Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Lawrence Grimm and the cast/Photo by: Evan Hanover.

Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.

Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.

Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.

Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.

Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.

Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.

“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

 

Review: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)

Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.

After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.

This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.

Margaux Fournier and Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.

Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.

Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.

Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.

Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Red Theater Chicago)

Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Show: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Every professional wrestler has a signature finishing move. Chad Deity’s is called the power bomb, and it involves lifting his opponent into the air and then slamming them hard onto the mat, back first. In Red Theater’s energetic production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” what makes this move stand out is not its sheer power, but the wrestler’s showmanship. Before hoisting his fellow wrestler high over his head, Chad gyrates his hips and moves his hands around in a preemptive celebration, almost surigical in its precision. Without that bit, the move would simply be fight choreography. With it, Chad displays why he’s the best loved champion in wrestling. He has charisma. By contrast, the man lying on the mat lacks panache.

More often than not, that man is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a career underdog and true believer in the art form of professional wrestling. Chad (Semaj Miller) is the face of a wrestling company referred to only as “the wrestling,” though one can discern enough details in playwright Krisoffer Diaz’s script to peg the organization as the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Mace sees himself as a storyteller, since his primary job in each match is to make poorer wrestlers look like winners, a service he provides for Chad Deity often. But he longs for more space to tell his own stories. He wants an opportunity to win. Once he meets the motormouthed VP (a role usually performed by Priyank Thakkar, though I saw a performance with gifted understudy Harsh Gagoomal), he sees a chance to train a partner, someone to pump up the crowd before an entrance, someone who will support him to victory. But EKO (Mickey O’Sullivan), owner and operator of “the wrestling,” has other plans for the pair; they are to become villains, opposed to Chad Deity and all things American, and they will be billed as racist stereotypes.

Will Snyder, Dave Honigman, and Mickey O’Sullivan/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Diaz’s script is a wonder of craftsmanship. I can understand the impulse to revive the play in Chicago so soon after its original celebrated run at Victory Gardens in 2009. The playwright knows wrestling inside and out, and understands how the drama and showmanship of a great match is not too far from the dynamic work at play in the best theatrical performances. He uses wrestling as a metaphor for art and achieving the American Dream, and then complicates the entire scenario by highlighting how society regularly asks people of color to undermine their own identities in order to get ahead in their chosen fields. The fact that Mace addresses his tale of woe directly to the audience only makes its impact hit harder, as we become his fans, and watch while he struggles to reconcile new-found success with lost integrity.

Director Jeremy Aluma emphasizes the performance aspects of wrestling in hilarious bits. Each actor has a pratfall or excessive use of finger guns to mark their appearance. The referee (Dave Honigman) has as much of a stake in winning audience applause as anyone else, flinging himself onto the stage with a rolling sommersault. Aluma’s attention to detail places us in a world where what’s real and what’s fake blur, and what can be considered a drama or a fight can be debated. Fight choreographer Kyle Encinas adds to this with brutal and punishing bouts that make the small theatre space ring with bodies hitting the mat.

Such a landscape creates real problems for VP and Mace, who pretend to be stereotypes, only to question whether they are becoming stereotypes as they add more and more detail to each performance. The only area where I found Aluma’s work with the actors to be lacking was in the descriptions of Chad and VP’s elaborate entrances. The actors painted the imagery well, but I never got the sense of scope and bombast that Aluma and Encinas brought out in the performers physically at other moments. Of course, Michael Lewis’ wrestling ring set and Brian Lawrie’s projection work to flesh out those entrances, and costume designer Hailey Rakowieki’s wrestling outfits highlight the exaggerated nature of the profession.

Tey connects with the audience on an open-hearted and sincere level, an important accomplishment, given that the world around him relies on showing off first, and emotion second. He walks you through the industry he props up, and prepares you for the most shattering moments in the play. He is a great companion for the journey. Miller is tons of fun as Deity, helping you understand why his bravado works so well on others. Gagoomal is smooth and honest as an operator with a soul. And Will Snyder as numerous Bad Guy characters highlights how ridiculous wrestling characters can become.

