Haymarket’s history inspires a new musical

HACAT_V46The Haymarket Affair — sometimes called the Haymarket Square Riot or Massacre — is one of the most famous and important chapters of Chicago’s history. The 1886 incident was a turning point for the labor movement, not just in Chicago, but in the United States and, arguably, the world. It raised questions about freedom of speech, the rights of workers in a capitalist society, conflicts between police and protesters, the use of violence as a tool of protest, the fairness of criminal trials, and the death penalty. Over the decades, the Haymarket Affair has been the subject of several nonfiction books. And now, it has inspired two new plays in Chicago.

The most noteworthy of the two is Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook, a musical staged by Underscore Theatre Company with book and lyrics by Underscore’s artistic director, Alex Higgin-Houser, and music by founding ensemble member David Kornfeld. Running for one more weekend — it closes Sunday, June 12, at the Edge Theater in Edgewater — it’s an engaging ensemble show that tells the history through folk-style songs. Directed by Elizabeth Margolius, the show has its flaws, but I was impressed at how well it captures the history.

Haymarket: The Anarchist's Songbook. Photo by Evan Hanover.
Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Like most fictional narratives based on true history, it condenses and gloss over some facts. Notably, it takes the eight defendants in the Haymarket trial and reduces them to five characters. And thus, it eliminates the later part of the saga, when three of the anarchists serving prison terms were pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld. It’s understandable that such details are omitted in a work of theater — as it is, the stage was already crowded with actors, and I wondered if audience members who aren’t familiar with the history would be able to keep them all straight. But it felt to me like part of the story was missing. On the other hand, Newcity’s review suggested that the story should have been streamlined even further: “Underscore stumbles badly when they tell this story exactly as it happened, maintaining every plot point, without a well-developed Everyman character to give the audience an entry point into the action, all conveyed in a single musical idiom, no matter how appropriate.”

Also worth noting is the way this show tells the story completely from the point of view of the anarchists and labor activists who were tried in the Haymarket case. Most historical accounts view them as victims of a miscarriage of justice, and labor unions still see them as martyrs or heroes, so it makes sense to put them at the center of the drama. But as a result, the show lacks any real presence of the police, the politicians, the business owners and the average Chicagoans who got caught up in the turmoil. Of course, adding in those elements would only make the story more complicated. The song in the second act portrays the trial as a circus, and it’s really too comical for the way it handles such a serious and ultimately tragic court proceeding.

All of that being said, this Haymarket has many stirring moments, and the songs are immediately likable. The show does a superb job of using songs to depict the era’s press coverage as well as the debate among the anarchists over how to press for changes in the capitalist-dominated political system. The playwrights clearly know their history. If this musical survives beyond this initial world-premiere run — never a certainty for any musical — it may improve with revisions during future productions.

The other recent play about the events of 1886 was Bloody Haymarket, written and directed by Eric J. Coleman and David McGrath, which was performed at the Irish American Heritage Center. Unlike Underscore’s production, this was not a musical. The amateur production suffered from slow pacing (including awkwardly long transitions for scenery changes), some silly diversions (such as an anachronistic appearance by a stand-up comic) and acting performances that simply weren’t convincing. Some of the scenes hewed closely to the historical facts, while others felt absurdly contrived. Bloody Haymarket might eventually become a compelling drama, but it needs major revisions and a more persuasive production.

(For more on the history of the Haymarket, here’s my own story for WBEZ’s Curious City, answering the question: “How did the Haymarket Square Massacre affect Chicago’s culture at the time?”)

Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook. Book and Lyrics by Alex Higgin-Houser, Music by David Kornfeld, Directed by Elizabeth Margolius. Photo credit: Evan Hanover. Tickets: Underscoretheatre.org

Tracy Letts’ ‘Mary Page Marlowe’ at Steppenwolf

All storytelling involves omission. What do you leave out when you tell a story? Last September in The New Yorker, John McPhee explained how he has wrestled with this challenge in his writing. “Writing is selection,” he observed in a delightful essay titled “Omission.” McPhee went on to quote a famous comment by Ernest Hemingway:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

The new play by Tracy Letts, Mary Page Marlowe, presents a narrative where the omissions are especially noticeable. We see the title character at various stages of her life, portrayed by six different actresses, with the scenes scrambled out of chronological sequence. The effect reminded me of what it’s like if you occasionally run into an acquaintance over the decades. When you see that person after a gap of several years, you notice how different her or she seems, and you may wonder what has happened in his or her life since your previous encounter. That gap is likely to remain a mystery to you.

Photos by Michael Brosilow, Steppenwolf Theatre. Photos in top row, from left to right: Madeline Weinstein as Wendy Gilbert, Jack Edwards as Louis Gilbert and Rebecca Spence as Mary Page Marlowe; Blair Brown as Mary Page Marlowe and ensemble member Alan Wilder as Andy; Laura T. Fisher as Mary Page Marlowe and Ian Barford as Ray. Photos in bottom row: Caroline Heffernan as Mary Page Marlowe and Amanda Drinkall as Roberta Marlowe; Tess Frazer as Lorna, Annie Munch as Mary Page Marlowe and Ariana Venturi as Connie; Carrie Coon as Mary Page Marlowe; Coon and Gary Wilmes as Dan.
Photos by Michael Brosilow, Steppenwolf Theatre. Photos in top row, from left to right: Madeline Weinstein as Wendy Gilbert, Jack Edwards as Louis Gilbert and Rebecca Spence as Mary Page Marlowe; Blair Brown as Mary Page Marlowe and ensemble member Alan Wilder as Andy; Laura T. Fisher as Mary Page Marlowe and Ian Barford as Ray. Photos in bottom row: Caroline Heffernan as Mary Page Marlowe and Amanda Drinkall as Roberta Marlowe; Tess Frazer as Lorna, Annie Munch as Mary Page Marlowe and Ariana Venturi as Connie; Carrie Coon as Mary Page Marlowe; Coon and Gary Wilmes as Dan.

Gaps in a fictional narrative such as Letts’ play (now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, deftly directed by Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro) are mysterious, too—blank pages left for us to fill in with our imagination. In some narrative works, such omissions are frustrating. We feel cheated that key moments in a story have been withheld from us. That’s apparently how Chicago Reader critic Tony Adler felt about Mary Page Marlowe:

Letts perversely denies us the chance to share in what should be the most fascinating passages in the play—that is, in the play that hangs like a hungry spirit over this one, waiting to be written.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss also gave the play lukewarm praise:

Each scene is superbly written, but the pieces are more satisfying than the whole.

I understand why Letts’ drama might elicit those responses, but the unseen gaps in Mary Page Marlowe’s life felt to me more like a fascinating puzzle. What exactly happened to this woman in the missing months and years in between the scenes we witness? How did her decisions—and the actions of those around her—transform her from one stage of her life to the next? We learn the basic outlines, but Letts and the stellar cast in Steppenwolf’s production don’t offer any simple explanations. We learn just enough that this woman’s transformations are plausible.

It was a shrewd decision to use six actresses to play Mary Page Marlowe (Blair Brown, Carrie Coon, Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch and Rebecca Spence). They look similar enough that it’s plausible they’re all the same character, but we’re obviously aware of the fact these are different actresses. It puts an emphasis on how much this woman changes over time. Each actress makes the most of her limited time onstage, creating indelible moments. (But as Time Out Chicago’s review points out, the need for six performers in the title role plus another 13 cast members could make this a challenging play for other theaters to stage in the future — it’s a big undertaking.)

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones gave high praise to Mary Page Marlowe, stressing the play’s theme of how choices change the course of our lives:

For any life, remarkable or otherwise, is made up only partly of the choices, often the lousy choices, that we make for ourselves. It also is a construction of the choices that others make on our behalf, especially when we are very young, and from which extrication can prove difficult, if not impossible.

But Jones did fault the ending — a final scene that seemed to leave the audience puzzled at the performance I attended, perhaps wondering for a few seconds: Is it over? But New York Times critic Charles Isherwood led off his glowing review with a quote from that last scene:

“It’s pretty fragile.” Those words, spoken by the title character in “Mary Page Marlowe,” the exquisite new play by Tracy Letts having its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater here, refer to a quilt in need of some delicate dry cleaning. But they resonate with many meanings in Mr. Letts’s haunting, elliptical drama about the evolutions, reversals and resurrections in a woman’s life. A quilt is a clever symbol for the unusual structure of the play itself.

As Isherwood astutely observes, Mary Page Marlowe resembles a quilt. As we look at this patchwork, we’re left to imagine what we’re not seeing. What we do see is memorable and moving.

Mary Page Marlowe continues through June 5 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

‘Pop Waits’ by the Neo-Futurists

Photo by Joe Mazza
Malic White, left, and Molly Brennan in “Pop Waits.” Photo by Joe Mazza.

Pop Waits, the title of the new show by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, combines the names of two iconic musicians: Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. The idea of throwing them together into one work of theater might seem a bit odd, but the Neo-Futurists’ shows are always a bit odd. And in many ways, Pop Waits is the sort of show that this group is known for: a hodgepodge that mashes together wildly different subjects and styles of performance, along with a high level of self-awareness and self-reference. And staying true to the principles of the Neo-Futurists, Pop Waits features performers playing themselves, directly addressing the audience as the people they actually are, as opposed to fictional characters.

The co-creators and co-stars of this show are Malic White and Molly Brennan, who explore the way they use music as a tool for coping with depression and feeling affirmation. White’s touchstone is the music of Iggy Pop — performed during the play with a rock band — while Brennan is inspired by the songs of Tom Waits.

