Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire/American Players Theatre

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Tracy Michelle Arnold and Eric Parks/Photo: Carissa Dixon

(l to r) Tracy Michelle Arnold and Eric Parks/Photo: Carissa Dixon

RECOMMENDED

Watching Tennessee Williams’ classic portrayal of lust and longing in New Orleans under the Wisconsin stars, on an especially hot and humid night, adds an extra element of authenticity to director William Brown’s outstanding take on the work. Though the nature of APT’s large proscenium stage makes it difficult, if not impossible, to create a sense of claustrophobic collision through scenic design in the way that David Cromer’s renowned production at Writers Theatre did back in 2010, Kevin Depinet’s set is nevertheless up to the task at hand, offering a perfectly functional take on French Quarter slumming, circa 1950. But the set is not the point, anyway, in the face of such larger-than-life characters as Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Rose Tattoo/Shattered Globe Theatre

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Daniela Colucci and Eileen Niccolai/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Daniela Colucci and Eileen Niccolai/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

It has been said that casting is directing. The right cast will work out many a kink, but a bad choice in a key role cannot be made good by any stagecraft.

So it is with director Greg Vinkler’s well-acted, handsomely mounted version of what Tennessee Williams called his “love-play to the world,” which is marred by the choice of ensemble member Eileen Niccolai as Serafina Delle Rose, the Italian-American seamstress and widow who is the axis of the drama. It’s an error with serious but not fatal consequences, diminishing the show’s still-considerable force and altering its tone in subtle but significant ways.

As envisioned by Williams, Serafina is earthy and smoldering, her sensuality half-smothered by a life-denying combination of piety, pride and a protracted, theatrical grief. Niccolai, a performer of presence and comic ability, is simply the wrong type for the part, making it difficult to believe her claims of past sexual rapture with her husband, as well as her ultimate amorous rebirth when she meets hunky truck-driver Alvaro Mangiacavallo (played with disarming cluelessness by Nic Grelli). The rose tattoo that recurs throughout the play symbolizes the biological imperatives inscribed indelibly in human flesh–impulses that the actress does not fully convey, thus shifting the play’s balance between romance and comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Vieux Carre/Raven Theatre

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VC7_Casey_OlwinRECOMMENDED

Before writing his breakout hit, “The Glass Menagerie,” in 1944, Tennessee Williams also worked on another memory play, one that he wouldn’t finish until 1977. “Vieux Carre,” considered a bookend play, plumbs the same depths of despair as “The Glass Menagerie,” without the same sweet nostalgia and glimmer of hope the other show offers. “Vieux Carre” was also produced in an age which enabled Williams to address sexuality more directly, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. A melodramatic, open-a-vein drama queen like Williams actually benefited from the restraint the times demanded of his early plays.

The Writer (a suitably vulnerable Ty Olwin) comes to New Orleans and settles in a decaying boarding house owned by Mrs. Wire (JoAnn Montemurro, mastering the necessary self-righteous fire and brimstone). He wrestles with poverty and obscurity, alongside other creative house denizens who dream of better times, like the aspiring, fragile fashion designer Jane (Eliza Stoughton) and tubercular painter Nightingale (Will Casey). The group labors to survive in a Southern Gothic world only happy to move on without them. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Tennessee Williams Project/The Hypocrites

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Hollis Patrick Gannon and Joseph Wiens/Photo by Matthew Gregory

Patrick Gannon and Joseph Wiens/Photo: Matthew Gregory

Legendary director Elia Kazan once said of Tennessee Williams “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”  This insight proves prescient when applied to The Hypocrites production of three of his lesser-known one-act plays.  Presented back to back to back (with each play ending with just a jolt of an introduction to the next), the plays mine the same themes of his better-known work (mortality, sexual predators and self-delusion to name a few), but with a bit more creative flourish. It would be hard to imagine, for example, Marlon Brando suddenly breaking out in song (this is exactly what a brutish sailor does in the similar-to-“Streetcar”-feeling first play).  Not only are these touches entertaining, they also help the viewer gain better insight into the mindset of a true American theatrical genius. Not every outside-the-box wrinkle works as well—it is unclear why in another play the lead character is reduced to swinging ape-like across a series of suspended rings—but one gets the sense that within these plays Tennessee Williams gave himself permission to experiment a little. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs/Raven Theatre Company

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Raven BBM horiz 2RECOMMENDED

People who live in the kind of twisted families only Tennessee Williams could write must look at Neil Simon families and think, “well, that sounds nice.” While neither type of family is exactly better off, the Jeromes at the center of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” have a plucky sense of optimism. Despite dire circumstances akin to “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie,” the family in this play never projects the bleakness of their situation, and that feels a little unrealistic by comparison. Raven Theatre dusts off this tried-and-true classic to finish out its thirtieth season. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire/Lyric Opera

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

One of the great difficulties in bringing an iconic contemporary play to the opera house is securing permission from the playwright, without which, an opera is not possible.

