Monday, February 17, 2020

Of Race and Raw Footage: 'Sheepdog' Provides a Searing, Nuanced Glimpse Into Police Shootings -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sheepdog
a new play by Kevin Artigue
directed by Wardell Julius Clark
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru March 15
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In the first 45 days of this new decade, I've seen and reviewed 12 works of theater.

All have been worthwhile, many superb, a few sensational.

I've also attended some concerts, and of course I can't get to everything. (Besides blogging, I'm presently working full-time.)

But four current shows I hadn't seen--Sheepdog, Top Girls, Sophisticated Ladies and An American in Paris--have drawn raves from the Chicago Tribune's esteemed theater critic, Chris Jones.

His 4-star (out of 4) review, other high praise and the topical subject matter particularly intrigued me to see Sheepdog, and so I did on Sunday afternoon, where the sold out crowd at Theater Wit also included at least one Tony-winning actress and a noted local Artistic Director.

And though sometimes it doesn't quite work out this way, I found Sheepdog to be as terrific as Jones opined.

Deftly written in non-linear fashion by Kevin Artigue and wonderfully directed by Wardell Julius Clark, the 90-minute one-act drama features just two characters, though recorded voices flesh out a few scenes.

Amina (Leslie Ann Sheppard) and Ryan (Drew Schad)--with both actors doing remarkable work--are Cleveland cops, roughly in the present day.

Neither is a rookie, but also not old; perhaps late-20s/early-30s.

As scripted by Artigue, she is black, he is white.

Initially they are partners, and as one supports the other through recovery from a significant line-of-duty injury, they become lovers and eventually move in together.

The romance appears genuine, with Ryan and Amina seeming to overcome hesitancy born from parents who treated them harshly and/or spoke belligerently about those of other races.

She is proud of her heritage and having risen out of "the ugly" of Cleveland's East Side; he is from a small Ohio town but works with inner city youths and befriends a veteran African-American cop who becomes something of a mentor.

There are places they don't quite intersect--Amina extols James Baldwin beyond his familiarity; Ryan can't fathom that she's never heard of Pearl Jam--but the relationship feels strong.

Until--and even awhile after--one of them shoots and kills a suspect of the opposite race in an incident where it is unclear if excessive force was used.

I'm purposefully keeping the details even more vague than Chris Jones did, in part because I can imagine a thrilling play switching up who does what to whom.

But Artigue's riveting work is clearly drawn from tragic episodes that ended the lives of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castilo. Walter Scott and several others.

Each of these real-life incidents is in some way unique, and not only may public perceptions vary, they might have changed as more became known and additional footage was released.

So besides chronicling a young cop whose actions go viral in a way all-too-familiar, Artigue smartly addresses relationships with other cops--including one's work & life partner--as well as institutional responses (from the police department, unions, city management and the justice system) and an increasingly malleable explanation as to what exactly happened.

As often seems true to me, the cover-up may be more deplorable than the deadly act itself.

Abetted this particular Sunday--I'm not sure if it's a regular occurrence--by a post-show discussion featuring a longtime but now retired Chicago police officer who provided some excellent insights, Sheepdog is one of the best new plays I've seen in awhile.

It's topical, about a highly charged subject, but it's also balanced, enlightening and absolutely riveting.

And the Shattered Globe production at Theater Wit has now been extended until March 15.

So if you haven't heeded Chris Jones' recommendation--and that of several other critics--you can now follow mine.

For Sheepdog--the title is explained within the show--demands your attention, theatrically and beyond.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Lights Out: Quite Fantastically, UFO Lands in Waukegan and Rocks Me, Rocks Me -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

UFO
w/ opening act Damon Johnson
Genesee Theatre, Waukegan, IL
February 14, 2020
@@@@1/2

One's tastes should evolve over the years.

Although I was indoctrinated to musical theater during the first decade of my life, I really didn't come to love Broadway until I was 30.