The Neo-Futurists ran into a hitch with their plans just a few days before opening night, however. As the program explains — and as the performers themselves explained during the show — they failed to get permission from Waits to use his songs. Their request apparently didn’t get through to Waits or Waits’ management in time. So they ended up using a few songs that Brennan herself wrote in the style of Waits, alongside the actual Iggy Pop tunes. That makes for a somewhat awkward mismatch, although it actually makes the music more personal and relevant to Brennan’s autobiographical performance. (And rather than sounding bitter about the situation, the Neo-Futurists encouraged audience members to buy Waits’ music.)

The musical performances are lively — with White diving into the role of crowd-surfing punk rocker and Brennan reveling in gravelly voiced singing.  The show starts off with a fun participatory bit involving the audience helping the performers to write a new song. And it’s touching to hear White and Brennan tell the story of how they became romantic partners. It all feels cobbled together, like a rough draft, however. (For better or worse, this is true of many shows by the Neo-Futurists, who are most famous for their ever-changing collection of micro-plays, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.)

But then something remarkable happens halfway through Pop Waits: Brennan bravely reveals a painful ailment she has been fighting and the emotional toll it takes on her. Considering that she is renowned for her work on Chicago stages as an avant-garde clown, it was incredible to hear her talk about the difficulties she faces every day.

Pop Waits may not (yet) be a fully realized show, but as a mixture of rock music, clowning and real-life confession, it’s memorable and eye-opening. Watching it on opening night last week, it struck me as the sort of bold and strange show that keeps Chicago’s theater scene so exciting.

Pop Waits continues through March 12 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. See neofuturists.org for details.

‘American Buffalo’ at Mary-Arrchie

Richard Cotovsky, left, and Rudy Galvan star in American Buffalo for Mary-Arrchie Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Richard Cotovsky, left, and Rudy Galvan star in American Buffalo for Mary-Arrchie Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s sad to see Mary-Arrchie Theatre closing after 30 years – but the company has chosen what may be the perfect play for its farewell: David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Written in 1975, it’s one of the all-time classic plays about Chicago. And the drama’s setting — a cluttered junk shop — is a good match for Mary-Arrchie and its Angel Island venue. That’s not to say that the theater (which was doomed by redevelopment plans) is a junk shop, exactly. But it has always been one of those quintessentially Chicago theater spaces that are rough around the edges, the sort of spot that feels a little claustrophobic, crammed into rooms that weren’t designed with state-of-the-art theatrical productions in the architect’s mind. One of the most memorable Mary-Arrchie shows of recent years was a terrific 2012 production of The Glass Menagerie; the dinginess of the set and the rustic theater heightened the sense that Tennessee Williams’ characters were trapped in a world startlingly different from their visions of what it should be.

Richard Cotovsky, the guy who’s been running Mary-Arrchie for the past three decades even as he insisted on keeping his day job as a pharmacist in Rogers Park, is acting in his theater’s final show, directed by Carlos Lorenzo Garcia. Cotovsky plays Don, the somewhat taciturn guy who runs the junk shop in American Buffalo. It’s the least showy of the three roles in Mamet’s drama, and Cotovsky occupies it with a thoughtful air that hints at his character’s unspoken depths.

Rudy Galvan brings nervous eagerness and naivete to the role of Bobby, the youngster who trying to earn the respect of his elders in the junk shop — so that he can make some money from their criminal schemes. And Stephen Walker plays Teach, the most outlandish, outspoken member of this trio, playing the character with all of the tense paranoia and desperation it requires.

The escapade they’re plotting — the burglary of a coin collection — drives the drama in American Buffalo, but it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin: something pursued by a story’s protagonists, which is less important than the pursuit itself. The coins are not really the point in American Buffalo. It’s more about what these characters go through as they plan out their ill-considered crime. In the explosive final scene, the junk shop’s shelves and bric-a-brac nearly come down on top of these three troubled souls. And appropriately enough, it almost feels like the actors are trashing the theater itself — like rock musicians smashing their guitars at the end of a thrilling concert.

American Buffalo continues through March 6 at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road, Chicago. See maryarrchie.com for details.

The Not-So-Great Chicago Fire Festival

The crowd waited and waited for something spectacular to happen Saturday night, Oct. 4, on the Chicago River. But the promised spectacle — an event created by Redmoon Theater and co-sponsored by the city — proved to be a dispiriting bore. At least there were fireworks at the very end of the drawn-out debacle called the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

Redmoon has put on some wonderful shows in the past, including the outdoor spectacles “Sink, Sank, Sunk” in 2004 and “Joyous Outdoor Event” in 2010. It’s too bad that this latest show — the highest-profile thing Redmoon has ever done — was such a dud. Part of the problem was the lack of any narrative beyond a bare-bones retelling of what happened during  the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The show lacked characters, not having a single identifiable person in it for us to care about.

And then there were the technical difficulties. The floating houses at the center of the show were supposed to burn up, but the blazes fizzled with most of the exteriors of the structures still intact. After a long and uneventful lull, an announcer informed the crowd that something wasn’t working with the electrical system. Eventually, the announcer said the fires would be rekindled “manually.” Another long wait ensued. Finally, there were more flames, though hardly anything worthy of the title “spectacle.”

At last, there were fireworks, which were fun to watch in the midst of the Chicago skyline. But it was too little, too late.

Last year, I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune about what happened the first time the city re-enacted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That was in 1903 — and while that event had its own difficulties, it sounds like it was more of a success.

My photos of tonight’s event might make it look more impressive than it actually was. Keep in mind that most of the time, what we experienced was this:


… rather than this:

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A non-operatic ‘Ring Cycle’

It’s audacious and almost insanely ambitious. A six-hour stage adaptation of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, without all the opera music? Who would attempt such a thing? Blake Montgomery and The Building Stage, that’s who. Montgomery’s been running this unusually creative theatrical company on Chicago’s near West Side, for four and a half years now, and this production is his biggest project yet.

Don’t be scared off by that humongous running time. Truth be told, the show is six hours long if you include a couple of 10-minute intermission and a 45-minute dinner break. So, that’s what? A little less than five hours of actual theater. And at Saturday’s press opening, that time almost seemed to fly by. This is not a flawless production, but it certainly holds your attention.

Co-directed by Montgomery and Joanie Schultz, The Ring Cycle tells the same stories from German and Norse mythology that inspired Richard Wagner’s even longer cycle of operas, as well as the lesser-known but excellent silent films by Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen. There are a couple of songs in this stage version, but no arias. Some of Wagner’s themes surface in the pulsing rock chords played by Kevin O’Donnell and his band.

This Ring Cycle takes place on a stage that’s mostly bare. Shadows, marionette-like props and circus arts are used to create a world of dwarves, dragons, Valkyries and magic helmets. This is the sort of thing Mary Zimmerman has often done in her myth-inspired plays. The Ring Cycle achieves some magic moments with these simple elements, but it has trouble sustaining the magic for all six hours. Some of the costumes are jarringly contemporary, and the plain set is too dull of a backdrop for the fantastic plot that’s unfolding … and unfolding and unfolding.

Certainly, The Ring Cycle could be condensed to a shorter length, but to be fair, a hell of a lot happens over the course of those six hours. This is epic stuff: love, betrayal, treachery, the battle for power. In its best passages, The Ring Cycle bursts with poetic beauty and deep emotions. There’s a Shakespearean quality to the romance and the tragedy. The words, adapted from the librettos of Wagner’s operas, can be truly beautiful.

And yet, other scenes are filled with clunky exposition. The attempts at comedy feel labored. Some cast members spout their lines in an amateurish style, lacking any sense of nuance. Thankfully, a few of the leading actors give good performances, conveying more genuine emotions. Nick Vidal is particularly good as the naïve hero Siegfried, and Darci Nalepa gives the saga its emotional center as the fierce Brünnhilde.

The creative team at The Building Stage has been working for months to bring together this epic production. As it stands right now, it feels like it needs further work. As uneven as it is, however, it still makes for a fairly enjoyable immersion in a fantastic world.
(Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

The brilliance of ‘Brother/Sister’

There are at least two levels in just about every great piece of theater. On one level, we should believe the characters we’re seeing onstage are real. On another level, we’re fully aware of the fact that we’re watching a performance. Of course those people talking and walking onstage aren’t actually the characters they’re pretending to be.

Some theatrical productions even call attention to the fact that they’re theatrical productions. They put some distance between the audience and the world that the playwright has created. What’s truly wonderful is when a play succeeds on both levels. The actors seem to be saying, “You’re just watching a play,” but at the same time, they bring such honesty to their performances that we can’t help feeling like we’re slipping into their fictional sphere.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, now at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, is a superb example of this. It’s so stylized that it occasionally feels more like performance art than a traditional play. The actors say many of their stage directions aloud. Before they smile or cry, they often announce that they’re going to smile or cry. What could be more artificial than that? In many scenes, some actors stand off to the side of the action, waiting to make their entrances. They stand immobile, like marionettes awaiting a pull of the strings.

And yet, McCraney’s multigenerational saga features realistic characters (realistic but colorful), made all the more believable by director Tina Landau and her excellent cast. Despite all that artifice involving stage directions, you connect with these people and feel their emotions. And there’s also some magic in the air, a sense of ancient myths intertwining with the lives of these African-American characters in New Orleans.

The stage is almost bare, but it has a beautiful sort of starkness, the walls and floor painted like the interior of a vast cargo ship or maybe an artist’s paint-streaked loft space. (Kudos to set and costume designer James Schuette.) Just about the only props are buckets and barrels. When a set is this minimal, it allows a play to move swiftly from one imaginary place to another, but it also requires audience members to use more of their imagination. And this is one set of plays that really does engage our imagination.

The Brother/Sister Plays is a trilogy of three plays featuring many of the same characters. We’re told that we can see these plays in any order, but I recommend seeing them in chronological sequence. At Steppenwolf, the three plays are packaged in two programs. First comes the very good In the Red and Brown Water. Then comes a pair of somewhat shorter (and even better) plays: The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. Together, they tell several tangled stories about an extended New Orleans clan, laced with sharp insights about the experiences of African-Americans in recent times. Sex, violence, brotherly love, sibling rivalry, prejudice, fate and dreams all play important parts in the stories.

