SpeakEasy's "appropriate": Ev'rything Is Satisfactch'll

Tamara Hickey, Eliott Purcell, Melinda Lopez & Brian T. Donovan in "appropriate"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

SpeakEasy Stage's first production of the current season, “appropriate”, by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a former anthropology major who identifies as queer (though he questions what such labels really mean) both promises and threatens to confront an audience with an abundance of questions. It's a truly oxymoronic work, a play about the South without any Southerners, written by a black playwright with an all-white ensemble and a title with two possible meanings (as well as pronunciations). For the record, those would be an adjective and/or a verb. The former would connote “suitable or fitting”; the latter, “take possession of” or “to steal”. Thus he deals with what we might deem inappropriate family dysfunctional behavior as he appropriates various elements, plot points, and character development from classic American Family Dramas (such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Long Day's Journey Into Night” and the like). He refers to this as a “Frankenstein” play, assembled utilizing archetypes such as the responsible sibling who stays to guard the home, the sibling who's left to pursue a new life and identity, the Prodigal Son, the Bad Seed, the interfering stranger, and the (deceased) family patriarch.

That patriarch would be Ray Lafayette, whose funeral is the occasion for a family disunited reunion. The site is a former Arkansas slave plantation owned by generations of the Lafayette family that has seen better days, where three siblings and their significant others battle over the inheritance and legacy of their father, as they discover centuries of sinful history. That family consists of three disparate and dispersed family units: there's the recently-divorced Toni (Melinda Lopez) and her troubled teen son Rhys (Eliott Purcell); transplanted New Yorker Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) and his Type A wife Rachael (Tamara Hickey), his teen daughter Cassidy (Katie Elinoff) and younger son Ainsley (Brendan O'Brien); and the black sheep younger brother Franz (Alex Pollock), AWOL for a decade or so, with his hippie girlfriend River (Ashley Risteen). As they gather to remember their ancestral common ground, it's not only the almost deafening sound of cicadas that disturbs the evening. It swifly becomes a melodrama about ownership and belonging, confronting their notion of identity as well as many other questions brought about by their uncovering of a long-kept secret and what it means.

Employing basically naturalistic dialogue in some rather surreal situations, the playwright sets out these numerous questions (without answering any of them). These include, as Director M. Bevin O'Gara notes, whether the sins of our fathers are passed down to us, how one escapes one's personal and cultural history, what makes a villain, what makes a family, what you have the right to profit from, who has the right to tell a story, and even whether ghosts or spirits exist. The playwright states that it's really not about these questions as such, but how we don't answer them. That's a whole lot of expositional ground to cover in Act One (“Book of Revelation”). The play has so much to absorb that it becomes a bit of a mess, especially when in Act Two (“Book of Genesis”) the train wreck of a family goes off the rails, making “August: Osage Country” seem like a tea party (with a nod to Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson). It's fascinating, frustrating, off-putting and absorbing, often all at the same time. One thing it most definitely never becomes is boring. It's basically indescribable, and theatergoers are unlikely to be lukewarm about it. One either accepts the wacky goings-on and goes along for the rather bizarre ride, or doesn't; Jacobs-Jenkins is consistent in the dichotomy department. As for this critic, you are strongly urged to see this controversial crazy quilt of a play.

In this production, O'Gara superbly helms a terrific cast, especially Lopez, whose character is the most developed of all, Pollock's mesmerizing rant of an “eleven o'clock number”, and the crucial gothic trick-or-treating apparition of young O'Brien. The technical elements are wonderful, from the Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco (“early eclectic” and awe-inspiring, right down to the exposed and rotting lathes), to the (dare one say appropriate?) Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the eerily effective Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao, and the spookily concocted Sound Design by Arshan Gailus. One would also be remiss if not acknowledging the usually unsung hero, Props Supervisor Misaki Nishimiya (with enough props to furnish several seasons of shows) and the expert Dialect Coaching by the multi-talented Amelia Broome (also represented currently in Lyric Stage's “My Fair Lady”).

