Review: “A View From the Bridge” (Goodman Theatre)

Ian Bedford, Catherine Combs, and Andrus Nichols/Photo: Liz Lauren.

Show: “A View From the Bridge”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre (170 N Dearborn)

The smell of sea salt is referenced multiple times in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” part and parcel of the story’s connection to ancient grudges growing from family obligations stretching back to Sicily. But in the play’s startling Ivo van Hove production, recently on Broadway and now remounted at the Goodman, I kept anticipating the smell of blood. I waited for it be spilled on the pristine white set, as anxious and unsettled as the characters headed for oblivion onstage. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop its arrival; I simply had to pay attention, and heed the lesson at the heart of this penetrating and powerful production.

Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford) lives his life by a simple code: do right by your family, and protect them at all costs. He is particularly preoccupied with looking after his niece Catherine (Catherine Combs), a woman on the verge of her twenties who has lived with Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) for her entire childhood, and continues to do so in her emerging adulthood. Eddie and Catherine have settled into an uncomfortably flirtatious rhythm in recent years. Every day when he arrives home from the docks, she leaps into his arms, and wraps her legs around his waist. When he sits next to her, he absent-mindedly runs his hand up and down the length of her bare leg. Beatrice notes these gestures, but holds her tongue for the sake of peace in the household. Matters escalate with the arrival of Beatrice’s cousins from Italy; Marco (Brandon Espinoza) and Rodolpho (Daniel Abeles) enter the country illegally by ship, and work on the docks with Eddie in order to raise funds for family members back home. Eddie is happy to help out kin, but Rodolpho and Catherine take an instant interest in one another, and our protagonist’s disapproval eventually veers into obsession and results in violence.

Daniel Abeles, Brandon Espinoza, and Ian Bedford/Photo: Liz Larson.

Miller’s focus on the inevitability of tragedy is never stronger than in “View,” and van Hove’s stripped down presentation allows the script’s dread and anger to dominate the proceedings. By slicing away the realism centered in the home-set scenes, van Hove leaves only the actors to tell the story. Their bodies communicate fracturing and complicated bonds; their voices strain to reach scene partners across the wide white floor; the rhythm of their work prepares the audience for an awful outcome. Miller embraced Greek tragedy traditions up to a certain point, but stayed loyal to presenting the illusion of everyday life in his work. Ivo van Hove detaches the play entirely from reality, generating a sense that nothing in the world matters but Eddie’s desire. The result is a claustrophobic stage experience. The characters receive no relief; they cannot hide from one another, and you cannot look away from them. Serving as witness to this story carries its own weight and responsibility. When the show’s narrator, a lawyer named Alfieri (Ezra Knight), calls us to judge whether it is better to act in the community’s interest, rather than anguish in the purity of one’s own convictions, we are left to make the choice on our way out of the theater.

Bedford is a massive actor, and his frame sweeps across the space easily and with a sense of destiny. He plays Eddie as a man only half-aware of what he really wants; his fear always tips over into lashing out against and controlling the ones he loves. It is a tough performance, both sympathetic and frightening. Combs must be equally innocent of her affections, and only emerges as an independent adult slowly, with each passing scene, her inquiring mind driving her choices. Nichols could simply play a badgering wife, but she gives Beatrice’s needs complexity and dimension; the muting of her wants ends in her delivery of the play’s seminal line. Espinoza is appropriately intimidating in his solid quietness, and Abeles gives Rodolpho a sweetness and charm that proves in and of itself how wrong Eddie is about the boy’s masculinity and intentions towards Catherine.

The lights and sets by Jan Versweyveld are stark and square, a decision that often leaves the stage illuminated but the actors in shadow. As Combs and Bedford struggle with their desires, they sit in darkness, their voices alone carrying their questions to the audience. Costume designer An D’Huys lets Beatrice and Marco blend into the background with greys, while tracking Catherine’s changing feelings with blouses that first pop crayon colors, and eventually dim to black. Such design elements work in concert to reveal what the characters cannot.