In the case of Tennessee Williams, many were interested in writing operas of his plays, particularly “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but these were refused. It wasn’t until over a decade after Williams’ death that his estate agreed to let it happen in what by that time appeared to be primarily a financial rather than an aesthetic consideration.

The restriction was that as much of the actual language of the play be preserved as possible. And there you have the fatal flaw that weighs down “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the opera. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Night of the Iguana/The Artistic Home

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Photo: Tim Knight

Photo: Tim Knight

RECOMMENDED

Tennessee Williams had a real gift for portraying vacation towns as sad rest homes instead of the glamorous retreats we like to imagine them. When  “The Night of the Iguana,” one of Williams’ last well-received plays, was first presented on Broadway in 1961, it featured Bette Davis in the role of Maxine, a high-spirited widow who runs a cheap resort in a Mexican town. When defrocked Reverend Shannon shows up with a tour bus of church ladies, Maxine tries to convince him to stay and live out his days at her seaside motel, all the while Shannon hopes he can escape his self-destructive lifestyle.

“The Night of the Iguana” is the maiden voyage for The Artistic Home’s new West Town space. After a season-long hiatus, the company is back and opening with a stellar production. Directed by Kathy Scambiatterra, “The Night of the Iguana” features a strong cast led by John Mossman as Shannon, Miranda Zola as Maxine and Kelly Owens as Hannah. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Glass Menagerie/Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

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Photo: Emily Schwartz

Photo: Emily Schwartz

Has ever a writer loved a character quite so much as Tennessee Williams loved Laura Wingfield? Love is an impossible quality to quantify, try though eHarmony might, but as anyone who’s cried during the final minutes of “The Glass Menagerie” can attest, Laura and her playwright share a most special bond. I think it’s the transmutation of Williams’ affection for Laura into romantic, dramatic, blissful onstage tension that makes her my favorite character of the entire American canon.

While popular theater culture is fixated on deservedly iconic actresses playing wilting Daughter of the American Revolution, Amanda, I immediately crave to learn who is tackling the emotional paralysis of young Laura, whose imperfections are nothing short of perfect in my eyes. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company’s new “Menagerie,” Joanne Dubach’s magnificent Laura is driven not by awkwardness or an exaggerated physical disability, but immense kinesthetic fear of social inadequacy. She speaks not quietly or with a weird affectation, but hesitantly as though the words might unexpectedly manifest themselves as vomit. It’s a keenly relatable nervousness we all feel, though crippling for Laura. The actress’ carpet scene with the Gentleman Caller (the All-American and wholly sincere Walter Briggs) is coy, sublimely subtle and magical. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth/Goodman Theatre

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Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Having directed a brilliant revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Writers’ Theatre a few seasons back—which has also since played the Williamstown Theatre Festival—it was a natural for David Cromer to return to Tennessee Williams. With all the resources of the Goodman Theatre at his disposal, and back in his hometown after successes in New York and Los Angeles as well as a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” grant, Cromer has turned to Williams’ last real success, “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Although Cromer was originally slated to direct the play last year on Broadway, New York’s delay is Chicago’s gain.

Characteristics that have become Cromer hallmarks, including creating a larger-than-life scenic environment (courtesy of James Schuette) are obvious from the moment you enter the theater, as the soft winds of the Deep South are heard and felt and a translucent white curtain gradually reveals an elegant baby-blue-and-white hotel room. A shirtless, at first rather boyish-looking man (Finn Wittrock as Chance Wayne) is lounging in bed and rises to reveal he is wearing solid-white silk pajama bottoms. Soon we discover that hidden amongst his pink sheets is a beautiful female companion in black lingerie (Diane Lane as the Princess Kosmonopolis). As the dark world of this couple is revealed, insidious insight by insight, the juxtaposition of their apparent attractiveness forms an ironic and humorous paradox with what unabashedly despicable people they are. In a brilliant touch, the curtain and wall at times show faint projections of dreamlike images of the past, including our first look at a youthful Heavenly (Kristina Johnson). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Next Up/Steppenwolf Garage

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

As yet another blistering Chicago summer commences, so too does an outgoing class of talented young theater artists–the future movers and shakers. Reveling in the spirit of commencement, each year Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents the culminating works of Northwestern University’s graduate directing and design students during their month-long “Next Up” festival in the scrappy Garage space. Consisting of three contrasting yet festively complementary works, “Life and Limb,” “South of Settling” and “The Glass Menagerie,” the lineup nicely subscribes to Steppenwolf’s seasonal “war at home” theme, and jointly muses on the nation’s temperamental job market. Graciously thanking the city that has nurtured their artistic growth, all of the plays performed, including one world premiere, actually began their lives right here in Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

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