Blind Date

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Lucky for me my friend’s husband isn’t a theater lover. That’s how I got invited to see Blind Date at the Goodman Theater. Blind Date shows us how Ronald Reagan convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to attend a summit meeting to talk about the weapons race. My understanding of this page of history was foggy, but the performances brought clarity and interest. The play opens with a monologue by George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State. Due to his education and experience in economics, Shultz was able to figure out how Russia would struggle and what the consequences would be. Thus he realized this was a key time to contact Gorbechev, Russia’s youngest General Secretary.

Next Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, shares his thinking with the audience before sharing cocktails with Shultz. (In their conversation, which begins awkwardly Shultz tells Shevardnadze about a cocktail called The Kangaroo, which most of us know as a vodka martini.

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We see a lot of negotiating and one step forward, one back action as the two governments and two men figure out whether they should meet and where. It’s quite a chess game and quite interesting. Both powerful men are married to driven women. Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev have some of the plays best scenes and lines. These women know their minds and masterfully can read situations.

The play has humor but adroitly manages not to canonize or lampoon Reagan. The playwright Rogelio Martinez was born in Cuba and lived there till he was 9 and came to the US. Hence Martinez is fascinated with the ideologies of democracy and communism and has written a series of plays about events like the ping pong competition between China and the US where communism and democracy intersected. It would be easy to make a play that bored or had the wrong tone, but with Blind Date Martinez entertains and enlightens. The play’s pace is good and I could see this show on Broadway. I could see watching this again, which I think is the ultimate goal of a good play.

Kudos to Director Robert Falls and all the performers. Bravo!

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Red Velvet

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Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge, CST

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented an excellent production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. The story of the first African American to play Othello on the London state in 1833, the story explores racism. As we know, abolition was a hot issue in the mid-1800s. In England there were protests against the slave trade.

When Ian Keen, who starred as Othello, fell ill the manager of the Covent Garden Theater chose Ira Aldridge, a black actor from America to play Othello. Some in the cast were excited and supportive, but Ian’s son and another actor were strongly opposed.

Aldridge was a fine, thoughtful actor, whose goal was to work in London. He takes his art seriously and gives a passionate performance the first night. However, the critics were shocked to see an actor of African heritage on stage and their reviews were venomous. The manager, Pierre LaPorte is a good friend of Aldridge and he counsels the actor to tone down his performance. Yet we can see that Aldridge can’t rein in his perfectionism. His desire to bring Othello to life as he reads the play leads to disaster. A consummate professional, Aldridge pushes the edges of his performance.

The performances were all pitch perfect and the play was compelling as it showed a chapter of theater history, I wasn’t aware of. The play has been produced in London and New York. If it comes to your hometown, I highly recommend you check it out.

The Book of Will

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What a fun play! Written by Lauren Gunderson, The Book of Will at the Northlight Theater till December 17th tells the story of how without the effort of his friends, we wouldn’t have an authentic collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. In 1620 after Will had passed on, his friends were fed up with bad Shakespearean plays. Some were bad versions patched up with garbled versions of the plays made from copyists in the audience who tried to take down everything that was said. Some were just plays written by hacks who tried to copy Shakespeare’s style.

The play begins in a pub near The Globe theater where three of Shakespeare’s friends Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Henry Condell, actors from the King’s Men’s troupe and Condell’s daughter Elizabeth bemoan the horrible fakery that passes for Shakespeare. When Burbage dies suddenly they realize the only chance for passing these masterpiece plays down to posterity is to collect and publish a folio. It’s an expensive undertaking that is complicated by the lack of a full set of originals. A few plays are here, another bunch are with a scrivener, most actors only got their part, not the full play so some had to be carefully put together. No respectable printer wanted to touch the project so Heminges and Condell had to settle for a slimy, greedy cheat.

The play is delightful as it weaves memorable passaged of the Bard’s work throughout the story, which is well paced. The characters include Shakespeare’s wife, daughter and mistress, and Heminges’ and Condell’s wives and and so there is some female influence supporting the impossible project. The Northlight’s set and costumes were perfect. I’m tempted to go again.

What’s great about the Northlight is free parking and every seat has a clear view.

Grand Concourse

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The Steppenwolf’s Grand Concourse was so promising. Set in a soup kitchen, the play opens with Shelley, a middle=aged nun, who’s been doling out soup probably for decades gives Emma, a 19 year old volunteer, a run down on survival techniques: never give any of the guests money, don’t let the guests — especially Frog — into the kitchen, wash your hands a million times and remember anyone out there in the dining hall could snap at any time. Little does she know that Emma’s the one she should be warning people about. Despite her fragile looks, Emma’s the one who’s more disturbed and more in need than anyone at the soup kitchen. She’s the one not worthy of trust. That’s a lesson, Shelley, Frog and Oscar, a down-to-earth employee take too long to learn. Frog’s looniness is quirky and appealing. Oscar’s dependability and reactions to the other characters make him easy to connect with.

The acting, dialog and set design were top notch, I liked all the characters except Emma, who turns out to be psychotic midway through the show. However. the plot, especially the ending had problems. The young playwright doesn’t seem to understand how people generally change with age so the way Shelley reacts are more in keeping with a 30-something than someone who’s in her 50s. At the end of the play the plot jumps ahead several months, some characters have made big changes in their lives, but it was hard to buy that they really would have changed as they did.