Perhaps as a consequence of appreciating the diverse styles employed in musicals, not caring what others might think and developing a diverse love of live performance, in recent years I've made a point of attending concerts by a somewhat wide range of noteworthy acts that I'd never seen before--and which my teenage self didn't much like, know or care about.

Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher, George Clinton & P-Funk, Bruce Cockburn, Herman's Hermits, Peter Frampton, Jethro Tull, The The, Simple Minds, Journey, Erasure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Church, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Bryan Ferry, Aretha Franklin, Chicago, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Barry Gibb, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen and others.

But by the time I was 12, in 1980, I loved hard rock: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, The Who, AC/DC, Van Halen and more.

And I've never stopped. In the ensuing years, I've seen all of these artists multiple times--except Led Zeppelin, who splintered that year after the death of drummer John Bonham. But I've seen seen Robert Plant nine times, including twice with Jimmy Page.

Yet there was another hard rock band of that ilk that I really loved--I remember listening to their 1979 live album, Strangers in the Night, partially recorded in Chicago, at a junior high school friend's home--but never got to see live in concert.

Until Friday night at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.

That band is UFO.

If Setlist.fm's list of their Chicago area shows can be counted on as comprehensive, it seems that after playing a number of gigs at the long-defunct International Amphitheatre--including the one captured on Strangers in the Night--between 1977-82, only a NW Indiana show brought them back to the region until 1995.

And I guess I never cared enough to see them at the House of Blues, where they've played fairly often since 2004.

They also have played the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles a number of times since 2011--a co-worker seeing them in 2012 is what made me realize UFO remains extant--but I never shlepped to that far western suburb.

But I'm currently working in the northern suburbs, so getting to the Genesee in Waukegan--where I enjoyed seeing Herman's Hermits in January--was fairly convenient, especially as a face value ticket without Ticketmaster fees could be bought at the door Friday night. (They also played in Joliet on Saturday.)

Famed guitarist Michael Schenker, who powered some of UFO's most famous songs from 1973-78, and was back in the fold between 1993-2003, is no longer part of the band, now in their 51st year.

And longtime keyboardist/guitarist Paul Raymond sadly died of a heart attack just last year during a break from ongoing touring.

But original singer, Phil Mogg--who at 71 looks and dresses more like Leonard Cohen in his later years than his once ragamuffinish rock star self--still sounds good vocally, and is an erudite and engaging front man.

Another UFO original, Andy Parker, remains on drums, and Raymond's replacement--Neil Carter--had been with the band a bit in the early '80s.

Rob De Luca is the current bassist, and--as since 2003--Vinnie Moore is the lead guitarist, and on Friday night his playing was sensational.

Phil Mogg, in the early days of UFO and more recently
So although I didn't mind providing some sentimentality as I sang along lustily to AOR classics like "Lights Out," "Only You Can Rock Me" and "Too Hot to Handle," this was a genuinely excellent rock concert in the present tense, even as the Last Orders Tour seemingly signals the final flight of UFO.

A couple songs from this decade--"Run Boy Run," "Burn Your House Down"--fit in well with the oldies, including a few I wouldn't have recognized had I not studied up on Spotify. (See UFO's Waukegan's setlist here.)

Understandably, Mogg revealed that his upper register isn't what it once was on the "Love to Love You" ballad--quite apt on Valentine's Day, even with a number of aging stragglers like me on hand--but from the opening "Mother Mary" to the end of "Shoot Shoot" 100 minutes later, his vocals were entirely satisfactory.

And Moore repeatedly played the kind of blazing guitar leads--and extended solos, such as on "Venus" and "Rock Bottom"--that helped me fall in love with rock music as a young kid.

No offense to Smokey Robinson, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and others referenced above, as I truly enjoyed their performances, and widening my musical tastes. (Smokey, who I saw just a week prior, was especially sensational.)

But it sure was nice to have my ears blistered, my balls rocked and my ass kicked.

Once again, and specifically in terms of UFO, for the first time.