In this production, whether or not Chad Deity should be the champ is rarely in question. He dominates any scene he is in, using flare and machismo to charm the audience; the true question is not whether Chad Deity will win using his signature finishing move, but what will happen to the guy hurled to mat after the final bell is sounded.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An energetic tale of charisma and hard choices about art.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Show: Machinal

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Die Roll: 10

My favorite sequence in Greenhouse Theater’s 1928 “Machinal” is at an unnamed bar at the site of just about everyone’s clandestine encounters. In one corner, a woman helps a friend in the family way (they arrange an abortion), near them is a man inviting another man to have a look at his Poe collection (join him for sex), all as our protagonist pairs off for an extra-marital affair. Each of them is allowing their impossible fantasy to play out, knowing that time spent away from the grooves they occupy in the great machine is fleeting, at best. They will have to let a few of their unproductive traits wither and die if they wish to keep surviving in relative comfort.

It is in that fleeting space, we keep meeting our protagonist, Helen or maybe Ms. A (Heather Chrisler); don’t worry, names don’t mean much in this dreamy, expressionist landscape. She’s employed as a stenographer, and unfortunately/incredibly for her, the boss (Sean Gallagher) develops a crush on her dainty hands. The problem? Helen recoils at his every touch. Still, when he proposes, she’s simply not in any position to turn him down, no matter how disgusted she is. In what seems like seconds, she’s married, and after a few more seconds, she’s the mother of a newborn girl. She’s always enveloped in the anxious call of eerie strings, until she meets a free-spirited lover (Cody Proctor), who, of course, cannot stay. He gives her a moment’s happiness, a potted plant, and a terrific idea for how to kill her unwanted husband. There’s always the pestering clack of typewriter keys to follow her, however, and train cars full of anonymous bodies too close for her to breathe free.

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 script is almost like watching what would happen in a person’s subconscious mind. Our protagonist only remembers her darkest and most exhilarating moments, burned into her memory with the intensity of regret and longing. What comes between those moments is the most beautiful nothing and strangeness that director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius can conjure with just light, eerie music and their actor’s bodies.

The performances from start to finish are what keep things tense, sometimes frighteningly so. Heather Chrisler at the center of it all, is quite amazing to take in as Helen. She has nothing to sell us, no persona to hide under, and no want for anything more than just an inch or two more of her own breathing space away from everyone. Her asthmatic physical constriction at her own confinement is downright compelling. She volleys between jovial husband extraordinaire, Sean Gallagher, who is carefree in the way only successful white men are allowed to be, and Cody Proctor, who unwittingly attracts where he means to repel women like Helen, as her lover.

There are no slouches in the show’s ensemble either; notably, Sarah Rachel Schol is a ferocious office efficiency tyrant, Jonah Winston is barely containable as both a judge and an excitable restaurant diner, and Scott Shimizu is a whirlwind both as a doctor and a philandering husband.

Despite its advanced age, “Machinal” still has a lot to say to us in our new century, and mines a very cut and dried true historic event for all the deep lonesomeness and fear that the courtroom stenographers tend to leave out.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Going to battle against the patriarchy? I hear ya, sister.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre)

Show: “Triassic Parq”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

If someone had walked up to me and told me there was a show out there that re-imagined “Jurassic Park” from the perspective of the dinosaurs, there is no way that I would have guessed it to have been anything like what the folks at Circle Theatre have put up at the Heartland Studio.  On the surface the play is a parody that places its footing firmly upon the “Life will find a way” statement from the 1992 movie that explains a hatched brood of dino eggs from a supposedly all-female population of prehistoric creatures.  Had the show stopped right there conceptually, added a handful of songs about eating goats and humans, and the like, and this would have been a fun, light romp.  But the script by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo is far more sophisticated than that, and the audience is treated to a thoroughly enjoyable romp that is still quite fun, but not always so light.

Each time I enter the tiny Heartland Studio, I instantly look to see how the producing theatre company chose to deal with the remarkably restrictive confines.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some abysmal wastes of space, and a few reasonably successful and creative ways of making the space work.  But, I have never been as impressed previously as I am with Jimmy Jagos’s set.  The design extends into the lobby, as well as up the walls into the audience.  And the mobile set pieces that first confront the audience hearken directly back to the sense of awe one feels upon the first viewing of the gates into Jurassic Park.

