‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

Tien Doman (foreground), Halena Kays and Christine Stulik (background); photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis

Talk about dreary and oppressive — Edgar Allan Poe really laid it on thick with “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Just read the with its abundance of dismal adjectives and adverbs:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

As hauntingly weird as the story is, it’s hard not to chuckle a little bit at just how over-the-top it goes with its depiction of … Well, what does it depict, exactly? It’s not exactly a straightforward horror or ghost story. More like a suffocation under layers of psychological maladies, written long before modern terms were coined for mental disorders.

The Hypocrites lean heavily toward a campy and humorous reading of Poe’s story in their new Chicago stage version, adapted and directed by Sean Graney. The three actresses intone Poe’s words in the quivering style of a creaky old-fashioned melodrama — intentionally overwrought acting that is intended to prompt laughs. And the audience did indeed laugh on opening night, even though I found it only intermittently amusing.

More interesting was the way Hypocrites’ three female cast members — Tien Doman, Halena Kays and Christine Stulik — kept switching costumes and changing roles during the play, a ruse similar to the one Charles Ludlum used in The Mystery of Irma Vep. The women don fake facial hair whenever they play the part of the melancholy host of the creepy house, Roderick Usher, and doff it when they switch to one of the other roles. Meanwhile, the play changes Poe’s unnamed narrator, a boyfriend friend visiting Usher’s home, into a woman — adding sexual tension to the situation.

The costume-swapping increases in rapidity as the play moves toward its climax, with a clever visual gag finally letting the audience in on the joke of what’s happening. In the end, all of these antics do serve a purpose beyond amusing us. They heighten the original story’s sense of disturbing thoughts permeating the walls and flowing contagiously from one person to the next. They make the characters feel like mental extensions of one another. When this adaptation of Poe’s Usher gets peculiar and creepy at its conclusion, it finally clicks.

The Fall of the House of Usher continues through Sept. 23 at the Chopin Theater. See the-hypocrites.com for details.

Chicago’s theater season off to a strong start

Chicago’s fall theater season opened over the past few weeks with a flurry of major opening nights that might make you feel the way Tribune critic Charles Collins did back in 1936. I happened the other day across this quote from Collins, who had just seen several plays on Chicago stages: “I come up from under the heavy wave of first nights … blinking my eyes and shaking stars out of my hair. This has been a surfeit of pleasures akin to a debauch…”

Let’s not go quite that far. Is the current theater season so delightful that you’d call it a “debauch”? Not exactly — but a few excellent productions of top-notch scripts are on the city’s stages.

Clybourne Park. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre.

The best of the bunch is playwright Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, CLYBOURNE PARK, which Amy Morton is directing at Steppenwolf Theatre. It’s curious that this drama, which has such a strong Chicago theme running through it, debuted in New York instead of Chicago, where Steppenwolf has premiered most of Norris’ previous plays; it feels like the play has arrived in its true home. If you’ve read anything about Clybourne Park, you probably know it’s about racial change in Chicago neighborhoods. The first act happens in 1959, showing the white family moving out of the home where the black characters from an earlier play, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, are about to move in. White flight happens in between the two acts. After intermission, it’s 2009, and whites are moving back into the newly gentrifying neighborhood. All of this may sound rather schematic, but Norris goes beyond than this superficial framework with his usual dark, lacerating sensibility and observational powers. The cast is terrific, no one more so than John Judd in Act 1, as he builds from subdued quiet to emotional, goose-bump-raising outbursts. A subplot about the deceased son of the 1950s homeowners gives Clybourne Park a haunting, tragic depth.

In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater.

