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Theater Reviews, continued

This article shared 4848 times since Wed Oct 25, 2006
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The Two Noble Kinsmen

Playwright: Shakespeare and Fletcher

At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier

Phone: 312-595-5600; $42-$56

Runs through: Dec. 17

By Jonathan Abarbanel

With The Two Noble Kinsmen, I finally have seen—in the sixth decade of my life—all 38 plays of Shakespeare, no mean feat for any theater critic. Contemporary scholarship believes this collaboration with John Fletcher is the last play Shakespeare ( 1564-1616 ) wrote. It's entertaining but not very good, which probably is the real reason it's seldom done, rather than its shared authorship.

Drawn from the same source ( Chaucer ) as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Kinsmen picked up where that play left off, after a fashion, as Shakespeare and Fletcher cobbled together familiar elements such as misdirected love, Shakespearian genderfuck ( minus the cross-dressing used in other comedies ) , songs and a country festival with Morris dancing.

The musical comedy elements, and the entire original Act I, are eliminated in this modern-feeling version, staged by Darko Tresnjak, who chooses instead to emphasize the latent sexuality of the work about two handsome noblemen, imprisoned in a foreign country, who swear loyalty 'til death. When one of them calls 'dibs' on a babe, but the other ( released from prison ) woos her first, the loyalty oath is off. Silly boys—albeit comely boys—that they are, they mistake infatuation for love when it comes to women, without acknowledging—except in looks—that their love for each other is the real deal. The young lady, Emilia, has an extended speech ( abbreviated in this production ) about a close female friendship, a speech certainly perceived today as having lesbian undercurrents.

Tresnjak's extensive cuts give the work a much clearer focus and strong trajectory, although they pull this tragi-comedy to the darker side without adding depth to the essentially shallow characters. But, oh, how pretty it all is! Stripped to their skivvies for the first half-hour of the play, Lea Coco and Lucas Hall are pictures of Abercro-zombie perfection as the two princes. Hey, and they're good actors, too! Chaon Cross, a respected local leading lady, brings an edge to Emilia as much as her lines permit. Tiffany Scott, as the jailer's daughter ( nameless, although the second female lead ) has rather more to do dramatically than anyone else, and does it well. They are supported by a fine veteran ensemble, among them Larry Yando, William Dick and Elizabeth Laidlaw.

Using formal processions and masks, Kinsmen is given a semi-ritual staging in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's smaller playhouse, against a non-specific scenic design of gunmetal gray triangles, as if taking place inside a pyramid. The color palette throughout is pale and neutral, except for one blood-red costume utilized for high dramatic effect. The Two Noble Kinsman comes to life and holds the stage, but only as refashioned by Tresnjak, who makes the play greater than the sum of its parts, even if not entirely true to the original.


Playwright: Charles Smith

At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln

Contact: ( 772 ) 871-3000; $35 - $45

Runs through: Nov. 12


Charles Smith's Denmark is a mystery as well as a tragedy—it is a sharp character study of an enigma and a detailed imagining of events lost under veils of unknowable history. We know what ultimately happened to Denmark Vesey, a slave who purchased his freedom with a winning lottery ticket. But who was he? The victim of a paranoid, vengeful white populace? A revolutionary? A prophetic mystic? In Denmark, he is all of the above, an elusive, bewitching figure at the heart of a taut drama.

Director Dennis Zacek's choice of Denmark to inaugurate the Victory Garden's sumptuous new space at the Biograph Theater is apt. Both the play and the venue are stunners.

In the opening moments of Denmark we see the title character, hunched and shivering at the bottom of an abyss that evokes both the hellish holds of slave ships and a purgatory utterly forsaken by the Old Testament God of retribution and wrath.

But the crouched huddle of despair doesn't last. Denmark lets loose with a bellowing incantation, foreign-to-Western-ears words that seem to erupt from an ancient, powerful world powered by not one god, but by millions. In Anthony Fleming III, we get a title character of nearly mesmerizing intensity.

As a slave, Denmark worked on slave ships. The obscene filth ( both literal and metaphorical ) of the job has stuck to him like an unshakable plague; he can't escape it, not even as a free man fighting to free others.

Playwright Smith gradually illuminates the demons that pursue Denmark: He's followed by the specter of thousands of Black bodies, rotting and washed up on the beach. The omnipresent malevolence of 'the man who ain't there' inhabits Denmark like a festering shadow.

There are echoes of both Charles Johnson's extraordinary novel Middle Passage and William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner in Denmark—the echoes of a history that swoops down and horrifies every time one stops to consider it.

But while Denmark has the harrowing power of Middle Passage and Confessions, it is clearly its own entity. Smith puts his own knife-point clarity on matters.

'I gave you your freedom!' Denmark's former owner exclaims at one point, and for a split-split second, you wonder how Denmark could be ungrateful for such a gift. The moment doesn't last: 'No,' Denmark replies. 'You stole my life and then sold it back to me. For a profit.'

