Friday, July 20, 2018

For All Hue Persevere: Terrific Cast Renders Revamped Rendition of 'The Color Purple' Close to Perfect -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Color Purple
a musical
Broadway revival national tour
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 29

In addition to Seth Saith, I maintain a much less verbose blog called 6word Portraits

Each day, I sixinctly profile a person I admire on their birthday, and share the post on Facebook.

Wednesday, the day I would see The Color Purple in the evening, marked 100 years since the remarkable Nelson Mandela was born, and as such, he was my daily subject.

In sharing my 6er on Facebook, I included the following quote, spoken by Mandela in 1964, at the trial that would result in his imprisonment for 27 years, essentially for refusing to accept that black people should be subservient to whites in Apartheid South Africa:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
As I watched The Color Purple, Mandela's remark about fighting black domination really stuck me, given the show's particularly heinous character of Mister, who--like everyone else onstage--is African-American.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
Egregiously, racists may espouse that "black people are bad" but the truth is obviously that there are
some people of African descent who happen to be bad--or who do terrible things--much as there are awful representatives of every race, religion, creed, etc.

It doesn't mean that anyone is bad because they're black. 

And part of the beauty of The Color Purple--in this case, the musical, as I haven't read Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel and am unsure if I ever saw Steven Spielberg's film adaptation--is that it chronicles a group of particular African-Americans, but like much great art, is also quite universal. 

Including in making the point that causing, facing, coping with and (hopefully) overcoming great pain and hardship is a reality inherent to those of all colors or classifications.

This isn't to suggest that black people and women--specifically--don't still face indignities (and worse), perhaps on a daily basis, that as I white man I presumably never will.

And it's no small part of The Color Purple's glory that it's entirely about--and onstage stars--African-Americans.

But as I watched the touring production of The Color Purple--currently at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre--a comparative musical that came to mind, somewhat surprisingly to me, was Les Misérables.

Though the latter concerns itself with insurgent French students--and others who feel ignored or mistreated by the ruling class of their own country--rising in rebellion in the early 19th century, both musicals have strong narratives derived from classic novels in which a central character perseveres over many years amid extremely challenging circumstances.

In Les Miz, this is Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for 19 years--for stealing a loaf of bread--who
after his release becomes a dedicated father, respected businessman and mayor, yet remains hunted for his past.

But Les Misérables--which I believe the best musical ever created--excels in presenting several characters we truly come to care about. 

The Color Purple does this too, but at its heart is a young woman named Celie (played fantastically here by Adrianna Hicks). 

Although--without being able to cite specific adjustments--I liked this John Doyle-directed rendition of The Color Purple more than the original musical that toured in 2007, I still feel the show begins a bit abruptly.

It took me a few minutes to sort out the key characters and what was happening, and only in reading Wikipedia could I tell you with any exactitude that the predominant setting is rural Georgia, beginning in the 1930s. 

There Celie and Nettie (N'Jameh Camara) are teenage sisters, the former twice impregnated by her father and forced to give up her babies. 

The craven Mister (a terrible man adroitly embodied by Gavin Gregory) lusts for the obviously pretty Nettie, but is convinced to marry Celie, who both he and her dad openly deride as ugly (and other insults). 

Abetted by an impressive backdrop designed by Doyle--featuring as best I can describe, a wall of chairs--the choral number "Mysterious Ways" is quite powerful, as is "Our Prayer," sung by Nettie, Celie and Mister. 

As Celie begins her unhappy life with Mister, Nettie comes to visit. After he coldly sends her away, her disappearance hangs over the rest of Act I, and as I truly didn't recall how this would resolve itself, I'll keep things circumspect. 

But I think it fair to share that two other women become important friends to Celie, the boldly confident Sofia (Carrie Compere)--her take on "Hell No!" earns rousing applause on multiple levels--and a jazz singer named Shug Avery (Carla Stewart), who after being shown great kindness by Celie powerfully lets her know that she's "Too Beautiful for Words."

Other than to mention the additional characters of Harpo (J. Daughtry) and Squeak (Erica Dunham) mainly to cite the fine performances, any other narrative details will be left for your discovery. 

But as this is a musical, I will note "Push da Button" and "Miss Celie's Pants" as two more of the fine tunes credited to Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. 

Though the score has a few songs that don't quite dazzle, the high points are fantastic, with truly chills-inducing vocals by Hicks as Celie on "I'm Here," and remarkable work by Gregory's Mister on "Celie's Curse."