Sarah Ruhl’s IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, directed by Sandy Shinner at Victory Gardens Theater, is a wise and witty dramatization of the Victorian Era’s confusion and ignorance over female sexuality. If you haven’t read much about the actual history of this topic, you may be surprised and even disbelieving of the facts — but Ruhl’s script is not far from the truth. You do wonder: Could these people have been so blithely unaware of their own bodies? But Ruhl and Victory Garden’s wonderful cast breathe life into these characters, persuasively showing people grasping for the truth through the fog of Victorian moral codes. (Victory Gardens’ production ends Oct. 9, so sorry, you may already be too late if you haven’t seen it.)

Red. Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.

John Logan’s RED, directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre, is an impressive two-man drama about art. The two men are famed abstract artist Mark Rothko and a more-or-less-anonymous assistant who’s working in his studio. The dialogue is mostly argument and speech-making, but that’s not the problem one might imagine. It’s believable that Rothko was the sort of self-important man who would spend his time making grand statements about his art. And as played by Edward Gero with glaring intensity, Rothko almost makes you believe what he is saying in the first half of the play. And then his gradually more assertive assistant (played by Patrick Andrews) is equally persuasive as he tears down Rothko’s pretense in the play’s second half. The result is a fine debate about art and commerce, with a strong emotional undercurrent. The meticulous set, a re-creation of Rothko’s studio, becomes the canvas for a breathtaking final moment of light and darkness.

The Real Thing. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Writers' Theatre.

Tom Stoppard’s THE REAL THING, directed by Michael Halberstam at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, is considerably funnier on the stage than it is on the page. Of course, that’s true of many scripts, but in this one, actor Sean Fortunato is particularly effective at bringing out the wit of his character, a playwright with romantic entanglements and some difficulties dealing with real-life people as opposed to the characters he creates in his scripts. Carrie Coon and the rest of the cast are in top form, as well. As it keeps jumping ahead in time, Stoppard’s play takes some puzzling to figure out; it may be a little too much of a puzzle. But ultimately this is a rewarding production of a thoughtful play on the intersections between art and real-life love.

The Great Fire. Photo by Sean Williams, courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre.

THE GREAT FIRE, written and directed by John Musial at Lookingglass Theatre, is a misfire, alas. It’s too jokey by half as it recounts the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, with deliberately anachronistic references to Rahm Emanuel, TIF districts and fire department radios distracting from the more authentic historical moments. Lookingglass makes its usual effective use of small props to convey big spectacle, and the show is diverting enough, but overall it feels like a squandered chance to tell the real story.

Moby-Dick. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of the Building Stage.

MOBY-DICK, conceived and directed by Blake Montgomery at the Building Stage, is a fresh and exciting take on that familiar classic American novel by Herman Melville. The roles of Ahab, Starbuck, “Ishmael” and other crew members are constantly juggled back and forth by three male and three female cast members. Whoever’s wearing a big black seafaring coat at any given moment is Ahab. But then, multiple coats appear … are they all Ahab? By refusing to assign each character to a single actor, this production sacrifices some of the emotional depth that might have resulted from more focused performances. However, the clever gambit is successful in another way, heightening the feeling of obsession, which is so central to this story of a mad sea captain hell-bent on killing a white whale. Driven forward by Kevin O’Donnell’s sensational percussion, Moby-Dick unfolds on a set that looks like a college classroom merged with a whaling ship. The play itself is a similar combination of smart lecture with fun adventure.

Getting lost in ‘Sleep No More’


I was lost in a dream for three hours one night last week in New York — wandering through the rooms of a haunted hotel, running up and down stairs as I chased after the characters from a Shakespeare tragedy, witnessing blood spilled and washed off their bodies, watching it all through the eyeholes of a white Venetian mask. This was Sleep No More, a mostly wordless version of Macbeth performed by the British theatrical troupe Punchdrunk inside a large old building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Calling it a play is insufficient. It’s part theater, part dance, part haunted house, part art installation — and one of the most incredible artistic immersions I’ve ever been through. As I say, I was lost in a dream. Of course, as with any play or film or concert, I knew at all times that I was watching (and, to some extent) participating in a performance. A game. A play. But like few performances I’ve ever experienced, Sleep No More felt like I was in the midst of some strange thing that was actually happening.