After viewing the three plays in one marathon day, I felt their cumulative power as Marcus reached its final scene with the spoken stage directions “End of play.” The entire ensemble cast is great, and when audience members rose for a standing ovation at the end of the trilogy, it truly felt as if the actors, playwright and director had earned it.

(Steppenwolf photo by Callie Lipkin.)

Review: ‘Killer Joe’ at Profiles

You can’t say you weren’t warned. As you walk into Profiles Theatre, it’s hard to miss all the signs announcing that the play Killer Joe includes graphic violence, nudity, gunfire and sexual situations. The theater even suggests that sensitive audience members shouldn’t sit in the front row. And if you’ve ever heard anything about Tracy Letts’ play, you probably have some idea that this is going to be a dark and violent drama.

Despite all those warnings, this production of Killer Joe still manages to shock. It’s a bracing, jolting work of theater, with some moments that may leave you feeling sick. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you can take it, it’s an exciting show that roots around in the depths of human depravity, with a lot of black humor to keep it all from feeling too oppressive.

For those of us who missed Killer Joe when it premiered in Chicago in 1993, this is a great opportunity to catch up on the early writing of Letts, who has since gone on to win the Pulitzer for his family epic August: Osage County (which is coming back as a Broadway in Chicago touring show in early February). Killer Joe seems like the work of a different playwright, with some of the twisted humor and violence of a Coen Brothers low-life crime caper, although there are some parallels between the dysfunctional families in Killer Joe and August.

The small stage at Profiles has the authentic look of a ramshackle home somewhere in Texas, and there’s even a dog barking outside the door during much of the play. Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder directs this production of Killer Joe at Profiles, with a strong cast (Darrell W. Cox, Claire Wellin, Somer Benson, Kevin Bigley and Howie Johnson). Although the actors’ Texas accents were a little unsteady, they made these characters feel vivid. Perhaps a little too vivid for some audience members. I suggest following that advice about not sitting in the front row.

Killer Joe continues through Feb. 28 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. www.profilestheatre.org (And also don’t forget to check out Tracy Letts’ work as an actor. He’s great in American Buffalo, which continues through Feb. 14 at Steppenwolf.)

Best plays of 2009

We’re already 11 days into the new year, but I’m still catching up on my “best of 2009” lists. I’m waiting a week or so before I do a list of the year’s best films, since I’m still seeing some 2009 movies. (And as always, some films from the previous year straggle into Chicago after Jan. 1, raising the question of whether they belong on last year’s list.) Here are my picks for the 12 best plays I saw in Chicago in 2009.

ROUW SIERT ELECTRA (MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA) by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Ivo Van Hove, at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo by Jan Versweyveld.) Eugene O’Neill translated into Dutch with supertitles? Sounds esoteric, but the acting by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam troupe was so visceral it felt like a slap in the face.

AN APOLOGY FOR THE COURSE AND OUTCOME OF CERTAIN EVENTS DELIVERED BY DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS ON THIS HIS FINAL EVENING by Mickle Maher, Theater Oobleck at the Chopin Theatre. (Photo by Kristin Basta.) This existential black comedy made terrific use of a basement performance space, making audience members feel like they were part of some strange ritual.

THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY by Kristoffer Diaz, directed by Edward Torres, at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren.) This was more fun than any show in 2009, even for someone like me who hates wrestling.

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP by Charles Ludlam, directed by Sean Graney, at Court Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.) Another blast of fun, with lots of quick-change comedy by the marvelous Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan.

THE OVERWHELMING by J.T. Rogers, directed by Kimberly Senior, at Next Theatre. This smart political drama set in Africa built to a climax with a hair-raising feeling of danger.

ANIMAL CRACKERS by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, adapted and directed by Henry Wishcamper, at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo by Eric Y. Exit.) Completely retro, and highly entertaining. The next best thing to seeing the actual Marx Brothers.

BLACKBIRD by David Harrower, directed by Dennis Zacek, at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren.) A disturbing two-character drama starring two superb actors, Mattie Hawkinson and William L. Peterson, at their best.

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Robert Falls, at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren.) Epic in all the right ways. Part myth, part fever dream.

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Halberstam, at Writers’ Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.) An excellent production of Stoppard’s classic transformed existential despair into thought-provoking humor.

AMERICAN BUFFALO by David Mamet, directed by Amy Morton, at Steppenwolf Theatre. A strong production of one of Mamet’s best plays, with exciting acting from the entire cast.

OH, COWARD!, words and music by Noël Coward, devised by Roderick Cook, musical direction by Doug Peck, directed by Jim Corti, at Writers’ Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.) This delightful revue feels like a cocktail party in a ritzy penthouse, where three talented singers deliver a command performance of witty and wistful tunes.

THE ARABIAN NIGHTS written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Sean Williams.) Zimmerman once again brought a sense of wonder and humor to the world of ancient myths.

‘American Buffalo’ at Steppenwolf

Few plays capture Chicago (or at least, one cruddy corner of Chicago) as well as David Mamet’s 1975 classic American Buffalo — and director Amy Morton’s new staging of the drama at Steppenwolf Theatre is top-notch. Authentic Chicago dialogue, desperate men cooking up criminal schemes to get rich, piles and piles of junk. And three actors (Tracy Letts, Francis Guinan and Patrick Andrews) delivering realistic, visceral performances.

In case you know Letts only as a playwright (from works such as his Pulitzer winner August: Osage Country), he takes this opportunity to remind everyone that he’s an actor, too. Playing the garrulous loser Teach, Letts let loose rivers and rivers of Mamet’s dialogue — and then he brings some powerful, almost unexpected emotion to the climatic scene. Junk-shop owner Don has a strained friendship with Teach, and you wonder sometimes why Don doesn’t kick this guy out of his life. In his performance as Don, Guinan plays with that feeling of being trapped — trapped with the friends you have, including the exasperating ones like Teach. Portraying Bobby, the young protégé of these low lifes, Andrews conveys his character’s slow mental capacities without playing it for laughs, revealing what feels like a real person behind a seemingly dim-witted face.

Together, they’re a terrific ensemble. The show is funny where it needs to be, and it’s tragic and moving in its debris-littered denouement. Mamet’s junk shop clatters to life at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

(J.J. Johnson, Mike Nussbaum and William H. Macy (left to right) in the Goodman Theatre Stage 2’s 1975 production of American Buffalo. Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.)

For whatever reasons, American Buffalo flopped last year when the Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls directed it on Broadway with an all-star cast (John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment). At the time, I posted the following essay at the Huffington Post looking back at the reviews American Buffalo received when it was performed for the first time in 1975.

American Buffalo came and went pretty damn fast on Broadway this fall. The reviews were not exactly glowing for director Robert Falls’s revival of David Mamet’s drama, which is widely regarded as one of the playwright’s best plays. It’s worth remembering, though, that critics did not greet American Buffalo with universal acclaim when it first appeared in 1975.

It was one of those plays that provoked extreme reactions. At those early performances, some reviewers believed they were witnessing an all-time classic. Others just saw a piece of theatrical garbage. And even as the play moved to Broadway, receiving the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best American play of the 1976-77 season, the reviews were mixed — very mixed.

Those of us who missed the premiere of American Buffalo three decades ago are left to imagine what it was like from reading Mamet’s script, seeing a new performance or looking back on the wildly divergent reviews that critics wrote in the 1970s. The fleeting, ephemeral nature of theater is part of makes it so special as an art form. As they say, you had to be there.

The earliest champion of American Buffalo was Richard Christiansen, who was theater critic for the Chicago Daily News at the time. Christiansen, who later wrote for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, which includes his account of the days when Mamet’s plays appeared onstage for the first time.

Back in October 1975, when Gregory Mosher directed American Buffalo at the Goodman Theatre’s Stage 2, Christiansen wrote a rave review: “American Buffalo illuminates the truth with humor, suspense and a keen insight into the human spirit,” he said. “Mamet’s mesmeric dialog … turns gutter language into vibrant music … The play is a triumph for Chicago theater — and a treasure for Chicago audiences.”

But Mamet’s foul language and low-life setting — a Chicago junk shop where three guys ineptly scheme to steal a coin collection — turned off other critics. Reviewing the play for the classical radio station WMFT, Claudia Cassidy said it took “a very long, very dull time” to reach its climax. She added, “Does the Goodman’s Stage 2 really believe that filthy language is a substitute for drama?”

“At this point it is just a dreary slice of life that needs tightening, focusing and clarifying,” Glenna Syse wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Shortening? Yes, but if they took out all the four-letter words, it would last ten minutes and somewhere along the line it needs an ending.”

“One can sense the direction in which Mamet wanted to go, although he hasn’t yet finished or polished his play,” Roger Dettmer wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The machismo epithets of Uptown become tediously dirty (which they are in real life). But drama is a distillation of life, not mere eavesdropping. American Buffalo right now is about 20 usable minutes of a play that Mamet needs to edit, expand, enliven, and point in some direction.”

Writing in the Chicago Reader, Bury St. Edmund found much to admire in American Buffalo, but said it needed to be cut and restructured. “American Buffalo, if I may paraphrase a paraphrase David Mamet used in the Reader a few weeks back, is just like a play, only longer,” he wrote. “Once the fat is trimmed and some hustle is added to the performance, it will be more clearly seen for what it is, an excellent piece of theater by someone who’s got something to say and a god-damn original way of saying it.”

Whatever the critics said, crowds filled the theater. In its first three weeks, American Buffalo earned $2,878.18 — a modest sum by today’s standards, but a record at the time for the Goodman’s Stage 2.

