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Theater Reviews
2005-07-06

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Symmetry

Playwright: David Field

At: Victory Gardens Theater

Phone: ( 773 ) 871-3000; $33-$40

Runs through: July 10

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

Symmetry's topic might be egghead science, but it could just as easily be baseball, rock-and-roll or building mousetraps. Our protagonist is an MIT graduate-turned-Albuquerque U physics instructor. When publication in one of the top scholastic journals catapults him to fame, suddenly he is surrounded by people offering him whatever he desires. But nothing comes without its price, and ( all together, now ) what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

Playwright David C. Field identifies himself as a former ad-man from Los Angeles—an occupation associated with a deft command of language, and a locale all but guaranteeing a concrete familiarity with the use, and misuse, of money, knowledge and power. Both these factors go far in camouflaging the allegorical aspects of his tempters: A pioneer in nuclear physics now facing forced retirement. A robotics tycoon mourning his dead son. A scholarly mentor rebuffed by his peers. A bored wife, looking for someone to fuss over. A professor—and apparently disciple—of Eastern Religions. And then there's our humble hero's famous-artist mother and government-agent father, both deceased.

Further rendering Field's universal theme both provocative and coherent to technospeak-challenged audiences are Victory Gardens director Dennis Zacek and a muscular ensemble who delve their hyperarticulate dialogue for the humor inherent in casual discussion of weighty subjects. J.J. Johnston returns to Chicago in fine form as the self-made megacapitalist, swapping repartee with William J. Norris' sour-tempered bombsmith and Matt DeCaro's earnest educator. Meg Thalken is the perfect picture of a campus First Lady, while Jennifer Liu puts a refreshingly secular edge onto a role dogged by stereotype—not the least of which is the wardrobe of Maoist work-camp uniforms imposed on her by costumer Christine Pascual.

At the center of it all is Aaron Roman Weiner's boy-genius, whose struggle to choose his Bliss before following it is no easier for the stakes involved. It doesn't take an IQ in the high triple-digits to see that at the roots of intellectual progress lies the moral question of how humanity is best served by it, nor to puzzle over the answer.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Queer Tale

Playwright: William Shakespeare as adapted by Tony Lewis

At: MidTangent Productions at Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield

Contact: ( 773 ) 472-1773; $12-$15.

Runs: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through July 10; Midnight July 26

By Catey Sullivan

Shakespeare purists will be screaming with outrage 10 minutes into Tony Lewis' gloriously queer interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The rest of us will be screaming with laughter at this audacious, uproarious and moving adaptation of Shakespeare's tale of forbidden love and fairy queens.

With Midsummer Night's Dream, A Queer Tale, MidTangent Productions manages a wily balance of camp and provocation.

The camp, it should be noted, is utterly appropriate. This is, after all, a comedy containing several way-over-the-top love stories, a subplot about a group of rubes who bumble around like inbred cousins of the Three Stooges, and a bunch of fairies prone to changing people into donkeys.

The provocation in A Queer Tale comes in many forms, but nowhere is it as stunning as in Lewis' ( who also directs ) radical re-imagining of Midsummer's satirical play-within-a-play. Lewis inverts the Bard's satire into a brief, shattering tragedy that speaks to the risk of suicide among people made to feel their sexuality is unacceptable. Up until that blade of darkness, Lewis keeps the proceedings laughing-gas giddy while maintaining an irresistible undertow of subversion.

In the original Midsummer, dewy-eyed heteros Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods after being forbidden to marry on pain of death. Here, Hermia and Lysander are lesbians who light out for 'Boyshood' when their love is deemed criminal.

Hermia's best friend Helena is an awkward young woman in the original play. Here Helena is an awkward young man who heads to Boyshood to woo another man, Demetrius.

The rulers of Boyshood are the S&M couple Queen Titania and King Oberon, the latter a bearish leatherman; the former a drag king extraordinaire who when her heart is broken, lip-syncs her magnificent way through Madonna's 'Frozen.'

Then there's the weed-worshipping, beer-swilling breeder boy Nick Bottom. In the original play, the mischievous sprite Robin Goodfellow turns Bottom into a donkey. In this version, an imp named Bobbin Goodswallow makes a giant penis sprout from Bottom's forehead.

Lewis peppers the text with contemporary nods, sometimes sly and sometimes gleefully obnoxious. He even warps a hallowed quote from notorious hetero John F. Kennedy to fit the bill. ( 'Some are born gay. Some achieve gayness. Some have gayness thrust upon them.' )

And let us not omit mention of choreographer Bill Janisse's energizing dance numbers, which make the stage explode in a frenzy of vogue-ing, break moves and a stylized, orgiastic-fantastic abandon one might expect to find in the wee hours on the last stop of an underground circuit party.

Leading a cast of infectious effervescence is Kary Markey's glittery Titania, a drama queen of the first order. Also marvelous is Lindsay Alexander as Lysander, a curvaceous woman with flames in her eyes.