When the blood finally arrives in “A View From the Bridge,” it provides no catharsis. As the actors stumble about the stage, splashed with color, there is no sense of relief, no discconection from pain and yearning. There is only the image, frozen in time, of men and women clutching at one another, always wanting more, but needing to settle for less.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Brilliant staging of an American classic examines desire and choice.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “A New Brain” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Show: A New Brain

Company: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Venue:  The No Exit Cafe (6970 N. Glenwood Ave.)

There is a metronome working overtime deep in the heart of Theo Ubique’s “A New Brain”, that keeps things so precise and expert, it’s almost like were in a operating theater, being tutored by a flock of luminaries. Playing space be damned, the cast and creative team bring this performance close enough to incorporate the whole audience into it. The players are bounding up and down your aisles, directing their lyrics sometimes solely to you, if you’re in the right place and the mood strikes them. Hell, if you ordered a beer, look again; the man who brought you your pint and glass a moment ago has now hoisted a small canvas sail, and sings aloofly to his one true love, a sailboat. The confidence and dexterity of a cast has never come together so well, and it’s worth more than all the spectacular effects money could buy.

In William Finn and James Lapine’s “A New Brain”, Gordon (Chase Heinemann) a children’s television show composer collapses during a lunch date with agent and friend, Rhoda (Tyler Symone). He discovers he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, and no choice but to undergo a life-threatening surgery to correct it. Gordon has a lot to sort out before he goes under the knife; his rocky relationship with sailing-obsessed Roger (Colin Schreier), the overprotectiveness of his mother, Mimi (Liz Norton),  his own doubts, brought to life by amphibian children’s show personality Mr. Bungee (Andy Brown), even a tenacious homeless woman looking for change (Veronica Garza). Last but not least, there’s the team of doctors and nurses who treat him (Kyle Ryan, Tommy Bullington, Holly Atwood and Danny Dwaine Wells II), bringing levity, cheer and vocal power during ensemble numbers.

The music reflects the crisis and return of Gordon’s particularly stream-of-consciousness brain. His messy life and lyrics are less disjointed when stung together with music director Jeremy Ramey’s gorgeous musical accompaniment. Likewise, choreographer Cameron Turner can turn a somber room into a mad-cap explosion of synapses firing. There’s just enough space to play tug-of-war with a Gertrude Stein book, or a rousing game of spin-the-gurney, so of course, we must. 

Director Fred Anzevino has assembled a collection of dynamic performers with astounding voices. Liz Norton stands out as Mimi, wringing the pathos out of her imagined 11 o’clock soliloquy, “The Music Still Plays On”, and Veronica Garza spares us no contempt with Lisa the Homeless Lady’s bitter plea for “Change”. Chase Heinemann may shoulder the heaviest load as as Gordon, but is so nimble in every number, he makes it look easy. And while every performer is fantastic on their own, the ensemble is an unstoppable force. Numbers like ‘Heart & Music’ and  reprise ‘Time & Music’ are so layered and enveloping you’ll find yourself floating above the rafters if you let go of the ride handrails. Don’t waste any energy fretting over how much you’ll enjoy the style or the subject matter or of this incredibly smart production, just go and experience this masterpiece first hand.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A musical whirlwind bursting out of its intimate venue seams

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “United Flight 232” (The House Theatre)

Show: United Flight 232

Company: The House Theatre

Venue:  The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Almost three decades after departure, The House Theatre gives us a glimpse into “United Flight 232”; it’s more than a factual account, more than a documentary, it’s a moment in the beating heart of a disaster in progress. We’re there to peer through the fuselage that still unravels for the few lucky men and women who walked out their flight’s burning wreckage alive and into a sunny Iowa cornfield one devastating day in the summer of 1989.

