Saturday, May 19, 2018

Oh, Baby: Northlight's 'Cry It Out' Smartly Gets to the Heart of a New Mother's Dilemma -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Cry It Out
by Molly Smith Metzler
directed by Jessica Fisch
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 17

Without ever having been a husband or father, I've never been acutely involved in child rearing discussions or decisions.

Though an uncle of three, I also wouldn't purport to have any real understanding of early childhood development and what might be "best" for a baby, his/her mother or father--or why--on any level.

I also appreciate--as astutely explored in Molly Smith Metzler's excellent 100-minute play, Cry It Out, now in a stellar production at Northlight--that the "choice" about whether a new mother will stay at home with her child or return to the workforce is multifaceted, and likely never easy.

Whether highly successful in a career she's worked years to ascend within, or in a job that may not be wonderful but which provides essential income, any mom--and dad--with each child seemingly must weigh not only financial matters, but parameters pertaining to insurance coverage, maternity leave stipulations, future employment marketability, day care options/quality/cost and more.

Without getting too specific, I've observed a relative--quite accomplished in her rather specialized field, and with the blessing of in-laws quite willing to regularly watch the baby--return to her job, only to fairly soon then decide to be a full-time mom, prompted in part by heartbreakingly hearing her son call his grandma "Mommy."

So even though it's not a dilemma I've personally had to deal with, I'm quite empathetic to its complexity, difficulty and innate unfairness--whether societal, classist, sexist or simply biological.

Neither wanting to be with your child nor wishing to continue your career--or just earn a paycheck--seems wrong to me, and I would never judge anyone for the decision they make, especially given all the mitigating factors.

Metzler's play, nicely directed by Jessica Finch, centers around a first-time mom named Jessie (an excellent Darci Nalepa), who is a seasoned, partner-track lawyer on maternity leave from a big-name Manhattan law firm.

She and her unseen husband Nate--well-to-do himself and the son of quite wealthy parents who live nearby--have relocated from NYC to the quaint Port Washington on Long Island, much as Metzler and her husband actually did when she was pregnant.

As the play opens, Jessie is joined in her backyard by a neighboring, likewise baby-monitor-wielding new mom named Lina (Laura Lapidus, who is truly wonderful).

The two had recently met at a local store, and their ongoing "mommy meetups" over a matter of weeks form the structural heart of Cry It Out.

There is considerable candid, and occasionally explicit, discussion of maternal biology matters, with Lina being a rather sassy hoot.

Though not married, she is living with the baby's father in his mother's house. Money is clearly much tighter than for Jessie's family, and--without giving anything much away--Lina has already decided that she will soon return to work, while Jessie is intending not to.

Two other characters factor into the one-act play: a very wealthy but discordant husband and wife named Mitchell (the always great Gabriel Ruiz) and Adrienne (Kristina Valada-Viars, who does a fine job with a harsh characterization), herself also a new mom.

I've often said that any play, regardless of its subject matter or how closely it relates to one's own life, can be excellent, insightful and enlightening.

Cry It Out proves this, and--without being qualitatively definitive--I liked it far more than Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, which I had seen well-staged at Writers Theatre just two nights earlier. 

From the get-go, Cry It Out just feels fresh, with Metzler's script deftly mixing poignancy and humor, and Lapidus and Nalepa especially seeming perfectly cast.

Forming the play's core, Jessie's and Lina's conversations, developing friendship, concerns and candor feel quite real and believable, and the crux of their "should I stay (home) or should I go (back to work)?" dilemma is eminently empathetic.

Though the characters of Gabriel and Adrienne are well-enacted, they're not quite as convincing, and a couple of late scenes involving one or the other--notably, they're never onstage together--feel like they were reached, perhaps still imperfectly, after numerous rewrites and adjustments. (This isn't a world premiere play, but rather recent.)

Yet--while I'll avoid any narrative details--Adrienne does add significantly to the considerations addressed in Cry It Out. 

Even for new parents who have the financial luxury not to have to return to work anytime soon, the choice isn't automatic, and shouldn't be seen by others as obvious.

And obviously, I won't reveal more about how this smart play unfolds, but the course it takes--in sometimes realistically ambiguous ways--only enhances my appreciation and recommendation.

For whether it's about this specific topic or many others, there seems to be a universal truth in choices not always being entirely up to us, and that sometimes there really isn't a right or wrong answer.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

40 Years On in the Heartless Heartland: At Writers Theatre, Sam Shepard's 'Buried Child' Offers More Symbolism Than Scintillation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard
directed by Kimberly Senior
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru June 17

In writing theater reviews, all I can fairly do is try to reflect my own perception, enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of a certain show--and actually, a certain production and performance of that show--in the time and place that I saw it.

While I have now seen and reviewed enough works--over 500 different titles--to feel comfortable in forming and sharing opinions in a way that might help others decide how to allot their theater-going time and money, I do not purport to be the most studied of critics.

I am no more right or wrong than anyone else, be it an esteemed critic or random audience member, but I tell it like I see it, not how I'm supposed to see it.

In eagerly attending the opening night of Buried Child at Glencoe's beautiful Writers Theatre, I knew that it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the legendary Sam Shepard--who died last July--first staged in 1978.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
I'd never seen it, but did once read it, and was somewhat aware of descriptions such as this, from Wikipedia:

"The postmodern style that Shepard uses incorporates surrealism and symbolism in the realistic framework of a family drama."

And in watching it, alongside my pal Ken who doesn't regularly attend theater, I was able to appreciate that the nearly 3-hour, 3-act play takes its time, staying at a solid simmer, unhurried in its exposition until the last 30 minutes or so, by which time my eyelids were starting to droop.

