Review: “The Harvest” (Griffin Theatre Company)

Review: “The Harvest” (Griffin Theatre Company)

Collin Quinn Rice and Raphael Diaz/Photo: Michael Courier.

Faith is an uncertain thing. It is meant to provide surety about all of life’s highs and lows, planting the faithful in a philosophy that demonstrates how belief outlasts turmoil and is eventually rewarded. But how do we know faith will be rewarded? We don’t. We simply must believe it will. That’s a tall order for the characters in the Griffin Theatre’s “The Harvest,” a hodgepodge group of lonely men and women who place their faith in God because little makes sense to them on the earthly plane. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter often writes about the quiet desperation of the plains, as one friend put it to me after exiting the theater, but in this play, his characters’ desperation about religious belief serves as both a set of wings and an anchor weighing them down.

Josh (Raphael Diaz) is an evangelical Christian who has just lost his father, and announced via email to his estranged sister Michaela (Paloma Nozicka) that he is moving to the Middle East to serve out a lifelong mission of helping people and helping them know Christ. He leaves in a matter of days. She appears in his church’s basement to talk some sense into him, and theirs is not the only conflict that rattles its cream-colored walls. Married couple Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta) fight about their placement in the mission’s main office, and Tom (Colin Quinn Rice) is tortured by the permanent loss of best friend Josh, while struggling with anxiety and issues of identity on top of that. Only Ada (Kiayla Ryann), their training leader, seems unfazed by larger questions of purpose, vocation, and belief.

The play opens with an extended sequence of the characters praying in tongues, building to an incoherent and discordant conclusion. Director Jonathan Berry gives this scene the space it needs to drive home the intense need each character feels in reaching out, and the awful disappointment in not connecting with that larger force. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he had given later scenes the same attention to detail and intensity. While the ensemble creates a fantastically awkward church politeness before jumping into alarming philosophical debates, Hunter’s script calls for the type of continual torment that seems beyond at least one performer. Rice is hard to watch as a person coming unmoored, and you believe every single second of their doubt and conflict. Acosta is also fine in the hard role of a woman who is barely allowed to talk about what she wants before her husband and community decide what’s best for her. Ryann’s escape to her Starbucks cup paints her as a leader one sip away from snapping. But Diaz, at least in the performance I saw, doesn’t reach the depths of despair necessary to reveal how hopefully he is waiting for a sign from God. When the sign finally arrives, Berry’s direction feels unfocused because the lead performance felt unfocused within that moment. And I’m not sure that was Hunter’s intention with the script.

Taylor Del Vecchio and Kathryn Acosta/Photo: Michael Courier.

Set designer Sotirios Livaditis has created a wonderful facsimile of every church basement I have ever seen. The stained and grey carpet, the distressed garbage can, the inspirational posters lining the walls to brighten the dim space up — all of it is familiar to this minister’s daughter, and a clear representation of the conflict at hand. What flashy deliverance from the Lord could possibly await people in a space such as this?

Hunter doesn’t disappoint in answering that last question. While faith may not be true in the sense that it leads these characters to work against their instincts, desires, and relationships, its mystery is part of the reward. If we understood exactly why we believe what we believe, if we could explain it simply and easily, wouldn’t our beliefs lose power over time? For these people living on the edge, the doubt more than the faith is what keeps them going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Faith without works is dead, unless you’re waiting for signs.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Show: “The Harvest”

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “Hamlet” (The Gift Theatre)

Review: “Hamlet” (The Gift Theatre)

Daniel Kyri/Photo: Claire Demos.

“Hamlet” is essentially a play about oppression. The prince of Denmark is kept from being king by a tyrannical leader, he is being spied upon at every turn, and he cannot even trust his own mother. All forces act against him, and he has little recourse but to lash out in violence. Monty Cole’s production of “Hamlet” at The Gift Theatre brings this oppression center stage in an examination of white supremacy and how it can destroy men and women of color in equal measure.

Daniel Kyri stars as the melancholy Dane spurred on to dull revenge by the ghost of his father (Robert Cornelius, who also plays Polonius). Ophelia (Netta Walker) does not understand why her boyfriend is being so distant, and King Claudius (John Kelly Connolly) and his new wife/former sister-in-law Gertrude (Shanésia Davis) are getting suspicious of his motives. School chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hannah Toriumi and Martel Manning) nose their way into his plans, and Laertes (Gregory Fenner) stands as rival for his place in the state. Along the way, there is a lot of murder, mayhem, and monologuing.

