It's 2004 and a violent war is raging in the desert. In Afghanistan, young, fatigued soldiers fight against terror, but in a secluded West Coast mansion, a war of word wages between a strained family. Brooke, the daughter of two prominent old-school Republicans - Ron and Nancy are among the dropped names - has just written a new book. This should be cause for celebration -- she's a brilliant writer who's just emerged from a 6-year depression-fueled writer's block, but it's not the novel Mom and Dad think it is. Her brother and aunt know it's a memoir, exposing a dark, family secret, sending the five-member family into a Christmas from hell in the humid desert heat.
Whether Brooke's new work is an expose for profit or her therapeutic life's work is a question that hangs like smoke in the Chicago premier of "Other Desert Cities" at Goodman Theatre. Lauded during its Broadway debut in the fall of 2011, Jon Robin Baitz's Pulitzer Prize finalist "Other Desert Cities" is a strong exploration of the modern blurring of the public and the private lives and how money complicates the matter even further. But this blurring has become faded in its translation to the Goodman's Albert Theatre. Perhaps the bi-coastal themes (East Coast academics versus West Coast relaxers) resonate more strongly on the coasts, or perhaps the cast doesn't quite carry the firecracker power of the NYC debut, but the Chicago show doesn’t live up to the potential the script holds.
Tracy Michelle Arnold's depressed Brooke is a bit one-dimensional, and not until the final scene does it really feel as if she has fallen into her character. Deanna Dunagan and Chelcie Ross Lyman, both connected with August: Osage County (a similar family drama fueled by heat) are strongly suited to play the aging GOP matriarch and patriarch of the family. John Hoogenakker is delightful as the brother trapped in the familial crossfire. A Los Angeles reality TV producer, he is on the front lines of profiting off a family's fights, and Linda Kimbrough's eccentric substance-abusing Aunt Silda provides much needed comedic relief in the tense family drama.
But Henry Wishcamper's direction has the cast swimming around the stage throughout the one-setting play - aimless, often lacking purpose, which seems to spill over into other character choices. Further, at the opening of the play, I felt something I'd never before in a theatre: I couldn't quite hear the actors. Whether it was a technical amplification question or not, it felt like it symbolized a soft understanding of the characters rather than fully inhabiting them and sharing them with the audience. Jon Robin Baitz's script is funny and smart, and his jokes are able to overcome their sometimes soft delivery in the Chicago premier, but I couldn’t help but imagine what New York audiences saw and responded so passionately to.
Other Desert Cities is through February 17, 2013. More information at http://www.goodmantheatre.org
I felt like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket. Except my Willy Wonka’s factory was the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show and I had 15 tickets, red rather than gold.
Cake pops, cupcakes, confections, toffee, brownies, and confections of every letter lined the halls of the Navy Pier convention hall where the inaugural Chicago Fine Chocolate Show set up shop up on a cold weekend in November. The popular tourist venue had attracted “tourist” vendors from across the nation and around the block. Over 100 choco-businesses provided samples of their tasty delights and hyped their particular take on the decadent treasure of chocolate to the nearly 14,500 attendees. Businesses present ranged from small, local shops with adorable names - Puffs of Doom, Chocolate for the Spirit - to corporate empires like Fannie Mae and Dove.
While chocolate-eating was my primary concern, chocolate-making was also present. Chefs from the French Pastry School of Kennedy-King College at City Colleges of Chicago constructed intricate sculptures made solely of chocolate, and live cooking demonstrations were a feast for the eyes and stomach. But my most significant take-away wasn’t the inevitable stomach ache, but some wise advice from a man who led a chocolate and beer tasting in the afternoon.
Clay Gordon, the bearded founder of TheChocolateLife.com, has made a career out of encouragin everyone to use their taste buds to create unconventional pairings, including beer and chocolate. As an expert on neither, but a consumer of both, I enjoyed mixing and matching beers and chocolate chips, paying closer attention to the tastes I was experiencing. I learned the percentages on chocolate packages don’t speak to the quality of the chocolate, simply the ratio of cocoa to sugar and cream. It’s labeling that includes the chocolate’s origin - which farm grew the beans were grown on - that can actually shed some light onto the chocolate’s story and history. It’s the story behind the chocolate that can be as important as its taste.
