Bailiwick’s entertaining ‘Mahal’ explores the struggle of redefining family post-tragedy

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F Karmann Bajuyo, Kate Garassino and Kevin Matthew Reyes in Bailiwick Chicago Theater’s world premiere of production of “Mahal”

“Mahal” is Tagalog for “love.” It also means “expensive.” While it might seem odd that such an important word serves two meanings, when you think about it, it makes sense. Love is precious. It’s something that emerges only after great investment of time and emotion. Though, sometimes it comes unexpectedly — but we burn through it too quickly. It requires work to maintain.

So, yes: love has a price. And it’s not cheap.

In Danny Bernardo’s world premiere play, which is receiving a refreshingly accessible production at Stage 773 by Bailiwick Chicago, we meet a family — the Reyes — that’s been shaken up due to a recent tragedy. The family matriarch has passed, and it’s as if the glue that held the cracks together has crumbled. And now this fractured family must negotiate how all the pieces fit together.

It’s times like these where skeletons and deep down emotions come flooding from the proverbial closet. Is the family’s love for each other strong enough to whether this storm?

As Mikey, the youngest in the family, Kevin Matthew Reyes has a lot of growing up to do. He’s living off his mother’s inheritance while trolling men on Grindr. His older sister (Kate Garassino, giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from her yet) deals with an internal struggle of dragging her brother kicking and screaming into adulthood while maintaining peace. Middle child Roberto (Karmann Bajuyo) has met a new woman online (Jillian Jocson) from the Philippines, but does she have an ulterior motive for connecting with him? Meanwhile, Roberto (Joseph Anthony Foronda), the patriarch, hasn’t waited three months before redecorating for his new bachelorhood — much to his children’s horror.

In more than a few ways, Bernardo’s script reminds me a lot of Immediate Family — another fine ensemble play with roots in Chicago that centers around a family who comes together following a tragedy and must deal with acceptance and moving forward. There’s the uptight eldest daughter who’s sacrificed her life to keep the family together, the golden (and therefore, resented) son who happens to be gay, and the outsider boyfriend who gives them all perspective. However, while both plays have striking similarities, both have valid, distinct and compelling stories that tug at the heart.

At times Bernardo’s otherwise honest writing veers into Lifetime Movie land (the final scene between Mikey and his father doesn’t emotionally satisfy), but you do leave thinking about your own family and the investment you’ll make to maintain their love — through rich and poor times.

“Mahal” plays through August 2 at Stage 773. More info here >

A perplexing and pretentious ‘Lives of the Pigeons’

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Vincent L. Lonergan and Don Bender in The Side Project’s “Lives of the Pigeons”

Sometimes after seeing a show, I leave the theatre feeling more than a little disoriented. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — good theatre should challenge. So, following the world premiere of Sherod Santos’ perplexing Lives of the Pigeons, I went home and did a little research on the playwright.

Well, from what Google tells me, Santos is quite the established and award-winning scribe. He excels at deceivingly straightforward, unadorned poetry that reveals human insights peppered with shades of darkness, often in the form of violence or harsh language.

And this observation is quite apparent in Lives of the Pigeons, a curious, 60-minute study into how our actions, or lack of action, have consequence — good and bad and everything in between.

At least, this is what I *think* the play was about.

You see, we have two elderly gentlemen, Gus (Vincent L. Lonergan) and Max (Don Bender), who meet on regular occasion to play chess, drink beer and eat sandwiches. We learn through their oblique banter that their previous hangout was destroyed by a fire, so now they’ve moved the chess party outdoors and into the park.

Gus represents an extreme lack of accountability. Act first, question later. Even though the signs tell him not to, Gus feeds the pigeons. What harm does it do? Gus loses a chess bet (not much of a surprise, given his passive approach to life mirrors his chess game) and is required to get the sandwiches and beer, but only comes back with sandwiches because that’s simply what the clerk gave him. When a mysteriously dapper man with a cane (Matthew Lloyd) makes a guest appearance, he instructs Gus to suck his own thumb. And he does.

Wait, what?

Exactly.

Max, the Type-A to a T, questions everything and gets annoyed when things don’t go to plan. When he comes back to find Gus sprawled out on the ground claiming a man with a cane got him in this predicament, Max demands answers.

As did I.