Cole has previously reinvigorated classic work for actors of color, and his take on “Hamlet” provides ample startling new readings for an audience possibly over-familiar with the seminal text. During one soliloquy, Hamlet spray-paints, “Your silence will not protect you,” across the stage’s back wall, drawing a direct line between his masquerade and questions of respectability. Casting Claudius as a Trumpian figure means that the white military men surrounding Hamlet take on an extra sense of danger. Cole gives his Ophelia range and power, as she grows angrier and angrier at the actions of those around her. And instead of having the players play the murder of Gonzago, Kyri hauls in a TV playing “The Lion King” as a visual aid for the audience. Cole’s stage pictures have a sense of humor, as well as reach and power. His placement of Hamlet and the Ghost prove how often other productions forget their bond, and Hamlet’s enduring loss.

Netta Walker and Gregory Fenner/Photo: Claire Demos.

However, the oppression Hamlet feels should ultimately turn into defiant action, and here it reads as nihilistic defeat. Cole hands his actors a concept that works for most of the play, but rubs against the grain of the fifth act. As a result, Kyri yells himself hoarse with the effort to justify Hamlet’s continuing volatility. There is likely a way to complete Cole’s concept without betraying the text, but Hamlet’s escape into the afterlife should be as satisfying as it is tragic, and here, it felt confused — and not in a way that felt purposeful.

That said, the concept for this production was particularly enjoyable in its design elements. Scenic designer William Boles places the action behind a Plexiglas wall, so that when the actors stare out at the audience, we feel complicit in separating ourselves from Hamlet’s pain. Claire Chrzan and Michelle Benda’s lighting design reaches psychedelic highs, while Samantha C. Jones’ costumes evoke hipster youth, Beyonce, and cunning politicians.

All in all, this is a stunning “Hamlet,” a solid blend of challenging ideas and strong stagecraft. If you want your eyes opened anew to the possibilities in an old text, check out this production.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Hamlet startles in a  production about oppression and contemporary troubles.

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Show: “Hamlet”

Company: The Gift Theatre

Venue: The Gift Theatre (4802 N Milwaukee Ave)


Review: “Bull in a China Shop” (About Face Theatre)

Review: “Bull in a China Shop” (About Face Theatre)

Emjoy Gavino and Kelli Simpkins/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

So often, when iconic LGBTQIA characters appear in our cultural narratives, they don’t get the same freedom to be messy and flawed as heterosexual characters would in the same circumstance.  About Face Theatre’s “Bull in a China Shop” inches into what little theatrical space is made for queer relationships working through dysfunction, and works to widen the playing space for normalized, un-precious portrayals. Author Bryna Turner and director Keira Fromm have wisely ignored the pristine women collecting dust in hardbound volumes; instead, they pry up the floorboards for the more profane, unkempt, and well-lived stories we never see.

In 1900, Mary Woolley (Kelli Simpkins) warns that, in making her the president, her appointees at Mount Holyoke women’s college will be getting someone obstinate, who openly dismisses the institution’s objective of producing marriageable women. Instead, she and Jeannette Marks (Emjoy Gavino), a professor and Woolley’s lover, work to cultivate Mount Holyoke into a gay utopia of feminist free-thinkers and activists. This comes to the chagrin of Dean Welsh (Mary Beth Fisher) and countless donors, who don’t want to take sides on women’s suffrage or war. But soon, decisions on when to compromise and when to stick to their feminist principles put a rift between the president and professors like Marks and Felicity (Adithi Chandrashekar) and students like Pearl (Aurora Adachi-Winter). It’s one thing to state your politics, it’s quite another to live them.

Aurora Adachi-Winter and Emjoy Gavino/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

One method author Bryna Turner uses to remove the dust jacket from her historical characters, is by giving them hyper-modern language; that is, lots of swearing, jokes, and even some nods to meme-culture and fandom. (When referring to Marks and Wooley, student Pearl gleefully announces, “We ship you!”) This cast is not only phenomenal in their roles, their representation onstage tells a visual story about how white feminism fails, and how women of color are left to do the heavy lifting.   

At the helm of Mount Holyoke is Kelli Simpkins, who is such a positive force as Mary Woolley, she can talk her way out of any setback. There’s something very grandfatherly in her insistence on having your trust and devotion, but then squandering it a little at a time. Equally as fun to watch spiral into chaos is Emjoy Gavino as Jeannette Marks, who is well past folding under the weight of a career, students, and conventional wifedom she never asked for.