---
Opening the show was a singer/guitarist named Damon Johnson, alongside a drummer and bassist. He played in a '90s band unfamiliar to me named Brother Cane and seems to currently tour with a latter day version of Thin Lizzy. His 48-minute set was solidly enjoyable, including tunes from his new solo album, Memoirs of an Uprising ("Dallas Coulda Been a Beatdown," "Down on Me"), Brother Cane ("Got No Shame") and a pair of Lizzy classics ("Jailbreak," "The Boys are Back in Town").

--
Here are snippets I shot of UFO's "Lights Out" and "Only You Can Rock Me." No rights assumed or infringement intended.


Friday, February 14, 2020

It's a Family Affair: In 'Stick Fly,' A Summer Gathering on Martha's Vineyard Gets Rather Heated -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Stick Fly
a play by Lydia R. Diamond
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 15
@@@@1/2

Think about your family.

Not just your spouse and kids, if you have such, but your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, etc.

Undoubtedly, there are some pretty good stories you could tell. Arguments and disagreements you could share.

Good times, bad times, moments of profuse laughter and unstoppable tears.

This is why families—whether a writer’s own, entirely fictionalized or somewhere in between—are often chronicled in plays.

They are inherently ripe with both drama and comedy, with aspects that are unique and universal at the same time.

But while many excellent plays have been written about families, one can readily imagine the inherent challenges.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Tell tales that feel too much like daily life and attendees might think, "My own family is more entertaining; why'd I pay good money for this?"

But if the writer weaves in a whole bunch of intersecting drama--as Lydia R. Diamond does in her fine 2008 play, Stick Fly--it can begin to stretch credulity and feel somewhat contrived.

Although family masterpieces like Eugene O'Neill Long Day's Journey Into Night and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County have had longer running times, and likewise a lot going on, there were points in watching Writers Theatre's strong take on Stick Fly that I felt it seemed overstuffed with numerous threads.

And yes, 20-30 minutes too long.

But I was kept entirely engaged, often riveted, with much to think about when the onstage action came to an end.

Pardon any plot details I don't get exactly right, as not only does Diamond give us much to follow--though director Ron OJ Parson keeps it quite digestible--but there isn't a synopsis I can readily find online.

But as a description without giving too much away, here goes.

The LeVay family owns a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The patriarch, Joe (David Alan Anderson) is an African-American neurosurgeon who I believe has long been married to a white woman from an extremely wealthy family, but she has not joined the family on this summer weekend.

Their sons are Flip (DiMonte Henning), a plastic surgeon and long something of a proud playboy, and Kent (Eric Gerard), a more sensitive, socially-conscious type who is--to Joe's chagrin--pursuing a fledgling career as an author.

Although Stick Fly dates back to 2008, it also helps that Diamond set it in 2005, before the days of Facebook and photo texting would make it less likely that Joe wouldn't yet know of the women in his sons' lives, or them of each other.

Kent has brought his fiance Taylor (Jennifer Lattimore), a daughter of divorce who grew up in relative hardship with her mom while her father was a famed social anthropologist.

Taylor is highly intelligent, studying biology pertaining to flies--hence the play's title--and while a bit geeky, rather assertive about perceived slights. Lattimore does a terrific job finding the right balance, including natural nervousness in Taylor's meeting her fiance's family.

Kent's girlfriend is an affluent, "pretty white girl" named Kimber (Kayla Raelle Holder), who though a tad pretentious is imbued with a strong sense of self and the gumption not to wilt under some withering glares and sharp rejoinders.

Joining these five at the house is Cheryl (Ayanna Bria Bakari, excellent here as she recently was in Writers' The Niceties), the daughter of the LeVay's longtime Vineyard housekeeper who is ill and having her daughter fill in.

There are several conversations--often quite charged--between characters in every possible pairing, as well as in larger groups and all together.

As I referenced, it will seem like there is a lot happening, maybe even too much, but to the credit of Diamond, Parsons and the entire cast, all of the characterizations and interactions are substantive and relatable.

There were points when I thought @@@@ (on my @@@@1/2) might be apt, which still signifies an excellent, engaging play.

