Review: “Henry V” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

Henry V at Chicago Shakespeare
Henry V at Chicago Shakespeare

Show: Henry V

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Venue: Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Navy Pier)

Die Roll: 2

In this day and age of cinematic tales being extended over multiple installments, rather than being told briefly in one work, we only have to look back to the Bard of Avon to realize that this is not a new way of telling a tale.

“Henry V” stands alone as a play about an ambitious young king who yearns for the conquest of a powerful neighboring country.  However it is also the final chapter in a four-part epic which tells the tale of how the usurper Henry Bolingbroke rises to power (“Richard II”), fights a civil war while doubting his son’s suitability as heir (“Henry IV” Parts 1 & 2), and whose wrongs are redeemed in his son’s noble actions as a rising monarch (“Henry V”).

That rising monarch is portrayed by Harry Judge in Christopher Luscombe’s new production of “Henry V” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  A strong and natural leader who has frivolously squandered his younger years hanging out in a den of sin, the Henry that we see in this play has embraced a new way of thinking that is more honorable, but sometimes still has a bit of mischief to it.

Rather than write you a treatise on this play (Which I could — It’s my favorite Shakespeare play), I’ll quickly move to what I liked best about this production, and perhaps a few notes on other things I noticed.  We’ll keep it short and sweet.

First: The set was amazing.  Kevin Depinet’s simple, strong stage elements, such as a rotating and inclining wall that made up most of the needed structures for the tale was both imposing and highly functional.  It set the tone for the entire production.  And when I say simple, i don’t mean that they are technologically lacking, but that they are straightforward with only a couple of elements per scene, but those elements are more than just impressive, and the first time the wall moves the audience is just as enthralled as during some of the more dramatic parts of the show itself.

Second: The performances of the women stand out as particularly good.  Sally Wingert (with whose work I’m quite familiar from my years in Minnesota) and Laura Rook (who plays the woman for whom Henry pines, Katherine) both bring an energy to their scenes that makes the audience understand what’s going on at a deeper level, even when the scene isn’t in English, as one of the most famous scenes of the play isn’t.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one in the audience who speaks almost no French, if any at all, and that scene was still very enjoyable.  Wingert does double duty as the Hostess on the English side of things, too.  It’s a testament to her skills that she handles both parts so well, and isn’t immediately recognized to be the same actress, unless you’ve read the program closely.

Most of the play was presented in American accents.  The few exceptions are due to the need for the characters to be discerned by their voices, namely the four ruffians who make each represent a part of the British islands.  James Newcombe carries a good chunk of the show through his character of Fluellen, the Welshman.  And Samuel Taylor does a fine Irishman.  It is Taylor who is of note here, though not for the best of reasons.  He presents us with a far too contemporary, almost hip-hop style of speech for his portrayal of the Dauphin (the crown prince of France).  It stuck out as a sore thumb.

Such was the way with this production.  Each actor who played multiple parts definitely nailed one of the two.  The other suffered for it.

I enjoyed Henry himself.  He wasn’t as strong of a leader or as inspirational as I would have expected, but he was more casual and more of a Henry for this day and age:  ambitious and laid back at the same time.  Determined, and yet a bit mischievous.

All in all the presentation was highly accessible and enjoyable.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Epic battles and epic wit are overshadowed by impressive set.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

(L to R) Tyler Ravelson as “J. Pierrepont Finch,” Matthias Austin as “Twimble” and John Keating as “Bud Frump” (Photo by Kelsey Jorissen)
(L to R) Tyler Ravelson as “J. Pierrepont Finch,” Matthias Austin as “Twimble” and John Keating as “Bud Frump”
(Photo by Kelsey Jorissen)

Show: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 Thrust

Die Roll: 18

Audience seeing Porchlight Music Theatre’s current production of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will see a piece that is over 50 years old, and yet remains very fresh.  The show, whose long title can be abbreviated to “H2$”, has been one of my favorites for years.  And the script, while centered around the 1960’s environment with which many are only familiar thanks to AMC’s “Mad Men”, is still sharp and pointed in its commentary on life in today’s corporate world.

A young, ambitious man who wants to make it big turns to a self-help book about succeeding in business.  By following its instructions he proceeds from window washer to mail room clerk to junior executive… eventually all the way to chairman of the board.  His meteoric rise is not only facilitated by his following the book’s advice, but also a lot of happy accidents and his undying charm/likability.

J. Pierrepont Finch has to have that likability factor, or his scheming makes him just a manipulator of men, and not a protagonist for whom we can cheer when success comes.  As played by Tyler Ravelson, the character is less charming and more scheming.  More awkward and just off a bit.  Were I to encounter a person who acted as he does in real life, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, and I’d avoid looking directly into those cold dead eyes.  In short, the likability factor of Finch is missing.