We follow head Flight Attendant Jan Murray (Brenda Barrie) Captain Al Hanes (Abu Ansari) and the hundreds of crew members, passengers, and hands on the ground that prevented doomed flight 232 from becoming the encompassing tragedy it surely would have been if luck had not intervened. When an explosion rips apart one engine on their passenger craft, the pilots (Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena) think they may be able to manage to O’Hare airport with just their remaining engines. They soon find they are stranded in the air with no ability to bank, turn or pull up. The enormous plane must be coasted to an unpopulated crash landing zone in Sioux City, Iowa.  One pilot likens the experience to “surfing a 500 ton whale”.

When the extent of the damage becomes clear, the crew members (Jessica Dean Turner, Alice Da Cunha) are made aware of the shrinking likelihood that any of them will emerge from the aircraft (as the captain codes it) “standing up”. They have no choice to devote all their energy to staving panic among the passengers (Elana Elyse, Dan Lin, Carlos Alameda) by treating this as normal air trouble, and going about flight routines.

As this plane lumbers through the air to what will be a bloody, ruinous mess of seats, metal and fire, we get a moment with everyone. Unaccompanied minors, businesspeople, mechanics and air traffic controllers all cycle through their regrets and mistakes before they make touchdown. But there is no panic and very little hesitation among a crowd of hundreds solidified enough by their better instincts to blink the terror away and care for each other. There are those who perish, those who flee when they find their feet, and those who glimpse the safety of the corn, just off the tarmac, but go back in to help, because they can. 

Director and adapter Vanessa Stalling filters author Laurence Gonzales’ account of the crash (“Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival”) by borrowing some very effective storytelling from documentary features. The actors step into the footsteps of dozens of survivors, asked to retrace their steps and remember the minute details burned into the backs of their eyes over time. The trembling hands collecting scattered miniature vodka bottles. The infant without  a seat being held between her mother’s feet. Stalling has crafted a story far more powerful than a theatrical fictionalization when she allows her subject’s remembered experiences to take focus.

The cast does a great deal of the heavy lifting in this minimalist production. Statements have been gathered from hundreds of survivors, and with he flip of an internal switch, actors must go from retiree to frightened teenager as the tension ratchets up. Elana Elyse is a joy to watch as she volleys between regretful mom Martha Conant and rookie in the control tower, Kevin Bachman. Likewise, Abu Ansari is fantastic both as Captain Al Hanes and as the airport chaplain who meets passengers departing from he wreckage.

As Jan Brown, Brenda Barrie is at the center of everything, one hand in the engine, one hand on your tray tables. It’s no accident that we have her guidance, her clockwork memory as our default authority,  this is the very person you’d want managing your crisis, no matter what. Barrie builds an unbreakable veneer, just to allow us peeks through the cracks. In wonderful counterpoint, Jessica Dean Turner allows us behind the curtain of her fears as coach flight attendant Susan White, who’s sole focus is to see her family once more. And for a beam of weird and wonderful optimism, look no further than Dan Lin as coach passenger John Xiu who managed to rescue a number of passengers with purely accidental good instincts.

So, without delay, I can advise stowing any reservations you may have about crashing planes under your seat, and make plans to move about this cabin. Fair warning: you will need copious tissues where you’re going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The human mechanics behind what goes wrong in the air.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “The Fair Maid of the West” (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Show: “The Fair of the West”

Company: Oak Park Festival Theatre

Venue: Austin Gardens (167 Forest Ave Oak Park, IL)

“May that man die derided and accursed that will not follow where a woman leads.” So says a soldier of fortune in thrall to the fair maid of the west, known in taverns and back alleys simply as Bess, though her theatrical adventures grant her a swashbuckling reputation and the admiration of any she meets. The Oak Park Festival Theatre audience at “The Fair Maid of the West” certainly hooted in agreement on the night I attended. Brought to glorious life by Amanda Forman and a cast of hilarious and game fighters, this sixteenth century drama is a rollicking good time, a treasure that has been luckily saved from the history bin by director and adapter Kevin Theis.