What is it? In rooms scattered across the so-called Hotel McKittrick, a dozen actors perform Shakespeare’s tragic tale, loosely adapted from the Bard’s original “Scottish play.” Audience members, required to remain silent and wear those masks (which make them appear like the orgy participants in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) are left to wander around the hotel, essentially searching for the action wherever it’s happening.

From what I was able to figure out, the action is on a sort of loop, with each actor going through the same sequence or a similar sequence three times over the course of the show. At three points, they all gather in a grand ballroom for a tableau resembling the Last Supper — and two (or maybe three?) times, they gather in the same room to dance. In between, they go their separate ways, performing scenes solo or in small groups.

This scheme has its frustrating elements. It’s impossible for any audience member to see everything happening in every room. At the end, you’re left wondering what you missed. (For one thing, I know that I missed out on the scene where the witches give Macbeth their prophecy that he will become the king.) For some stretches of time, you look around rooms where no actors are present, while action is happening elsewhere. (That’s not a waste of time, however, since the rooms are filled with curious and striking objects and decorations, which you may scrutinize almost as much as you’d like.)

To me, however, these potential frustrations are part of what makes Sleep No More so special. They reinforced the sense that I was in the middle of complex, overlapping events — which were being witnessed in different order and from different angles by each audience member. It would be interesting to see audience members compare notes after a performance, to see how they would piece together what had just happened — much like a police officer or a journalist interviewing various witnesses to an accident or crime. In fact, I did overhear a bit of this sort of discussion in the lounge at the end of the night, people saying to one another, “Did you see the part where…?”

And while I know I saw maybe a third or a fourth of everything that happened in the Hotel McKittrick, what I did see was compelling and unforgettable — especially Lady Macbeth tossing herself around her bedroom with frightening abandon, a physical expression of her character’s famous “Out, damned spot!” line. And there were several startling moments of fight choreography and dance moves that felt downright dangerous. Seeing the story in wordless, fragmented scenes turned it into a fascinating puzzle.

Putting the audience members in those masks was a brilliant idea. As you move around the hotel and watch the other audience members, it’s impossible not to start thinking of them as characters in this unfolding drama. The actors and audience members occasionally brush up against one another. At a few points, I was alone or almost alone with an actor somewhere in the building, and it occurred to me that I was getting what was essentially private performance at that moment. In the closing scene, Lady Macbeth suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd, standing next to me. I think I was one of only a few people who realized she was there. By standing next to her, and feeling her bump into my shoulder, I was experiencing this scene from a perspective unlike the rest of the audience. And I’m sure everyone else in the audience had similar moments different from what I went through.

Sleep No More makes you think about the possibilities of taking theater beyond its usual boundaries. It’s certainly not the first theatrical show to immerse an audience inside an unconventional space. Here in Chicago, Lookingglass once did a production of Mary Zimmerman’s Eleven Rooms of Proust with a similar conceit, which I missed, to my great regret. And other companies have taken a similar approach — but nothing as elaborate as what Punchdrunk has accomplished with Sleep No More.

If I lived in New York or if I had a chance to go back this summer, I would eagerly see Sleep No More again. Originally scheduled to close in late May, it has now been extended until Sept. 5. But more than anything, I am hoping that more theater companies find ways of putting on shows as ambitious, daring and unconventional as this. In the meantime, I am sure that my subconscious mind will be returning to the corridors of the Hotel McKittrick for a while when I drift off to sleep.

(Photo by Yaniv Schulman/The O+M Co.)