With the mood set, there’s a bit of time for some absurd fun prior to the more serious content of the show, as so we meet our narrator, a woman (Caitlin Boho) who claims to be Morgan Freeman.  In that character, the tone of the evening is set.  The fourth wall is broken, the cabaret nature of the show is established, and the premise of the show is explained.  Life must find a way, despite the fact that all the dinos are females.  Now, it might be noted here that not all of the actors are female.  This helps a bit with the harmonies of the songs, but it also makes for a fluid gender-scape from the get-go.  When, partway through the play, a T-Rex suddenly sprouts a penis, it naturally does so on an actress-portrayed dinosaur.  Of note, the two dinosaurs who morph into male specimens are both played by women.  The female dinosaurs played by men remain female.  Some of the humor grows out of the sexual and romantic relationships that grow out of the gender changes, and some of it is pretty low-brow, but it is skillfully offset by other bits of commentary-based comedy that takes a hard look at the battle between science and religion.

These dinosaurs aren’t just ravaging reptilian monsters.  They are members of a well defined, if somewhat naive, society with a church-like organization at its core.  And the religion seems to have grown out of the population’s circumstances in an understandable manner.  We witness crises of faith, confrontations with new information, and the struggles of leaders and followers in their dynamic relationships.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Jacob Richard Axelson) drives much of the action of the show through her struggle to maintain control of a world that she recognizes less and less of.  The Velociraptor of Innocence (Parker Guidry) is her foil and the main character for much of the rest of the show.  It is her struggle to discover herself and her meaning that leads to the conflict between the old and new realities for the dinos.

Co-Directors Tommy Bullington and Nicholas Reinhart have put together a tremendous show.  The cast takes what could be just a campy bit of fun and creates something at least two notches of quality above that.  It is an evening of song and dance, and inventive drag costumes, and while it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, “Triassic Parq” is indeed more than what one expects, and is better for it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Blue and Yellow make Green. See the show. You’ll understand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Luzia” (Cirque Du Soleil)

Show: Luzia

Company: Cirque Du Soleil

Venue:  The Grand Chapiteau, United Center (1901 W. Madison St.)

In the midst of a torrential Chicago downpour, Cirque Du Soleil’s newest ethereal circus production “Luzia” put down stakes and gave nature’s majesty a run for it’s money. Billed as a waking dream of Mexico, “Luzia” is the mash up of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia) and is quite literally a celebration of bright, steaming sun showers and and their aftermath. All elements obey the gravitational pull of the encompassing shard-mirror disk hovering there like an open compact.  It beams solar rays, lunar beams and rotates like the flipping of a coin to release and swallow circus acts.

A clown tourist (Eric Fool Koller) sets the dream in motion by touching down in a field of Marigolds and turning an oversized wind-up toy crank, which bring all the stage mechanics (like rotating platforms and conveyor belts) to life. A giant-winged monarch (Shelli Epstein) is chased by a silver horse down her migratory path, flipping and spinning in the wind. A flock of deft red hummingbirds (Stephane Beauregard, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Marta Henderson, Michael Hottier, Maya Kesselman, and Ian Vazquez) run and dive through progressively smaller and more abundant emerald hoops. A trio of strapping male dancers (Anton Glazkov, Krzystof Holowenko, and Grzegorz Piotr Ros) dressed in their dance hall finest spin their female counterpart (Kelly MacDonald) so forcibly in their human centrifuges, you wonder how she’s able to walk in a straight line. And then comes the rain; a deluge pours from the grid above as Trapeze artist Enya White and Cyr wheel artist Angelica Bongiovanni weave in and out of the showers. 

But that’s not even the half: there’s also luchadores swinging in centrifuges (Krzystof Holowenko), impossibly synchronized footballers (Laura Biondo and Abou Traore), high-speed jugglers (Rudolph Janecek), contortionists (Aleksei Goloborodko), and a hair-flipping rain demigod (Benjamin Courtenay) climbing aerial straps in a dark Mayan sinkhole.

The soundscape is just as deft and changing as the circus artistry, and transforms a traditional Mariachi troupe into the perfect genre for each feat of agility. Jazzy noir elements creep in as the contortionist folds his spine in half. Opera notes lure a behemoth jaguar out into the open to drink from pristine green waters. They even dabble in electronica, helping the the high-speed juggler keep his speed up (you haven’t heard the bass drop until you’ve heard it dropped by a thundering tuba).