But with some terrific escalating tension, Stick Fly plays out in a way that makes the myriad narrative strains and long runtime readily forgivable.

It isn't the best play I've ever seen, but it is a family drama that enlightened and moved me, including in various racial contexts.

And while I don't pretend to be an expert arbiter, just a theater lover with a blog, as a family play I liked Stick Fly--which ran on Broadway for just a few months starting in late 2011 and didn't garner a Tony nomination for Best Play--more than The Humans, which won that award in 2016.

Obviously it's all relative, but like families themselves family plays can be a tricky thing.

And despite all the ways it intertwines, Stick Fly comes together quite endearingly. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Perfectly Gay Soirée: In Immersive Windy City Playhouse Production, ‘The Boys in the Band’ Excels Through Specificity AND Universality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Boys in the Band
a classic play by Mart Crowley
directed by Carl Menninger
Windy City Playhouse, Chicago
Thru April 19
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In 1968, when The Boys in the Band—which incidentally isn’t a musical and has nothing to do with a band—premiered Off-Broadway, most of the United States (including New York) was covered by sodomy laws that essentially made homosexuality illegal.

The next year, the Stonewall Riots in NYC would serve as a catalyst for the gay rights movement and, ultimately, bring increased acceptance and tolerance, though society clearly still has a long way to go.

So Mart Crowley’s one-act play—whose title comes from a line in the 1954 film, A Star is Born, that has James Mason saying to Judy Garland, “You're singing for yourself and the boys in the band”—was quite groundbreaking and courageous in chronicling a birthday party attended by several gay men.

And even after a Tony-winning 50th anniversary 2018 Broadway revival starring openly gay film & TV stars like Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer seemingly made a point about progress, the play—which I saw for the first time Sunday in a splendid production at Windy City Playhouse—still feels more daring and unique than it probably should.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
I appreciate how important, representative and prideful The Boys in the Band must be—historically, presently, always—for those in the LGBTQ community.

And the terrific cast at WCP under the direction of Carl Menninger seemingly does Crowley’s trailblazing work great justice, with the immersive staging—the audience sits around the apartment where the party takes place after riding an elevator to reach it—having added considerably to my emotional embrace.

But where The Boys in the Band transcends being eye-opening and ballsy for its time—and even our time—and stands as dramatically superlative is in chronicling the experience of youngish gay men in late-‘60s Manhattan while simultaneously reflecting universal human emotions, experiences and truths...anytime, anywhere.

This was my first visit to Windy City Playhouse’s flagship venue on Irving Park Road after having seen and loved Every Brilliant Thing last October, presented in a space on Motor Row along South Michigan Ave.

That show, which I named my favorite play of 2019 and nearly my favorite solo theatrical piece of the decade, was also quite successfully staged in imaginatively immersive fashion.

Over the years, I’ve been to a few shows where the audience sits among the actors, rather than in seats facing a stage, but never as holistically or effectively as at these two WCP productions.

Every Brilliant Thing featured a single actress who regularly interacted with the audience, occasionally in acting out small scenes.

The Boys in the Band has us sitting amidst the nine actors as they move about the spacious apartment—and "stage hands" kindly bring around some food & drink—but doesn’t really have the actors engaging with the audience (at least at the performance I attended).

I thought it might be fun if we were asked to get up and dance, or kibitzed with in some ad hoc way, though narratively it wouldn’t really make sense for a party attended rather privately by gay men to also include, say, Japanese grandmothers or anyone else comprising the play’s ideally diverse audiences.

So although the immersive conceit is wonderful, it only stretches so far.

But, as far as one’s imagination wants to wrap, we are in the Upper East Side apartment of Michael (played by Jackson Evans, who shows terrific versatility after also excelling in musicals like Avenue Q, Ride the Cyclone and Matilda).

He’s hosting a birthday party for Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz), but first to arrive is Donald, who I believe is Michael’s ex-boyfriend. He’s played by Jordan Dell Harris, who I’ve also seen do nice work in some local musicals.