The play moved to Mamet’s theatrical home base, the St. Nicholas Theater, for another run on Dec. 21, 1975. A press release noted, “A work-in-progress in its original production, American Buffalo has undergone several revisions by playwright Mamet.” Two of the original cast members, William H. Macy and J.J. Johnston, reprised their roles, while Mike Nussbaum took over the part previously played by Bernard Erhard.

The Chicago critics were more enthusiastic this time. Writing in the Lerner Skyline, Ron Offen said, “with this production … they have coined a sound piece of theater that is silver shiny, if not gold.” In the Tribune, Linda Winer wrote, “Mamet’s gift is character language, here almost poetic in its patter profanity, the dry stylized rhythms and rich reality of the sounds.”

Christiansen saw the drama for a third time, and still found it to be a rich experience. He praised Mamet’s revised ending. “The play itself has been slightly revised (and improved) by Mamet, and it remains the best work yet to come from the best playwright Chicago has produced in this decade,” Christiansen wrote.

When American Buffalo moved to Broadway in 1977, some critics called it one of the most original plays they’d seen in a long time. In New York magazine, Alan Rich wrote: “David Mamet’s name can be firmly installed in that small galaxy of young native playwrights who have something to say and the technique with which to say it.” Clive Barnes of the New York Times declared, “This is Mr. Mamet’s first time on Broadway, but it will not be his last. The man can write.” And Martin Gottfried of the New York Post said, “It isn’t often that a play with the dynamic intensity of American Buffalo comes to the Broadway theater.”

For his part, Christiansen believed the Broadway production, directed by Ulu Grosbard, was even more powerful than the earlier performances in Chicago. “Mamet has revised the script and substantially strengthened the ending, clarifying and deepening its dirge for the lives of the play’s three lost human beings,” he wrote.

American Buffalo continued to receive scathing reviews from some quarters. In the New York Daily News, Douglas Watt concluded: “In spite of their lively talk and Ulu Grosbard’s effective staging, the three dimwits become increasingly boring; and their stupidity and fumbling efforts, however realistic, simply add to the confusion of a play that promises much more than it ever delivers.”

And The New Yorker opined: “It is a curiously offensive piece of writing, less because of the language of which it is composed … than because it is so presumptuous. The playwright, having dared to ask for our attention, provides only the most meager crumbs of nourishment for our minds.”

Critics from outside New York were especially harsh. “What a letdown!” wrote Richard L. Coe of the Washington Post. “Is this drama? … I didn’t believe much of the dialogue, accurate as snatches of it may be. In fact, I found Mamet rather patronizing of his characters, mocking their ignorant pretensions from a perch of superiority. … to label, as some have, this leaden excursion into meanderings of inarticulate, failed criminals as ‘the best American play of the year’ is merely to reflect what a trashy theater season New York has had. I share the view of the others in this split critical decision, who found that ‘this coarse twaddle adds up to meaning zero.'”

“All it suggested to me was three simple minded hoods planning a robbery,” Tony Mastroianni wrote in the Cleveland Press. “If there is any message in the play, it is probably that life is rotten, even for rotten people … As for the play — it is pretentious, promising something under its rawness and delivering nothing.”

“The playwright’s observations (psychological, sociological, etc.) are too superficial to waste time upon,” wrote John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor. “This is a very thin slice of lowlife.”

“A trashy, odious play,” wrote Associated Press critic William Glover. “Dialog consists mostly of profanity and repetitive stretches of the low and patronizing humor that some people find in overhearing ignorant and inarticulate unfortunates. … In his favor, Mamet has a tape-recorder fidelity at reproducing contemporary speech. His dramatic skill is limited, however, to attenuated skits. American Buffalo presumably attempts to make a coherent statement. All that it delivers is fulsome rubbish.”

Even when the reviews were bad, the staffs at the Goodman Theatre and St. Nicholas Theater dutifully clipped all those articles and saved them in files — which are now in the Special Collections room at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library.

This fall’s production at the Belasco Theatre had a highly talented director, Robert Falls, at the helm. Falls is the artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and he also happens to be an old friend of Mamet’s. And he’s directed some notably great shows over the years. The new American Buffalo featured an all-star cast. Or as Ben Brantley of the New York Times put it, a “mixed-nut ensemble” — John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment. Brantley’s review opened with the sort of scathing comment that makes you almost involuntarily exclaim “Ouch!” He wrote: “Ssssssssst. That whooshing noise coming from the Belasco Theater is the sound of the air being let out of David Mamet’s dialogue. Robert Falls’s deflated revival of Mr. Mamet’s American Buffalo … evokes the woeful image of a souped-up sports car’s flat tire, built for speed but going nowhere.”

The show lasted less than a week after the press opening. And alas (or should I say “thankfully”), I missed my chance to see it. Falls’ other directorial efforts have been so strong it’s hard to believe this one was such a flop, but I guess I’ll never know. One wonders if the critics who hated American Buffalo in the 1970s have changed their minds. Apparently, this production was not the test case to answer that question.

An odd lot of holiday theater

A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at Red Orchid Theatre. This show is exactly what the title says. Actual children perform a holiday pageant that looks like an old-fashioned (if very well produced and performed) school play. But the subject of their tribute is L. Ron Hubbard rather than the baby Jesus or Santa Claus. This play seems to be gaining momentum as a hip alternative to more traditional Yule shows (maybe folks got tired of doing David Sedaris). It’s the second year Red Orchid’s done the show, and this year Red Orchid has competition from yet another version of Very Merry, opening soon at Next Theatre in Evanston. The kids doing the show at Red Orchid are a very talented bunch, and it’s hilarious and occasionally disturbing to see them acting out the story and concepts of Scientology. I’m sure the Church of Scientology does not approve. Besides being incredibly entertaining, this hour-long show does a smart job of exposing hypocrisy. Highly recommended. Through Jan. 3. www.redorchidtheatre.org

REDMOON THEATRE WINTER PAGEANT. Here’s another holiday show that’s out of the ordinary, as you would expect from the imaginative wizards at Redmoon. Mostly wordless, this show is a series of wondrous sketches involving a giant baby, a struggle over pieces of desert, pirates, a silhouette scene created with an overhead projector, and some sort of small glowing objects that one man makes the mistake of eating. There’s a beautiful section of the show that takes place underwater — or, at least, it seems like the auditorium is down in the deep sea, as guys in diving suits blow bubbles and fish swim through the air. A good show for the whole family. Some kids may find it all a little weird, but what’s wrong with that? Through Dec. 27. www.redmoon.org

SOUVENIR at Northlight Theatre. The idea of sitting through a whole play about a bad singer — a really, really bad singer — doesn’t sound appealing. However, Stephen Temperley’s play turns out to be a modestly pleasing comedy with some subtle turns. It’s based on a true story. There really was a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins, who somehow failed to grasp how off-key her singing was and insisted on performing concerts and making records anyway. Neva Rae Powers is clearly a more talented singer than the character she plays, but she manages to stay off-key through one excruciating tune after another, often to great comic effect. Mark Anders creates a lot of the humor in his role as Jenkin’s piano accompanist, who can’t believe what he’s hearing. The play raises interesting questions about the compromises that artists often find themselves forced to make. And it’ll make you think about what exactly is it that makes a good singer. Through Dec. 20. www.northlight.org

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Court Theatre. Two actors (Erik Hellman and Chris “Sully” Sullivan) play a whole castful of characters in this campy satire of horror stories, and that’s half the fun of it. Watching Hellman and Sullivan slip offstage and then hurry back in a different costume is truly delightful and frequently hilarious. (And the last part of the show includes a cool tribute to the backstage folks who make this show run like clockwork.) If you get a kick out of the silliness of Monty Python’s members dressing up as ladies — or the general zaniness of British pantomime shows — Irma Vep will sink its fangs into you. Playwright Charles Ludlam’s script about vampires, werewolves and mummies is filled with groan-inducing puns and double entendres, as well as lots of ludicrous plot devices that poke fun at ludicrous plot devices. Directed by Sean Graney, Hellman and Sullivan carry it all off with delicious accents, unrestrained slapstick and a deep appreciation of the absurd. Through Dec. 13. www.courttheatre.org

(Red Orchid, Northlight and Court Theatre photos by Michael Brosilow.)

New plays in Chicago

Short reviews of a few plays I’ve seen lately.

AN APOLOGY FOR THE COURSE AND OUTCOME OF CERTAIN EVENTS DELIVERED BY DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS ON THIS HIS FINAL EVENING by Theater Oobleck — Another masterpiece in miniature by Evanston playwright Mickle Maher, who wrote one of my favorite plays of recent years, The Strangerer. I did not see An Apology… the first time that Theater Oobleck presented it several years ago, with Maher in the title role. This time Colm O’Reilly plays Doctor Faustus, while David Shapiro takes on the unusual role that O’Reilly played in the original production: a silent Mephistopheles, who just sits and listens for the entire play as Faustus delivers his desperate, dying monologue. Even the way that audiences enter the Chopin Theatre basement’s performance space to see An Apology… is dramatic and peculiar. I won’t give away much at all about this show, because as much of it as possible should be a surprise. Maher’s writing is a brilliant, black-humor variation on the Faust legend about a man selling his soul to the devil. This version goes off in some strange directions, including a riff on 7-Eleven stores. O’Reilly delivers every single syllable with sad-eyed intensity. The entire experience is riveting, and not to be missed.

ANIMAL CRACKERS at the Goodman Theatre — This re-creation of a 1928 musical-comedy show starring the Marx Brothers is a pretty unusual thing to see on a major stage in 2009. Like the movie based on the play (one of my favorite screen comedies), Animal Crackers is wildly uneven. The scenes featuring Groucho, Chico and Harpo are hilariously madcap, but the romantic subplots featuring everyone else are often clunky. So, no, the play by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind is not a great one, and if the Marx Brothers hadn’t starred in it, it probably would be forgotten. The Goodman production does a decent job of making those non-Marx scenes tolerable, or even enjoyable, especially when the cast is signing and dancing. Joey Slotnick, Jonathan Brody and Molly Breenan bring a lot of fun and panache to the Groucho, Chico and Harpo roles. Seeing them perform is a bit like watching a tribute band re-creating the songs of a more famous artist. The Marx Brothers were so fabulous that you can’t help enjoying this, even though it’s just a good imitation of the real thing. Go into this show with the attitude that you’re about to experience an old-fashioned piece of entertainment, a glimpse of what stage comedy was like more than 80 years ago.

