Friday, April 13, 2018

Flight of Fancy Pants: Beyond a Masterful Lead Performance, Steep's 'Birdland' Doesn't Quite Soar -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Simon Stephens
directed by Jonathan Berry
Steep Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 12

I was really excited to see Birdland, on multiple levels.

Over the last several years, Steep Theatre Co. has established itself as one of Chicago's best storefront theaters--and among the finest of any size--in part due to its affiliation with the British playwright, Simon Stephens.

I'd seen Stephens' Harper Regan there in 2010, and absolutely loved the 2016 touring rendition of his Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time--an adaptation of the book by Mark Haddon--which significantly raised his profile.

I probably haven't been to Steep--conveniently next to the Berwyn L station--as much as I should, and was thrilled to be graciously invited to see Birdland, whose title stirs warm memories of the New York jazz club named for Charlie "Bird" Parker. (I've only been to the current location, not the more famed original one, and there is no obvious reference in the play. A friend who also attended suggested the title comes from a Patti Smith song of the same name.)

This production is directed by Jonathan Berry, whose work I've often seen, and is about a fictional rock star.

Photo credit on all: Lee Miller
A rock star named Paul, in fact, which while it may not seem to be the most rock starrish of names, pretty much is.

Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Paul Stanley, Paul Rodgers, Paul Smith--lead singer of a British band I love called Maximo Park--Paul Kantner, Paul Young, Paul Simonon, Paul Carrack, even Paul Hewson, better known by his stage name, Bono. (I once wrote this blog piece about all the rock 'n roll Pauls.)

Adding to my anticipation was a glowing, 4-star (out of 4; my scale is out of 5) review of Birdland by the Chicago Tribune's excellent theater critic Chris Jones.

Thanks to which, the current run is sold out, though an extension seems a possibility. 

So I would really love to tell you that I too found this play--the tale of a world-renowned rocker who hits some serious potholes--to be absolutely wonderful.

But while the work of Joel Reitsma as Paul--who is onstage for entirety of Birdland, which runs 2+ hours with no intermission--is superlative, I can't say I was all that captivated by the play itself.

The show begins as Paul and his guitarist, Johnny (a fine Dushane Casteallo), are in Moscow near the end of a tour that has seen them rise to playing 75,000 seat stadiums.

I imagine the characterization of Paul can vary based on the age, costuming and choices of the actor cast, but other than employing a British accent, Reitsma's take reminds more of, say, Robbie Williams--a now 40-something UK superstar who fills stadiums worldwide, except in the USA--than Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen or an aging legend. Though there may be a bit of Bono in the leather pants Paul adorns.

From the way he speaks to a reporter named Annalisa (Cindy Marker) in his hotel room, to a much darker episode involving sex, betrayal, self-entitlement and tragedy--which I won't detail other than to note nice work by Lucy Carapetyan--Paul seems like an asshole from the get-go, not some charming rogue who has let fame, and stereotypical rock star excesses, go to his head.

So while it may be tempting to call this story a "fall from grace," despite Reitsma's valiant work and some shrewd staging that had "off-stage" characters sitting along the edges-- eerily representing paparazzi, groupies, fans, disposable relations and other hangers-on--I never embraced Paul enough to empathize with his fall or the price he pays.

Which isn't to say Stephens' depiction of a rock star's world isn't keen, or likely accurate, complete with Paul enticing a room service waitress (Aila Peck) to up and cavort to Berlin with him.

Though the pre-show music featured favorites from British acts like Pulp, the Fratellis and Kaiser Chiefs, during Birdland I couldn't help think of the Eagles' great line from "Hotel California"--"you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"--especially given the mirrors and chandeliers on the ceiling of Joe Schermoly's sparsely functional set. (I actually once wrote a screenplay about a rock star's fall from grace, derived from "Hotel California.")

So there are many estimable pieces to this play and production, including fine acting well beyond Reitsma. Steep's artistic director Peter Moore does stellar work as Paul's manager, while Jim Poole is terrific in a variety of roles, including--separately--an ardent fan and Paul's father.

And while Paul being less than likable to begin with isn't all that diminished my embrace of Birdland--plays needn't be about good people to great, though there was too little charm, smarm or humor about this guy--I can't say I took away all that much.

Basically, when shallow people--and this play doesn't provide any real sense of Paul's talent that brought the stardom, veneration and life in a constant world tour bubble--become famous and beloved, they aren't (always) given a blank check to do stupid, selfish things without consideration for others.

Yet while I feel compelled to try to justify--even just to myself--why I didn't love Birdland as much as I had hoped, nor nearly as much as Chris Jones, @@@1/2 still represents a play I liked much more than I didn't.

I'm grateful for the chance to have seen it, and hope Steep invites me back for an encore.

Not of this play--which might well have felt sharper at about 70% of the runtime--but perhaps their next one.

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