Bess Bridges is a simple tavern wench who finds herself swept up in international intrigue when Spencer (Zach Livingston), a nobleman and the love of her life, is banished from England for murdering a man in self-defense. His man Friday, a captain by the name of Goodlack (Debo Balogun), alternately betrays and assists his friend, and a braggart by the name of Roughman (Aaron Christensen) pledges fidelity to Bess after she tricks him into admitting his cowardice outside the tavern. When the two lovers are separated, Bess chooses to pursue her partner across oceans — war with Spain and encounters with indecent sailors be damned.

Theis has crafted a sprightly script to suit his strong actors. His take on Thomas Heywood’s swashbuckler is fresh and immediate, with actors using asides to wink at the audience with contemporary flourishes. As the action moves from England to the sea to Fez, Theis keeps the shenanigans moving at a quick pace, and embraces all the devices of Shakespeare’s day, up to quick-turn redemptions, and even including the infamous “bed trick.”

Forman and the ensemble are clearly having a hell of a time onstage. She imbues her heroine with a confident center and a surprising sense of humor. Livingston is a great match for Forman, and his true blue love for her shines through, even when he is choosing honor above his personal attachments. Christensen steals the show in the coward soldier role, flexing his muscles and passionately screaming to the heavens once his plans go awry. Clem (Bobby Bowman), Bess’ assistant, gamely plays the clown, spouting truths to the audience that his fellow adventurers will not hear.

Fight choreographer Geoff Coates take special care with each sword fight, creating dramatic storylines to each battle. Spencer’s final attempts to reach Bess was particularly impressive, as it involved the entire cast attacking, twice. Also fun were the localized bouts between ensemble members. Each fight made a statement about the characters, their skills, and where they were at emotionally within the performance. It is not easy to tell a story through violence, but Coates makes it spectacular and important to the audience.

Michael Lasswell’s set design encompasses a ship, several taverns, and one royal palace, with rooms popping up out of nowhere — proving that the humblest of settings can still birth great things. Julie Mack’s light design highlights the romantic moments onstage, and the rousing music provided by Christopher Kriz set the epic tone needed for the play.

“The Fair Maid of the West” should entertain and delight audiences throughout the Chicago area. Its every detail is full of joy and innovation. Look no further for a lovely summer treat.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A rollicking adventure awaits the audience, along with killer fights.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “Three Days of Rain” (BoHo Theatre)

Niko Kourtis, Kate Black-Spence, and Kyle Curry/Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography.

Show: “Three Days of Rain”

Company: BoHo Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

How well can we know our parents? Playwright Richard Greenberg is a student of the dysfunctional American family, and many of his plays examine the tantalizing and painful secrets held by mothers and fathers, none more theatrically than “Three Days of Rain,” now running in an excellent production mounted by BoHo Theatre. In his three-hander drama, the audience sees the end and then the beginning of a parent-child history, with the timeline shake-up only provoking more and more questions about the tentative bonds between family members.

Walker (Kyle Curry) is the unstable son of genius architect Ned (also played by Curry, but we’ll get to that). After his father’s death, he calls together his sister Nan (Kate Black-Spence) and childhood best friend Pip (Niko Kourtis), to alternately antagonize those who love him most, and get to the bottom of his father’s journal, recently discovered in the ramshackle building in which Ned is squatting. It turns out that this rundown two-room was the apartment shared by Ned and his fellow architect Theo (played by Kourtis) in their hungry days, as they cooked up the first design that won them accolades and fame in 1960’s New York. Walker wants nothing more than to understand his distant and silent father, but the journal yields few answers. After deciding to view his parents in a certain light, the play shifts perspectives, with the second act detailing how Ned came to fall in love with Walker and Nan’s mother Lina (played by Black-Spence). How the two come together is beyond the grasp of their children, just as the pair’s dreams for their children do not match up to the reality of raising them.

