Posts filed under ‘Reviews’

Off the Cuff Review- STAGE KISS at Goodman Theatre

Hot Thespian Action

I’ve never been bananas over Sarah Ruhl.  Granted, I’ve only seen two of her plays staged (Eurydice and Orlando, at the Court earlier this year).  She manufactures a brand of whimsy that many go nuts for, one which I find sort of tiring and false.  Stage Kiss, the new Ruhl play enjoying a Goodman commission right now, is entirely different than anything I’ve seen by her.  It’s decently realistic and very ha-ha, screwball funny.  In fact, it seems like her personal love letter to the stage.

As you can read in plenty of interviews Ruhl has done in promotion for this show, the genesis of Stage Kiss was the idea of how weird it is that actors have to kiss for a living.  While in most workplaces kissing on the clock can bring in the sexual harassment lawsuits, in theatre smooching is par for the course.  Ruhl interviewed several actors and asked about how kissing another actor night after night made them feel about the other person.  It’s an interesting question that any young thespian has, and possibly why some join their high school drama club in the first place—but it’s a topic that isn’t really explored often.

Ruhl posits the question in a madcap farce that smacks of Noises Off!  A misled director helms a (fictional) creaky 1930s play that flopped on Broadway originally, but he hopes, with a few cuts and additions, he can make it sing.  The leads are two former lovers whose flame extinguished long ago.  But the repeated pseudo-love between them inspires truer feelings.  They change their lives to be together, but the line between reality and theatricality starts to clear up fast.

The cast does a great job, especially Jenny Bacon as She (the female lead) and Ross Lehman as the bumbling director.  The first act is spectacular and wickedly funny.  The second act, which takes a detour to Detroit (for realsies), is misguided.  Although the final moment between She and her husband is gorgeous, I think we could have gotten there faster.  The play, directed by Ruhl-buddy Jessica Thebus, could end at intermission and be an intriguing beast in itself.  Honestly, though, there are loads of laughs along the 2 hour journey so I can’t complain too much.

*** Stars

Running at the Goodman Theatre until June 5th.

-Barry Eitel


May 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

Quick Picks-CANDIDE at Goodman

You may have seen ads for the Goodman season opener on literally every taxi and bus in the city.  They’re mixing the artistry of Leonard Bernstein, Voltaire, and Mary Zimmerman for a new look at the enlightenment text which was transformed into an operetta in 1956.  The satire lampoons the philosophical treatment of optimism against all the garbage present in the world.  This holds true as much now as it did then.  The piece fails to match the extreme hype, however, getting sucked down by the heavy chunks of plot.  Candide, here played by the bright-eyed Geoff Packard, travels/is kidnapped/escapes to at least three continents and a myriad of locales.  There is a ton to cover, and one begins to wonder by intermission if Zimmerman was too faithful.

Act Two has a completely different energy, one that is much quicker and fascinating to watch.  The final moment is truly transformative theatre.  The brilliance doesn’t shine through in every cranny of the script or production, but it is peppered throughout the whole show.  The cast is delightful, with Goodman regular Larry Yando being particularly memorable.  Packard can gloss over some crucial moments in Candide’s struggle with optimism, but he keeps us plugged in for the whole night.  Most importantly, we walk out knowing a little more about the nature of happiness, and maybe understand a bit about humanity in general.

October 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm Leave a comment


REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men

Written by Reginald Rose

Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas

Raven Theatre

* * * (out of 4)

I enjoy a bunch of sweaty ornery men stuck together in an enclosed space as much as the next guy.  Reginald Rose’s 1954 12 Angry Men supplies all of that.  The drama was originally penned for the small screen during the golden age of television.  It works incredibly well on-stage, becoming a staple of theatres of all sorts around the country.  Although often community or high school theatre fare, Raven Theatre decided to give the American classic a full treatment, under the steady direction of A. Todd Douglas.  While occasionally stumbling on itself, the sparky production is as volatile as a sweltering July day.

