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Tuesday, 26 May 2015 00:00

Review: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

What a thrill to see a costume piece with moderately contemporary dialog. Charles Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" premiered during the height of theatrical decedance in the 1980s. Razor sharp wit borrowed from Laclos' 18th century epistolary novel about sexual conquest among bored aristocrats make this an extremely titillating and provocative piece. Just reading the text is tickling enough. The play garnered critical praise on Broadway, and was followed by an even more successful film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

AshtonRep bites off a bit more than they can chew with their current production at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. The problem with this production is casting. The role of the conniving Marquise de Merteuil is played with cool dignity by Sarah Pavlak McGuire, her composed cruelty is fascinating to watch. Unbalanced co-star and AshtonRep founder Robert Tobin takes up the role of Valmont. It's imperative that Valmont be a suave casanova, one who ebbs sex appeal. Tobin is neither. He also tends to misplace the dialog. He often delivers his lines with a confusing modern inflection on purposefully crafted antiquated phrasing.

Director Charlie Marie McGrath makes an interesting choice by changing the time period from pre-revolutionary France to pre-revolutionary Russia. Though, for what reason? Hampton's script leaves the audience with a powerful image conjured by projecting the silhouette of a guillotine on the background. It feels like a missed opportunity not to give this play the full depth it needs. The staging is well-conceived, running with the idea of a chamber drama, having the curtains drawn to accent scenes like storybook chapters.

All in all, AshtonRep presents a faithful production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It's an ambitious play for an emerging theatre company to take on, but there is a great deal of chemistry between the female ensemble here. Hampton's script is sturdy and holds up well in an era in which most people are more familiar with the teenage re-telling "Cruel Intentions."

Through June 21st. The West Stage at Raven Theatre Complex. 6157 N Clark St. 773-828-9129

Published in Theatre Reviews

If you are Jewish, you will especially appreciate and love this play which is full of biting humor and keen observations about how modern day Jews define themselves philosophically and how that vision of themselves plays out in their family relationships.

“Bad Jews” is set in a beautiful New York pied de Terre or studio apartment on the Upper West Side of New York bought by the parents of brothers Liam and Josh and they are being visited by relatives following the death of their beloved grandfather

Their first cousin Diane Feygenbaum is a rabbinical student with an Israeli boyfriend who insists on being called by her Hebrew name Daphna a has to share the studio with them for a few nights and is outraged by the fact that spoiled cousin Liam has actually missed his grandfather’s funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen.

During the course of the play we find out that Daphna is very intent on inheriting the gold Chai (Hebrew for the number 18, and symbol of Life) medallion necklace worn by her grandfather during the holocaust. In fact, he had to hide it under his tongue for two years in the Holocaust death camp he was kept in while the rest of his family members were killed. It turns out Liam has a plan to give the medallion to his “shiksa” girlfriend instead of an engagement ring just as his grandfather gave it to their grandmother 50 years prior.

A ferocious verbal fight breaks out and the true feelings of each cousin for the other and their Jewish values, or lack thereof, pour out with the fury and passion that sometimes occurs particularly after the death of a loved one.

Liam, played by Ian Paul Custer and Daphna played by Laura Lapidus are both hysterically on point in their portrayals. The fantastic monologues for these two characters, written to perfection by Harmon and well directed by Jeremy Wechsler are cutting but truthful, funny yet excruciatingly honest.

Non-Jews will find this play funny and full of Jewish stereotypes handled with great political correctness. Jews will see themselves in all their self hating and neurotic glory, with intelligence bursting at the seams.

I think Daphna could have been played with a little bit more compassion and a little less self righteous bitterness. At one point she mentions poignantly her education about the holocaust and her grandfather’s “tattoo’” or concentration camp number burned into his arm.  We realize as an audience just how deeply touched  and perhaps scarred emotionally a sensitive child is by being thoroughly  exposed to the horrors of the holocaust at the tender age of 13 , as every Jewish child who studies for a bat mitzvah is required to do.

There are a lot of self-hating Jews out there. I was one of them for a while, in part because of the patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes towards women in the Old Testament that Liam brings up during the play to combat Daphna’s self righteous religious rants. Ironically, it took the realization that Jesus or “Yeshuah” (Jesus’ Hebrew name) was the greatest Rabbi, indeed the greatest Jew who ever walked the earth that made me the proud, comfortable, self loving Jew I am today.