Greenberg rewards the audience and the actors with this second act flashback. Not only do offhand references from the first half gain deeper meaning, as with the play’s title, but the performers play in opposition to their roles in the first act. Whereas Walker is bombastic and motor-mouthed, Ned is shy and sympathetic. While Pip is extraordinarily genial and kind, Theo is bullying and egotistical. And though Nan is dependable and focused to a fault, her mother Lina always seems on the edge of an emotional breakdown. I imagine it is a treat for the actors to swap tones; it is certainly a treat to watch as they transform with detailed adjustments. By asking Curry and Black-Spence to play their own parents, Greenberg highlights the irony of how close we actually are to our own blood, even when we fail to see them properly. The audience gets to evaluate both sides of the same coin, and likely still leave the play wondering how much can be understood about the past.

Kate Black-Spence and Niko Kourtis/Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography.

Director Derek Van Barham (recently of American Folk Theatre’s dark “Trash”) uses space elegantly in both halves of the play. The combative nature of the present day scenes allows for sharp triangulation between the actors; based on who is the center of the triangle, one understands whose allegiance is being fought for. There is more furniture and less empty space in the play’s second act, but that makes every move matter more. As Curry and Black-Spence circle one another, edging closer and closer to a connection, tension fills the room. When Kourtis backs Curry into a literal corner, one’s sympathy aligns quickly and permanently with the quiet Ned.

Curry and Black-Spence share a lived-in brother-sister quality, but their chemistry comes alive in the play’s second act, with unspoken longings hovering between them and threatening to break them apart at any minute. Black-Spence does a particularly fine job highlighting Lina’s vulnerability. Lina is profoundly unstable in her children’s recollections, but Black-Spence centers her portrayal on the young woman’s efforts to keep her wits in the face of overwhelming criticism and misunderstanding. Her handling of a speech about Theo’s surface impressions of her really resonated on the night I sat in the audience.

G. “Max” Maxin IV’s lights buoy the direct address that occurs throughout the first act. His pink and blue hues give the speeches a dreamlike quality, as if the carefully constructed stories delivered by Curry, Black-Spence, and Kourtis are vital to understanding the children in the present. Kallie Rolison’s sound design transitions us from the present to the 1960’s with a few deft song choices, and Patrick Ham’s set transforms with only small touches that reveal how lived in this apartment was, for all parties.

When all is said and done, little objective truth is available in “Three Days of Rain.” Do the parents expect to scar their children so deeply? Do the children appreciate the sacrifices they dream up from their parents? BoHo’s fine production provides few answers, but the deep mysteries at work in something as simple as a few words haunt long after the audience exits the theater.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Elegant staging and transformative performances mark this excellent, haunting production.

Review: “Musical Therapy” (Death & Pretzels)

Show: “Musical Therapy”

Company: Death & Pretzels

Venue: Gorilla Tango (1919 N. Milwaukee)

Die Roll: 19

There are certain things that one looks for in a major Broadway musical or a show at the Goodman that one doesn’t expect from a small theatre in a tiny black box setting.  In fact, the storefront theatre scene creates a very different hunk of art than does the loop theatre district.  This isn’t really a headline of any sort.  Anyone who has taken in a show or two in Chicago knows how it is.  But, if you don’t take in storefront musicals often, perhaps you’ll allow me to take a moment to contemplate what makes the perfect storefront musical experience…

For me, a perfect storefront musical must begin with an admission to oneself that expectations are not high.  I see 10 to 20 new musicals a year and most of them are in tiny venues by people who are earnest, but not experienced makers of musical art.  And, because of this, I know that in most instances I’m going to leave in what amounts to a listener’s walk of shame, head slung low wondering how I’ll forget what just came to pass (and normally, once I’ve written my review of said show, it does leave my brain quickly).  However, there are a few shows that were so remarkably bad that the damage sticks with me years later.  So, when the music starts and the first number gets rolling, there has to be that moment when a singer hits a sour note, or an errant step makes the choreography look wrong.  That single moment is the set-up for the perfect storefront musical.  That flaw allows the reviewer/audience to think that they are once again in for a stinker, only to then have the whole ship righted and the production to rise well above their anticipated quality.