Look: I respect that Santos has written this dense puzzle of a play. Yet, if there’s a compelling message or idea in here, I just couldn’t latch on. Nor did I really care — despite some excellent acting and unfettered direction by Adam Webster, not once was I engaged in this tale, which mostly seemed like an hour of pointless arguing. I simply felt confused, annoyed and, like those poor pigeons, eager for a crumb.

“Lives of the Pigeons” plays through June 30 at The Side Project. More info here >

Don’t cry for him: Ben Rimalower is taking his hit one-man show on a rainbow tour

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Writer, director and performer Ben Rimalower knows a thing or two about high belting. No, he’s not a singer per say, but he does appreciate the finer belts in life — including those of Broadway icon Patti LuPone.

As the writer and performer of his acclaimed and award-winning one-man show, Patti Issues, Rimalower has turned his obsession with the high-belting La LuPone into a personal artistic high point.

Patti Issues isn’t just a show about diva obsession — it’s an onstage self discovery about finding your inner LuPone, as it were, to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In Rimalower’s case, it’s a closeted, self-destructive father who went on a drug-fueled tear that left his family in tatters.

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Rimalower with LuPone following a performance of “Patti Issues”

And the payoff in telling such a deeply personal story has been huge. The Village Voice called his show, “one of the best (and now longest-running) offerings of the year.” And The Advocate called it the “best NYC theater of 2012.” Even LuPone herself caught the show and gave it her enthusiastic thumbs up (you can even watch her commend Rimalower when they both appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live“). And following an extended run at The Duplex in Manhattan’s West Village, Rimalower is taking his show on a self-professed “rainbow tour,” with a two night only performance on June 13 and 14 at Mary’s Attic up in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.

Anyone who’s spent five minutes with me knows what a huge LuPone fan I am, so it was only a matter of time that Rimalower and I crossed paths at some point in our early fandom. In fact, back in undergrad, in response to there being no discernible online presence for the diva, I created a now long-defunct “Patti LuPone Shrine” on geocities (remember geocities?) which Rimalower freely admits to frequenting.

To prep for Rimalower’s upcoming Windy City debut, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to grill him on all things LuPone:

What are three words you’d use to describe LuPone?

Fierce, hilarious and thrilling.

Has your affection for (or perception of) LuPone changed now that you’ve gotten to know her at a face-to-face level?

Not at all. Patti is everything I dreamed she’d be.

What LuPone recording do you keep going back to? In other words, this LuPone track on your iPod never fails to get your heart pumping.

Well, I have to say “Far Away Places” is my favorite Patti album—SO FAR! That opening track, “Gypsy In My Soul” is so exciting that I belt along with it to warm up for my show.

What’s your favorite LuPone hairstyle? Please select from the four options below:

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I understand you’ve had many opportunities to observe LuPone in the rehearsal room. What lessons have you learned from this “fly on the wall” perspective about your craft as an actor/director?

Wow, so much. I mean I could write a whole show about Patti in a rehearsal room—two shows, actually: one on the artist and one on the personality. Patti has a deep understanding of her craft as an actor and killer instincts as a performer — and theater is in her blood.

What is the rarest LuPone recording you have in your collection?

The rarest Patti LuPone recording I have is a bootleg I made myself on a crappy tape recorder of her concert with the Baltimore Symphony in either Fall 1998 or Spring 1999. Her arrangement of “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” was so sassy I had my musical director lift it when I was directing Joy. Also, it’s fun to listen to me and my best friend Marissa commenting on everything Patti did. Live-tweeting before there was Twitter.

LuPone: You either love her or hate her. Do you think that you can make a snap judgement about someone’s character based on if they love her or hate her? Has this impacted friendships you’ve had?

Totally. I think that anyone who hates Patti LuPone is either a moron, or hasn’t seen her at her best. Or maybe they have their own issues.

Did you suffer through “Parker” like I did this weekend just to see LuPone’s scenes? (If so, you are a true fan, my friend.)

No, but I would have! I’ve watched many unwatchable things for the love of LuPone! And I will watch Parker. I’m still burning for the 3 hours I sat through “Bonano: A Godfather’s Story” before realizing she’d been cut out!

Now: to your show — what compelled you to write it?

I’ve been a director all my life, but I’d started blogging and wanted to explore writing something more longform. The most natural subject for me to tackle was, of course, Patti. Then, when I started writing, what was coming out was more about me.