Unlike the British Doyle's noted directorial take on Sweeney Todd, in which the actors played musical instruments onstage, there is no obvious "gimmick" to this version of The Color Purple, whose return to Broadway in 2015 was relatively quick for a revival (the original production opening in NYC in 2005 and closed in 2008). 

I remember enjoying the show when I saw it at the Cadillac Palace in 2008, but not nearly this much.
My memory isn't sufficient to recollect has changed, but although the material itself doesn't quite delight me on par with Les Misérables or other musicals I consider among the very best, this is an superlative take that elevates the original score, presumably does better justice to Walker's revered novel and--based on other respected opinions--considerably improves upon the original Broadway production.

There is much that happens over the course of The Color Purple that--even in coming from rather famed source material--I don't feel right revealing in a review.

But Celie's story arc is much of what makes the show so powerful, and though you often rail at the depravity of its depiction the human condition, there is also considerable uplift.

Not only would Jean Valjean recognize a good bit of his self and spirit in the character of Celie and the aplomb with which she endures*, so too I have to believe, would Nelson Mandela.

*Just to clarify, as far as I'm aware, The Color Purple and Les Misérables were fictional novels, although steeped in history. My closing sentence might seem to suggest that Jean Valjean and Celie were real-life heroes as was Nelson Mandela, but I don't believe this to be the case.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Proud, Perplexed Papa: As Hemingway, by Himself in 'Pamplona,' Stacy Keach Provides a Remarkably Ernest Portrait -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Jim McGrath
directed by Robert Falls
starring Stacy Keach
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 19

It's October 1959, and Ernest Hemingway is holed up in a hotel room in Pamplona, the Spanish city he made world famous 33 years earlier with the publication of his venerated debut novel, The Sun Also Rises.

That book, a loosely autobiographical chronicling of the Lost Generation gallivanting across Europe after World War I, would help establish Hemingway as one of the world's most famous authors.

And, with crisply descriptive and boldly evocative language that would become his trademark, quite likely its best.

Over three decades, Hem would defend this title with the pluck of a prizefighter, or one of his beloved bullfighters. Often rhapsodizing about hunting, fishing and courage amid combat, he made the cerebral exercise of writing a manly sport often celebrated with his holy trinity:

Booze, boats and broads.

Following the renowned A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls came Hemingway's 1952 ode to a persevering fisherman--The Old Man and the Sea--which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was cited as central to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

That same year, he was nearly killed in a plane crash in Africa, and defied death in yet another the very next day.

His health, and likely his faculties, would deteriorate from injuries suffered in the crashes, but in the summer of 1959, Hem would follow a bullfighter named Antonio for an article commissioned by Life magazine.

And as the one-man play, Pamplona, opens--within a beautiful set by Kevin Depinet under the direction of Robert Falls at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--the great, proud, tough Ernest Hemingway (embodied brilliantly by Stacy Keach) sits at a typewriter in his hotel room.

And is unable to write a damn word.

So the great Hemingway instead talks, about his frailties and flaws, his four wives and lost loves, his dear friends and departed comrades (most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald), his war injuries and the bravado of bullfighters, his days hanging out in Montmartre with Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein--before Hem had become famous--his feelings about Francisco Franco and Fidel Castro, his affinity for booze and his storied books, his dreaded mother who insisted on dressing him like his sister and his dear father who would--like the famed novelist himself, in 1961--end his life with a bullet to the head.

In Jim McGrath's play, on which Keach--long a Hemingway interpreter--collaborated, it's never really clear why the novelist would apparently be orating to an audience as he meanders alone in a hotel room, but without the dramatic conceit, we'd all be sitting in silence for 90 minutes.

Instead we get a first-rate actor giving us a glimpse into the mindset, and the biography, of a famous author many may have left behind in their high school literature classes.

Though I have revisited some of Hem's novels and short stories in recent years, I wouldn't quite call myself an aficionado, but can't really say that Pamplona taught me all that much.

But not only was Keach's depiction a tour de force--all the more remarkable given that his suffering a heart attack on opening night last year curbed the world premiere run at Goodman--but my friend Ken, an avowed Hemingway acolyte, found considerable depth and definition that abetted the familiar biographical terrain.

The show program states that Pamplona takes place on October 11, 1959, so even in knowing about Hemingway's real-life ending, part of the thrill is encountering how McGrath, Keach and Falls broach that eventual reality within the context of the one-act play.