“Luzia” may not always paint a cohesive picture, but co-writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca and co-writer Julie Hamelin Finzi and the entire creative team have ensured each act can be boiled down to an orbit. The gentle circle of the Cyr wheel, spinning a soccer ball on an outstretched finger,  airborne somersaults arcing high with a pendulum’s swing, or the swift vault through the impossible circumference of hoop. Everything rotates, whirs to life with clockwork energy, and looks good from a hundred angles. It’s beautiful, right down to the giant red Papal Picado curtain, meant to emulate bright crepe paper party banners, and indicate something amazing is on the way.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Arid plains. Sweltering marshlands, Welcome to Mexico, pack your umbrella 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Hir” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Amy Morton and Em Grosland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: “Hir”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Main Stage

I have recently seen the play “Hir” by Taylor Mac twice: just this past weekend at Steppenwolf, and previously at a small storefront-sized theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.  Before I review Steppenwolf’s production of the show, I have a couple of declarations to make that should clarify the following review.

First, I contend the profundity of a profound work can suffer upon a second viewing because the significant effects of a first impression cannot be duplicated.  Additionally, the first viewing cannot help but inform the evaluation of the second.  So, the fact that I saw StageWest’s production prior to Steppenwolf’s does affect how I perceive the latter’s work.

My second point, before I sally forth into the depths of this review, is that I truly believe that “Hir” by Taylor Mac is one of the most brilliantly penned pieces of dramatic literature in recent times; its complexity and nuance, structure and pacing—everything about it makes it one of the more perfect plays of the last half century.

Francis Guinan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

When I first saw the play two months ago, it was a deeply disturbing, highly impactful, engaging and meaningful piece of work.  The title of the play leads toward thinking that this is a play about gender identity.  And it is, to some degree, but truly at its heart, this is a play about a family unit who are all survivors of an abusive relationship.  The plot really revolves around how each of the three former victims relate to each other and their former abuser.  It is true that one character, Max (Em Grosland), is transitioning from female to male, and that the gender pronoun that character has chosen for hirself is “hir”.  But, that isn’t what drives the plot forward.  And, in the act of making Max’s gender a topic of discussion, rather than the actual conflict of the show, Taylor Mac (whose own chosen pronoun is “judy”) has reached towards brilliance and genius.  If the intent is to become a society where all genders along the overall spectrum are seen as equal, then the characters that represent trans and non-binary people must be able to be perceived as just as normal as everyone else.  Because the conflict of the play revolves around something else, Max’s discussions with hir mother and hir brother are effective conversations that flesh out the characters.  We as audience members are able to listen and comprehend better the points being made because we are not taking sides in these chats.  They aren’t a point of conflict.  They are informative and mostly civil explanations.

This is a dark, dark comedy about a woman attempting to free herself from the physically and psychologically abusive relationship with her husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan).  Paige (the woman, played by Amy Morton) has taken advantage of her husband’s stroke a year prior to the play’s beginning  to medicate him heavily and alter everything about the life of the family; where once there was order there is now chaos, where once there was unrestrained masculinity there is now strictly controlled femininity.

Under the direction of Hallie Gordon, this production seems to have been treated more as a light comedy about a dark topic than a dark comedy that plumbs the nadir of human cruelty (how I perceive the intention of the script itself).  The staging seems to have been perfectly gauged to keep Steppenwolf’s specific audience laughing all the way through to the end.  Morton’s Paige is never fully realized as the revenge-seeking former beta dog who has now taken control and is doling out punishment to those who’ve done her wrong.  In this production she is more a still-afraid, still-abused woman who is lashing out.  This distinction in how Paige is played (I assume there are a number of other ways she can be approached as well) alters just about everything in the play.  And it is indicative of how the directorial choices were made so as to keep this play from going to the darker places that the script fully supports.

The concept of Chekhov’s Gun comes into play here.  The script contains a number of moments that work as necessary foreshadowing.  The concept of Chekhov’s gun is that if you show a gun on stage early in the play, it must be used/shot off by the end.  While viewing this production, I was led to ask myself, what happens if the gun never gets set on the stage when it is supposed to be there?  There is a sequence early on that hints at Paige’s capacity for cruelty: she discovers that the sound of her blender triggers her son (Ty Olwin) Isaac’s PTSD.  She then proceeds to torture him with short burst of the blender’s whirring which causes him to repeatedly toss his cookies in the sink.  Morton’s portrayal hovers around a point of curious exploration of the situation, rather than the necessary schaudenfruede that indicates where the character is ultimately headed.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Another example is smaller, but indicative of the missed opportunities in this production: Periodically, Paige sprays Arnold with a water bottle as punishment for bad behavior.  If you think that sounds like disciplining a cat, you’ve got the idea.  One of the first times she does so, she tells him to stop touching his penis.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t notice that he’d been touching his penis prior to that moment.  However, in the script Paige tells Arnold to “grab the knob”.  Had he followed the euphemistic instructions on that line, it would have set up the pattern of behavior a few lines later.  Instead, the moment is missed and the humor of a later line (“My penis is my best friend”) loses the momentum of the effective set-up provided by the playwright.

