Thursday, February 21, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Cadre' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo: Michael Brosilow
The World’s Stage series at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, among the best and boldest importers of international work in the city, has provided a season of struggle, iron wills and triumphant resilience with its roster of daring offerings upstairs on the pier. Hot on the tails of Belarus Free Theater’s rebellious protest, “Minsk, 2011: A Reply To Kathy Acker,” is “Cadre” (pronounced “kay-der”), playwright and director Omphile Molusi’s true-story of a young man whose life is forever by changed by the horrors of African apartheid.
The intelligence of this World’s Stage season is that the selections go beyond cultural enrichment and into a brusk immersion wherein art combats and informs volatile political happenings. “Cadre,” relayed in narration, organic rhythm and dreamlike, moaning music alongside more tradition person-to-person dialogue, has an emotional impact similar to that of “Minsk, 2011;” the oppression that these people endure is, I’m sure, wholly unfathomable to many breathless onlookers. Unlike “Minsk, 2011,” however, the craft of the storytelling in “Cadre”—a truly engaging and pure fable—is familiar to most theatergoers, in written style and barebones presentation. For me, it is warm familiarity, though, to see a darkened coming-of-age tale the likes of Mark Twain imposed on an altogether different culture and landscape.

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology' at Collaboraction

Photo: Cesario Moza
Three plays currently playing in Chicago urgently grab hold of prescient national issues both imperative and sickening: “Teddy Ferrara” at the Goodman Theatre,“columbinus” at American Theater Company and, completing the triptych, the forceful “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology,” which opened on Monday night at Collaboraction.
Besides topical relevance, what invisibly binds these brave theatrical expressions is their messages, powerful and ambiguous. Certainly, they all endeavor to create a more hospitable world and harmonious local community, but, more importantly, they understand that the “how” necessitates a proactive conversation; not finger pointing or rigid thesis statements. These shows never tell you exactly what to think, and, in so doing, stimulate lingering vigorous thought.

Friday, February 15, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Julius Caesar' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo: Liz Lauren
Photo: Liz Lauren

There is a compulsion today to jam a play’s relevance down the audience’s throat—spicing up classical texts with easily digestible contemporary settings. Too often though, what we’re left with is “Julius Caesar” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Roman politicians who speak in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, shop at Men’s Warehouse and all the while haven’t a speck of menace, greed or desire about them.
Plus, while lacking in creativity, edging closer to reality brings up a few nagging questions. In a world (and production) of guns, why stab Caesar with knives? “Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers,” right? Did the assassination air live on CSPAN? Since Casca (a sassy Larry Yando) films videos with his Blackberry, are there also metal detectors? In supplanting the play to today, plausibility becomes the antagonist, and the simple, powerful message of ambition and its dangers is all but obliterated.
Director Jonathan Munby’s “Caesar,” which opened on Wednesday night, begins with an impromptu line dance at a Navy Pier-like attraction. The crowd, novelty foam hands in tow, gradually joins in on a group electric slide, at the end of each choreographic phrase shouting “Cae-sar!” Thankfully, the lame party is dispersed by two cops, Murellus and Flavius, who shoot their pistols into the air and lecture about loyalty to Pompey. The first of a symphony of gunshots, the booms attempt in vain to compensate for the production’s inability to shake the audience with Shakespeare. Come Act V, there is even a firing machine gun.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Bengal Tiger at The Baghdad Zoo' at Lookingglass Theatre Company

Photo: Liz Lauren
Glancing above and around the stage at Lookingglass Theatre Company on Saturday night, one could spy a handful of animal topiaries of varying size and species—giraffe, rhino, bird—a kind of grass menagerie with a dual purpose. For one, it’s the livelihood and artistic respite of an Iraqi gardener-turned-translator, Musa (Anish Jethmalani, persistently disturbed). In a bold move of topicality on the part of the playwright, Musa planted and shaped this garden on the grounds of the now-dead Uday Hussein’s (Kareem Bandealy) palace.
In Rajiv Joseph’s 2003-set “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” the bright promise of a post-Saddam Iraq has not been achieved, and the violence of war and insurgency are escalating. Soldiers are afraid, citizens are terrified and, in times of fear, escape is paramount. This lifelike collection of sculptures (set by Daniel Ostling) is Musa’s escape until a horrible, scarring tragedy occurs in its midst. The dreamy garden is also a heavenly afterlife for a slain Bengal tiger. In the play’s first scene, Tiger (Troy West) is provoked by a thoughtless Marine (Walter Owen Briggs); he bites the the guy’s hand off, as is his nature, and is shot to death in retaliation. After roaming the streets, Tiger’s ghost stumbles upon the garden, convinced that it’s heaven and that God is just around the corner.
There is a certain childlike buoyancy to the leafy creatures. Alice could be exploring the Queen of Heart’s palatial compound—Bandealy’s Uday has that Snidely Whiplash brand of overblown oomph that defines Carroll’s playing-card monarch—about to play an off-with-his-head game of croquet, or more presently, perhaps we the audience have reached the eighteenth hole of a miniature golf course. But in Lookingglass’ depiction of what could be heaven—in an altogether shoddy production directed by Heidi Stillman—the result is patently underwhelming. There is no magic to the animals; they are wheeled on by stagehands in military fatigues through an out-of-place red-gold curtain, and are often left onstage to impose on the play’s grittier portions.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Disconnect' at Victory Gardens Theater

