Confounded

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With their recent critical and box-office successes Mistakes Were Made and Abigail’s Party, extremely well-directed and well-acted productions that I felt were more conventional than the ballsy, infuriating, impressively and unabashedly idiosyncratic plays of seasons past such as Blasted and The Fastest Clock in the Universe that I’ve come to love them for, I thought A Red Orchid Theatre was growing soft in its middle age.  Then they open their season with the Chicago premiere of Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata, a ballsy, infuriating, wacky, a little too precious play about the real-life story of a scientist in the Manhattan Project whose fingers slipped while handling a piece of plutonium, and exposed himself to deadly nuclear radiation.  It’s a play I cannot imagine any other theater in Chicago taking on, and clearly demonstrates Red Orchid’s strengths and weaknesses.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought that Porchlight Music Theatre is the city’s foremost interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s genius musicals in an intimate yet heart wrenching manner.  Two of the best Sondheim productions I’ve seen in Chicago were their takes on Company (with a formidable “Ladies Who Lunch” from the then-unknown Rebecca Finnegan, now one of the city’s leading musical theater performers) and Assassins.  Their most recent Sondheim productions were disappointing either in performance, conceptualization, or both.  In their 15th year, they decide to tackle Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the most sophisticated work in his oeuvre.  And my disappointment continues with this low-wattage, frankly, at times, dinner-theaterish rendition that failed to capture the exquisiteness and the toughness of the best stagings of the musical (Exhibit A:  Gary Griffin’s luminous, minimalist version at Chicago Shakespeare several years back).  I’m left confounded.

I am a big supporter of A Red Orchid, and as I have previously mentioned, I’ve done some work with the theater as a volunteer for the Arts and Business Council.  I feel very passionately about this theater, but at times I am also highly perplexed by it.  I truly feel that it’s an invaluable part of Chicago’s theater community, occupying that singular niche of putting on work that either demonstrates unwavering artistic courage or unwavering foolhardiness.  I’ve struggled in the past with some of their productions that I know, in my heart of hearts, only the most masochistic, endurance-tested, battle-scarred theatergoer will go to (Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst, for example).  Theater wimps need not apply, definitely.  But how many non-wimps are out there, and how can you fill a theater if the work is something the majority of people will not have the appetite or the patience to see?  I’m afraid Louis Slotin Sonata may be one of these.  It is ostensibly about the last days of Louis Slotin, the nuclear scientist, who either because he was carelessly showing-off or because he made an actual error in a task he had performed numerous times before, exposed himself and people in his lab to a mini-nuclear explosion. Mullins is a very talented playwright, but in my opinion, he is also a pretty show-offy and quite chaotic one.  He explores a lot of interesting themes in the play:  the propensity, at times, for people to irrationally try to “play God”; our reactions to facing impending death; the way we craft stories which ultimately, for lack of debate, become truth (Was Slotin a hero because he threw his body in front of the explosion which saved the lives of the rest of the people in the lab, or was he a self-absorbed boast who thoughtlessly put their lives in danger in the first place?).  But Mullin unfolds these themes in puzzling, agonizing, although admittedly, sometimes dazzling ways:  employing a non-linear narrative; using repetitive dialogue for no apparent reason; having the Jewish Slotin morph into the Nazi criminal Josef Mengele in his dreams, which would be so offensively wrong to many people; sticking tons of obtuse nuclear physics discussions in Act One; and dropping a paralyzing yet hypnotic stinkbomb of a nonsensical cabaret revue in the middle of Act Two involving the whole cast, Slotin now morphed into Mengele, and Yahweh into Harry Truman (!), dancing and singing to the “Sodom-Saki Shuffle” (as in Sodom of you know what, and Saki of Nagasaki!).  It’s original, daring work, but it’s also work that I don’t think is that appealing.  Director Karen Kessler and the terrific cast, especially Steven Schine as Slotin, give the production lots of verve and humor, but ultimately, I think the material defeats them.

On the other hand, I wanted verve and humor in Porchlight’s Sunday in the Park with George, a show I’ve seen before at Ravinia and at Chicago Shakespeare.  I also wanted a mature approach to Sondheim’s very difficult, multi-layered theatrical dissertation on the passion of artists and the process of making art.  It’s a highly personal work for such a committed artist as Sondheim, and demands a thoughtful, precise balancing of its very cerebral themes and its heated emotional center, the relationship between George Seurat and his fictional mistress/muse/model, Dot. Unfortunately, in L. Walter Stearn’s enervated production, there’s no heat in the center, and no rigor in the cerebrum.  Brandon Dahlquist as George, and especially Jess Godwin as Dot, are both appealing performers I’ve admired previously in other roles, and they sing Sondheim’s beautiful songs, well…beautifully (Godwin’s take on the opening number “Sunday in the Park with George” is delightful), but they don’t ever feel like they’re madly in love with each other, nor that giving up one another for art (him) or for stability (her) would wreck their lives forever.  These roles never come across as fully inhabited and the emotional stakes never feel real.  Stern’s pacing is so meandering and tentative that the lengthier first act feels like two acts, and more disappointingly, the ideas that Sondheim and book writer James Lapine have around the creative process is never clearly communicated.  Some of the ensemble acting is also clunky, and it pains me to say this, amateurish. In the original Broadway production, directed by Lapine, Act One ends stunningly with the re-creation of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte” (which hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago).  In Gary Griffin’s Chicago Shakespeare production (which was interestingly performed with runaway seating), despite the fact that the staging was minimalist, I really felt the painting came alive for me because the process around creating it was brought so vividly to life beforehand.  In this Porchlight production, Act One doesn’t end with a bang, but with a whimper – the recreation of the painting felt more like a group of bowlers in fancy period outfits standing around waiting for a lane to open up at Lincoln Square Lanes. 

I have other reservations about this production:  the staging of the pivotal, and highly complicated Act Two number “Putting It Together” in which George discusses themes as varied as selling out to reacting to critics to being a passé flavor of the month feels so clumsy and strenuous (with every vein in Dahlquist’s body apparently about to pop); Amanda Sweger’s scenic design of huge dots which I assume is meant to pay homage to Seurat’s pointillist technique look like a bunch of awkwardly floating tortillas covered and then uncovered by a really tacky-looking moss-green sheet; Liviu Pasare’s videos are not dynamically harnessed (if you’re going to use videos in your production, they should at least be eyecatching).  Although I loved Mina Hyun-Ok Hong’s brilliant costumes, so colorful and playful, and the nuanced work of Heather Townsend (who comes across like a warmer, younger Christine Baranski), I really cannot recommend this production.  This is a shame, since some of the best songs in the Sondheim canon are in this show.  Listen to Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway soundtrack instead.

Louis Slotin Sonata is running at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., until October 24.  Porchlight’s Sunday in the Park with George is at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, until October 31.

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2 Responses to “Confounded”

  1. Bob Says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing with Porchlight. Things were going so swell with them, and then they’ve inexplicably taken a nose dive creatively. Their “Into the Woods” was sloppily directed, and “Sunday” was a bit of an over-fussy snore.

    Let’s hope they can revive what they once had. But “The King and I” isn’t really my cup of tea. May skip it.

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Bob. For years Porchlight was arguably the foremost Sondheim presenter in Chicago’s storefront theater scene. I am seeing Griffin Theater’s “Company” this weekend and I’m looking forward to see where they would take that, especially since they’re not really known as a musical theater group. I’m quite over the dinner-theatricalization of Sondheim’s works.

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