Robin Hood: The Musical
Playwright: book by Adam Burke, music by Brian Posen and Ranjit Souri, lyrics by Aaron Baar, additional music by Bill Carey
At: Open Eye Productions at the Athenaeum Studio, 2936 N. Southport
Phone: ( 773 ) 935-6860, Tickets: $15
Runs through: Nov. 24
by Mary Shen Barnidge
Steve Welsh as "Bob" in Robin Hood: The Musical, Open Eye Productions
Dramatic adaptations of the Robin Hood myths are sufficiently plentiful as to constitute their own genre ( as spectacles in the style of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show are colloquially known as "Bill Shows" ) and satirical spoofs of such likewise prolific. But while it can be argued that similarities are inevitable, this example provided by the Open Eye Production company nevertheless emerges as little more than a cache of stolen goods.
To start, our protagonist is not the pastoral patriarch himself, but a meek servant-boy employed in the household of his beloved. When the town sheriff strives to coerce a marriage to Lady Marian as ransom for her kidnapped brother, this unlikely champion must assume the role of Robin Hood in order to foil the ruthless lawman's scheme. In addition to the mistaken-identity plot, author Adam Burke's text, written in relentlessly modern idiom, also includes take-offs on material from other comedies...notably, The Court Jester and Mary Poppins. The Big Duel's climax will be familiar to fans of the Crosby-Hope "Road" movies, and Mel Brooks fans will relish Allin a Dale's Robin tale featuring a farting Sheriff of Nottingham. If that's not enough ironic distance for you, the scholarly question of whether Robin Hood is a historical figure or pure fiction is invoked throughout the action.
Burke claims the concept behind Robin Hood: The Musical to be the actual medieval ballads of the legendary bandit. However the project may have begun, the finished product has the undeniably ingenuous air of an graduation-day goof, as does the score by Brian Posen, Ranjit Souri, and Aaron Baar, whose lyrics are unsophisticated enough to have been improvised on the spot. Steve Welsh makes a suitably wimpy hero ( anachronistically named "Bob," by the way ) and Jennifer Gehr does another of her cute drag turns, this time swaddled in beard and fat suit, as Friar Tuck. But for all the fine cooks collaborating on this stew for Open Eye Productions, the results are still the same old ketchup, suitable only for juvenile appetites.
Playwright: Stephen Sondeim ( music/lyrics ) & John Weidman ( book )
At: Chicago Shakespeare Studio Theatre, Navy Pier
Tickets: $35 & $45
Phone: ( 312 ) 595-5600
Runs through: Dec. 2
by Jonathan Abarbanel
Pacific Overtures seems prescient. A wonderfully layered musical about the legacy of Western imperialism, it appeared on Broadway during America's bicentennial year, 1976, and it's messages are even more pointed now. The arrogant and ignorant words quoted from Commodore Matthew Perry's journal of 1853 sound shockingly similar to those of certain Western leaders speaking today of Islamic nations. The blandishments of foreign sailors so sweetly sung in "Pretty Lady" are shadowed by the fractured history of American military personnel and Japanese women.
All of this...and more...is quite entertainingly encapsulated by librettist John Weidman and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in a show that eschews typical musical comedy romance in favor of witty traditional story-telling with a moral. This production by director Gary Griffin, pares it down further to its basic narrative and musical lines. Performed in a space of less than 200 seats, Pacific Overtures is a "Must See" show, words this reviewer seldom writes.
Most productions borrow Japanese costume and painting traditions for their visual impact, and try to be elaborate and colorful. But Griffin's designers Daniel Ostling ( scenic ) , Robert Christen ( lighting ) and Mara Blumenfeld ( costume ) throw out scenery in favor of a simple, square kabuki stage, and everyday dark cotton robes rather than elaborate ceremonial silk or samurai dress. Griffin retains classical flourishes such as an all-male cast of 10, but is not slavish about kabuki style ( how could he be with a Broadway musical? ) . Choreographer Marc Robin is discreetly creative, respecting Griffin's no-glitz policy and working with a number of non-dancers. Even so, those who move best...Joseph Anthony Foronda and Richard Manera...are given their elegant and even splashy moments, such as Manera's high-strutting lion dance as Commodore Perry. The production's power comes from its directness and intimacy and its deceptive simplicity.
Leading a strong and seamless ensemble, Foronda is a wonder as the Reciter, a crisp yet smooth physical and vocal presence. Principal support comes from Kevin Gudahl as earnest Kayama, the poor samurai suddenly promoted to deal with the Western visitors, and Christopher Mark Peterson as Manjiro, the fisherman-turned-samurai who rejects Western values. Most ensemble members have their stage center moments, often amusing ones, such as Neil Friedman's Madam ( "Welcome to Kanagawa" ) , the Shogun's Wife of Anthony Hite and Roderick Peeple's crafty Lord Abe ( "Ah-bay" ) .
