Rock of Ages

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I’m not really a rock and roll kinda guy (does loving Liza Minnelli’s beyond-mind-exploding cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” for Sex and the City 2 count?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  And to head off the snark, yes, I do know that “Single Ladies” isn’t rock and roll. I’m being funny here, people!).  So I think it’s quite interesting that my last two theater outings had been rock and roll themed, one directly, the other very loosely.  A couple of weeks ago, I was at Signal Ensemble Theater’s Aftermath, one of the best reviewed shows currently playing, a world premiere play from Artistic Director Ronan Marra about the original leader of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, who met a young, untimely death.  Last weekend, I was out supporting TUTA Theater Chicago, where I’m a Board Member (that’s my standard full disclosure statement), for the opening night of the second show of the season, Bertolt Brecht’s first, and because of all the revisions and updating he made throughout his lifetime, last, play, Baal, about a free-wheeling hedonistic young man who magnetizes both sexes, usually interpreted and staged as a metaphor for the destructiveness of the rock and roll culture.  And despite being such a Sondheim-lovin’ showtunes diva, I can heartily recommend both.

Aftermath is a laudable, although imperfect, piece of work. Told in an episodic structure, it follows Jones’ gradual decline as leader of one of the most legendary musical groups in history due as much to the competitiveness brought about by an Eve Harrington-like Mick Jagger, as it is to Jones’ own personal insecurities and addictions.  As Jones, Aaron Snook, gives, in my opinion, one of the most compelling, committed performances currently on stage in the city:  infuriating in his self-absorption, heartbreaking in his little-boy-lost-ness, wondrous in his passion and vision for rock and roll.  He impressively plays the sitar live as well!  The entire cast is up to Snook’s game, especially Simone Roos who is extremely funny as Anita, Jones’ girlfriend, and Nick Vidal, who, as preening, showy, ambitious Jagger, gives the show (and the musical performances) most of its adrenaline.  I love Melania Lancy’s meticulously detailed production design, complete with reproductions of the Rolling Stones album covers hung around the space and newspaper articles introducing the various Stones members posted in the hallway as you enter the theater.  Marra directs the production with a sure hand, keeping the scene transitions seamless (a pretty key element to an episodic narrative) and the musical performances at a high energy level. My main problem with Aftermath, however, is with his writing.  I’m sure the episodic narrative didn’t help (the downfall of many “bio-pics” in either in the theater or in film), but you never get the sense of how important Jones was to the creation of the Stones and the development of their unique aesthetic.  He was the “founder” – but what did that really mean?  What made him compelling to the larger-than-life Jagger and Keith Richards, so much so that they would join his musical group? And because you don’t, then Jagger’s opposition and powergrab doesn’t really feel like it has the high stakes roll of the dice that it should have.  Being a rock and roll history virgin, I’m not sure how much Jones and the Stones interacted with their contemporaries, the members of that other legendary musical group, hmmm, the Beatles, but I think the introduction of George Harrison into two key scenes where Jones has major epiphanies about life, art, and music, seems a little contrived.  Overall though, Aftermath is a play that is worth your rocking while.

So as not to be accused of any conflicts of interest (and I know there are people out there who’ll jump on that bandwagon with glee!?), I won’t be posting in detail about TUTA’s Baal.  I’ll just point you to Kris Vire’s four-star Timeout Chicago review and Chris Jones’ three-star Chicago Tribune one, and you can make up your mind.  I’ve always been a big fan of TUTA (otherwise I wouldn’t have joined their Board), but this is a pretty spectacular production of one of Brecht’s most maddeningly non-linear plays.  I love the fact that instead of staging it as the usual Velvet Goldmine-like rock and roll parable, Artistic Director Zeljko Djukich infuses it with a lot of palpable wistfulness for a life that could have been lived otherwise, with stunningly realized, almost cinematic scenes that both evoke and innovate on influences from Stanley Kubrick (the use of candles as primary lighting in the final scenes recalls Barry Lyndon for me) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (the cabaret scene wouldn’t look out of place in Querelle), aided by the magnificent lighting design of Keith Parham.  Josh Schmidt’s hummable, memorable original score is both dreamy and defiant, sounding of-the-time-period (the 30s) but also feeling undeniably contemporary.  In Ian Westerfer, the production has a sexy, electrifying Baal, who is as heartfelt as he is flashy, sympathetic as he is ruthlessly seductive.  After seeing Westerfer, I’m sure at least half of the theater audience needed to be hosed down…it was hotter than a forest fire in there! Whew!

Aftermath is playing at Raven Theater’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., until June 6.  On the other hand, Baal is at the Chopin Theater Basement, 1543 W. Division St., until June 20.

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