Clearly the acting is excellent, led by Chicago stalwart Larry Yando as Dodge, an old, curmudgeonly alcoholic.

As he sits on his couch--somewhere in downstate Illinois--drinking, smoking and hacking, his banter with Shannon Cochran as his wife Hallie, while she remains unseen in an upstairs bedroom, is delightful, even as it takes its time driving things forward.

By the end of Act I, we learn--if not entirely explicitly--that Dodge and Hallie have three sons: mentally-addled Tilden (Mark Montgomery), crippled & ornery Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane) and previously passed Ansel.

The second act brings their grandson (and Tilden's son) Vince (Shane Kenyon) to the house--well-designed by Jack Magaw--along with Shelly (a terrific Arti Ishak), who is easily the most likable character in this strange show.

I've seen several prior shows directed by Kimberly Senior, and trust that she got the essence out of Shepard's script, which covers a lot on its surface--dysfunctional families, dreams that don't come true--and probably even more beneath it.

Buried Child, whose third act features a charged monologue by Kenyon--that I admittedly didn't catch every word of--is definitely an estimable work, and it provided fodder for considerable post-show discussion between Ken and me.

Any show that slyly addresses disillusionment with the American dream, the antiquated attitudes of a white rural patriarchy and the downturn of family farming clearly has some substance--and this leaves unstated the grim revelation referenced by the play's title.

But it would be disingenuous to imply that I loved this play, one that multiple sources have dubbed a

I just didn't.

At least on my first live encounter. With a production that itself seems quite strong. 

And even Ken, who seemed to get a bit more from Buried Child than I did, really only saw this stellar production as meriting @@@@ (out of 5) at best.

My aim is never to dissuade anyone from seeing a show they are intending to, and that certainly shouldn't be the case here. Writers Theatre regularly does stellar work, and no one should construe that I thought this highly-acclaimed play was "bad."

I just didn't find it as great as I had hoped. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Art Lover Paints a Socially Realistic Portrait of a Young Man in 'Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse' -- Book Review

Book Review

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse
a novel by Arthur D. Hittner
published by Apple Ridge Fine Arts

Amazon product page (Kindle version)

Although it involves many subjects that interest me--American art of the 1930s, baseball, New York City, Judaism, questions of faith, beautiful women, romantic dilemmas, racial divides, social stridency, cultural enlightenment and more--I only learned of the historical fiction novel, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse, because the author himself asked me to read it.

Clearly an art lover, collector and historian in addition to being a writer--and retired attorney--Arthur Hittner contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago after coming across a review/recap I had written about a 2016 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition titled America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s.

Some of the included artists that I cited in my review--Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, Stuart Davis--factor into Hittner's book, and also noting my baseball fandom, the Massachusetts & Arizona resident surmised I might enjoy reading and reviewing his novel.

After advising him that I can be an intermittent and dispassionate reader, who might realistically not complete his book for several months, I found myself rather feverishly digesting the 301-page Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--via a Kindle app--in less than a week.

So I clearly enjoyed the book, and especially if at least a few of the topics above interest you, I strongly recommend it.

Not quite as a masterpiece, but a very engaging and informative read.

Below I will share more about the book's storyline and inspiration--including aspects Hittner cited to entice me to read it--but if you're already thinking it sounds like something you may wish to check out, it may be prudent to STOP READING THIS REVIEW NOW (and return AFTER you've read the book).


Knowing any of the following shouldn't really ruin the experience of reading Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--and may well enhance it--but I somewhat wish I was a bit less initiated beforehand.

For the novel grew out of a non-fiction book Hittner wrote called At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz.

Rabinovitz was a transplant to the NYC art scene, whose work in the 1930s earned a good deal of acclaim, if not lasting fame. (I had never heard of him until now.)

Although Hittner fictionalizes some aspects of his protagonist in Artist, Soldier, Love, Muse, the character of Henry Kapler is, like the real Rabinovitz, a Jewish alum of Yale who moves from Springfield, MA to New York City.

Hittner even imagines Kapler painting works that were really created by Rabinovitz (I could only find a few online, including one I'll included below and the self-portrait adorning Hittner's biography; I imagine more are within).

There's nothing wrong with drawing quite direct inspiration from a fine artist of the era, largely lost to history, and I'm fascinated to learn of Harold Rabinovitz (reminding me of my discovery of a little-known but terrific Impressionist named Federico Zandomeneghi).

But knowing the title of Hittner's Rabinovitz biography--and the author spelled out a bit more in his email to me--can clue you in a bit too robustly about what will happen in the novel.

One of my minor quibbles with Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (whose title is even a tad too revelatory for my tastes) is that the fine narrative Hittner develops--which along with considerable artistic exposition involves two attractive women Henry Kapler befriends, one of whom is dating a notorious New York Yankee (who really existed)--doesn't unwind the way I thought it should have.

Obviously, the author is entitled to make whatever choices he feels proper--and this doesn't change my overall impression of the book--but I feel the end is too tied to fact, rather than following the fiction in a more intriguing direction.

Eventide, by Harold Rabinovitz, 
As noted above, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse addresses a number of topics, and while Hittner interweaves them artfully, some--including commentary on racial discrimination and references to art luminaries of the times--get relatively short shrift.

But in saying that, I must admit that while detailed descriptions of Kapler's--and, probably, really Rabinovitz's paintings--engaged me, the parts about his romantic entanglements kept me turning the pages a bit more profusely.

So while a sound-byte summary of this book would likely reference a young, social realist painter bucking his Jewish father's wishes to make his way in the New York art scene of the 1930s--and this certainly did intrigue me--it also has more universal elements that, if not quite as educational, are fun to ingest.

While Hittner demonstrates considerable deftness in his writing, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse doesn't quite have the depth to call it a stroke of genius.

