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theater reviews
2001-11-14

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THE LARAMIE PROJECT

Playwright: Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project At: Next Theatre Company, 927 Noyes, Evanston

Tickets: $22-$28

Phone: ( 847 ) 475-1875

Runs through: Dec. 16

by Jonathan Abarbanel

The Laramie Project is a docu-drama with prejudice—it's writers are gay or pro-gay—about the Matthew Shepard case, based on 200 interviews conducted in 1998 and 1999. It's a very hot theatrical property, and the Next Theatre production proves why. Simply staged by Kate Buckley and performed by a versatile and emotionally involved ensemble of eight ( but need they all be white, European descent actors? ) , the show is moving, thoughtful and—surprisingly—even funny. But ... .

Matthew Shepard's October, 1998 murder in Wyoming was no more horrific than thousands of other ethnic, racial, religious and sexual hate crimes. The remark of perpetrator Aaron McKinney's father is true: "If ( Shepard ) had been a heterosexual, it never would have been national news." Most of Laramie sincerely condemned the crime, and the police arraigned the two criminals less than 48 hours after Shepard was found beaten, tied to a fence and left exposed to near-freezing temperatures.

Three things made it the hate crime of the decade. First, the fact that it WAS national news. In 1998, a bullish economy and a gay-friendly, liberal president meant our nation could afford to be comfortably outraged. Second, Shepard seemed the ideal victim: young ( although not younger than his killers ) , clean-cut, physically slight and defenseless. His HIV+ status at 21—evidence of possibly irresponsible behavior—was not widely reported. Third, with only 27,000 people, Laramie is small enough so that no one was unaffected; small enough so that Shepard and his two killers remained individuals. As the play says, Laramie is "secluded enough so you can have your identity."

But the play ignores the possible link between prosperity and the national media frenzy the case generated, and makes only secondary points about Shepard's HIV status and occasionally in-your-face attitude. Its focus is Laramie's deeply felt communal trauma and how decent folks—the police chief, the bartender, the college student, the Catholic priest, the limousine driver, the hospital chief-of-staff among others—learned and grew through catharsis.

Given shorter shrift are those conflicted or closed about the case, including the governor of Wyoming, a Mormon spokesman and a fundamentalist minister who condemns both the murder and homosexuality. But they were traumatized by the Shepard case, too, and The Laramie Project would have been braver to give them a broader platform. We never see how the case affects them, while the play completes the histories of the more sympathetic, thus seeming to preach to the converted. How would it play for a redneck audience?

The Laramie Project poses the semi-ironic question of how our children absorb intolerance in a live-and-let-live community. The presence of a Muslim girl in Laramie makes the question pertinent for all times and places.

The Coarse Acting Show

Playwright: the ensemble, based on the book by Michael Green

At: Shakespeare's Motley Crew

Phone: ( 312 ) 902-1500

Tickets: $15; Runs through: Dec. 16

by Mary Shen Barnidge

Michael Green's The Art Of Coarse Acting has become an underground classic in the show business trade since its publication in 1964. Structured as an instruction book for actors, the popularity of this humorous compilation of short cuts, cheap measures, unforeseen mishaps, expedient solutions and all the thousand natural shocks to which rough-and-ready theatrical ventures are heir can be attributed partly to its they-didn't-REALLY-do-that outrageousness, but more so to the recognition it sparks in dramatic artists who recall, with sheepish nostalgia, the night when, yes, they really DID do that.

Shakespeare's Motley Crew, a storefront company with its own share of greenroom groaners, has assembled five one-act plays parodying such favorites as Shakespeare ( All's Well That Ends As You Like It ) , Chekhov ( The Cherry Sisters ) , Noel Coward ( Present Slaughter ) , Drawing-Room Comedy ( Pride At Southhanger Park ) , and our own Chicago trademark, the epic literary adaptation ( Moby Dick ) . Individually, they are each directed by an acknowledged expert in the field: Steve Scott, Jeremy Wechsler, Nick Bowling, Shade Murray and Kimberly Senior.