At one point near the end of the play, as the family considers its deceased patriarch's legacy, one member states that “hurt is for the living”. Another describes the family as “a handful of stories to explain how trapped you feel”, and cheated. However you react to such views, you are certain to be talking about this work long after the last verbal and/or physical blow lands. Despite his intention to write this as a family drama, Jacobs-Jenkins laments that, since he is black, he still gets asked about race in this work. So it's fittingly sardonic that this production ends with the use of the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Disney's film “Song of the South” (long ago banished to the Disney basement due to its naïve, politically incorrect, patronizing depiction of African Americans such as Uncle Remus, who sings the song). As the lyric goes, “It's the truth, it's actual, ev'rything is satisfactch'll”. “Doo-Dah” indeed. Given the myriad of props strewn everywhere, do take care on the way out not to trip over the irony.

New Rep's "Broken Glass": Run of the Miller?

Anne Gottlieb & Jeremiah Kissel in "Broken Glass"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As its first production of the current season, New Rep is presenting “Broken Glass” by Arthur Miller, and attention must be paid to such a man. First unveiled in New York in 1994 (over four decades after his monumental “Death of a Salesman”), this was one of the revered writer's last works, yet it lasted just a scant couple of months (though it did win Britain's Olivier Award as Best Play later that year). Directed here by the company's Artistic Director Jim Petosa (who previously helmed the piece for Maryland's Olney Center, just two years after Broadway), it's not difficult to understand its initial critical and popular reception, given its highly melodramatic nature, but it's still the work of a writer who is arguably this country's finest playwright. As such, audiences should be thankful that this company has afforded us the opportunity to see and hear the play. Originally entitled “Gellburg”, the eventual title refers to the shattered shards of the American Dream.

The setting is 1938 Brooklyn, days after the infamous “Night of Broken Glass”, or Kristallnacht
in Germany. Sylvia Gellburg (Anne Gottlieb), a Jewish American housewife, has apparently been paralyzed by the event, quite literally. Her husband Phillip Gellburg (Jeremiah Kissel) has sought help from local general practitioner Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett), who posits that hers is a hysterical paralysis resulting from her seeing “some truth that other people are blind to” about the worsening situation of Jews in Europe. It later develops that she sees hers as a wasted life she “gave...away like a couple of pennies; I took better care of my shoes”. Phillip in turn is gradually revealed to be racked with self-loathing and disgusted with his own ethnicity. In conversations with Dr. Hyman and with his stereotypically WASP employer, Stanton Case (Michael Kaye), he grows ever more uncomfortable with his Jewishness. Commenting on his case are Dr. Hyman's wife Margaret (Eve Passeltiner) and Sylvia's sister Harriet (Christine Hamel). As it slowly (very slowly) builds to a climax, there are no real surprises, and the ending pretty much validates one's suspicions. Without revealing too much, it may be safely said that Sylvia finds herself unable to walk because her husband is an emotional cripple. Dr. Hyman states that we are all born with fear, and that it's how we deal with it that matters. He adds that in his view everyone is persecuted by someone, though he never sees anyone in the actual act of persecuting. In the end, it's the entire Jewish psyche that Miller is exposing.

The Direction by Petosa and the acting of the entire ensemble couldn't conceivably be better. Kissel is in his typically towering form even as he sinks into an abyss right before us, and Gottlieb is easily his equal, though more restrained and simmering. The rest of the cast, though not given a great deal to do, also measure up to Miller's wordy demands. As for the technical creatives, there is the terrific revolving Set Design by Jon Savage (full of glass elements), the suitably character-centric Costume Design by Molly Trainer, the strikingly stark Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney, and, above all, the evolving Sound Design by David Remedios (with ever more deafening tinkling glass).

This is a worthy start to a promising season, and, even if this play isn't top tier Miller, it gets a very respectable treatment. Any opportunity to experience anew the poetic words of such a master makes for rewarding theater. You might, after all, echo Phillip's ironic statement, at the play's end, that he “finally got the joke”.


Lyric Stage's "My Fair Lady": Again, Come on, Dover, Move Your Bloomin'...