I certainly won't reveal that here, but in citing the three key traits of a bullfighter--"skill, courage and grace in the presence of death"--I think Keach as Hemingway is also shrewdly referencing the writer, even given his self-inflicted demise. 

Less than I had imagined, Pamplona isn't merely a meditation on mental duress or how a brilliant mind might realistically deal with no longer being so.

Accompanied by images projected on the hotel room walls, the monologue is consistently far more colorful than it is dour.

But with Keach brilliantly infusing Ernest Hemingway with both bluster and befuddlement, we are given a keen glimpse into how "Papa" lived life--and wrote--mixing the nimble grace and defiant machismo of a great matator, while simultaneously being provided a poignantly potent sense of perhaps why the sun also set.

After the show at a reception in the Goodman lobby, Ken and I had the thrill of meeting Stacy Keach and telling him how sensational his performance was and how happy we are that he's doing well. He was extremely gracious in return. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Music is King: Likable 'Heartbreak Hotel' Dwells on Too Much Besides Elvis -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Heartbreak Hotel
a new musical about Elvis Presley
written & directed by Floyd Mutrux
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru September 30

My understanding is that Elvis Presley's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show--on Sept. 9, 1956--didn't represent his "introduction" to most of America quite as much as The Beatles' debut on that show did on Feb. 9, 1964.

By the time Charles Laughton--not Sullivan, who was recovering from a car accident--introduced Presley midway through the hour, Elvis had already appeared on a number of TV shows during 1956, played several concerts and had had four #1 million-selling hits ("Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog").

A fifth #1 single in Elvis' breakthrough year of '56--"Love Me Tender," the title song of his first movie, the filming of which prompted him to appear on Sullivan from a Hollywood studio--would soon follow.

But the Ed Sullivan Show, a Sunday night staple in the early days of television, was generally the most-watched program in America at the time. And the approximately 60 million viewers for the first of Elvis' three appearances--nearly 83% of the TV audience--represented a new record.

Elvis would also be on Ed Sullivan on October 28--in New York, with the show's namesake--and January 6, 1957, the latter infamous for the censoring (at Parker's behest) Presley's below the waist gyrations, which only served to ramp up titillation and controversy.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
But per noted rock writer, Greil Marcus (as referenced on Wikipedia), more than any other single event, it was this first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that made Presley a national celebrity of barely precedented proportions.

With the handsome, charming and hip-shaking Elvis the Pelvis representing not only the birth of rock and roll--though certainly not unilaterally--but also the focus point of a rising teenage subculture that had never previously existed, it's almost impossible for me to gauge how exciting and seismic that September night must have felt in living rooms across America.

I'm far more a Beatlemaniac than Elvis fanatic, and have long had reverence for how much the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan changed the cultural landscape.

And although--despite being old enough--I didn't actually see, live, Michael Jackson moonwalk on Motown 25 or Nirvana blast out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on their first Saturday Night Live appearance, I've noted how captivating TV performances can not only have great musical impact, but immense societal reach.

But Elvis came first, and I have to imagine some perceived him as not just a punk but nearly a Martian.

Sure, Frank Sinatra had elicited ear-piercing screams from the bobby soxers more than a decade earlier, but that was before television, the end of World War II or rock and roll.

So, with the new musical Heartbreak Hotel centering on Elvis between 1954-57, my hope was that it would provide a sense of the frenzied excitement and on-the-precipice-of-a-revolution reaction that presumably accompanied him taking a stage in that era.

...whether on Ed Sullivan or Louisiana Hayride or in a high school gymnasium across the American South.

But while Heartbreak Hotel features tons of talent--including Eddie Clendening as a great Elvis--I found that it dwells too much on backstory, and too little on chills-inducing, culture-shifting music from the King.

With that said, I would stipulate that much of what writer/director Floyd Mutrux--who co-wrote the terrific Million Dollar Quartet--opts to focus on is both salient and historically important.

That Elvis, his initial rockabilly style of music and ultimately rock 'n roll were fused from "race music"-- whether found in gospel churches choirs or Beale Street clubs in Memphis--is a point that deserves to be made.

And Katherine Lee Bourne and Takesha Meshe Kizart (as Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and others), and the nearly show-stealing Geno Henderson (as B.B. King, Roy Brown, Chuck Berry and others), make it searingly, with sizzling performances.

Heartbreak Hotel is constantly entertaining, and the considerable stage time given to Elvis' early girlfriend Dixie Locke (Erin Burniston), Sun Records head Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie), local DJ Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian), Blue Moon Boys bandmates Scotty Moore (Matt Codina), Bill Black (Zach Lentino) & DJ Fontana (Jamie Pittie) and Elvis' eventual manager Col. Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion), reflect many people--along with his parents--who were important in Elvis' early biography.