Did you ever think your show would become such an underground success? How has this changed your life? Do you have any other one man shows up your sleeve?

I hoped Patti Issues would be the success it has. I’ve been craving this more a long time, longer than I even realized. This has changed my life in many ways—and in many ways, my life is exactly the same. The biggest and most important change is my confidence in myself as a writer. I am working on my next solo show already.

Will I cry watching it?

You may cry. I certainly hope you will laugh!

What was going through your head performing this show in front of your muse, LuPone?

I was praying that she would like it.

“Patti Issues” plays June 13 and 14 at Mary’s Attic. Get tickets here.

Mercury Theater’s enjoyable ‘Barnum’ needs more brass

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P.T. Barnum knew how to put on a show. With some manipulative marketing and a dash of spectacle, he could sell you a wooden nickel for a dollar.

The 1980 musical Barnum, which features a jovial, ear-wormy score by Cy Coleman, captured this celebrated flim-flam artist’s ascent to a household name as partner in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. And Mercury Theater Chicago presents an appealing, family friendly production through June 16.

In the title role, Chicago favorite Gene Weygandt offers a peppy and approachable Barnum. Surrounded by a small-yet-mighty ensemble of actor-singer-acrobats, the show hits all the right marks — though perhaps not as thrillingly as one might hope.

Granted, Barnum, a musical with circus elements, is one of the more challenging shows to produce. So I have to applaud Mercury, under artistic director L. Walter Stearns, for daring to take it on. And, for the most part, the show delivers. But a perpetual sense of hesitancy keeps the show from flying high without a net.

To start, Weygandt, while likeable, hasn’t yet found the command this role requires. He too often defaults to baffled observer when he should be orchestrating the action around him. In fact, everyone (aside from the warm and gloriously voiced Corey Goodrich as Barnum’s pragmatic wife Charity) seemed a bit tentative the night I saw it. And rightly so: actor/singers are required to execute physical stunts, and stunt makers are required to act and sing.

I’m sure following a few weeks of performances, the show will find its footing.

Eugene Dizon leads a small band that has some nice moments but desperately needs at least two more brass players (including a tuba — I nearly got up and left the theatre when a synthesizer started playing the opening of “Come Follow the Band.” What band? I just hear a Casio.)

“Barnum” plays through June 16 at Mercury Theater Chicago. More info here >

Strawdog’s raucous ‘Improbable Frequency’ could use a bit more probability

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While the rest of Europe was suffering through WWII, Ireland stood fast in its neutrality, even referring to the war as “The Emergency” in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the war, and the news surrounding it, with their people.

Improbable Frequency, an unapologetically zany musical comedy by Arthur Riordan (book and lyrics) and Bell Helicopter (music), explores this historical footnote with dizzying wordplay and a highly improbable storyline involving a secret society of spies, a mad scientist and a barrage of wordy English music hall patter songs. Think of it as Monty Python meets Gilbert and Sulliven mixed with a huge dose of The 39 Steps.

We are introduced to Tristram Faraday (Mike Dailey), a savant-like British code breaker who unexpectedly (and somewhat reluctantly) finds himself enlisted by the British Intelligence to carry out a super-secret spy mission (is there any other?) in 1941 Dublin. Along his travels, he meets an Irish lady spy (a sweet Sarah Goeden) who might be on his trail for suspect reasons, and then something about a German physicist (Eric Paskey) who’s manipulated radio waves to alter time and Irish weather? Or something? I totally lost the plot by that point — and, frankly, didn’t care.

Truthfully, I have a pretty low tolerance for off-the-hook zany — if it’s not grounded by some human-scale, or at least, compelling, storyline — and at two hours and two acts, Riordan’s punny script and lyrics, which give off an “aren’t we so clever?” vibe, could use a trim-down. Strawdog’s production, directed by Kyle Hamman, tears into the lunacy with abandon, offering up mugging and running about from start to finish, practically demanding you pay attention. And, despite a game cast giving it their all (and looking like they’re having a ball doing so), it’s exhausting.

That said, some may go for this sort of thing. Lord knows the press night audience was laughing their britches off.

