Articles in Theater + Stage
Review: At age 19, an unknown Elvis Aaron Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ recording studio in Memphis and uttered the legendary words that really should be his epitaph. Asked who he sounded like, he replied: “I don’t sound like nobody.” Neither does Eddie Clendening, star of the Elvis bio musical “Heartbreak Hotel” at the Broadway Playhouse, sound like nobody (the double negative is au courant, so it’s cool). Time may have been when Clendening’s voice resembled Elvis’ – back when he played him as part of the “Million Dollar Quartet” at Goodman Theatre in 2008. I never saw that production. But here we are, a decade later. ★
Review: The first flourish of Ellen Fairey’s play “Support Group for Men,” now on display at Goodman Theatre, works twofold narrative magic: It creates a deceptively rich context, and it’s just plain deceptive. We think we’re in for a night with the boys as sitcom when the truth is we’re in for a theatrical ride as clever as it is gentle and poignant and authentic. ★★★★
Review: Surely the first thing that will come to mind for many viewers in the opening scene of Jen Silverman’s play “The Roommate” at Steppenwolf Theatre is “The Odd Couple” – recreated here for two middle-aged women. Sharon is a dowdy Iowa mom living alone who takes in worldly New Yorker Robyn, who’s looking to get away from it all for a while. But “The Odd Couple” it is not. Silverman’s drama is ultimately tragic, and desperately sad. ★★★
Review: After Lookingglass Theatre’s roundly imaginative and engaging 2015 production of Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” one might have expected Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” to fare no less well, indeed to fall right into the Lookingglass wheelhouse. Sorry, mates. The best thing to be said for this production, adapted by David Kersnar and Steve Pickering and directed by Kersnar, is that it finally gives us a proper translation of Verne’s original French title. It’s the saga of a road trip, as nefarious as it is long, under the seas. ★★
Review: In your face is probably not the right way to describe the close-up experience of watching Bennett Fisher’s taut, harrowing new play “Damascus” in Strawdog Theatre’s cozy new home. Eye to unblinking eye would be more accurate. As Somali-born Hassan drives his van down the highway from the Minneapolis airport toward Chicago, with a mysterious young white man as his passenger, news of a terrorist attack back at the airport comes over the radio. We viewers gaze straight at the two men through the van’s windshield. The increasingly anxious travelers stare right back at us. ★★★★
Review: Hero is strong young slave in the 1860s South who finds himself agonizing over an option: Accept his owner’s proposition to accompany him into the war against the Yankees, in exchange for his subsequent freedom, or remain behind as a slave for the rest of his life. That’s the setup of Suzan-Lori Parks’ epic and very human play “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” now on smart, provocative and impassioned display at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Niegel Smith. ★★★★
Preview: If the novelty has worn off the new stage at American Players Theatre, which with its trap-laden floor opened last summer amid general euphoria, the charm can now begin to work its magic. Or, as APT artistic director Brenda DeVita put it: “Last year, everybody wanted to use the traps, and this year nobody’s using them. Everyone is now settling into the new place as home.” American Players’ 2018 season opens June 16 in Spring Green, Wis., with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
Review: Sam Shepard’s darkly funny tale is not so much about the decline of an American way of life as it is about us humans losing sight of ourselves in a blur of treachery, self-denial and retribution that threatens to extend through the generations backward and forward. As directed by Kimberly Senior in a superb production, Shepard’s realm is a ramshackle pasture of the heart, where truths too painful to confess refuse to stay buried no matter how much mind-numbing alcohol, or sexual abandon or vagabondage are applied. ★★★★
Review: Like Tennessee Williams’ iconic play “The Glass Menagerie,” his later, more concise and certainly more curious “Suddenly, Last Summer” involves the perspective of memory. But the reliability – indeed, the truthfulness – of memory lies at the horrific heart of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” which now spreads its gothic wings over the stage at Raven Theatre. Despite the production’s clear narrative, the playwright’s lyricism is muted behind Southern accents. ★★★
Review: The Greek myth of Prometheus, who rashly gave the gift of fire to humankind and endured severe punishment for it, was the basis of Aeschylus’ fifth-century B.C. drama “Prometheus Bound,” which City Lit Theater has revived in a puppet-enhanced staging. It’s the world premiere of a new translation by Nicholas Rudall, the University of Chicago classics scholar who was the founding artistic director of Court Theatre. ★★