THE MERCY SEAT at Profiles Theatre — Once again, playwright Neil LaBute bluntly probes the darkness of the human mind. Or should I say: the male mind? Like many of LaBute’s films and plays, The Mercy Seat features a man who doesn’t follow the better angels of his nature. This one-act, two-character drama takes place in New York on Sept. 12, 2001. Ben (Darrell W. Cox) and his lover, Abby (Cheryl Graeff), argue about some big life decisions in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ben is a craven coward, with an appalling plan for dealing with some of the problems in his life. At moments, Abby seems to be enabling Ben’s cowardice, but at other times, she attacks him with acidic fury. Cox and Graeff are both superb in these difficult, complex roles. Like most of LaBute’s work, this play is not exactly what you would call a pleasant experience, but it is ultimately powerful and emotionally wrenching.

Theater Oobleck photo: Kristin Basta. Goodman Theatre photo: Eric Y. Exit. Profiles Theatre photo: Wayne Karl

Redmoon’s ‘Last of My Species’

Chicago’s Redmoon theater certainly knows how to put on a big show. Its annual outdoor “spectacles” feel like theatrical performances that are simply too big to be contained within the walls of a theater, with actors ranging across landscapes in motor vehicles or soaring way above the audience’s head. The latest Redmoon play, Last of My Species: The Fearless Songs of Laarna Cortaan, which opened this weekend at South Belmont Harbor, is no exception.

Billed as Redmoon’s first “concert,” Last of My Species, is supposedly the U.S. debut of Norwegian singer Laarna Cortaan. It doesn’t take much deduction or detective work to figure out that Cortaan is a fictional character, and the Redmoon folks throw the audience a few knowing winks about this joke. But the show does indeed start out like a concert, with the songs introduced by an emcee speaking in a humorously fake Scandinavian accent. As Laarna sings, an armada of musician/singer/dancer types assembles around her, sometimes pretending to play fake instruments, sometimes holding surreal masks of enlarged faces in front of their heads.

The “concert” comes apart after some technical difficulties (which are part of the show). Cortaan storms off. An ingenue charms the crowd with her simple music. Cortaan storms back. A musical duel ensues. The ingenue engages in a sensual series of acrobatic moves with a man at the top of a ladder.

No, there really isn’t much plot to this show, which is typical of Redmoon spectacles, but it all moves with the logic of a dream. It may not be profound, but Last of My Species does offer a sort of running commentary on the whole experience of going to a concert without resorting to a lot of obvious jokes. And most importantly, it’s consistently entertaining. The music is quite good, including songs in a variety of styles, ranging from properly bombastic prerecorded music to intimate live performances. The sets, costumes and, um, vehicles present a delightfully surreal panorama. The few pieces of dialogue and narration sparkle with humor. And wow, that sequence of acrobatic moves were thrilling to watch.

Once again, Redmoon has inspired me by imagining an improbable theatrical performance and bringing it to life on a huge scale.

Last of My Species: The Fearless Songs of Laarna Cortaan continues with performances at 7 p.m. Sept. 10, 11, 12 and 13. For details, see www.redmoon.org

See my photos of Redmoon’s Last of My Species.

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and Plastic People

Can rock ‘n’ roll change the world — not just change what’s on the radio but who’s in charge of the government? Maybe, but as music critic Robert Palmer once noted, that’s an awful lot of weight to put on a little piece of music. Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll, now at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, shows one example of a situation where rock music was viewed as a dangerous political force: Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, where records and concerts by a group called Plastic People of the Universe were driven underground by fearful Communist officials.

This play is not exactly what you might expect from that description, however. There’s a lot of heady, intellectual dialogue, and the rock ‘n’ roll is not as dominant as you’d think, given the title. It’s well worth seeing for its lessons in recent history and an excellent performance by Mary Beth Fisher, among other things. And how cool is it to see a play featuring music by the likes of Syd Barrett — as well as a Barrett-like figure perambulating around the edges of the action, sometimes riding a bicycle.

Still, I wondered sometimes if this show was too much talk and not enough rock. I don’t want to sound anti-intellectual, but shouldn’t a play about the power of rock music to change the world actually show that happening? We hear people talking about more than we witness the actual rock being played. I wanted something more visceral — more moments like that startling shock when a Communist policeman smashes an LP into pieces.

And for a play that includes a lot of references to the Plastic People of the Universe, it’s strange that we hear only one brief passage of that band’s music. The band seems phantom-like, hovering off stage, never quite audible.

That’s the sort of presence the Plastics have had in the real world of rock music — banned in their homeland, discussed but rarely heard outside the Czech Republic. I was lucky to catch a performance by the Plastics last September at the Hideout Block Party (here are my photos from that show), and I managed to track down a digital copy of the band’s classic but hard-to-find record Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. Good luck searching for it online or finding a place to buy it. It’s a cool combination of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa — weird, stark and compelling.

To read more about the Plastic People of the Universe, I suggest checking out this article by Richie Unterberger

(Goodman Theatre photo at top by Michael Brosilow)

O’Neill Festival at the Goodman

The Eugene O’Neill festival now in its final days at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre wasn’t exactly designed as an introduction to this great American playwright. Nor was it a celebration of his best and most famous works. Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh were nowhere to be seen on the schedule. But it was a fascinating exploration of O’Neill’s work — filled with unusual and even daring stagings of several plays. Never was it dull, that’s for sure. It ranks up there with the other festivals the Goodman has hosted in recent years focusing on other playwrights, including David Mamet and Edward Albee. (Alas, I missed most of the 2008 festival of plays by Horton Foote, who just passed way.) None of these festivals have been anywhere near comprehensive — that would be just be a huge undertaking for these prolific writers — but they’ve all offered a terrific chance to see plays that aren’t produced all that often.

The full name of the O’Neill festival gives an apt description of what artistic director Robert Falls was going for: “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century.” It was truly global, with companies from Brazil and the Netherlands performing as well as Chicago and New York theater groups. And it did feel very much like a 21st century interpretation of this quintessentially 20th century playwright.

The festival ends with director Greg Allen and the Neo-Futurists tackling Strange Interlude, a nine-act, nearly six-hour drama in which the characters speak many of their thoughts aloud. It’s hard to believe this play was one of the biggest commercial hits of O’Neill’s lifetime when it was on Broadway in 1928. Maybe the novelty of it connected with audiences back then. Now, it just seems incredibly ponderous — a script in need of some severe editing. If anyone could pull off a post-modern deconstruction of Strange Interlude, it’s the Neo-Futurists, who did a wonderful show a few years back consisting of the final two minutes of every Ibsen play.

Their fractured take on Strange Interlude opened Friday night, with just two more performances after that. Amazingly enough, it did seem to hold most of the audience’s attention for its long span — except for that disgruntled purist who caused a disturbance by yelling out his disapproval during the first intermission. I believe he said, “Why are you butchering this play?” or something along those lines. Well, to be honest, it’s a play that deserves a lot of cuts and changes.

The Neo-Futurists played this tragedy for laughs, reading many of O’Neill’s absurdly specific stage directions aloud. The entire performance was a sarcastic commentary on the script itself. And a great deal of it was very funny, with the audience laughing so much at times that the actors had to pause in delivering their lines. The humor went beyond spoofing O’Neill, incorporating some surprising bits of physical humor. What’s really impressive is that the actors and the audience were able to keep up the laughter for almost six hours. Truth to be told, the whole experience would have been easier to absorb if it were condensed down to a third of its length, but then it wouldn’t have been Strange Interlude, would it? Actually, was that play I saw on Friday really Strange Interlude? Perhaps it should have been retitled Stranger Interlude for this occasion.

The headline show of the festival was Desire Under the Elms, directed by Falls and starring Brian Dennehy, Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino. (It’s now moving to Broadway.) This turned out to be one of those productions that people either loved or hated. I loved it. Sure, I can see how smaller, less bombastic stagings of O’Neill script work fine, but Fall’s almost operatic epic was staggeringly big. The silent opening sequence showing the brothers hauling boulders was mesmerizing. The actors were intense and passionate. The trims in the script helped the whole story to flow like some fever dream, as Falls said he intended.

The festival also included the Wooster Group’s controversial production of The Emperor Jones, with Kate Valk as the lead character — cross-dressing and in blackface. Why do blackface in 2009? Well, O’Neill’s script has more than its share of dated racial stereotypes, but it is certainly a play of at least some historical interest. So how do you stage it in 2009? The Wooster Group’s solution is a radical sort of commentary on blackface and racial types. The fact that Valk was also changing genders for the role seemed to emphasis that her performance was as much of a comment on the O’Neill play as it was an attempt to transform herself into this character. As a spectacle, the show was an assault on the senses. The play’s language was difficult to follow, but the picture of what I saw onstage will remain in my memory a long time.

The Hypocrites and director Sean Graney performed The Hairy Ape, with an almost frighteningly visceral performance by Chris Sullivan. The play’s message about the gap between the rich and the working class is didactic, but Graney’s staging was just subversive enough that it delivered the message effectively without sarcastically undercutting it. The main thing, though, was Sullivan, whose final moments of blood and torment left me shaken.

