Tragedy, Comedy, Tonight

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mud blue sky a red orchidI’ve been flying to Charlotte a couple of times a month since the beginning of the year for my day job.  Sometimes I’d scan the performing arts listings of Creative Loafing, their equivalent to the Chicago Reader, hoping that maybe this was the week that I could savor the pleasures of live theater in North Carolina. But every week there’s always no more than five shows listed, one of them almost always either a touring production or a community theater staging of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (For unfortunate North Carolinians, between their right-wing extremist legislature and low-brow musical theater, they just can’t win!). That’s why I’m always glad to come back to Chicago and breathe in our lively theatrical air. And I never take for granted that on any given weekend we have several dozens of plays and musicals to choose from, and that if we wanted to, we can go to the theater every single day of the week, alternating between tragedies and comedies, serious themes and larks.  Here are my thoughts on a couple of shows I saw the past weekends.

Mud Blue Sky (A Red Orchid Theatre).   I’ve always been a big fan of Marisa Wegrzyn’s distinctive work and think her Butcher of Baraboo (the Red Orchid production, not the rough but fascinating early staging at Steppenwolf’s Firs Look Repertory) is one of the funniest, bellyaching, jaw-hurting plays I’ve ever seen.  She creates these incredibly eccentric worlds in which both the laughs and the pathos come from the fact that her characters behave as if the bizarre situations they find themselves in are perfectly normal.    But unlike her past shows which dealt with murderous butchers and their meth-dealing daughters, housewife assassins, and young people with alarm clocks for hearts, Mud Blue Sky has a surprisingly mature resonance and accessibility since it places its still-quirky, still-people-behaving-badly flight attendant protagonists within the very real, very painful context of airline workforce reductions. The play is about one night at an O’Hare hotel room where two flight attendants are spending their layover before flying out the next day:  the distant, plain-speaking Beth who is considering taking early retirement to open up a craft beer business, and the aging party girl Sam who is preoccupied about having left her teenage son at home by himself. During the course of the night they meet up with a former co-worker Angie who was let go by the airline a couple of years before and whose life has turned into a trainwreck since, and Beth’s teenage drug dealer, Jonathan, who was just unceremoniously dumped by his prom date.

The set-up is hilarious and Wegrzyn’s caustic one-liners fly at Dreamliner pace. But she also writes dialogue of profound hurt and insecurity, painting a portrait of lives that have had no meaning, marked only by the passage of never-ending flights, the sameness of cities and hotel beds and cable channel listings, the indifference of passengers (one of the starkest, most poignant passages in the play is when Angie recounts going home with an old woman who was a passenger on her flight and becomes an unwitting sort-of-witness to a possible crime, one of the few times where she could have made a difference).  Shade Murray directs the play with a careful, empathetic hand, impressively guiding along Wegrzyn’s unique rhythms, some scenes feeling loose, tentative, and improvisatory but which reflect the interaction and expressiveness (or lack of) of the characters.  And he has a formidable cast to work with. Three of the city’s best theater actresses, all Red Orchid ensemble members, play the three flight attendants: Natalie West is brittle yet sad as Beth, beautifully painting her inability to connect with others; Mierka Girten marvelously demonstrates both Sam’s shallowness and cattiness but also her deep-seated fears about raising a teenage son with a job that takes her away from him for long stretches of time; and Kirsten Fitzgerald in a smaller role than her other co-stars, gives a compactly-etched and melancholy portrait of a woman whose sense of self is defined by her job, which unfortunately everyone knows isn’t that great anyway. I can imagine that acting with these three superb performers can be intimidating, but Matt Farabee, who has impressed in many storefront productions, plays the confused but intrinsically decent teenager Jonathan with so many marvelous nuances (I love how he tries to keep the hotel room in order even while drinks are spilled and porn is played on the TV), performing at the same level of game as his more experienced co-stars.  I think these performances are reason enough to see Mud Blue Sky.  Those unused to Wegrzyn’s writing may find it meandering, sometimes over-the-top. Some folks may feel the ending unsatisfyingly open-ended –  but very few events in life have closure anyway.  Mud Blue Sky is onstage at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. until May 25.

Our Class (Remy Bumppo).  Remy Bumppo’s intense Chicago premiere of Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s  account of the little-known but true-to-life incident that happened in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in 1941 in which its Jewish residents were rounded up and burned to death in a locked barn by their Catholic neighbors, is harrowing yet essential viewing.  Slobodzianek focuses on a class of ten students, both Jews and Catholics, and follows them from their school days through the incident through their lives after the war.  The play is written in a series of stylized scenes with characters providing first-person narration, and in Ryan Craig’s hypnotic English translation, these scenes, especially in Act One when we see some of the classmates make choices that demonstrate the heinous depths of human nature, pack quite a punch. I think Act Two is longer than I would have expected it to be yet also feels more rushed in depicting the lives of the survivors after World War Two (well, it does have several more decades to portray than Act One). But the show is constantly riveting, thanks to the dream-like quality of Nick Sandy’s direction (ably supported by musical director Joe Cerqua’s distinctive, plaintive score of klezmer music and Polish folk songs, and projections designer John Boesche’s evocative images, depicting everything from that infamous barn to the Polish countryside to an ever-changing New York City), and the top-notch acting of the cast. Our Class has probably one of the best ensembles you can see on a Chicago stage currently so it’s very difficult to single anyone out (and kudos to everyone for playing their characters from childhood to adulthood to old age without skipping a beat), but especially memorable are Rebecca Sohn’s determined , heartbroken survivor, and  Brian Plocharczyk’s charismatic hoodlum.  Our Class is at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, until May 11.

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