But it definitely paints an intriguing picture of a certain time, place, talented artist, coming-of-age story and more, rather realistically.

Perhaps even a touch too much so. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Long, Storied Lives: Centenarian Sisters Speak Volumes in 'Having Our Say' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 10

Theatrically speaking, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years is a rather simple affair.

Two actresses--at Goodman, the terrific tandem of Marie Thomas and Ella Joyce--embody centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, respectively, as they regale the audience about their lives.

The sisters--who lived together for most of their lives, in their native Raleigh, NC, Harlem and Mount Vernon, NY--speak of their parents, siblings and numerous acquaintances, but while projected photos adorn Linda Buchanan's beautiful set, there are no other characters onstage.

So while calling it a play isn't inaccurate, Having Our Say is more like a spoken autobiography, times two.

I had first encountered this piece--written for the stage by Emily Mann, based on a New York Times article and then book by Amy Hill Hearth--in a 2014 production by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater.

Given the much smaller budget of FJT, that rendition was far more visually spartan, but the essence was largely similar, and acting also stellar. 

Even on a grander scale at Goodman--where it is clearly lovingly directed by Chuck Smith--Having Our Say is more an enjoyable piece than a riveting one, but it would be wrong to suggest that it lacks depth. 

Now passed--their stories were originally chronicled by Hearth in 1991--the Delany sisters were African-American, and their recollections include many examples of facing bigotry. 

Their father, Henry, who was born a slave in 1858, became an Episcopalian bishop, educator and Vice-Principal of St. Augustine's college in Raleigh, where the sisters--and 8 other siblings--were raised.

This was initially before Jim Crow laws were enacted, but such indignities as "whites only" restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters eventually prompted Sadie and Bessie to move to Harlem. 

There, after each earned educations atypical for African-American women at the time, the elder Sadie became a high school teacher and Bessie--two years younger--a dentist. 

Though each had dalliances with men, neither married nor had children. 

As shared in the play, Sadie's personality was more "sugar," while the more direct Bessie was "spice." 

Yet they clearly valued each other's company, and over decades observed both progress and the lack thereof, while intersecting with the likes of WEB DuBois, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and more. 

Much is made of the sisters' generosity to others in their family and the African-American community, and--countering prejudicial assumptions that ignore the socioeconomic truth about many middle-class blacks--at one point Bessie exhorts, "I never accepted a handout."

So clearly, there is much to learn, appreciate and consider in the sisters' remembrances and observations, covering most of the 20th century. 

And though some of the references in Mann's 1995 adaptation of Hearth's book (including "Dan Quayle") have become somewhat dated, the themes of the play--both familial and societal--remain largely resonant today. 

It's unlikely anyone who sees a good deal of theater will consider Having Our Say among the very best shows ever seen. 

But it's also unlikely that anyone who sees Having Our Say won't find themselves moved, delighted and enlightened. 

And for a biographical show 200+ years in the making, that's really is saying something. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tennessee Williams' 'Suddenly Last Summer' Doesn't Feel Quite So Fraught, for Good and Bad -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Suddenly Last Summer
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Jason Gerace
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 17

Last month, at Chicago's Raven Theatre, I saw and reviewed a world premiere play by Philip Dawkins called The Gentleman Caller.

Still running at Raven and recently mounted Off-Broadway, the play set in 1944 dramatizes possible trysts between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, when neither was yet famous but Williams was soon to become Broadway royalty for The Glass Menagerie.

If the historical-yet-fictionalized script--and the actors' embodiments--are to be believed, Williams was publicly and privately comfortable with his homosexuality, while Inge was secretive and repressed.

Interestingly, the next play on the Raven slate--so now running concurrently with The Gentleman Caller--is Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams himself.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It had debuted off-Broadway in early 1958, after the writer had achieved great success with Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Based in New Orleans in 1936, Suddenly Last Summer--especially when seen today--serves to remind, as does The Gentleman Caller, just how demonized, scorned and, thus, clandestine gay people once were (which isn't to suggest they have yet to achieve full acceptance).

I certainly understand that homosexuality was considered a crime in many places, and don't doubt the disheartening lengths gay individuals--and their families--were compelled to go to keep such a "lifestyle" unknown.

And despite Williams' seemingly confident openness, something dreadful in his experiences must have prompted the scenario he created in Suddenly Last Summer.

In the 90-minute, one-act play, a cold, callous woman named Violet Venable (Mary K. Nigohosian) tries to convince a doctor (Wardell Julius Clark) to lobotomize her niece Catherine (a terrific Grayson Hayl) so as to keep her from talking about seeing Violet's son Sebastian get killed--rather violently and suddenly--last summer.

Though it isn't explicitly stated until near the end of the play, the gist from the very beginning is that Sebastian was gay, and this reality sadly led to his death.

Given the era of the play, one could conceivably give Violet props for wanting to protect her son's--and her family's--reputation.

But she is so vile in how she seeks to quiet Catherine--who is afforded no compassion, even by her inheritance-seeking mother (Ann James) and brother (Andrew Rathgeber), for quite traumatically witnessing her cousin's brutal murder--that I could really only see Violet as reprehensible.

Perhaps it says something good about today's much wider embrace of the LGBTQ community that I had trouble being much engaged by--or tolerant of--Violet's icy manipulation of the doctor, or her cruel intimidation of her niece.

Maybe in 1936 or 1958, I would have better understood her going to such lengths, but though old works can be quite valuable in highlighting how things have--and haven't--changed over time, as an evening's entertainment in 2018, Suddenly Last Summer just didn't greatly enthrall or enlighten me.

Directed by Jason Gerace on a nicely steamy NOLA set by Joanna Iwanicka, the show is well-acted, with Hayl delivering a particularly bristling monologue with poignant gusto.