I saw two of the three “Sea Plays” performed by the Brazilian group Companhia Triptal, Zona de Guerra (In the Zone and Cardiff (Bound East for Cardiff). (I missed Longa Viagem de Volta pra Casa (The Long Voyage Home).) The actors seemed like real sailors who had somehow become stranded inside this theater thousands of miles from their homes in Sao Paolo. At each of the plays I saw, they were singing sea shanties off stage as the audience came into the theater. Zona de Guerra effectively built up a sense of paranoia among the sailors. Cardiff was an intriguing theatrical adventure — but the lack of supertitles in that show made it difficult to follow along as the actors delivered the dialogue in Portuguese. The audience walked onto the stage for one scene and then went upstairs with the actors into a rehearsal room for the final scene. I enjoyed exploring the Goodman building during this show and watching the expressions on the faces of the actors. I just wish I’d understood what they were saying. I did read the synopsis beforehand, but that’s not the same thing.

The crowning moment of the whole festival, to me, was another play in a foreign language: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra). It helped that the English supertitles were positioned on a wall behind the actors at just the right level to make it easy to read the words and watch the action simultaneously. And the lines were in close synch.

Directed by Ivo Van Hove, this production of Mourning came to Chicago about a week after The New York Times savagely ripped apart a different production of the same O’Neill play in New York. Whatever went wrong with that production, this one in Dutch was utterly amazing. Like many of the other post-modern shows in the Goodman’s O’Neill festival, Mourning had its share of stunts that distanced the audience somewhat from the material. An actor writing and drawing on an overhead projector. Characters exchanging some of their dialogue via instant messaging. The actors beginning each act with a ritual removing of their shoes. These are the sorts of stage devices that literally shout out to the audience, “What you’re watching is just a play!” But the real trick here was that the actors were completely believable, the emotions so deep in their faces and bodies that it was hard to see any line between the character’s skin and the actor inside. The drama came to life in physical gestures — as when one character slaps another, and then slaps again. And again and again. Like a jolt to the audience itself. The entire cast was excellent, but Halina Reijn’s manic-depressive, startlingly transformative performance as Lavinia Mannon deserves singling out. I don’t know when I’ll ever see Reijn or the other actors in this Amsterdam company perform again, but if I get the chance, I won’t miss it.

Hans Kesting and Halina Reijn in Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
Jeremy Sher, Merrie Greenfield and Joe Dempsey in Strange Interlude. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

Favorite plays of 2008

1. GATZ, Elevator Repair Service at the Museum of Contemporary Art: An ingenious, transcendent and strangely mesmerizing six-hour marathon of a play: a worker in a drab office reading The Great Gatsby aloud – every single word. A testament to the transformative powers of art and storytelling.

2. OUR TOWN, The Hypocrites at the Chopin Theatre: Thornton Wilder’s classic play was not the least bit quaint or sentimental in this marvelous revival by director David Cromer. Coming very close to Wilder’s original intentions, this bare-bones, street-clothes staging moved us and made us think about our place in the universe.

3. DUBLN CAROL, Steppenwolf: It was a superb year for seeing Conor McPherson plays in Chicago, and three of his plays deserve mention here. Some critics ranked Dublin Carol third out of the three plays, but I found it the purest and most direct expression of McPherson’s spirit, with a top-notch performance by William Petersen.

4. AS YOU LIKE IT, Writers’ Theatre: Directed by William Brown, Shakespeare’s story was completely delightful. The play is not often mentioned as one of the Bard’s best, but the production made a compelling case for it.

5. A STEADY RAIN, by Chicago Dramatists at Royal George Theatre: This cop drama by Keith Huff made some critics’ lists for 2007; I did not see it until this year. It’s one of the best recent plays about Chicago, capturing the lively, vulgar repartee of the city’s finest.

6. PICNIC, Writers’ Theatre: The space at Writers’ Theatre was reconfigured to put the audience almost in the middle of the action, and director David Cromer surrounded us with believable human beings.

7. DRACULA, The Building Stage: The ending was flawed, but everything else about this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was amazing – a silent movie presented as a phantasmagoric tableau.

8. RUINED, Goodman Theatre: Lynn Nottage’s play is marked with searing pain and trauma, but there’s some joyful spirit, too – just enough to make it bearable.

9. THE SEAFARER, Steppenwolf: Another excellent Conor McPherson play, a devilish take on Christmas.

10. EURYDICE, Victory Gardens: Sarah Ruhl’s magic-realist take on the Orpheus myth flowed with the logic of a dream.

Runners-up: 9 Parts of Desire, MCA/Next Theatre; Shining City, Goodman; Superior Donuts, Steppenwolf; The Brothers Karamazov, Lookingglass; Gas For Less, Goodman; Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Piven Theatre; Around the World in 80 Days, Lookingglass; Million Dollar Quartet, Apollo Theatre; Boneyard Prayer, Redmoon Theatre; Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Steppenwolf; The Lion in Winter, Writers’ Theatre.

The great ‘Gatz’

When a book is adapted for the stage or screen, one of the hardest things to capture is the author’s voice. Without a lot of narration, the way the author tells the story tends to disappear. So why not include the actual words on the page? How about every single word? As insane as that idea might sound, it’s exactly what the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service has done with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The group’s play, called Gatz, is hardly a straightforward adaptation of The Great Gatsby, however. Performed three times this past weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the 6 1/2-hour Gatz presents the odd spectacle of an employee in a drab office who finds a copy of the novel in his desk and then proceeds to read it aloud. At first, the other employees around him seem to be aware of what he’s doing, giving him odd looks. But after a while, they all begin providing the voices for the various characters within the novel. Don’t worry about the logic of this. Of course, the actual office employees wouldn’t know all of those lines without looking at the page. At this point, Gatz is becoming a weird little world with a logic of its own.

It’s a highly conceptual piece of theater as well as a staged reading of the novel. It was a bit like hearing a book on tape mixed with performance art. The milieu of the office reminded me of Ben Katchor’s comic strips, and some humor arose from the way the office workers perform Fitzgerald’s great story. As unconventional as all of this was, it still managed to stay true to the novel. As the narrator, Scott Shephard achieved the Herculean task of reading the whole damn book. Halfway through the show, I marveled at seeing how many pages he had turned. And 45 minutes or so from the end, he set down the book and recited the rest from memory. A stillness descended on the theater for Fitzgerald’s final elegiac passage. It had been a long haul for the audience, with two intermissions and a dinner break, but my attention never lagged, and by the exhausting end of the ordeal, the long standing ovation and three curtain calls felt like the least we could do to honor the amazing performance we’d just witnessed.

Stage notes

Notes on some plays I’ve seen recently in Chicago…

THE TROJAN CANDIDATE by Theater Oobleck – Last year’s production of The Strangerer by Theater Oobleck was one of my favorite plays of 2007, one of those rare shows that take political satire to a higher artistic level, leaving haunting impressions in your mind. The latest election play by the Oobleck group, The Trojan Candidate, is no match for its predecessor, though it does have its moments. The premise this time is that an alien occupying the body and brain of Dick Cheney is looking for a vessel among this year’s presidential candidates, in the hope of keeping control at the White House. Actor Jeff Dorchen looks remarkably like Cheney, and the rest of the cast has fun juggling a variety of roles; Danny Thompson is pretty amusing as John McCain. But pretty amusing is about as good at it gets in this intermittently funny show, which feels more like an extended comedy skit than a fully realized play. At times, The Trojan Candidate begins to move into deeper and more surreal territory, such as when Sati Word plays Barack Obama recounting various dreams he has had. The dreams are as absurd as dreams usually are, without any obvious punch lines. In these moments, one senses the more profound play that could emerge out of this material with more work. Continuing through Nov. 3 at the Neo-Futurarium. www.theateroobleck.com. (Photo by Kristin Basta.)

TURN OF THE CENTURY at the Goodman – Man, some of the reviews of this show have been harsh. I found some of the same flaws as did other critics, especially with the rather flimsy plot. It’s a blockbuster premise – singer and piano player from 1999 travel back in time to 1899 and make a mint by selling all the great songs of the 20th century – but it doesn’t really go places. In spite of the play’s shortcomings, I found it fairly entertaining, however. That set wowed me, and the music and dancing were fine. Yes, I wanted more out of this show, but I came away thinking it could prove to be a popular hit. www.goodmantheatre.org. (Photo by Liz Lauren.)

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE at the Northlight – This one received some criticism for straying too much from the original Robert Louis Stevenson book. I found it quite enjoyable, with a great set and lighting, plus a sharp cast featuring four actors playing Mr. Hyde at various times. A few gruesome moments, a fair amount of theatrical razzle-dazzle, and an excellent turn by Nick Sandys at Dr. Jekyll. A good show to see during the Halloween season. www.northlight.org (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

PICNIC at Writers’ Theatre – Following up a superb production of another William Inge play, Bus Stop, Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe has another winner. David Cromer, who did such a fine job with Our Town for the Hypocrites and Adding Machine for Next, once again shows a strong talent for bringing subtle performances out of his actors. And the reconfigured space at Writers’ Theatre makes us feel like you’re in the midst of the action. www.writerstheatre.org. (Photo by Janna Giacoppo.)

Kafka on the Shore

My feelings about Frank Galati’s new play at Steppenwolf Theater, Kafka on the Shore, are not far off from my feelings about the book he adapted it from, a novel by Haruki Murakami. Both the book and the play have a wonderful sense of invention and however strange they get, they flow along with a casual but compelling sense of narrative.

But in both cases, I came away feeling a little unsatisfied. I love surrealism and magic realism, or whatever you want to call these sorts of stories where peculiar, unworldly things happen. And I don’t feel a need to have everything explained to me. In fact, a nice, neat explanation can ruin a surreal story. But the problem with art based on random associations and non sequitors is that, well, sometimes it feels just random. At times, both versions of Kafka on the Shore are random in ways that seem silly and immature… or maybe not silly enough or immature enough. The reaction at the end is “Huh?”

