compared to Mamma Mia standards.

So I can easily imagine those with even less affinity—or tolerance—for Buffett’s music and tropical paradise trappings not loving it simply as musical theater.

But let’s face it, it's--smartly given their loyalty and spending power--aimed at the proud Parrothead community.

And without insinuating that any of them couldn't also be discriminating about the fun but flimsy book by Greg Garcia & Mike O'Malley, I expect those who love Jimmy Buffett should largely love Escape to Margaritaville.

At the same time, non-converts like me should at least respect that Buffett knows how to write a catchy tune, and appreciate that Garcia/O'Malley, director Christopher Ashley--a Broadway pro who's helmed Memphis, Come From Away and more--choreographer Kelly Devine and an appealing cast have put together a sprightly, well-paced affair.

As with Mamma Mia--the ABBA musical to which Escape to Margaritaville is akin in using Buffett songs to tell an original story, not a biographical one--much of the conceivable fun for his fans should come from being surprised at how certain beloved songs fit into the narrative.

So while much of this pleasure escaped me sans inherent love for most of the tunes--and I was a bit clued in from reading about the La Jolla Playhouse production--I will be circumspect about details concerning the placement of certain songs, and even some foreshadowing references tied to them.

The show begins with a musician named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) pensively strumming and singing on a beach before leading an effusive chorus number reflecting his role as head entertainer of the Margaritaville Hotel & Bar, run by Marley (Rema Webb) on an unspecified tropical island.

Though the resort, at which Brick (Eric Petersen) is the bartender and Tully's best friend, is a bit ramshackle, guests arrive en masse, including a pair of women from Cincinnati, Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), ostensibly there for one last hurrah before the latter gets married to a doofus named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart).

Rachel is an environmental scientist intent on studying the energy-producing effects of volcanic soil, and per one of Buffett's other best-known songs, the island just happens to have a live "Volcano."

Leaving the specifics for you to uncover, lets just say that Tully and Rachel--who make for an attractive couple--and Brick and Tammy, a comedic one, eventually pair off and among the songs sung are "Ragtop Days," "Fins," "It's My Job," "Three Chords" and "Son of a Son of a Sailor."

Also on hand at "Margaritaville"--and yes, that classic is played, actually rather movingly--is a jocular old writer named J.D. (Don Sparks), who partakes of the kind of libations that make their way into many a Buffett tune.

I don't think it would ruin much element of surprise to know that he leads an audience singalong of "Why Don't We Get Drunk"..."and screw."

Along with a few sophomoric jokes, this is the most risque thing that happens in Escape to Margaritaville, which per the Buffett brand, always keeps things rather sunny. I also couldn't help but appreciate a heavy dose of goofy puns, most voiced by J.D.

While no one will mistake Act One of this show for Les Miserables, after intermission it feels like a mad dash to the tiki bar as narrative twists come fast & furious primarily for the purpose of working in relevant Buffett songs.

Most effective of these, in terms of theatrical exposition, is "He Went to Paris," which serves to tell a moving backstory about one of the characters.

Others you'll hear include "Cheeseburger in Paradise"--complete with actual cheeseburgers onstage--"Love and Luck," "Tin Cup Chalice," "Come Monday" and "One Particular Harbor."

Even with a couple additional songs after the fine cast takes their bows, Escape to Margaritaville clocks in well under 2-1/2 hours, so no one will wind up wastin' away for too long. 

As one would expect, Walt Spangler's set design and Paul Tazewell's costumes are festively colorful, and with deference to the talented team involved--including Buffett--this isn't a musical meant to make you ponder the meaning of life, more so just avoid it for a night.

Perhaps to varying degrees per one's pre-existing fondness for Jimmy Buffett, his music and worldview, just relax and enjoy Escape to Margaritaville.

Even if you might not be able to remember much of it in the morning.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Road to Anywhere: 'Bob: A Life in Five Acts' Heads in Interesting Directions, a Bit Too Chaotically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bob: A Life in Five Acts
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Will Quam & Derek Bertelsen
The Comrades
at Apollo Studio Theater, Chicago

In a 1923 discussion about Cubism, Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

My interpretation of this is that art—be it rendered through fractional figures, paintings of harlequins, wildly distorted faces, etc., or plays or stories or movies or music or dance or however else—typically doesn’t depict the precise realities of our everyday lives, yet it nonetheless reflects common experiences and universal truths in imaginatively representational ways.