Review: Samuel Beckett was Irish by birth but a naturalized existentialist of the French line whose most famous native son remains Jean-Paul Sartre. Watching the Irish theater company Druid perform Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – at once vivid and bleak, its characters dithering and hobbled and resigned to their absurd circularity – I couldn’t help thinking of Sartre’s “No Exit.” ★★★★★
Review: Everything about John Strand’s play “The Originalist,” a philosophical profile of the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia now on the boards at Court Theatre, recommends the enterprise as a one-man show. The positive side of that is Edward Gero’s expansive, assured and piquant performance as Scalia. On the shadowed side of “everything” I mean, well, everything else about this contrived and tormented attempt to turn what is essentially fascinating and funny stand-up into high drama. ★★
Review: In a different setting, Steve, an anonymous immigrant from Rwanda working as a dishwasher in an ordinary New York eatery, knows well enough how to use a knife. But when a master chef, or what’s left of him after the ravages of alcoholism, takes charge of the kitchen, the quiet dishwasher is drawn out by the elegant appeal of culinary art. That’s the setup of Will Snider’s wry and unsettling play “How to Use a Knife,” offered in a savory preparation by Shattered Globe Theatre and director Sandy Shinner. ★★★★★
Review: I’ve always loved “Grand Hotel,” since I first saw the 1932 film with its incredible all-star cast that only begins with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. In 1989, the film, based on a novel by Vicki Baum and a play by William A. Blake, was transmuted quite successfully into the musical that Kokandy Productions now offers in a concept and cast that get right at the poignant heart of the story. ★★★★
Review: On Aug. 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon became the first president of the United States to resign from office, rather than face almost certain impeachment and removal after the Watergate scandal. But doggedly insisting that “I’m not a crook,” he never admitted to wrong-doing – until three years later, in a most improbable interview with British talk show host David Frost. That’s the setup of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play “Frost/Nixon,” which Redtwist Theatre has brought to its compact space with Brian Parry as Nixon, up close and amazing. ★★★★★
Review: This happy news just in: “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” the supercharged jukebox bio musical that American Blues Theater had planned to unplug May 26, will rave on – after a break – through Sept. 15. This irresistible portrait of Holly’s brief but meteoric life and ground-breaking music should delight anyone with a pulse – and raise it several notches. In the intimate Stage 773, you can just about reach out and touch Zachary Stevenson’s true-to-life personification of the determined kid from Lubbock, Tex., who rocketed to rock immortality. ★★★★★
Review: If ever there was a play meant for the sleight of Teller’s magicianly hand, it is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The Scottish tragedy is all about what appears to be there, but is not. Ambiguity, misdirection, illusion: This is the stuff of “Macbeth,” and it forms the clever heart of the play’s current incarnation at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I should hasten to add that Teller is only co-director; his fellow conspirator is Aaron Posner, whose invisible hand operates more on the dramatic side of events and indeed quickens both the show’s pace and the viewer’s pulse. ★★★★
Review: Give pianist-actor Hershey Felder credit. He has managed to crawl inside the skin of characters as diverse as Bernstein and Beethoven and Irving Berlin, and to give them plausible life. His latest solo turn, as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is about to wind up a brief run in the upstairs space at Steppenwolf Theatre. While musically authoritataive, as an exploration of Tchaikovsky, man and artist, Felder’s breathing sculpture left the impression of a work not yet finished. ★★★
Review: By now I have seen the gritty and electrifying musical “Memphis” – about the pre-dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, the modulation of black music into the white mainstream in the early 1950s – in three different stagings: the original Broadway production, the national tour and the current version mounted by Porchlight Music Theatre in its new home at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. This one feels, breathes, rips like the “Memphis” I’ve been waiting for. ★★★★★
Review: Dael Orlandersmith’s one-woman play “Until the Flood,” now in a brief run at the Goodman Theatre, is about race and racism, but also about individual potential and personal accountability. It is an eloquent and evenhanded response to the fatal shooting of the African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson the night of Aug. 9, 2014. ★★★★
Review: It has been coming on for a while, the increasing élan with which Chicago’s Lyric Opera presents its springtime musical productions. This year’s outsize rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” launches with the shock and the thrill of a revolution underway, as dozens of young men and women in their athletic prime charge down the aisles and leap joyfully onto the klieg-lit stage.
