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Theater 2018-19: TimeLine cues four dramas, collaborates with feminist venture Firebrand

Submitted by on Aug 20, 2018 – 3:28 pm

Second in a series of season previews: Post-Holocaust drama launches season, Maria Callas bio-play “Master Class” follows.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

TimeLine Theatre launches its 22nd season from the company’s familiar, Janus-faced perspective on historical events: seeing human events of the past in the mirror of the continuing present.

“Our guide is history inspired by social and political issues,” says artistic director PJ Powers, “but the real driving force is showing the relevance – maintaining the tension – between history and our own time. We grapple continually with the question of what is a history play. We are, first and foremost, theater makers. But we use the lens of history to provide social context. What’s exciting for us about this season is that we’ll be taking audiences to places where we’ve never been in more than 20 years together – and experiences they couldn’t foresee when they walked in.”

One key departure will be TimeLine’s collaboration with Firebrand Theatre, a fledgling company dedicated to musicals and to the empowerment of women. The object of the partnership is the Tony Kushner -Jeanine Tesori musical “Caroline, or Change” at The Den Theatre.  Besides providing rehearsal space, TimeLine will assist Firebrand in creating the historical lobby experience that enhances every production at TimeLine. Last season at The Den, Firebrand staged a searing account of the musical “Lizzie,” based on the Lizzie Borden legend.

As TimeLine continues its search for a new home – a quest that Powers said is coming to a head – the company will again present one play at Stage 773. This season it will be Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” with ensemble member Janet Ulrich Brooks starring as the celebrated opera diva Maria Callas. The remainder of the schedule will be performed at the company’s current home, in a church on Wellington Avenue near the corner of Broadway on Chicago’s north side.

The 2018-19 season in brief:
  • “A Shayna Maidel” by Barbara Lebow (Aug. 29-Nov. 4 at TimeLine, 615 W. Wellington Ave.): The title of Lebow’s 1985 play is Yiddish vernacular for “a pretty girl.” Shortly before World War II, Rose Weiss and her father escaped Poland for America, but were forced to leave Rose’s sister Lusia and her mother behind. When the two sisters reunite in New York City many years later, Rose is confronted by an older sister who, having survived the horrors of war overseas, now seems nothing more than a stranger. And Lusia, haunted by vivid memories of her past, struggles to connect with a family she’s never known and to believe in the potential of life in a new land. “I’m often shocked to see how many millennials don’t know what the Holocaust was,” says Powers. “This play has been on my short list for a while now because of issues today: the debate about who is granted access to this country and how families are split apart. 
  • “Master Class” by Terrence McNally (Oct. 25-Dec. 9 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.): Conducting as master class of young singers, legendary opera diva Maria Callas – glamorous, demanding, and unapologetically herself – critiques and regales a new crop of aspirants. Both frustrated and amazed by the students thrust before her, she escapes into recollections of the glories and failures of her past, remembering her rise as one of opera’s biggest underdogs. It’s a portrait of a faded star who refuses to be anything but the indomitable woman she once was. “These days, when ‘participation trophies’ are awarded, there’s a big clash about what teaching methods are appropriate or effective – or out of bounds. Callas sees the goal as attaining greatness, and for that you need mentors who will give it to you straight, and you need to have open ears.” The 1996 Tony Award-winning play originally starred Zoe Caldwell as Callas, a role since taken by Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway.
  • “Cardboard Piano” by Hansol Jung (Jan. 17-March 17, 2019, at TimeLine): “Cardboard Piano” premiered as a part of the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in March 2016. At the dawn of the millennium in a darkened church in northern Uganda, the daughter of American missionaries and a local teenage girl prepare to exchange vows in a secret, makeshift wedding ceremony. But when the brutality of the war zone around them encroaches on their fragile union, the two are faced with a reality they cannot escape. Confronting the religious and cultural roots of intolerance, Jung’s play explores violence and its aftermath, as well as the human capacity for hatred, forgiveness, and love. “Jung is an astonishing young writer,” says Powers. “A key factor here is U.S. relations with third-world countries and the agenda of homophobia, even the teaching that homosexuals should be killed. When you connect the dots here, you’re into some big issues in our own country today.”
  • “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” by Jiréh Breon Holder (May 2-June 29, 2019, at TimeLine): Bowzie Brandon, his wife Evelyn and their best friends Tony and Sally-Mae see happiness on the horizon when Bowzie gets a scholarship to attend college and improve his family’s life. However, when the opportunity to become a Freedom Rider arises, Bowzie leaves his obligations as a husband and friend behind to join the fight against racism in the Deep South. Holder’s play examines the tenuous balance between security and risk, the bonds of love and friendship, and the personal cost of progress. “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” received its first reading at the Roundabout Underground, Off-Broadway, in 2016. “It’s about walking the walk to enact social change,” says Powers. “A young African American man is the first in his family to go to college. But he gives it up to join the freedom riders – to serve a higher calling. It’s about what one is willing to sacrifice personally to work against injustice.”
  • “Caroline, or Change.” Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, produced in partnership with Firebrand Theatre (opens Sept. 25 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.): Set in Lake Charles, La., 1963. Caroline Thibodeaux is a mother of four and a maid, working for the southern Jewish Gellman family. Caroline struggles with changes monumental and mundane, and her relationship with the young, grieving boy who lives in the house she cleans. The 2003 musical, which features music ranging from Motown to Klezmer and storytelling from political to magical, has received many productions, including Broadway and West end runs.

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