The title by Harmon, “Bad Jews” is both eye catching and absolutely perfect because by the end of the play it is clear there are no bad Jews, only good Jews who are internally judging themselves or being judged by others too harshly.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Wechsler, I highly recommend this thought provoking and hysterical piece of theater for its brilliant writing and two fantastic performances created lovingly and delivered with mind blowing rapid fire delivery by Lapidus and Custer.

“Bad Jews” is being performed at Theatre Wit through June 7th. I highly recommend this play. For tickets and other info visit www.theatrewit.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews

“Jersey Boys”, currently playing at Cadillac Palace, is the story of the Four Seasons and their journey from Newark, New Jersey to becoming a multi-million record selling group. I went to the opening night expecting an entertaining performance, but really, unsure of what lied ahead. I imagined the audience to be a little older, and it was, but there were a surprising number of young attendees as well. It even looked like it was close to a full house. Before seeing the performance I didn’t know much about the story of the Four Seasons, but I did know their hit song “Sherry”.

All I can say is, “Oh, what a show!” “Jersey Boys” is a thoroughly entertaining show right from the get go. The opening consists of a French band’s cover performed in 2000 of Four Seasons’ “Oh, What a Night”. The song set the tone for how their music transcended to younger generations well after the band broke up.

The first character you meet as the band’s history unfolds is Tommy DeVito, played by Matthew Dailey, who was the leader of the iconic group. You can’t help but to be drawn to this character; he is very powerful and commands the stage - and has a pretty good Jersey accent. Hayden Milanes who plays Frankie Valli, has a beautiful voice and does a fantastic job recreating the legendary voice we have become so familiar with over the years. And here’s a Four Seasons factoid - Joe Pesci, yes that Joe, was the one who introduced Frankie Valli to the group.

In addition to the amazing actors’ voices, one of the best scenes in the play is when the band performs on television. The group is shown filming for a show while simultaneously playing a live feed from an overhead screen on stage. Older images flash onto the backdrop and the design team does a great job of reducing the quality of film to mimic that of the sixties.

The show doesn’t have any set props on stage. The actors pull up a table or chairs every now and then for many scenes but is very limited. Instead, the show relies on graphics displayed on a large screen to set the stage. And although some of them work well, I found myself to be distracted by some of the art. Some of the images just don’t fit the sixties which threw off my attention.

What really captures the essence of the band is their songwriter Bob Gaudio who is played by Drew Seeley. Gaudio is a gifted musician and wrote many of the band’s hits including but not limited to “(Who Wears) Short Shorts”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, and my favorite “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”. It is rare to find many artists today who write their own music making it refreshing to be reminded of the raw overall talent of this great band.

“Jersey Boys” covers gambling, infidelity, children, excess of money, and death. Director Des McAnuff is able to capture many of the things that I appreciate in a musical without getting too heavy. After a slew of brilliant performances and one favorite played after another, the show ends with everyone, including the audience, singing along to the Four Seasons’ anthem “Oh, What a Night”. I, for one, left “Jersey Boys” walking like a man and in a really good mood.

I highly recommend attending “Jersey Boys” at the Cadillac Palace before it leaves on May 24th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Published in Theatre Reviews

If you come with a dollar you may just leave with two. However, if you are not careful, you could also lose the shirt off your back. In the Neo-Futurist’s latest endeavor “Trust Us/Screw You” we cautiously enter the world of the confidence man, as we meet the mark, the roper and the inside man. Created by Phil Ridarelli and Dan Kerr-Hobert, we follow the evolution of the age-old grifter from the 1920s to the deception that exists on massive scales today by banks, media and stock markets.  

Ridarelli and Kerr-Horbert also star in this production which is considered a two-man show, barring an occasional plant and a band whose members also contribute in a variety of roles. “Trust Us/Screw You” has a rich, vaudevillian flavor and is often reminiscent to The Three Stooges as the fast-talking Ridarelli and Kerr-Horbert size up one of their targets before hitting them with the swindle, ala Moe, Larry and Curly.

In "Trust Us/Screw You” the audience gets a close-up look at many of the scams confidence men were known to use in taking advantage of the average, unsuspecting Joe before fleecing their victim dry. An assortment of social experiments are used with audience members as the two “work” the crowd with seemingly simple card tricks, nutshell games and other scams using the art of misdirection – the key to all successful cons.

