August: Osage County triumphs, yet again, in London

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I’m on my regular Thanksgiving sojourn in Minneapolis this week, but I couldn’t help but take note of the to-be-expected phenomenal reviews that our very own Steppenwolf Theater‘s London transfer of August:  Osage County received after opening on Wednesday night at the National Theater.  Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Rondi Reed, Ian Barford, Jeff Perry, Sally Murphy, Maryann Mayberry, Kimberly Guerrero, and Troy West all reprise the roles they created here in Chicago and took to Broadway; Steppenwolf ensemble member Gary Cole (recently of Desperate Housewives), Broadway understudy Molly Ranson, and newbies Chelcie Ross and Paul Vincent O’Connor (taking over from original Chicago and Broadway cast member Francis Guinan, who had stayed in Chicago to be part of the soon-to-open The Seafarer on the Steppenwolf main stage) join them.  Our very own Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune was first on the scene, saying August “kicks London in the gut” and finally, after three reviews, calls Amy Morton’s shattering performance as the eldest daughter Barbara “one of the great theatrical performances of the modern era”.  The London critics were a little bit more reserved than that, but the usually crotchety Guardian drama critic Michael Billington admiringly compares Tracy Letts to British dramatic icon Alan Ayckbourn in his four-star review, singles out the performances of Dunagan, Morton, Perry, and Reed, and says the whole play is full of “buccaneering vigor”.  Although Charles Spencer at the Telegraph says he isn’t “persuaded that this is the the first indisputably great American play of the 21st century”, he gives it four stars and calls the production “consistently gripping, moving and often wildly funny”.  Benedict Nightingale, at the Times, rightfully gushes at the ensemble acting, and says the actors give performances that are so “so robust yet so punctilious they’d have had Stanislavsky dancing round Red Square.”  OK, so the Brits liked the play a lot.  It’s so wonderful to see the continuous triumph of this proudly Chicago-made play in the great, discerning, been-there-seen-that theatrical capitals of the world, New York and London, but …. when do we see August again at home, in this production, with this cast?

“August” in London

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nationaltheatre-for-august.jpgGreat news to start the month – most of the original Chicago/Broadway cast members of Steppenwolf Theater‘s production of Tracy Letts’s monumental modern dramatic classic, August:  Osage County will be reprising their roles in the National Theater production which will run in London from November 21, 2008-January 21, 2009.  Tony winners Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed will be back, as well as Tony nominee Amy Morton (Bummer for us Chicago theater lovers that Amy has been away from our stages for so long, first on Broadway, and then now London, but it’s great for our community, and our global reputation, though.  I guess she won’t be directing William Petersen anymore in Dublin Carol at the Steppenwolf, since that play is supposed to run during the Christmas holidays).  I hope London’s a big enough city to contain the velocities created by having these three ladies on stage at the same time.  Original Chicago cast members Ian Barford, Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, Kimberly Guerrero, and Troy West are all going to London, as are Broadway cast members Michael McGuire and Molly Ranson.  Only Paul Vincent O’Connor is new to the London cast – he’ll be taking the role of Rondi Reed’s husband, Charlie, played magnificently in Chicago and New York by ensemble member Francis Guinan.  It would have been great if Guinan went too but he’s in the first two plays of the Steppewolf season:  Kafka on the Shore and The Seafarer, so we’ll have the pleasure of seeing him in town this year.  The role of the sleazoid boyfriend “Steve”, played in Chicago by ensemble member Rick Snyder and in New York by Brian Kerwin, still has to be cast.  The Broadway production is still in full swing, and so far, there’s been no news that it’s going to close any time soon, so later this year, there’ll be two productions of August running in two global theater capitals.  We should continue to be proud of August‘s success- but wouldn’t we be so much prouder, and happier, if there is also a hometown production running simultaneously?  I’m still astounded by the number of people I meet who are kicking themselves for not seeing the original Chicago production.  The 2009 national tour is not soon enough to have August back where it started, and if we can have sitdown productions of gulp, Wicked and Jersey Boys, why not a play that was nurtured, and originally championed and embraced in Chicago?

