Playwright: Arthur Miller
At: TimeLine Theatre Company at Baird Hall, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Phone: ( 312 ) 409-8463
Runs through: Nov. 25
by Mary Shen Barnidge
Whether read as docudrama or allegory, The Crucible is fundamentally a tale of blameless people persecuted by self-serving adversaries exploiting a gullible public's horror of "invisible" crimes—in this case, witchcraft. In TimeLine Theatre's production, however, the witches are given the home-field advantage.
The play opens with a band of women corybanting around what appears to be a cauldron, dangling effigies and chanting incantations over its smoking contents, which are stirred by a voodoo priestess wielding a staff trimmed with feathers and bones. Later, when one of these Weird Sisters goes into a trance in front of witnesses, her manifestations are accompanied by eerie violin music, flickering-fire lighting, and more smoke. We also get an anguished hero haunted by a ghostly apparition and a sick child screaming in a hoarse voice, both presented in likewise gothic fashion.
This makes for some shivery quasi-Exorcist spectacle, but with so much incriminating evidence of actual witchcraft, the play's argument can no longer rest on the assumption of fabricated testimony. Given the universe presented by this interpretation, we must consider whether the accused females ARE, in fact, witches. Or, at the least, hormone-riddled teenagers playing at necromancy, unaware of the dangers. Or are they mere pawns in a slave's vengeance against her masters? Whatever the answers, the credibility granted to their practices renders the conflict a theological one, making Arthur Miller's attention to secular issues irrelevant.
Director Nick Bowling's expressionistic staging, so successful in last season's Another Part Of The Forest, distorts a text too fresh in audience's memories to permit such license. And starting the action at such a high emotional level undermines not only its suspense—how can we see characters progress from rationality to hysteria when their mental stability is questionable from the get-go?—but ultimately, its plausibility as well. While we can accept actors chasing one another around the perimeter of the amphitheater-shaped pit—meant to represent a giant crucible, by the way—that dominates the set, when a defeated and physically enervated John Proctor, hitherto the sole voice of reason, suddenly rouses himself to execute a spectacular leap off its rim, the effect, however dramatic, is more Marvel Comics than existential triumph.
Playwrights: David Cerda and Pauline Pang At: Berger Park Mansion Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan
Phone: ( 312 ) 409-3925
Runs through: Nov. 17
by Gregg Shapiro
Sweetback Productions' transformation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror flick The Birds into a "feminist drag deconstruction" may very well be their most ambitious theatrical presentation to date. Playwrights Cerda and Pang pay homage to Hitchcock by incorporating actual dialogue from the film into the script, while inserting their own brilliantly twisted brand of humor. Cerda himself co-wrote two songs for the show ( with Scott Lamberty ) —"The Woman At The End Of The Road," a ballad performed by Annie Hayworth ( Cerda, in the role originated on-screen by Suzanne Pleshette ) , and the rousing Gilbert and Sullivan-esque group number "Impossible."
They don't just stop there, because they include behind-the-scenes action of the making of the movie The Birds, blurring the lines between the two. As if that wasn't enough, Camille Paglia ( played by Merrie Greenfield ) opens the play with her own commentary on Hitchcock, uncovering hidden lesbian dimensions, and becomes a recurring character in the role of Tippi Hedren's analyst. As Hedren, and her movie character Melanie Daniels, Sweetback regular Tracy Repep ( in a tight blonde French twist, pearls, high heels, sea-foam-green suit, and golden mink jacket ) , is the ultimate tragic femme-fatale. Nearly worked to death by Hitchcock, her real world becomes inseparable from her on-screen world, and the laughs hover and dive like crazed seagulls.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the production is the use of the space. Every available door, window and inch of floor, as well as the grounds surrounding the coach house ( including Lake Michigan ) , are part of the set, and scenic designers Pauline Pang, Richard Lambert and Gary Layne, deserve to be mentioned for their work. The "effects," many of which involve the "birds" ( including a wicked funny re-enactment of the playground and phone booths scenes from the movie ) are also well-executed.