Quite often I find that jukebox musicals--featuring well-known songs by cherished artists--and the tribute shows that are the specialty of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater are inherently enjoyable due to beloved music and excellent performances, yet short of being theatrically superb, usually owing to a lack of narrative or character development.

So it's estimable that Mutrux is trying to give us more than Elvis' greatest hits onstage. There are more than enough impersonators one can see be King for a night, if all one wants is music and an occasional "Thank ya very much."

But across three viewings--initially in its premiere run at Goodman Theatre--I found Million Dollar Quartet to be wonderful, in part because it doesn't try to do too much.

It takes a real-life occurrence--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all being at Sun Studios on Dec. 4, 1956--and with a relatively narrow focus, lets the four legends rock out over 90 minutes (in the guise of those embodying them).

There are liberties taken with the songs actually performed that night, and some biographical tidbits about recording contracts, hit records, career arcs and girlfriends interspersed between the songs, but while certainly not Shakespeare, MDQ is joyous and thrilling.

And if this new show were called Elvis Presley's America, where musical influences on him and--through his popularizing of black music--his importance amid the Civil Rights movement were presumed to be much of the gist, the structure might have seemed more sensible.

As it stands, nothing that is broached is unwarranted--and Heartbreak Hotel is far from bad--but I think it somehow needs to put Elvis Aron Presley more front and center from the get-go.

Mutrux obviously knows far more about the true circumstances than I do, and I don't doubt there were many belligerent arguments between Col. Tom and Sam Phillips, or that Elvis went to Dixie's senior prom despite scheduling conflicts.

There is also compelling drama in the almost Faustian relationship Elvis has with Parker, who for all his pomposity--and Kernion certainly plays that up here--undoubtedly abets King-sized success, whether through a bigger record deal, mass merchandising, marketing Elvis without a band and TV exposure.

I also liked the mentioning of Marlon Brando and James Dean, who--with their youthful, rebellious personas--give some nice context around Elvis seemingly rising like a phoenix.

As already noted, Bourne, Kizart and Henderson are fantastic on several songs early in the show.

And as with this endeavor overall, Burniston's Dixie is quite likable.

So there is plenty to enjoy, as it stands. (I imagine there will be ongoing tinkering.) 

But if you attend this show, ostensibly about a young Elvis, expecting Kingly jolts of electricity--as I did--you won't really get that until well into Act II.

Other than "That's All Right, Mama," there really aren't any "OMG!" Elvis classics before intermission, and prior to a post-bows Mega-Mix, few others are performed in-full or uninterrupted.

Eventually, Clendening & Co.'s romps through "Mystery Train," "All Shook Up," "Ready Teddy" and "Jailhouse Rock" gave me a sense of just how hyper-kinetic--and yes, sexually provocative--Elvis' gyrations must have been to mid-'50s teens (and their horrified parents).

And why--with perhaps just a bit of hyperbole--the history of the world can fairly be divided into "Before Elvis" and "After Elvis."

There is much reason for the applause I heartily bestowed.

But albeit with many worthy themes, messages, elements, characters and performances, Heartbreak Hotel spends far too much time foreshadowing, anticipating, discussing and dissecting the Big Bang--and not enough just showing it at full-tilt.

Or more so--as much as any not-the-actual-Elvis endeavor ever can--letting you feel it.

In your gut.

And wherever else at the end of Lonely St. you might dwell.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Don't Stop Believin' in Rock of Ages: Def Leppard, Journey and The Pretenders Make for a Fun Night at the Friendly Confines -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Def Leppard
w/ opening act The Pretenders
July 14, 2018
Wrigley Field, Chicago
Composite rating: @@@@

In my early teens, Def Leppard were among my five favorite rock bands in the world.

I loved their 1981 second album, High 'n' Dry--with lead single "Let It Go" and then "Bringin' on the Heartbreak"--and 1983's terrific follow-up, Pyromania, made the British quintet true superstars.

Although I was starting to go to rock concerts around then, I still recall ruing that Def Lep--who merited a poster on my bedroom wall and my owning a logo-emblazoned sleeveless Union Jack t-shirt--never played a headlining show in Chicago in the wake of Pyromania (merely a slot opening for Billy Squier, which I didn't attend).