In all, this Midsummer is a moondance for a marvelous night.

Critics' Picks

Elton John's Glasses, Appetite Theatre at Chicago Dramatists, through July 10. No happily ever after in this British comedy, but intense and intelligent performances point the way to better times ahead for disappointed soccer fans and struggling rock-n-rollers. MSB

Hillbilly Antigone, Lookingglass Theatre, through July 10. This Greek tragedy moved to 1920s Tennessee is lively, original, well done and even funny. A bluegrass band brilliantly replaces the Greek chorus. JA

The Subject Was Roses, Writers' Theatre, Glencoe, through July 10. This 1965 Tony winner—about a boy's return from WWII to witness his parents' crumbling marriage—benefits from Shade Murray's sensitive direction and an outstanding ensemble. RR

Verbatim Verboten, Royal George, open run. Going nearly a year, this show reenacts secretly taped conversations and utterings of the rich and famous. RR

— J. Abarbanel, M.S. Barnidge and R. Reed

Arms and the Man

Playwright: George Bernard Shaw

At: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Phone: ( 847 ) 242-6000; $45-$55

Runs through: July 24

BY RICK REED

Arguably, Arms and the Man is one of George Bernard Shaw's best loved and most produced plays. It is certainly one of his most accessible, and with a body of work that contains a lot of entertainment, one of his most entertaining. It could almost be taken as a light comedy, but its underlying themes of love and war ( so often present in Shaw's oeuvre ) are serious, dealing in a thoughtful way with how romanticizing the vision of something so horrific as war can be damaging and damning. The epiphany of that lies at the heart of this play, which was one of Shaw's earliest, and is included in an aptly titled collection called, Plays Pleasant ( published in 1898 ) .

Arms and the Man is set in war-torn Bulgaria ( the Writers Theatre staging has inexplicably shifted the time frame to World War I; it works, but one wonders about the motivation behind the choice ) and mines the depths of two love affairs and the shifting partners in the 'dance.' Raina ( Elizabeth Ledo ) pines for her hero soldier betrothed ( Brad Eric Johnson ) , off at war. In one night of bombing and uprising, which Raina and her mother ( Sarah Gabel ) pretty much ignore, a young Serbian soldier ( the excellent and spot on Timothy Edward Kane ) named Bluntschli clambers up Raina's drainpipe, vaults her balcony and scrambles into her bedroom to hide. Born out of fear and hunger, a romance is ignited, which changes, in a delightful way, the remainder of the course of the play. Raina and Bluntschli's romance is the spark that ignites shifting allegiances on the sometimes more treacherous battlefield of human love and sexual attraction.

Under William Brown's deftly paced direction, this Arms and the Man emerges as a winner, entertaining and provoking thought in equal measure. Brown also allows for the palpable feel of sexual tension to emerge, along with Shaw's socio-political commentary. Thanks to Shaw's tight plotting and Brown's practiced directorial hand, this two and a quarter hours speed by.

And with the delightful performance of Kymberly Mellon as a sexy servant, Arms and the Man is a near perfect summer outing. Also contributing to the 'play pleasant' is Brian Sydney Bembridge's scenic design which is as breathtaking as it is versatile ( and witty—the much vaunted family library contains only one tiny bookcase, not even full ) . Rachel Anne Healy's costume design is smart, looking sumptuous and also perfectly defining character.

There are only a few weeks left in the run. Get up to Glencoe and see one of summer's most refreshing delights.

Dollhouse

Playwright: Rebecca Gilman, after Ibsen

At: The Goodman Theatre

Phone: ( 312 ) 443-3800; $20-$60

Runs through: July 24

By Jonathan Abarbanel

Treading where numerous adapters have failed, Rebecca Gilman succeeds in updating Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House with a believable modern gloss of idiom and style while adapting his still-potent ideas to contemporary life. One may raise secondary literary quibbles or protest Gilman's surprise ending—which may undercut Ibsen's intent—but these factors cannot negate Gilman's considerable achievement, especially as staged by Robert Falls at the very peak of his powers as a director, and acted by an exemplary ensemble. Dollhouse crackles with tension, intelligence and entertainment from the moment the stage lights rise.

Gilman remains remarkably true to Ibsen's 1879 original. Early 30s Terry ( Ibsen's Torvald ) Helmer is a banker on the brink of major career advancement. He lives beyond his immediate means with beautiful wife Nora and three small kids. Nora, who's never had to work, is a spendthrift whom Terry also regards as empty headed ( the two aren't the same thing ) . Six years earlier when Terry faced a health crisis, Nora secretly bankrolled his rehab and the purchase of their luxury condo through a shady financial deal that can compromise Terry professionally.

