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juno timelineI’ve been run ragged by my consecutive three-play weekends (hmm, dear readers, although it seems like I’m at a theater all the time, I do have a normal, regular day job to go to during the week), but who am I to complain? This Chicago theater season has been extraordinary, with several notable productions and world premieres. But our intrepid theater companies have also unearthed several rarities- shows that are not performed regularly in this city or have never been performed here at all.  A couple of weekends ago, I was able to catch Timeline Theatre’s handsome, respectful but distancing production of Joseph Stein’s and Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, the musical adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s classic drama Juno and the Paycock. Timeline’s production of the 1959 musical is its first ever Chicago production – it is so rarely produced (the last New York production was a 2008 semi-staged Encores! production; before that a 1992 off-Broadway remount) that Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, who logs more air miles than anyone to see shows across the US, tweeted from Timeline that finally he saw a fully-staged production of Juno.  Last weekend, I was over at Raven Theatre to see its brakes-free production of Tennessee Williams’ lurid, hysterical melodrama Vieux Carre, which surprisingly (or maybe not, see below) is infrequently staged in a city so in love with Williams’ Southern tales of decadence and heartbreak that we had four The Glass Menageries a couple of seasons back.  Following are my thoughts on these two shows.

Vieux Carre (Raven Theatre) – The last and only production of Vieux Carre that I saw was the Wooster Group’s 2011 deconstruction in New York which contained the memorable scene of Kate Valk licking Scott Shepherd’s bare butt cheeks. It was assuredly, expectedly over-the-top (Elizabeth LeCompte’s Williams fantasia also included video, a gigantic dildo, and lots of jockstraps) but the Wooster Group’s cacophonous style inevitably drowned Williams’ words. So I was excited to see the Raven Theatre’s more straightforward staging of the play. Finally, I thought to myself, I’ll get to revel in Williams’ dreamy, haunting writing.  Well, parts of the writing are indeed dreamy and haunting, but really most of it is a mess. Williams finished and premiered the play in 1977 (although he seemed to have worked on it on-and-off for 40 years).  It promptly closed after 11 performances.  But it’s really not very good – an impressionistic, meandering portrayal of the denizens of a crumbling New Orleans boarding house in the 1930s, it’s packed full of tropes (from Williams’ body of work, Grand Guignol, pulp fiction, etc.),  hopelessness and unapologetic  melodrama.  The main character is The Writer, a 25 year old with cataracts in his eyes, a stand-in for Williams, and he is surrounded by, among others,  a feisty Northern transplant, her hustler lover, a predatory aging gay male, two poverty-stricken former socialites who scavenge for food in trashcans,  their mentally-unstable landlady and her long-suffering black maid. They fight, they scream, they cry, they tell lies, they have sex, the landlady pours boiling water into the basement during a gay orgy, you name it Vieux Carre has it. But for what? To make the point that New Orleans destroys lives? That people destroy lives? That living life itself paradoxically destroys lives?  I’m also perplexed by the inconsistent use of the narrative device which of course Williams uses to more powerful effect in The Glass Menagerie, as well as the underdeveloped plot points which seem to come out of nowhere (the landlady has a son taken away from her which is reason for her descent into madness… and we learn about it only in act 2?).  And the ending when The Writer leaves the boarding house one last time feels unsatisfying (eliciting a big “So what?”).

Unlike The Wooster Group’s LeCompte (whose deconstructed antics covered up the problems of the script like mayonnaise on days-old bread), director Cody Estle takes a respectful, awed approach to Williams’ play which not surprisingly results in emphasizing the hysteria and downplaying any subtlety and nuance. And his ensemble cast (which includes Joann Montemurro, Will Casey, Eliza Stoughton, and Joel Reitsma) gets bogged down in the superficiality and loudness of their characters. There is a lot of scenery-chewing in this production, but the audience never fully understands the reason why. Ty Olwin, all gorgeous cheekbones and doe eyes, plays The Writer quietly and meticulously, almost incongruously, but he gets swept away by all the showy stage business of his fellow cast members.  Ray Toler’s set, on the other hand, is very impressive, with its musty, broken down furniture and blasted-out walls powerfully evoking the shattered, decaying milieu.  And to create this detailed, thoughtful set design on a storefront theater budget is nothing short of miraculous. Vieux Carre is at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., until June 28.

Juno (Timeline Theatre Company) – Unlike Vieux Carre, Juno, both the play and the Timeline production, is noble and respectable, so noble and respectable that it probably needs some of the other play’s fire and bloodthirstiness to make it more interesting. Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is about the travails of the Boyles, a family in 1920s Dublin, with the beginnings of the Irish War of Independence hovering in the background.  The financially-struggling family seems to see their fortunes improve when the father, Jack, receives an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative, and the daughter, Mary, falls for a British gentleman Charlie Bentham who plans to spirit her away to prosperous London.  But in the great tradition of Irish drama, things turn out to be worse than when they began, especially with the impact of the war on ordinary Dublin citizens.  More discomfiting subject matter (hmm, Cabaret or Spring Awakening anyone?) has been made into musicals, so adapting this play into a musicalized version isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is that book-writer Joseph Stein isn’t able to take the darkness and emotional heft of the material and turn them into engaging musical fare. The whole proceedings are solemn and ponderous. Which is unfortunate since Marc Blitzstein’s score is exquisite – songs like “We’re Alive”, “One Kind Word”, and “Bird Upon a Tree” are favorites of musical theater queens with impeccable taste.

I have mixed feelings about Nick Bowling’s immersive direction. A lot of it is impressive – he uses the entire Timeline theater space (meticulously designed by John Cuthbert) to stage scenes, sometimes with actors performing in between audience seats.  There’s a mellifluous quality to the pacing which complements the rhythms of Blitzstein’s elegant score.  But the staging of the musical numbers themselves (the ones that don’t include dance or movement) is pretty static.  This blocking might work better with a proscenium stage but if you’re craning your neck to watch a musical number on the other side of the theater and they’re not leaving that side, well, interest wanes pretty quickly. There are lots of lovely performances in the show: old favorites Michael Reckling, Anne Sheridan Smith, and Kelly Harrington shine in ensemble roles; Jordan Brown dazzles in the small, straight man role of Jerry Devine who is pining for Mary (I can’t wait to see him in another Ireland-set musical at the Goodman later this summer, Brigadoon); Emily Glick sings wondrously and magnetically as Mary, Peter Oyloe is charming as Charlie.  Marya Grandy as Juno, the family matriarch, successfully portrays the loyalty, pride, stoicism, and ferociousness of the character. Her singing, although very accomplished, sounds soft and tinny without any microphones in the enveloping Timeline space. Ron Rains as her husband Jack sings really well, but his large-scale, hammy performance jars with the more calibrated ones of the rest of the cast.  Vieux Carre, this ain’t.  Juno is at Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., until July 27.

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