Aurora Adachi-Winter is a harbinger of trouble-to-come as Pearl, a feisty student powder keg guaranteed to explode in a mess of angst, feelings, and pink satin. Adithi Chandrashekar is an endearingly awkward ladle of sugar as Felicity, and Mary Beth Fisher is a syringe of droll acid as Dean Welsh.

This production is the sort of theatrical medicine needed to combat Chicago’s continued love affair with straight white male playwrights and directors, and will have you longing for an autumn campus library, even in the midst of a sunny Pride month. Consider it required viewing if theater by women of color is important to you.

DICE RATING: d12 –– Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A love story. A profane, bustle-skirted, academic love story.

Show: Bull in a China Shop

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue:  Theatre Wit (1229 W. Belmont)

Review: “Through the Elevated Line” (Silk Road Rising)

Review: “Through the Elevated Line” (Silk Road Rising)

Salar Ardebili, Joshua J. Volkers, Catherine Dildilian, and Alison Plott/Photo: Airan Wright.

When asked to compare where he’s from to his new Uptown existence, Iranian immigrant Razi says that his homeland feels like another universe. The Mexican immigrant he’s talking to quickly relates; after all, he has to take two buses from Humboldt Park to get to his construction job every day. At the performance of “Through the Elevate Line” I saw, the audience laughed at this exchange without realizing the deeper truth under the words: movement is often required of those with the scarcest resources in our society. We take their troubles and sacrifices as a given, and do little to reach out and help, especially when circumstances turn sinister. Playwright Novid Parsi’s exploration of the immigrant experience, dovetailing in its plot with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” asks the audience to look closer, and recognize how ignorance traps us into inhumanity and insular thinking.

Razi (Salar Ardebili) arrives on the doorstep of his pregnant sister Soraya (Catherine Dildilian) under the cover of night, and he is rattled. He will not talk about his life as a gay man in Iran, and he cannot stand loud noises or bright light. This sensitivity puts him at odds with his brother-in-law Chuck (Joshua J. Volkers), a gregarious Southside Irishman hell-bent on flipping the couple’s current home, so that he can gain start-up cash for his business renovating and selling houses; Soraya is in the middle of her residency as a dermatologist, and years away from making a stable income, she explains repeatedly. Razi plans to stay with Chuck and Soraya until his sister gives birth, but his unwillingness to work while on a tourist visa eats at Chuck. Everything that Razi does seems lazy or opportunistic to the man, even his relationship with a family friend, wealthy lawyer Sean (Philip Winston). Tensions mount, truths are revealed, and the trio crash into a cultural conflict.

Parsi did not initially intend to weave Tennessee Williams’ plot about Blanche and Stanley into his own story, but discovered parallels between the original narrative and his characters’ struggle to define what labels one a good immigrant, or a bad one. Early on, Parsi might have built stronger tension if he spent more time fleshing out the contemporary characters he was creating, rather than repeating a previous writer’s set of tactics and choices. But in the second act, the playwright tests our sympathies for Razi in new and unexpected ways, pushing the audience to examine its own prejudices and preconceptions about what one should do in an entirely untenable situation. Likewise, Parsi develops a complicated relationship between Soraya and her brother, as they fight about what it means to be Americanized, and whether they each paid their dues in order to exist in their new, supposedly freer nation. By the time Chuck has manipulated his wife into seeing Razi through his eyes, the audience must watch in horror as the inevitable unfolds.

Salar Ardebili/Photo: Airan Wright.

Director Carin Silkaitis and her actors use physical space to ratchet up the conflict between Parsi’s characters. Ardebili darts from place to place in the small home, hiding his nerves in grand pronouncements and adjustments to the lights. Volkers stomps through the room, as he feels is his right. By the time he’s pushing Razi around wearing only a towel, it seems clear that dominance is what makes Chuck feel safe. Meanwhile, Didilian and Winston occupy the counters and the edges of the kitchen and doorway, working not to bother anyone or create any new problems. In a play about mobility, that explicitly interrogates freedom of movement and freedom of choice, each performer clarifies their stability — or lack of it — with every step.

Set designer Joe Schermoly and props designer Abigail Cain create an appropriately yuppified theatrical minefield for the play. As Chuck’s renovations sand down the edges of the kitchen and bedroom cum living room, Razi tries to bring personality to the space by adding lamps and books and treasures from his homeland. Lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan embraces the magic of Razi’s lights, inviting the audience into his mindset via rainbow colors. We want to live in Razi’s imagination because it’s less violent than what Chuck is creating.

