Theater 2015-16: ‘Disgraced,’ 4 world premieres accent a many-splendored season at Goodman
11th in a series of season previews: Ayad Akhtar’s play about the tragic fallout of culture wars leads off an aggressive, far-ranging lineup, including five-hour adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel “2666.”
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
The new season at Goodman Theatre has the pizzazz, profusion and charm of a lakefront fireworks display. Four world premieres follow what looks like a sure-fire opener in Ayad Akhbar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” again to be directed by Kimberly Senior as it was in its Chicago world premiere and on Broadway.
Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” a blistering drama that deals with a brilliant lawyer of Middle Eastern extraction who sees his American dream blow up in his face, sets the tone for what Goodman producer Steve Scott calls a season charged with cultural diversity.
“From many points of view, these plays look at the past and ahead to the future in segments of society that we as a people don’t always deal with,” he says. “This season illustrates where we are as a country and as a culture of many segments. Leading off with ‘Disgraced’ is a perfect way to go into that.”
The first new work on tap – in an ambitious lineup of 10 shows — is Charise Castro Smith’s “Feathers and Teeth,” about a teenage girl who sees a monster in the skin of her widowed father’s new live-in girlfriend.
“Another Word for Beauty,” a freshly minted play by José Rivera with music by Héctor Buitrago, looks at the spectacle and meaning of the annual beauty pageants at a women’s prison in Bogotá, Colombia.
Also brand new, and nothing short of prodigious, is “2666,” an adaptation by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls and Seth Bockley of Roberto Bolaño’s massive 2004 novel that careens from the unsolved murders of women in Mexico to the Eastern Front in World War II and the modern-day instability of relationships and careers. The plays runs five hours.
Premiere No. 4 moves in quite a different direction. Thomas Bradshaw’s “Carlyle” is the comedic rumination of a young politician on being both black and a Republican, and how the twain met.
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar (Sept. 21-Oct. 18): Amir Kapoor has turned his back on his Islamic upbringing in pursuit of the American Dream. He’s married to a beautiful blonde woman, lives in a luxurious Manhattan apartment and is eyeing a lucrative promotion at his powerful law firm. But when Amir hosts a dinner party for his African- American co-worker and her Jewish husband, the initially pleasant evening erupts into a volatile argument over race, religion and class in the modern world. Kimberly Senior again directs. “Ayad Akhtar’s play captures the confusion of who we are in our cultural evolution,” says Scott. “We like to think of ourselves as reasonable-minded people, but we all have cultural backgrounds that sometimes overtake us.”
- “Feathers and Teeth” by Charise Castro Smith (World premiere, Sept. 28-Oct. 18): What was your greatest fear as a child? Monsters under your bed? Creatures in your closet? What if the scariest thing imaginable wasn’t an evil beast, but a person invading your home? In this horror comedy, 13-year-old Chris, is confronted by her biggest fears when a mysterious woman moves into her home and hijacks her once-perfect family life. Will she make it out alive? “All of this may be playing out in the girl’s head,” says Scott. “It’s very funny and very creepy.”
- “A Christmas Carol,” adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens (Nov. 23-Dec. 27): Larry Yando returns as tight-fisted, misanthropic Ebeneezer Scrooge in this beloved Christmas allegory about the priceless quality of human kindness. “In this fractured world, ‘A Christmas Carol’ reminds us that we’re not all separate beings,” says Scott. “We love doing it, and we take it very seriously.”
- “Another Word for Beauty” by José Rivera with music by Héctor Buitrago (World premiere, Jan. 25-Feb. 21, 2016): Each year the female inmates at a Bogotá prison compete in a beauty pageant intended by their jailers to motivate and rehabilitate them. While the pageant’s parade of glamorous gowns, exotic headdresses and rhythmic dances provides a distraction from daily suffering, its real impact on each woman is more than skin deep. Based on actual events, “Another Word for Beauty” examines the plight of imprisoned women and the circumstances that led to their arrests.