I came away thinking that the writer knew a little about the world of soup kitchens and Catholics, but not all that much. If she’d spent more time investigating these realms, we’d have a better play, a play I could recommend people flock to.

Vanya on 42nd Street

julianne moore Vanya on 42nd StreetAndré Gregory, who starred in My Dinner with André, is certainly unique and directs like no other director. Vanya on 42nd Street is such a unique play or project and finally a film. He assembled a wonderful cast including Wallace Shawn and Juliette Moore to get together and rehearse Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for years. Several times a week the actors would perform this play — for 4 years. It wasn’t till the third year that they started to invite a handful of guests to watch them. Eventually, Louis Malle agreed to direct a film version of their play.

The story involves an extended family, who like the family in The Cherry Orchard, have money problems. On top of that several men in the story are smitten by Yelena, a beautiful young woman who’s married to an old scholar. There’s lots of conflict in the family revolving around personal grievances and what to do about their money problems. Because the actors performed this play so many times over a long period and thus became intimate with their cast members they reported that this story was like no other to them thus there’s a depth to this performance that’s palpable and like no other performance. The actors perform in a gorgeous abandoned theater in ruins, which resonates with the play’s theme. Both the play, translated by David Mamet, and the Criterion Collection interviews are engrossing. The interviews made me appreciate the meticulous acting this process afforded. I’d definitely watch this again and again for the story and fine acting.

Nickel and Dimed

Northwestern dramatized Barbara Enrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel_and_Dimed” target=”_blank” rel=”wikipedia”>Nickel and Dimed with great success. This three act play follows Enrenreich, a journalist who went undercover in Florida, Maine and Minnesota taking low paying jobs like waiting tables, cleaning houses and working at “Mall Mart.”

The cast was good especially Laura Winters, the star who was a likeable everywoman. Though it was hard to believe Winters was in her 50s, that wasn’t important. I hope to see Winters in more roles after she graduates.

What matters is that a privileged woman finds out how hard it is to get by on minimum wage, to find a decent place to live on meager wages. Enrenreich came to respect and understand her coworkers more than she expected.

The play, like the book, is a compelling look at those exploited by our economy.

<em>Nickel and Dimed</em> will be shown next weekend.

Frankenstein

If it weren’t for Theater Mania’s email offering 20% off tickets, I’d have never known that the National Theater Live was broadcasting Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Evanston. What Sherlock fan could pass up the deal?

The acting, sets and costumes were all outstanding. Last night we saw Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Dr. Frankenstein.  I’d caught bits and pieces of old Frankenstein films, which gave me an idea of what to expect. However, I didn’t know the movies departed from Mary Shelley‘s book.

Now I know why.

Despite a stellar performance by Cumberbatch and creative staging, the story fell short of what I’d expected.

Just after birth

The play opened with a scene, a protracted scene, of the Creature’s birth masterfully performed by Cumberbatch, yet the scene dragged. After a while, I was thinking, “We get it, the Creature’s gawky and learning to walk is a clumsy, long process. Can you please move on?” How I wished the director had made that more succinct. I also wondered why Frankenstein hadn’t heard all the banging about his creature was doing. Why did it take him so long to get into the lab to see what the hell was going on? We’re later told that Frankenstein was a workaholic, obsessed with his work. Well, not that night.

Once the creature’s born and walking, Frankenstein discovers him and he freaks out. As a result of Frankenstein’s screaming rejection, the Creature hits the road. Mind you all he’s wearing is a loin cloth and he knows nothing of life. He can barely walk and has no knowledge of language.  He has no concept of geography, what a town or street is, what buying or begging is. Nothing at all. Nada.

After a minor run in with some scamps, the Creature meets an old man who’s blind and thus accepting. The man teaches the Creature to read and think critically. Pretty far fetched since a baby needs to hear language for years before talking let alone reading Paradise Lost passages. Yeah, I don’t blame the B movie directors for departing from this story.

While under the tutelage of the blind man, the Creature hides in the shadows fearing rejection and abuse from anyone who can see him.

Life is fine, though limited till the old man’s son and daughter-in-law panic when they first see the Creature. The man was so set on integrating the Creature into his family, yet didn’t have the sense to prepare them for this meeting. He’d been working with the Creature for a long, long time.

If he thought the Creature was hideous, why didn’t he scrap the project and start anew after taking some sewing and art lessons?

Throughout the play the Creature is a gawky biped with gruesome scars and bruises that never heal. It’s like Frankenstein sewed the Creature with his feet. I never understood how Frankenstein, who designed and made the creature was so repulsed.

The play deals (ineptly, I’d say) with themes of responsibility, connection, alienation, prejudice, but it’s all done with the sophistication of an 19 year old. I’m far less impressed with Shelley’s stature as a novelist if this is indeed the accurate retelling the play claims to be.

Frankenstein was the typical one dimensional scientist who’s anti-social and uncomfortable in society. He’s okay with theory, but horrible with real life. For some reason, his fiance is madly in love with him and keeps trying to get blood from the rock-like heart of this nerd dressed in ruffles.

The cost of Frankenstein’s misuse of science is death, several deaths.

While the play will be performed again in July with Cumberbatch and Miller changing roles, I couldn’t sit through the story again. I’m sure Cumberbatch would do an excellent job as Frankenstein, yet he’s limited by the poor story.

It’s weird to see so much good in a production and yet not be able to whole heartedly recommend it. I’d even give the set designers and actors awards, but I wouldn’t want to sit through this again.