There's certainly quality to be found, but beyond being a pointed illustration of a woman so loathe to accept the truth about her otherwise beloved son--which feels a bit over-the-top in its baseness, at least today, which isn't a bad thing--this seems like a solid production of a decent play (which also isn't a bad thing).

On the heels of The Gentleman Caller, I'm glad I saw Suddenly Last Summer, adding it to the Tennessee Williams plays I've seen: the three most famous ones already mentioned, plus Sweet Bird of Youth, Night of the Iguana and Camino Real, the only one I really disliked.

But if you were to tell me you have a free night and might want to see something at Raven--a comfortable north side venue with easy parking that regularly does estimable work--even if you professed a fondness for Tennessee Williams, I would advise you to choose The Gentleman Caller, any day of the week.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

We Welcome Live Over There: 'A Home on the Lake' Provides an Insightful Evanston, and Racial, History Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Home on the Lake
a world premiere play by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze
directed by Tim Rhoze
Piven Theatre, Evanston
in collaboration with Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
Thru June 3

Growing up on the north end of Skokie--where I still reside, in a different home--the city of Evanston was, in part, just a couple blocks away.

Situated between Skokie and Lake Michigan, Evanston--home to the prestigious Northwestern University--always felt like a larger, hipper and, in my youth, far more diverse suburb.

Whereas the populace of Skokie, circa 1980 or so, was predominantly white and Jewish, Evanston was known--as opposed not only to Skokie but most nearby suburbs of Chicago--for its heavy mix of black and white. (Skokie has now become quite multi-culturally diverse, albeit with seemingly relatively few African-Americans.)

I won't say I was raised to be completely colorblind, but I was never taught to hate or feel superior, and as a sports fan couldn't help but admire the success of Evanston High School, which--with a trio of future college stars--would beat my alma mater, Niles North, in a memorable sectional basketball game.

I knew there were areas of Evanston that were heavily black, but quite regularly rode through one of them--east along Emerson Ave. to the downtown district--and never gave much thought to the town's literal racial divisions or why they existed.

As I'll turn 50 in a few months, I've had many years to better understand the--often quite ugly--ways of the world, including the extremely harmful impact of "redlining."

Per my understanding, largely in the 1930s-1950s, many U.S. banks--at the behest of the Federal Housing Administration--systematically denied mortgages to black families seeking to buy or build homes in white neighborhoods.

Largely keeping the races segregated, relegating African-Americans to inferior schools and hence, employment opportunities, and denying them the kind of generational wealth many white families were able multiply thanks to real estate holdings, redlining--essentially discriminatory housing practices exacerbated by bigoted white folks--has impacted the racial divide very much still felt today.

Lorraine Hansberry's brilliant 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, broached this topic quite forcefully, and 50+ years later, Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park also reflected on it as a sequel of sorts. Both are Chicago-based.

I won't say A Home on the Lake--written by Fleetwood-Jourdain artistic director Tim Rhoze and Piven Theatre Workshop literary manager Stephen Fedo--is quite on par with those two plays, and it focuses on housing discrimination that preceded the era of redlining, but it adds powerful insights, even (for me) a bit more locally.

Let me clearly state that A Home on the Lake--in a world premiere collaborative production between Fleetwood-Jourdain and Piven, both resident companies within Evanston's Noyes Cultural Arts Center--is dramatically strong enough to be staged, seen and appreciated anywhere.

Like A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, it's themes are universal enough that one needn't know the exact geography it references.

But for residents of Evanston, and those who grew up nearby, it is an especially potent piece of theater, not just because it mentions local establishments like Hecky's BBQ.

Although all the characters in A Home on the Lake are fictional, and it is as much a play about families as it is about Evanston history and racial divides, Fedo and Rhoze clearly did their research, and openly give credit to oral histories collected by Nina Kavin and Dear Evanston.

The action in the play takes place in both the early-1920s and the modern day, intermingled, with the same actors playing roles in both eras.

Yet while this might sound wrought for confusion, it's to the great credit of the script, the performances and director Rhoze that the narrative runs rather seamlessly and coherently.

Unfortunately, the actors are not depicted in the few photos of the show I could find online, but Sean Blake and Christopher M. Walsh play black and white businessmen, respectively, who strike a deal to build new home communities in Evanston for thousands of African-Americans relocating from the American south during the Great Migration.

At least per what the play purports--and it seems rather legitimate--Evanston, more than other suburbs, openly welcomed blacks because it needed cheap labor for the rapid expanding university town.

But--even well before the rise of redlining--African-Americans were not able to obtain mortgages for homes on or near the lake, or close to Evanston's central business district, east of Green Bay Road.

Blake's character of Leland Fowler realizes this, and while not exactly accepting of it--particularly when his own family's dream of "a home on the lake" is put in jeopardy--he seeks to build a "negro colony" between west of Green Bay Rd. to the North Shore Channel, a.k.a. the "stinky" sanitation canal, where the white folks don't want to live. Walsh's Case Milburn provides Fowler with vital financial backing, but with some unkind strings attached.

Fowler's wife Isabelle (a terrific Nicholia Q. Aguirre) is friends with Milburn's wife Florence (the likewise superb Abigail Boucher), and in the modern day their great-granddaughters (played by the same actresses) are a married couple. 

In both eras, Jelani Pitcher and Rachel Shapiro, are teenage companions--in the 1920s as interracial friends, in 2018 as a brother & sister who create music together--and both add to the story. 

As noted above, A Home on the Lake is just as much a play about family as it is about housing, race and Evanston. Yet while this makes it quite compelling, sometimes all the elements seem to be a bit much, and certain characters go missing for awhile.

