Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Second in a series of season previews: Sandy Shinner, in her sixth season as artistic director of Shattered Globe Theatre, describes a common thread running through the company’s new season of three plays as “seeing the world in a new way.” One’s personal world, she means, of course: “You think you know where you stand, then something happens and you have to recalibrate.” Shattered Globe opens with Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Be Here Now,” an edgy comedy about a confirmed nihilist whose peculiar crisis is finding happiness.
Review: Before the scripted play begins in the Shaw Festival’s searing production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the actor who will play the trapped, desperately yearning Tom Wingfield performs magic tricks for the audience. Wearing a knitted cap, he looks like a street person. Maybe we aren’t looking at a prelude at all; perhaps this is the epilogue – the fate of an aspiring poet who ultimately flees from his dead-end life as sole provider for his domineering, erstwhile Southern belle of a mother and his crippled, withdrawn, psychologically damaged sister. ★★★★★
Review: The woods are as menacing as ever, but the production of “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical fairy tale currently running at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, is utterly luminous. Sondheim and Lapine pulled off a miracle with their 1986 show, deftly exploring the deep philosophical and moral questions lurking below the surface of a seemingly frothy mashup of fairy tales featuring, among others, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and a wily witch. ★★★★★
First in a series of season previews: Contemplating the diverse and intriguing 2019-20 series of plays underway at Writers Theatre Artistic director Michael Halberstam sums up the challenge of programming and its progression from year to year. “I’d like to think we learn something every season,” he offers with unembroidered simplicity. “We want to be in tune with the times, to reflect the moment – to present a genuinely diverse season.”
Review: When the full, remorseless malevolence of Shakespeare’s villain Iago spills across the stage, it can be hard to find the title character in “Othello.” But even pitted against Gordon S. Miller’s sinister nemesis in the Stratford Festival’s current production, Michael Blake brings front and center both the heroic stature and the tragic vulnerability of a great general brought down by a handkerchief. ★★★★★
Review: Oliver Goldsmith’s broad comedy “She Stoops to Conquer” has been around for nearly 250 years, one of the few 18th-century British plays to hold the stage in this country despite the great displacement of time and place. Charming, LOL funny and warm-hearted, “She Stoops to Conquer” is a smashing success at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. It’s an ensemble coup but also a particular triumph for Laura Rook as an aristocratic girl who sheds her fine mantle to win the heart of a hopelessly shy peer. ★★★★
Review: “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” an obscure play by Tennessee Williams from late in his life, serves up a touching, trenchant, typically insightful and empathic look at aging womanhood – four women in this instance – in a production at American Players Theatre that reveals a hidden gem by the incomparable singer of America’s Southern song. ★★★★★
Review: It’s a surreal encounter and also a never-ending story, Sam Shepard’s slugfest of a play “True West,” which sprawls across the stage at in a lusty, mad and magnetic production at Steppenwolf Theatre. The tattered remains of actors Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, who had just endured a mutual pummeling as contentious brothers unexpectedly and most unhappily reunited, shared in bravely earned applause at the show’s opening July 16. ★★★★
Review: American Players Theatre, now in its 40th summer of primarily outdoor productions in a charming little arena in the hills of Spring Green, Wis., some 30 miles west of Madison, has always regarded Shakespeare as its badge of honor, reference point and indeed its reason for being. That tradition is manifest in a spirited and sure production of “Twelfth Night,” but a dubiously conceived and oddly cast “Macbeth” betrays this excellent company’s allegiance to the Bard. “Twelfth Night” ★★★★ “Macbeth” ★★
Review: Redtwist Theatre, the fearless vest-pocket company in Edgewater, winds up its season, the last for co-founder and artistic director Michael Colucci at the helm, with its first venture into Shakesespeare: a lean, uneven “King Lear,” but one altogether imposing in Brian Parry’s assured, fierce and affecting performance in the title role. ★★★
Review: Yes, my friends, we got trouble, right here in Windy City. I’m talkin’ about a Goodman Theatre production of “The Music Man” – a musical, the last I heard – that’s about as musical as Amaryllis’ cross-hand piece at the piano. And by the way, the show also lacks an actor in the title role with a real feel for that two-bit, gol-dang, smooth-talkin’, tin-horn, two-timin’ salesman: someone, in short, who knows the territory. ★★
Review: It’s hard to say which was the more remarkable, music director Carlos Kalmar’s sheer chutzpah in programming Beethoven’s monumental and indeed daunting Missa Solemnis for the Grant Park Music Festival or the thrilling success of the June 28 performance by all the vocal and instrumental forces involved.
Review: The ingredients of Steven Levenson’s brutally honest play “If I Forget” are the stuff of human frailty: hubris, folly, hypocrisy, naïveté, denial. All compacted into one dysfunctional family, and sharply etched in a riveting production at Victory Gardens. ★★★★
Review: The scene on the perimeter of Millennium Park in the early evening of June 20 looked a lot more like Lollapalooza than the turnout for a prodigious cello recital. The gathering throng was lined up for blocks, down Michigan Avenue and around the corner and up the Monroe Street hill – 20,000 enthusiasts patiently waiting to filter through security for a rare event, maybe the opportunity of a lifetime: to hear Yo-Yo Ma play J.S. Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello in a non-stop, two-and-a-half-hour immersion.
Preview: American Players Theatre, nestled in the woodland hills near Spring Green, Wis., about 30 miles west of Madison, rolls out its 40th summer June 15 with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Shaw’s “The Man of Destiny,” to be followed by seven more productions during a season that runs into early November. Says artistic director Brenda DeVita, now in her sixth year: “Our job is not to preserve, but to create. We are always changing.”