The only thing that prevents The Birds from being near-perfect is the unsatisfying ending. A mysterious man in black leather, who looks like he drove down to Hitchcock's Bodega Bay from David Lynch's Twin Peaks, changes the nature of violence in the production from man/woman versus nature to man/woman versus man, reaching its peak during the final few minutes. After nearly two hours of camp-driven laughter, the brutal violence felt like a jarring change of direction for the ending, leaving many in the audience unsure of how to respond.
Playwright: Charles L. Mee
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: ( 312 ) 443-3800
Runs through: Nov. 18
by Jonathan Abarbanel
Charles L. Mee has made much theatrical hay out of reworking classical plays, efforts which have left me cold until Big Love, a passionate and witty dialogue on the sex wars that's particularly salient as a commentary about the traditional role of women. Staged last year by Les Waters at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and recreated by Waters in Chicago, Big Love is dazzling didacticism; a colorful tumbling, dancing, highly stylized, over-the-top 95 minute entertainment about big ideas.
Based on "The Suppliants" by Aeschylus, the story concerns 50 sisters betrothed in infancy to their 50 male cousins. Now adults, the women seek protection against the forced marriages, which they liken to kidnapping and rape. When it's not forthcoming, they vow to murder their husbands on their wedding night, and do, except for Lydia who spares Nikos out of true love. Tried for betraying her sisters, Lydia is forgiven as the judge proclaims "Love is the highest law. She chose love. She reached out across a chasm of fear. If we cannot embrace another, what hope do we have?"
Along the way, Mee plays Devil's Advocate making cases both for women's liberation and for the macho male. He also includes unequivocal approval for pan-sexual and gay relationships, and even provides a sweetly submissive gay boy, Giuliano, as Greek Chorus. Mee's intellectual agility is the equal of Tom Stoppard, while Waters weds the words to a music-and-movement production that borrows admirably from the Mary Zimmerman style book.
Three brides and grooms represent the 50 sisters and cousins. In addition to Carolyn Baeumler and Bruce McKenzie as Lydia and Nikos, they are feisty K. J. Sanchez and bulldog Mark Zeisler as the man-hating Thyona ( "Male babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth." ) betrothed to the Neanderthal warrior Constantine, and Aimee Guillot and J. Matthew Jenkins as a pretty pair who can't stand up for themselves. Other principals are sweet-voiced Tony Speciale as Giuliano, so in love with satin ribbon; J. Michael Klein as Piero the suave host the sisters ask for sanctuary; and Lauren Klein as an Italian peasant earth mother, bearer of 13 sons, who judges Lydia. Many of the players have been with Big Love since Louisville and form a disciplined ensemble, which is essential for the acrobatic and explosive movements devised by Jean Isaacs to physicalize peak emotions.
The music, so important to Big Love, ranges from Bach, Pachobel and Handel to "You Don't Own Me" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" sung with its original suggestive lyrics.
Big Love is a surprising, amusing and thoughtful visual treat. What else could you possibly want from theater?
The Return Of The King
Playwright: adapted by Karen Tarjan from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood
Phone: ( 773 ) 751-4477
Runs through: Dec. 9
by Mary Shen Barnidge
A year and a half is a long time waiting to hear how the story comes out. But adapter Karen Tarjan concluded The Two Towers in movie-serial style with a promise "to be continued." True to her word, the first moments in The Return Of The King are spent in re-orienting us to the realms of Middle Earth, presently threatened by would-be tyrants seeking the talisman now in the possession of a commoner whose mission it is to restore his precious cargo to the source of its enchantment. Students of English Folklore will recognize in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic the Arthurian legends and the search for the Holy Grail ( as they also spotted the same ancient myths in Star Wars ) .