Guests also include Emory (William Marquez), Hank (Ryan Reilly), Larry (James Lee), Bernard (Denzel Tsopnang), Alan (Christian Edwin Cook) and Cowboy (Kyle Patrick), though a couple of them weren’t directly invited.

It’s to the credit of Crowley’s script, whatever alterations may have been made to modernize it a bit, all of the actors and director Menninger that each of the characters is quite distinctive and well-defined.

You should get to know these men on your own, but one is quite flamboyant, another a newly divorced father, several loquacious and/or acerbic, a few self-loathing, one far from monogamous even within a relationship and one seemingly closeted.

All—understandably given that, when the play was written, they would egregiously be considered criminals—have some struggles of self.

As at parties everywhere, the friends eat, drink, chat, banter, bicker, tease, curse, cajole, share, laugh, play music, commiserate and have cake.

But driving forward a particularly poignant part of the narrative is a “game” in which each person is
to telephone someone they have truly loved, and—if connected—tell them.

Some of what then occurs is wrenching, even heartbreaking. And the scenarios revealed are at times devastating because of homophobia encountered, or residual apprehension, embarrassment, humiliation, etc.

Yet this is also where The Boys in the Band connects us all, because who couldn’t think of someone they would call?

Or might be afraid to?

So yes, this is an important, admirable, enlightening work of theater because it is about gay men, be they businessmen, teachers, photographers, interior decorators, artists, prostitutes, African-Americans, Catholics, New Yorkers or whatever else distinguishes them.

But it is a great play because the underlying themes—our commonalities that far outweigh our differences—pertain to everyone.

In one way or another, we are all the boys in the band.

Giving Nothing Away: 'How a Boy Falls' Has Plenty of Twists but Lacks Gravity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

How a Boy Falls
a World Premiere play by Steven Dietz
directed by Halena Kays
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru February 29
@@@1/2

I love thrillers.

And mysteries.

Hitchcock films.

Page-turning novels by the likes of Harlan Coben—my favorite contemporary author, at least in terms of reading for entertainment.

Whodunit TV series that typically solve cases within a given episode.

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, the longest-running play in the world (in London), currently being well-done by Chicago’s Court Theatre.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So I did enjoy How a Boy Falls, a twisty play by Stephen Dietz now in a world premiere production
by Northlight Theatre.

Directed by Halena Kays and clocking in at 75 minutes, it moves fast, offers surprises and--in involving a domestic mystery--feels akin to some of Coben’s books.

But though I’ve read Coben’s entire oeuvre, devouring each novel in under a week, and would recommend his work to anyone seeking a fun read—while also extolling his usual inclusion of astute societal commentary and a fair amount of humor—I wouldn’t call what he does great literature.

In part because there isn’t much staying power to what I’ve read. Nothing much to ponder, take away, come back to, discuss, etc.

And this pretty much describes How a Boy Falls, whose plotline I won’t much describe.

Paul (Tim Decker) and Miranda (Michelle Duffy) are husband and wife, living in a posh coastline home. Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) is their newly hired nanny. Sam (Sean Parris) and Mitch (Travis A. Knight) are a couple of dudes who notice Chelle in a coffee shop.

The play’s title gives a hint of what happens, but there are a number of sharp turns.

For what it is—which are almost always somewhat damning words—How a Boy Falls is well-written, well-crafted, well-staged and well-acted.

But there’s nothing really monumental about it, and many of the scenarios that unspool feel more theatrically contrived than realistically genuine.

I see tons of theater—presently about 10 pieces in a month's span—and it was nice that this was something a bit different.

Despite the foreboding title, light even.

Yet ultimately, rather forgettable.

A suspense thriller, but not a killer thriller.

It won’t take up too much of your time, and if the price is right, Northlight is always comfortable with easy parking.

A World Premiere is nothing to sneeze at, live theater is a joy unto itself, Dietz's script is at times rather and the performances and production values are strong.

But whether you should see How a Boy Falls, or just how much you'll like it, is a mystery I'm not able to readily solve.