Sometimes art can be rather realistically identifiable to our own existences, but practitioners with great inventiveness—e.g. Picasso—may wildly warp reality while still reflecting it, as challenging and confounding as this may be to some audiences.

Undoubtedly, there could be—and have been—far more straightforward ways to address the meaning of life and one's search for a sense of purpose & place than Peter Sinn's Nachtrieb's play, Bob: A Life of Five Acts, currently being staged in Chicago by The Comrades theater troupe. 

Photo credit on all: Cody Jolly
The current movie, Lady Bird, for example, chronicles a teenage girl's quest for love, friendship, individuality, acceptance, cultural passions, connection with her mother and venturing beyond the known in ways that don't seem particularly novel. 

Yet as written & directed by Greta Gerwig and acted in the lead role by Saoirse Ronan, it is tremendously compelling, poignant, powerful and probably the best American film of 2017. 

That the film’s characters feel just a tad more like artistic archetypes than everyday people we are apt to encounter is due in large part to stellar work by not only Ronan but three legendary members of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble: Laurie Metcalfe, Tracy Letts and Lois Smith.

Bob, as I’ll call the play at hand from here on out, takes a far more unique tack in exploring an individual’s longing for purpose, achievement, advancement, exploration, etc.

At the beginning of the first act—of a 90 minute play with no breaks—the titular character (Raymond Jaquet) is born and left in White Castle restroom, where he is found by an employee named Janine (Angela Horn, though like all 4 cast members besides Jaquet she rotates through several roles), who decides to raise him, even if it means going on the lam in a beige Chevy Malibu, such as I once owned.

This odd birthplace scenario reminded me a bit of the movie/book Where the Heart Is—in a 6-degrees-of-separation coincidence, the novel is by Billie Letts, mother of Tracy, who of course is also a famed playwright—in which the central character gives birth in a Walmart.

From a young age, Janine instills in Bob the notion that he will become a great man, and this sets in motion an eternal road trip type quest to overtly realize this prophecy.

To reveal where this journey takes him, and who he meets along the way, would ruin much of the play’s fun, and Nachtrieb does present some humorous beyond-the-beaten-path scenarios.

It’s to the credit of the actors—including Brittany Stock, Bryan Renaud and Sara Jane Patin—that Bob is entertaining throughout and kept me curious about how Bob’s pursuits would unfold.

Under the artistic direction of Bertelsen, the Comrades have carved a nice niche by staging—typically in intimate surroundings for a low price on Sun/Mon/Tues nights—modern plays that would seem to resonate with millennials newly exploring the wonders of live theater.

Without wishing to sound snobbish or dismissive, I prefer plays that—likely in sacrificing a bit of hipness—hit somewhat harder and delve a good deal deeper than Bob does.

Having seen his takes on The Children’s Hour and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Bertelsen—who co-directs here with with Will Quam—certainly knows his way around such works, old and new. But like some past Comrades' productions, Bob seems to skew to younger audiences, and that's quite logical and welcome, even if I wasn't all that smitten.

A pre-show recording of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” nicely sets the stage for Bob: A Life in Five Acts, but ultimately George Harrison’s “Any Road”—with the lyric “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”—seems more apt as among his offbeat adventures and often frenzied encounters, we get no real sense of what Bob greatly wants, or wants to do...greatly.

Perhaps leading to why a fine effort failed to provide me with much insight, about Bob’s life or mine, was that the characters—primarily but not just the main one—never seem to find time for much, or any, introspection amid the quest for greatness.

I really don't think it ruins much to share that Bob ultimately discovers that one's life is made estimable not so much by what we achieve as by those we love & impact, and vice-versa.

If not exactly a new or unexpected revelation—which is only part of the play's resolution—I found it accurate, identifiable and even inspiring.

But the circuitous, at times over-the-top way Bob comes to such an understanding not only feels less engaging & effective than the plainer path of Lady Bird, it also didn't connect with me as much as another similarly-themed yet even more obtuse work I recently once again saw live, Stephen Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods.