Remo Airaldi, Jennifer Ellis & Christopher Chew in "My Fair Lady"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Can it truly be sixty years ago that “My Fair Lady” premiered? The hugely successful and universally praised Broadway musical, with Lyrics and Book by Alan Jay Lerner (based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play “Pygmalion”) and Music by Frederick Loewe, won six Tonys including Best Musical. Shaw's play had been filmed in 1938 (winning him an Oscar for adapted screenplay). The musical was subsequently adapted for the screen in 1964, winning Oscars for Best Film, Director and Actor as well as five other Academy Awards (infamously not including the miscast, clearly dubbed and unnominated Audrey Hepburn). While Shaw's concerns were about the inequitable distribution of wealth, the unjust English class system, and the submission of women (a man surely ahead of his time), the musical was much more of a love story. Where Shaw was interested in social reform and saw himself as more of a prophet than a playwright (despite penning over sixty plays in his career), the musical version was more about suppressed romance. It was blessed with an incredibly lovely score that led to the original cast album's two-year chart-topping status and produced such popular hits as “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and “On the Street Where You Live”. (The latter was conceived as a throwaway song included in order to make a major set change in the days before today's complex technical expertise). The choice of this work as Lyric Stage Company's first production of the season was a risky one, considering how well received the original stage musical, film adaptation and several revivals were. The question was whether this revival of the beloved musical would measure up to its storied past. The answer is decidedly in the affirmative. Now, as was true six decades ago, we remain in awe of the show that is at its center the story of the metanoia of a Covent Garden flower girl into a one very fair lady. Or is it?

Maybe not, as this version posits. Is the real change that of a commoner into the realm of social royalty, or is it actually the story of the evolution of her supposed mentor? On the surface, it's the tale of the cockney Eliza Doolittle (Jennifer Ellis) and her transformation into a well-spoken and well-behaved upper class woman. This production demonstrates how the baseline of the musical is the development from a cold and haughty 'Enry 'Iggins (Christopher Chew) into a more feeling, vulnerable and approachable flesh-and-blood character. (As Oscar Hammerstein put it in “The King and I”, “by your pupils you'll be taught”). So it really shouldn't surprise us that it's not the flower girl who grows on us, but her Svengali of a teacher. In the very capable hands of a brilliant performer like Ellis, this seems exactly as it should be. Chew's Henry Higgins is more complex, more wounded, and more human than typically portrayed; most importantly, he can really sing and thus soar, as opposed to the expected singspiel approach typically given the role. Ellis also manages to seem truly “so deliciously low, so horribly dirty” and mere “baggage” at the start, with subtle gestures and details (for example, her feet so firmly unladylike). Her goal, a simple one, is to rise to the exalted level of a shop girl. To that end, Higgins' goal is to improve her diction and her manners. Yet, as Higgins' associate Colonel Pickering (Remo Airaldi) understands long before he does, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. Her ne'er-do-well father, Alfred P. Doolittle (J.T. Turner) gets it right when he proclaims that too much money brings with it too much responsibility. Her conquest at Ascot, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jared Trollo), is taken with her unabashed naturalness, as are Henry's housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Cheryl McMahon) and his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Beth Gotha), and even the phonetics guru Zoltan Karpathy (Tony Castellanos) is in her thrall.

Crucial to the success of this production was the casting of that blossoming flower girl.  Ellis, although already acclaimed for her local performances in such works as “Far from Heaven”, “City of Angels” and “Urinetown”, is a revelation here. She's a smoldering powerhouse, a very uncommonly commoner indeed, and you can't take your eyes off her, unless it's to take in the complexity of Chew's rendition of the conflicted professor, or the hilarious antics of Turner's reprobate of an absentee father, or the amiable pomposity of Airaldi's Pickering. There are so many instances of cleverly subversive acting (with the glaring exception of Castellanos' Karpathy, seemingly directed to mug unashamedly), one doesn't know where to start or stop in praise for Director Scott Edmiston and Choreographer David Connolly, skillfully handling a wonderful chorus of ten. (Such touches as Eliza's almost-but-not-quite hugging of Higgins, or Pickering's purposeful enunciation of “pline cake”, stand out). The other technical credits, all of them stellar, include the smashing phonetic Set Design (and no, that's not a typo) by Janie E. Howland, the cleverly down-sized Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta, the splendid Costume Design by Gail Asrid Buckley, the effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and fine Sound Design by Samuel Hanson. Attention should also be paid to the ever impressive Dialect Coaching by Amelia Broome (a renowned actress in her own right).

One might envy the newcomer to this piece of musical royalty; familiarity with the story and score (even to the anticipatory song cues) can impact one's full enjoyment of the play. But even if it's a well-remembered treasure, it's still a treasure today as much as it was in its first incarnation. In short, while we've often walked down this street before, the pavement won't stay beneath your feet. Don't miss this one, but get tickets while you still can. So it's time you moved your bloomin'.....well, you know.