In “Musical Therapy”, Death & Pretzels presents an evening that isn’t perfect, but which does offer up the perfect storefront musical theatre experience.  The harmonies in composer Joey Katsiroubas’s first number are a little roughly rendered by the five actors who first grace the stage.  Dan Hass’s book staggers into the first spoken scene like a timid and gawky teen.  Awkwardness abounds.  Then, after about five minutes, the show hits its stride and its comfort zone, and it never looks back.  Hass’s script is funny, and intelligent.  Karsiroubas’s songs are memorable to the point that I’ve currently got one of them stuck in my head as I write this.  The show’s structure is familiar, but quirky in a way that both reinforces what we want in a musical, but also pokes fun at what can be a a too tired trope at times.  It is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek while simultaneously honest and true to itself.

At the heart of this production is a tale about a couples therapist, Theresa (Haley Mozer), who is unlucky in love herself.  She is in lust with the guy (Ethan Peterson) who’s just moved into the office next door to hers.  And she longs to get with him. Most of the show takes place in Theresa’s therapy sessions with two couples.  Ryder (Matt Lamson) and Liz (Emma Palizza) suffer from a lack of sexual chemistry (largely because she’s secretly a lesbian). Timothy (Sean Cameron) and Darcie (Erika Hakmiller) are addressing some control issues (hers over him). Each session contains a catchy number in which the relationship is explained, and then a time buzzes and the session is over.  Theresa discovers that Will (Peterson) has a girlfriend, and she schemes to use her practice to tear them apart, while also reshuffling the romantic deck for all of her clients.  Hilarity ensues.

Director Madison Smith guides the cast through what could be cliche situations with a deft sense of comedy, elevating the show’s potentially silly moments to something better.  Smith’s efforts are helped along by the choreography of Brian Boller.  None of the dancing is too technically demanding, but it fits the mood of the piece perfectly, and establishes that the show’s laughs will come from physical sources as well as script-based chuckles.

My one gripe with the show is that there is only a 5-minute intermission.  In this day and age of short shows with no intermission, I wouldn’t have minded if the break were outright eliminated, but if it is necessary, a slightly longer lull in the action would be good so that drinks may be procured and bathrooms visited.  I understand that Gorilla Tango runs a tight ship when it comes to scheduling multiple shows on the same stage each night, but the 5-minute interlude doesn’t serve a positive purpose for anyone.

Gorilla Tango can be a very limiting space in which to put up a production, and it’s probably the last place I would think to put up a musical, but I can safely say that “Musical Therapy” is worth casting aside any trepidation or otherwise negative expectations regarding the venue and/or storefront musicals in general.  It is a good evening well spent, a fun time, and a show that fits its environs perfectly, treating its topic both viciously and lovingly.  Death & Pretzels has created a show that succeeds at being exactly what is and what it should be.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sock puppets and sex and singing and dancing and wow.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre)

Daniel Kyri/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Objects in the Mirror”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

Die Roll: 11

Let me begin by saying that this show is the best production that I’ve seen so far in 2017.  It’s scope and scale are epic, and though Charles Smith’s “Objects in the Mirror” addresses the struggles of one family unit, the story told is so much bigger than that of just a handful of people.  This production, directed by Chuck Smith (not the same guy as the aforementioned Charles, nor of any relation), only has five actors who often seem dwarfed by the massive, yet simple scenery (designed by Riccardo Hernandez).  As I continue to digest what I saw on the Goodman’s stage, I keep returning to the set and how it informed the action of the play.  The set itself was simple in that it included very few elements and there were no raised platforms or intricately built pieces, or ornate decorations.  Yet, every piece was immense.  A large and imposing ceiling/roof loom large over segments of the play that take place in the present (much of the show is in flashback).  A massive, retractable rear wall facilitates projections, as well as a border that rises up from ground level to the infinite heavens.  Often a bare stage creates a sense of vastness that is difficult to overcome because a lone actor in that gaping space seems ever so small; a tiny force against insurmountable odds.