Much like Blanche DuBois before him, Razi is living by his wits, with nothing and no one to fall back on in dire circumstances. What makes “Through the Elevated Line” so exciting, and so haunting, is that Parsi does not lay the blame for his problems entirely on Razi. His family and friends are equally responsible. Soraya does not want to know what he has gone through before winding up on her doorstep. Chuck sees his experiences as little excuse. And Sean finds his truth distasteful when it comes out. What does it say about Americans that we welcome immigrants, as long as their stories are tasteful, and as long as their movements make sense to us? “Through the Elevated Line” may start with a classic plot, but develops into something much more chilling, and much more contemporary, than ever expected.

Show: “Through the Elevated Line”

Company: Silk Road Rising

Venue: Chicago Temple (77 W Washington St)

DIE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A chilling immigrant story filled out with all America’s flaws.

Review: “Yank! A World War II Love Story” (Pride Film and Plays)

Review: “Yank! A World War II Love Story” (Pride Film and Plays)

William Dwyer, Matthew Huston, and Molly LeCaptain/Photo: Paul Goyette.

The men of Charlie Company are first described as a unit of types fit for the movies. There’s Czechowski (Will Kazda), the smart aleck with a heart of gold; Rotelli (Xavier Euzarraga), the immigrant on his way to becoming a citizen; Tennessee (Nate Strain), the country boy; Mitch (William Dwyer), the handsome all-American hero. And then there’s Stu (Matthew Huston), nicknamed “Light Loafers” by his fellow soldiers, because he’s clumsy and quiet and does not seem that interested in girls.

Stu is the hero of “Yank! A World War II Love Story,” a musical now in its Chicago premiere at Pride Films and Plays. Composer Joseph Zellnick and lyricist/book writer David Zellnick, who are brothers, deliver a story that embraces the romantic formulas set by classic war films and light-hearted musicals; but in Stu, they create a profound character study of what it means to fight for connection in society that doesn’t recognize your wants or rights. The mix of joy and drama isn’t always a comfortable one in David Zak’s production, but I find myself thinking about the show every few hours since seeing it. The dreaminess of the experience more than makes up for its jarring sections.

Soon after arriving at basic training, Stu develops an immediate crush on Mitch that he meticulously hides away in the journal he carts from his bunk to the South Pacific. It is his observations and choices that provide the structure for this story about self-discovery. After admitting his feelings to Mitch on a late-night train ride to their next base, Mitch first reciprocates, then rejects his friend. Lucky for Stu, he soon meets Artie (John Marshall, Jr.), a proud though discreet gay photographer for the Army features magazine Yank, and his world opens up. The men travel all over profiling soldiers, with Artie photographing and Stu writing; Artie also teaches Stu how to live as openly as he can while under the watch of Army brass, and our hero finds a measure of self-acceptance in his travels, before being called to the front by his buddies. Mitch is drinking heavily after the death of one of their comrades-in-arms; only Stu can get through to him, and maybe, rekindle their love for one another.

The ensemble/Photo: Paul Goyette.

Joseph Zellnick provides a lush score for this romance, particularly in the opening — oft repeated — number, “Rememb’ring You.” David Zellnick’s lyrics range from biting and funny to illuminating, as in Stu’s late show ballad, “Just True.” The music direction by Robert Ollis is top notch, with the orchestra creating the wide-ranging war scenes, and with the men’s voices blending beautifully, as they croon about pin-up girls or gripe about shining shoes.

David Zak’s direction feels a tad broad in the first act, especially in relationship to Artie’s instruction of Stu’s secret sexual escapades. An embrace of the closet is something that falls away in the second act, as the Army interrogates Stu, but there is little in Zak’s work that indicates future problems may be ahead, and watching as a present-day viewer, it was hard not to get lost in immediate worry for the characters. That is partly the nature of the play, which is meant to be a romance above all, but the tight book work in the second act complicates Stu and Mitch’s relationship, and I would have enjoyed seeing more hints of that reality earlier on. That said, the emotional connection between Huston and Dwyer is wonderful and well sung; Dwyer, in particular, has a powerful voice that fleshes out Mitch’s confusion and passion. And Marshall excels in his dance numbers, bringing an athletic energy and life to the stage every time he appears. Molly LeCaptain stands out as a variety of radio singers, and one efficient, honest secretary with a hidden life to match Huston and Marshall’s. And the ensemble attacks their moments of humor and heart with gusto.