Seasoned acting pros Ridarelli and Kerr-Hobert are hypnotic and work incredibly well together in re-creating these old school hustlers (they always work in teams as we learn), paying special homage to one of Chicago’s most notorious confidence men, Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil. The show is filled with one hilarious moment after another as the two victimize its clueless audience one susceptible mark at a time. As the show progresses, stories are shared regarding the scams they personally fell victim to from subway swindles to real estate deceit, likening the process and its players to a play whose cast of characters put on a show of smoke and mirrors for gain at a sucker’s expense. With that in mind, as funny as the sketches are portrayed, “Trust Us/Screw You” is also a learning experience, or perhaps a bonding experience for all those who have been victimized in the past – most likely each and every person in the theatre.    

Said Ridarelli and Kerr-Hobert on the creation of “Trust Us/Screw You”, “We knew that if we did a show about con men, we’d have to do our best to screw over the audience. That’s been our goal since day one, and hopefully, we can pull it off in a way that the audience won’t go home hating us.”

The show is quick-paced with a ton of laugh out loud moments and the atmosphere so warm and welcoming that one gladly volunteers to be dragged onto the stage to participate when called for rather than slink into their chair to avoid the possible embarrassment. It is also engaging and educational as we learn the mechanisms, techniques and lingo of the American Confidence Man.

“Trust Us/Screw You” is a highly entertaining experience that might leave you with an empty wallet (kidding) but will certainly send you home having had a thoroughly enriching time with more laughs than you can handle. “Trust Us/Screw You” is currently playing at The Neo-Futurium. For tickets and/or more information visit www.neofuturists.org or call 773-275-5255.         

                                                                   

Published in Theatre Reviews
Monday, 27 April 2015 00:00

Review: A Coffin in Egypt

A legend in her own right, Frederica von Stade graces the stage with poise and perfection in Chicago Opera Theater's "A Coffin in Egypt". A veteran mezzo-soprano, her performances, recordings and television specials have garnered her six Grammy nominations, a cascade of European awards and recognition, and even an award from President Reagan in 1983 in recognition of her significant contribution to the arts.

The story presented in the opera comes from a tale by revered American dramatist Horton Foote, who's often seen play "The Trip to Bountiful" exemplifies his recurring themes of family, community and the triumph of the human spirit.

Ricky Ian Gordon, award winning composer, crafted this opera specifically to showcase Ms. von Stade's virtuosity. The opera was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center, and Opera Philadelphia.

Bringing together a wealth of skill and experience, unfortunately this show lacks a riveting climax. Essentially it is a monologue of a dying woman, ruminating on the memories and men that shaped her life. Sprinkled with a few strong songs, the majority of the music is asynchronous and wandering. The music stays mostly at the lower end of Ms von Stade's range, disappointing since her most beautiful moments are in the higher, longer notes where her voice is free and stunning. This is ironic and disappointing considering that this is supposed to be a piece to showcase her talent.

Although her emotions revolve constantly as she fixates on each memory, the lighting is too static and realistic to reflect, enhance or build her moods. The lighting did however enhance the boredom that grew until the curtain fell.

The set was charming however, reflecting the place and the lady's emotional turmoil with a simple and elegant design. Veteran scenic and costume designer Riccardo Hernandez met the challenge of being both scenic and costume designer for this production with success! Mr. Hernandez has also collaborated with the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago as well as in Paris, Norway, and the Moscow Art Theatre.

Chicago Opera Theater presents Ricky Ian Gordon's "A Coffin in Egypt" April 25 through May 3 at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph). Tickets are now on sale at chicagooperatheater.org.

Tw@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews

Buzz News' Kimberly Katz talks with M. Night Shayamalan at C2E2 in Chicago on his new Fox series Wayward Pines starring Matt Dillon

Published in BuzzBlog

When it comes to family, can there be boundaries crossed to which mercy and forgiveness should no longer considered? And should this barrier be traversed upon, is it even possible to wholeheartedly exonerate those who do even if one wants to? In Rory Kinnear’s debut play The Herd (aptly named for so many reasons) these questions are raised as we are confronted with a fractured family, presumably from an upper-middle class suburb in England, who get together to celebrate Adam’s twenty-first birthday. Adam is disabled and has the mental function of that less than a one-year-old, much like writer Rory Kinnear's adult sister, thus the seed of inspiration for this hard-hitting dramedy that perfectly utilizes the perfect amount of comic bite to ease the tension and often uncomfortable moments in this well-crafted story. Though Adam has recently been institutionalized and home visits have become a rarity, his presence is strongly felt throughout even though we never see him. 