Breon Arzell, Daniel Kyri, Allen Gilmore/Photo: Liz Lauren

Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri) is the individual most often confronted by the outward forces in this story.  After all, he is the tale’s protagonist.  We meet him as a survivor of a decade-long struggle to be free of the violence and oppression that has torn many western African nations apart.  He now resides in Australia.  He is on a search for meaning in his life and for who he really is.  As part of that, he revisits his life story up to that point.  In flashback we meet his crafty trickster uncle (Allen Gilmore), his mother (Lily Mojekwu), and his cousin (Breon Arzell).  These are the people who share Shedrick’s world.  And they are the ones who make it possible for him to escape the dangers of a country that kills off its young men by fighting civil wars with child armies.

Charles Smith has written a piece that makes the reality of war ever-present and imposing.  Shedrick is never sure of who he can trust, and in all likelihood, his uncle’s advice to trust no one is best applied.  And yet, one wants to trust the people nearest to them.  And the internal struggle of who to trust and how much is at the heart of this play.  The narrative struggle of the journey toward freedom is matched in intensity by the personal journey taken by Shedrick as he struggles with self-identity and conscience.  Can Shedrick trust his uncle?  Can he trust his own mother?  Can he trust himself?  For that matter, can anyone trust anyone else ever?

Chuck Smith’s powerfully simple staging gives the more dynamic and complex moments of the play a gigantic blank canvas upon which to create an overall picture that is both brilliant and dark.  The cast rises to the task of telling a gripping and meaningful tale, always surrounded by the spirit that they are just a small part of something so much larger, but never being defeated by the overall massiveness of their troubles.  This is a piece that must be seen.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Trust in this one thing: You should see this play.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Review: “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas)

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Show: [Trans]formation

Company: Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studios

Every once in a while I see a show that redefines a part of the art of theatre.  Once in a great while.  Over the years I’ve pretty much solidified what I see as a good show.  And the guideposts that have been set along the way are the ideals that I use when writing for this outlet or any other about what I’ve seen.  But, then something like “[Trans]formation” comes along.  The show, which is now playing at Collaboraction Studios under the dual flag of Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas, takes on the heavy task of redefining language and interpersonal relationships, self-identity and how we look at others.

This production has clearly been carefully crafted by director Gaby Labotka and her collaborators.  It is a devised work that stems from a series of submissions from trans individuals from around the country.  The source material is available in a zine that is offered up at the performance. I highly recommend getting a copy as part of the experience.

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
So, I’ve said that this thing shifted my idea of theatre.  Why is that?  Well, for one, the piece is essentially what I would have called performance art in the past.  Much of the show has no plot, nor characters. Yet it is clearly theatrical. It is constructed around a theme and presented by way of images.  Sometimes these are literal images projected upon a screen, but more often the images are created through a brilliant collage of stage-wide projected textures that are caught upon the myriad surfaces of the stage, and more importantly upon the varied shape of the bodies of the performers.

Part of any production by The Living Canvas involves the actors performing nude, and this is performance is no different.  The images and their interplay upon the bodies of the actors is like a vibrant and vital painting that is constantly shifting before your eyes.  Though the performers don no clothing, this is not a bit of gimmick for attracting more eyes and titillating the senses.  This is a literal baring of one’s body and metaphorically the soul as well.

I have never been to a production of The Living Canvas before, so I can’t comment on how appropriate it seems in other productions, but with the topic of gender identity, the human body seems perfectly suited as the tool to tell tales.  As I sat and watched the six performers on stage, there were often times that their nudity was completely lost among the rest of the presentation.

