Ain’t Amour

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chicago shakes king learI’m back! It was a hectic summer where I was literally everywhere, from San Diego to Sao Paulo, from New York City to San Francisco.  But I’m staying put in Chicago for the next several weeks since the fall arts and culture season has begun with its usual loud, notable bang (and for the nth year I’ve thought about finally hiring that cute, virile, foot-massaging male assistant to manage my calendar of show openings and cultural events). All of the major houses have opened their first plays for the season and in the past couple of weeks I was able to catch Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new, Sinatra-inspired take on King Lear and Victory Garden Theater’s Chicago premiere of newly-minted MacArthur Genius grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Intriguingly and coincidentally both shows revolve around the themes of age, aging, and the elderly, and both feature some notable performances from Chicago’s veteran theater actors. Unfortunately both also fall short in treating these important, less-portrayed topics with the power, poignancy, and relatability that they deserve.

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life” and poster boy for cool, middle-aged, liberal intellectualism, got into trouble with numerous cultural pundits and Twitter trolls over the summer for tweeting after seeing the Public Theater’s production of King Lear that “Shakespeare sucks.” Having not seen that production, I wonder what Glass would say about this particular version currently onstage in Chicago.  If you’ve followed my blog over the years, you know that some of the shows I’ve found the weakest among Chicago Shakespeare’s seasons were ironically their Shakespeare productions, usually directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.  King Lear continues this disappointing tradition. Granted my bar for Lear is pretty high: Robert Falls’ 2009 Goodman version, which re-set the play in the 1990s Balkan wars and featured a towering performance from Stacy Keach, is one of the most significant experiences of my theatrical life. But Lear is also one of Shakespeare’s most thrillingly profound tragedies exploring concepts of fatherhood, loyalty, and coping with old age, with some of his most beautifully sad speeches that in my mind it’s pretty difficult for anyone to muck it up.  But Gaines’ production is so problematic on many levels. First, we’re never given clarity on the context.  Who is Lear? Where is this all set? What is at stake so that his daughters are willing to banish and abandon him? Both the design (which unfortunately includes Mark Bailey’s overpowering take on a military tent but which looks like the gigantic entrance to a strip joint) and the staging seem to set the play in some vaguely abstract modern time period, hence a Sinatra-loving Lear. But the world of these characters is not firmly and accessibly established. Then there’s the whole Sinatra angle. Bits and pieces of Sinatra songs are used throughout the play, aiming to clarify and amplify Lear’s state of mind. At least that’s what I think the aim is. Because the songbook is never used as a dynamic device, there’s no discernible thread in the use of these songs and they just seem to come on and off in a highly distracting manner.  There’s also the not-so-small matter of the casting and performances which provide some of the most severe issues in the production.  Jesse Luken, who was on both Justified and Glee, works really hard as the villainous Edmund, the power-hungry, lying illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, but he comes off as more Halsted twink trying to act tough rather than malevolent Machiavellian soldier. So his entire narrative becomes less credible.  Lear’s three daughters have such widely divergent performances that you wonder what plays they’re performing in: Bianca LaVerne Jones’ Goneril is street-tough campy, Jessiee Datino’s Regan is crazy-Claire-Danes-in-Homeland, and Nehassaiu deGannes’ Cordelia is minimalist to the point of inscrutability, a major disappointment since her relationship with Lear is the core of the work’s heartbreak. None of the performers are helped by the static, declamatory blocking I’ve come to expect of Gaines’ productions.

Larry Yando is expectedly terrific as Lear, marvelously charting the King’s journey from invulnerable monarch to dementia-afflicted homeless person. He delivers the language clearly and powerfully.  Michael Aaron Lindner, who I’ve admired in many musical productions, is surprisingly, achingly tragic as Gloucester. But Yando and Lindner, although shining stars in a muddled theatrical sea, are ultimately unable to overcome the perplexing production they’re adrift in.

I’m a big Sam Hunter fan, and his intelligent, haunting The Whale, also staged last year by Victory Gardens with Joannie Schultz at the helm, was my #1 pick for the best of Chicago theater in 2013. Schultz teams up with Hunter again on Rest about the last days of an Idaho retirement home about to be closed down. The last three residents, an Alzheimer-afflicted music professor and his wife played by William J. Norris and Mary Ann Thebus, and a retired night watchman, played by Ernest Perry Jr., are trapped during a major snowstorm with some of the retirement home’s employees, the harried administrator (Steven Key), two hardworking nurse aides (McKenzie Chinn and Amanda Drinkall), and a young cook (Matt Farrabee). Everyone is terrific, especially Thebus who captures her character’s stoicism and world-weariness eloquently and radiantly, and Norris who brings such an inhabited take on his character’s few scenes. But although Hunter writes insightful, heartfelt dialogue (Thebus’ recounting of living and loving Norris’ character is poignant and wistful for one), Rest’s narrative feels so meandering and unresolved, and in the major conflict (which I won’t reveal) provided by Thebus’ character, not very believable.  I’m particularly perplexed by Farrabee’s character, a deeply-religious and emotionally troubled millennial whose narrative never becomes fully fleshed-out. In the second act when the focus shifts to Thebus’ and Drinkall’s characters, he becomes an afterthought when his initial introduction seemed so interesting (going to work in the retirement home because his pastor said it would do him good). Schultz is a very talented director, but her staging is so low-key and, at times, low-energy that even the big confrontations between the characters feel very matter-of-fact.

King Lear is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, until November 9. Rest, on the other hand, runs only till October 12 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue.

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