Under musical director Thomas Murray, the cast and five-piece band give
Sondheim's dazzling words and music full value, as James Stenborg's orchestral reductions shimmer with woodwinds and just the right flourishes of exotic percussion.
This spare production underscores the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. The most glaring omission is character development for Manjiro, who turns against the West for reasons unexplained. Given the way Pacific Overtures echoes current events, it would be useful to have that explanation.
Playwright: Jim O'Connor
At: Prop Thtr at Victory Gardens Theatre, 2259 N. Lincoln Ave.
Phone: ( 773 ) 871-3000
Runs through: Nov. 11
by Mary Shen Barnidge
The pressures are already formidable for children of wealthy and influential families, but even more so when a daughter of ambitious high-profile parents is born slow-witted, preferring to collect rocks at the seaside rather than chat with society scions. For awhile, she might be coached and cajoled into compliance, but sooner or later, biological imperatives drive her to rebel against the father whose plans for his offspring are threatened by the prospect of scandals associated with a sexually mature but cognitively infantile kinswoman. In former days, such potentially embarrassing relatives could be kept secluded...perhaps at a remote country house with a quasi-caretaker spouse. But medical science in 1941 provides another solution...an operation to curtail incorrigible impulses in the mentally ill.
Rosemary Kennedy, sister to our 35th president, is now an octogenarian still living in the sanitarium that became her home after clan patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy ordered her lobotomized when that surgery was still in its experimental stages. Was his an act of cruelty, of ignorance, or of desperation? Was he justified in sacrificing one for the benefit of all? Or is any tampering with individual consciousness an outrageous indignity to be condemned in those hubristic enough to attempt it?
Playwright Jim O'Connor allows us to judge the senior Kennedy's actions for ourselves. We may see divine retribution in the untimely destruction of his favorites. We may remind ourselves that this psychosurgical procedure was more prone to debilitating side effects in its early stages of development. We might even argue its relative humanity when contrasted with euthanasia or assassination. But if we are quick to reproach Kennedy paterfamilias for his decision, we should ask ourselves what alternatives were available to one in his position.
For this world premiere production celebrating Prop Thtr's 20th anniversary, Russ Tutterow directs a cast adept at creating personae vivid but never caricatured, even when O'Connor brings father and daughter together for a final confrontation. And if our sympathies are tweaked ever so slightly by the choices reflected in the performances of Gene Cordon as the power-seeking Joseph Kennedy, Debra Ann Miller as the steely dowager Rose Kennedy, and Michelle Courvais as the naive Rosemary, our intellectual satisfaction with the facts now brought to light emerges triumphant.
No Man's Land
Playwright: Harold Pinter
At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Victory Gardens, 2259 N. Lincoln Ave.
Phone: ( 773 ) 871-3000
Runs through: Nov. 11
by Mary Shen Barnidge
They met in a pub earlier that evening. Spooner is a garrulous down-at-heels poet given to soliloquizing after the style of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock." Hirst, to whose home they have repaired, is a laconic square who responds with polite deference to his guest's vulgar speculations about their respective marital histories. After imbibing an extraordinary amount of undiluted liquor in dainty nibbles, Hirst literally crawls off to bed and Spooner proceeds to steal all the cigarettes from the humidor, only to be interrupted by two rough-trade houseboys who warn him to watch his step. The next morning, Hirst is revealed to be a prestigious Man of Letters whose literary status soon reduces the arrogant Spooner to an obsequious acolyte pleading for favor.
Or so one may interpret the dynamic in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. Spooner and Hirst might also be a pair of poufs dancing around the closet door. Or a couple of impotent hets crying over the women who left them. Or maybe their claim to have been school chums is genuine and this encounter a big-chill lament for their lost youth. And what's with those domestic guard-dogs, Briggs and Foster, and the latter's boast of hustling...girls, of course...in the fleshpots of the Far East? Pinter, renowned for his enigmatic iconography, offers us no overt signposts, instead inviting us to impose our own contexts on the action.
Neither does Remy Bumppo director James Bohnen nudge us in one direction over another, but allows us, if we wish, to ignore context altogether and just enjoy David Darlow and Joe Van Slyke in the roles originally created by ( and perhaps for ) John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Together these seasoned players generate a tag-team sensitivity...how often do actors actually LISTEN to one another?...that transforms the long and almost exclusively two-character first act into a symphony of starts, stops, silences and significant stares.
Giving them a breather from time to time are Nick Sandys and Mark L. Montgomery as the ominous caretakers. Kudos also to Tim Morrison and Allison Boland's excruciatingly tasteful decor whose very tidiness shimmers with suppressed menace.