Last Theater Outings for the Year

Theater Add comments

Man, this year quickly whizzed by like Sarah Palin on an Alaskan dog sled.  It’s been a terrific year of many personal milestones, though, so I have nothing to complain about.  I’m getting ready to publish my annual From The Ledge list of the most memorable theatrical productions in Chicago (look out for the list sometime over the weekend), but before I do that, I just wanted to wrap up another year in Chicago theater viewing with my comments on a couple of productions that opened over the past several weeks.  Before I left for Asia in the last week of November I managed to catch the opening of Hubris Productions’ mounting of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; after I got back from Asia, I headed over to see the wacky goings-on in the Chopin Theater basement with The Hypocrites’ version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

So I’ve seen Frankie and Johnny several times, and its tiredness and slightness as a theatrical piece get even more apparent every time.  This two-hander about a night spent together by a lonely and pensive diner waitress and a lonely and talkative short order cook is a whole lot of shortening, very little organic flour, with a lot of forced dramatic tension to stretch out the play to two hours with an intermission.  It’s also pretty dated with several obvious references to 70s pop culture (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and 70s New York City (Hell’s Kitchen, where the play is set, is portrayed as the antithesis of the hip, buzzy, gay-friendly neighborhood it is today).  I understand, though, why it’s frequently produced – smaller theater companies can find it cost-effective to stage (two actors, a well-worn studio apartment set) and larger theater companies can find it as an attractive, scenery-chewing vehicle for big names (I saw both the Broadway version with Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco, and the Steppenwolf production with Laurie Metcalf and Yasen Peyankov).  Hubris Productions’ version is a valiant effort, and director Jacob Christopher Green keeps the action moving along pretty briskly and minimizes the cheesy sentiment factor (although that joint toothbrushing scene at the end of the play always makes me cringe).  But a significant part of what will make a production of the play notable is the compelling watchability of its lead actors (a quality that permeated every pore of the Broadway and Steppenwolf productions), and despite very competent portrayals, Dennis Frymire as Johnny, the cook, and Patricia Savieo as Frankie, the waitress, do not have, in my opinion, the sizzle, the sass, and the mesmerizing charisma needed for an audience member to hang in there for more than two hours of McNally’s non-storytelling.  Frymire and Savieo give good performances, but to overcome the thinness of the writing and sustain audience attention, the performances in Frankie and Johnny need to be more than good, they need to be impeccably dazzling.

Some pundits can claim that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s Victorian operetta is pretty thin theatrical material as well.  But you wouldn’t know it with The Hypocrites’ giddy, ADD-infused, everything-in-the-kitchen-sink-is-thrown-in-there production, staged by Artistic Director Sean Graney in his trademark promenade style.  As long-time readers of this blog know, I’ve championed Graney’s promenade staging when it’s brilliantly realized (such as in Edward II) and called out it’s distracting and wearying impact when it’s not (such as Frankenstein at the MCA Chicago).  I think I’m kinda in-between with Graney’s use of it in Penzance.  On one hand, I think there’s a lot more effort being demanded of an audience member to wander around a musical production, since by it’s very nature a musical has a lot more things going on- people are dancing, singing, playing instruments (and unlike in a straight play, you have to be more aware of staying out of an actor’s high-kick!) But this staging of Penzance is so fresh and innovative, and is boatloads of fun that I’m ready to overlook the fact that moving around following the performers or getting out of their way takes a chunk out of the complete enjoyment of the musical numbers. 

There’s a lot of silliness in Penzance’s story of a boy who tries to get out from under the clutches of the orphan-loving, bumbling pirate crew that took him in when he was a child, when he falls in love with the daughter of a Major General.  And Graney embraces this silliness with people performing inside inflatable pools or jumping and running around on an almost room-length pier.  But the silliness and flimsiness of the story is also made refreshingly, endearingly contemporary by the zesty, unpretentious performance of a cast that plays their own musical instruments and who, thank goodness, do not even attempt to sing the musical numbers operetta style (Christine Stulik in the dual role of the ugly, web-footed pirate girl, Ruth, and the lovely Major General daughter, Mabel, is a hilarious standout), as well as the impressive but quite overloaded production design by Tom Burch. I appreciate the whole beach/water/picnic theme that Graney and Burch are striving for, but I’m not really sure I can totally get behind the mix and match of Christmas lights, inflatable pools, beach balls, Leni Reifenstahl bathing caps, tiki torches, and rubber duckies.  Although costume designer Alison Siple can always sign me up with any pirate crew that outfits themselves in boy shorts! Yay!

The Hypocrites’ Penzance is an enjoyable, warmth-inducing outing during this frigid Chicago winter days.  It’s a lark, but coming last in a strong Hypocrites’ year that saw an unforgettable Cabaret and a dazzling K., it’s more of a fluffy soufflé of a final course than a chocolate ganache cake.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune continues until December 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Pirates of  Penzance is at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, until January 30, 2011.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in