I purposely won't divulge much about the modern-day dilemma faced by Aguirre's and Boucher's married characters of Cynthia and Florence, but something about a financial aspect puzzled me.

So while much work, and presumably refining, has made A Home on the Lake a truly fantastic world premiere--i.e. creating a multifaceted, dual-era narrative this gripping and cogent is no small feat--there probably could be some more tightening of the various threads.

But this is one of the best plays I've seen in 2018--and should stay that way no matter what I see--one whose insights truly hit home.

No matter where you may live.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Racial Divide: Dael Orlandersmith Powerfully Focuses on Ferguson in 'Until the Flood' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Until the Flood
a new play written & performed by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Neel Keller
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 12

Great theater often empowers us to consider things from a variety of angles and perspectives.

It can do this in a variety of ways, but over the last few months and years, I've seen three one-woman plays in which the author--or, in one case, an actress playing the author--has embodied numerous characters onstage to highlight multiple viewpoints.

Unveiled, by Rohina Malik, keenly explores what being Muslim and wearing a hijab--or choosing not to--means to five women of vastly different backgrounds.

Liberty City, by April Yvette Thompson--with Dionne Addis in her stead in the outstanding production I saw at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre earlier this year; Thompson performed in the original New York production--recounts the author's upbringing, most potently regarding a riot that engulfed the Miami neighborhood in which her family lived.

Dael Orlandersmith's Until the Flood, newly opened in the Owen Theater at Goodman, is another terrific example.

Commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where the play debuted, Orlandersmith addresses the killing of African-American teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, one of that suburb's almost entirely white police force.

At Goodman, as in St. Louis, Orlandersmith performs Until the Flood entirely by herself, and with her acting as strong as her writing, she works in array of characters that she acts out.

Before she takes the stage, we hear the 9-1-1 call pertaining to the incidents that left Michael Brown dead at 18, shot down on a Ferguson street by Wilson for reasons much debated.

Orlandersmith begins her performance in the guise of a 75-year-old black woman, a former teacher who speaks of African-Americans' "legacy of self-hate," and says that "Michael Brown was made to see himself as a n----r."

The author clearly had many conversations with those in and around Ferguson, but in an interview printed in the program shares that the people she personifies are "composite figures."

Directed by Neel Keller on a poignant set designed by Takeshi Kata, Orlandersmith deftly cycles through insightful personifications of individuals black and white, young and old, representing a variety of perspectives.

All of which I valued.

Though I highly recommend Until the Flood--which you should be able to catch for under $20; discounts can be found on HotTix, Goldstar and TodayTix--some more surprising commentaries from those being characterized might have made it a trifle more compelling.

As one might expect, there was outrage and sorrow expressed for the killing of Brown, and some empathy, compassion, forgiveness and/or blamelessness put forth about the young policeman, Wilson.

But the attitudes Orlandersmith chose to embody in her show are largely divided along racial--and
sometimes age--lines, in fairly predictable ways.

Without wanting to reveal in whose voice the author/actress said what, I might have preferred hearing some insights I didn't see coming.

For while the writer is seemingly reflecting truthful--and often painful and scornful--realities, great theater not only can provide incisive perspectives, but perhaps amplify them with some dramatic misdirection.

But this quibble really only serves to explain why I can't quite give Until the Flood a full @@@@@.

Still, I can forthrightly say that no matter who you are, this powerful one-woman tour de force is well-worth your time and attention.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Original Rock God: Lyric's Divine 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is Well-Worthy of Worship -- Chicago Theater / Opera Review

Theater / Opera Review

Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 20

Although I'm Jewish, and really actually rather agnostic, I have frequently been enchanted by works reflecting or celebrating other religions.

From the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular to ornate mosques to Hindu temples to the A Christmas Story musical (and movie) and well beyond, I can appreciate art for art's sake, even if the underlying doctrine or spirituality or references are lost on me.

With Jesus Christ Superstar--the rock opera originally written as a concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1970 and first staged the following year--there is much to admire and appreciate in a secular sense.

Particularly when staged as resplendently as currently at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in a production created by London's Regent's Park Theatre.

As the first full-length Webber/Rice collaboration to be put on stage--though a 20-minute rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat preceded it--it's interesting to consider JCS as the Genesis of their extremely successful oeuvre, both in tandem (Evita) and separately (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Chess The Lion King, etc.).

Noting that the Jesus Christ Superstar concept album was the top-selling album of 1971, I find fascinating its correlation with the first "rock opera" record, The Who's Tommy--itself about a preternatural, hallowed, followed, revered, scorned and galvanizing individual--and also, how the live show followed in the wake of Hair, typically considered the first rock musical.

One must also consider how shocking--and to many, appalling and heretical--a rock musical about Jesus would have been in 1971, and also see it through a counter-cultural prism that included Cool Hand Luke, M*A*S*H (initially the movie), Slaughter-House Five, All in the Family and other works daring to question authority, the status quo and previously taboo topics.

I also can't help but wonder about direct and indirect impetuses and inspirations for the creators.

Wikipedia notes that lyricist Rice said he took inspiration from the Bob Dylan song "With God on Our Side," but it also seems that one of rock's biggest stars--John Lennon--being excoriated in 1966 for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, with a portion of the band's "followers" then burning LPs in protest, could also have been something of a thematic touchstone.

And though Andy Warhol seemingly used the word "superstar" previously--its entomology actually dates back far further--Jesus Christ Superstar truly brought the term into the lexicon (from what I can glean).

So while Webber & Rice clearly played up parallels to the iconic rock frontmen of the time--Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, etc.--dubbing Jesus a superstar was not only daring, but semantically prescient.