After a few beer samples, I approached Clay for a quick interview. He repeated a lot from his tasting, and firmly believes in letting people discover tastes on their own and not judging less developed palettes, but what was most interesting about our discussion was the “dark side of chocolate.” Throughout his tasting, folks walked through the aisle, snooping around at chocolate, hunting for free samples. Gordon shared that at one show, someone had tried to make off with $1,000 worth of samples. The mentality for consumers at a trade show (which regrettably included me) is to stuff their faces and get their money’s worth. Gordon shared that it’s just as important to meet the people behind the chocolate, hear their stories, and respect the work that goes into starting a business and travelling to a trade show.
By the end of the 3 hours, I had an appreciation for the dedication of chocolate businesspeople and a severe stomach ache. I went home, passed out for 2 hours, and awoke as if it had all been a dream. My only evidence that I had been there was one final unused ticket, and a new appreciation for the stories behind the pieces of chocolate, which can make for the most delicious pairing of all.
While Steppenwolf occupies itself with Russian "Sisters," the Goodman is mounting a musical with sisters of a different sort. "Crowns," the soulful musical brainchild of Goodman mainstay Regina Taylor. Inspired by real-life stories of Black women and the extravagant and fabulous hats that adorn their heads, "Crowns" hits its stride about 20 minutes in when the ensemble settles into a church to tell their stories.
The women have lived with heavy topics like persecution and death, and more light-hearted travails like bickering with a husband over buying too many hats; but no matter the situation, the lesson remains the same: stay poised and proper, holding your heads up high to keep your hats in place.
Originally penned a decade ago, "Crowns" has been updated to reflect cultural shifts in the past 10 years. The new script follows a "urban" youth from Engelwood who has lost her brother; she's angsty, emotional, and, unfortunately, a bit cliche. The language and staging of her initial story remain a bit too vague to prick like specificity can. Nevertheless, the bulk of the show centers on stories around this main thread.
Plenty of humor along with powerhouse voices make "Crowns" entertaining and occasionally emotional. While an overall narrative might not move you, individual performances and ensemble numbers make the song cycle a strong performance piece. Felicia P. Fields is particularly impressive as the soulful, wise Mother Shaw. While the character of an older, wise Black women is as well-worn as a old baseball cap, it doesn't keep her from being entertaining as hell - or heaven.
Head to "Crowns" at the Goodman Theatre through August 12. For more information, visit http://www.goodmantheatre.org
A comfortable schoolteacher, an angst-ridden housewife, and an idealistic teenager walk into a house. What sounds like the set-up for a terrible joke is a roll call for the titular characters in one of Chekhov's most produced plays. "The Three Sisters," currently enjoying a nearly pitch-perfect incarnation at Steppenwolf, chronicles three Russian siblings and a cast of connected characters who come and go but never really go anywhere.
In a small town during wartime, members of the family mourn their past (a fallen patriarch), contemplate their present, and dream of a future in Moscow. The distant city is promised land of vodka and honey, but it remains a dream as characters realize they will never reach it and must find other meaning in their lives. Chekhov, a subtext slut, challenges actors with his naturalistic language, and the Steppenwolf ensemble attacks the text to bring out new meaning. Veterans and newcomers alike revel in his bluntly stated questions about life, love, and happiness.
The set contributes to the haziness of answers to these questions. A 40x15 foot frame hangs above the stage, blurring the suspended doll house estate. Combined with the proscenium, the frame allows the audience to remain disconnected from the characters and their existential questions. We watch like gods listening to their creations scream for answers, and remains silent for reasons of etiquette, or perhaps ignorance.
After the curtain call, I emerged onto Halsted with thoughts of death, betrayal, and the fear that being equally in love with someone is as much a fiction as a fairy tale. Then I realized it was 70 and sunny and went to the beach. As brilliant and moving as Steppenwolf's "The Three Sisters" may be, brooding angst and life-ponderind questions aren't well suited for swimsuits and sunshine. Chekhov is a winter writer.
Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" is checked in to the Steppenwolf through August 26. For more information, visit http://www.steppenwolf.org
Steppenwolf's season of “Dispatches from the Homefront” has travelled from Greek legend to contemporary Iraq. Now, it splits the difference and hones in on a time in America when the battlefield and homefront collided. Countless historians have told the tale of the War between the States; from analysis of military strategy to reporting of death tolls, our collective fascination with American-American bloodshed has never been satiated. But what these numerical overviews devalue is the story of the mundane individual: the nobody father weeping over his dead son, the forgotten lover sending notes to her husband-to-be, and, of course, the horny detractors who took self-serving advantage of a young nation being pre-occupied with survival.