Many of the other characters are really strong.  Sharisse Hamilton’s turn as Smitty is exactly what the character should be.  John Keating’s take on the irritating Bud Frump (who normally is the primary foil to Finch) is wonderfully fun.  It’s almost cartoonish, but it fits in the world created by director Rob Lindley.  In fact, it is a bit of cartoonish self-awareness (a la Looney Toons) that allows this show to work so well.  There’s a touch of “we’re putting on a play” at all times, and that actually clicks with, rather than detracts from, the show’s quality.

The costumes, designed by Bill Morey, went furthest toward the aim of creating Lindley’s world.  They looked sharp and spot on for the era.  The set by Jeffrey Kmiec brought the play’s mix of broad comedy and nostalgia to the fore.

There were some inconsistencies within the execution of the sound design and engineering that made the production less fulfilling than it otherwise would have been.  Some of the singers had the pipes to not need extra amplification, while others (namely Elizabeth Telford as Rosemary) were mic’d so heavily that two lines prior to each of their pieces the amplification audibly took over.

While the production values of this show are great, it is the strength of the script that carries the show.  Despite weaknesses in its two leads’ performances, the laughs are all still there in the predictable places that the laughs have been for the last 50 years.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s also still brilliance in that.  The jokes have not gone stale.

Porchlight has done an admirable job with the play.  I just wish I could have had a hero worthy of  his own words: “I believe in you”.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Corporate climber makes quick work of success.  Watch your back!

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Anton In Show Business” (20% Theatre Company Chicago)

Show:  Anton In Show Business

Anton in Show Business (photo by 20% Theatre)
Anton in Show Business
(photo by 20% Theatre)

Company: 20% Theatre Company Chicago

Venue: Zoo Studio

Die Roll: 4

Hello, all! Chris has graciously asked me to fill in for him while he is out battling the wilds, (read: camping), so here I am.  Let’s get to it.

Anton In Show Business is, first and foremost, a play about women: our role in the theatre world, how we’re represented in that world, and how we’re not. I have to admit that the Grrl inside me loves this play, while the actor in me acknowledges that this script requires a deft touch so as not to beat the audience over the head with its Real Life Examples of What Theatre Is.

We start with a manifesto delivered by stage manager T-Anne (JaLinda Wilson-Woods) about the state of twenty-first century theatre, which is both funny and cynical as hell. Then, we launch into the main story: TV star Holly Seabé (Kristi Forcsch) wants to amp up her acting cred by starring in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters,  in the hopes of landing a juicy movie role to up her career. She’s arranged for auditions to fill in the other two sisters’ roles, which is where we meet Casey Mulgraw (Lindsay Bartlett), an off-Broadway vet with 200 shows under her belt and fading hopes of ever hitting the big time. Joining her is former school-teacher and newly-minted actress Lisabette Cartwright (Marla Jacob), whose sweet naiveté runs counter to Casey’s wry worldliness.

Surrounded by zany producers, the world’s oldest Polish director, and a host of other characters (all embodied by four members of the cast – all women), our ladies battle the ins and outs of regional theatre, pecking order, and trying not to kill the reviewer in the audience. Not me, fortunately: Joby (Grace Wagner),  a smart young thing who questions the play, the actors, and the rules we theatre folk play by, and who demands answers. Sometimes she gets them, and sometimes there just aren’t any answers.

The action moves from New York to San Antonio as Three Sisters develops from a train wreck to…less of a train wreck. Olivia Jaras, who also plays eccentric producer Kate Tdorovskia, really shines as sweet San Antonio local Ben Shipwright, hired on to play Vershinin in Three Sisters, who takes up with self-centered tabloid-bait Holly. The actors have a lovely, believable chemistry together, and Jaras’ stoicism in the aftermath of the affair is quite moving.

Anton moves at a decent pace, but the first act was a little uneven. Given that I saw it opening night, I have faith that some of that inconsistency will even out over the course of the run. The script is also a little looser in the first act; it tightens considerably in the second act, building momentum through the resolution and dissolution of the three sisters.  There’s a natural ending that leaves Lisabette alone on the stage, and it might have behooved Jane Martin to end there. Instead, she gives us one more monologue to wrap up loose ends.

The set consists of a false proscenium with extendable wing-flats whose flexibility cleverly evokes a number of different locations throughout the play. Sound, props and furniture are minimal – they only use what is necessary. Simplicity is necessary is a small space, and Anton uses what is available very well.