Huntington's "Night Music": Wiles of a Summer Night

The Cast of "A Little Night Music"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Time to send in those clowns again. Huntington Theatre's first offering of the current season is A Little Night Music”, the 1973 Tony-winning romantic musical comedy in three-quarter time (which had a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston). With exquisite Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an unusually sophisticated Book by Hugh Wheeler, loosely based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night”, set in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Sweden, this has been almost universally embraced as one of the finest works in musical theater. It boasts Sondheim's most accessible score, his most popular song, (“Send in the Clowns”), and beautiful original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. It ran for over six hundred performances on Broadway, winning six Tony awards including Best Musical, and has had several successful revivals. It was adapted for the screen in 1977, but the less said about that effort, the better; Sondheim himself described it as a waste of everyone's time. Despite that one misstep, the musical enjoys a deservedly elevated status in the Sondheim canon; with its unrivalled history of producing such memorable musical shows as “Candide”, “She Loves Me” and “Jungle Book” in recent seasons, audience expectations for Huntington's version were understandably high.

Those lofty expectations have been met, and then some. This production, bubbling over like a full flute of gorgeously effervescent vintage champagne, is a corker, from the moment the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Haydn Gwynne) meets her old lover, widowed attorney Fredrik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus) and their former romance reignites. Commenting on their various foibles is Desiree's aged mother Madame Armfeldt (Bobbie Steinbach) whose summer estate is the setting for encounters with Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Lauren Molina), wife of Desiree's current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Mike McGowan), along with Fredrik's teen-aged virginal bride Anne (Morgan Kirner), his hormonally overcharged son, the seminarian and cellist Henrik (Pablo Torres), the frankly lusty maid Petra (McCaela Donovan), Desiree's daughter intriguingly named Fredrika (Lauren Weintraub) and the servant Frid (Sam Simahk). All intermingle and interrelate to the accompaniment of a sort of Greek chorus quintet of observers, sung by Amy Barker, Wendy Bergamini, Aimee Doherty, Andrew O'Shanick, and Nick Sulfaro. There are also the page Bertrand (Patrick Varner) and Desiree's maid Malla (Sarah Oakes Muirhead). Suffice it to say that there are numerous amorous permutations and combinations before the summer night reaches resolution and all of the characters' wiles are exposed.

Great care has obviously been spent in casting the full gamut of roles. Gwynne (remembered for her turn in “Billy Elliot”), while not perhaps the obvious choice to portray the glamorous diva Desiree, makes the role her own in her poignant rendition of the aforementioned “Send in the Clowns”, a song best appreciated in context, when Fredrik apologizes to Desiree and departs, leaving her with the realization of the supreme irony that timing is everything. Bogardus commands the stage throughout, with his complex acting and extraordinary singing. Steinbach (who played the same role in a Lyric Stage version a few seasons ago) remains a local gift that keeps on giving, especially delivering Madame's sardonic “Liaisons” (with perhaps Sondheim's most outrageous rhyming, that of “liaisons” with “raisins”). Molina (an unforgettable Cunegonde in Huntington's “Candide” four years ago) makes the most of her viperish Countess with superb timing. The rest of the cast performs at the same artistically pure level, from the staunch McGowan, to the destined-for-one-another Kirner and Torres, to the glorious singing of the quintet. And then there's Donovan's wonderful Petra, perhaps the wisest character, who has the good sense to celebrate what passes by even as she knows full well she will end up marrying within her lowly station. She's a knockout in her solo rendition of “The Miller's Son” (though Sondheim could've trimmed this one).

The score contains a number of truly inspired numbers, beginning with a sung overture by the quintet (a concept subsequently borrowed by “City of Angels”), then ranging from the complex trio of “Now/Later/Soon” to the humorous “The Glamorous Life” and “You Must Meet My Wife” and “Every Day a Little Death”. Along the way we are treated to themes and variations, Sondheim's favorite musical form, with echoes of Rachmaninoff and Ravel. In the music as well as the book, three is a crucial number in songs with triple meter, and in various dramatic triads. (One being the melding of farce, when at first characters fall in love, or at least lust, with the wrong partners; tragedy as in Henrik's attempts at suicide and an abortive game of Russian roulette; and finally romantic comedy when all the other couples take flight leaving Desiree alone at last with Fredrik). But this is a topic for more experienced musicologists. Sondheim has lamented that musicals are too often “reviewed by illiterates with no musical knowledge”, and who are we mere mortals to object? (One might note, however, that it's entirely possible to appreciate a fine dinner without having to grasp the complexity of its ingredients or the intricacies of its preparation). As meticulously directed here by Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois, and Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, with Musical Direction by Jonathan Mastro, this production is a feast for the ears and eyes. The technical efforts are all stunning, from the Scenic Design by Derek McLane (cleverly utilizing stage trunks to facilitate scene changes), to the lovely Costume Design by Robert Morgan, and the intricate Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and the fine Sound Design by Jon Weston.

