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One of the things I look for constantly as an avid theatergoer is the element of surprise.  As my loyal blog readers know, and under threat of getting my theater maven credentials pulled by drama purists, I dread going to a Chekhov play – I dread it for its ponderous nature, its ennui, its lack of anything interesting going on.  I’ve seen more exciting things happen on the red line el to Chinatown than in many of the Chekhov productions I’ve been to.  That’s why I was very surprised to be enraptured by Robert Falls’ minimalist, deeply-felt, totally lived-in production of The Seagull at the Goodman’s Owen Theater.  Encountering surprise and the unexpected at a Hypocrites production is a given, but I was still wonderfully surprised and elated by K., Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen’s irreverent, funny, athletic, did-they-just-do-that? take on Kafka’s usually dark and malevolent The Trial.  So, if the previous sentences haven’t made it clear yet – you should go and see The Seagull and K. (despite what some theater critics whose agendas I cannot fathom have said about both), two very different plays with two very unique worlds of their own, but which consistently provide unexpected discoveries and viewing pleasures, possibly the two best shows of the fall theater season so far.

I have always been clear about my respect for Robert Falls and his significant role in the artistic and cultural lives of our city’s denizens.  His Balkans-transplanted King Lear is one of the most memorable and important plays of my theatergoing life and education.  However, his disastrous A True History of Johnstown Flood is one of the worst and most infuriating.  He has brought back many of the cast members of Flood to his version of The Seagull, and I am beyond-thrilled to see that they now have a production and material that is worthy of their considerable talents.  I’m surprised that I still keep on thinking about The Seagull days after I saw it (something I didn’t think I would ever say about a Chekhov play!).  Part of it is that the look and tone seems so different from past Falls productions:  the performance space is on a bare elevated runaway and contains minimal props, the actors all sit on wooden benches at the back of the theater when they’re not in a scene, the brilliant Keith Parham’s unfussy lighting design heightens and clarifies the emotions without being obtrusive, the equally brilliant Richard Woodbury’s clear, evocative sound design is notable but not showy. 

But I think most of it is because of the vivid, emotion-filled, meticulously-constructed, and absolutely believable performances of the ensemble cast, arguably the best one onstage in Chicago right now (and with this production, I’m firmly convinced that Stephen Louis Grush and Cliff Chamberlain have emerged as top dogs among our young male actors, which is saying a lot in this city).  The Seagull is about artistic frustration and insecurity, about lives that don’t seem to have lived up to potential, about indifferent, tone-deaf decisions that create havoc on other people’s lives, and the cast, through their detailed characterizations, bring these themes to life in clear, stark relief.   There are lots of wonderful acting moments in this production:  Grush’s masterfully-etched Konstantin subtly seeking approval and adoration from his self-involved mother, Mary Beth Fisher’s Arkadina, then exploding into anger and rebellion when he doesn’t get them; Francis Guinan’s Sorin’s deeply-felt melancholy and regret when recounting his unfulfilling life as a civil servant; Grush’s tenderness towards his ailing uncle, Guinan, right before his play is performed; Janet Ulrich Brooks’ housekeeper Polina’s bitter, desperate plea to the stoic Dorn, played by Scott Jaeck in a terrifically naturalistic performance, to run away with her and continue their affair; Fisher’s hysterical attempt, both comic and tragic at the same time, to literally hold on to her lover, Chamberlain’s very well-played Trigorin (masking his selfishness and arrogant bite under a veneer of laid-back dude-ness) as they roll all over the stage; and Heather Wood’s poignant final scene as Nina when she realizes the folly of her previous ways.  Because of the simplicity, the directness, the clear headedness of these performances, Falls and his cast makes Chekhov’s classic text interesting, memorable, and, frankly, heartbreaking for both purists and contemporary-minded audiences alike.

I’m not really sure what Kafka purists, on the other hand, would think of Greg Allen’s singularly clever, meta-theatrical, weird-funny version of The Trial.  Hopefully, they’ll think it’s one heck of an entertaining evening.  K. begins, as the novel does, with a regular Joe, named, well, Joseph K., put under arrest for a crime no one, including him, seems to know anything about.  This sets into motion a series of increasingly bizarre and absurd events, most from the novel, some from other Kafka work (the opening scene for Act II is a winkwink to Metamorphosis), and others from Allen’s kinetic creative imagination (such as Brennan Buhl’s Joseph K jumping through a series of doors to indicate the never-ending and complicated trajectory of his arrest).  Allen puts his unique tragi-comic spin on the grand themes of Kafka’s novel- the cruelty of bureaucracy, the prevalence of injustice, the overall cynicism of daily life – and succeeds marvelously as intellectual provocateur and as master entertainer.  Many, many scenes are memorable for their bite and engaging theatricality: there’s the scene when Joseph K meets with his Lawyer Huld (Clifton Frei) and the Chief Clerk of the Court (Clint Sheffer), a scene whose eccentricity evokes a Murnau pic crossed with a John Belushi SNL skit; or the awkward-funny seduction scene between Joseph and his neighbor Ms. Burstner (Tien Doman, winning MVP status in this play for playing all the female roles plus some);  or the strangely hypnotic burlesque when Joseph pleads with The Whipper (a surprisingly bare-assed Frei) to stop punishing the two Franzs (Eric Schroeder and Dan Granata).  Allen, in this production, creates some of the most interesting stage pictures you can view in this town.

And again, like The Seagull, the visionary director is helped immensely by a wonderfully well-matched ensemble cast.  Buhl’s excitingly unexpected portrayal of Joseph K, smart, spirited, unimpressionable, despite the dizzying craziness that his life is thrown into, is up there with Grush’s and Chamberlain’s in The Seagull as the must-see male actor performances of the season.  Buhl’s slightly off-kilter charm and very warm stage presence makes the absurdity of the proceedings believable (and the dear boy bravely shows the full monty at the top of the first act!).  The ensemble is top-notch, but major props go to the priceless Doman, Sheffer, and Frei, who, in addition to exceptional comedic chops, all display a polished stylization that is never broad or exaggerated, reminiscent of silent film stars. 

No excuses will be accepted for anyone reading this blog who are not rushing out to buy tickets to these two terrific productions.  The Seagull is at the Goodman’s Owen Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St., until November 21.  The Hypocrites K. is at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St., until November 28. 

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