Like many fans, I waited anxiously as the band--whose drummer, Rick Allen, lost his left arm in an car accident on New Year's Eve 1984, but remains in Def Leppard to this day--took 4+ years to return with Hysteria in August 1987.

Although it was the first newly released album I ever bought on CD and became a huge hit with several singles--"Pour Some Sugar on Me," "Love Bites," "Armageddon It" and the title track--I didn't like it nearly as much as the preceding albums.

I finally saw Def Leppard live at the Rosemont Horizon in October 1987, but really haven't care much for or about any of their subsequent material.

Still, they've impressively remained a sizable concert draw, and I saw them with my main concert pal, Paolo, in 2009.

Although we didn't initially jump on getting tickets to their co-headlining show with Journey last Saturday at Wrigley Field, the combination of my favorite place on Earth and $26 tickets on StubHub prompted our eager attendance on what turned out to be a beautiful night.

Adding considerably to the appeal was "special guest," The Pretenders, who took the stage to a half-empty stadium at 6:00pm.

Sporting blonde hair these days, a sixty-something Chrissie Hynde--truly one of the greatest women in rock history--sounded great out front of the five-piece band.

Although I don't know that Def Leppard and Journey are a perfect match for each other, The Pretenders wouldn't seem to quite fit in any real way other than chronologically.

I think they're the best of the three bands--historically and, albeit in the sunshine without any visual accoutrements, on this night as well.

Of course, they only got 45 minutes of stage time--about half of each headliner--but made good use of it, with largely a "greatest hits" 10-song set.

Hynde, original drummer Martin Chambers and a trio of more recent members began with "Message of Love" and powered through "Kid," "Back on the Chain Gang," "My City Was Gone," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Talk of the Town" and "Middle of the Road," among others. (See the Pretenders setlist here.)

I would've liked to have heard "Brass in Pocket" from the band's terrific 1980 debut album, but despite feeling a tad dwarfed, the performance was pretty special nonetheless. (Although we were seated in the upper deck, the acoustics were rather solid all night long.)

Next up, still in bright daylight at about 7:15pm, was Journey.

Now, the first thing I--and perhaps others--think about with Journey is that Steve Perry, the lead singer from their heyday, remains out of the band, as he has for the past 20 years.

To his great credit, vocalist Arnel Pineda--who joined in 2007 after lead guitarist Neil Schon found him singing for a Philippines cover band on YouTube--sounds just like Perry.

He is also a highly amiable and energetic presence, and from the opening notes of "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," the set was full of Journey chestnuts that sounded swell on a beautiful night with a great friend in my favorite place (a few nearby asshats not withstanding).

Although Journey was hugely popular back in my teen years, they--like contemporaries REO Speedwagon and Styx--were on the wrong side of cool for me to really embrace them. Or more likely, I was.

But tunes like "Lights," "Open Arms," "Any Way You Want It," "Faithfully," "Wheel in the Sky" and "Don't Stop Believin'" are rather indelible, and all and more were well-delivered at Wrigley. (Full setlist)

This was my first live Journey experience, and I sufficiently enjoyed it.

Along with founding member, Schon, bassist Ross Valory, drummer Steve Smith and keyboardist Jonathan Cain all date back to at least 1980 (though some have been in and out over the years).

Yet still, though I hold nothing against the terrific Pineda and can't claim any devout allegiance to Perry, it still felt like I was watching the world's best Journey tribute band.

Journey had put out three largely forgotten albums in the mid-'70s before Steve Perry joined the band and co-wrote and originally sang most of the hits that the crowd relished on Saturday.

Perry was part of the band's 2017 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but didn't perform any songs with them, so whatever squabbles led to his excommunication, it's quite possible he's no longer able, willing or wanting to tour with Journey.

Pineda really does seem like the next best thing, and he and the band sounded as good as one could hope (see the video I shot of "Don't Stop Believin'" below).

But it still doesn't quite feel like I've seen Journey, in a holistic, historic sense.

As for Def Leppard, most of the classic quintet remains intact--save for the late Steve Clark, long replaced by Vivian Campbell--and just shy of 59, singer Joe Elliot's still sounds pretty good, gravelly voice and all.

With the benefit of the sun having set, and all kinds of lights, lasers and video backdrops, the band put on a show as strong as its best material (for me, the three Pyromania tunes: "Foolin'," "Rock of Ages" and "Photograph") and as weak as its worst.

Though much of the Hysteria stuff is rather dumb--the show-opening "Rocket," the bad pun of "Armageddon It," the pole-dancing anthem that is "Pour Some Sugar on Me"--I'll grant that it's crowd-pleasing and sufficiently fun.