Gordon’s direction often leads to awkward stage pictures, clunky movement, and a lot of cheating-out akin to what one instructs beginning actors to do when on a proscenium stage.  There is one time that this is used to comedic effect: Arnold sneaks across the stage in full view of everyone, mugging to the audience the entire way.  And with that one interlude the legitimacy of the play’s world is shot to Hell.  Is it funny?  Sure.  Does it suddenly take a big budget play and put it on the level of community theatre? You bet.  It’s unfortunate, and it adds nothing to the play itself.

There are a huge number of small issues throughout the production that make me wonder if a work of this magnitude was just slightly out of Gordon’s scope.  And, I hate feeling that way.  I wanted everyone in that audience to walk away as disturbed and altered as I was when I first saw the play.  I wanted people to be afraid to laugh during the descent into the horrible aspects of the second act.  That wasn’t present in this production.  The play still stands up.  The play itself is still brilliant.  It just isn’t as good as it could be.  I wasn’t enrapt.  That’s partly because I had seen it before.  But then again, I’ve seen “Hamlet” innumerable times, and when well done it is as brilliant as the first time, if not better.

With this production I found myself wondering:  Why didn’t Isaac carry himself like a Marine? Why didn’t Isaac’s duffle bag have any weight to it?  Was it filled with blocks of Styrofoam?  Why were the parents of a 21 year-old and a 16 year-old cast with actors who are significantly older? Exactly how did Arnold punch holes in the wall well above his own shoulder/head height?  Why wasn’t the house truly a garbage house, rather than an orderly version of untidy? Why wasn’t the ugliness of every character explored more fully?  With a work such as this play, I should not have been so easily and constantly distracted.

Any audience that leaves a production of “Hir” ought to be exhausted and spent.  It shouldn’t be possible for them to bounce up into a standing ovation and then laugh their way out the door.  It’s still worth seeing.  It’s still a good play.  Yet, so much potential…

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  One of my favorite plays.  I wish it were better.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Nance” (Pride Films and Plays)

Show: The Nance

Company: Pride Films and Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (The Broadway), 4139 N. Broadway

Some theater is so compelling, timely and complicated, you can’t wait to dissect it like the frog in your AP biology examination tray. After seeing Pride Films and Play’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance”, the story of a performer both embracing and at odds with his stage persona, I wanted a deep look into this frog’s digestive tract- I mean, into the history of New York burlesque theater, and the titular stage ‘Nance’. For as much scrutiny as “The Nance” characters face at the famed Irving Place burlesque theater, the stereotypical effeminate gay character has had a long tenure in films, plays and television; but the question that author Beane poses is, what if a burlesque ‘Nance’ was portrayed not by a straight stage comic, but a gay performer, as a means of placing a toe juuuust outside the closet in the repressive 1930’s?

At the onset of “The Nance”, Chauncey Miles (played with fantastic world-weariness by Vince Kracht) is at the apex of popularity on the 1930’s burlesque circuit for his extremely effeminate comedy stylings. The cost of doing this kind of show business as morals-and-ethics Czar Paul Moss begins cracking down on deviance onstage is utter secrecy and caution. However, when Chauncy meets Ned (Royen Kent), his private world begins to open up. The two men embark on a relationship when all they can usually expect is to meet lovers quickly under the watchful gaze of policemen at the Automat. They find legitimacy denied them at every turn, and while Chauncy has come to expect this on a personal level, he cannot stomach to see his act suppressed one bit. He and his onstage cohorts (Patrick Rybarczyk, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Steph Vondell, and Melissa Young) feel the sting of closing avenues for their racy exploits. What will survive the crack-down is only what is nimble and can change with the times. And that’s the question: will Chauncy survive?

Director John Nasca and music director Robert Ollis have their work cut out for them in this fantastically compelling piece of theater, but have spared no expense in putting us at a 1930’s burlesque review, complete with exposed bulb footlights and a tiny but boisterous house band. The costumes are big, gaudy and faces are covered in bright greasepaint. This is one production I hope audiences feel enough at home to get into the burlesque hooting and hollering.