Though the "lie" there is far more preposterous than anything presented in Bob: A Life in Five Acts—fairy tale characters venture into a forest with hopes of enhancing their lives—the universal truths that are exposed, while thematically akin to those here, also wind up being more cogent.

Which is all a rather convoluted way of conveying that while I was happy to have seen Bob—and would even recommend it to audiences a good bit less old and curmudgeonly than me—I ultimately didn't love it.

And just to end with a small quibble from a huge Cubs fan...

It seems Nachtrieb wrote Bob: A Life in Five Acts in 2010 and it premiered in 2011 at The Humana Festival for New American Plays in Louisville—the locale of Bob's birthplace White Castle—so it's understandable that there would be references within about Cubs fans longing for success that never seems to come. Such had obviously been the case, then and for decades.

But presumably due to a little localized tinkering to the script, there's a line near the beginning—and I'm paraphrasing—about how “Rizzo had overcome cancer to win it all.” 

A nice touch that made me smile, but it would seem to invalidate later references in the play to the Cubs' perpetual futility. I get that as it chronicles a 60+ year life in 90 minutes, the play isn't stringent in avoiding anachronisms, and this "continuity issue" is entirely minor, but it just felt a touch contradictory.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sans Ballet, The House Theatre’s ‘Nutcracker’ Pirouettes Rather Imaginatively — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Nutcracker 
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theatre
Thru December 30

For as long as I’ve been aware of the concept of live entertainment, I’ve been aware of The Nutcracker.

As a ballet.

When I was knee high to, well, a nutcracker, my Aunt Mickey took me to the ballet at the Goodman Theatre, when it adjoined the Art Institute of Chicago.

She had been intending to just take my sisters, but probably around the age of 5, I insisted I should get to go, too.

So I’ve long been aware of Clara and the nutcracker/prince and sugar plum fairies and the great Tchaikovsky score and, well, ballet dancing.

And after many years of not again seeing The Nutcracker, I took myself to the Joffrey Ballet version in 2015, the last year of the Robert Joffrey-conceived production.

And I loved it.

Now the Joffrey does a version imagined and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and I'm hoping to see it in a few weeks.

But though clearly sketchy on the details, I knew the noted House Theatre of Chicago puts on its own annual version of The Nutcracker, now for the 8th year.

So the other night I took advantage of the chance to see it, with my mom and sister Allison in tow.

It was certainly not The Nutcracker I remembered--even from just 2 years ago--as it is not a ballet, nor does it contain any.

Until shortly before attending, I didn't realize this.

I knew that in general, the House puts on rather imaginative shows, typically with a quirky bent. (Certainly not only, per its fine preceding production of United Flight 232.)

And given that the troupe's current venue, the Chopin Theatre on the Division side of Chicago's Polish Triangle, doesn't give it a humongous stage footprint, I didn't expect a Joffrey Ballet-type production.

At which point, you may be thinking, "but wait, you said this is the 8th year, didn't you know it wasn't a ballet?"

No, until reading about it a few days before attending, I really didn't. I thought it might be the House Theatre's version of a ballet, substituting some silliness for dance virtuosity, but I thought The Nutcracker, particularly around the holidays, means ballet. (Arguments could be made for, though also against, changing the title here.)

But while there is still Clara, a nutcracker given to her by a man named Drosselmeyer, dolls that come to life, live music and even a bit of dancing, there are no plies, releves or sautes to be found.

Which doesn't make it bad, just different.

Even more different than what I had vaguely anticipated.

Yet to call it a play also seems imprecise, as there is live music throughout and even a number of nice songs, though it is also not a traditional musical.

The House version of The Nutcracker is based, somewhat, on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that begat the Tchaikovsky ballet, but this rendition is created by House Theatre members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O'Donnell and Tommy Rapley.

The show originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 under the Visiting Company Initiative and has enjoyed new House productions since 2010, with a supposedly significant revamping in 2016.

This year it is directed by Chris Mathews. 

Though fun, festive, tremendously inventive with terrific performances and some really nice songs, it revolves around themes of death, grief and fear far more than the ballet Nutcracker.

While it should be enjoyable, and even informative, for children of a certain age--which as a non-parent I won't try to pinpoint--be aware that it is a good bit darker than the ballet.