As in the book, the central figure, a runaway teen who calls himself Kafka (Christopher Larkin), is a fairly empty character. The character who calls himself an empty shell, the mentally slow man capable of speaking to cats, Nakata (David Rhee), somehow feels more fully developed. And the truck-driver who helps Nakata in his mysterious quest, Hoshino (Andrew Pang), is a delightfully mundane counterpoint to all of the peculiar goings-on in Murakami’s story. I was skeptical that the parts of the book featuring supernatural characters in the guise of Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders would translate to the stage, but they turned out to be a humorous highlight of the play, with Francis Guinan portraying the roles with relish. Aiko Nakasone is fresh and funny as the girl Kafka befriends on his runaway odyssey. Despite some comic moments, the human actors playing cats never feel quite right, however.

It is impressive that Galati managed to cram so many details of the book into a faithful stage adaptation. In spite of its flaws, Steppenwolf’s Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating journey – fascinating enough that I’d recommend seeing this play if you have a taste for the bizarre.

Through Nov. 16. www.steppenwolf.org

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Building a new ‘Dracula’

The Building Stage takes on familiar topics and makes them feel new. The three-year-old theater group has already reinterpreted Hamlet and Moby-Dick into its own stage language, which founder Blake Montgomery calls “physical theater.” On Friday night, a remarkable rendition of Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula opened at the Near West Side theater.

This is Dracula told as a silent film, but with live actors instead of celluloid. The play, “conceived and directed” by Montgomery and “created and performed” by a cast of eight, contains virtually no spoken dialogue. The actors silently mouth their lines to one another and wave their arms with the sorts of big gestures seen in 1920s movies, pausing occasionally for titles spelling out their words to appear on a screen above the stage. The lighting cues in this show are amazingly specific and precise (kudos to lighting designer Aaron Weissman), making it look easy as the cast pulls off a marathon feat of strange miming. With gauzy curtains frequently being flung back and forth, the set (designed by Jessica Kuehnau and Brandon Wardell) allows a fluid sense of changing scenes. All the while, Shostakovich music sets the mood perfectly.

Before starting the Building Stage, Montgomery worked with Redmoon Theatre, and the two companies share a similar vibe. Dracula includes at least one stroke of theatrical genius, the sort of device you expect in a Redmoon show: At various times, cast members display pictures. They’re almost like cinematic close-up shots, or the two-dimensional equivalents of props. When Renfield hears flies buzzing, an actor standing nearby flashes a picture of a fly. When a doctor examines Lucy’s neck, another actor holds up a picture of two bite marks on a neck.

If my memory of Stoker’s novel is correct, this is a pretty faithful adaptation. It’s certainly a lot closer to the flow of Stoker’s story than most of the films based on it. As Montgomery notes in a press release, one of the interesting things about the original 1897 novel is how little Dracula actually appears in it. The vampire constantly lurks in the fears of the main characters, but he’s almost always off-stage. The same is true in the Building Stage’s version, which follows the structure of Stoker’s book. A considerable amount of time passes before the characters even figure out that vampires are afoot, explaining the mysterious events they’ve been puzzling over throughout Act 1.

The cast is strong, making the characters seem just real enough behind all of that artifice. Ned Record is particularly impressive as Renfield, bringing humor and pathos to this legendarily pathetic lunatic.

Without revealing the play’s ending, I will quibble with the way it wraps up. After sticking with Stoker’s story for almost its entire duration, the play steps away from the original Dracula at the very end, changing in tone and offering an alternative theory to explain all of the events we’ve just seen. It’s an intriguing idea, but once the play veers off in this new direction, it doesn’t seem to know exactly how to end. In spite of that, this Dracula is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Dracula continues through Oct. 18 at the Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., Chicago. www.buildingstage.com

Boneyard Prayer at Redmoon

Some Redmoon Theater shows are outdoor spectacles, some are cloistered dioramas. Even on a smaller scale, Redmoon shows always feel like a spectacle. The latest, Frank Maugeri’s Boneyard Prayer, is more of a poem than a story, more of a sketch than a painting. At an hour long, with a spare story, it’s a show that’s almost entirely emotion and mood with little in the way of characterization or plot. And boy, is it grim – right from the first moment, when we see a woman laying a dead infant in a grave. The story of how that baby died is revealed later, a gut-wrenching tragedy.

Like many Redmoon shows, Boneyard Prayer stars puppets alongside the human actors. In this case, the puppet of a man seems to be a surrogate of sorts for one of the actors, who stays close to it throughout the show. The same goes for the female puppet and actress. It was somewhat confusing at first. Do the puppets represent the same people embodied by the actors or another set of characters? The literal meaning proves to be unimportant, however.

Charles Kim’s original music is lovely, a good fit for the play’s melancholy mood. The final moments of Boneyard Prayer include a beautiful scene of hopefulness, achieved by a trick of the scenery that I won’t spoil. Sitting through Boneyard Prayer is a little like attending a wake. The play will send your thoughts drifting off toward the loved ones you’ve lost in your own life. It’s not a deep play (and it is certainly not a show that everyone will enjoy), but it is an affecting one.

Boneyard Prayer runs through May 11 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard St., Chicago (the only theater I know that must be entered through an industrial parking lot). www.redmoon.org

Best Chicago plays of 2007

1. THE STRANGERER – Mickle Maher’s play – which combines a 2004 debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry with Albert Camus’ The Stranger – sounds a little bit like a stunt, but it was deeply profound, funny and often disturbing. Of all the plays I saw in 2007, this is the one that lives on in my dreams. Theater Oobleck is bringing back The Strangerer in April. Don’t miss it.

2. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY – Tracy Letts’ play at Steppenwolf (now on Broadway) won lots of critical praise, and it deserved it. What an epic of domestic dysfunction and black comedy. Great script, even better cast.

3. I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN – Stuart Dybek’s wonderful collection of connected short stories seemed like an unlikely book to adapt for the stage, but playwright Claudia Allen really got it right with this enchanting show at Victory Gardens.

4. THE ADDING MACHINE – This world premiere at Next Theatre (Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s new musical version of Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist drama) was surreal and nightmarish, not your typical musical-theater fare. A superb work of art.

5. DEFIANCE – John Patrick Shanley’s military drama at Next Theatre was so good because it’s such a tight, compact play, exploring ethical issues without ever getting didactic.

6. THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION – The Writers’ Theatre production of Evan Smith’s new script was the best play of the year on the topic of religion, a topic that popped up a lot on stages in 2007.

7. HUNCHBACK – I missed this show when Redmoon first staged it in 2000, so I can’t say how the new production compared with the original, but it was a marvelously inventive and self-reflexive show.

8. THE TURN OF THE SCREW – Like a magic show, this Henry James adaptation at Writers’ Theatre toyed with our senses and raised more than a few goose bumps.

9. THE INTELLIGENT DESIGN OF JENNY CHOW — Wacky fun with some emotional depth, Rolin Jones’ play was an unexpected hit for Collaboraction, and it deserved all its success.

10. OTHELLO – An excellent and intimate version of the Shakespeare classic, directed by Michael Halberstam at Writers’ Theatre, with a fabulous turn by John Judd as Iago.

The Wooden Breeks at Lookingglass
Doubt (touring production)
Frozen at Next
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (touring production)
Mirror of the Invisible World at the Goodman
Fire on the Mountain at Northlight
The Crucible at Steppenwolf
Betrayal at Steppenwolf
Lady at Northlight
Bach at Leipzig at Writers’ Theatre

Writing about music, Part 1

From time to time, I’d like to point out some passages of writing about music that I especially like. Here’s one from Stuart Dybek’s superb short-story collection (more of a novel told in stories), I Sailed With Magellan. A stage adaptation of the book will run June 8-July 15 at Victory Gardens Theater, which I wrote about for the June issue of Playbill’s Chicago edition. The wistful final story in Dybek’s book, “Je Reviens,” includes this wonderful description of the protagonist’s uncle performing with a wedding band:

I walked thinking about Uncle Lefty, my godfather. When I was little and he was just back from the POW camp in Korea, he used to take me along on his rounds of the neighborhod taverns. I was considered good therapy for him back then. Later, after he started playing in public again, I’d sometimes go to hear the Gents play wedding receptions held in the back halls of corner taverns. I’d wait for the moment when Lefty switched from his cheap metal clarinet to the tarnished tenor sax that had spent the evening on the bandstand, armed with a number 4 1/2 Rico reed and draped with a white towel Lefty called his spit rag. Swaying drunkenly at the edge of the bandstand, Lefty would launch into a solo with the Bruiser behind him slamming the foot pedal of the bass drum as if flooring the gas and driving his red sparkle Ludwig kit over the edge of the stage, taking the rest of the Gents with him. The dancers whooped and whirled and stomped, but finally were defeated by the tempo and stood on the dance floor gaping and panting while the bridesmaids stumbled dizzily in their disheveled taffeta like deposed prom queens. Lefty blew, possessed and oblivious to the rising imprecations of the wedding guests, who stood on their folding chairs shouting for dance music. Even the pleas of his fellow Gents, all of whom with the exception of the Bruiser had stopped playing, couldn’t silence him, leaving them no recourse but to drag Lefty, still wailing on his horn, off the stage.

Recent Chicago theater

Chicago’s theater season “starts” in the fall, if you pay attention to most of the schedules put out by theaters, but in truth, it runs all year-round without much of a pause. However you look at the calendar, Chicago has a bounty of good to great plays this fall.

Director Mary Zimmerman’s latest adaptation of a Greek mythology (following such marvelous productions as “Metamorphoses” and “The Odyssey”) is another wonder to behold. Watching a Zimmerman production is like seeing a bunch of talented actors and designers truly at play — playing with all of the toys at their disposal. There’s an infectious sense of fun about the stagecraft of Zimmerman and her collaborators. It’s amazing to watch how the seemingly simple stage is used to achieve different settings during the course of the show, and Michael Montenegro’s puppets are an especially fascinating addition.