Rose got the inspiration for the play from a real-life scenario that is rife with drama—the jury room.  Twelve men enter the room, each bringing their own opinions, prejudices, and desires to the table, and they must decide the fate of young man on trial for murder.  The play is fiercely compelling because every man is forced to make decisions; no one is allowed to wallow in uncertainty.  The play starts with a near unanimous vote for guilty with one dissenter (Juror #8, a smooth C.L. Brown), who just wants to stir up a little discussion before they send a teenager to his death.  During this discussion, truths are questioned, ties are loosened, engagements are missed, and pretty much everyone gets angry.

Although the Raven production captures the temper, it comes across as unbalanced.  About half of the actors are spectacular, and the other half are wacky and cartoonish.  Some of the actors seem to struggle with Rose’s hard-boiled 1950s language.  The fast-paced, New York City style doesn’t sit well with everybody.  Some can encapsulate Rose’s language brilliantly, especially Edward Diaz as the no-nonsense Juror #7.   Brown also does a good job navigating the play, his calm composure compensates for the fact that he seems to be the youngest of the bunch.  Juror #1 is the foreman and faced with leading the pack, and Kenneth Johnson does an excellent job as diplomat.  Other great performances are given by the older men of the bunch, J.J. McCormick, Leonard Kraft, and Don Loftus.

And then there are the actors who shoot over the top.  Bryson Engelen, for example, plays the uptight Juror #4, but he overplays the nerdiness and comes across as a caricature.  Reginald Vaughn also overacts his interpretation of Juror #10, who, in Vaughn’s defense, is oddly written.  Number 10 is extremely prejudiced, but is unspecific about his bigotry.  He is disgusted by the defendant’s ethnic and social background, but we never learn if the defendant is black, Irish, or any other maligned group.  Vaughn has a powerful monologue in the second half where his hatred spouts out, but his target is generalized and hazy.

Douglas’ staging works well considering the limitations.  There’s only so much you can do with a bunch of guys arguing around a table.  Most of the movement feels organic, although there are a few stand-up/sit-down/stand-up moments.  He utilizes Kelly Dailey’s cool 1950’s set very well.  Raven’s production explores the heated moments that happens behind close doors, and it is plenty angry.

More info here.

–Barry Eitel

March 10, 2010 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

WILSON WANTS IT ALL, but doesn’t get it



The House Theatre of Chicago

Co-written by Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich

Directed by Michael Rohd

Through March 26th

* * (out of 4)

You don’t usually see a whole lot of suits at House productions.  You’re much more likely to see stuff bought at Old Navy, cowboy outfits, giant ice-witch costumes, pretty much anything that says ‘whimsy’ or ‘young adult fiction.’  But currently you’ll see plenty of business clothes on display at the Chopin, home of the House Theatre’s production of Wilson Wants it All.  It shows they are growing up.  The new outfits match the more mature themes and ideas that run through the show.  The House is getting political.  Unfortunately, Wilson is subject to some growing pains.  Compared to other shows out right now that deeply explore intricate and complicated sociopolitical issues, such as TimeLine’s Master Harold…and the Boys or Return to Haifa at Next, Wilson doesn’t past muster.  It looks really cool and has some fun moments, but writer and director team Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich fail to cover any thought-provoking territory or make relevant points with this rather impotent Wilson.

Orwell, anyone?

The plot is sort of a mashup of The Parent Trap and The Manchurian Candidate.  Set in the not-too-distant future of 2040, the play follows Hope (Rebekah Ward-Hays), the daughter of a beloved senator who was assassinated on the day she was born in early 2010.  It would be an understatement to say that there is quite a bit of hype surrounding the woman and her possible political career.  With all this hype comes pressure to perform, and Hope finds an easy way out when she meets Ruth (Leslie Frame), a jobless 30-year-old who, huh, looks exactly like Hope.  All of this is orchestrated by Wilson (an appropriately slippery John Henry Roberts), who is sort of Carl Rove, sort of Rahm Emanuel.  He wants to continue the senator’s dynasty through Hope or Ruth, but is scared to enter the race himself.