As might be expected, their presentations feature a number of missed cues, unexpected blackouts, ham-handed oratory ( in particular, bawdy Elizabethan jests ) , miscast roles ( the actress with the pronounced lateral lisp, the aging doyenne re-living her ingenue days ) and incomplete set changes ( in one scene, our view is obscured by a tree left onstage ) . This is no mere comedy of errors, however, but of remedies as well: the enterprising thespian who uses the vicar's Bible to prop up a wobbling chair, depriving that clergyman of his prompt-book. An array of stratagems employed when a samovar refuses to stop dispensing tea. A leading man's attempt to retain his dignity—and blood—after being mortally wounded by an innocent-looking martini glass.

This type of mayhem often lends itself to clutter, and the opening night show was still in need of tightening. But the guffaws of the mostly insider audience attests to the accuracy of its satire, down to the seating arrangements ( with almost as many places marked "reserved" as at the opening of Bug at Red Orchid ) , the pledge-drive pleas between episodes, and Laura Scott Wade's sly Whitney/ Celine/Mariah impression.

Death And

Harry Houdini

Playwright: Nathan Allen

At: House Theatre Of Chicago at Live Bait Theatre, 3914 N. Clark

Phone: ( 773 ) 251-2185

Tickets: $10

Runs through: Dec. 8

by Mary Shen Barnidge

Once upon a time, there was a boy who hated Death. The Old Nick, as his people called it, had taken the boy's father from him before he was even born and now waited to steal his mother, too. Searching for a way to rescue his loved ones, the boy finally came up with a plan to capture and imprison Death. He would invite the cruel specter to share a small room—a cell, a box, a tank—with him, whereupon the boy would slip free, leaving Death trapped inside. Again and again, the boy did this—sometimes Death would break loose as well, but every time, he would snare it again. The boy's name was Erich Weiss, but we know him nowadays as Harry Houdini.

At least this is the story related in House Theatre of Chicago's astonishingly original biographical drama, Death And Harry Houdini. Departing with that genre's standard documentary approach to its material, playwright/director Nathan Allen vividly recounts the life of his subject in a "magical menagerie" of song, gypsy-band instrumentals, poetry, vaudeville patter, sleight-of hand, full-scale stage illusion, silent cinema, shadow puppets, marionettes, mirror ghosts, quasi-Claes Oldenburg costumes, and inventive props ( like the red carpet rolled out from a dowel attached to a push-broom ) . So many disparate elements could easily stray, but are instead kept securely anchored to the thesis that Houdini's obsession with, literally, death-defying stunts were his attempt to control a painfully uncertain universe.

Everyone affiliated with this show appears to have done their homework—did I mention that Dennis Watkins, who plays Harry, traces his lineage through three generations of magicians?—with much of the dialogue lifted verbatim from Houdini's letters. The rendering of its protagonist as mythic hero—more characteristic of fiction than of fact-based literature—dispels any intellectual distance engendered by historical perspective, however, drawing us deeper into the immediacy of his battle with The Old Nick ( a coldly menacing eight-foot-tall figure in a long black overcoat and Stetson hat, his face concealed by a gas mask ) even as the many non-verbal images convey the spirit of Allen's narrative more eloquently than words.

1,001 CHICAGO AFTERNOONS

Written by: Paul Peditto

At: Storefront Theater

Tickets: $15

Phone: ( 312 ) 742-8497

Runs through: Dec. 9

by Rick Reed

It was 1921 and the Chicago Daily News was hot on the newsstands. One reason for its success was the columns of a young journalist, Ben Hecht, who, along with the triumphs and foibles of his own life, animated the comedies and tragedies of some of the more unusual citizens of the city of big shoulders. The column was called 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago and it was a hit, spawning a literary form that meshed personal observation, factual detail, and the color and nuance of fiction. It also launched the career of Hecht, who went on to become a respected novelist, screenwriter, and playwright ( think The Front Page, Notorious, Gunga Din, and more ) .