The show really rests in the capable hands of Vince Kracht, the simultaneously winning and conflicted Chauncy. His self destruction comes from his propensity to side with those government entities that have labeled his act stage deviance and jailed him. Unlike communist leaning Sylvie (Melissa Young) or naive Ned, Chauncy is inclined to agree that he is a social menace, only that he ought be recognized as a talented one. He holds to his belief that nothing he does will alter public opinion of him, and his brand of maligned comedy will come back with time. Though anger and sadness fuel Chauncy, Vince Kracht maintains a mad-cap glee throughout. Even as he chooses passivity, inaction, and says to the man he loves, “I want to be used and discarded because I like it. It’s what I deserve.”

You hope for Chauncy what you would hope for anyone that has placed themselves beyond rescue’s reach; that the pleas of the activists and bleeding hearts in his wake do something to turn his tides.

“The Nance” is mirth and heartbreak. It’s the last laugh you will have before your world falls apart. It’s a quick and dirty vaudeville revue wrapped in a crisp, tailored jacket. You will love it, and it will hurt you.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: When it’s not the act that’s too risqué, it’s you.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “London Assurance” (City Lit Theatre)

Kraig Kelsey, Kat Evans/Photo: Ally Neutze

Show: “London Assurance”

Company: City Lit Theatre

Venue: City Lit Theatre (1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave)

If you follow the Chicago theatre market at all, you have probably noticed that the air is full of tension these days.  Even before the most recent controversy over the writings of another critic in town, theatre practitioners have been highly energized over the last few months, largely because of the political climate of the country.  There have been calls from artists to their peers that ask us all to focus exclusively on making our works political in nature.  The quote that “All art is political” can be attributed to many, many people over the years, but one of my favorite renditions of the maxim comes from Ingmar Bergman: “Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.”  A constant barrage of pieces of angry, politically charged theatre have come to Chicago’s stages since November (and before).  They are welcome and they are needed, but sometimes audiences and artists need reprieve from the repetition of comment on the political climate.  So, it is that a comedy of manners from 1841 is a welcome addition to the theatrical scene.  It is a beautiful bit of comedic relief from a world that grates daily upon the spirit.  And yet, any comedy of manners revolves around ethics, and so Mr. Bergman remains correct.

“London Assurance” covers familiar territory for British farces of the early 1800s.  An old man is engaged to a nubile youth of 18 years.  The geezer’s son meets the young lady and falls in love.  She, too, has feelings for the younger guy.  Additional characters get involved, muddle the plot, and everything works out in the end.  It’s fun, funny, and mostly predictable.  And, that’s okay.  In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

Kingsley Day/Photo: Ally Neutze

Supposedly an influence on Oscar Wilde’s writing, this is witty show about the upper crust behaving badly.  At first light, Edward Kuffert takes the stage as the clever and droll butler, Cool.  His opening moments addressing the audience directly set a tone for the entire play, which does depend heavily on asides to comment on the action and provide a good deal of the humor.  A moment later, rapscallions Richard Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) and Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) take the stage.  The latter of the two is the son, mentioned above, who will come to fall in love with his father’s betrothed.  The former is a scheming trouble-maker whose machinations don’t carry direct malice of mischievousness, but rather the overall goal of providing himself an easy life.  And yet, it is those self same plots and actions which lead to much of the show’s complications.  Eisloeffel plays the part with easy charm and a puckish grin.

The other unintentional trouble-maker of the show is Squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling).  He is charmed by Richard Dazzle, and starts the chain of invitations that leads to Charles Courtly’s wooing of Grace Harkaway (Kat Evans), who just so happens be to both Max Harkaway’s niece, and Charles’s father’s fiance.  Sparling’s confident and engaging presence allows the boisterous role of Max to take firm hold of the show and carry it upon his shoulders.  Each time he takes the stage, things get more interesting.

Director Terry McCabe has done a tremendous job of casting the show exactly as needed.  Each actor seems fits their character so well, I can’t imagine another in their part. And the staging flows naturally, in a play that has a number of far-from-natural contrivances that make the whole thing work.  I mentioned the asides earlier.  Often times, I find such theatrical conventions annoying thanks to poor staging.  They can kill an otherwise sharp production.  McCabe’s cast executes the clever side comments in a way that makes you look forward to the next one.

