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More Theater Reveiws
2006-04-19

This article shared 4075 times since Wed Apr 19, 2006
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Angels in America: Perestroika

By: Tony Kushner

The Hypocrites at Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Phone: ( 773 ) 883-1090; $15-$25

Runs through: May 7

BY SCOTT C. MORGAN

Confession time: I didn't see Millennium Approaches, the first part of The Hypocrites and Bailiwick Repertory's co-production of Tony Kushner's acclaimed Angels in America. But I am not a neophyte to Kushner's 'Gay Fantasia on National Themes.'

In addition to reading Kushner's Angels scripts, I've also seen two complete staging of his theatrical epic in 1994 on Broadway and in the mid-1990s in Salt Lake City, of all places. Then I've also screened the first part of Mike Nichols's Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries, so don't accuse me of not knowing Louis Ironson from Prior Walter ( s ) .

Those unfamiliar with Angels had best wade in with the first part just to get a bearing of who is who; otherwise, watching Perestroika will feel like being thrown in the deep end with all its ghosts, Mormon housewives, evil gay Republicans and a pissed-off Black nurse in fabulous couture. Things take off not long after Millennium Approaches when Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, has an angel crash through his ceiling declaring him a prophet.

Any full production of Angels in America is an occasion that demands theatergoers' attention, but the major reason for this Angels is to see what Sean Graney, the much-heralded Hypocrites artistic director, does with Kushner's expansive magical realist text.

Based upon Perestroika alone, it appears that Graney is playing up most of Angels' camp comedy and speeding up the text ( even with some not-so-seamless scene changes where Graney audaciously begs forgiveness via projected text on two boxy screens ) . While this makes the three-hour play speed by, you do wish Graney might have played up the dramatic gravity in certain moments.

Some choices are questionable. Costume designer Alison Siple's idea of Mormonwear borders on caricature, particularly the hideous pink dress and cowboy boots provided to the abandoned housewife Harper Pitt after her husband, Joe, takes up with Prior's ex-lover, Louis.

Other choices ( particularly the casting ) are dead-on and wonderful. The sound design of Michael Griggs and Mikhail Fiksel works wonders at creating the time and place of events, so you're not too disappointed by the dribbling tree branch backdrop panels and mini-gothic arches that constitute Graney and Jim Moore's basic set design.

There is not a weak link in the acting company as Scott Bradley's Prior navigates abandonment and strange visions from Jennifer Grace's hyper-sexualized and angry Angel. Cliff London's nurse Belize spars deliciously with Kurt Ehrmann's fading Roy Cohn, while Steve Wilson's Louis does a great job of challenging JB Waterman's tall and strapping Joe. Mechelle Moe's Harper is sweet, especially when played against her no-nonsense mother-in-law Hannah ( played with a brittle touch by Donna McGough ) .

I've always felt that Prior's journey to heaven where he confronts the continental angels to be a bit of a let down, but that doesn't negate everything that comes before it. Though a period piece that looks at America in the 1980s, Angels in America remains very timely and should be continually rediscovered by each new generation.

The Hypocrites and Bailiwick's co-production of Angels in America has more imaginative plusses that outweigh any perceived physical deficiencies. Experience both parts of it now where it thrives: on stage.

Mistero Buffo ( Comic Mysteries )

By: Dario Fo; Ed Emery, translation

Piccolo Theatre at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main St., Evanston

Phone: ( 847 ) 424-0089; $7.50-$20

Runs through: May 13

BY SCOTT C. MORGAN

At first glance, Piccolo Theatre's Mistero Buffo doesn't inspire much hope that it'll do justice to the rabble-rousing religious mystery plays by Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo. Before curtain time, the cast ( in crayon-color rehearsal clothes ) wanders on, tries to engage you in chit-chat and carry on half-heartedly as if they're having fun.

But any initial doubts are soon swept away when Ken Raabe, the cast's elder statesman in a snazzy striped jacket, launches into Fo's tweaking text.