Irrelevant

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Several theater blogs have noted the New York Times’ chief theater critic Ben Brantley’s last-ditch, extremely pathetic, desperate grab for attention in last Sunday’s Critic’s Notebook, in which he tries to pull both Tracy Letts and August:  Osage County off their much-deserved pedestals, on the very day the Tony Awards were announced.  Well, given the fact that August has won a boatload of Tonys, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and every significant New York theater award of note, as well as it’s undisputed commercial success, so rare right now for a serious American play, Brantley’s attempt to derail the August accolade train is a sad validation of what every serious theater lover has been thinking of for quite a while now- that Brantley, and increasingly the New York Times’ theater section, is irrelevant in the new world of American arts criticism.  I won’t dignify the article by linking to it (which not only skewers Letts and August but also the Tony winner for Best Musical, In the Heights), but really how can you take any American theater critic seriously who advocates for British plays over new American ones?  Who implicitly rejects a play because it came from a regional theater and not from the West End or from the “acceptable” off-Broadway theaters such as the Public?  Who talks about the lack of provocative thought in August but blows the trumpet for Rock and Roll, which I thought was absolutely unrelatable and uninvolving, and ultimately quite tedious, or for The History Boys, which was enjoyable, but undeniably old-fashioned, just because they were both written by British playwrights?   Who wrote a kid-gloved, starstruck review of Julie Roberts’ abysmal Broadway debut maybe because she is a movie star?  For my money, and I’m walking on some very tricky limbs here, I think the theater critic who is relevant, and who should continue to play a bigger role in the national theatrical conversation is our very own Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune.  Chris polarizes a lot of people, yes, and I have had misgivings and disagreements with some of his critical opinions over the years, but at least he uses his potentially powerful platform to advocate for new, fresh, unique American playwrights and plays, to get new works to be seen and new audiences into the theater, to get the national theatrical community to discover theater outside of its New York-centric context, in the regional theater circuit where people are writing, acting, staging theater because they are passionate about it, not because they’re looking at weekly box-office tallies, as if they’re in the movie business.  In my view, that’s what I think a newspaper’s theater critic should be these days when blogs and online theater sites are more widely read than the print media, when everyone has an opinion (including myself) and ways to publish it, and when dialogue and feedback are the modes of operating, rather than one-way, all-powerful, Mount Olympus critical theorizing.  That’s how a truly relevant theater and arts critic differentiates himself or herself.  Unfortunately, it’s not August or In the Heights that’s an artifact of the 1950s as Brantley laughably claims in his article, but rather it’s himself and his employer. 

Chicago owned the Tonys!

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deanna-wins-the-tony.jpgWow, what a night.  Everyone expected that Steppenwolf‘s production of August: Osage County would win big at the Tony Awards last night, but to sweep five of the six categories it was up for is quite a big deal.  I was at the Steppenwolf Tony viewing party in the downstairs theater last night, and the applause, yelling, hooting, and noise-making for every August win during the ceremony, projected on two large screens, was thunderous.  Now, I know how my college sports fanatic friends feel when they’re sitting in their designated school bar during the NCAA championships games, because that’s exactly how I felt last night watching the Steppenwolf crew, Chicago artists all, take trophy after trophy – swoony, heady, feeling like I just got vacuum pumped with adrenaline.  It was a glorious night for Chicago theater, and our folks gave the most sincere, most gracious, most elegant, most down-to-earth speeches of the night (unlike mega-diva Patti Lupone, winner of Best Actress in a Musical for the new Gypsy revival, who growled while the orchestra was trying to play off her extended, phoney, very arrogant-sounding acceptance speech, or Best Actor in a Play Mark Rylance who quoted a pretty long, obtuse passage from an obscure Minnesota writer instead of thanking anyone from Boeing Boeing, just to be different).  Best Featured Actress in a Play winner, Rondi Reed, thanked her artistic families in her speech and dedicated her award to August playwright’s Tracy Letts’ recently passed father, Dennis Letts, who played the Weston patriarch both in Chicago and during its initial run on Broadway.  Best Director Anna D. Shapiro brought goose-bumps and tears to many in the downstairs theater (especially me!) when she mentioned that her six nephews and nieces didn’t care about any of this, “they just wanted tickets to The Little Mermaid”.  Best Actress in a Play, the magnificently unforgettable Deanna Dunagan, was so refreshingly honest and humble (again a contrast to her counterpart winner in the musical category, monster diva Patti) when she said “…none of us dreamed we would be (at the Tonys). I certainly didn’t. After 34 years in regional theater I never even thought about it. I watched it on TV like everybody else…”  And of course the brilliant Mr. Letts, accepting the Best Play award (with the fabulous Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey beaming by his side) concluded his speech with a huge thank you to the Chicago theater community “…who made this possible.”   I was pretty bummed that we didn’t get to see the full acceptance speech that Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre gave for the Regional Tony Award, since the award wasn’t part of the telecast, but I think she summed it up beautifully for all of us who love this city, who scream our voices hoarse proclaiming the talent and artistry that this city overflows with, when she said that founding Chicago Shakespeare was a risk and that “…we only could have taken that risk in Chicago, a world class city, a place where the arts are cherished and where theater is celebrated with generosity and passion”.  To anyone who says they’re flying to New York City to see a Broadway (or even off-Broadway show), I’d like to say to them, save the fare and spend it instead on seeing the plays at Steppenwolf, at Chicago Shakespeare, at the Goodman, the Hypocrites, Redmoon Theatre, Lookingglass, the Next Theater, and the other hundreds of theater companies in Chicago where real theater lives, breathes, and dynamically evolves.  For a complete list of Tony Award winners, click herePicture:  Deanna Dunagan accepts her Tony, one of the most richly deserved in decades!