Review: The smartest thing about Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Smart People,” now installed at Writers Theatre, may be the playwright herself. Diamond has a slashing wit and a ringing command of language. Whether “Smart People” adds up to all that much, or indeed whether it’s as fresh and imaginative as its high energy suggests, are other matters. ★★★
Review: Call it a theatrical hat trick or a trifecta, but my recent three-night blitz of prominent stages in the nation’s capital produced impressive testimony to the quality of the theater scene there – even measured against the high regional standard of hometown Chicago. And, lo, who should appear center stage at Studio Theatre on the final night of this sweep, in Brian Friel’s luminous and heartbreaking play “Translations,” but one of Chicago’s own – Brad Armacost, as the boozy master of a so-called hedge school in rural 19th-century Ireland.
Review: If Martin McDonagh’s very dark comedy “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is a study in passive-aggressive dominance, and its correlative misery, Northlight Theatre’s current go at it fills that pool of trouble to the drowning brim. The lifelong combatants in McDonagh’s gritty Irish tale are Mag and Maureen, mother and daughter, occupants of a shabby dwelling wherein Mum spends her days complaining of her aches and pains and making endless niggling demands of compliant Maureen, age 40. ★★★★
Interview: Like the queen she plays, K.K. Moggie rules the stage in the title role of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But what helped her get to that place, she says, was the realization that the play was less about the fallen Scottish queen – who aspires to the English throne even as she is held prisoner by Queen Elizabeth – than what’s going on around her.
Review: On the one hand, there’s something quaintly anachronistic about the film-become-play “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” now occupying the stage at Court Theatre in a production that is faintly, curiously charming. On the other hand, one might reasonably ask whether the acceptance, or perhaps novelty, of white-black marriages has changed all that much since Sidney Poitier showed up at the home of those outspoken liberal parents portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1967 movie. ★★★
Review: You could hear the chuckles of recognition running through the Oriental Theatre audience when “Pretty Woman: The Musical” opened its largely delightful pre-Broadway run. It’s officially a world premiere that will play Chicago through April 15 before packing up for New York, where another round of development precedes the Broadway opening. The method of “Pretty Woman’s” transformation from the movie that half the American population has memorized line-for-line, into a staged production with entirely original music, is reliably loyal in its adaptation and solidly mainstream. ★★★★
Review: When Henrik Ibsen completed his play “An Enemy of the People” in 1882, he couldn’t decide whether to declare his moralizing screed a drama or a comedy. Indeed, in the mirror it holds up to human self-interest and moral hypocrisy, “An Enemy of the People” displays a deep strain of dark absurdist comedy. That is pointedly the case in a new adaptation by Robert Falls for Goodman Theatre that hews close to Ibsen’s cynical work. ★★★★
Preview: The final countdown is underway: “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” which has been taking cues from its Windy City preview audiences in adapting of one of the most popular and highest-rated romantic comedy films ever, is about to open officially March 28 at the Oriental Theatre with experienced Broadway veterans in some iconic roles, If you saw “Legally Blonde” or “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, you may recognize hooker Kit and hotel manager Mr. Thompson. With the curtain going up on Chicago’s pre-Broadway world premiere, a New York opening is set for August.
Review: Nick Moroni and Bernadette Perez are married (not to each other) mid-career Chicago cops burning late oil at the precinct shop, bantering, shuffling papers, watching the clock, waiting to check out so they can check into a motel together. This little slice of their lives provides the frame for Keith Huff’s “Six Corners,” a pulp-fiction drama at American Blues Theater that modulates from sad to sadder before it ends in the precincts of nobility. ★★★