“Yank!” will stick with you because of the heart displayed in the script and by the performers. What seems simple at the start becomes complex, and the tunes are worth whistling on the way out the door, only for the music’s true meaning, and the story’s true resonance, to land later in surprising ways.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Beautiful music and heartfelt story make this show haunt you.

DIE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Show: “Yank! A World War II Love Story”

Company: Pride Films and Plays

Review: “The Good Fight” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Review: “The Good Fight” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Scottie Caldwell, Jean Marie Koon, David Kaplinsky, Arielle Leverett/Photo: Joe Mazza.

I thought a lot about the 2017 Women’s March while watching “The Good Fight.” Though the play takes place during the British suffragette movement in 1913 and 1914, the parallels to today’s protest movement were almost overwhelming. As the characters onstage debated whose voice guided control of “votes for women,” and worried over loss of space during a large procession, I remembered the national conversation that happened over who was best represented by the Women’s March organizers, and how concern loomed that the permit for the Washington march might be pulled at any minute. Anne Bertram’s script is about how the sausage of equal rights got made in Britain, and Elizabeth Lovelady’s production for Babes With Blades is at its best when shaping practicalities to meet with principles.

Grace Roe (Arielle Leverett) is put in charge of the Women’s Social and Political Union after its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Jean Marie Koons) is imprisoned and on a hunger strike. Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel (Alison Dornheggen), has escaped to Paris, and sends Grace advisory notes and warnings from France. Emily Wilding Davison (Taylor Raye) begs Grace for paid work to help the cause, and when she is rejected by Christabel for her extreme protests, she takes drastic action, illuminating that these women must protect one another in order to further the message of suffrage. By play’s end, many women in the organization have taken up jujutsu, in order to keep their leaders from being needlessly returned to prison, and a deeper conversation about violence and peaceful protest has been engaged.

Taylor Raye and Jean Marie Koon/Photo: Joe Mazza.

The WSPU was famously known for militant tactics, such as the destruction of shop windows, escalating all the way to arson of uninhabited churches. Only the female perpetrators were ever put in harm’s way, it was reasoned, and that should prove their hunger for, as well as the necessity of, the vote. But such thinking does not win sympathy with the public. The police abuse the WSPU suffragettes, and drag Pankhurst back to jail as soon as she has regained her health. The government refuses to take up bills granting women the vote, because women are not as strong, and cannot rule forcefully, the way men must in political life. Bertram’s script allows for lots of debate over the best ways to win one’s freedom, and these scenes are powerful. There are never easy answers, and one can see both sides in how these women plan to defend their principles in reality.

Lovelady’s casting shines a light on this theme, highlighting issues we face now. Leverett and Raye are strong anchors for a cast full of vibrant, talented women; they are also women of color. The British and American suffrage movements were not welcoming to women of color, cutting them out of events and protests, and in the case of American history, preventing women of color from claiming their voting rights until the Voting Rights Act was implemented, after years of protest and social justice activism. Last year, the Women’s March struggled to include the voices of women of color, before reorganizing the leadership structure. So placing these actresses at the front of the story makes this not just history, but a story for now, about how those who are silenced will never stop fighting institutions, and even allies, for their voices.

While the integration of jujutsu felt schematic in some of the playwright’s work, the excellent fight choreography by Gaby Labotka makes the throws and falls land with intense reality. These women are athletes, and they protect their own, using opponents’ strength to their advantage, and protecting one another before striking against others. Such movement represents the heart of “The Good Fight.” Compromise and action can only happen when activists are willing to stand together, and force the public to see their points of view.

DIE RATING: Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A thrilling examination of protest in regards to women’s rights.

Show: “The Good Fight”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)

Review: “BLKS” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Review: “BLKS” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Nora Carroll, Leea Ayers, and Celeste M. Cooper/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

The women in “BLKS” have a lot going on. June is dealing with a break-up. Imani is struggling with a stalled career as a comedian/artist. And Octavia has just discovered she has a cancerous genital mole that needs removing. These friends have good reason to indulge in a night of heavy drinking and shenanigans, and poet Aziza Barnes gives them plenty to do in this wide-eyed, wild-hearted comedy now playing at the Steppenwolf.