Three generations of family have converged at Adam’s house as they await his arrival from the hospital via his caretaker. His mother, Carol, frantically races around to make everything perfect and her parents (superbly played by the great John Mahoney and Theatre Hall of Famer Lois Smith) are patient and ever optimistic of the day’s events. Adam’s thirty-two-year-old sister Claire has brought her new boyfriend over to meet her family and has some other news of her own to share. We soon learn how much Carol has sacrificed in her life to care for Adam and the stress that comes with such a burden. Yet it is also apparent it is a burden of love. Molly Regan is a turbine of passions and steadfastness in her portrayal of Carol, making a tough role appear seamless.

In anticipation of Adam’s appearance, balloons, party favors, a large birthday cake and happy faces all around seemingly provide a happy environment but that quickly changes when Adam’s father, Ian, who abandoned the family some time ago, shows up unannounced. It doesn’t take very long before layers are quickly peeled between he, Claire and Carol soon becoming an emotionally charged free for all.

As internal issues come to a head between the three, it is Carol’s parents, Brian and Patricia, who attempt to douse the flames whether it be by way of humor or simply sound observation. It is refreshing to see how the grandparents assert themselves as the voice of reason in this story as Kinnear places an obvious importance on the wisdom of elders in an age where the aging are so often disrespected and disregarded.

the-herd1

The way humor is so often used as an escape for such heavy subject matter in Kinnear’s “The Herd” is very true to life. He is not afraid to joke about death nor is Kinnear afraid to tap into the unpopular inner thoughts we might have, such as wondering if Adam’s death will allow Carol to live again. Smith’s sharp waggishness along with Mahoney’s spot on comic delivery only strengthen already strong characters that we can quickly trust and rely upon.

As the play nears its end, we are hit with the decision of whether to forgive or not. Frances Guinan makes a compelling case as Ian and, though he opens up and lets himself become vulnerable in seeking forgiveness and once again gaining acceptance, we wonder if he can be trusted despite his apparent sincerity. Guinan is marvelous as he rolls up his sleeves and, as he does in so many roles, really puts his heart and then some into his performance as Ian.  

Kinnear’s “The Herd” at Steppenwolf is highly recommended. Its all-star cast, engaging dialogue, moving story and elaborately designed set all contribute into making this a nearly perfect theatre piece.

“The Herd” is playing at Steppenwolf through June 7th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.steppenwolf.org.   

Published in Theatre Reviews

If RENT made a baby with an episode of Dateline, the result might be something like Murder Ballad, the musical. This rock opera tells the story of a love triangle gone out of control, and there is much in the way of drama, energetic pop/rock anthems, suspense, and -- you guessed it -- murder.

In New York City, Sara is an Upper West sider who seemingly has it all: money, a good husband, a beautiful daughter, but she also harbors a dark, destructive past that was never fully left behind. When she reconnects with her unpredictable ex, Tom, her life takes a turn towards the chaotic and explosive.

The audience is launched head-first into the story as the four-person cast of Murder Ballad belts and wails their way through 75 minutes of frenzied rock numbers, strung together by a crooning fly-on-the-wall narrator. A unique element of this show is the voyeuristic set-up and theme. Essentially, you are sitting in Sara's kitchen, and Tom's bedroom, and the King's Club, the divey downtown joint that serves as the homebase for this tale. You're not onstage or offstage, you're sharing the space with these folks. You can even order a complimentary drink at the bar before showtime, then take a seat with your friends to hungrily watch the plot unfold. Because after all, to paraphrase from the show's finale, drama is delicious entertainment, "until it happens to you."

