Theater 2015-16: Ever-changeable Hypocrites plan two intense musicals, three dark dramas
Fourth in a series of season previews: Musicals “American Idiot” and “Adding Machine” in the offing with the clown tragedy“Burning Bluebeard” and re-imagined “Glass Menagerie.” Curtain up Sept. 6.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
The Chicago theater company that now appears to be one thing, then slyly becomes completely different (and hence calls itself The Hypocrites), will serve up a typically careening season for 2015-16: two existential musicals framing three plays that peer deeply into the abyss of fate.
First up is “American Idiot,” based on punk rock band Green Day’s concept album about three lifelong friends who choose divergent paths to find meaning in their lives. The season closes with “Adding Machine,” a musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s play about a man called Mr. Zero who spends his life adding numbers for a company only to find himself replaced one day by a machine.
In between come three potent dramas. “The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide,” by Hypocrites founding artistic director Sean Graney, tells the story of a little boy who shoots himself and leaves behind a suicide note in the form of a play for his classmates to perform. “Burning Bluebeard,” a clown play by Jay Torrence, recalls the 1903 fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre that took the lives of some 600 people.
Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” which was stunningly re-imagined by Hans Fleishmann for Mary-Arrchie Theatre, will be revived in a further exploration by Fleischmann. He also portrays Tom, the narrator of this poignant memory play.
“When I started the company (in 1997), the idea was to create something that nobody could define,” says Graney. “We’ve done everything from Gilbert and Sullivan musicals to Chekhov (‘Three Sisters’) to ‘All Our Tragic’ (a prodigious 12-hour compendium of Greek tragedy).
“What we’re really creating is social events revolving around story-telling. Everybody can interact – the audience, the bar staff, the actors. It’s a room full of strangers having the same conversation. This is what it means to be part of society.”
Last year, The Hypocrites moved into its own space for the first time, a roomy venue at street level – no stairs! — leased from The Den Theatre on N. Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Complementing the versatile, 200-seat performing space is a large, inviting bar area modestly but comfortably furnished and decorated with bizarre charm. The whole scene speaks essentially, resonantly of Chicago storefront theater.
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “American Idiot,” with book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong (Chicago premiere, Sept. 6-Oct. 25): “American Idiot” follows three lifelong friends forced to choose between their dreams and the safety of suburbia in a post 9/11 world. The musical features hits including “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Holiday” and the blockbuster title track, “American Idiot.” A hit on Broadway and in London, the show received a 2010 Tony Award nomination for Best Musical and won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. “The music is so terrific. I’ve been dying to bring it to Hypocrites,” says Graney. “It captures the feeling of not knowing where you fit in the world – the angst and excitement of not knowing where you belong, something always being in the way, the anger and frustration of the promised American dream that’s not being delivered. How do you deal with that?”
- “The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide” by Sean Graney (Oct. 30-Nov. 8): Fourth grader Johnny shoots himself, leaving behind a play as a suicide note that the kids in his class are required to perform as a memorial. As friends and bullies assume the roles of Johnny and his classmates, a painful, darkly curious story emerges, offering a glimpse into the motivation behind the child’s actions. “I based this on the work of an 18th-century Japanese writer,” says Graney. “As the students act it out, there’s a weird tension between why they’re performing and what is gained from this tragic experience of loss. Can drama help, or not? These are weighty concepts, and it’s not intended for a young audience.” The 2004 play will be presented in collaboration with students from the theater arts department at the Senn Arts Magnet High School.
- “Burning Bluebeard” by Jay Torrence (Nov. 22-Jan. 3, 2016): Inspired by the true story of Chicago’s 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire, “Burning Bluebeard” is the story of six singed clown performers who emerge from the burnt remains of history attempting to perform their spectacular Christmas Pantomime once and for all. But this time, they hope to finally reach the true happy ending of their second act and avoid the fateful fire that killed 600 of its audience members. It’s a joyful eulogy with a sharp irreverent wit including music, clowning, tumbling, acrobatics and dance. This revival of The Ruffians’ production will include performances on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2016, the 112th anniversary of the Iroquois Theatre fire. “Using clowns is such a powerful way of getting at a deeply emotional story,” says Graney. “It’s an honest journey in a highly theatrical sense. Hundreds of children died watching a play. To convey that impact dramatically is an amazing accomplishment.”
- “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, re-imagined by Hans Fleischmann (Jan. 25-March 6, 2016): In Williams’ play, Tom, a man in middle age, recalls his oppressive life growing up in a financially pressed household with no father, a mother who holds perhaps imperfect memories of her own youth as a Southern belle and a crippled sister with very few prospects in life. In Fleischmann’s version, Tom is a man obsessed with regrets from his past. Living on the streets, he navigates his audience through the gritty back-alleys of his imagination where truth and delusion collide. “I directed ‘Glass Menagerie’ many years ago and wasn’t very confident about what I did,” says Graney. “When I saw this production, I thought, ‘Oh, he figured it out for me.’ Seeing the play as Tom’s tragedy unlocks the play in a way I couldn’t have done on my own.”
- “Adding Machine: A Musical,” adapted from the play “The Adding Machine” by Elmer Rice, with music by Joshua Schmidt, book and lyrics by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt (March 28-May 15, 2016): An expressionistic story of murder, salvation and internalized oppression, “Adding Machine” – which had its premiere at Chicago’s Next Theatre in 2007 and opened Off-Broadway the next year, winning the Lucille Lortel for Best Musical – concerns the life of Mr. Zero. He hates his wife, hates his job, hates his lot in life. After a lifetime spent adding figures for the same company, he comes to work one day to discover he’s been replaced by a machine. “Watching this man lose his humanity is what the play is about,” says Graney. “He’s not a likable character, but then you see there’s a systematic problem that’s making him this way. It’s a hard journey to go on, but the music helps to make the story clear.”
In 2014, The Hypocrites took up residence in their new home in The Den’s main stage space at 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the Wicker Park neighborhood. The 6,000-square-foot, street-level facility includes both a versatile 200-seat performing space and an adjacent bar area designed for sipping and socializing pre-show, at intermissions and after performances. Says Hypocrites managing director Megan Wildebour: “This is a perfect fit for our ever-changing audience configurations, and a place to call home. I have passed that empty clothing store at 1329 N. Milwaukee and daydreamed about turning it into a huge blackbox theater.”
- The Hypocrites official website: The-Hypocrites.com
- Review of “All Our Tragic” at The Hypocrites: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Three Sisters” at The Hypocrites: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Interview with Lindsey Gavel as Masha in “Three Sisters”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Into the Woods” at The Hypocrites: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Interview with Hillary Marren as the Witch in “Into the Woods”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Billie Joe Armstrong, Elmer Rice, Green Day, Hans Fleischmann, Jason Loewith, Jay Torrence, Joshua Schmidt, Michael Mayer, Sean Graney, Tennessee Williams, The Den Theatre, The Hypocrites, The Ruffians