Essentially, the House uses the dreamy surrealism of Tchaikovsky/Hoffmann's Nutcracker and adapts it to modern times, where after joyously gathering--and even interacting with the audience--to celebrate the Christmas homecoming of their son Fritz (Desmond Gray) from an ongoing war, his parents (Amanda de la Guardia, Nicholas Bailey) instead receive heartbreaking news.

Fritz's teenage sister Clara (a terrific Haley Seda, who also shines vocally) mourns his loss, including through a fine song perhaps called "Christmas is the Darkest Time of Year." (No song list is provided in the program, nor composers/lyricists specified.) 

Though the family's holiday festivities are also forestalled the following December, odd Uncle Eric, also known as Drosselmeyer (an excellent Torrey Hanson) shows up anyway with a gift for Clara .


The present is a nutcracker version of Fritz, who--along with a monkey (Ian Maryfield), rag doll (Rachel Shapiro) and tin man (Ben Hertel)--comes to life in Clara's dreams or nightmares or hallucinations or imagination or just somehow.

There are some truly droll, delightful moments as the toys welcome Fritz and play together, and--as Sugar Plum Cookies abound in this production--a fun tune urging, "Let's Make Cookies."

From here, theoretically as a manifestation of Clara's fears, the narrative revolves around huge rats coming to threaten her and her toy pals, including the impending arrival of the Rat King. (Not, as I surmised, Rat King Cole, a swell-singing merry old soul.)

Much of this is great fun thanks to the excellent, exuberant 8-person cast, many of whom wind up portraying rats along with their other roles.

But it also all becomes a bit much.

In a variety of ways, including the costuming by Debbie Baer, the House Nutcracker is hugely imaginative, but in being so, it's also rather manic as it dances between deep despair and giddy ebullience, intense fears and tender poignancy.

There is much to be admired and savored, including fine background music throughout--Matthew Muniz is the music director and created the orchestrations--and four strong songs, with the Fritz sung "Ghost of Christmas Day" another highlight. (Again all titles are just guesses on my part.)

I can readily see why this show has become a Chicago seasonal staple, and was happy to add my applause.

But ultimately it was a bit too frantic and surreal--a type of theatricality I often struggle with--for me to relish it quite on par with other works.

Such as the Nutcracker ballet.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

An Engaging First Chapter: The American Writers Museum Provides a Fine Introduction to Storied Authors, Poets, Historians, Songwriters, Critics, etc. — Chicago Museum Review

Museum Review

American Writers Museum
180 N. Michigan, 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL

As hopefully evidenced by this blog—and my other one,—I am a passionate advocate for cultural literacy.

I am also a writer, not just of blog articles of many ilks, but advertising copy, poems, cartoons, greeting cards and much else.

Even more so, while far from the world’s most avid reader of books, I am a fervent admirer of what others have written, in numerous realms.

Thus, per an initial visit to the new American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago, I was most impressed by the breadth of practitioners represented, ranging far beyond novelists.

Between the museum’s Writers Hall—with both pictures and placards denoting hundreds of
individuals—and a smaller section of banners highlighting Chicagoans, names like Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Charles Schulz and Tupac Shakur can be found among those of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Lorraine Hansberry and Nelson Algren.

Per a couple of friendly associates at the front desk of the museum occupying the second floor of a Michigan Avenue building, the institution’s creators and consultants have decided to focus solely on non-living writers. At least in the permanent collections, as the photographs (of writers) by 95-year-old Art Shay presently comprise a nice if small special exhibit.

Excepting scribes who haven’t yet left us for the great library in the sky, or were bred beyond U.S shores, it seemed that most writers one would expect to find were indeed hanging around the museum.

Though other than the impossibility of including everyone, I was unable ascertain why a children’s gallery spotlighted Maurice Sendak but didn’t seemingly have any mention of Shel Silverstein.

Or why an interactive display allowing patrons to indicate their favorite books and authors completely omitted J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye from even being in the database. (I alerted a staff member to this oversight.)

In indicating I would write about my visit, I was graciously extended complimentary admission but—without overthinking comparisons for cultural expenditures—I would have been satisfied had I paid the standard $12.

But while far from reading every word of text about every writer, even in taking two loops around,
photographing everything—as permissible for all—and taking notes, my visit lasted less than 90 minutes.

