Four Plays: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

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I’ve seen so many theater openings over the past three weeks, I’ve actually been able to pull some of them together with a clever (or in my mind, at least) blog post theme.  Here are my impressions on four season openers currently playing on Chicago stages:

the-fantasticks.jpgThe Fantasticks – Despite having one of the most luminous songs ever written for American musical theater, “Try to Remember”, I’m not really sure why anyone would place The Fantasticks at the top of list of musicals to revive (there is a current Broadway production and a planned revival at the highly-regarded Arena Theater in Washington, DC).  It’s a pretty old-fashioned inverse of Romeo and Juliet, based on a play by Edmund Rostand: the parents of two teenagers pretend to feud so that their children can fall in love with one another.  But the plan horribly misfires and the kids’ dewy-eyed innocence turns into hard-bitten pragmatism.  Unfortunately, Porchlight Music Theatre‘s season opener emphasizes the old (as in hoary and tired) over the fashion, with undistinguished staging and lighting and set design, and lots of mugging, especially from the comedy relief duo of Henry, the Old Actor, and his much-abused sidekick, Mortimer, the Man Who Dies (played very broadly by William F. Raffeld and Rus Rainear respectively, coming off like a Catskills dinner theater version of Auntie Mame and Vera Charles, with more hair and without the flapper outfits).  The only one who exercises any scenery-chewing self-control, for better or for worse, is the usually magnetic Jeff Parker, who plays the necessarily magnetic Narrator, El Gallo, a role that the late Jerry Orbach legendarily created, in a perplexingly subdued, blend-into-the-woodwork style, like a circus ringmaster who has let the trapeze artists, clowns and animal trainers take control of the ring.  The Fantasticks is at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, until November 15.

year-zero.jpgYear Zero – I’m heartily, loudly applauding Victory Gardens for opening its season with two world premiere plays from playwrights of color under 40, tackling themes related to cultural identity.  If I were an Olympic diving judge, I’d be giving the theater at least an 8 for degree of complexity alone- putting on these plays simultaneously is risky, brave, visionary, enthralling.   However, as I have always told those who work for me in my day job, aspiration is one thing, achievement is another.  The first of these plays, Michael Golamco’s Year Zero (I’ll be posting about the second one, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, separately), about a fifteen year old Cambodian-American boy in Long Beach dealing with the recent death of his mother, is a somewhat fresh look into family and community dynamics (the boy’s sister comes home to help pack up the house, their childhood friend, newly released from prison, moves back next door), but doesn’t, in my opinion, really capture the strong tensions over the delicate balance of assimilation and preservation of cultural beliefs and worldviews that define the Asian immigrant experience.  And I think I should know about this topic, being an Asian immigrant myself.  I think part of it is Andrea J. Dymond’s low-key, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week-like direction which doesn’t push the strong identity-related emotions to the surface.  But I think most of it is Golamco’s writing – I never fully understand, for example, why the mother would withhold her tortuous past with the Khmer Rouge from her children but freely share it with the kid next door (I’m sure it has to do with the Southeast Asian traits of stoicism and impassivity with family members), nor do I get a fully realized portrayal of how the Tiny Rascal Gangsters, the infamous Cambodian gang that took root in Long Beach, both anchored and terrorized the immigrant community (Golamco hints at it but doesn’t truly develop the thread).  Joyee Yin, though, is funny, sympathetic and heartbreaking as Vuthy, the main protagonist, a shining star trying to break out of a bland Jello mold.  Year Zero inaugurates Victory Gardens’ Studio Theater, on the second floor of the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., and runs till October 18.

st-crispin.jpgSt. Crispin’s Day – Playwright Matt Pepper takes three very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Henry V, the rogue English soldiers Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, and envisions a story around their shenanigans prior to King Henry’s delivery of that famous Shakespearian soliloquy about war and nationalism, “St. Crispian’s Day”, which is delivered in the play on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.   The shenanigans include teaming up with an Irish soldier, Will, to kidnap the King in order to sell him off to the French; stealing church collection money intended to be paid as tribute to Henry; bringing a pair of prostitutes to the English army’s camp; killing off the army’s priest; and acting as all-around bad examples to a younger, more naïve soldier, Thomas, who is the object of lust by the army’s closeted captain, Fluellen.  It’s a silly, bawdy play, and half the time I wasn’t really sure why Pepper wrote it (other than he had to either turn it into his MFA thesis committee at the last minute, or he was awarded some artsy, esoteric playwriting grant).  Having been written in the early part of this decade, right around the Iraq invasion, there must be some pacifistic, anti-war intent, but that really doesn’t come through in Kevin Christopher Fox’s spirited but ultimately lightweight production, Strawdog Theatre‘s first play for the season.  The set design by Anders Jacobson is impressively detailed, comprised of mud, shrubbery, tents, and various medieval knickknacks and sundries. And the cast is uniformly excellent with knockout comic timing; major props go to Michael Smith’s outrageous bonehead Piston, Tom Hickey’s verbally adroit Bardolph, and Carlo Garcia’s cluelessly sexy Thomas.  You can catch St. Crispin’s Day at Strawdog’s Lakeview headquarters, 3829 N. Broadway, until October 31.

ma-rainey.jpgMa Rainey’s Black Bottom – 24 years ago, this frighteningly intense, gut-wrenching play launched August Wilson’s legendary Broadway career and initiated his unsurpassable ten-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century.  The Court Theater opens its current season with a passionate, blazing production directed by experienced Wilson interpreter Ron OJ Parsons and showcasing what is, in my mind, possibly one of the best male performances, if not the best, this Chicago theater year has seen, James T. Alfred’s superbly jaw-dropping performance as Levee, the young, ambitious trumpet player who wants to form his own band and land a recording contract in the 1920s “race music” scene- jazz and blues recordings by African-Americans targeted towards African-American audiences in the South.  From the time he comes into the basement rehearsal room bragging about his expensive new shoes to the explosive exchanges he has with the rest of the band members (brilliantly realized characterizations as well from Cedric Young, Alfred H. Wilson and especially A.C. Smith) to his stomach-punching delivery of Levee’s experience of seeing his mother gang raped by their white neighbors to his fierce confrontation with Ma Rainey to the memorably shocking final scene, Alfred is continuously riveting, infusing his performance with Hyde Park-surpassing intensity and emotional commitment.   I cannot wait to see him in other plays soon.  Greta Oglesby, as real-life blues music forerunner Ma Rainey, whose imperious, Gorgon-like behavior masks both an insecurity and a resignation that she’s only as good to her white music producers as her last record, is Alfred’s dazzling acting match.  When Oglesby says to her band that the only time she has been asked to come to house of her white manager, whom we have already seen as catering to her every whim and command, was to sing for his dinner guests, her combustible delivery, a mix of anger, humiliation, and wistfulness, is devastating.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., until October 18.

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