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dublin-carol-at-the-steppenwolf.jpgruined-at-the-goodman.jpgWith Chicago’s ascendant star in the national cultural scene, it has been a delightful fall arts season in the city, since there’s been quite a diversity of the productions on view. Where else in the country, except for New York City, can you go to a rarely-produced play by an acclaimed Irish playwright starring a major television actor returning to his Chicago theatrical roots and directed by a Tony Award nominee on one night, and then hop on over the next night to the world premiere of a politically-charged new play by a hot young playwright and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, right before it’s New York City premiere? So, in less than a week, I was at the Steppenwolf to see Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol (which was not part of the theater’s subscription season) starring William Petersen, on leave from his last season on CSI, and directed by Amy Morton, in between Broadway and London August: Osage County jaunts; and at the Goodman for Lynn Nottage’s new play, Ruined, which will play off-Broadway with the same cast and director, at co-producer Manhattan Theater Club’s home turf in January. But what is so uniquely thrilling about Chicago (and a key differentiator from New York, IMHO) is that the storefront theater milieu, the vibrant roots of Chicago theater (where Petersen and Morton both emerged from), continues to thrive, admittedly with mixed results, amidst all these major theatrical events. So in the same week as Dublin Carol and Ruined (and the altered-state-inducing triumph, Gatz, too), I also saw Greasy Joan & Co.’s collection of Chekhov short stories, Chekhov’s Life in the Country, and A Red Orchid Theater‘s brazen A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, which, I can bet, will be one of the wackiest, most unique, most fall-off-the-chair-and-hope-you-don’t-crack-your-spine production you’ll see this season, or any season.

I’m a big admirer of Conor McPherson’s work, and I’m looking forward to the opening of The Seafarer, which is on Steppenwolf’s subscription season, in the next few weeks. However Dublin Carol, about an alcoholic funeral director coming to terms with his life during a holiday season when his estranged daughter visits with a request for him to handle his dying ex-wife’s funeral, seems more like a sketch, a detail study, than a large, masterful canvas of truthful experiences and emotions. It’s short (around 80 minutes), composed of only three scenes, slightly and simply plotted, and strangely enervated. I don’t think McPherson clearly and potently taps into John, the lead character’s, conflicted emotions (so unlike what was on view with the characters in his masterful Shining City). Other than the second scene, when the daughter shows up, most of the play is just low-battery, unengaging talk between John and his young assistant. But I’m also partly disappointed in Morton’s direction, which feels uninvolved most of the time, and yes, although I know it’s almost heretical to say it in this town, in Billy Petersen’s even-keeled performance. Of course, I’ve seen Petersen in CSI, and in films like Manhunter and To Live and Die in LA, and I know he can be explosive and magnetically hypnotic. His John (and maybe it’s partly because of how this character is written) is just a little too unemotional for me, and even in his outbursts, such as in his confrontation with his daughter, he seems to be holding something back. So in the last scene, when he sits still, allegedly awash with his regrets and recriminations, and anxious for, I don’t know, redemption, I don’t really feel like I was on a journey with him. Nicole Weisner, as the daughter, Mary, showing how she can tear into McPherson’s words and the emotions they evoke like there’s no tomorrow as she did in Shining City, gives the show the zap of electricity that it needs. I actually would have been more interested to see a play about Mary than this play about John. Oh, by the way, my pet peeve of people giving standing ovations at the least provocation occurred at the performance I attended. Sigh.