Octavia (Nora Carroll) is the soul of the trio, and medical issue aside, she is also fighting with her vaguely labelled romantic partner Ry (Danielle Davis, so excellent in the recent “Fun Home”), who unexpectedly becomes part of the evening at the club. Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) finds herself the object of affection of a white woman (Kelly O’Sullivan), known only as That Drunk Bitch On The Couch, who spends most of her time apologizing for not doing or saying the right things in regards to race. And June (Leea Ayers) meets a Boy Scout level prepared man named Justin (Namir Smallwood), who fixes her broken heel, and may hold the key to fixing her broken heart.

Danielle Davis and Nora Carroll/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Or at least that is how matters stand before the second act of “BLKS.” Barnes has no interest in letting this rowdy night simplify as the hours wear on. The people surrounding our heroines let them down, or prove to have their own agendas. It is not safe for these women out in the streets, and their own bodies are under attack, a fact represented not only by Octavia’s mole, but by a disturbing encounter with a possible rapist (also played by Smallwood) outside the club. The realities they face are much more complicated than the realities I face, as I carry the privilege of being a white woman, and Barnes highlights for the audience that in order to find joy, these friends must wade through some awful violence to get there. The second half of the play leans into that idea without providing the confident structure that the first act does, and Barnes’ theme loses its bite a bit in the process. But the characters are never less than warm, hilarious, and conflicted, and I always wanted to know where they would land the morning after.

Director Nataki Garrett has brought together a wonderful ensemble for this piece of theatre. Carroll holds the crew together as a confused young women who is searching for intimacy, but does not know how to ask for what she needs most. Davis brings heart and energy to her potential girlfriend, while Cooper’s flirting and zero-to-sixty attitude in a crisis are entertaining; O’ Sullivan is open-hearted, while her guilty cluelessness shows how dissatisfying her conversations with Cooper will become. Ayers works particularly well with Carroll, as the women navigate the evening’s losses, and stick up for one another when their problems escalate. And Smallwood performs a complex dance, first making us understand Justin’s appeal, then challenging us to see just how lonely and mixed up the man is by morning’s light.

Nora Carroll and Namir Smallwood/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has a ball delineating the spaces of the women’s shared apartment. The exposed window architecture and couches bolted to the walls give the production an air of surreality, as the comfort of communal living proves more frenzied and fraught than it first appears. Trevor Bowen’s costume design speaks to each character’s style and needs on their night out, and Marcus Doshi’s club lighting combined with T. Carlis Robert’s sound design create the illusion that the women have escaped the troubles they unpacked in their home.

Even though it is a comedy, “BLKS” provides no simple answers. The women rage and dance and build one another up, but there is a thread of loneliness, grief, and hurt running through each of their lives that cannot be solved, no matter what they do. Watching how they endure their loss is definitely entertaining, but I do wonder what will become of each of them after the lights go down, and the audience leaves them behind.

TEN-WORD SUMMARY: Wild night brings truths to light in this warm comedy.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Show: “BLKS”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N Halsted St)

Review: “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black & White” (The Artistic Home)

The cast of “Wedding Band”/Photo: The Artistic Home.

Show: Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black & White

Company: The Artistic Home

Venue:  The Artistic Home (1376 W. Grand Ave.)

When Alice Childress’ “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black & White” premiered in the mid-sixties it was shortly after interracial relationships were made legal nationwide. Even so, scrutiny from theaters kept it from premiering in may venues until the early seventies. It courted controversy then, and it still does now, by pulling the curtain and exposing long-festering racial tensions.

Childress wants us to see how fast any pretense of tolerance or respect for social equity drop when the white characters in her story face even the suggestion of a shared social standing with black characters. With this production, the Artistic Home and director Cecilie Keenan are asking us to see how little this dynamic has changed in nearly a century. The defence and fondness that white “Wedding Band” characters express for their disgraced racist relatives is not dissimilar from what you might find emblazoned in the comments of a Breitbart article, today.

The cast of “Wedding Band”/Photo: The Artistic Home.

In “Wedding Band” a young, single seamstress, Julia (Raina Lynn), takes up residence in Fanny Johnson’s (Susan Anderson) South Carolina tenement housing for blacks, at the onset of the first  World War. Julia seems like an ideal tenant at first; quiet, financially stable, and keeping mostly to herself with an unnamed, unseen beau. But when she reveals her lover of 10 years is a poor white baker named Herman (Scott Westerman) , Julia’s neighbors (Lisa McConnell,  Myesha-Tiara, Kevin Patterson and Maya Hooks) brace for a battle with the law, social stigmas and unspoken racial tensions neither Herman or Julia want to face in their tenuous, blissful state. The lives and livelihoods of the men and women in this tenement have always been at the mercy of local white folks, and never is it clearer than when Herman’s mother and sister (Donna McGough & Laura Coleman) descend on the tenement to retrieve him. They bring years of barely repressed bigotry screaming to the surface in a strong enough torrent, that if Julia, her neighbors or any member of Artistic Home’s audience had not been an activist against oppression before, they sure were now.  