- “2666,” adapted by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley from the novel by Roberto Bolaño (World premiere, Feb. 15-March 13): A hard look at the nature of evil, Chilean-born author Roberto Bolaño’s epic story – the play spans five hours — begins with a group of hapless European academics hot on the trail of an elusive author, a search that leads them into the dark heart of a Mexican border city where the murders of hundreds of women remain unsolved. The narrative then makes internationals leaps as it shifts into a sweeping profile of the 20th century. “Bob has been working on this for five or six years,” says Scott. “It’s about a search for a elusive writer – and a serial killer. The structure is like a stream of consciousness.”
- “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder (March 14-April 10, 2016): In 1880s New York, wealthy yet prickly widower Horace Vandergelder is looking for a new wife. He recruits the services of vivacious matchmaker Dolly Levi. Little does Horace know that Dolly is plotting to become the next Mrs. Vandergelder herself. As Horace and Dolly set out to Manhattan to commence the search, a madcap mix of mistaken identity, outrageous misbehavior and spontaneous romance ensues. “Everybody knows the plot from ‘Hello, Dolly,” says Scott, “but the play is a lot more complex than that.”
- “Carlyle” by Thomas Bradshaw (World premiere, April 11-May 1): In collision of politics and culture, Carlyle Meyers is an ambitious politician facing one potentially major barrier in his burgeoning career: He is an African American in the Republican Party. Hoping to win over skeptical voters, Carlyle takes to the stage to present an autobiographical play that recounts how and why he became a member of the GOP. Etched with acid humor, Bradshaw’s play scrutinizes affirmative action, party alliance and the state of race in America. “It’s the diary of a black Republican reflecting on his life, and it’s very funny,” says Scott. “Politically, it also gets pretty nasty.”
- “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” by Lorraine Hansberry (May 9-June 5, 2016): The 1960s bohemian paradise of intellectual Sidney Brustein and his actress wife Iris comes crumbling down when Sidney buys an independent newspaper to speak out on politics and issues of injustice and corruption. Soon Sidney finds himself at odds with his artistic-minded friends and neighbors – and even his beloved Iris.
- “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976” by Rebecca Gilman (Chicago premiere, May 30-June 19): In a humorous, probing examination of workers’ rights and the effects of big business on small town lives, a wave of uncertainty spreads across the once peaceful hamlet of Reynolds, Wis., after a Chicago-based corporation acquires the town’s main employer, leaving workers and their families to fear for their livelihoods. When the merger presents one longtime employee with an opportunity, it also poses a moral dilemma. Should he accept a lucrative promotion under the new management and risk alienating himself from his longtime co-workers, neighbors and family?
- “Wonderful Town,” with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov (July 7-Aug. 21, 2016): Ruth, an aspiring journalist, and her sister Eileen, a bombshell actress, leave Ohio determined to conquer New York City in 1935. Roughing it in a dingy Manhattan basement apartment isn’t quite how the sisters imagined living, but they can’t resist the city’s bustling energy and soon find their professional and romantic dreams coming true. Powered by Leonard Berstein’s high-energy score, “Wonderful Town” captured five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it premiered on Broadway in 1953. “After (director) Mary Zimmerman did ‘Candide’ (for Goodman), the Bernstein estate suggested she look at ‘Wonderful Town,’” says Scott. “It’s really a story about how to cope in a new world with new ideas. And it’s full of big dance numbers.”
The Goodman Theatre moved into its present home at 170 N. Dearborn, in 2000. Its Loop location places the Goodman at the heart of Chicago’s cultural and dining scene. The theater offers two performing venues, the main-stage Albert Theatre and the smaller Owen.
- Goodman Theatre’s official website: GoodmanTheatre.org
- Review of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Two Trains Running” at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Interview with A.C. Smith as West in “Two Trains Running”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Smokefall” at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Venus in Fur” at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Luna Gale” at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Interview with Mary Beth Fisher as Caroline in “Luna Gale”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Adolph Green, Ayad Akhtar, Betty Comden, Charise Castro Smith, Goodman Theatre, Héctor Buitrago, Jerome Chodorov, José Rivera, Joseph A. Fields, Kimberly Senior, Leonard Bernstein, Lorraine Hansberry, Rebecca Gilman, Robert Falls, Roberto Bolaño, Seth Bockley, Thomas Bradshaw, Thornton Wilder