If Dublin Carol feels like a two-finger piano exercise most of the time, my gosh, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined is like a full-blown, enveloping, attention-getting sonata, and not just because it deftly incorporates lively, memorable, African-inspired music in the dramatic narrative. This production is going to New York City in January, and I think we’re pretty privileged to see it first. Ruined is about wily Mama Nadi, a brothel owner in the wilds of the Congo during the civil war of the early 2000s, who caters to the fleshly needs of both the government soldiers and the rebels, taking no sides except her side, which is the side of survival and commerce, sort of like Brecht’s Mother Courage in a slinky red dress, high heels, and a colorful headdress. Of course, just like Mother Courage, war catches up with Mama to show her who’s in charge. But unlike Brechtian pessimism, there’s a rose-colored ending to this piece, which I feel is out of place after two hours of searing, provocative, intelligent dramatic discourse, and is my only beef with the play. Nottage passionately but clearly tackles important themes such as the grave impact of war on “collateral damage”, both the civilians who don’t understand or subscribe to the causes and aims of the fighting, and the foot soldiers who just want to resume their interrupted lives; the traditional role and treatment of women in the Congo culture; the consequences of apathy and uninvolvement; the fierce human need to survive and overcome in circumstances of unimaginable violence and horror. It is a terrific play, with all the theatrical elements wonderfully coalescing and complementing each other, from Kate Whoriskey’s strong directorial vision, to the stunningly evocative production design, to the wonderful use of African music which very powerfully conveys the characters’ determination to live in a time and place where humanity and compassion seems to have been lost. Ruined has very vividly written, multi-faceted female characters and the actors do them justice, particularly the intense Quincy Tyler Bernstein, whose character, Salima’s, suffering and indignities are so clearly portrayed in her facial and vocal expressions, and physical movement. I think Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Mama Nadi gives an interesting, textured performance, but I do think she does better in capturing the little, truthful, warm bits of the character’s humanity, than in demonstrating the larger-than-life bravado, brittleness, and hard-heartedness that has allowed Mama to emerge from the carnage of all the physical, emotional, and environmental violence she has experienced in her life. Ruined is a must-see for all serious theatergoers.

I’m a big supporter of Greasy Joan and Co. as my avid blog readers know, and I continue to admire the sometimes radical, always intriguing and mind-broadening, undeniably modern takes the company has on classic theater and literature. I’m not convinced though that it’s current production of Chekhovian short stories, Chekhov’s Life in the Country, is completely successful. OK, so I admit, I need to see another Chekhov play as much as I need a tetanus shot in the butt, but I believe that Chekhov done thoughtfully is Chekhov that is as engaging and interesting as any contemporary play (exhibit A: TUTA’s Uncle Vanya last spring). I’m a little surprised that director Libby Ford and the actors of Life in the Country, decided to play Chekhov broadly, like a Beaumarchais or Moliere farce (and I LOVED their version earlier this year of Moliere’s The Misanthrope). My friend Sarah, who I saw the play with, said that playing the stories for laughs makes them more accessible to the audience. To a certain extent I agree with her; but I still have my reservations – I think Chekhov’s plays are perceived to be big downers by many people, but they’re also pretty humorous, because the characters are most of the time inadvertently funny in their self-delusion, stubborness, and self-pity. I prefer that kind of humorous take, rather than explicitly transforming the material into an SNL skit. I like Ilana Faust and Jason Huysman in the lead roles of the framing play, “Lady with a Lapdog”, maybe because they are pretty skilled in creating the Chekhovian world that I am accustomed to.

A Red Orchid Theater is one of the few storefront theaters (The Side Project is probably the only other one that comes to mind) that always seems to be on a theatrical high-wire act all the time. It is in top balls-out, combustible, over-the-top edgy form with its first musical ever A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, an Obie award-winner in 2003 when it was first conceived and produced by the New York experimental theater troupe Les Freres Corbusier. The title says it all – it is a wacky, sarcastic, astoundingly bold musical performed by children telling the origins, myth and ongoing influence of the Church of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard. Although a lean 60 minutes, it does feel like a long-drawn out joke at some points, albeit a highly entertaining one. I think part of the fun is the whole concept: to see kids make fun and be critical of Scientology is brilliant in the way Matt Lauer interrogating Scientologist #1 Tom Cruise isn’t. I think the other reason is that co-directors Lance Baker and Steve Wilson found some of the hammiest, uninhibited, most talented child performers in the city to execute the outrageous scenario. I especially liked Najwa Brown as the sardonic Angel Girl and Paola Lehmann hilariously playing both the Analytical Mind (complete with a craggy brain costume) and Kirstie Alley. And I left the theater humming the sappy but infectious opening number, “It’s a Happy Day.”  A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is not your feel-good Christmas cheer-type of theater outing, but hey, it’s good for us, in the way spiking eggnog, especially right before a family holiday dinner, is.

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One Response to “Quartet”

  1. Kelly Martani Says:

    I loved “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pagaent” as well. Also worth noting for fans of the two storefront theaters mentioned is that the shows lone “straight man” (on wheels no less)..Jaiden Fallo was also the haunting other-worldly child in one of The Side Projects best productions in my opinion, Adam Rapp’s “Faster”. They really managed to snag the cream of the crop child actors in this holiday season packed full of shows with kids as props.

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