And even in being suitably informed and impressed, and solidly recommending the AWM is well-worth your perusal, I can’t perceive the need for a return visit until the museum—which just opened in May—eventually begins its next chapter.

Without suggesting that there are yet any known plans for upgrades, expansion or revision other than a new temporary exhibit soon to open on Laura Ingalls Wilder, the front desk duo corroborated my sense that the museum seems more an exciting work in progress than completed vision. They mentioned that the proprietors themselves have spoken of it as a “first edition.”

Understanding spatial and budgetary constraints are never not a consideration, I would suggest AWM turn to its vast roster of writers, professors, etc. to create some vignette videos briefly expounding on why a specific author, poem, screenplay, etc. is considered great, unique, ahead of its time, important or whatever.

Certainly the museum hosts a nice slate of live programs—though understandably not on many weekday afternoons—and there are already several inspired interactive touches, including games aimed to elucidate on the art of writing and word choices.

In fact, or at least opinion, everything in place is attractively presented; it’s clear a lot of care went into the galleries, including not only presenting writers from disparate milieus but diverse cultural backgrounds.

But it all feels a bit cursory, and while I hope the museum delights and excites curious kids, I expect most visitors will be resigned to learning relatively little—given the limited text that can be devoted to so many worthy subjects—both about writers they already know well and those with whom they’re unfamiliar.

For example, Ernest Hemingway stands as one of the most legendary of all American writers, likely
the most famous novelist (and short story writer) to ever come out of the Chicago area and an author still presumably studied in high school and/or college literature courses.

And certainly Hem is well-represented in the American Writers Museum.

One can read about him in an interactive kiosk about writers from each state. In Writers Hall, his three-sided rotating biography provides a brief overview, a short factoid and a quote about him (by poet Robert Frost). His image with a passage from The Old Man and the Sea is included in a nice Nation of Writers multimedia display. And currently, there are four Art Shay photos of him in the temporary exhibit.

Presumably because the Oak Park born & bred Hemingway didn't spend any of his famed writing career in the Chicago area, he is not--at least to my observance--included in the Chicago Gallery.

Hem's "A Soldier Story" is part of an interactive display devoted to the craft of writing, but overall I was still left with little clarity as to what made Ernest Hemingway so stylistically novel, save for a notation that as a young reporter with the Kansas City Star, he was "forced to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone."

I realize that the only real way to understand what makes a writer great is to read what he or she has written. Though the American Writers Museum does have a Readers Hall that allows one to peruse some great books, the idea isn't to sit there and read all day.

And there are so many great writers represented, I know the current set-up doesn't much allow for deep insights on any, let alone all. But that's where short video vignettes would be nice.

In the Writers Hall, there are multiple video on-demand stations, but at present all have the same
content. Ideally, this could be expanded upon over time, including with greater insights about the writers who adorn the walls.

Perhaps this may get burdensome on busy days, but there are already handy stools provided for those who wish to sit and watch the clips.

Specifically about Hemingway, a museum devoted to him--besides his birthplace museum--just closed in Oak Park, so maybe the AWM can look into getting some materials or tapping into additional subject matter experts. 

Regarding the special exhibit, Capturing Stories: Photographs of Writers by Art Shay, viewing Shay's pictures--ranging from Hemingway to Shay's noted compadre Nelson Algren to George Plimpton, Art Buchwald, Masters & Johnson, Roger Ebert and even Dolly Parton--should certainly accompany any visit to the AWM, and while the gallery isn't particularly extensive, could well provide reason enough to prompt one before a TBA exhibit end date next spring.

I am sorry to have--by just days--missed the exhibit containing the full scroll of Jack Kerouac's manuscript for On the Road, but I had actually seen it elsewhere. As of this writing there's no information on the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit on the museum website, but I was told it is starting soon.

As anyone who has written anything knows--so basically everyone--a lot of good thoughts, ideas and phrasing can go into the first draft, but invariably some spell-checking, editing, refinements or even wholesale rewriting can create vast improvements.

Without meaning it as an exact parallel--the AWM is certainly further along than a "first draft"--this also describes the American Writers Museum.

It is a wonderfully welcome addition to Chicago's cultural landscape, and deserving of bringing in visitors old and young from near and far. If not yet a masterpiece, it represents a fantastic beginning.

And I can't wait to see what happens next.