Study in Contrasts

Music, Theater Add comments

shining-city-at-the-goodman.jpgSleep deprivation, brought about by having to run 1 am conference calls with Asia and the UK every night (or early morning, to be exact), has not dampened my enthusiasm to take advantage of the very active, very exciting Chicago theater winter season.  Last week, I first went to Fatboy at A Red Orchid Theatre, John Clancy’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival sensation.  It’s an over-the-top, outrageously bawdy, knock-you-senseless-with-its-absurdity-and-cojones updating of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, about a tyrant who literally eats and then destroys the world, and his sex-starved wife, with staggeringly magnificent performances from Steve Pickering and Jennifer Engstrom.   Later on in the week, I managed to catch Shining City at the Goodman, Robert Falls’ remounting of his Broadway version of Conor McPherson’s spare, melancholy, beautifully written play about a psychiatrist and his patient haunted by visions of his dead wife, and two people in the psychiatrist’s life, re-cast with a quartet of excellent Chicago actors.  I think it is interesting that both Fatboy and Shining City demonstrate the undeniably central importance of the text in any theatrical production (something I have written about in the past), in contrasting ways.  In Fatboy, the visionary direction, the mind-blowingly stunning performances, and the excellent production values fail to overcome what I feel is an obvious, annoyingly repetitive, punch-to-the-gut hectoring of a script.  In Shining City, despite an ending which belonged more in a Wes Craven B-movie than in a riveting stage production, the beauty of the writing- its subtlety, its reflectiveness, its honesty, its very meticulous buildup of emotions and realizations- makes the play unforgettable.

So time now for full disclosure- I am a huge fan of A Red Orchid Theatre and continue to volunteer pro-bono for them through the Arts and Business Council of Chicago. I strongly feel that Red Orchid is one of the most essential arts organizations in the city of Chicago, since they continuously demonstrate the guts and admirable leap of faith to produce plays that audiences will never see anywhere else in the city- edgy, cut-to-the-bone stunners like Sarah Kane’s Blasted, or intellectually provocative plays like Brett Neveu’s Weapon of Mass Impact, the season opener last year.  There is so much to admire and enjoy in Fatboy, and I will challenge anyone to tell me that there is any other night of theatre in the city that can surpass this production in terms of jaw-dropping intensity.  Steve Pickering as Fatboy and especially the amazing Jen Engstrom, as his scandalous wife Fudgie, deliver hypnotic, this-side-short-of-demented, fiercely committed, really, really funny performances – waddling around in padded body suits (and in Jen’s case, grotesquely exaggerated fake boobs), brawling and rolling over any exposed areas of the stage, singing lustily, performing a puppet show, I mean you name it, they do it, with gusto.  The supporting ensemble cast- Doug Vickers, Mark Vallarta, and John Luzar- are equally committed and hilarious, well, inspite of the fact that they sometimes have to work with props such as a, ahem, two feet long dildo.  Guy Van Swearingen’s direction, which clearly emphasizes the absurdity of the proceedings but also gives it a tinge of wink-wink burlesque, and the fantastic, vaudeville-meets-insane-asylum set both help create a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.  But all of these could have been served better by a text other than John Clancy’s self-indulgent, unsubtle, hammer-you-on-the-head lecture, which needs judicious use of the editing pen.  His points on American consumerism, economic colonization, prevalence of injustice and lack of fair play, global political powerplays and geopolitics- good points all- really start becoming tiresome after you’ve heard them for the 200th time in a ninety minute play.  At some parts of the play, I wanted to scream at Clancy- I get it!  Enough already!

There is no screaming “I get it!” during the ninety minute running time of Shining City.  The play, which comes off so simple, but is in fact very tightly written and complexly structured, continues to make me think days after I have seen it.   In a series of five vignettes involving an ex-priest starting a new life as a psychiatrist; his patient, an emotionally exhausted middle-aged man who claims his recently-dead wife is haunting him; the psychiatrist’s girlfriend whom he has temporarily abandoned after she gave birth to their child; and a male hustler whom the psychiatrist picks up at a gay cruising spot, a very realistic world of broken lives haunted by guilt, failure to connect with others, and inability to accept one’s frailties and weaknesses, is effectively and sensitively conjured.  I love the fact that Conor McPherson wrote very simply, in the language of daily life (I like the peppering of the conversations with the phrase “you know”, a phrase so commonly used among many of us, which can function as verbal filler, but also if one listens closely, and given the situation, it can be a plea to be heard, to be understood, to connect).  The actors give tribute to the beauty of the text by giving wonderful, thoughtful performances.  Jay Whittaker and Nicole Wiesner are terrific and emotionally truthful as the psychiatrist and his girlfriend, but John Judd blows you out of the Goodman and deposits you on Dearborn Street, stunned, with an emotional rollercoaster of a performance- his breakdown monologue when he recounts planning to cheat on his dead wife, is just spectacularly delivered.  And then there’s the young actor Keith Gallagher, who I so admired in TUTA’s Tracks last year, as the male hustler.  I am very glad that he got this very well-deserved, career-advancing break to work on this play with Robert Falls.  His one scene with Whittaker is so, again not to overdo the use of the phrase, beautifully written and poignantly acted that you really sit up and pay attention.  The ending, which I will not reveal, sort of undermines the play by providing a shocking tone which seemed incongruous with the rest of the delicately constructed scenes that preceded it.  Oh well, nothing’s perfect, so I don’t think that one detail spoiled my overall enjoyment and respect for the play.

I also managed to catch MusicNow at the Harris Theatre last night.  I have written about the MusicNow series here.  Last night’s performance was unique, to say the least.  I feel that I have now completely and deservedly earned my culture vulture stripes by having been able to sit through a 40 minute performance by the Norwegian jazz chanteuse, Sidsel Endresen, without gagging, fainting, or tearing my clothes off in frustration.  I guess she is very much acclaimed in European jazz and classical music circles, but I have to be honest, and with the threat of being labeled a cultural ignoramus, I just do not get her.   This sentence from the Boston Phoenix reviewing her performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival should have tipped me off:  “Endresen sounded like a cabaret singer from a Lars von Trier film, full of dread and mystical yearning. ” Cabaret singer in a Lars von Trier film- yikes! Billed as voice improvisation, full of guttural and other inexplicable sounds as well as random spoken words, her performance sounded like a cross between a hippopotamus giving birth, Mongolian throat-singing, Alpine yodeling gone mad, birdcalling, and an epileptic seizure.  At one point, she gave out this husky bellow which sounded like she was turning into the Incredible Hulk (at that point, I sat up straight, in case yummy Eric Bana came out of the wings to save us from this disaster).  Her performance was accompanied by video which looked like a hodgepodge of 1950s space training movies, an acid trip hallucination, and a third rate Andy Warhol Factory documentary.  They should have given out Dramamine and Tylenol Extra-Strength at the Harris last night during the pizza and beer reception.

 Picture:  John Judd and Jay Whittaker in Shining City.

Fatboy runs till March 2 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.  Shining City is onstage at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. I don’t know where Sidsel Endresen is going to be next, but I am pretty sure I won’t be there.

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