Nor even much guess at. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

I Second That Emotion: Soon Turning 80, Smokey Robinson Remains a Miracle -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Smokey Robinson
Chicago Theatre
February 7, 2020
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No offense to anyone who views spirituality solely through traditional constructs, but for me, seeing Smokey Robinson was a religious experience.

To begin with, Smokey is a godlike figure in the annals of popular music.

While still a Detroit teenager in the 1950s he formed The Miracles and dazzled Berry Gordy Jr. with his prodigious songwriting talent.

Gordy would record the Miracles’ first song—“Got a Job”—and soon founded the record label that would become known as Motown.

The Miracles were one of the first acts signed, and their “Shop Around” (written by Robinson and Gordy) was the first Motown single.

Suffice it to say that Robinson was instrumental in creating “the Motown sound,” as he would write several indelible hit singles that he recorded with the Miracles, plus numerous others for acts on the label, most notably the Temptations. He even became Motown's VP by the mid-1960s.

As still on brilliant display Friday night, Smokey possesses one of the most angelic singing voices
ever, which on the opening “Being With You”—one of several solo hits he had after the Miracles split—brought chills even before the curtain raised.

If I didn’t have binoculars from my seat atop the upper balcony at the sumptuous Chicago Theatre, I easily could’ve believed Robinson—dapper as ever in a sleek white suit, adding to my sacrosanct sensibilities—was on the cusp of turning 40, not 80, as he’ll become on February 19.

Aptly, as the show’s second song, he sang—quite divinely—“I Second That Emotion.”

Then came “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” a Miracles song so good the Beatles covered it.

Robinson’s passionate, velvety vocals on an elongated “Ooo Baby Baby” proved—though I didn’t really expect too much more—that this wasn’t just an aging legend collecting a paycheck; Smokey was truly smokin'.

Erudite as ever, he spoke of "growing up" via shows at Chicago’s old Regal Theater, and in enlightening about Motown Revue tours of old, talked of having written for the Temptations before doing “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready” and “My Girl” as a medley, with the latter pretty much in full.

Plus two brief reprises.

Accompanied by five ace musicians and a trio of female singers, Smokey was sentimental, deferential, humorous and—repeatedly showing some dance moves—even sexual.

He spoke of speaking to his close friend Stevie Wonder just a couple days prior and reported that—following a kidney transplant—Wonder is doing well

After humorously sharing some anecdotes including that Stevie “drives too fast for me,” Smokey cracked up onstage when a patron asked “He does?” 

Speaking affectionately about his blind-yet-brilliant Motown mate led into their #1 collaboration, “Tears of a Clown,” with the likewise resplendent “Tracks of My Tears” coming a few songs later.

You can see the setlist here, with one song you may not recognize being “La Mirada,” a new one Smokey recorded for an upcoming Spanish EP. He shared that he’s been learning the language in recent years. (Hear the song on his website here.)

Closing the show was the 1979 solo hit, “Cruisin’,” but Smokey didn’t just sing it and saunter off into the night. Rather he turned it into a 20-minute audience singalong, bringing two fans onstage to lead a battle between both halves of the theater.

I’m not sure if my side won, but regardless it was a rather remarkable night.

Sure, the 90-minute show without an opening act wasn’t as quantitative as Springsteen, McCartney, Pearl Jam, etc., and in direct comparison as a "rock concert," not as qualitative.

But Smokey Robinson—who I was seeing for the first time, largely out of reverence, as I recently had legends like Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher and, a few years ago, the late Aretha Franklin—was every bit as good I could’ve wanted him to be, presumably ever.

He sang great songs, Miraculously.

He told engaging stories that befit his towering history.

He danced. He looked terrific. He smiled a lot. He was warm and appreciative.

And like the best shows, his acutely made me feel fantastic.

Not just about being there, or seeing him, but about myself.

If that’s not worthy of worship, I’m not sure what is.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Crawling with Possibilities: Steppenwolf's Staging of 'Bug' is Infested with a Pesky Sense of Uncertainty -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bug
by Tracy Letts
directed by David Cromer
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 15
@@@@1/2

I have a hard time truly appreciating plays or movies I don't really "get."