Mistero Buffo is Fo's deliberate throwback to the days when medieval 'jongleurs' ( traveling entertainers or fools ) would stage comic religious plays as a means to expose the flaws with the church, state and society in general. Tired of receiving endless condemnations from the Vatican for his irreverent writing, Fo seems to have crafted Mistero Buffo as a defiant gesture to show how comic commentary is a time-honored and necessary vehicle to expose abuses by those in power ( like the Catholic Church ) .

Act I is largely an educational history as the five-member creative ensemble pick and choose six of eight comic mystery routines to play. Things sober up considerably in Act II when the group reverts to a retelling of the passion play. Yet it's here that Fo works in his most astute criticism at organized religion while the jongleur tries to rescue Christ on the cross, only to confront him about the myriad of abuses done by his followers in the future.

The tone between the two acts is a bit of a switch, but director John Szostek does a credible job of balancing the smirking whimsy with devotional piety, though some bits like the devotional 'Flagellants' Laude' drag on.

On an enlarged dollar-bill stage featuring the side trumpeting 'In God We Trust,' each cast member gets the opportunity to shine comically and dramatically.

With his clocking tongue and clicking teeth, Raabe is a randy old charmer when it comes to being the scamp ( be it barroom gambler or haughty pope ) . Raabe is especially touching as the fool attempts to seduce Death ( Denita Linnertz ) when she casts her eyes on Jesus Christ presiding over the Last Supper in the adjoining room.

Linnertz gets to pull out the dramatic stops playing a wrenching multitude of characters anguishing as Christ suffers on the cross. Ellie Kaufman also shows how silence is golden while playing a 'mechanical' Virgin Mary.

Kelly Lynn Hogan clearly revels in delivering a spastic explanation to the atrocities committed by Pope Boniface VIII against fellow Christians who dared to challenge his greed and power-hungry tyranny. Hogan pays particular emphasis to the fact that this history is conveniently omitted from most Italian history books.

Rounding out the ensemble is David W. M. Kelch, who makes a great partner-in-crime to Raabe in the parable of the blind man and the cripple.

Whatever their milquetoast pre-show personalities, this cast definitely come to life with Fo's biting updating of marvelous medieval material. Far from spitting in the eye of serious faith, Fo's humor illuminates a world of powerbrokers' religious sanctimony.

The Stoic: A Modern Day Western

Playwright: Nate White

At: Rogue Theatre at Stage Left, 3408

Phone: ( 773 ) 509-8140; $15

Runs through: May 7

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

The Western being American literature's heroic mythology, the best of them hearken to classical themes. Three motifs lie at the root of Nate White's flawed drama, subtitled a 'modern day western:' The notion of Nemesis, familiar to us from Greek tragedy, the laconic dialogue favored by visually-oriented Hollywood horse-opera and the philosophy of Epictetus, which proposes that in an imperfect world, the key to happiness is the cultivation of indifference to uncontrollable misfortune—a variation on the popular 'serenity prayer' ( 'Give me the courage to change what I can, and to accept what I cannot.' ) .

Our story begins on the eve of the clan patriarch's funeral. His son has returned home after running away 14 years earlier, leaving his sister to the mercies of their abusive parent. But something is clearly eating at the heiress to the family fortune, who promptly accuses her brother of being the serial killer called 'The Cowboy'—a messianic scourge targeting the rich and powerful, come to add her to his body count. Does her uneasiness spring from anger at his abandonment or a guilt over the price of her own survival?

Author White seems not to have fully decided whether his is to be a homage to, or parody of, his genre, making for an uneven balance between substance and style. It's not that the action isn't coherent, or even plausible, within its universe—a case can be made, both in fiction and real-life, for ending a person's life by removing any reason they might have for continuing it—but more consideration would reduce the time required for us to comprehend its dynamics, the better to appreciate the manner of its presentation.

Under the unhurried direction of Dan Foss, a cast of Rogue Theatre regulars delivers sturdy performances, White's taciturn Tom providing stark verbal contrast to Lisa Stran White's strident Kate, with Kipp Moorman, Amanda Lanier and Dan Waters contributing able support as the innocents forced to flee the final conflict. Given the reduced morale associated with a site only two blocks from Wrigley Field during the baseball season, the ensemble is to be commended for practicing what its play preaches.


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