Plays

Brief reviews of plays and other theatrical events, continuously updated throughout 2017.

January

Gloria, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL). A disconcerting tragicomic look at mass shootings and the ways the media and those involved tell and distort the stories. Also raises uncomfortable questions about who gets to tell what stories and to some extent what stories are worth telling. This production had an energetic cast and was somewhat unevenly miked.

Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth, by Doug Hara (Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago, IL). A storytelling couple investigate the death of the Big Bad Wolf. Far from being a simple second glance at a famous story, the play talks about storytelling as a craft and the emotion at its heart–love. Amazing puppetry. Made me cry.

February

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, by Bridgette A. Wimberly (libretto) and Daniel Schnyder (music) (Overture Center, Madison Opera, Madison, WI). In the 48 hours after Parker’s untimely death at the age of 34, he recalls his past at the Birdland nightclub in New York and tries to write a final symphony. Unfortunately, just being dead doesn’t make his problems go away. On a spectrum of modern operas I’ve seen from Bel Canto at the negative end to Akhenaten at the positive, this was somewhere in the middle, maybe one standard deviation up from the mean. The music was quite beautiful in places, the singers were excellent (special props to the night’s MVS [most valuable singer], Angela Brown, in the role of Addie Parker), the plot was compelling… and yet I can’t help but wish the composer had decided to be less modernist and hew a little closer to Parker’s actual compositions–write an opera more similar to Porgie and Bess, in other words. More melodic, I guess. This feels a little petty as complaints go.

Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago, IL). Traces the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton from his arrival in New York City to his untimely death at age 47 at the hands of VP Aaron Burr. I can’t really say anything about the show as a whole that hasn’t already been said, other than that it has brought me a new interest in and appreciation for the Revolutionary War period of American history. This production featured Miguel Cervantes singing Hamilton, who grew on me as the show went on; Jin Ha as Aaron Burr (good, but not as charismatic as I’d hoped he would be); Ari Afsar as Eliza (excellent and ultimately arresting); and Karen Olivo as Angelica (MVS). As a whole, this show is actually closer to opera than the musical it’s billed as (in my mind at least, opera is characterized by no or almost no speech, while musicals contain spoken interludes, although stylistically of course it was pop/hip-hop). It was interesting to see and hear some of the things the Chicago cast did differently from the Broadway recording to make it their own. I cried.

March

Richard II, by William Shakespeare (Madison Shakespeare Company / Broom Street Theatre co-production, Madison, WI). An avant-garde production that didn’t totally gel for me, but contained a number of excellent things, including Tia Tanzer’s performance as Richard. Zizek had a line about how politics is the field on which we fight the battles of economics (or words to that effect); this production certainly proves that, emphasizing the less-noble economic preferences of the nobility (i.e., lower taxes) over the whole god-save-the-king aspect. The moral: keep your friends close, but don’t let them convince you to seize the estates of those who have living heirs or to farm your realm.

April

The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 620), with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder (Overture Center, Madison Opera, Madison, WI). A solid production with some weird choices in terms of costumes, which all looked like they had been pulled from other operas–the Queen of the Night had raided the Aida closet, while the chorus seemed to have pulled stuff from Tosca. Tamino had a silver overcoat that felt like a steampunk version of René Magritte’s The Son of Man. The show itself is Mozart’s hilarious send up of the ridiculousness of secret societies (with a big handful of mocking gender roles on the side), and the music is fantastic. As much as I found the decision to sing in German but keep the spoken dialog in English a bit annoying (I’m a purist, what can I say?), it did make the humor more accessible. Caitlin Cisler handed in a few amazing arias as the Queen of the Night, and friend of the blog Deanna Martinez held the chorus together. PS: Notice that above, I defined a musical as a piece largely sung but with spoken interludes–but despite the presence of speech here, I wouldn’t try to argue that The Magic Flute is anything but high opera. Funny, that.

May

Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett (Yale Repertory Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience / Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, NY). Dianne Wiest (Winnie) dominates this amazing, self-contained and little-produced Beckett play that features two characters–a woman, buried in sand, delivering a broken and rambling monologue about her life, and her taciturn and mostly hidden husband. Moreso than his other works, Happy Days feels like a direct response to the philosophy of Sartre (radical freedom) and Camus (“we must imagine Sisyphus happy”). In the first act, as Winnie goes through her routine (buried up to the waist in sand), she removes and then replaces a revolver in her bag. This raises the specter of death, but in defiance of Chekov it is never consummated; instead, we must understand that despite her predicament, she has chosen to live as she does. Even in the second act, as she sinks farther in and is buried up to her neck, the shadow of the gun remains, reminding us that she has/had a choice, and she chose to continue to live; these are indeed happy days. At the end, her husband (Willie, played here by Jarlath Conroy) struggles to climb the hill to where she is, eventually sliding back to where he began. This endeavor too mirrors Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill again and again. What he wants at the top–Winnie or the gun–is not revealed, but I was convinced while watching that it was Winnie. Yet now, reflecting, I think perhaps not. An amazing production of an excellent play.

Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks (Signature Theatre, New York, NY). This play gives the story, or part of the story, or a story (Parks notes she wanted to “[embrace] the unrecorded truth”), of Saartje/Sarah Baartman, a young woman who was brought from South Africa to England to be exhibited under the name “the Venus Hottentot” in 1810, just three years after the end of slavery in Britain. Parks uses a variety of methods, including a Greek chorus, song and dance, heroic couplets, a play within a play, and other distancing effects to make her points, but though as I write that it may sound like a jumble, the whole thing really works in the hands of the cast. The play itself focuses on questions of choice versus exploitation, the fetishization/exoticization of certain body types, and the various power structures (colonial and other) that hold women in general and this specific Black African woman in a specific place relative to white men. The Signature Theatre’s revival stars Zainab Jah as Saartjie, and she’s amazing; props also to Kevin Mambo and John Ellison Conlee for their powerful performances as the Negro Resurrectionist and the Baron Docteur respectively. The set and costume design was simple but carefully and beautifully done. You know you’re at a great show when one of the characters reveals something onstage (“I have a wife!”) and the audience gasps.