There is much to be said about the creativity and originality of works that are surreal, abstract, quite science fictional and/open to wide interpretation, but I generally don't acclimate well to being confounded.

And because Bug--a 1996 play by Tracy Letts, currently getting its first staging at Steppenwolf, where he is now an ensemble member—reaches a point of chaotic confusion not easily deciphered, I can’t quite give it @@@@@ or call it one of my favorites.

But as presently directed by the esteemed David Cromer, it is largely terrific, with the ambiguity seemingly part of Letts’ point.

Tracy Letts is now best known for writing August: Osage County, which—following a 2007 premiere at Steppenwolf that I saw—won him a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. He is also an actor, recently seen in Little Women, Ford v. Ferrari and Lady Bird.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
The Oklahoma native—his mom was the novelist, Billie Letts—has become one of Chicago’s most
successful actors (on stage and screen) and playwrights. He’s also written movies and is now married to a film/TV/stage actress of some note, Carrie Coon, who stars in this production of Bug.

But before I had any idea who Letts was, I happened to see the first production of the first play he wrote—Killer Joe—in August 1993 at the Next Theatre Lab in Evanston.

This was the first play I ever saw in the Chicagoland area, and while presumably persuaded by a stellar Chicago Tribune review, I undoubtedly went in part because it was near my Skokie home.

The show starred a then unknown Michael Shannon—I can’t say I acutely remember him—and though I didn’t realize it until just a few days ago, an actress named Holly Ann Wantuch, who was Letts’ longtime girlfriend until she tragically passed early in 1998.

I do recall there was onstage nudity, and that I quite enjoyed Killer Joe.

In the program notes for this production of Bug—which also contains full frontal male and female nudity—Letts shares that the Gate Theatre in London had asked him to write another play with “basically the same people” as Killer Joe, and that he wrote Bug’s character of Peter with Michael Shannon in mind.

Shannon did star in the 1996 London premiere of Bug, then again in the 2001 Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, Off-Broadway in 2004 and in director William Friedkin’s film version in 2006, which helped turn him—quite justifiably—into a movie star.  (He continues to occasionally do local theater and I’ve seen him several times.) 

But in this production of Bug, which I had not seen before as a play or film, Namir Smallwood—who was also excellent in True West last year at Steppenwolf under the direction of Randall Arney, who has a small role here as Dr. Sweet—plays Peter, a Gulf War vet who is now something of a drifter. 

Although I was often able to imagine Shannon speaking the same lines, to his great credit Smallwood makes the role his own and finely enacts the escalating tension—and uncertainty—it demands.

Coon—who has starred in TV series The Leftovers, Fargo and The Sinner, a number of movies and past Steppenwolf plays (like Letts' superb Mary Page Marlowe)—here plays Agnes, a cocktail waitress who onstage never leaves the confines of the motel room in which she resides.

Fearing a visit from her violent ex-husband Jerry (Steve Key), who has just been released from prison, “Aggie” commiserates—and snorts coke—with her friend R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom), through whom she had met Peter, who comes to her room and prefers to smoke crack.

Drug use is rather prevalent in Bug, yet never seems to consume the characters.

Unless it does.

In different yet largely empathetic ways, we learn that both Agnes and Peter have had rather imperfect pasts, and though both remain troubled, there is a genuine sweetness in the affection they develop for each other.

But near the end of an expository first act, which does include a visit from Jerry, Peter finds a bug.

Or does he?

Much of Act 2 has to do with an obsession with bugs.

But are they real or imaginary? Or both? Representative somehow of surveillance “bugs”? A metaphor for romantic insecurities? A result of Peter’s wartime experiences? Part of some human experiments of the Jason Bourne variety? Psychological delusions run rampant?

I won’t say, but honestly even after seeing the play, I don’t really know.

And while Letts notes that he did more research in writing Bug than he has for any other play, even if he had a certain rationale in mind, I’m thinking he would be fine with the audience's ambiguity, even desirous of it.