All of this is played against a manic America, where all the problems we’re seeing today have just gotten worse.  Overpopulation and unemployment lead to some proposing state-mandated sterilization through a microchip embedded in the body.  I’m not sure of this was intended, but the discussions presented in the play smack of the pro-life/pro-choice debates.

The show succeeds in presenting an intelligent view of the future, one that is extrapolated from our own than totally invented.  Cell phones and computers have become smaller and even more integrated into our world.  Scenic designer Collette Pollard, video artist Lucas Merino, and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic’s work beautifully details this broken empire of an America.   One of the scariest ideas contained in the play is advertisements that follow people around and constantly remind a person where they can find the nearest Laundromat or burger joint.  Unfortunately, this brilliant thought is only presented once or twice, than slid under the rug.

And here is where I’m going to inject my own politic (feel free to skip over).  I’ve always been the political realm is supposed to be sort of noisy and loud, that kinda goes along with democracy.  Not that I believe in pundits taking cheap shots at everything or pointless political speechifying, but Wilson seems to focus primarily on a message of everyone getting along and playing nice.  Also, I think economics needs to be brought to the discussion a lot more.  By the end, all out civil war might be avoided, but no real issues are solved or even discussed further.

Proclaiming that “politics muddles actual issues” is too small a payoff for watching a two-hour-plus production.  I applaud the House for trying something more current events-focused while keeping their crazy, experimental aesthetic.  But when you produce something overtly political, you’re throwing your hat into the ring with some heavy contenders (Brecht, Churchill, Odets, Kushner).  For a play to really strike a chord, it cannot generalize or rehash tropes.  Wilson Wants it All, for all it’s technical wizardry and zippy staging, just doesn’t resonate.

Ticket information here.

February 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm 1 comment

CST’s PRIVATE LIVES Proves Coward’s Brilliance



Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Written by Noel Coward

Directed by Gary Griffin

Through March 7

* * * .5 (out of 4)

I always knew Chicago Shakespeare Theatre had a lot of money.  But I had no idea they could afford to build a time machine, travel back to the 1930’s, bring back the glamorous Tracy Michelle Arnold, and cast her as Amanda Prynne in Gary Griffin’s delightful production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Okay, judging from her bio in the program, Arnold is more likely just really adept at immersing herself in Coward’s world than an actual relic from the past.  I can still have my conspiracy theories.  The fact remains, though, that CST’s Private Lives is effervescently charming and reminds us of Coward’s playwriting prowess.

The play develops a plot that has been mined by hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters since Coward’s time.  A divorced couple find themselves stuck in close quarters after years of separation.  Also, they both happen to be honeymooning at the same time with their newest spouse.  I’m pretty sure that both Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have found themselves in similar situations, but neither of them could handle it with the finesse of Arnold.

Arnold’s effective Amanda would be nothing without a rapid-fire Elyot to match wits with.  Luckily, CST nabbed Robert Sella to play the hilarious role Coward originally penned for himself.  Both actors understand the fundamental questions underlying the script: what really defines a man or woman, and how are we really supposed to get through this thorn bush called marriage?  Sella gleams with Elyot’s tightly-wound wit, prissy mannerisms, and slightly effeminate personality.  Arnold is droll, cunning, and usually more mature than Sella’s flamboyant Elyot.  Placing these two personalities together is like setting fire to a firework store.  They explode passionately, violently, and sexually.  At curtain, the audience is left dripping in the sparkling comedy of Coward’s brilliant writing.

The two left-behind spouses are admittedly less interesting than Amanda or Elyot, but Coward still gives them plenty to work with.  Chaon Cross is a naïve yet decisive Sybil, Elyot newest wife.  Tim Campbell as Amanda’s stiff husband Victor starts off a little too wooden, but he catches up to everyone by his second or third scene.  In terms of appearance, though, he fits the role perfectly: tall, broad-shouldered, clad in a double-breasted suit, manly mustache, and military haircut—the picturesque blockhead.  When he is compared to the diminutive Sella, it is clear that Amanda has a very diverse taste in mates.