“Improbable Frequency” plays through March 30 at Strawdog Theatre Company. More info here >

Music Theatre Company’s sweetly sincere ‘The Baker’s Wife’ charms

Sometimes all you need is a committed, eager, talented cast, a piano and a director with vision to deliver a delightful evening of musical theatre. And Music Theatre Company in Highland Park, under the direction of Dominic Missimi, is serving up a scrappy, sincere and streamlined production of that legendary flop musical, The Baker’s Wife — a show with a magnificent score by Stephen Schwartz and a charming, if problematic book, by Joseph Stein.

Perhaps most amazingly, this production, which was marketed as a “staged concert,” is nearly fully staged, with costumes, blocking and committed performances from a refreshingly diverse cast — a remarkable feat given Missimi and cast had just seven, three-hour rehearsal days to pull it together. Indeed, this is a Baker’s Wife that embraces the (perhaps overly simple) storyline with aplomb.

Upon watching this production, it became clear to me why this musical might not have achieved the success its creators had hoped for (famously, the show toured for six months in 1975 with significant script and cast changes, before abruptly cancelling its long-delayed Broadway opening). While a charming show, it’s not a particularly engaging one: we know where it’s all going long before it gets there, and the characters are painted in very broad strokes. In the version of the script performed by Music Theatre Company, the baker’s wife, Genevieve (a lovely Sarah Bockel) abandons her doting, sweet and significantly older husband Aimable (the endearing Peter Kevoian) for the dashing Dominique (David Sajewich) with relatively little arm twisting. He kisses her, she sings “Meadowlark,” and she’s outta there. But, in act two, she decides, in a single scene, it was a poor decision and crawls back to her broken-hearted husband, hat in hand. And with little push back, he accepts her.

Everyone comes off a bit naive as no real conflict has materialized — aside from the small French village having to forgo fresh-baked bread for a spell.

So, while the show may have its problems, Music Theatre Company’s production works through them by delivering the paper thin material with a heaping cupful of energy and honesty.

“The Baker’s Wife” in concert plays through Feb. 10 at Music Theatre Company in Highland Park. More info here.

HuffPo Review: Mercury Theater’s ‘A Grand Night for Singing’ is ‘Something Wonderful’

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It’s a very rare thing to come across a show that embraces its simplicity with virtually zero pretense. A Grand Night for Singing at Mercury Theater is such a show. This perfectly enjoyable musical revue celebrating the classic scores of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein isn’t afraid to make the songs the star by featuring five excellent singer/actors backed by a sparkling five piece ensemble featuring two strings, harp, piano and percussion (excellent music direction by Eugene Dizon).

Unlike another revue taking place in the northern suburbs honoring a popular West End composer, this show begins with a subtle prelude: a bass and piccolo echoing the sounds of twilight — a chirping bird, a sunrise, a new beginning. A cello hums in and the cast strolls out to welcome us with “The Sounds of the Earth,” which gradually transforms into a lilting opening medley. From there, the cast (including Marya Grandy, Robert Hunt, Leah Morrow, Stephen Schellhardt and Heather Townsend) trade off with each other in pairs, trios and solos to explore R&H’s penchant for the themes around new love, lost love and hopeful love. Read the full review on The Huntington Post >>

HuffPo Review: A Flat Yet Fascinating ‘Other Desert Cities’ at Goodman

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It’s not hard to understand why Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities is such an effective play. This award-winning compact family drama addresses the notions of deception, trust, loyalty, privacy and integrity using a deliciously straightforward setup: a strong-willed novelist daughter returns home to declare to her well-bred and respected republican family that her next book, set to publish in a few short months, is actually a tell-all memoir uncovering some carefully concealed family secrets — secrets that would unceremoniously topple this family to the ground.

Upon hearing this revelation, matriarch Polly Wyeth (the fragile, yet deceptively fierce, Deanna Dunagan coiffed like a 21st century Nancy Reagan) is the most vocal in her disdain for our daughter’s disregard for privacy and tact. But Brooke (a defensively wry Tracy Michelle Arnold) feels this book isn’t only necessary, it’s essential. She’d rather die than sacrifice her artistic obligation, which is to tell her truth via mass-produced, for-profit print.

Ok. Honestly, I have a hard time relating to Brooke. I mean, she drops this stink bomb right before Christmas Eve dinner and is then surprised by her family’s reaction. She’s insufferable, stubborn and more than a touch self-centered.