The latter characters, Arly (the impecccable Ian Barford) and Will (the shapeshifting Stephen Louis Grush) are the comedic relief and driving force in Frank Galati's adaptation of D.H.Lawrence's “The March.” A piece of historical fiction which weaves invented characters into the preserved war record, “The March” follows a handful of personal narratives forged in a time when life and death were separated by thin lines, like stripes on a flag. Arly and Will, the dynamic duo whose bravado is only surpassed by their libido, fight on both sides of the conflict and push us forward through the plot of the war. Neither man actually existed, but by blurring fact and fiction, Lawrence offers up a sort of “People's History of America.” Fictional nobodies coexist with historical behemoths, most notably the general Ulysses S. Grant, boomibly embodied by Harry Groener.
Grant's writings are staged as soliloquies directed to the brooding mass of the audience. The tensions he faces of ordering a group of men to their death is similar to the task Frank Galati has undertaken, as he “orders” a large cast to translate an enormous war into a finite stage. The soldiers rise to their general's challenge, and “The March” is able to represent the Civil War not only in content, but form: like the war that spanned across five Aprils, the two-act epic spans almost three hours; like the bloodshed that affected millions of Americans, the play enlists an ensemble of over thirty. The piece is a strong representation of the war, but that doesn't save it from – like war – occasionally being boring. While the mundane can be imbued with profound significance, it can still come off as siply mundane. On the whole, “The March” will not keep you on the edge of your seat; it's a story that has been well-worn, but that doesn't keep it from being exceptionally well-told.
The March is stomping at the Steppenwolf through June 10, 2012. Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org.
The 2000 teen comedy "Bring It On" is a cult classic. The 2012 musical of the same name likely won't be. Borrowing the title and not much else, "Bring It On" relies on a formulaic, fairly conventional plot peppered with high-flying acrobatic cheerleading routines. It's entertaining enough, especially for the mostly younger tween audience in attendance, but when you put "the musical" in your title, you promise that story and song will be central.
The musical creates a wholly new plot from the film, although it is still a well-worn one. White head cheerleader Campbell is redistricted during her senior year to a mostly black and hispanic high school. Cue the lessons about race, identity, and being yourself. Bridget, a slightly chubby girl who provides most of the comedy in the show, excels in the new school since she's always been an outsider. Eventually, everyone learns something about themselves and a happily ever after ensues.
Throughout, the high-flying acrobatic work of the ensemble dazzles, as performers in red skirts are launched into the air almost as high as the mezzanine. A series of shifting digital screens add to the theatricality, transporting the action to different settings, whether a bedroom or basketball court, in a rather innovative way. The altogether aesthetic is a bit cartoonish, but when your subject matter is competitive cheerleading, it's hard not to venture into Looney Tune territory.
With a writing team that combines talent from Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Next to Normal, one might expect "Bring It On" to be fresh, subversive, and full of catchy, diverse, and memorable songs. Instead it is rather mainstream musical comedy, which sadly lacks any songs that stand out. When the lyrics disappoint, the choreography dazzles almost as if to distract rather than enhance the plot. What's most surprising about the book is a commendable move to feature a transgendered character in a strong supporting role. While many of the character's laughs come from just being trans, a solo power ballad reveals a the obstacles she has overcome. "Is that a boy, Mommy?" the young boy in front of me asked mid-show. I didn't catch his mother's response, but the inclusion of a trans character in an otherwise dated musical comedy certainly opened the door for a teachable car-ride conversation on the way home.
Bring It On: The Musical is at its best when the cheerleaders are flipping and twirling across the stage. The final climax of the show is truly breath-taking, and is a marvelous convergence of poppy song with powerful dance that furthers the plot. Overall, the show is an entertaining night out, but don't expect any emotional resonance to lift you off your feet.
Bring It On is bringing it at the Cadillac Palace through March 25. More information at BroadwayinChicago.com
Moving is an emotional experience, especially for a 10-year old. Thin and petite Laure and her mischievous 6-year-old sister are packed up by their parents over the summer and moved to a new neighborhood. In addition to all the stress and fears associated with new friends and a new school, Laure is mistaken for a boy. Thing is, she doesn’t deny it. “Michael,” she responds when asked her name. And so begins a summer of fantasy for the pre-pubescent, swimming without a shirt, playing basketball with the boys, and kissing a young, long-haired girl.