Hecht's Chicago years were part of the jazz age and, along with depicting the heart and soul of a literary pacesetter, playwright Paul Peditto has vividly captured the times, as well. From dance hall floozies, to governmental corruption, to loose morals and looser women, it was a golden age, a time of vibrancy and light, before it was all dimmed by the great depression of the 1930s.

Peditto, along with director, J.R. Sullivan, has created a work of nearly seamless precision, bringing all the elements of the times, Hecht's wonderful stories, and an amazing ensemble of characters together under a very focused eye and an even surer hand. The work, originally staged in 1997, is part of the city's Storefront Theater efforts to remount "Chicago's best off-loop theater." The show's original run garnered much critical acclaim and several Jeff citations—and deservedly so.

The creative forces behind 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago deserve a lot of credit for bringing to such amazing life Ben Hecht's early years, when he blossomed not only as a writer, but as a man. The great thing about the play is that it shows how Hecht began as an eager, but somewhat naïve journalist, and became an artist through his own personal heartache ( a doomed affair with a flapper gal is at the heart of the piece ) , and his exposure to tragedy: Hecht wound up covering executions, discovering a real heart of darkness on both personal and more far-reaching levels. His artistic maturation was also the result of his being exposed to stories like those of Mary Secorra, a young mother driven insane when she was forced to helplessly witness the death of her four-year-old son.

The play also has a lot of humor, as it explores jazz age lingo, the cynicism of fellow author and friend Sherwood Anderson, and characters like the knife-throwing Great Salvini, Solly Wagner, and the quintessential madam, Queen Bess.

The problem with such a large ensemble is that it's difficult to single out performers for praise, especially with a group such as this one, which had nary a weak link. But I must give credit to David P. Bryson, who demonstrated Hecht's growth as a person and writer so well, showcasing his enthusiasm turning to a darker, and more mature worldview. And Jessica Schulte, as his girlfriend Camille, who wants so much to rise above her circumstances, but can't find the right way to make it work, was also formidable, creating a character for whom the audience aches.

BRONZEVILLE

Playwright: David Barr III

At: Pegasus Players Theater

Tickets: $16-$19

Phone: ( 773 ) 878-9761

Runs through: Dec. 16

by Rick Reed

One can say this for Bronzeville, the world premiere that just opened at Pegasus Players Theater: it's ambitious. Brought to you by the same creative team that collaborated on last season's story of contralto Marian Anderson, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit ( playwright David Barr III and director Ilesa Lisa Duncan ) , Bronzeville is purportedly about the rise and fall of Chicago's Grand Boulevard neighborhood. Once an area full of bustling nightlife, stable families, and neighborhood harmony, it severely degenerated, but is finally experiencing a renovation of sorts. Located on Chicago's South Sside, the African-American populated neighborhood was coined Bronzeville in the 1930s.

Playwright Barr has attempted to forge a link between the personal and the global in this story of how one man comes to terms with his own roots, against the historical backdrop of racism and urban decay. And the motif might have been successful if Barr could have developed a compelling connection with his principal character, Junior, and the audience. But Barr, in at least this production, has a fatal flaw: ambition. He wants to do so much, and say so much, that he winds up offering his audience little more than boredom and bewilderment. Focus? There is none. Establishing characters for whom we can care? Forget it.

I counted about eight different plays running through the course of this deeply flawed production. There's a sort-of modern Romeo and Juliet, a crooked preacher and his flock, themes of urban blight, wartime injustice, and union organization. Barr also brings in lynchings, the biblical trials of Job, and the dilemma of selling out and betraying one's own personal history. Throw into this mix several gratuitous swing dance numbers, gospel music, a few ballads that do little, if anything, to advance the plot or deepen characterization, and you've got a show that should have never made it onto the boards.

Finally, in the department of little things mean a lot: a sign used in the play for a Bronzeville nightclub called the Metropolitan features the likes of Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong and Count Bassie. Yes, Count Bassie. Misspelling a jazz great's name ( it's Count Basie ) in such a prominent way undercuts the authority of a play that wants to celebrate the great jazz music of an era.

If only the flaws in Bronzeville could be so easily corrected. Take a pass on this trip south.


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