But tunes like "When Love and Hate Collide," the saccharine ballad "Two Steps Behind" and especially "Man Enough" exemplified why I haven't considered myself much of a Def Lep fan for 30 years, if not more like 35.

I was glad they reached back to High 'n' Dry for "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" and "Switch 625," but would've relished hearing "Let It Go," "You Got Me Runnin'" and another Pyromania song or two.

As my @@@@ (out of 5) composite rating attests--roughly covering my assessment of both headlining bands, and the Pretenders great-but-brief set--this was a show I enjoyed, especially for the low price.

It won't go down as one of my favorite concerts, even this month, but given my relatively middling levels of fandom for Def Leppard and Journey, I wouldn't have expected it too.

If you love either or both bands, and thought they were fantastic, I wouldn't argue.

Neither did anything to disappoint, and largely delighted. Their performances just didn't make me any more fervent a fan than I was in arriving at the Friendly Confines.

I'm glad I didn't have to sit through any thunderstorms to see it, but--while bringing out the over-zealous and over-served, never a great combination--the triple-bill made for a swell wrock 'n wroll show on a summer night at Wrigley.

Here are videos I shot of "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Photograph," which closed the sets for Journey and Def Leppard, respectively.


Monday, July 16, 2018

The Reshaping of Water: Michael Shannon & Co. Elevate Ionesco's 'Victims of Duty' in A Red Orchid Reprise -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Victims of Duty
by Eugène Ionesco
directed by Shira Piven
A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 5

The late French playwright Eugène Ionesco was known as one of the pioneering and principal practitioners of Theater of the Absurd.

If a Wikipedia description can be trusted, in absurdist plays, "logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech."

Although I love surrealistic paintings and theoretically appreciate things that "are different," I admittedly struggle with the avant garde, overly interpretive and/or non-linear when it comes to movies and live entertainment.

While I've enjoyed several plays by Edward Albee and, generally, Christopher Nolan's abstractions--e.g. Memento, Inception--too much confusion has left me cold about works by Samuel Beckett, a rather incoherent Tennessee Williams' play called Camino Real, performance theater such as Fuerza Bruta, films like Mother, Melancholia and The Tree of Life and a dreamlike modern ballet recently done by the Joffrey.

Photo credit on all current production photos: fadeout foto
Basically, if I "don't get it," I don't love it, and once I find things hard to follow, my focus tends to wander.

I realize this may sound rather simplistic, but even if not so proudly, my proclivities are for the more easily digestible.

So although I believe it important to occasionally challenge yourself, the opportunity to see an Ionesco play is not what drew me to the 80-seat A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago's Old Town.

No, quite candidly, I was excited to attend Victims of Duty because I wanted to see Michael Shannon act live on stage.

I won't pretend not to be star struck, fascinated by celebrity, beguiled by local heroes, etc.

But my answer to the question "Who is the world's best actor, right now?" would--with deference to Mssrs. De Niro, Hoffman, Duvall, Pacino and other legends of that ilk, and still ruing the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman--most likely be:

"Michael Shannon."

So it isn't just that the soon-to-turn 44-year-old, Evanston-bred actor has starred in numerous notable films--favorites of mine include Take Shelter, 99 Homes, Midnight Special and 2017's The Shape of Water--and been Oscar-nominated twice.

With no disrespect--and plenty of admiration--meant to his longtime and current A Red Orchid colleagues, I'm not sure there is anyone (especially if were only talking men in this sentence) any better at his craft, both on film and in theater, which he clearly still loves.

This was actually the fifth time I've seen Shannon, dating back to 1993 in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe at Evanston's Next Theater Lab, before I had any clue who he would become.

I also saw him in one of my favorite plays--Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, at Steppenwolf in 2006--and in Craig Wright's Lady the next year at Northlight.

And even after he became a major film star, in 2013 he came back to A Red Orchid to star in Sam Shepard's Simpatico with Guy Van Swearingen and Mierka Gierten--both also in Victims of Duty--and I felt lucky to get a ticket.

Lest you think I'm the only one largely drawn by Shannon, the entire run of Victims of Duty is already sold out.

As such, I realize this review barely even matters.

But Michael Shannon, at times less than a foot away from the audience, is--without ever hogging the spotlight--every bit as good as you'd hope he'd be.