Barn Owl at the Hideout

Released this fall on Thrill Jockey, Barn Owl’s album Ancestral Star is a strong collection of instrumental rock — well, it’s instrumental if you don’t count the wordless vocals that blend in with the guitars on some tracks. The San Francisco duo played Sunday night (Nov. 21) at the Hideout in Chicago, making an awesome roar that was a few notches louder than most Hideout shows. One difference between Barn Owl as a studio band and a live act: The record is notable for how short the tracks are, despite their often epic qualities, but in concert Barn Owl played the full set with barely a pause — making its music sound more like one long piece. And while the album features occasional touches of instruments other than guitars, Sunday night was all about the guitars, with Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras playing off each other’s progressions to create a dark, brooding symphony of noise.
www.myspace.com/barnowlband

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The opening acts — three of them! — were well matched with Barn Owl. David Daniell and High Aura’d played similar instrumental guitar music, while Scott Tuma and his band (including Emmett Kelly and Jim White) stretched out Americana folk rock into lingering, atmospheric jams.

HIGH AURA’D

SCOTT TUMA

JIM WHITE

DAVID DANIELL

Redmoon’s comic-book-come-alive


Before the invention of movies — those sequences of still pictures that create the illusion of movement when they’re projected rapidly — audiences were entertained by other sorts of “motion pictures” and projections. A projector known as the “magic lantern” was invented as early as the 1650s, frightening viewers with ghostly, demonic apparitions. In the 1830s, artist John Banvard stirred a popular sensation by performing in front of a long panoramic painting that scrolled behind him on moving rollers. Devices such as the Kinetoscope and Zoopraxiscope, tricking people into believing they were seeing pictures move.

The newest show by Redmoon Theater owes a debt to these pre-cinematic picture shows. The Astronaut’s Birthday looks like a comic book come alive as it flashes on the grid of 18 square windows on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s front wall. At the beginning of Thursday’s performance, Redmoon Artistic Director Frank Magueri informed the audience that the show involved nothing digital.

This was not a video or film being projected in front of us. Rather, it was a series of pictures on transparent sheets of plastic, projected onto the windows from inside the museum, using the most rudimentary of devices — overhead projectors. Yes, the sort of machines you might remember your grade-school teacher using. The show also uses shadows. At some points, as we sit on the bleachers outside the museum, we see the silhouettes of the Redmoon performers inside the building projected onto those windows.

A great part of the fun comes from thinking about what the Redmoon folks are doing every minute of this show to get all of those pictures to come together on the wall in front of us. It’s like watching a movie being assembled by hand, projected in real time. And that grid gives it the look of a comic book.

The story of The Astronaut’s Birthday is just the right sort of sci-fi plot to go with these stunning visuals. It’s a thrilling ride, made all the more compelling by Jeff Thomas’ musical score and Tony Fitzpatrick’s narration. The story becomes a little vague and enigmatic as it reaches its climax, striving toward a meaningful sort of resolution without completely getting there. But this is a truly inventive and innovative show. Once again, Redmoon is creating its own sort of art, defying the usual genre definitions.

The Astronaut’s Birthday will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays until Sept. 26. See www.redmoon.org or www.mcachicago.org for details.




Photos by Scott Shigley, courtesy of Redmoon and the MCA.

Iggy & the Stooges

The Photo Pit page in this week’s Chicago Reader features my pictures from the concert last Sunday (Aug. 29) by Iggy & the Stooges at the Riviera. Click on the image below to see the online version.


After guitarist Ron Asheton died last year, I figured that would be the end of the Stooges reunion. But the band found a suitable way of carrying on, recruiting James Williamson, the guitarist who played with the Stooges on their final album, 1973’s Raw Power — and who co-wrote all of the great songs on that record with Iggy Pop. Williamson dropped out of music after that and spent 30 years in the computer business. If you Google him, one of the top photos that comes up is this one showing him in his business attire:

For the current tour with Iggy & the Stooges, Williamson strapped on his electric guitar once again, and that businessman returned to his roots as a protopunk rocker. Sounded great, too. Williamson was fairly staid as he cranked out that cool guitar riffs. The one “new” guy in the band — venerable ex-Minutmen bassist Mike Watts — was more animated, puffing out his cheeks and occasionally jabbing his bass into his amp.