For the myriad possible interpretations, now in a different world than when the play was written and set, is much of what makes Bug so intriguing.

So I won’t hold my confusion against it as strongly as I have for some plays that really left me perplexed throughout.

But though Bug is undoubtedly a deft piece of writing, with terrific acting here under the direction of Skokie-native turned Tony winner David Cromer, I think it might leave too much for each viewer to decide.

Such as, was there ever really a bug?

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Of Legal, Moral and Personal Concerns: At Goodman, 'Roe' Wades Into History and Her Story-- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Roe
a recent play by Lisa Loomer
directed by Vanessa Stalling
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru February 23
@@@1/2

For decades, I have heard of Roe v. Wade as the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States, with the decision announced on January 22, 1973.

But--unless I once knew but long ago forgot--I didn't realize that Roe wasn't the actual surname of the plaintiff.

With "Jane Roe" serving as something of an every woman pseudonym, a la John Doe, a Texan named Norma McCorvey brought suit--seeking to attain a legal abortion--in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in 1970.

Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was the defendant while Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington were McCorvey's attorneys.

In watching Lisa Loomer's two-act play, Roe, nicely staged under the direction of Vanessa Stalling at Chicago's erstwhile Goodman Theatre, it was clear that I knew rather few of the details or participants in the famed case.

And as with How to Defend Yourself--a play by Liliana Padilla concerning a rape on a college
campus, which I saw the night before--I appreciated a dramatic work taking on a weighty and always timely topic.

But also somewhat similarly--although I liked Roe a good bit more--I wasn't as engaged, illuminated nor moved as much as I would've liked.

Roe is a deft attempt by Loomer to cover a controversial and complicated issue, and to do so with respect to both sides.

Simply to learn something, the show is well-worth your time, but on a theatrical level I think it tries to do too much, which dissipates much of the pathos and even--in a narrative reaching across nearly 50 years--lessens the lessons surrounding the Supreme Court case.

McCorvey and her primary lawyer, Weddington, both of whom wrote books about Roe v. Wadeare the main characters onstage, nicely embodied by Kate Middleton and Christina Hall, respectively.

And both spend a good deal of time breaking the 4th wall, speaking directly to the audience. (Wade doesn't much factor in.)

Somewhat reminiscent, for me--and yes, with a reference well off topic--of how the Sex Pistols were formed when London impresario Malcolm McLaren sought those who could play the part of a nascent and shocking punk band, we learn that McCorvey and Weddington connected at a time when the latter (and Coffee) were looking to represent pregnant women who were seeking to challenge America's abortion ban.

Although McCorvey's case took years to reach the Supreme Court--she gave birth before the case was even heard in Texas, to her 3rd child, none of which she raised--and Roe's first act does cover a good part of this groundwork while introducing us to several characters beyond the main two, the case's known resolution seems to come fairly abruptly, in a narrative sense.

Act II jumps us forward several years from 1973, and then several more years.

It's interesting to see what became of McCorvey and a variety of changes in her life--though her devoted lesbian lover, Connie (Stephanie Diaz) was part of the story from early in Act I.

I won't say too much, but was somewhat intrigued by enemies become friends twists, including the dynamic between Norma and a prominent anti-abortionist named Flip Benham (played with abundant charm and smarm by Ryan Kitley).

As written, Roe is well-structured by Loomer, finely rendered at Goodman by Stalling--who has become a top local director in recent years--and enacted by a strong cast including many rotating through multiple roles.

Kirsten Fitzgerald, John Lister, Jessica Dean Turner and Raymond Fox are among the supporting players doing fine work.

But though I have strong views on abortion while being respectful of those who feel otherwise--and think Loomer pulls off the balancing act pretty well--I just wasn't pulled in as powerfully as I would've liked.

While watching, I envisioned a smaller, simpler, less ambitious play also letting me learn about Norma McCorvey--even more acutely--and what transpired in Roe v. Wade, with considerably more pathos.

Topically, Roe is quite important, and well-presented. But theatrically, it isn't transcendent.