Griffin made some fascinating choices with his staging of the play.  Considering the play’s age and popularity, contemporary versions of Private Lives can come off as creaky.  Although this play is a bit too risqué for high school, many of Coward’s other works have fallen into the drama club canon.  We’re used to see it framed by the proscenium arch.  Oftentimes, the distance of the audience from the action is reflexive of our distance to the time period.  Griffin does his best to shake off the notion that this play is simply a funny artifact.  He decided to stage it in-the-round, a rare choice these days.  Although it has its drawbacks (mostly in terms of sightlines), the in-the-round staging makes the enormous Chicago Shakespeare mainstage seem intimate.  And the term “in-the-round” is taken literally here—the entire stage slowly rotates for most of the show.  Scenic designer Neil Patel interesting revolving set adds to the slow-churning chaos of the play.  The production’s set-up is one of the gutsier choices CST has made in recent memory, but it pays off.

My only real complaint, besides Campbell’s occasionally tepidness, is that the fight choreography comes off as weak and stagey.  Maybe it’s a stylistic choice, but after Sella’s and Arnold’s passionate verbal fencing, I feel it would be far more gratifying to see the couple really plow into each other.  The domestic abuse aside, Griffin’s production is both a hilarious romp and a pointed discussion; the shimmering surface offers a glimpse of a boiling sea of issues underneath.

–Barry Eitel

Ticket information can be found at

February 1, 2010 at 12:22 am 1 comment

Some Really Good Mamet

Apologies that it took so long for this to come out.  I’ve been snowed in at home in Toledo without internet access.  Well, sort of.  But better late than never:

American Buffalo

Steppenwolf Theatre

***.5 (out of 5)

With most theatres throwing up traditional or parodies of traditional holiday shows, Steppenwolf has instead decided to fill December with their production of American Buffalo, David Mamet’s fiery three-character play set in the bowels of a Chicago junk shop.  Revolving around the petty lives of small-time crooks, the 1975 play doesn’t have much to do with the season of giving.  In this time of extreme consumerism, Amy Morton’s rapid-paced production reminds us about the economic struggles going on and forces us to look at the real value of material things.

American Buffalo is one of several plays by Mamet based in Chicago.  Located in a resale shop crammed with junk of different eras, it also one of his seediest plays.  This sleazy mood pervades Kevin Depinet’s meticulously-dressed set, where shelf after shelf of random crap towers to the ceiling.  Morton and guy decided, in a genius move, to put the shop in a basement of a rickety old building.  Upon entering the theatre, you immediately feel like you’ve crawled into some underground lair, where your next-door neighbors are the subway and the sewage system.  And in this cavern of the city, we watch three men battle and disintegrate over business, friendship, and a few hundred bucks.

The plot spins around planning a heist to get an expensive buffalo nickel.  Symbolism alert—the coin, which features an Indian head on one side and the near-extinct American buffalo on the other, hits us with themes concerning American capitalism.  The tale begins with Donny (Francis Guinan), who owns the subterranean shop where a man came in and paid $90 for a nickel he plucked from a bowl of random coins.  Donny feels cheated, even though he ratcheted the price up from the man’s original offer of $15 and has no idea what the coin is actually worth.   Thinking he’s entitled to the coin, he plans to rob the buyer with his assistant, former-junkie Bobby (Patrick Andrews).  Don’s friend Teach (the slimeball Tracy Letts), is also able to talk his way into the robbery.  The three multi-generational characters form a sort of dysfunctional family, with Don as the matured grandfather, Teach as the business-savvy father, and Bobby as the impressionable young son.  Or possibly Don is the father to both Teach and Bobby?  Either way, lies are told, truths are withheld, and knick-knacks are smashed.  The prospective thieves are forced to choose between greed and loyalty.  All of this for a coin that they never look up in the price book and probably isn’t worth much more than Don sold it for.