I had mixed reactions to this performance. Joby’s interruptions tended to occur just when I thought the quality of the storytelling was starting to degrade. Fortunately, the exchanges she had with the cast pulled me up short every time I felt myself getting hypercritical, and restored my perspective because she voiced the concerns running though my head at a given moment.

What really stuck with me, though, was something Witkewich, the frail and brilliant director of our play within a play, tells the girls: “You are good enough to do the Chekhov you are good enough to do”. Combined with Casey’s earlier explosion against those audience-goers who leave during a curtain call, “Hey! Excuse me! Could you show a little mercy because I just left it all out here on stage…?” remind me, as an actor in the audience, that theatre thrives on mutual respect. I’m not trying to damn with faint praise; rather, I want recognize that we do the shows that we are capable of doing in a given time and place.

Where the play shines is in the small moments between characters; unfortunately, a lot of potential moments were left in the dust. The staging also suffered from flat presentation – there was a fair bit of profile-acting going on. Overall, the production felt a little disconnected.  That said, the play was enjoyable, and I applaud 20% Theatre’s commitment to creating women-centric theatre. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The relationship between women and theatre is messy. Accept yourself.

DICE ROLL:  d10 – “Worth Going To”






Review: “Ghost Bike” – Buzz22 Chicago

"Ghost Bike" - Buzz22 Chicago @ Greenhouse Theater Center
“Ghost Bike” – Buzz22 Chicago @ Greenhouse Theater Center

Show: Ghost Bike

Company: Buzz22 Chicago

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center

Die Roll: 16

It is almost that time of year: the time of year when Chicago’s traffic signals and stop signs are blatantly ignored by a disturbingly high number of people who daringly travel on spare frames and two wheels. ‘Tis the season when we start to hear about cyclists getting “doored,” and car drivers curse the impatience of riders who thrust into 6-way intersections against the lights.

Buzz22 Chicago’s current offering at the Greenhouse Theater Center kicks off at the moment we all fear and dread when we watch someone dart into cross-traffic on a bike. Eddie (portrayed by Ricky Staffieri) is hit by a Toyota Corolla as he plows through an intersection in anger. The accident kills him.

With a play that starts with a tragic death, there’s really only one way for it to go: down… as in to the underworld. Playwright Laura Jacqmin reportedly conceived the play as an Orpheus/Eurydice story on bikes (according to an interview within the program). And so, we proceed to an updated version of Hades’ realm of antiquity.

The genders are swapped from the original myth in this play. Our Orpheus is an 18-year-old girl named Ora (played by Aurora Adachi-Winter), who loses her best friend on her birthday. She can’t deal with the fact that her friend was ripped from this world at a tragically young age, and so upon meeting a charmingly strange man (Scot West) in the waiting room of her psychiatrist (Ben Hertel), she becomes convinced that she can descend into the depths and retrieve Eddie, returning him to his pre-collision life.

Along the journey she makes the requisite stops predicated by the Greek myth, and she eventually leads Eddie back toward the surface, only to look back at him and send him back down from whence he came.

So here’s the thing: I liked this production. I thought the cast did a great job with it. John Wilson’s set creatively uses plastic sheeting, segments of chain link fence, and a couple of ramps to convey a remarkable number of places. And yet, it isn’t a terribly good play.

At the core of the problem is a script that is highly inconsistent. Some of the vignettes are very well written and held up by character work that makes them shine. Scot West fills his scenes with life as the ruler of the underworld and a Satyr who rides a three-framed bike. Ben Hertel’s portrayal of an elderly man with a walker is both strong and charming. Thea Lux and Lea Pascal are wonderful as Dark Hel and Light Hel. Cerberus is interpreted very creatively and effectively as a BMX biker and two roller derby girls, and Alex Trey, Margaret Cook, and Quincey Krull give those characters a vital essence.

Sadly, that’s about the extent of the strong scenes in the show. One other that stands out is the use of actors in blue plastic bags to represent a river. The physicality of the staging made that scene a success. The words didn’t do it there.

Because of the play’s episodic structure, the weaker scenes stand out against their stronger counterparts. It is very hard for me to tell if Adachi-Winter did a good job in her role, because the script doesn’t give her much to work with. When looking at a script one has to know what’s at stake. Why does any of this matter? And, when it comes down to it, too many of the scenes are missing any tangible stake. It seems that the playwright was determined to fit her work to the extant myth and sometimes that meant sacrificing good writing in order to jump the storyline to its next plot point.

When the writing is sharp, this play is really good, but because most of it is rough and clunky, it feels like a piece that needs another rewrite. That being said, I did enjoy the piece, and think it has great potential. I’m hoping that it isn’t yet at its final destination.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Bicycle trip through underworld winds toward forced sense of closure.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”