Hence, beyond the acute merits of the musical itself and the splendors of the production at Lyric--and there are plenty of both--I got a great deal out of seeing Jesus Christ Superstar, including a bit of a theology lesson from Paolo, my Catholic friend alongside. (I'd seen the musical previously, and had watched much of the recent live NBC version, but this felt like a fresh exploration.)

But while there was nothing I felt off-putting--and much I found quite valuable--as a Jew watching a
musical about Jesus, even this scintillating rendition revealed the musical's dramaturgical shortcomings.

It isn't hard to see why for Evita--it too initially as a concept album (in 1976) and then a stage musical--Webber and Rice opted to employ a narrator, in the guise of Che Guevara.

Not everyone in the UK, US or elsewhere would've been familiar with Eva Peron, an Argentinean first lady who had died decades earlier.

So--via Che--within the show itself, "Evita," her husband Juan Peron and even more minor characters are well-defined, even though it, like JCS, features almost no spoken dialogue.

While I recognize many people worldwide will be quite familiar--likely since childhood--with Jesus, Judas, Mary, Simon, Peter, various other apostles, Pilate, Caiaphas, King Herod and several other characters pulled from the Gospels, I know almost nothing about any of them.

And even in having listened to cast recordings, watched the NBC version and read the synopsis on Wikipedia, I still found myself rather confused about who was who, what was happening onstage, and why.

Heath Saunders makes a rather modern and hip Jesus Christ, but even his storyline seems to assume people know it already. And Paolo had to clue me in to pretty much everyone else named above.

So taken strictly as theater, which should make itself readily understandable to those watching, Jesus Christ Superstar is not a show clearly sensible to the uninitiated. (In addition to Evita, another biographical show explaining its multiple characters really well is Hamilton.)

And while I'm not suggesting director Timothy Sheader should have used operatic supertitles to identify each character as he/she sang, or emblazoned their names on their clothing, I can't give this production a perfect @@@@@ because it doesn't solve the problem of a sung-through narrative lacking clarity.

But this is an "absolutely phenomenal" rendition of the source material, which musically is quite strong.

On a striking set by Tom Scutt (who also did the costuming), the overture sends chills, and--though I felt he was a bit under-miked--Ryan Shaw as Judas rocks "Heaven on Their Minds."

As a closely-sheared Mary, Jo Lampert's astonishing voice shines on "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How To Love Him," a ballad ranking with Webber's best.

Although I had my troubles knowing all the characters in the present tense, Michael Cunio (Pilate), Michael Kilgore (Simon), Cavin Cornwall (Caiaphas) and local actor Andrew Mueller (Peter) are all demonstrably good.

The costuming of Shaun Fleming's Herod--featuring a 28-foot-long gold cape--is astonishing, and his delivery of "Herod's Song" quite good, though I can't deny a bit more so savoring Alice Cooper's take on NBC.

And while the looks, manner and demeanor of Saunders as Jesus reminded me a good bit of Savion Glover, in his playing an acoustic guitar and delivering a stunning "Gethsamane (I Only Want to Say)," I couldn't help but conjure Chris Cornell, perhaps in waiting for a "Jesus Christ Pose"--a Soundgarden song--to be struck.

But that came later, and I was glad to have Paolo explaining the roles of Herod, Pilate and others leading up to Christ's crucifixion.

With a 6-piece band in something of a girdered loft, backed by an unseen 31 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra--conducted by Tom Deering--the show truly did rock.

Among other things, I came to better appreciate Sir ALW's rock 'n roll pedigree, and the merits of his composing the recent School of Rock musical himself (though that could have rocked a good bit harder). 

With over 80 artists onstage, working around a huge fallen cross, director Sheader, choreographer Drew McOnie and others clearly do a remarkable job with the staging and blocking.

And while I would surmise it's been done before, I was tickled by a near exact re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper painting, which I perceived to be followed by a reference to this iconic photograph.

Almost everything about Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric is dazzling, and no matter your faith, I strongly recommend it. (BTW, it's sung in a Broadway/rock style, not operatically.)

But, if like me, you didn't grow up on the Gospels, you may find yourself quite confused, for Christ's sake.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Reverie Afoot: Joffrey's Surreal 'Midsummer Night's Dream' Feels Amiss Amid a Chilly Spring -- Chicago Ballet / Dance Review

Ballet Review

Midsummer Night's Dream
Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 6

My life is an ongoing quest to be entertained, enlightened and occasionally dazzled.

And this long-running blog--now prominent and well-regarded enough to bring me many gracious Press Night invitations--provides an outlet to passionately tell you when I am.

And just as candidly, when I am not.

As in this case, about a new ballet by the esteemed Joffrey, called Midsummer Night's Dream (with no direct connection to the Shakespeare of the same name).

While my disappointment was echoed by everyone who--many far more vociferously--voiced an opinion on the train platform post-show, I hope that you disagree with me.

And if you are inclined to attend ballets, including rather new and non-traditional ones, it likely behooves you to check out what Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman has put together, with no regard for what a rube like me might think.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
Certainly the undertaking--including new music composed by Ekman's frequent collaborator, Mikael Karlsson--is immense and impressive.

I am certainly not a ballet expert and will take it on faith that the numerous Joffrey ensemble members onstage danced wonderfully. But for me, there really were no "Oh, wow!" moments, even in terms in terms of demonstrable balletic artistry.

And with all the caveats you may want--that Ekman's concept was unfolding within a dream and thus intentionally quite surreal, that I often have problems with highly interpretative, non-linear art, that almost anything now considered brilliantly original probably met with scathing initial disdain--I really had no clue what was going on.

Through intermission, watching the performers first dance around in hay and later seemingly gather to extol a prophet on a beach, interlaced by a Swedish vocalist named Anna von Hausswolff channeling Kate Bush--with appealing but largely indecipherable songs--I was willing to see this Midsummer Night's Dream as something quite creative-but-different, if not personally moving.