Just like her mother. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >>

Related: Read my interview with Tracy Michelle Arnold >>

An Interview with Jamie Prahl, Director of Saint Sebastian Players’ ‘Lefties’

Jamie Prahl, director of Saint Sebastian's "Lefties."

Jamie Prahl, director of Saint Sebastian’s “Lefties.”

In Lefties, a play by Chicago-area playwright Leigh Johnson, a Russian-born father (who’s also, by the way, an avowed Communist who loves baseball), clashes with his son, a gifted semi-professional pitcher who has become entranced by capitalism and its prospects. Set in McCarthy-era America, this play covers some big ground, including themes regarding family pride, fathers and sons and the damage done by the secrets we keep from each other.

It’s also a milestone for Saint Sebastian Players, which is presenting this world-premiere play Feb. 15-March 10. Saint Sebastian, which has been around for 32 seasons, infrequently produces new works, aside from the occasional compilation of existing pieces, such as their evening of Chekhov comedies presented a few seasons ago.

I sat down with the show’s director, Ms. Jamie Prahl (who also happens to be a dear friend) to get her take on this exciting new work and what audiences can expect.

Communism and baseball: two things I know you’re an avid fan of. So, what drew you to this story?

Hey now – I played softball in my junior high years! No, you’re right. I’m not an avid baseball fan, and I’m not a real-life communist. I was attracted to this story because, despite the whole “Baseball and Communism!” thing, it’s really the story of a family through four decades – the thirties to the seventies.

When the show begins, it’s 1975 and the World Series is taking place. Ivana, the family matriarch, has been dead for three years and Vladmir (the father) and Alex (the son) aren’t on good terms. Ivana’s ghost rises from her slumber and demands to know why. By doing so, she sets off a memory play where she relives the events that got her “pig-headed husband” and “stubborn mule son” to the point they’re now at. Ivana and Vladimir might be big scary communists, but the play sort of strips that away from them and shows how, despite political beliefs that were deemed evil and threatening, they’re just people and parents. I liked the humanizing of it all. I also think it’s quite relevant to a lot of our modern time and politics.

As a director, does the story pose any particular challenge or opportunity?

Covering four decades in a play is a challenge — especially when your leading lady never leaves the stage. I’m fortunate to have a really smart and clever production team, and we’re taking an abstract/minimalist approach to a lot of things – one set covers all these different locations, and costume pieces, sound, lights, and acting choices will take care of scenes jumping around in time. Memories aren’t solid, they change over time, so it’s a very flowing piece of theater. My job, as the director, is basically to make sure all the pieces fit together.

Also, several of our cast members are playing multiple roles, so it’s fun to let them delve into playing such different characters. One of our actors plays a character who is the epitome of idealism and goodness, then returns as a particularly nasty dude. This cast is really talented, though, and they’re more than up to the challenge.

How would you define your directing style and rehearsal process? What makes a “Jamie Prahl-directed play”?

Well, I like to hire smart and talented actors and then set them free on the script to do their work. Good actors don’t need a director to tell them to turn left or turn right all the time, and the things actors come up with are often better than anything I could tell them to do. I’d rather suggest things and guide them to realizations as opposed to being a dictator.

I like shows that aren’t too literal — I really hate going to shows where all the action stops so a set can change. It reminds me too much of the high school shows of my youth, I guess. I like non-literal performance spaces a lot, too. We’re setting the world of Lefties within the confines of Ivana’s sort of memory/purgatory — so it’s filled with Russian and American images and suggestive of places like a factory and a ballpark, without actually BEING a factory or ballpark. Our set designer, Lauren Angelopolous, totally understood what I rambled about in our earliest meetings — and I have to say, she came back with a set design that is absolutely amazing. I’m so excited to see it.

This is a world premiere production. What’s that like as a director, given that you’ve no other template to draw from? And how involved is the playwright, Leigh Jonson, in the process?

There’s a freedom in staging a world premiere. There’s absolutely nothing people are expecting. I always think of The Wizard of Oz, and how if you stage The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy practically HAS to be a in a blue and white gingham dress and god forbid the Wicked Witch isn’t green. That’s an extreme example — but I like having a clean slate. We’re free to do whatever we want, really.