Also quite superlative are Van Swearingen and an astonishing Karen Aldridge as Choubert and Madeline, a married couple who begin Victims of Duty casually chatting among each other as he reads a newspaper. (A full bathtub sits amid them, but neither is in it, yet.)

Along with other topics, they discuss contemporary entertainment--Ionesco wrote this play in 1953--with Choubert opining that "there has never been much evolution in the theater" and that "all plays are the same," typically involving a detective and a readily-solvable riddle.

Soon, an actual detective--played by Shannon--is in their midst, asking if they know a man named Mallot or Mallod, with T or D at the end key to the inquiry.

The interrogation continues, and Choubert is pushed deep into the recesses of his memory. With disturbing recollections about his father and mother, lines of reality get considerably blurred.

Not only did I occasionally wonder, "Is this real?" but even just, "What the heck is going on?"

I can't tell you that I found the storyline itself either clear or fantastic, though per the definition of Theater of the Absurb, my confusion was probably part of the point.

And while how I can see how the play's totalitarian themes are quite resonant today, I thought overt touches--such as waving small American flags and at one point depicting a member of Trump's cabinet in the video backdrop--felt unnecessary.

But not only was the acting outstanding, with both a bathtub and small pool onstage everyone--including acclaimed movie star Michael Shannon--winds up absolutely soaked.

To the point that, at a matinee I wondered if they wouldn't catch cold and have to miss subsequent performances.

Victims of Duty is a one-act play of about 90 minutes, and much of the way through do two other characters appear.

One is a mysterious woman played by Gierten, and the other is the rather philosophical Nicholas d'Eu, embodied with bristling outrage by the always stellar Richard Cotovsky.

With my @@@@ (out of 5) rating, I am trying to incorporate a fair assessment the play itself, including my understanding and appreciation of it.

But I believe it both true and valid that one can attend and enjoy live theater for reasons that go beyond the particular merits of the piece being performed.

Here you had the chance to see a famous actor as close up as can be, and he was phenomenal.

But this wasn't just Michael Shannon doing a play in a small room, this was him--along with Van Swearingen and director Shira Piven--reprising a play A Red Orchid had done back in 1995.

And as A Red Orchid is celebrating its 25th anniversary--still in its original location at 1531 N. Wells--that two of the five cast members are holdovers, a third (Gierten) is also an ARO ensemble member, the luminous Aldridge brings tons of great local & Broadway credits and Cotovsky--long the artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theater--is a local legend, well all that too makes this something special to behold.

If I was confused, so be it.

I was also mesmerized, astonished, appreciative, a bit concerned for the actors' health and perhaps just a bit more embracing of the absurd.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Killer Performances: Marriott's 'Murder for Two' a Farce to Be Reckoned With -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Murder for Two
a musical comedy
Marriott Theatre
Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 26

The question with Murder for Two--beyond "Whodunit?"--seems not really to be "Will you like it?" but "How much?"

Reflected by the rabid standing ovation awarded on the show's opening night, it's hard to imagine anyone not being considerably impressed, at least by the performances of Jason Grimm and Noel Carey.

The only two people in the cast, both men act, sing and play the piano. 

With music by Joe Kinosian, lyrics by Kellen Blair and a book credited to both, under the direction of Scott Weinstein at Marriott Theatre Carey embodies Marcus Moscowitz, a cop who stumbles upon the murder of mystery novelist Arthur Whitney and begins to investigate.

He enters the crime scene, Whitney's mansion--here, a spiffy, rotating set by Scott Davis--and begins to interview the suspects, each a house guest played by Grimm.

Yes, while Murder for Two is a musical, comedy, mystery thriller, detective story, farce and something of an onstage film noir, most emphatically it is a 12-character showcase for an extremely talented actor--in this case Mr. Grimm.

It would probably be funnier for you to come across these characterizations without being all too aware, so I will only note that among those Grimm rotates through are Whitney's widow, an all-too-eager niece named Steph--who sings "He Needs a Partner"--and a (presumably) beautiful ballerina.

Unlike Marriott Theatre's stock in trade, the 90-minute Murder for Two isn't a first-rate Broadway musical, yet Carey and Grimm's vocalizations and piano playing are terrific throughout.

And songs like--the presumably titled, as there is no songlist in the program--"A Friend Like You" and the wickedly funny "We've Seen a Lot Worse" are quite enjoyable.

As already noted, Murder for Two should be entirely likeable to almost anyone who sees it, including Marriott's vast subscriber base. It is unique, clever and wonderfully performed.

It was nice for a change of pace--and one friend dubbed it fantastic--but I didn't quite like it on par with a sensational full-fledged musical. 