But Act II took the surrealism to far more heightened levels of oddity, confusion and--to this viewer--seeming self-indulgence. 

Beds floated, tables levitated, huge fish heads appeared, making for quite the acid trip and/or dream, yet I was sober and awake.

Late in the show, the entire gaggle of dancers sashayed around in their skivvies. With all the lithe, sculpted bodies--of both sexes--I can't say this was an unpleasant sight, but given my utter lack of comprehension or embrace, it almost felt exploitive.

To be clear and fair, Ekman seems to be quite esteemed and--appreciative of his ambition--I'm not accusing him of anything except creating a newfangled ballet that left me cold.

But while understanding that ballet dancing is often a scantily-attired profession, I couldn't tell you why everyone wound up prancing around in near nakedness.

No harm, no foul, and full respect to all involved.

Yet despite usually beguiling ingredients--enjoyable music, good singing, wonderful dancing, interesting scenery, attractive people--on a still chilly spring night in Chicago, this Midsummer Night's entertainment just wasn't a Dream come true.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

With Fringe on Top: Marriott's Stately 'Oklahoma' a Bit Better Than Just OK -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru June 10

In years--or more so decades--past, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire seemed to be best known for solid productions of classic musicals.

West Side Story, Damn Yankees, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, etc., etc.

Though it would be wrong to imply there wasn't always a bit of adventurousness--along with considerable quality--it seems to me that in more recent years, the self-producing theater has put more of a focus on mixing things up.

There have been self-commissioned musicals, such as Hero and October Sky, shows that skew a bit younger (Mamma Mia, Newsies, Spring Awakening) and stagings of lesser-known musicals both old (She Loves Me, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and relatively new, like Honeymoon in Vegas and their sublime rendition of The Bridges of Madison County last summer (which I raved about here).

The venue's last non-children's production, Ragtime, is somewhat in the traditional vein, but its themes of immigration, racism and activism made it feel especially timely.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Currently upon the in-the-round stage is Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma, which was brilliantly modern when it hit Broadway in 1943--it's widely-regarded as an idiomatic cornerstone, as its great songs integrate rather seamlessly into the narrative, as opposed to "everybody stop-and-sing now" earlier musicals--but while meriting a 75th anniversary revisiting, it is more of the type of old school musical Marriott used to present much more often.

And though I certainly relished hearing fine renditions of wondrous tunes like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No," the title song and more, enough for it to have made for an enjoyably spent 2-1/2 hours or so, for whatever reason--including perhaps comparison to what Marriott Theatre has recently done--it too rarely felt amazing, incredible, awesome or whatever word best describes an innate specialness that is hard to define.

I mean no absolutely no disrespect to--and indeed, considerable admiration for--Oklahoma's two main stars, Brandon Springman as Curly and Jennie Sophia as Laurey.

But after Nathaniel Stampley has been mind-blowingly good in three recent leading man roles at Marriott--in The Man of La Mancha, Bridges of Madison County and Ragtime--and delightfully complemented in the last two by Kathy Voytko, it was hard not to imagine how good the two of them may have been as Curly and Laurey, even if adding a touch more maturity to the roles than normal.

Certainly, under the direction of Marriott Artistic Director Aaron Thielen, with some superb choreography by Alex Sanchez, the cast--headed by Springman and Sophia--comprises substantial singing, dancing and acting talent (plus that of the unseen musicians).

Michelle Lauto is largely delightful as Ado Annie, as she flirts with the emotions of both Will Parker (Aaron Umsted, who leads a fine "Kansas City") and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (the likable Evan Tyrone Martin).

Susan Moniz makes for a fun Aunt Eller, while Shea Coffman is properly belligerent as Jud Fry, a farmhand whose crush on Laurey seems to be met with undue hostility, given how she does use him as a pawn in her love game with Curly.

So there's no dearth of well-sung classic songs, stage-filling dance numbers and impressive performances.

And per director Thielen expressing in recent press his desire to make some contemporary tweaks, there are some intriguing touches such as opening the show with a brief ballet that provides some backstory on the orphaned Laurey.

The famed ballet that leads to intermission is, for me, a tad longer than it needs to be, but well-done and narrative-enhancing.

But while there's nothing obviously deficient about this Oklahoma, it lacked something to make it feel truly fantastic.

I realize Marriott can't cast Stampley--who I recently dubbed the venue's best-ever performer--in every show without things getting repetitive, but hearing him approaching Laurey and Aunt Eller with a booming "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" might have provided the kind of chills truly wondrous shows can.

And while I imagine Oklahoma wasn't all that multicultural in 1906--aside from Native Americans who aren't represented in this show--it felt like greater diversity in the cast, perhaps including the leading roles, may have helped with making the musical feel a good deal more modern.

This isn't to suggest anyone onstage didn't deserve to be, especially as I have no idea who may have auditioned.

Certainly, the Ali Hakim character seems a bit ahead of his time--be it 1906 or 1943--and Rodgers & Hammerstein touched on social issues more than one may consider at first blush.

But Oklahoma was their first musical collaboration to reach Broadway, and it generally feels very white.

Still, based on this production. 

I'm sure there are more varied backgrounds represented in this cast than face value might suggest, but while I happily sang along in my head and bequeathed a genuine applause at the end, some kind of oomph was missing.

Which isn't to say more diverse casting--especially if forced--or Nathaniel Stampley (who is a black man) or Kathy Voytko or anyone or anything else would clearly be the solution.

But Oklahoma is a first-rate musical--I loved it at the Lyric Opera in 2013, and to be clear, there wasn't much diversity then either--and Marriott Theatre has consistently been delivering first-rate productions.