Iggy Pop showed no signs of slowing down. It’s hard to believe the guy is 63. What energy! He’s still one of the greatest live performers in rock music, and on Sunday night he barely let up for an hour and a half. The Riviera Theatre (where the concert was moved after apparently slow tickets sales for the larger Aragon Ballroom) was crowded, hot and sweaty — slightly uncomfortable, but really, isn’t that the perfect environment for a jolt of raw power?

… Looking back on what I wrote about seeing a SXSW interview with Iggy Pop and Ron and Scott Asheton in 2007, here’s a nugget: Iggy said his stage antics were inspired by the dancing he saw in Chicago clubs when he was gigging as a blues drummer. “I had never seen such raw sexuality than I saw in the blues dancing,” he said, adding that he was also inspired by Big Bird.

And click here to see my photos of Iggy & the Stooges (with Ron Asheton) at Lollapalooza 2007.

What is this thing called ‘J.O.E.’?


For better or worse, the information that Redmoon Theatre puts out about its events can be a little vague. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly what this thing is that Redmoon’s doing. That can create some cool surprises, but it can also be confusing. So what is this current Redmoon thing called J.O.E., which opened Thursday and runs through Monday at South Belmont Harbor?


J.O.E. stands for “Joyous Outdoor Event,” and it’s essentially a revamped version of the play/concert/acrobatic spectacle that Redmoon performed last summer at the same location. But it’s been expanded into a festival of sorts, with daytime activities for kids (or kids of all ages, as they say), opening bands and then the main event — the play itself — starting at 8:30 p.m.


The play, or what-have-you, is Last of My Species II: The Perilous Songs of Bibi Merhdad. Last year, the show was called Last of My Species: The Fearless Songs of Laarna Cortaan, and it purported to be the debt U.S. performance by a Norwegian singer. The gimmick was the same this time, except that the “concert” was by a singer who was — um, Persian, I think. At least, that seemed to be the gist of the humorous narration provided by a character who was supposedly an Austrian musicologist.


The Chicago Reader’s Gossip Wolf column this week revealed the secret identity of Bibi Merhdad. It is actually none other than Chicago singer-songwriter Azita. It’s pretty awesome to see Azita playing a piano as she is carried into the park like an Egyptian pharaoh.


Thursday night’s performance was rather sparsely attended. Maybe it was the fact that it was a Thursday or the fear of rain. Or maybe people were unaware of J.O.E. or confused about what it was. In any case, the crowd was so spread out across the grass and bleachers that it failed to generate the sort of audience excitement that’s really necessary for a Redmoon Spectacle to come alive. I bet it will do well if the weather behaves and bigger crowds show up over the weekend. For someone who went last year, however it was disappointing to see how much of the show was a retread. Just minutes before the show was about to end, the rain came pouring down and the spectacle came to an abrupt end — as Azita, er, Bibi was trying to play a song in the rain on her piano.


The band playing before Thursday’s show was Chicago’s great soul revival act J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound (who also play Sept. 10 at the House of Blues). There weren’t many people near the stage as they played, but several of them got up to dance. Friday’s band was Ezra Furman & the Harpoons. Still coming up: Saturday, 7 p.m.: Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. Sunday, 6 p.m.: My Gold Mask, followed at 7 p.m. by SSION. Monday, 2:30: Purple Apple, followed by a 5:30 performance of the Bibi Merhdad spectacle.



This J.O.E. thing is not the only Redmoon event this month. In fact, it feels like a warmup for the next event, which is The Astronaut’s Birthday, being performed every Thursday, Friday and Sunday from Sept. 9 to Sept. 26 in the plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art. It sounds like the Redmoon artists will be making cool use of the MCA’s facade during their show.

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.
www.buildingstage.com
(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.
www.theateroobleck.com

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.
www.goodmantheatre.org

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.
www.profilestheatre.org

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)

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.