Of course, this is the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Like some of Zimmerman’s earlier plays, it injects modern vernacular and humor into an ancient story. At times, the changes in tone can be a little jarring, but once you accept the self-reflexive nature of the play, the tale unfolds with ease. A few of the performances were top-notch, including Glenn Fleshler as Hercules, Atley Loughridge as Medea and Mariann Mayberry as Athena.

The last part of the story, more famously told in “Medea,” is summarized fairly abruptly. As a result, the motivations of Jason (Ryan Artzburger) get a little bit lost in Act 2. But then comes a closing scene involving the constellations that was almost breathtaking in its beauty. “Argonautika” continues through Dec. 23. See www.lookingglasstheatre.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.

This is one stark “Hamlet.” The set is basically a big, black slab of a floor. The backdrop is sometimes just a black wall, sometimes a big mirror. Lots of fog wafts down. All of the actors are dressed either in white or black — until the acting troupe within the story shows up. They’re clad first in grad overcoats, and then they perform all in red. In this almost existential setting, Ben Carlson gives a powerful performance as the famous Danish prince, particularly in the way he brings out the humor — the sardonic, bitter humor — in so many of Hamlet’s lines. Also noteworthy: Mike Nussbaum as Polonius, and Lindsay Gould, who really plays up Ophelia’s nutso scene. “Hamlet,” directed by Terry Hands, director emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 18. See www.chicagoshakes.com. MY RATING: 4 out of 5.

The Goodman Theatre’s production of “King Lear,” directed by Robert Falls and starring Stacey Keach, has closed, but it’s worth mentioning again. This show really polarized critics and audiences. I’ve heard as many people say they loved it as I’ve heard people saying they reviled it. I count myself in the first camp. Yes, it was nasty, modernized, sexualized and Balkanized (literally). No, this isn’t the “definitive” version of “King Lear” you’ll ever see. It’s just one interpretation — and a damn interesting one. And it was exciting to see something this provocative on the stage at one of Chicago’s most prominent theaters. MY RATING: 4 out of 5.

Lllian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest” was the prequel to her best-known play “Little Foxes.” This production by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe is filled with nearly perfect acting performances, including superb turns by some local regulars, Joel Hatch and Penny Slusher. It’s the drama of a dysfunctional Southern family in the late 1800s, with every dysfunction malfunctioning more as the play goes on. It’s a story that gradually builds in power. Even the characters who behave immorally have their reasons and a certain amount of symptahy. Now, if only some theater group were performing “Little Foxes” — that would be a great double bill. “Another Part of the Forest” continues through Nov. 26. See www.writerstheatre.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.

Victory Gardens Theatre has a glorious new home — inside a classic old theater, the Biograph. The last time I was in the place was to see “Pulp Fiction” on the big screen. Of course, it looks entirely different after all of the renovations. It’s an almost luxurious place to see a play, with comfy seats and great sight lines. And Charles Smith’s “Denmark” is an excellent show to break the place in. The play has nothing to do with the nation of Denmark, but rather is named for a freed slave in pre-Civil War South Carolina named Denmark Vesey. This is a drama that presents historical data and ethical dilemmas in way that’s both very natural and very clear — it never feels like a history lesson or an ethics lecture, but it gets across its points with just as much clarity. Anthony Fleming III brings a great deal of intelligence as well as emotion to his role as the title character. And there are quite a few other actors who shine in “Denmark” as well, with special kudos to A.C. Smith as Reverand Brown. “Denmark” continues through Nov. 12. See www.victorygardens.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.

Of all the plays I’ve seen this fall, the most memorable — and the most powerful — is Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” directed by Amy Morton at Steppenwolf Theatre. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones has an advantage over me, in that he saw “The Pillowman” in its earlier New York production. And he says that one was even more terrifying and disturbing. It’s hard for me to imagine it being much more upsetting than it already is without becoming too much to stomach.
But it’s not just an unsettling story about people committing unspeakable acts (people torturing children, murdering your parents, murdering children, police torturing people during interrogations) — it’s also a deep examination of the creative process. The channeling of violence into creativity is a key theme, and despite everything, there is a slight glimmer of humanity in all of this, even as the play takes us to bleak places. The cast is fabulous, including Jim True-Frost (who’s also so good on HBO’s “The Wire”) and Michael Shannon (who gave one of the best performances I’ve seen this year, in the earlier play “Grace” at Northlight, and then turned up in a so-so role in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”).
“The Pillowman” continues through Nov. 12. See www.steppenwolf.org. MY RATING: 5 out of 5.

Northlight Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind” is a mixed success. The scenes that set up the story — and the ones that end it — are stilted, an awkward mix of old-fashioned script writing and contemporary stage tricks that make it all seem rather artificial. But the courtroom scenes are really compelling, with two rousing performances: Tony Mockus as Matthew Harrison Brady, a character modeled after William Jennings Bryan, and Scott Jaeck as Henry Drummond, the surrogate for Clarence Darrow. Watching these two guys go at it in the courtroom battle over evolution and creationism is a hoot. But with this play being a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, it just whets the appetite for a more authentic telling of the true story. “Inherit the Wind” continues through Nov. 12. See www.northlight.org. MY RATING: 3 out of 5.

Something odd happens early on in this new play by Noah Hindle at the Goodman Theatre. The main character, a widow having trouble getting on with her life, is talking with her late husband’s soul, who is right there in the room with her, played by an actor. Just a figment of her imagination? Well, no, not exactly, because then it turns out that other people can see and hear this “soul” as well. And so “Vigils” takes place in a sort of metaphysical universe, not quite real. It alternates between comedy and some fairly serious topics with surprising grace. Certain memories play out repeatedly, with video projection providing the sort of special effects this play would probably not receive in a typical small production. Not all of it works, but overall, it’s a worthwhile and intriguing play. “Vigils” continues through Nov. 12. See www.goodmantheatre.org. MY RATING: 3 out of 5.

A couple of plays that just closed still deserve some belated praise. Curious Theatre Branch’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” part of the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival at Prop Thtr, captured the absurdity of the strange world that Beckett created in that script, making it all seem like an alternate world that operates by its own set of rules. And Pegasus Players’ production of Derek Walcott’s “Pantomime” was a low-key but engaging dialogue about race. ENDGAME RATING: 3 out of 5. PANTOMIME RATING: 3 out of 5.

King Lear


Wow, they weren’t kidding when they put an “adult subject matter” warning on the tickets for this show. Of course, “Lear” is bound to include some violence that might disturb more sensitive types (eyeball plucking, anyone?), but this production goes far beyond the typical. Among other things, be prepared for some… Wait, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who wants to be experience the shock with fresh eyes. Let’s just say there’s some simulated sex onstage of a type that you wouldn’t normally expect to see at a ritzy downtown Chicago theater. Not to mention those eyeballs being pulled out, the typical gun shots and stabbings and stranglings… And nudity. Oh, yeah, Stacy Keach gets naked onstage. For a few seconds, at least.

When I intereviewed director Robert Falls, he said he was using sets and costumes that evoke the recent history of Yugoslavia, though he didn’t like summing up the play that simply. He went beyond what I expected, with a fullpblown modernization of the play’s look, complete with some hip-hop references, Balkan music and a bit of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” The production opens with a view of some urinals and ends with a massive amount of debris, including wrecked cars, strewn across the stage.

I’m no Shakespeare scholar, so I always feel a little inadequate to the task of critiquing Shakespeare productions, but I can say I enjoyed this immensely. Keach was great as Lear, especially when he literally goes barking mad.

The inventive staging might bother some people – it certainly does distract you at times from the Bard’s words – but it was fascinating to see how Falls constantly came up with new and interesting ways of presenting the oft-told story.


Play review: The Unmentionables


Playwright Bruce Norris certainly knows how to push our buttons. The Norris play that the Steppenwolf premiered last year around this time, “The Pain and the Itch,” has really stuck in my mind. I think Norris may have pushed things too far with the use of child actresses in a play that discussed some disturbing topics including abuse. (The producers said the children were shielded from that, but it still made you feel queasy.) In any case, it was undeniably a work of disturbing power.

His new play, “The Unmentionables,” also disturbs. Without giving away too much, I’ll say that the audience eventually finds itself hearing some very unsettling offstage violence.

I was not entirely convinced by the reality of the play’s African setting (it’s one of those stories set in an anonymous country), but I think Norris got the essential details right, as far as the odd version multinational-corporate colonialism and corruption that seems to be endemic in Africa these days. (I’m no expert, but just watch the movie “Darwin’s Nightmare” for a real-life version of what Norris is referring to here…)

In these last two plays, Norris seems to be passing moral judgments on his characters, especially scorning white upper-class Americans. But he doesn’t cast good and evil in simple black-and-white terms. Just about everyone in this story, from the Christian do-gooders and the rich executives to the local black politicians, is compromised in some way by the end.

Amy Morton gives a brilliantly entertaining performance as the gabby Nancy – a character that initially seems a little too cartoony, but eventually comes to seem pretty real, even if she is ludicrous.

“The Unmentionables” is also notable for the way it breaks down the wall between the audience and the actors. Jon Hill, playing a young African man who comes under suspicion for crimes, abruptly begins the play by speaking directly the audience and warning that the play isn’t any good. He suggests going home to watch TV instead. The play ends with a similar monologue by Hill’s character, Etienne.

Is Norris trying to undercut the worth of his own play? Actually, these little monologues by Etienne reinforce one of the points that Norris seems to be making, that we need to listen to people like Etienne rather than lecturing them. So is “The Unmentionables” a lecture of the very sort Norris is criticizing … or a plea for an end to such lectures? That paradox may be part of Norris’ intentions.

In any case, I think “The Unmentionables” is another significant play by Norris, and one that’s well worth seeing.