And while it may remind of Sunset Boulevard--both the Billy Wilder film and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on it--as well as Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap and Humphey Bogart film noirs like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, it only really achieves greatness as a whimsical performance piece, not a musical, murder mystery, character study, etc.

None of which means "don't see it."

Grimm and Carey themselves are worth the price of admission.

But it's summer in Chicagoland and there are lots of things to do, not just including theater to see. 

So while Murder for Two is sure to delight, whether it's worth killing yourself--let alone anyone else--to get to it is a mystery only you can properly unravel.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Best Face Forward: In Its Chicago Premiere at Steep, 'Linda' Addresses Feminine Aging (and Much More) with Considerable Depth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Penelope Skinner
directed by Robin Witt
Steep Theatre Co., Chicago
Thru August 18

As Penelope Skinner's 2015 drama, Linda, begins, the title character--wonderfully played at Steep Theatre by Kendra Thulin--has a life many would likely find enviable.

She is a highly-successful, "award winning" senior executive with the Swan Beauty Corp., where she has long championed marketing campaigns focused on holistic beauty across all ages and appearances.

Proudly wearing the same size as 15 years earlier, she has great clothes, plenty of poise, an attractive young assistant, Luke (Omer Abbas Salem), a handsome, literate husband, Neil (Peter Moore), two intelligent daughters--teenage Bridget (Caroline Phillips) and twenty-something Alice (Destini Huston)--and a killer kitchen in a posh home, presumably somewhere in England (as everyone employs a British accent).

But within a matter of days, things start to unravel and existing fissures are further revealed.

I'll be circumspect about specifics, but Linda is demoralized and demeaned by her boss, Dave (Jim Poole), patronized by Amy (Rochelle Therrien)--a beautiful young subordinate who professes admiration while aiming to pass her by--haunted by circumstances of her past and parents, rocked by Neil's rock star fantasies embodied by a singer named Stevie (Lucy Carapetyan) and dealing with being a woman of 55, summed up by her espousing:

"I feel invisible."

With Alice damaged and depressed due a high school incident a decade earlier--she now dresses daily in a onesie with a tail--and Bridget largely ignored or disparaged, Linda is also clearly not Mother of the Year material. 

Under the fine direction of Robin Witt at the consistently stellar Steep, the British playwright Skinner--considerably younger than her main character--nicely contrasts Linda's professional aplomb with her maternal aloofness, while also reflecting how the "embrace the real you" conceit of her cherished True Beauty marketing campaign doesn't carry through to her conversations with her own daughters.

On various fronts, Linda isn't a perfect person, but I sensed that she's a pretty good one.

And while Linda--which feels a tad overstuffed across 2-1/2 hours--isn't quite a perfect play, it's definitely an estimable and thought-provoking one.

Per Steep executive director Kate Piatt-Eckert, this play was slated months prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement, but although it deals with many issues beyond sexual assault/harassment, it couldn't feel any more relevant or resonant.

I've often said that one of the most compelling aspects of theater is in the way it helps you see the world through someone else's eyes.

And much as I've valued plays chronicling people of races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and identities different than mine, Linda abetted my understanding of what women often face.

Most overtly it concerns itself with the personal and professional challenges of females over 50, while smartly observing belittling double standards and patronizing male perspectives.

Bridget, who dares to approach a school drama audition with proud audacity--"Hamlet is a wankfest for boys," she declares--relays how a male teacher told her that it's most important for women "to be likable."

I very much also valued how slyly powerful Linda is in addressing the complicated subject of feminine beauty.

Though still an attractive woman at 55, Linda vents in a couple of scenes about her waning desirability, while noting the dichotomy between her and her husband, who had "married up" but has become the more striking and "fuckable" of the two as they've aged.

And while Alice and Amy are both beautiful women in their twenties, as the latter plays up her appearance, the former has felt so objectified that she now does everything she can to make men not notice her looks.

Pretty interesting stuff, enhanced by Linda--who has made quite a living marketing beauty products--arguing with Dave and Amy about the future direction of Swan Beauty Corp. and how they should promote themselves.

Not as a marketing slogan but as a wry observation as her life is falling apart, Linda at one point ruminates:

"If you look perfect, everyone thinks your life is perfect."

And smartly, Linda isn't only a dissection of feminine aging--as shrewd as it is about it.

It is a multi-faceted piece that offers powerful insights about, and for, women--and men--of all ages, with perceptivity that goes far beyond skin deep.