French auteur-director Céline Sciamma sophomore feature “Tomboy” is a soft, beautiful coming-of-age film that follows this fantastical summer and the aftermath when Michael’s mother discovers it. Overall, the family is loving -- soft shots of shared baths and tickling sessions reveal that -- but the mother’s response is heart-breaking. She forces Laure to don a dress and parades her around the neighborhood to apologize. The tour of humiliation comes to a climax when the young person is taken to the home of the young girl she has fallen for.
Tomboy follows this transformation and the consequences of a society unable to understand or support a child who is questioning their gender. The young Zoé Héran gives a phenomenal, muted performance as the young person who slips into a new identity so easily, it should be questioned whether it was a deception at all. From nail polish to G.I. Joes, gender norms are inscribed upon children before they even know how to do long division. So were Laure’s actions a lie, or was she telling the truth for the first time? Identity, whether it’s constructed or discovered, is a lifelong task. It’s messy and only becomes all the more complicated when others have a stake in yours: parents, friends, teachers, businesses. In this tug-of-war for your identity, it’s hard to find a moment when you’re truly who you are. “Tomboy” celebrates a summer apart from that harsh, cruel reality, capturing a rare moment of truth as fleeting as childhood.
Tomboy was just playing ball at the Music Box Theatre. More information at www.musicboxtheatre.com
In a hip, New York City loft (the kind where a bike hangs from the ceiling, a French press sits in the kitchen, and Mac laptops are scattered everywhere), Sarah hobbles in. Her left leg is wrapped in a brace, she uses a crutch to get around, and when the lights turn on, we see the horrifying scars on her face. She’s returning from Iraq, not where she served in combat, but as a photojournalist when a roadside bomb launched her and her cameras into the sky. The terror of war is behind her, but the emotional drama that unfolds is almost as terrifying, as her adjustment to “normal” life makes her question meaning, love, and happiness.
Playwright Donald Margulies admits in his playbill interview (Steppenwolf always supplements its on-stage productions with exceptional on-page content) that he is fascinated by the role of an artist in society: provocateur? reflecter? activist? Like a well-argued essay, “Time Stands Still” confronts the dilemma a photographer faces when they are confronted with covering a war without intervening. Sarah finds no moral qualm, but her editor’s much-younger, perhaps naiver lover is horrified. Mandy Bloom, who we learn is about to bloom with a child, doesn’t understand how someone could snap a picture of a wounded person without snapping to action to help them. This ethical dilemma, however, is a symptom of a much greater war between worldviews that these women represent: family versus career, surrounding yourself with happiness or devoting yourself to tragedy. At the extremes of the spectrum are these two women: one wholeheartedly devoted to the former, one to the latter.
Austin Pendleton directs an impressive cast that bring life to the characters, while managing tension, comedic timing, and high, emotional stakes throughout. Sally Murphy shows considerable physical range embodying the torture of a woman in recovery, and newcomer Kristina Valada-Viars is pitch-perfect as the delightfully ignorant Mandy. Francis Guinan and Randall Newsome, the men in the drama, are only neglected here for the sake of analysis, not the quality of their performances, which are bold and richly textured.
These nuanced characters are the core of “Time Stands Still,” which is essentially a domestic drama. Josh Schmidt’s ominous original score situates it against the backdrop of a painful, foreign war, but still the characters and their desires stand at the center. Even while dealing with the ethics of wartime photography, “Time Stands Still” never abandons the needs and wants of these four fictional folks. Instead, the philosophical debates grow out of human desires and conflicts. The characters are not mouthpieces for a soapbox sermon, but rather the playwright uses the characters to play out his own struggles with the role of the artist in society. When a play can bring to life compelling characters who embody larger themes, and when a production can bring texture and life to a text in a riveting, realistic way, the audience holds their breath and time truly stands still.
Time won't stand still -- this Steppenwolf production ends May 13, 2012. More information at www.steppenwolf.org.
Maybe I'm just a faggot, but "Hit the Wall" is damn good.