Now Nora's financial patron is applying the screws as Nora scrambles to keep her secret. When Terry finds out, his egotistically self-serving reaction opens Nora's eyes to his true character, allowing Nora to define herself—vs. being defined by others—for the first time. In Ibsen's original, she walks out and slams the door—literally—on husband, children and middleclass marriage, a denouement considered shocking and morally reprehensible by most Ibsen contemporaries. Gilman's ending ( I won't reveal it ) may equally shock modern Ibsenites, which may be precisely why she does it: to challenge familiar assumptions. Like Ibsen, Gilman uses drama to explore shifting male/female power relationships, and this vehicle is a continuum for both.

Gilman fills Dollhouse with smart equivalents. Ibsen's Nora distracts Torvald by dancing a wild tarantella; Gilman's Nora lap dances Terry to I'm a Maniac. Torvald has been promoted to bank manager; Terry has been promoted to Bank One manager of mid-level lending. Shifting locale from Norway to Chicago, Gilman extracts laughter—but also makes socio-economic points—from the Red and Brown lines, Albany and Lincoln parks, Francis Parker School, Bloomies and Target.

Director Falls understands every subtle moment-to-moment shift in Dollhouse from comedy to tension and back again, the use of irony ( strong in Ibsen and equally understood by Gilman ) , the humor that's a cover for fear or longing. His crisp staging ( on Robert Brill's witty shadowbox set echoing the play's title ) and sure thinking hone the actors to near perfection: Maggie Siff's energetic and astonishingly quicksilver Nora, Anthony Starke's attractively smarmy Terry and Lance Stuart Baker's masterfully sad clowning as their physician friend. Elizabeth Rich and Firdous Bamji are no less astute in less showy supporting roles.

Gillman's Dollhouse makes me see the characters and ideas of Ibsen's A Doll's House in new ways. Her reinvention is clever, thoughtful, pertinent and amusing. The light shines through this open Dollhouse door.

Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil

Playwright: Bill Harris

At: eta Creative Arts Foundation

Phone: ( 773 ) 752-3955; $25

Runs through: August 14

By Jonathan Abarbanel

Now-legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances close to where he was born, from poison or syphilis or both. He was 27, Black and relatively unknown even among other African-Americans of the era, so his demise was of no great official concern.

Since then, Johnson's reputation and influence have become gigantic based on his slim discography of 25 or so songs recorded 1936-1938, the sheer force of his acoustic guitar work and the unexpected poetry of his lyrics. Legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical prowess.

In Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, playwright Bill Harris posits that Johnson kept his soul by tricking the Devil into revealing musical secrets. Harris literalizes Johnson's presumed poisoning in a backroom jook joint as revenge for Johnson's affair with another man's woman, probably true, and scatters a few other known facts, such as Johnson's first recording session in San Antonio. Otherwise, this overly poetic but crudely structured play skimps on both biographical detail and character depth, leaving one knowing no more about Robert Johnson or the blues than at the start. Harris, a poet and academic, is far more interested in a pseudo-academic discussion of the blues and recycled racial clichés than in flesh-and-blood characters. For instance, Harris ignores the death of Johnson's first wife and newborn child, which must have influenced his art.

The cast demonstrates some ability but are asked to do impossible things, especially Jason Wilson as a guilt-stricken, white, Shakespeare professor from Boston obsessed with Johnson's music. Thoroughly improbable, he's a Yankee liberal who nonetheless spouts every nasty 1930's ( and later ) racial cliché. You can't have it both ways, even as a comic figure which he is ( though not interpreted that way by Wilson or director Ron OJ Parson ) . David Adams as Poisoner Lem is asked only to threaten, glare and denounce the white and black supervisors of the WPA project he's worked on. James Earl Jones II as Stokes, a blind piano player, has no relation to plot but delivers direct narration to the audience. Since the other characters narrate too, what's the point of Stokes? Throughout, characters narrate rather than dramatize thoughts and actions.

Merl Sanders as Johnson and Sidney Miller as his femme fatale fare better. Sanders has a better-looking passing resemblance to Johnson and is a gifted singer/guitar player who pulls off the musical moments with aplomb. Miller, snazzily costumed by Kaniko Sago, provides high spirits and energy until Harris turns his focus elsewhere in Act II. Everyone works on Reginald Wilson's nicely-realized unit set, book ended by a fancy brass bed and a piano. But they can't create organic dramatic life from inert matter.

Live Bait's 'Solo'

The Live Bait Theater Fillet of Solo Festival 2005 runs through Aug. 27, $10, ( 773 ) 871-1112 or Ticket Web, www.livebaittheater.org .

See following for the rotating performance schedule and ticket prices.

Week 1: David Kodeski's True Life Tales

Opening Weekend July 21-23.

Week 2: The Sweat Girls, the Solo Sampler, Opening Weekend July 28-30.

Week 3: Brigid Murphy presents For Real, Opening Weekend Aug. 4-6.

Week 4: My Life in Jeopardy, Opening Weekend Aug. 11-13.

Week 5: Britney's Man Dances For His Supper, Written & performed by BoyGirlBoyGirl, Opening Weekend Aug. 18-20.


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