Preview: It’s a big-numbered year for the Grant Park Music Festival, which opens June 12 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Not only does 2019 mark the free festival’s 85th anniversary, but it’s also the 15th summer for the Pritzker Pavilion and the 20th season at the festival helm for conductor Carlos Kalmar. Not surprisingly, Kalmar wanted to do grand things. The result measures up. The word for this celebratory season is Big.
Interview: Maurice Jones, who plays the title role in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current production of “Hamlet,” apparently made quite an impression at his audition. Actually, he overshot just a bit. He was trying out for the supporting part of Laertes. Jones had never played Hamlet, but when the actor who originally won the job had to back out, CST artistic director Barbara Gaines, who also directs this show, asked Jones if he’d be game to step up – and take on one of the greatest and most challenging roles in theater.
Review: Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which begins with an outrageous and apparently unprovoked display of jealousy by a king toward his beloved wife and their best friend, works in its most problematic moments with rare plausibility and conviction thanks to director Robert Falls and an impeccably gauged performance by Dan Donohue. Yet the Goodman Theatre production also goes off the rails where the going seems easiest – in broad comedy. ★★★
Review: The piano was at center stage, and all seemed right with the world in the happy, normal – actually, quite thrilling – aftermath of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s protracted strike. Many an anticipated concert got wiped out by the strike, but the timing favored two pianists who happen to be favorites at Orchestra Hall: Mitsuko Uchida, who gave a memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with the CSO under Riccardo Muti (May 9-11), and Evgeny Kissin, who offered a typically thoughtful, brilliant and roaringly received recital May 12.
Review: By now, Lyric Opera of Chicago can claim an impressive string of spring musicals, hugely popular explorations of classic Americana that appear like shining exclamation marks at the end of regular opera seasons. The latest, “West Side Story,” well may be the finest. Indeed, you might be hard pressed ever to find a more profoundly satisfying account of this exquisite music-drama, which shares with its model, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” both its bittersweet hope and its timeless tragedy. ★★★★★
Review: O say, can you see – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is back, its seven-week strike over, music on the stands and music director Riccardo Muti once more presiding from the podium. To a whooping, standing-O reception, the CSO roared back into action at Orchestra Hall on May 2 with a performance that made clear the orchestra, in a twinkling, was all the way back: a full-fledged do-over. And lest anyone miss the point that, even at the three-quarter mark of the season, this was in spirit a restart, Muti began with a flick of his baton for a drumroll and struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Review: The much that is good about Chicago Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is very good indeed, starting with Maurice Jones’ rigorously thought-through and yet convincingly spontaneous performance as the melancholy Prince of Denmark. But unevenness among the rest of the principal roles takes a toll on this enterprise under company artistic director Barbara Gaines. ★★★★
Review: Salter’s little boy was perfect. Beautiful. In his father’s eyes, the child Bernard was everything a man could wish for. Then, something happened. What, exactly, is the conundrum at the core of Caryl Churchill’s intriguing futuristic play “A Number,” in which William Brown and Nate Burger now occupy the stage at Writers Theatre. ★★★★
Report: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted April 27 to approve a new five-year contract that compromises on pensions and projects wage increases totaling 13.25 percent. The agreement was reached April 26, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped into a contentious dispute between the musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association that had led to the strike March 11. Under the new agreement, the pension plan will be frozen after the 2022-23 season and transition thereafter to a model that shifts the future investment burden to the musicians themselves. Unanimous approval by the musicians came hours before the Association board of trustees also voted to approve the contract.
Review: In a Chicago theater season that has produced a generous share of first-rate work, there’s been little that might top the brilliance and torment generated by Christina Gorman and Lawrence Grimm in Kate Fodor’s “Hannah and Martin” at Shattered Globe Theatre. It’s a story as mesmerizing as it is heated and exotic, this historical – and historically sound – romantic affair and intellectual tussle between two of the most influential philosophers of the last century: Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer, and the Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt, ★★★★★
Review: What’s so seductively marvelous about Joe Foust’s one-man turn through James Lecesne’s bittersweet play “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” currently in production at American Blues Theater, is not simply the actor’s ability to sustain a complicated narrative alone on the stage. What’s absolutely magical is Foust’s blink-of-an-eye transformations from one fully formed character into another, each new persona as distinctive, empathic and credible as the last. ★★★★
Commentary: The strike by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now entering its second month, has brought into focus some realities about high-level orchestras in our time, the nature of work stoppages such as this one and the framework of negotiations between musicians and management. Perhaps the first point to be made is the inappropriateness of outsiders to presume to judge how an impasse in negotiations should be resolved.
Review: You have half a dozen more chances to see Ntozake Shange’s stunning play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” before it closes April 14 at Court Theatre. That is, assuming a seat opens up; the remainder of the run is sold out. No surprise there. “For Colored Girls” is a theatrical experience of authentic soul and rare beauty. ★★★★★
Review: Musically, the French Renaissance was a bountiful era that surely would never be forgotten. Yet curiously and regrettably, says the celebrated lute virtuoso and Renaissance expert Paul O’Dette, the music of 16th-century France has pretty much tumbled into oblivion. Which only makes the more alluring O’Dette’s appearance April 5-7 with the Newberry Consort for a program devoted to – what else? — la musique française à l’époque de la Renaissance.
Review: The tragic grandeur of Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” now indispensably on display at Goodman Theatre, resides in its complex truths. All in one remarkable tumble, it is a play about the vulnerability of the labor class, the crassness of their overlords, the fragility of friendships, the partitions of tribalism and the volatile bond between mothers and sons. ★★★★★