Leigh is wonderful. He’s from Aurora, so he’s around at rehearsals and has tweaked a few things for our production. In addition, he drew inspiration for the piece from events in the lives of people he knew, so we can ask him anything, anytime, which is really nice. He’s blogging about the show on the “Lefties” facebook page — Heck, he’s even helping with props! I think he’s having fun watching it all come to life, and it’s my plan to knock his socks off with the finished product.

Why should audiences check out Lefties?

Lefties is a really touching family drama, and while you’re being moved by the story, you’ll get a dose of American/Russian history, too. There’s baseball and FBI agents and it’s all being performed by a cast I couldn’t be prouder of. We’re opening during Chicago Theater Week, and I hope people turn up to see the show!

HuffPo Review: Rivendell’s ‘American Wee-Pie’ Finds Sweet Victory in Second Chances

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I remember my quarter-life crisis. Here I was, working long hours in a job I didn’t have any real passion for, broke, gaining weight, listless. I was going through the motions and letting self doubt rule my world.

Seven years later, I’m in a completely different place. I’m in a rewarding career, I’ve found a hobby that provides a creative outlet and a new social circle (the result of that being this review) and I’ve a new outlook on life.

So, I completely related with Zed (Kurt Brocker), a middle-aged textbook editor who finds himself back in his sleepy Midwestern home to tidy up his deceased mother’s affairs.

In Lisa Dillman’s delectably sweet and simple new play, American Wee-Pie, Zed, in line with his name, is used to coming in last. He’s a passive, detached observer in the parade of life. But when he runs into and old, and long-forgotten, high school pal, Linz (a delightful Jennifer Pompa), she rattles something in his core, which ignites his dormant inner fire. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >>

This and that, and this and that

This: The first ever Chicago Theatre Week launches Feb. 12, and I’ve high hopes for this unique event. Following the lead of the highly popular Restaurant Week (which is also organized by Choose Chicago), Chicago Theatre Week, in partnership with the League of Chicago Theatres, allows you to select $15-30 tickets from more than 75 productions — a great deal. Participating groups include Goodman, Steppenwolf and Broadway in Chicago, as well as a smorgasbord of storefront companies. Visit Chicago Theatre Week’s site to see what shows are available and get tickets. But hurry: Some shows are already selling out!

That: The Music Theatre Company in Highland Park is presenting a staged concert production of the hit-flop musical The Baker’s Wife Feb. 1-10. I call it a “hit-flop” because the show was a famous disaster when it premiered in ’76, closing out of town just days to its auspicious Broadway opening. But Stephen Schwartz’s score is so beloved (including the cabaret standard “Meadowlark”), the show keeps getting revived. In addition, yours truly will be hosting a Q&A with this production’s director, Dominic Missimi, on the show’s opening performance on Feb. 1. (Bonus: Check out this super rare early iteration of “Meadowlark” back when the show was struggling on the road, performed by a fresh-faced Patti LuPone.)

This: My Les Miz post below sent me on a YouTube spiral, watching performances from various productions around the world. And then I stumbled on this: Chicago actress Hollis Resnik singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the first national tour of the show, back in ’89:  

I adore Hollis, and I adore this simple, heartfelt and brave rendition of this song — probably because it’s the first version I’ve ever heard when I saw this tour in Detroit in ’89.

That: In a few short hours, I’m off to my first show if 2013: Promethean Theatre Ensemble‘s Caucasian Chalk Circle with my theatre bud, Ms. Katy Walsh. A storefront production of a Bertolt Brecht drama with my BTF (best theatre friend)? A great way to kick off a new year of theatre-going, I’d say. 

A Flatlined ‘Purple Heart’ at Redtwist Theatre

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The grieving process is deeply personal and complex, as Carla, the alcoholic widow and mother of an odd young boy, well knows. Following the death of her husband, a victim of the war, she drinks herself to blackout and passes out on the couch in her bathrobe. She neglects simple chores such as picking up milk and throws herself into the arms of bad-news men to bury her pain.

As played by KC Karen Hill in Redtwist’s oddly halting production of Bruce Norris’ Purple Heart, Carla is a deeply wounded soul who, when the going gets tough, throws her head back in disbelieving laughter. In short: she’s given up.

But her pragmatic and doggedly determined mother (the formidable, stoic and under-directed Kathleen Ruhl), isn’t accepting this fate. Yet, in her mission to cure her daughter, she pushes Carla beyond rock bottom to nearly over the cliff*.