Through short monologues and songs, physical pieces and proclamations, this piece finds a way to speak to each viewer and touch them deeply.  There are multiple levels of truth constantly being put forth and taken in.  You’ll note that I don’t make special mention of any specific performer in this review.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, I don’t believe that any one individual within this work can be held separate from the others.  I’ve never seen another show in which the meaning of ensemble is better represented.  Second, nothing I saw can be subject to the standard criticisms I might address in a review.  I can’t honestly tell you if these performers are good actors when it comes to a regular play.  But, I can tell you that they are perfect for this piece.  The sum total of their work here is something brilliant and wonderful.  It challenges the audience.  It informs the audience.  It changes the audience.  That’s what this art is supposed to do, and they do it better than I’ve seen in a long, long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Naperville” (Theater Wit)

29350749946_3d1c3a7935_kShow: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Every major metropolitan area has a suburb where the nouveau riche congregate.  That suburb’s name is often then embraced as a code word for self-important, ostentatious, absurdly materialistic, terrible people.  Making fun of the people from such a place is a safe bet in comedy, especially within the borders of their proximate urban center. Really, it’s comedic low-hanging fruit. So, it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that I was surprised that isn’t the tack taken by Mat Smart’s “Naperville”, currently playing at Theater Wit.

This is a play about people in a Caribou Coffee shop (remarkably well rendered by Joe Schermoly).  It is a play about new beginnings in a place where one normally has to be established to fit in.  But, where one man long ago decided to try for a new beginning of his own.  For anyone who has spent any time in the Naperville area, the name of Joseph Naper is a familiar one.  After all, the town is named for him.  And his new beginning—shifting from life as a shipwright to that of a farmer, townsman—is held as an allegory for her own life by one of the show’s primary characters, Anne (Abby Pierce).

29385040455_2351eeb03c_kThe play kicks off when Anne, a recently divorced woman recording a podcast, meets TC (Andrew Jessop) who is the new manager of the Caribou.  TC is desperate to not lose this newly acquired job.  Going through his day from one nervous twitch to the next, TC encounters Candice (Laura T. Fisher) and her son Howard (Mike Tepeli) who are dealing with the fact that Candice is newly blind and stubbornly refusing her son’s assistance.  Charlie Strater plays the last of the five characters to enter the scene: an evangelical Christian named Roy whose life isn’t necessarily in a new place on his own, but who is newly a part of each of the lives of the others.

28761036724_8a71ad5a9e_kDirector Jeremy Wechsler’s approach to the script is one that makes a light slice-of-life comedy one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.  It is simple, direct, and completely truthful to the situation.  The characters talk directly to one another, so the actors do just that.  These are the people you would meet in a suburban coffee chain store.  They aren’t on epic journeys.  They are each dealing with the little troubles that life throws their way, or that they have brought upon themselves.  Wechsler’s cast is extreme adept at capturing the quiet desperation in which they are all living.

I find it intriguing and worthwhile that Smart’s characters are all likeable, but only up to a point.  His writing makes me care about Anne and Howard.  But he strategically places some of their most glaring flaws out in the open as well.  It is easily seen that they are not good people.  None of the folks in this show are.  Even Roy, who goes through most of the show as an inexplicably good version of a born-again Christian (lacking any of the hypocrisy that is often associated with those who adopt that label), eventually fails us as he is part of the force that ruins TC’s day/life with very little concern for the barista’s well being.

This is a play that creates hope in the heart of the viewer, only to dash it and then build it up into something better.  That’s the way one begins anew.  That is what this play is about.  And the audience gets to go on that journey over and over again with this crew of five on a voyage of discovery into what makes real life so inherently dramatic.  I cannot recommend this show enough.  It is well-crafted in every aspect.  The writing is really good.  The design work is amazing.  The directing and acting are the real deal.  All the way around it’s tremendous.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”