But what Lifeline Theatre's dazzling exhibition of theatrical legerdemain may lack in cinematic high-tech, director Ned Mochel and his creative squadrons more than redeem in imagination. Back from The Two Towers are the spider-monster and a considerably-aged Gollum, both played by Cynthia Von Orthal's puppets, along with sweeping battles illustrated by action figures on a diorama ( with our champions spirited away by a giant eagle ) . We also have live-action melees of such ferocity that we hardly notice that the weapons are whiffle-bats and mini-trashcan lids. And let's not forget the quasi-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon martial arts showdown between woman-warrior Eowyn and the tank-like Black Captain that drew spontaneous applause and cheers from the audience on the night I attended.
With so much going on—did I mention Joseph Fosco's electronically distorted voices? And David Minkoff's tech-toy collage of a set?—you wouldn't think there'd be room left for acting. We still have time, however, to appreciate Brian Amidei's keen-edged enunciation in the role of the patriarchal Gandalf and John Ferrick's amazing vocal transformation from the meek Pippin to the authoritative King Theoden, as well as Amanda Amadei and Warren Jackson's delicately romantic Princess Eowyn and Prince Faramir. But leading the charge are Patrick Blashill's valiant Frodo Baggins and Scott Hamilton Westerman's sturdy Sam Gamgee, as brave and modest a pair of heroes as ever saved the world from totalitarian oppression.
WORDS WITH C
Playwrights: Aimee LaBrie, Steven Simoncic At: Cornservatory,
4210 N. Lincoln
Phone: ( 773 ) 753-4472
Runs through: Nov. 30
by Rick Reed
Words with C, a world premiere by two new voices, starts off promisingly enough. Out of the darkness come a chorus of twenty- and thirty-something voices reciting a litany about the joys and pitfalls of romance, dating, and the eternal war of the sexes. Once those voices have quieted, we're introduced to our two main characters, Ben ( Jason Borkowski ) and Kate ( Cathleen Ann ) . The two are representative of the state of relationship hell at the dawn of the 21st century. Kate is single and frustrated with her attempts to find an adequate man. Ben is in an unfulfilling relationship and wonders what it's like to be free. These two sides of the coin alternate their despair with the opposite sex in an interplay of monologues, and their speeches cleverly segue into each other.
If only the entire play could have been this smart and innovative. But playwrights LaBrie and Simoncic drop their linguistic derring-do rather quickly, in favor of a rather predictable romantic comedy that unites these two souls, who each think the grass is greener in the other's backyard. Ben and Kate meet when their crazy upstairs neighbor may or may not have leaped from his window. Ben thought he saw the man's falling body out of the corner of his eye. He rushes to Kate's apartment to tell her about it and to implore her to call 911. I guess Ben doesn't own a telephone. Even though they're next door neighbors, the two have never met, and now, on the eve of Kate's departure to LA, this bizarre turn of events gets them talking to one another. And their stories unfold: Ben lives with Heather ( Heather Lawson, in a neatly realized, competent performance ) and is unfulfilled. In a sort of montage, we see Kate on four separate first dates, each more disastrous than the next. The only one of these performances that really has any dramatic life is the first: an oddly, perhaps homicidal young man played expertly by Marcus Kamie. Oh yes, Kate goes out with a gay man ( Frank Gangarossa ) who is in denial of his true sexuality. Overt, camped up to the extreme, and offensively stereotypical, this character stretches credibility until it snaps. No one, in this day and age, could possibly be such a big queen and not realize who they are.
It only takes about five minutes into the story to see where it's headed: I don't think I will be spoiling any surprises when I reveal that, at the last minute, Kate and Ben find true love in the arms of each other. Aside from this predictably that undercuts any possible suspense, the play lacks much in the way of credibility because its characters often lose their reality by becoming ciphers to get across the playwrights' themes. Kate and Ben hardly know each other, yet they're quickly having a deep conversation about love and the foibles of the human heart. We don't really get inside Kate and Ben's head, nor do we buy or understand why they suddenly open up to each other so quickly, when they've never connected on any level before. Things just happen too quickly to be believable.
Words with C has a few funny moments, and most of the performances are adequate, but the play showcases an intellectual immaturity and a too heavy reliance on themes and dialogues lifted from the realities of sitcoms and pop culture.