Because I’m too Lazy to come up with my own opinions…

Here is an interesting look at the 2009 Oscar nominations from a theatrical perspective, written by Zev Valancy.

The only thing I’m wondering about is the choice to make it 10 nominees for Best Picture.  I get the feeling the Academy is nervous of the Award show becoming irrelevant, losing the massive amount of status it once had.  I can’t really disagree, but fortunately it hasn’t reached the lowpoint of the Grammys.  I did watch those last week.  I think I’ve narrowed the disparity down to this: a lot of indie music that isn’t recognized by the Recording Academy, I believe, is often perceived as better artistically than much of the commercial stuff out there.  But movies are different, because stuff out on the fringes a lot of times suck.  A generalization that makes a sweeping judgment, maybe. But I think there is some truth to it.

–Barry

February 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

The Brother/Sister Plays @ Steppenwolf

Hey folks,

Busy weekend. I saw The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf on Saturday, and they are truly amazing. Here’s a plug for my review.

August: Osage County last night. Sort of at lost for words.

Happy 6 more weeks of winter,

Barry Eitel

February 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm Leave a comment

CST’s PRIVATE LIVES Proves Coward’s Brilliance

REVIEW

PRIVATE LIVES

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 www.chicagoshakes.com

February 1, 2010 at 12:22 am 1 comment

Casting Disabled Actors

Here is an interesting article I came across about actors with mental and physical disabilities.  It revolves around the producers of Fox’s ‘Glee’ (one of whom is a Loyola grad) casting a non-disabled actor to play Artie, the show’s wheelchair-bound character.  Thought-provoking stuff.

Peace,

Barry Eitel

January 20, 2010 at 7:58 pm 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

LOFTY DEEDS A Redneck Good Time

REVIEW

ALL THE FAME OF LOFTY DEEDS

 

House Theatre

Written by Mark Guarino

Directed by Tommy Rapley

Through December 20th (tickets available here)

 

*** (out of 4)

 

Let me clear the air before you read any further and let you know that I might be an anomaly when it comes to all things House Theatre.  To be honest, I’ve never really been too impressed by much of anything I’ve seen by them (which, admittedly, hasn’t been a whole lot).  Their adolescent sense of curiosity, dancey staging, and extreme energy acting doesn’t really jive with my tastes.  Maybe that makes me a soulless, fun-hating ol’ stick in the mud.  Either way, there was something about their newest production, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, which struck a chord (get ready for some music puns) with me.  The show, detailing the rise and fall of a country music star, is darker and more mature than the House’s usual fare, and also requires a more grounded style.  Although there are some glaring narrative and stylistic issues, Lofty Deeds forces all of the House’s creative energy into something denser and deeper than anything I’ve seen there previously.

Although they usually devise their own pieces, the House chose an outside play as their season opener. Lofty Deeds, written by rock journalist Mark Guarino, is saturated with the music and art of Jon Langford.  Langford, an alt-country pioneer, is known for his twangy hillbilly music and mythic lyrics that combine classic country with a punk rock ethos.  He is also famous for painting portraits of country music legends like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.  Lofty Deeds captures Langford’s aesthetic: the story revolves around a rebellious country music star staring death in the face (in the form of a tumbleweed), the design is inspired by Langford’s art, and vibrant, live versions of Langford’s music infiltrate every scene.

The “dangers/fallacies/hypocrisies of the music business” plot doesn’t cover any new territory.  At the beginning of the play, former country music star and senior citizen Lofty Deeds (Nathan Allen) is coerced into revisiting the ghosts of his past—the death of his recording partner and brother, ruined relationships, selling out to evil music executives, the inevitable substance addictions.  Where the House really succeeds is painting this story in a charmingly imaginative way.  In this production, the “suits” appear as a Brooks Brothers-adorned five-headed hydra.  Through Tommy Rapley’s dance-like choreography, the five actors that represent corporate America become a single organism: moving, speaking, and thinking the same.  We also see Deeds slow-dance his way into love with a woman whose face is always veiled, and then we watch him neglect her for a life on the road.  All of this is narrated and driven by a talking and singing tumbleweed (Corri Feuerstein).  It seems that the weed is sometimes a grim reaper figure, sometimes an inspiration, and sometimes the cause of Lofty’s unwanted flashbacks.  Like a bunch of the show’s elements, the tumbleweed character often causes more confusion than symbolic enlightenment.

I was able to forgive many of the clunkier moments and just go with the production’s rhythmic flow.  However, there were more than a handful of times when the narrative became obscured.  For example, there is a recurring talking horse puppet that never really made sense to me.  Part of these inconsistencies was probably due to Guarino’s script being a little underdeveloped, and part of it came from Rapley’s emphasis on theatricality over clarity.

Lofty Deeds stands out among House productions for me because it was the most grounded show I’ve seen by them.  In a refreshing twist, not every moment was overplayed.  Allen does a pretty good job carrying the show, but he plays far too much to the audience.  That might be the House’s aesthetic, and it is totally fine in the more expressive moments, but it can dissipate all the tension in the dramatic scenes.  It just doesn’t work when we watch Deeds discuss his perpetual loneliness with his brother’s ghost or the singing dead plant and then he turns and delivers a couple of lines to us.  Patrick Martin, though, does a marvelous job as his dead brother, Lefty Deeds.  He is simple yet complex, remarkably charming yet says little.  If the whole production could match his style, the show could be absolutely wonderful.

 

–Barry Eitel

More information can be found at www.thehousetheatre.com

November 23, 2009 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

Updates

Hey friends–

Been pretty busy the past couple of weeks…directed a production of Caryl Churchill’s FAR AWAY here at Loyola and then I’m in their AS YOU LIKE IT that’s opening this weekend (as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior).

I’ve had some other stuff on different sites, so I thought I’d keep y’all up to date.  Here are links to my Animal Crackers, Death of a Salesman, and Frankenstein review (although Frankenstein only ran two weekends and closed yesterday).  I also wrote up a review for CST’s Richard III.

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a giant theatrical experiment involving Tectonic Theatre Ensemble’s newest work, THE LARAMIE PROJECT EPILOGUE.  You can read a feature I wrote on the experience here.

There’s not a whole lot out there right now that I’m wildly excited about…I think most of the heavy stuff won’t come out until January, really.

November 2, 2009 at 11:27 pm Leave a comment

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