In the intimate Steppenwolf Garage with an ensemble of only 8, the chaos and havoc of the Stonewall Inn riots is powerfully recreated by Chicago storefront The Inconvenience. At its climax, high-energy and expertly choreographed fight sequences rumble over original rock music and hushed lights to evoke the events of that night. But what comes before are a series of beautifully written and precisely performed scenes that introduce an eclectic mix of characters with a powerful mix of heart and sass.
Playwright Ike Holter has penned a compelling piece that back on that night not with nostalgia, but with angst, regret, and wit. Amongst the cast of characters are cat-calling stoop-sitters whose fuse is as short as their shorts, a confident transwoman who moves like water through water, and a feminist propagandist who sermonizes anyone unfortunate enough to stand in her way. Each is archetype, if not a caricature, and they are paired together like swatches of fabric to see what clashes and what syncs up.
A police officer, who stands up for the entire force used on the night of the riots, becomes an obvious villain in this tale of sexual liberation. There's a heart-wrenching moment about two-thirds of the way through. Peggy, a tight-lipped stocky woman who wears a leather jacket and kisses girls, has been cornered by a police officer in the Inn. It's June 1969, and a woman dressing like a man is a punishable crime. In a shadowy corner, the NYPD officer frisks Peggy and finds not a gun, drugs, or other illegal merchandise, but breasts. He grabs them hard, and then lowers his hand into her pants to confirm his suspicion.
The move is truly reprehensible.
While some scenes following this might be cut to maintain momentum, the piece is extremely well-paced and structured. Exposition is provided by presentational, overlapping voices of the cast, reminiscent of the documentary play "The Larmamie Project." We're told just how hot it was in New York that night, and how each character "needs a drink!" after a long and taxing day. The piece's title is a play on "hitting the wall," a term in endurance sports like running and cycling for a sudden loss of energy. The characters have hit the wall of persecution, but they have sparked a battle for LGBTQ rights that is an endurance sport of its own.
Early in the play, the characters talk about the street credit that comes with claiming "I was there" on the night of the riot. I wasn't alive in 1969, so I can't say I was there when a hot night in a bar sparked a fight that still wages, but I can say I was there when a Chicago storefront debuted a powerful play that can move you to tears and laughter as it shakes its fists and its ass.
When you enter the Steppenwolf Garage through April 8, 2012, try not to Hit the Wall. More information at www.steppenwolftheatre.org.
A thin, pale boy sits in his boxers at the foot of a small, twin bed when you enter the third floor of the Flat Irons Building. He’ll be the narrator and key figure in the 90-minute story of technology, morality, and obsession. It’s a frightening tale of internet manipulation that almost ends fatally, but what is most frightening is that the story is true.
Inspired by the 2004 Vanity Fair article, “U Want Me 2 Kill Him,” Carlos Murillo has penned a morality tale of how young neurosis and technology can collide to create a digital world as dangerous as our own. In “dark play, or stories for boys” (written in lowercase like a lazy IM conversation), 16-year old Nick seduces his classmate Adam in a chat room using the gorgeous, perfect, and perfectly fake woman Rachel. In real life, this woman had no body, but this fictional female is embodied in the play, reciting the lines of text as if she is a fully fleshed character. Collaboraction Artistic Director Anthony Mosley’s staging is so engaging that you forget most of the dialogue takes place while characters sit at a computer screen. Besides being compelling, frightening, and well-acted, “dark play” is an excellent example of how technological interactions which consume so much of our contemporary lives can be meaningfully staged using traditional theatrical conventions.
Just as thespians create characters to illicit emotion, so too does Nick craft a three-dimensional digital Delilah. The difference, however, is that theatergoers are conscious of their manipulation. They may suspend their disbelief, but they know they are merely players on a stage, a fact they’re reminded of come curtain call. But there is no curtain call in the online roman in “dark play.” The truth is only revealed after a nearly-fatal ending, which appears quickly in the play, and despite being the actual event, feels somewhat false. Ironically, the strength of “dark play” is also its weakness. The climax might be real, but it diverges so far from the play’s reality that the ending feels somewhat contrived. It’s deeply ironic that a true ending feels false.
That said, the bulk of “dark play” is theatrical and entertaining, chronicling what a British prosecutor called “an Internet soap opera moving from one scene to another, each character and story line more fantastic than the last." It’s a startling exploration of a young boy’s psyche, which is all the more frightening when you realize we are only a few keystrokes away from doing the same.