There’s a syrupy quality of life for these tenants that director Cecilie Keenan ladles on liberally, almost to coax us into what will be bitter and tense for them all. Neighboring tenant Lula Green, played with calculating affection by Lisa McConnell, begs her son Nelson (played with not-quite contained seething anger by Kevin Patterson) to gird himself as she does in the presence of white folks, even if it means public debasement and trampled dignity. Likewise, we see the public and private faces of Susan Anderson as the hungry-for-prestige landlady Fannie, and poverty-stricken tenant Mattie, played with equal parts childlike dreaminess and cruelty by Myesha-Tiara as they battle hard for what little they can keep. They are held at arm’s’ length, just outside of white society, most notably by Reid Coker as a nameless peddler, who dogs his most exploitable clientele sinisterly for trinkets, payments and sexual favors.

Upper-crust white society comes knocking at the tenement gate in the form of Herman’s mother, Thelma, played dryly by Donna McGough, who comes in with the impossible expectation that she will remove her son without dropping a bead of sweat. While the whole tenement will oblige her, Julia will not, and Raina Lynn both shatters and reconstructs in a performance that cultivates Julia into a woman of rock solid continence that does not suffer fools.

Catch this performance before it closes (you’ve got until December 17th), and support a company doing Chicago theater the service of choosing authors of color, hiring actors of color and producing work that is far from easy. There are more black women onstage for “Wedding Band” than I’ve seen in all of the shows I’ve reviewed during 2017, combined. With a fraction of the funding and support extended to Chicago’s larger playhouses, “Wedding Band” has prioritized voices and stories of color in a way I hope inspires more theaters to take note.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Between love and color, some debts can never be settled.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Marie Christine” (Theater Wit)

Show: “Marie Christine”

Kryie Courter (Center) and Ensemble

Company: Boho Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

BoHo Theatre’s production of Marie Christine by Michel John LaChiusa and directed by Lili-Anne Brown at Theater Wit started with a lurch, talent stilted by muddied sound design and choreography that was both too expansive for a black box stage, and too reductive of voodoo for a show that hinges on it being taken seriously. However, once past these hurdles the cast found their stride and took every opportunity to shine.

The cast was led by Kyrie Courter as Marie Christine, a woman who will do anything to keep the one man she shouldn’t have, in a performance that takes the audience from love struck girlhood to grief-stricken, heartbroken madness, with the use of her agile voice.

Ken Singleton was opposite her as Dante Keys, the smooth talking sailor who steals the heart (and arguably the mind) of Marie Christine, in this adaptation of the Greek tragedy, Medea. Singleton is perfect in his roll of the as an oily scumbag, but isn’t quite charismatic enough for the audience to ever forget the residue such charmers leave behind. It sours Dante’s introduction, but adds a delightfully skeevy quality once he starts to show his true colors.

(L-R) Katherine-Bourne and Kyrie Courter

The musical’s leads were supported by an ensemble featuring a Greek chorus—made up of women dressed in white, the color of magic, whose whites are are dirty and soiled like the theme of corruption that haunts the play’s take on love as something fetid that fouls the waters that would otherwise nurture a good life. The ensemble also included Marie’s European-educated brothers, servants, politicians, prostitutes, and white bourgeoisie. Ensemble standouts include: Katherine Bourne as Lisette, Marie Christine’s maid, who sings with the clear soprano voice of a golden age ingenue; Kevin Webb, whose comedic timing stands out even as he flits through as a gossipy party goer; Neala Barron as Magdalena, the salon owner and performer, whose powerful voice cuts through the second act in counterpoint to Courter’s songs ariatic keening grief; and Averis I. Anderson as Paris, Marie Christine’s more playful brother, the only actor who could handle the show’s occasional foray into patter. Anderson as Paris stole hearts in the first act and broke them in the second with his beautiful voice and skillful acting range.

(L-R) Emily Goldberg, Kyrie Courter, and Ken Singleton in Marie Christine.