But wait! When a socially awkward soldier (Clay Sanderson) stops in for an unexpected visit, in place of a “sorry for your loss” casserole, Carla finally get her long-overdue wakeup call.

This play has great dramatic potential. A woman facing a crisis, a mysterious visitor harboring a potential secret, a meddling mother. But none of it, from direction to writing to acting, seems to gel. Norris’ writing feels uncharacteristically fragmented and lazy, with a reveal that’s more sloppy than shocking. And Jimmy McDermott’s direction comes across as hesitant and, frankly, under rehearsed, with many of the rare moments of dark humor and tension lost through flat line readings peppered with bouts of yelling.

“Purple Heart” plays through January 27, 2013 at Redtwist Theatre. More info here >;;

*Please pardon the mixed metaphor.

Chicago Theatre Addict’s 2012 Top Ten

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This year I saw 77 shows. While not a staggering amount (considering I’ve colleagues and friends who’ve tripled that, not to mention I saw 104 shows in 2011), I feel overall this year surpassed others in terms of consistent quality and daring theatricality.

So: Here are my top ten, in a very particular order:

10) Camino Real: Let’s start things off with an immensely unpopular choice. Calixto Bieito and Marc Rosich’s daringly (and sometimes literally) in-your-face adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ rarely produced work thrilled me with its unwavering commitment to a disorienting, nightmarish tone. While scads of audience members may have walked out, I remained riveted. The Barcelona-based Bieito, who also directed the piece, filled the stage with American excess and corruption. And any chance to see respected Chicago actress Barbara Robertson belt out an emo rock tune in burned out hooker drag sounds like a good time to me.

9) Angels in America: While I had some significant reservations with Court Theatre’s epic, seven-hour production (which I saw in one day), one can’t ignore the brilliance of Tony Kushner’s writing matched by a fantastic ensemble cast led by Rob Lindley’s brave, bitchy and heartbreaking turn as Prior Walter, a gay man battling AIDS whose vivid and prophetic fever dreams provide entrée into this “gay fantasia on national themes.”

8) Immediate Family: In this riveting dramedy by Paul Oakley Stovall, the Bryant family is suddenly forced to unpack some deeply closeted emotions, resulting in hair pulling, a broken wine glass, and more than a few well placed laughs. A fine ensemble cast under director Phylicia Rashād smartly veered away from the potential sitcom-ness that could have easily derailed the thing, and instead filled it in with truth, making this one of the most observant and smart family-centric plays I’ve seen in some time.

7) Superior Donuts: Every so often you encounter the perfect pairing of actor and role. Mary-Arrchie founding member and Artistic Director Richard Cotovsky has found one of those roles. From his shoulder-slumped shuffle to his cautious and weary gaze, Cotovsky fully embodies Arthur, an inert Uptown donut shop owner who’s the center of Tracy Lett’s 2008 play, Superior Donuts, which Mary-Arrchie revived this year to great acclaim leading to an extended run and transfer to Royal George Theatre, where it’s playing through Dec. 31.

6) The Light in the Piazza: Theo Ubique, a small-yet-mighty storefront musical theatre company in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, outdid itself with this surprisingly grand and glorious production of this heartbreaking musical masterpiece. But the real landmark for this production was Kelli Harrington’s Jeff Award-winning turn as Margaret Johnson, a fiercely protective mother who’ll do anything to see that her daughter finds true love and happiness, even if it means making great sacrifice.

5) A Little Night Music: This sweeping, sophisticated and sexy production, directed by William Brown, beautifully captured the essence of this breathtaking show. The pairing of Shannon Cochran, who struck the perfect balance of drama, deviousness and self-depreciation as perpetually touring actress Desiree Armfeldt, and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, who returned to the Chicago stage as a willowy and wry Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, proved nothing short of brilliant.

4) Eastland: It’s a very rare thing when a beautiful, complex and emotionally stirring new musical comes along. Usually, such things hit one or two of the marks well. But with Eastland, which used a widely overlooked tragedy involving the capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River as a jumping off point (no pun intended), writers Andrew White (book), Andre Pluess (music) and Ben Sussman (lyrics) made a landmark debut in a soul-shattering production at Lookingglass Theatre that finally gave a voice to these unsung everyday heroes.