Photo by Michael Brosilow
When the cable goes out and you begrudgingly dial your service-provider’s help line, who do you imagine is idling on the other end? My mind conjures up a grimy McCormick Place with seemingly endless, tidy rows of desks, and a chorus of popcorn office phones ringing off the hook. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new call-center-set play, “Disconnect,” receiving an invigorating American premiere at Victory Gardens Theater after a debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre—perhaps the UK’s most bountiful reservoir of revelatory new plays—could have quite lazily appeased American popular perception of overseas call centers. But it doesn’t.
This call center, BlitzTel in Chennai, India, has an ultra-modern stainless steel sheen (set by Grant Sabin), and its young, fashionably dressed employees look as though culled from a Groupon. Ross (Debargo Sanyal), Giri (Behzad Dabu) and Vidya (Minita Gandhi) frequently maintain that their daily toiling is a good job and they never outright question that assertion. These twentysomething workers also have some power in the grand scheme of call-center employees; they are the ones who make the calls, collecting debt for an American credit-card company. “Disconnect,” a renegade freight train driven by director Ann Filmer, explores what it means to be a citizen of a newly global society—spending double-digit hours on the job talking only to Americans, fooling the marks into thinking you’re on their soil.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

NEWCITY - Not Just A Play: "columbinus" Revised and Revisited at American Theater Company

Photo: Michael Brosilow
By Johnny Oleksinski
“I never thought I’d go back to this play. Ever, ever,” emphatically states PJ Paparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company. He’s talking to me on the phone during a wintry transit, so there is an added emphasis to his assertion. Well, PJ thought wrong. A revised version of his eight-year-old “columbinus” opens this week at American Theater Company, also directed by him. So, why has he returned to it now? After all, the play has been done here before. When Paparelli moved to Chicago to take up the reins of ATC in 2008, Raven Theatre was in the throes of presenting the Chicago premiere of his widely produced work.
He wrote “columbinus” in 2005 with “Sons of the Prophet” playwright Stephen Karam based on interviews with high-school students around the country and citizens of Littleton, Colorado who had been affected by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The play began with a first act set in a fictional high school, and the second segued into specifically Columbine. The New York Theatre Workshop premiere was critically praised and sprouted countless productions nationally.
But when discussions for the 2012-2013 season began, “columbinus” emerged as an ideal fit for the theater’s American Mosaic program that allows over a thousand Chicago high-school students to study, perform and eventually see the play. Having come to the conclusion that “it’s so important for Chicago right now,” Paparelli planned a return trip to Littleton to hold new interviews. Shortly before he was set to depart, however, tragedy struck in neighboring Aurora.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Sweet Charity' at Writers' Theatre

Photo: Michael Brosilow
“Sweet Charity” is the pet name neurotic accountant Oscar Lindquist (Jarrod Zimmerman) gives Charity Hope Valentine (Tiffany Topol), a dance-hall hostess he’s fallen in love with after only a few dates. During their manic initial encounter on a stalled elevator, the claustrophobe is quite literally head over heels. When those two words, “Sweet Charity,” first escape Oscar’s mouth, it’s a stark moment of discovery for the guy and a huge victory for an audience who has been anxiously awaiting a knight to swoop in and give this wonderful girl his full attention. But can all that romance get too sugary?
For New York Times theater critic Stanley Kauffmann, it can and did. An Americanization of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” “Sweet Charity,” despite its steel-cold cyclical finale, was poorly received by Kauffmann in 1966 because of the familiar characters and its, well, sweetness. “The good-hearted dumb broad is one of the oldest stage clich├ęs,” he wrote after pummeling playwright Neil Simon’s book of “pattern dialogue” and Cy Coleman’s score (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) in which “there is not even a tune that one would want to remember.” Ouch.
Well, Kauffmann was reviewing a production far, far removed from the full-blooded, euphoric, soulful, no-holds-barred fantastic “Sweet Charity” that opened on Thursday night at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Director Michael Halberstam’s seductive, peripatetic revival takes the musical comedy’s titular sucrose and introduces an undercurrent of real-world misfortune, so honest and recognizably human. This is a “Charity” that resonates with everybody, but especially with those folks who are stuck in a rut, looking to make a big splashy change.