The cast shines despite the show’s technical hiccups. The musical does occasionally veer into formula and dabbles in shock value (most notably the unnecessary use of the n-word during a sexual assault in the second act). The show’s theme of interracial relations as sexual deviance, the repeated implications that Dante specifically has a taste for the forbidden “chocolate” and the repeated comparisons of Marie Christine with animals might make this show extremely uncomfortable for some theatergoers, especially if they go into the theater with the knowledge that writer Michel John LaChiusa is a white man. Theatergoers who can stomach sitting through the retelling of a classic as an excuse for fetishization writ large, shouldn’t miss “Marie Christine” because the excellent work of the musical’s actors, whose talent and hard work make the production a success, despite the things holding them back, should not be for naught.

Ten Word Summary: Despite playing racism for shock value, cast gives good performances.

Dice Rating: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “J.B.” (City Lit Theater)

Morgan McCabe and Elaine Carlson/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: “J.B.”

Company: City Lit

Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)

“Are you ready?” asks one performer to another, before the pair dons masks representing God and the Devil, and play out the story of Job. Her opposite number nods. They adjust their masks, and the play truly begins.

It is a simple enough question to consider. A check-in is necessary before fantasy kicks in, when the focus required for a narrative moves artists to a higher plane. But in this case, it is also a troubling inquiry. Are these performers ready to destroy and judge a man? Are those watching ready to respond to the eternal questions of fairness and justice that lie at the heart of “J.B.”? In director Brian Pastor’s all-female, over-fifty cast at City Lit Theater, not a woman escapes epiphanies about choice, responsibility, and freewill. Set under the cover of a circus big top, and under the insightful eye of playwright Archibald MacLeish, humanity is dissected, and our place on Earth made an object of curiosity not unlike attending a side show.

Two carnival vendors, Mr. Zuss (Elaine Carlson) and Nickles (Morgan McCabe), put aside their popcorn and balloons, in order to regale the audience with a tale of human suffering. Zuss happily embodies God, while Nickles takes off her Satan guise as often as possible, interrogating the suffering set against Job, and lambasting the worthiness of the world. The two choose local banker J.B. (Stephanie Monday) as the subject of the Lord and the devil’s bet, and the audience watches the man and his family, particularly his wife Sarah (Judy Lea Steele), endure endless hardship, sickness, violence, and death.

Stephanie Monday, marssie Mencotti, Elaine Carlson, Shariba Rivers, Barbara Roeder Harris, Susie Griffith, and Rainee Denham/Photo: Tom McGrath.

In the press materials, Pastor points out that the women cast in “J.B.” will be well aware of what it feels like to live without agency. As they have aged out of ingenue status, they are likely offered fewer opportunities to work, while society at large has always devalued their contributions based solely on their gender presentation. What better group to bring MacLeish’s scathing indictment of destiny to light? I am not sure that this concept enriches the story being told, or that the idea even tracked for me, but I will say that the performances are all wonderful, with rich character work especially shining through in the relationships between Monday and Steele, and Carlson and McCabe. Likewise, the ensemble work by Barbara Roeder Harris, Shariba Rivers, Rainee Denham, Susie Griffith, and marssie Mencotti is strong, as they play comforters, children, and vagrants, building out a world we recognize all too well. Pastor works well in the City Lit space, allowing the actors to range across platforms right up close to the audience, as they question the value of a life well lived on Earth. He keeps the performances sharp and clear, as each actor moves in and out of their own personalities to adopt their roles. It is clear when McCabe bemoans her tale because she as Nickles is doubtful, and when Satan is sowing discord with Mr. Zuss.

The circus feel comes across in an impressively large set by Kaitlyn Grissom, with platforms and a creamy color scheme that pop under Jess Fialko’s light design. The muted tans and browns of Alaina Moore’s costumes give the Earth-bound characters a grounded feel, while David Knezz’s masks evoke Greek tragedy and the allegory of medieval theatre. Overall, the production has a cheerful feel undercut by MacLeish’s damning questions, and that vibe works well for the material. I only wish that there had been more music throughout the performance. The circus workers sing snatches of folk tunes here and there, but more live music or underscoring would have made the characters’ in-story choices even more haunting.

No one is ever ready to face a hardship, but City Lit’s “J.B.” makes the case that when suffering occurs, the only action worth taking is making the choice to go on, whatever causes it. While actors can remove themselves from an illusion, J.B. the banker cannot, and the character’s rejection of heaven and hell makes MacLeish’s point that humans are strongest when taking on hardship without flinching.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: All creatures under heaven face adversity through circus/mask work.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”