3) Hit the Wall: A powerful new play about the Stonewall Uprising produced by the relatively newbie theater company The Inconvenience, was one of those shows everyone in Chicago was talking about. Written by Inconvenience company member Ike Holter and directed by Eric Hoff, the play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep Series in February and started gaining buzz following its stellar reviews. Then, the likes of Rosie O’Donnell and Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up in the 100 seat space to see it. And then the production got extended — twice. So, I feel so lucky to have finally caught this amazing show and its equally excellent ensemble.

2) Good People: As Margie, a single, middle-aged mother of an adult mentally handicapped daughter, Mariann Mayberry brought heart and working class ferocity to this powerful play by David Lindsay-Abair. Steppenwolf’s production provided a sobering examination of class in America and the power one actually has in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in a society where the cards already seem firmly stacked against you.

1) Sunday in the Park with George: There’s something magical about the combination of Sondheim, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Gary Griffin. Last year, ChiShakes’ Griffin-directed production of Follies was my no. 1 pick. And this year, Sunday in the Park with George takes the top spot. While maybe not as electrifying as Follies, this spot-on production made me fall in love with the show again — a show that deftly explores the pain, joy and deep sacrifice that goes into creating something new, innovative, and true to one’s self. It also doesn’t hurt that stars Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack filled the show with their glorious voices and commitment to character.

Chatting With Tracy Michelle Arnold, Star of Goodman’s ‘Other Desert Cities’

Tracy Michelle Arnold

Tracy Michelle Arnold

When Jon Robin Baitz’s searing family drama Other Desert Cities premiered at Lincoln Center in January 2011, it took the town by storm. Not since August: Osage County can I recall an American play that’s had such buzz, with the New York Times calling it “the best new play on Broadway.”

And, like most good dramas, it presents a formidable challenge early on that requires the characters to reexamine their own moral code before making a life-changing decision. And in this case, we have an upper-class, republican family that’s rocked to the core when their novelist daughter returns home after a six year absence to announce her latest effort: a tell-all memoir on the family, with no skeleton left spared, no sacred secret left untold.

I had the chance to speak with Tracy Michelle Arnold, who plays Brooke Wyeth, the strong-willed daughter who refuses to back down from her artistic vision, despite protests from her formidable mother Polly (played by Tony Winner Deanna Dunagan), in Goodman Theatre’s production, set to begin performances on January 12. Highlights from that discussion follow:

Now, you’re only, what, a few days into rehearsal?
A week and a day!

Ah, so I’m sure you’re still trying to figure out who Brooke is — what makes her tick.
I am, so this interview makes me particularly nervous!

Ha, well, let’s start here: Brooke creates some rather significant drama by revealing she’s publishing a tall-all memoir. Have you, Tracy, gotten in trouble for publishing secrets?
Well, when I was a little girl, I wrote a diary about a boy I really liked — that was pretty revealing. But then I decided it was wise to destroy it, so I glued all the pages together.

Read the full interview on The Huffington Post >

HuffPo review: ‘Failure: A Love Story’ Finds Heartwarming Hope in the Unavoidable

Ah, the impending threat of death. What a warm and cozy feeling it is to know that each day presents new opportunities to face our own uncertain demise.

Happy Holidays!

In the fantastically macabre Failure: A Love Story, playwright Philip Dawkins manages to find the quirky, heartwarming delight in the unavoidable. The three Failure sisters, Nelly (Baize Buzan), Jenny June (Emjoy Gavino) and Gertrude (Mildred Marie Langford), are shining, independent woman who have bold futures before them. But fate has other plans, and a series of unfortunate events lands each sister in the heavyside layer within a matter of a few short months.

Oh, life: what a vexing puzzle!

On one hand, I related deeply with this tale, which is set in in the late ’20s just at the cusp of the crash — an apt allegory for the impending death of the nation. Speaking of death, my sister, a shining woman in her own right, passed in July after her series of unfortunate events (a surprise diagnosis of stage four colon cancer at age 35). While our family is still reeling from the tragedy, I’ve come to accept that while life is random and unfair, it’s also supremely precious. You simply have to make the most of it while you have it. And Dawkins, along with Seth Bockley’s inventively resourceful direction, celebrates this notion through comical, fast-paced scene work. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

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