Monday, June 02, 2014

Goldstar's Comp Train Brings Me to a Brilliant 'Wit' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a play by Margaret Edson
directed by Derek Bertelsen
Presented by AstonRep at
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7

Almost anytime it applies, I mention--whether in blog reviews or in person--the possibilities of getting discount tickets through Goldstar or HotTix.

Both are outstanding services, but whereas HotTix focuses primarily on theater and performing arts realms in the Chicago area, with half-price tickets (+ fees) generally only for shows within a given week or with even less lead time, Goldstar offers discounts in many U.S. cities covering a wider variety of events, including sports and concerts.

Although registration/membership is required to utilize Goldstar, it is free and easy. The only charge is a service fee on each ticket purchased, similar to HotTix, Ticketmaster and any third-party ticket seller that's ever existed.

I've saved hundreds of dollars on many great performances and games purchased through Goldstar, which lists events with longer lead times than HotTix, usually for half-price (+ fee) but sometimes a bit more or even a good bit less.

Recently, Goldstar introduced its "Comp Train," consisting of free ticket offers requiring only the service fee.

Although--in general--I hear about or seek out events of various types that interest me, it was only through Goldstar's Comp Train (found on its website and app) that I learned of a play called Wit, being staged at the Raven Theatre on Chicago's North Side.

I subsequently learned that the play, written by Margaret Edson, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama but didn't have a Broadway run until 2012. And though I didn't find Tribune or Sun-Times reviews, this production--staged at the Raven complex by AstonRep Theater--seemed to be worthwhile based on the press I did see.

Was it ever.

Certainly for just a $6 service fee, but even if I had paid many times that, I still would regard it as one of the best plays I've seen this year, and beyond.

Though admittedly, without the Comp Train, I don't know if I would've gotten on-board even if I'd otherwise heard about this drama about a professor/scholar on the 17th century holy sonnets of John Donne, who--as the play opens--has been hit with the news that she has incurable, stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer.

Or basically, a death sentence.

But as Dr. Vivian Bearing, Alexandra Bennett--shaved head and all, and who I learned in an excellent post-show discussion, is herself a professor of 17th century drama--is simply superb from the first word.

And most of her words are spoken directly to the audience, through "the fourth wall," making Wit not only a powerful and poignant play covering questions of life, death, coping, language, poetry, teaching, medical research, bedside manner, isolation, self-reliance and more, but a rather uniquely-structured one.

So while I couldn't help but be reminded of 33 Variations, a 2007 Mois├ęs Kaufman play about a Beethoven scholar who becomes gravely ill, and which similarly blends a study of legendary artistic genius with contemporary humanity--I saw a terrific production at TimeLine Theater in 2012--AstonRep's Wit is just as good if not better.

Director Derek Bertelsen, who helmed an outstanding production of The Children's Hour earlier this year for Pride Films and Plays, seems to get just the right tonality--sad but not maudlin, humorous at times but more affecting for it--from Bennett and the rest of a terrific cast.

As was illuminated by the post-show discussion, it is quite conceivable that actors could imbue a variety of sensibilities in Vivian's two doctors, who are more researchers conducting experimental treatments for learning's sake than physicians hoping to cure or even comfort her.

But while Robert Tobin (Dr. Kelekian, the head researcher) and Drew Wieland (Jason, a fellow under Kelekian) do exhibit a detached coldness in service to Edson's script--the writer spent years working at Johns Hopkins--Bertelsen and the actors do not demonize the doctors, instilling them with steely focus but not indifference.

As a nurse named Susie, who is not only Vivian's most acute caregiver, but the closest thing she has to a confidant, Alison Plott also delivers a terrifically nuanced performance.

One may not readily envision a performance seen essentially gratis might do optimal justice to a given work, but while Wit is a terrific play, it's hard to imagine a more finely-tuned production than is presented by AstonRep, regardless of its rather small setting and sparsity of scenery.

And though those more versed in "metaphysical poetry" may get much more out of the academic explorations, one need not have such expertise to realize that this Wit is extremely well Donne.

The remaining performances of Wit take place this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark in Chicago. These shows aren't offered for free on Goldstar, but as of this writing there are tickets for $13.75 including fees. Others may be available directly through the Box Office.

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