Letts, the Pulitzer-prize winner of the bunch, is fantastic as Teach.  He shoots out Mamet’s language like an AK-47, blasting rounds of profanities, poisonous persuasions, and prejudicial tirades.  However, he can also find the terrified-child side of the character.  It is the mark of a great actor when he can find a tear-jerking moment in a Mamet play.  Guinan is reserved as Donny, but still creates a vibrant character.  He could be more commanding, though; sometimes it feels like he is bending too far to Teach’s will.  Andrews’s Bobby is very strung out.  Sometimes the young actor is a bit over-zombified, and moments are missed.  As an ensemble, Morton’s cast squabble like hungry rats, which is pitch-perfect for Mamet’s squalid world.

Mamet is famous for his cynicism and machinegun-paced dialogue.  Steppenwolf’s American Buffalo finds all of this, but also tears open the emotional heart buried under the hatred and nihilism.  In our materialistic culture, it’s both enlightening and jarring to be reminded of the importance of human relationships.  This production serves it up like a pack of dynamite.

More information here.

–Barry Eitel

January 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm 1 comment

EP Drops the BAAL on Brecht



EP Theater

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy

Through October 10th (tickets available here)

2 Stars (our of 4)

Because it is the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most important theatre theorist of the 20th Century, Baal is a fascinating work.  The sprawling drama was written in 1918, before Brecht nailed down the Epic theatre style which would become his trademark.  Glimmers of Brecht’s later techniques can still be found, though, such as the use of song and direct address.  EP Theater’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music accompaniment by the band The Loneliest Monk.  Although the production values of this Baal can be pretty ingenious, it lacks clarity and comes across as sloppy and confusing.

There is a lot of love for Brecht’s first work right now, with not one but two full productions happening this season (TUTA is also producing the play next May).  Now Baal is an interesting little play for studying the writer’s development, but Brecht’s later masterpieces totally overshadow his debut in terms of quality.  I wondered why any company would select it over his later works, but I was reminded how devastating and resonant the story can be.  Drawing on Romantic period themes, the play follows a young, self-destructive poet with an insatiable appetite for liquor, sex, and verse.  Desensitized to the world, Baal leaves shattered hearts and lives in his wake.

Co-directors AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s production is so muddled; however, the full potential impact of the play is lost.  Most of the locations or spans of time were never defined.  This made the action of story and relationships of the characters hard to piece together.  There’s also a diverse collection of tertiary characters that are double-cast, but these were also ill-defined.  The narrative in general was jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect were disordered.

Even though Baal was written before the Brechtian style became the Brechtian style, there are still opportunities to use his powerful methods.  Brecht himself retooled the play in 1926 to more closely fit his tastes.  I was perplexed by the fact that EP’s production seems to shy away from embracing Brechtian techniques when they can be such a fun challenge for a smaller company.  The live musicians are a start, especially when they occasionally interact with the actors.  But there isn’t much of an attempt to play around with the audience; it feels like we’re watching a realistic play with some poetry tossed into the dialogue.

The performances might be to blame here, many being way more moody than cynically detached.  Craig Cunningham was able to encapsulate the moroseness and aloofness of Baal, along with some of the humor (like when he’s playing with a fresh corpse).  Shawn Pfautsch’s Ekart, Baal’s slightly more aware best friend, refreshingly punched up the poetry of the script.  However, I’m pretty sure Pfautsch and Cunningham were secretly competing for wobbliest walk and seeing who could get closest to the other.  The best performance in the production, hands down, is Gus Menary as Johannes.  The part is tiny, but Menary’s portrayal was disturbingly underplayed, in particular when he describes how the body of his dead sister must look after years of floating in a river.

David Beaupre’s drab set design allowed the actors to explore different levels and could be transformed into a myriad of locales.  With all of the possibilities the set opened up, it feels as if the set wasn’t fully utilized by the directors.  The lighting was possibly the worst lighting design I’ve ever seen, sometimes highlighting pointless sections of wall and other times not providing enough visibility to see the actors.  The Loneliest Monk is a saving grace of this production, though, providing complex and haunting ambiance.

The live music along with the actors’ obvious respect for Brecht’s evocative poetry makes the production acceptable.  With more attention to story and technique, though, EP’s “biggest production to date” could’ve been destructive.

–Barry Eitel

More information can be found at

September 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm Leave a comment

Older Posts


July 2018
« May    

Posts by Month

Posts by Category