High Concept

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The December holiday theater season in Chicago has usually been a tepid grab bag of plays about Scrooge, George Bailey, Santa Claus, and all forms Rudolph, naughty, nice, and red-hosed.  A couple of years ago, the holiday month was electrified by non-typical non-holiday theatrical fare:  a blistering, unforgettable Steppenwolf staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (now similarly electrifying Broadway audiences), and The Hypocritesdelirious island-set, promenade-staged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which will close the main stage season in May 2013 of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, one of the most important regional theaters in the country.  This year, thankfully, amidst the multiple It’s a Wonderful Lifes around the Chicagoland area (really how many times can this old horse be trotted out and live another day?), there are several exciting, high-concept productions to see if you, like me, want to fast-forward through all the dripping candy cane sentiment and come back to real life, or at least to real theater (yes, if you’ve read my blog for the past couple of years, you know my holiday spirit is, well, non-existent).  The Hypocrites is back this season with Pirates and is performing it in repertory with another Gilbert and Sullivan classic operetta, The Mikado, an intoxicating, exhilarating, unexpected production that is sure to be on my list of the ten best productions of the year (yep, it’s that good). Over at Victory Gardens is a noteworthy world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure:  A Love Story, a melancholy, delicately-etched play being given a production too big, and too messy, for its britches (which is a problem).  If you have time for only one play in between the fruitcake-and-eggnog coma, I’d say go see The Mikado and it will rouse you back to exhilarated life.

More than Pirates, I think The Mikado and its ridiculous parody of bumbling bureaucrats, incomprehensible laws, and ineffective government is best suited for Sean Graney’s bombastic, rollercoasting, design-ADD aesthetic.  This Mikado, which is originally set in a Westernized concept of an imperial 19th century Japan closed to the world, is set in what appears to be a circus but with various circular seating areas. One of these areas is filled with balloons where kids can play and hang out during the performance (yes, kids at the theater, one of my pet peeves, which became a non-peeve at the performance I attended because the production is just so delightful, and the use of this kids’ playpen so non-intrusive). The actors all play instruments and in the case of the two leads, double-cast: the dynamic, exceptionally well-sung Shawn Pfautsch plays both the male lead, Nanki-Poo, and, in drag with impeccable comic timing, his matronly pursuer, Katisha; the entrancing Emily Casey plays both the female lead Yum-yum, and the ruler of Japan, The Mikado, an effective conceit (which resulted in several panting costume changes). Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic score have been orchestrated to be more contemporary, and more toe-tappingly showtune-like by Kevin O’Donnell. There’s a bar where actual drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, are poured.  In other productions, all of these may feel precious, but Graney’s direction, unassumingly controlled despite the potential for chaos that promenading audiences and music-playing performers can cause, and the ensemble cast’s exuberant, vibrant performances, make these artistic decisions so right for this production.   I also appreciate the fact that Graney and his designers-Alison Siple for costumes, Michael Smallwood for sets- make everything culturally non-specific, as if to head-off the potential racially-oriented discourse that The Mikado sometimes provokes (some take offense at a portrayal of Japan as a comical, bumbling, not-very-civilized nation).  The Hypocrites’ The Mikado is an inventive, infectious, big-hearted night at the theater which will send you humming and tap-dancing your way down Division Street.

Failure:  A Love Story has a big-heart too, full of intimate insights into and associations about time, memories, family, love and companionship.  Philip Dawkins has used beautiful language to tell the story of the Fail sisters, who run a clock store in Chicago left to them by their tragically-departed parents, who all died in their twenties during the year 1928. They leave behind a beau, Mortimer Mortimer, who falls in love with each sister as the others pass away, and an adopted brother, John N, who loves animals more than human beings.  Dawkins’ script still needs some work – I think the point of view isn’t very clear (you’d think this is all about the sisters, but ultimately everything seems to be told from the point of view of Mortimer, and John N and him are the true protagonists of the story); the character of the youngest sister Nelly, the first to die, isn’t as clearly drawn as that of the other two, the taciturn eldest sister Gertrud and the aggressive middle sister and champion swimmer, Jenny June; and the blend of magical realism and naturalism hasn’t really settled in yet.  But this tiny jewel of a script has been buried alive in Seth Bockley’s terribly busy, all-over-the-map production.  I’m not really sure this production with the actors singing and playing instruments, moving set pieces around (Scott Davis’s set design is well-curated though), continuously walking around the stage and interjecting into scenes, and using broad, vaudevillian performance styles, is the best match for the material.  The end of the piece, when John N and Mortimer grow old together, is appropriately quiet, bittersweet, and haunting, the tone I was looking for throughout the ninety-minute production.  The actors are all capable, though distracting, with Matt Fletcher, confident, charming, and ultimately lonely as Mortimer, and Michael Salinas, sweetly ironic as John N, coming off best.

Run to The Hypocrites’ The Mikado at the Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division Street, running until January 13. Although I assure you you’ll be skipping and dancing out of it. You can catch Failure:  A Love Story at Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, until December 30.

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