There was one character that I could do without, Mark Meddle (Joe Feliciano).  At the time of its writing, perhaps the self-serving, maleficent lawyer may have lampooned some specific current opinion of attorneys.  In fact, it still may.  But as scripted, the overly-litigious, money-grubbing lawyer could be edited out of the script and it would remove needless distraction from what is an otherwise tight script.  Feliciano does all he can with the role.  What is lacking here is a fault of the playwright, not the actor.

A quick call-out to the scenic designer, Ray Toler, whose  rotating walls allowed City Lit’s uniquely shaped stage to become two large British estates.  And Tom Kieffer’s costumes were exactly what it took to place this show in its time and place, the attention to detail in the dresses was marvelous.

Finally, I cannot truly review this show without mention of Kingsley Day’s performance as Sir Harcourt Courtly.  The elder lover in this play is an absurd role, and this is just the sort of thing at which Day excels.  I’ve worked with Kingsley on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and this role has a bit of the flavor of many of the characters he’s embodied over the years.  I thoroughly enjoy watching an actor shine in a role that seems to have been written for him.  Not once do you hope that Sir Harcourt will get the girl, and it is easy to revel in his self-inflicted mishaps.  And yet, the character is hard not to love.  Day gives him that little something special that wriggles the aging fop into one’s heart.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Queen” (Victory Gardens)

Stephen Spencer, Priya Mohanty, Darci Nalepa/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Queen”

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 3

For the last ten years or so, there has been a spotlight on the mysterious disappearance of honey bees in America, and across the planet.  So, it isn’t at all surprising that plays have now been written about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  I’ve reviewed one other play about the topic a couple of years ago.  This second go-’round with the topic is similar to my last, in that both works are less about the bees than about the relationships of the humans on the stage.  Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen” looks at the interactions between two women who are researching the issue of CCD.  Shekar doesn’t try to draw comparisons between the lives of the bees and the humans investigating them.  That’s a relief.  When it comes down to it, the social structures forced upon those who live within academia are nothing like the shared communal intellect of a beehive.  Shekar’s characters are solid representations of scientists in the high-pressure final stage of getting a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) are two PhD candidates at a school that is part of the University of California system (in real life, UC-Davis is one of the leading sites of research into CCD).  The ladies are good friends, in addition to being partners on a study that is set to be published in the journal “Nature”.  They are simply one batch of data away from making their careers go gangbusters.  A problem arises when the newest data doesn’t match their earlier projections, and the validity of their whole study is called into question.

The women are pressured by their advising professor (played by the dynamic Stephen Spencer) into fudging the numbers so that publication can go forward.  And, Sanam encounters a potential love interest whose opposing views on most of her beliefs shakes the foundations upon which her work rests.  Adam Poss’s turn as Arvind Patel, the suave, over-sexed, greed-driven match found for Sanam by her parents, is one of the most entertaining parts of the show.  Arvind is not a terribly redeemable character, but he is strangely likable to both the audience and Sanam.

In most moments of this play, there is an intimacy and an urgency that can draw in people who know nothing about science generally, or the bee problem specifically.  One need not know anything about science and how it is pursued in order to identify with the two women who are struggling within their own lives with the day-to-day stressors that make all of our lives complicated.  I think this is wherein Shekar’s script most succeeds.  Friends support each other, until the crucial moment when they don’t.  Fights get personal, and healing is difficult.  This is the messiness of being human told in a tale of people who are often seen as distant and clinical in their interactions with others.

Director Joanie Schultz brings out both the common preconception of scientists (socially awkward, logical rather than emotional beings) and the truly passionate side of real life scientists who truly believe in what they are doing and the people whom they are doing them with.  I struggled with the first scene of the play as it is seen at Victory Gardens because Nalepa and Mohanty stand awkwardly together and have what is essentially a very awkward presentational chat which serves as the play’s exposition.  They have this chat with beers in hand, so we’re supposed to see them as friendly to each other and having a casual chat at a conference.  It is a scene that doesn’t immediately draw you into liking the characters, nor understanding that they are close friends and have been for years.  But, as was recently explained to me by my wife (who is a scientist–a chemist, to be precise), that’s basically what socializing at a conference is like.  So, now after the fact, I give the first scene a bit of a pass, though while watching the show, I was relieved that the production improved greatly after a rough start.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Watching their dreams collapse causes friends to take a stand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”