Thursday, October 05, 2017

More Good Than Great, 'Choir Boy' a Graceful Way for Longstanding Leaders to Bid Raven Nevermore -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Choir Boy
by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Michael Menendian
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 12

I have been going to plays by the Raven Theatre since 2002, soon after the troupe renovated a former grocery store at 6157 N. Clark Street and made it one of Chicago's most comfortable theater venues.

But the Raven was founded long before that, in 1983, by husband and wife Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro, who have continued to serve as Co-Artistic Directors, until now.

I don't know exactly when the couple's retirement will take effect, but it was announced this past June that this will be their final season with Raven.

So presumably the current Choir Boy will be the last show of many Menendian has directed for the company--he isn't slated to lead any others already announced through June--and Montemurro, who has acted in several plays I've seen, serves as the costume designer.

Photo credit on all: Dean La Prairie
Though I wound up not loving the play as much as I had hoped--due to a somewhat diffuse storyline mixed with a staging that seemed a bit disjointed--it is a rather intriguing selection, and a classy way for Menendian and Montemurro to bid the Raven "Nevermore."

Choir Boy is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, an actor & playwright who co-wrote the Oscar-winning movie, Moonlight, and shared its 2016 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The movie's screenplay is credited to its director, Barry Jenkins, based on McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.)

McCraney, who is black, openly gay, a DePaul Theater grad, Steppenwolf ensemble member and the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, bases Choir Boy within an all-male, African-American prep school.

The play's central character, Pharus (an excellent Christopher W. Jones) is the star and leader of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys' prestigious chorus and, while not pronouncing it to his classmates and headmaster, known to be gay.

This makes him a target of derision, most overtly from the impetuous Bobby (Patrick Agada), who happens to be the nephew of the headmaster (Robert D. Hardaway).

While I can perceive the difficulty in making the constant clashing between Bobby and Pharus feel like something we haven't seen many times before, not only doesn't it, but at the same time it never seems to get heated enough.

And yet, while my noting that Choir Boy goes far beyond being just about a gay kid getting bullied may sound quite positive, I actually found the play weakened by too many competing strains.

In just 90 minutes--which was actually made to feel a good bit longer at the Raven despite strong performances throughout and a fine set design Ray Toler--we get some rather strong choir singing and several substantive interactions between Pharus, the Headmaster, Bobby and the three other members depicted onstage, including Pharus' roommate, Anthony (Tamarus Harvell). (Darren Patin and Julian Terrell Otis also merit mention.)

Even more diffusely, the narrative brings in a former headmaster (Don Tieri) to serve as the teacher of a newly-introduced class and faculty sponsor of the chorus. Though said to have legitimate marched-with-MLK civil rights props, the white, seemingly well-meaning Mr. Pendleton comes as cluelessly racist and insensitive.

Presumably part of McCraney's point is to highlight the dichotomies within us all. But in one scene Pendleton provides sage guidance to the current headmaster--who seems more concerned with job security than doing the right thing--about the historical certainty of homosexuality within a male prep school, but when Bobby demeans Pharus with slurs tied to race and sexuality, the teacher only berates him for the former.

Yet while Choir Boy doesn't bristle with enough tension for me to call it fantastic, it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, with quality to be found in numerous aspects of this production (including the singing, and discussion, of spirituals, though this isn't a musical).

So although this isn't the best show Montemurro and Menendian have collaborated on--a 2009 rendition of Death of a Salesman, in which she played Linda under his direction, was particularly splendid--it is nonetheless a fine way for them to say farewell. ("Nevermore" being undoubtedly overused even before I employed it twice already here.)

34 straight years of doing anything is pretty impressive, and their having run a theater company--including not only staging quality works but overseeing the fundraising and transformation of a fantastic new space--certainly deserves my admiration and thanks.

And, if less acutely than all-encompassingly, quite a bit of...

Outright Raven.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Sounds good Seth but you may be preaching to the choir.