The New Season: Chicago Shakespeare offers a walk ‘In the Park with George’ and a premiere
15th in a series of season previews: Chicago premiere of David Ives’ “The School for Lies” joins the Bard’s “Julius Caesar” and “Henry VIII.” Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” opens Oct. 3.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2012-13 season will extend artistic director Barbara Gaines’ deep exploration of the Bard with “Henry VIII” as associate artistic director Gary Griffin adds a Sondheim encore to last year’s hit production of “Follies.” And Gaines will direct what she calls “the funniest play I ever read” in the Chicago premiere of David Ives’ comedy “The School for Lies,” a romping modern spin on Molière’s “The Misanthrope.”
Griffin, whose work on Sondheim’s “Follies” produced one of last season’s biggest hits, is directing “Sunday in the Park With George,” a fantasy sprung from painter Georges Seurat’s creation of his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.” The celebrated pointillist scene of picnickers and strollers on a sunny river bank hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Opening night is Oct. 3.
Ives’ “The School for Lies” not only mirrors Molière but follows the 17th century French tradition of rhymed couplets. Gaines will preside as well over CST’s first staging of Shakespeare’s late-period play “Henry VIII” — the royal headsman to several wives — to cap the season. The Bard’s better-known “Julius Caesar” will also be presented.
Meanwhile, CST again presents the Scottish National Theatre in two productions. Currently running is David Greig’s verse play “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” about the self-discovery of uptight academic Prudencia, told in verse couplets and ballads. The Scottish visitors also will reprise the choreographic war drama “Black Watch,” a hugely popular paean to a band of brothers that first appeared under CST’s aegis in 2011.
The 2012-13 season in brief:
- “Sunday in the Park with George,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine (Oct. 3-Nov. 4): Winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Sunday in the Park” re-imagines the creation of Seurat’s painting but also, in Act 2, fast-forwards a hundred years to find the painter’s great-grandson, also an artist, struggling with issues of self-confidence and identity. “Shakespeare and Sondheim both know a great deal about human nature and human frailty,” says Gaines. “This play is one of my absolute favorites. It’s the journey of a lonely artist – with all the chills, loneliness, savagery, joys and challenges. I’m never alone when I’m in that room with George trying to finish the hat.”
- “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” by David Greig, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland (now through Oct. 19): A supernatural, Faustian tale, “Prudencia Hart” is the rollicking, dreamlike journey of an unworldly academic that plays out among and around the audience in CST’s upstairs theater. It’s filled with Scottish border ballads and told in rhymed couplets. “The whole upstairs theater is transformed into a Scottish pub,” says Gaines, “and there’s lots of beer. Prudencia is lost in her research into Scottish folk music – only to find her life unhinged when her research springs to life.”
- “Black Watch” by Gregory Burke, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Chicago Park District’s Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (Oct. 10-21): This very physical and stirringly choreographed theater piece recalls the history of the legendary Black Watch regiment from the perspective of soldiers returned home from the war in Iraq. “The Scottish company is one we feel the deepest kinship with,” says Gaines. “They set a high bar of quality and their aesthetic is similar to ours. They concentrate on what it means to be human, the struggle it is just being alive. And they tell their stories with wonderful clarity.”
- “The School for Lies” by David Ives after Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” (Chicago premiere, Dec. 4-Jan. 20, 2013): Ives’ updated slang-fest puts a contemporary spin on Molière’s play about a man who can’t abide the social norms of hypocrisy and dissembling, but finds himself smitten by a coquette who’s the embodiment of exactly those qualities. “This is the funniest play I’ve ever read in my life,” declares Gaines, who will direct. “David called about a year and a half ago and said, ‘I want you to direct the funniest play I’ve ever written.’ It’s an insanely contemporary use of language, and a real clash of cultures. And everybody on that stage has big funny bones.”
- “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare (Feb. 5-March 24, 2013): When the lionized Roman hero Caesar seems to be at the point of accepting the Senate’s crown, and thereby turning the republic into a dictatorship, alarmed Romans conspire to murder him. Their deed leads quickly to riot, insurrection and civil war as Caesar’s friend Mark Antony adroitly turns the populace against the assassins. “That murder changes lives forever,” says Gaines. “You don’t realize the tragedy that’s about to happen when you pull the trigger. Shakespeare is saying you could have all your great reasons for killing Caesar, but there has to be a better way.”
- “Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare and possibly John Fletcher (April 30-June 16, 2013): Commentaries on this very late play in the Bard’s canon often note the express absence of “bawdry or merriment.” Perhaps the play’s directness helps to account for its being less regularly produced than any of Shakespeare’s other histories. CST, for example, has never before presented “Henry VIII.” Still, Gaines, who has directed most of the Shakespeare canon, insists “there’s a hell of a lot to be gleaned here about the human condition and about unchecked power.” Until the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in 1623, this portrait of the father of Elizabeth I was known by the title “All Is True.” Observes Gaines: “That’s totally ironic. Most of the evidence suggests that (Henry’s reign) was a fabric of lies.”
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, marking its 26th season, received the 2008 Tony Award for best regional theater. It is located 800 E. Grand Ave., on Navy Pier.
“We are excavators,” says Gaines of CST’s mission. “All these plays – including ‘School for Lies’– dig deep into the truth about who all of us are. We want to tell great stories and be really entertaining. Shakespeare wasn’t pedantic and I don’t think we should be. We are all searching. The arts open up our journey and make it easier to understand and to forgive.”
- Performance details and ticket info: Find it at ChicagoShakes.com
- Review of the 2011-12 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Elizabeth Rex”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com