Yet while inherently enjoyable, and even quite good--not just OK--this go-round of a venerated classic just didn't put me in a euphoric state.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Earnest Dedication(s): At City Winery, Willie Nile Impresses Yet Again, on a Quieter Note -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
accompanied by Johnny Pisano
w/ opening act Nicholas Tremulis
City Winery, Chicago
April 14, 2018

The ongoing viability of rock music is a subject regularly on my mind, and although I've often rhapsodized about it on this blog--without much to say beyond that there are still great bands I love to see, but not many new ones I know of--a variety of stimuli have prompted me to acutely consider it yet again.

From articles suggesting how the concert business may soon be hurting after the announced retirement of several legacy acts, to the deaths over the past few years of several artists I greatly enjoyed, to discussions with friends who attended the South by Southwest conclave, to the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide--from which it could be argued rock 'n roll has never regenerated--there is likely gist for another meandering Seth Saith piece lamenting the future state of my favorite art form.

But while I believe there is genuine reason to be chagrined and concerned about relative lack of new rock acts with the seeming ability to rise above the din, one thing that does hearten me is the knowledge that--at least in terms of recorded music--I can conceivably be sustained for multiple decades with quality rock that already exists but which I have yet to discover.

In terms of cherished rock artists that I've come across in the 21st century, a few have arisen anew--Arcade Fire, The Killers, Maximo Park--but in terms of acts to which I was long oblivious, along with The Wildhearts a singer/songwriter named Willie Nile now stands near the top.

I learned of Nile as a FOTB--friend of the Boss--on the excellent Bruce Springsteen fansite,, some time after the release of his wonderful 2006 album, The Streets of New York.

Prior to that, Nile had put out albums--to some acclaim, but not my awareness--in 1980, 1981, 1991 and 1999. See his Wikipedia page for some explanation of the odd cadence, seemingly due to legal and contractual issues.

Willie has put out six studio albums since Streets of New York, and I have now seen him in concert seven times, always bestowing @@@@@ or, as here, @@@@1/2 (on my 5-star scale).

Most of his Chicago area shows have looped in longtime local troubadour Nicholas Tremulis, and Saturday at City Winery Tremulis opened the show with an engaging 45-minute solo acoustic set.

Tremulis was talkative throughout, and after sharing that his erstwhile equipment van had broken down just that day, he sardonically and repeatedly referenced hoped-for audience generosity in helping him out.

I can't cite every song he played, and may not have titles quite right, but the first three were seemingly "Bless It All," "Red Line" and "Washington."

Tremulis also played an Irish country song--"Rambling Rover," I believe--covered Buck Owens' "I Don't Hear You" and did a fine tune he said he wrote "over the phone" with another favorite of mine, Alejandro Escovedo.

As best I could tell, this was called "Without You With Me."

After paying tribute to the recently passed Yvonne Staples, he ended his set with "Lover Man (Where Can You Be?)."

Tremulis would return to the stage for the last third of Willie Nile's set, but for the most part the headliner was accompanied by just his bass playing collaborator, Johnny Pisano.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover Nile wasn't playing with a full band, particularly as I had enticed three friends to also attend, and it wasn't quite the "OMG, he's awesome" affair his full-tilt shows have been.

But he and Pisano (and eventually Tremulis) played for a generous two hours, with tickets ranging from just $22-$30.

Without being locked into a band setlist, Willie took a nicely ad hoc approach, choosing songs from a big binder--see the setlist I posted to telling lengthy anecdotes before nearly every one, and dedicating most to multiple inspirations.

Before playing "This is Our Time," he spoke with pride of not only meeting the social activist, Malala, but in having that song serve as a theme at a recent event honoring her.

Among others, he name-dropped Bob Dylan and Edgar Allan Poe prior to "Life on Bleecker Street," and performed two strong new songs--"Have I Ever Told You" and "Looking for Someone"--that should appear on an upcoming album.

The latter was written in Nashville with Andrew Dorff--a noted songwriter and brother of Stephen Dorff--shortly before he passed at 40 while vacationing in Turks and Caicos, and Nile spoke of him quite admiringly and mournfully.

Willie also told of visiting John Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool, where he was inspired to write the Beatlesque, "My Little Girl," and mentioned that "God Laughs" has a Buddy Holly vibe.

With Pisano following him adroitly, Nile showed his piano aptitude on "Sunrise in New York City," "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)" and "The Crossing."

Although the fans bellowing out song titles were buffoonish, hearing him do the requested "Whole World With You" would have been sweet, as it's probably my favorite of his.

But amid a couple Dylan covers--"Rainy Day Women" and Blowin' in the Wind," both on Nile's recent Positively Bob tribute album--and his own "Les Champs Elysees," "House of a Thousand Guitars" and "One Guitar," I'm glad he did "Vagabond Moon" for the insistent shouters, if only to shut them up.

All in all, it was rather like a show I saw Nile do at Evanston's SPACE in 2015, with just Pisano alongside.

Without the electric guitars and drums, it just isn't quite as scintillating, but the acoustic performance and laid-back atmosphere allowed for Willie Nile's songwriting and storytelling to shine through.

While my pals who hadn't seen him previously weren't quite salivating with praise, they agreed it was a strong show by an estimable performer, and I believe Nile made fans out of a couple of nearby couples--one from Australia--who had come largely due to affinity for the City Winery venue, but bequeathed a standing ovation when the show ended.

Without being amped up, part of my "Dylan and Springsteen meet the Ramones and Clash" description to them didn't quite ring raucous, but even in pushing 70, Willie Nile well-proved why he remains one of my favorite artists of the 21st century.

And, at least for the time being, content with the present state of rock 'n roll.