By the end of this sultry summer evening, the night has smiled thrice: first for the young, who lack knowledge, then for the fools, and finally for the old. As DuBois notes, we're left with “a grace note of regret, that something's missing, something's lost”. There have been sex and death, desire and regret, and the ultimate triplet when head, heart and groin join, in love. And there has been musical drama of the highest order. It's a smashing start for the company's season.


Cirque du Soleil's "Kurios": Seeing Is Disbelieving

"Contortions" from Cirque du Soleil's "Kurios"
(photo: Martin Girard)

On a typical night for most of the year, Chicago's United Center is home turf for both the NBA Bulls and the NHL Blackhawks, but it's currently the location for Cirque du Soleil's “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities”, one of the latest and greatest offerings from this ubiquitous troupe. It's the company's thirtieth anniversary, and this production (first seen last season in Montreal), housed in its yellow and blue striped “Grand Chapiteau”, is a wonderful show. In this steampunk-styled outing, there's the story of an inventor, the Seeker (Anton Valen) who defies the laws of time, space and dimension, altering reality at will as the senses are distorted, perceptions challenged, and perspectives transformed, as he reinvents everything around him, the visible becomes invisible, and the world is (often literally) turned upside-down. We wonder if things are real or a figment of our imaginations, in a world both beautiful and mysterious; as the company itself puts it, it's where anything is possible, through the power of imagination (theirs and ours, as it turns out).

The story, although not heavy on narrative, begins with the “Chaos Synchro 1900” enactment of various train travelers representing the freedom and charm of the characters in the cabinet of curiosities, suggesting La Belle Epoque of the Paris World's Fair. This is followed by the Russian Cradle Duo, music box figurines suddenly brought to life as human trapezes. Then there's a great juggler (Gabriel Beaudoin), and a very non-traditional Aerial Bicycle act (Anne Weissbecker). Next up is the “invisible circus” which is literally just that, in miniature, led by a rather odd ringmaster (David-Alexandre Deprés. Then there's the four deep sea creatures (electric eels) performing on an underwater mechanical hand. Next is the upside-down world of a dinner party and chandelier in parallel worlds with chair-balancing challenges (Andrii Bondarenko). Then appears an aviator expert at balancing of another type, on the “rola bola”(James Eulises Gonzalez Correa), followed by an underwater acro-net with trampoline, a synchronized duo (Roman and Vitali Tomanov) on aerial straps, and a yo-yo artist (the single-named Frank) twirling pocket watches. There's the amazing “Theater of Hands”, storytelling by fingers projected onto a vintage hot air balloon (Nicolas Baixas), and “Banquine”, wherein thirteen artists create multi-level human pyramids. As is often the case with the company, there are some unusual characters, like Microcosmos, the half-steam engine (Karl L'Ecuyer) with the diminutive Mini Lili (Antanina Satsura) inside, and the Accordion Man (Baixas again). And, as usual, there's a comic act involving a man's pursuit of a woman with interruption from a cat, a parrot, and even a Tyrannosaurus. In all, there are some four dozen performers.

This production is extraordinarily well-directed (and written) by Michael Laprise, with Director of Creation Chantal Tremblay. As usual for the company, the technical contributions are all spectacular, from the Set and Properties Design by Stephan Roy (with a creative found-object feel) to the whimsical Costume Design by Philippe Guillotel, to the great choreography by Yaman Okur, Sidi Cherkaoui and Susan Gaudreau, to the equally fantastic Acrobatic choreography by Ben potvin and Andrea Zieger, to the Sound Design by Jacques Boucher and Jean-Michael Caron, the Lighting Design by Mrtin Labrecque and Makeup Design by Eleni Uranis. Especially winning is the musical composition and Direction by "Bob and Bill" (Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard) and Raphael Beau, transforming 1930's swing and jazz, (with an assist from Greek singer Eirini Tornesaki), a welcome change from their New Age scores.
The show's tagline is true: reality is relative. Seeing is disbelieving!