More Tonys (Awards, not random dudes on Halsted and Roscoe)

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It’s all Tony Awards, all the time on From the Ledge this week.  Not only because it’s going to be the coronation night of Chicago theater (specifically Steppenwolf and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), or that I am one of the five people in my age bracket who has watched the show on CBS religiously for the past eight years, but it’s also been really difficult to catch up on blog content when you’ve been locked into a conference room on Madison Avenue for the past several days.  There have been lots of new articles coming out about the stellar August:  Osage County folks in these days leading up to the Tonys.  Friend of From the Ledge, Storefront Rebellion posted a link to this roundtable discussion with many of the cast from Backstage.com.  Amy Morton, Rondi Reed, and Francis Guinan, particularly, continue to be refreshingly direct.  The New York Sun also put out an article on August director, Anna Shapiro.  It’s interesting that when (not if) she wins this Sunday, she will be only the fifth female director to win in the Tony’s 61 years of existence, and of that five, nearly half will be from Chicago, Lookingglass Theater’s co-founder Mary Zimmermann (who won for the luminous Metamorphoses, which I really enjoyed) and herself. Wow.  In non-August Tony news, various chatrooms and the New York Post’s much-vilified Michael Reidel, are predicting an upset in the Best Actor in a Play category.  The early favorite was Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard himself, who got rave reviews in a revisionist staging of Macbeth, but it seems like Mark Rylance, former Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre and one of the leading Shakespearian actors in the world, will provide the upset win this Sunday, in ironically, the revival of a light-weight 1960s farce, Boeing-Boeing.  I have always wanted to see Rylance live on stage, and thought of going to see him at the Guthrie in Peer Gynt earlier this year, unfortunately the thought of three hours of an Ibsen play in the middle of subzero Minneapolis temperatures was enough to dissuade me.  I saw Rylance in Patrice Chereau’s abominable film Intimacy several years ago at the Chicago International Film Festival, which created a lot of controversy at that time for the graphic sex scenes.  Uhmm, maybe I will see Boeing-Boeing the next time I’m in New York later this month.  Finally, here’s a really enjoyable read on the Tonys from a “lifelong theater geek” published on Salon.com.

Anticipating the Tonys

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It’s been one of those busy weeks again (uhmmm, I haven’t worked this hard in months!).  I am in New York City now for the rest of the week for a client presentation on one of the deals I have been working on.  We were shortlisted, so that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t score a ticket to attend the Tony Awards show on Sunday night, although I know some people from Chicago and elsewhere who will be attending the ceremonies in person to be part of August: Osage County‘s and Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s cheering section.  As I have mentioned previously, I will be joining many of Steppenwolf’s family of subscribers and supporters for a Viewing Party at the downstairs theater on Sunday.  I am very excited and yes, proud, to be in Chicago, with Chicago theatergoers, in a communal setting to see the national theater community celebrate Chicago talent and artistry.  It was the Chicago audience-literate, theatrically sophisticated, generous and supportive-that first embraced the masterwork that is August; who talked non-stop about it from the time they rushed out of the theater, reeling and giddy, after the first intermission; who told their friends; who flocked to the Steppenwolf last summer like groupies at Lollapalooza, realizing that this work was something special, something that would become a significant part of the American theater oeuvre.  It has come full circle, for me then- I shared the amazingly unique experience of Augustlast July with a group of enthusiastic, astounded theatergoers, and I’ll be with a community of ardent fans again this Sunday to see the work honored with American theater’s top prize; it’s quite  a journey and a privilege for me as an audience member.  On June 17, the first performance after the Tony Awards, the new members of the Broadway cast will make their debut: Estelle Parsons takes over the monumental Deanna Dunagan as Violet, the matriatch; Steppenwolf ensemble members Molly Regan and Jim True-Frost replace their fellow ensemble members Rondi Reed and Ian Barford as the wacky aunt Mattie Fae and her browbeaten son, Little Charles; Robert Foxworth (who I can still vividly watching when I was a kid as the macho Chase Giobertti on Falcon Crest) steps in for ensemble member Francis Guinan (who’s returning to Chicago to star in the first play of the upcoming Steppenwolf season, an adaptation of Murukami’s Kafka on the Beach, which is one of the most haunting novels I have read) as Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie; and Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Sideman, takes over from Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry as son-in-law Bill. It’s an interesting switchover, but I am particularly intrigued as to how Estelle Parsons will come off as Violet.  She’s a great actress, and is an Academy Award winner (as Gene Hackman’s paramour in Bonnie and Clyde), but Dunagan is just so indelible, so legendary, so much of a tsunami as Violet that I really can’t imagine anyone else doing the role.  Latebreaking news:  Chris Jones confirms that August will go on tour and come back to Chicago, sometime in 2010- get your tickets as soon as they’re available!