Denmark is the story of demons deferred but inescapable, of righteous, killing rage and of a man forced to choose between his own good and the greater good.

There's excellent supporting work here, particularly from Velma Austin as the love of Denmark's life and A.C. Smith as a preacher with his own, intractable agenda.

You Never Can Tell

Playwright: George Bernard Shaw

At: ShawChicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn

Phone: 312-409-5605; $15

Runs through: Nov. 6


Fans of romantic comedy couldn't ask for a tidier plot: a staunchly feminist matron visits an English seaside resort, only to encounter her estranged husband, a grumpy old codger as stubborn in his conservative views as his progressive-minded spouse is in hers. Their elder daughter, indoctrinated in her mother's lofty precepts, finds herself pursued by a love-smitten suitor. But with the aid of a wise old major-domo and a pair of mischievous siblings, all is put to rights in a conference conducted at a costume ball by two lawyers, one of them dithery and the other so commanding that we can hardly believe who's playing him.

But this is precisely the advantage offered by chamber readings: Liberation from the physical encumbrances of conventional staging also proffers actors the freedom to step outside casting boundaries. Who would have thought, for example, that Martin Yurek had it in him to be a swashbuckling pirate, as in last season's The Devil's Disciple? Or that Christian Gray, that reliable storefront Shakespeare villain, had such a flair for comedy?

The ensemble for the production currently occupying the Ruth Page includes many of ShawChicago's seasoned troupers—among them, Tony Dobrowolski, Terence Gallagher, Kate Young, Michael McAlister and the aforementioned Gray—all of whom impart their author's satirical observations with eloquence and élan. And Sienna Harris makes an auspicious debut as the straitlaced damsel undone, like Dickens' Louisa Gradgrind, by emotional stirrings for which her upbringing has left her unprepared.

The surprise highlights, however, are John Francisco and Courtney Bohl's portrayals of the irrepressible teenage cupids, their meddlesome impishness enhanced by tag-team repartee delivered with Who's-On-First precision, along with Christopher McLinden, whose performance as the peremptory Barrister Bohun reveals talents hitherto underutilized by less perspicacious directors than ShawChicago veteran Robert Scogin. With voices that dance like these, our imaginations easily conjure sets, costumes, waltzes and unexpected kisses.

Shear Madness

Playwrights: Marilyn Abrams, Bruce Jordan

At: Chicago Theatre Downstairs,

175 N. State

Contact: 312-902-1500; $42.50

Runs through: Open run


Tony Whitcomb is back and he's gayer than ever. Call the uber-flaming stylist at the nexus of Shear Madness a stereotype if you will ( and many have ) ; he'll cut you dead with snip-snappy finesse before the insult is fully uttered.

Shear Madness isn't new to the city: The mega-hit opened at the old Blackstone Hotel in 1982 and ran until one dark night in November, 1999 when cast, crew and audience members arrived at the theater to find the doors padlocked by city building inspectors. ( Apparently, there were code issues. ) The mystery of who murdered the concert pianist above the salon where actor John McGivern's Tony Whitcomb emitted extreme fabulosity for eight performances a week went unsolved for the next seven years.

Now, Madness is back in a deluxe, pocket-sized space tucked into the garden level of the Chicago Theatre. The interactive comedy remains thick with shamelessly stupid jokes, double entendres and puns, all delivered by characters as broad as barn doors and as deep as a drought-stricken kiddie pool.

Say what you will about low-brow shenanigans. For all the shrill, over-the-top, politically incorrect buffoonery the hyper-cultured sneer at, Shear Madness gets the last laugh. It's not Chekhov—but it doesn't pretend to be. It's the theatrical equivalent of Cheez Whiz and, by god, this crazy ol' world of brussel sprouts and edamame needs the occasional infusion of Cheez Whiz.

Creators Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan penned a monster audience pleaser with Shear Madness. The show has been running in Boston since the Reagan administration and has been produced everywhere from Iceland to Uruguay.

Here, Jordan takes the helm, directing all the usual Madness suspects to amp up the volume and the outrageousness inherent to the show. McGivern resumes the position as salon proprietor Tony Whitcomb, picking up and stealing scenes right where he left off almost seven years ago. ( He goes home to Milwaukee in November, at which point another actor will take up the shears. ) The slightly less garish members of the cast include Christopher Tarjan as a work-a-day detective ( who could moonlight with the Village People if he so chose ) ; Glory Kissel as self-absorbed social X-Ray; Mick Weber as a man with an ominous briefcase; and Robin Long as a stylist with a bod some people would, um, kill for. Completing the cast is Benjamin Reigel as a dumb-as-a-sack-of-wet-hammers assistant detective.

The group excels at the strenuous improv the show demands as the audience decides each night who the killer is and the plot thickens accordingly. Topical references are legion. Boystown, the Bears, ruggedly handsome men in the audience—they all get shout-outs.

And nobody pumps a can of shaving cream better than John McGivern.

This article shared 4848 times since Wed Oct 25, 2006
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