Murder Ballad, created by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and directed by James Beaudry, is playing at the Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave) until May 9th. Tickets available at bailiwickchicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 04 March 2015 00:00

Review: This Is Modern Art

Five years ago, anonymous graffiti artists caused quite the hubub at the Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute when they "bombed" a major wall of the wing. Their message was clear: THIS is modern art. While a clever, powerful statement, and seemingly jabbing at the art that resides within the walls of the modern art wing, it presents a paradox: Isn't graffiti, by definition, a rebellious art? Would graffiti still be as powerful and compelling if it were inside the museum rather than outside?

This Is Modern Art, written by Kevin Coval, attempts to answer these and hundreds of other questions regarding high art versus common art versus street art and so on. The play, while neither a knuckle-whitening drama nor a belly-clenching comedy, merely seeks to educate the viewer on this commonplace, yet mysterious, art form. You'll learn the differences between "tags," "stickers," "throw-ups," and "pieces," short for "masterpieces." You'll learn the names of dozens of Chicago graffiti artists, or "writers" as they're called. You'll see what goes into "bombing" -- spray painting an urban canvas as much as possible without getting caught -- a city location, the preparation that needs to be done, the items to have, the backup plan, the lookout, the logistics... it practically gives you a how-to guide.

We pass by graffiti every day in this city. Some of us may see it as an eye sore that should be scrubbed away, as vandalism, as criminal activity. Conversely, some of us may see it as art that makes the city more vibrant and beautiful, as spontaneous creativity, as colorful accents on a gray urban backdrop.

But what does this art say? What does it do? It wants to be respected and appreciated, surely. It wants recognition from those who decide what belongs in a museum and snub it as low art. But does graffiti even want to be in a museum? In and of itself, graffiti is rebellion. It's anti-establishment. It's instant social/political commentary. And it's fleeting, temporary. If the Art Institute commissioned a graffiti writer to fill a wall inside the museum, could this still be considered graffiti? Or would it lose the essential qualities that make it graffiti art?

Maybe the point isn't to be in a museum; maybe graffiti seeks to dismantle these labels and present the notion that art should be free and accessible to everyone. Maybe, and most likely, it just wants to get us talking, and if we are, then it has done its job.

This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is playing at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre through March 14th. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or by calling 312-335-1650.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Though Jackie Robinson is heralded as the first African-American baseball player to participate in the Major Leagues, more than a half of century earlier Moses Fleetwood Walker challenged the color barriers by integrating the game of professional baseball in the year 1884 when the Toledo Blue Stocking were admitted into the league.

As James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues puts it, "Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."

Moses Fleetwood Walker was much more than a baseball player. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author and a dedicated family man who achieved a wealth that was very uncommon for African-American men at such a time. Though that is interesting enough in itself, The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is the story of a black man put on trial for murder when most were still met by lynch mobs for their alleged crimes – especially to a white man. “Fleet” as he was frequently called by friends and family, was accused of stabbing a white man to death during an altercation outside a tavern. Alleging he was confronted and threatened by a mob of angry white men, he claimed has actions were in self-defense. Of course, the other side has a completely different story to tell and we are soon emerged in the trial of the decade that takes place in Syracuse, New York and is manned by an all white jury.

Playwright Ervin Gardner is able to use actual court transcripts to bring this remarkable story to life. And though some of the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges in places, the story is compelling enough to keep us on our toes. The direction by Jackie Taylor is strong and really capitalizes on key moments while Nick Ferrin, as Fleetwood Walker’s sharp-as-a-tack defense attorney, puts on a brilliant performance displaying a wit, passion and even charm, characteristic of the hero we can’t help but cheer for.

In the Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker we get a glimpse of late nineteenth century racial tensions and see both liberal and racist views. In this powerful courtroom drama we also get a rich lesson in humankind as the play goes beyond the color of one’s skin and identifies people as individuals.

After hosting a handful of very well done musicals (“One Hit Wonders”, “The Marvelettes”), it is still a nice change of pace to see The Black Ensemble Theater go back to the biography drama though the house band provides a nice touch adding the perfect, mood enhancing background music.

The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is not just engaging throughout, it is also an important story in our rich American history that most probably have never even heard. Playing at The Black Ensemble Theater through March 15th, this is a show to keep on your radar. The Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark Street in Chicago. For tickets and/or more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org.

*Photo - Nick Ferrin (Harrison Hoyt), Casey Hayes (A.C. Hancock), Andre Teamer (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Leslie Collins (Arabella Walker)

Published in Theatre Reviews
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