The Niceties—Writer's Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)

The Niceties is a dramatic tennis match of ideas with two characters scoring points in their increasingly intense back-and-forth exchanges.

Janine (Mary Beth Fisher)—a respected history professor teaching an upper-level course on revolutions—begins by offering criticisms to Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari) regarding her 20-page thesis essay.  The ensuing discussion is fraught with conflicts framed by both race and the generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials.  Before the play’s start, a Writer’s Theater Associate encouraged the audience to consider both points of view—particularly when we felt a strong allegiance to one character’s perspective.  In that spirit, I am going to present my reactions to The Niceties by referencing the more convincing points scores by both Janine and Zoe.

Ayanna Bria Bakari & Mary Beth Fisher

Regarding higher education…
– Janine is correct that Zoe needs to put more time and energy into finding sources to support her arguments.
– Zoe is correct in her criticism of the modern university structure.

Zoe’s thesis attempts to prove that the American Revolution was successful because of slavery.  Janine comes around to the originality of Zoe’s thesis but criticizes the references, which are all easily attainable through Google and include no primary sources.  Zoe should have accepted Janine’s help in finding better sources, but she believes firmly that her other obligations (like leading protest marches) will better train her for life after college.  I do not share the full extent of Zoe’s cynicism toward the value of a liberal arts education, but I do sympathize with her notion that for the cost of a college education (Zoe mentions $64,000 a year), she should have a say in the skills that she refines.

Regarding the study of American democracy…
– Zoe is correct that one must acknowledge the perspectives of those that have been under-served.
– Janine is correct that historical figures should be viewed with consideration of their time period.

Janine advocates that the American style of democracy must be celebrated because of its uniqueness among nations that have overthrown governments.  However, Zoe’s counter-argument is convincing: our democracy has served to keep the grip of power in the hands of specific privileged groups.  Meanwhile, minority groups have suffered from persecution precisely because they live in a system that prizes majority rule.  That being said, Zoe’s viewpoint is that historical figures (George Washington, Sandra Day O’Conner, and Howard Stern are among those discussed) must be assessed through specific modern filters—an idea that goes too far in terms of diminishing any progress that has occurred in America since the Declaration of Independence.

Regarding teacher-student expectations…
– Janine is correct that teaching cannot occur in an environment where every comment is isolated and over-interpreted.
– Zoe is correct that Janine condescends to her students to affirm her authority.

Both of these assertions relate to generational gaps.  Zoe supports her claim that Janine is out of touch with her students by telling Janine that she mispronounces some of her students’ names (never mind that those students do not correct her).  On the other side, Janine trying to help Zoe with her research by handing her gigantic books that she knows Zoe does not have time to read is partly rooted in Janine’s arrogance toward Millennials.  In truth, maybe it is time for both Zoe and Janine to move on to the next phase of their lives in lieu of trying to compromise within a setting that is frustrating to them both.

Most importantly, playwright Eleanor Burgess is correct that neither Janine nor Zoe will “win” if they are tried in the court of public opinion.  I will not spoil what happens at the end of Act 1 or in Act II.  Suffice to say, The Niceties is never a passive experience for the audience.  Instead, Burgess makes her stage a medium for emotional discussions that will hopefully continue long after the play’s end.

The Niceties—Writer's Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)

The Recommendation—Windy City Playhouse (7/28/19)

With The Recommendation, Windy City Playhouse solidifies itself as a theater company at the forefront of immersive theater.

Julian Hester and Michael Aaron Pogue

I admit that I was more dismissive than intrigued in early 2018 when the Playhouse started promoting Southern Gothic.  The experience promised to take theatergoers into the heart of a Southern dinner party in the 1960’s.  Immersive theater?  I kept picturing moments from Cats when actors walk into the aisles and start rubbing their heads against patrons’ bodies.*

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The Recommendation—Windy City Playhouse (7/28/19)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Lookingglass (6/12/19) & Bloomsday—Remy Bumppo (6/20/19)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bloomsday are two literary adaptions which might seem diametrically opposed in subject matter, yet their prominent similarity is they both prove the importance of capturing the respective tones of their source material.

Frankenstein 1
Walter Briggs (Percy Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein), Cordelia Dewdney (Mary Shelley and Elizabeth) & Debo Balogun (Dr. John Polidori)

Frankenstein, produced at Lookingglass with the company’s usual emphasis on staging, plays with the conceit that the non-fiction behind the novel could induce more chills than the ubiquitous story of a mad scientist and the life he creates. The origins of Mary Shelley’s novel are well known, and the play begins in a cramped but lush sitting room with five affluent pre-Victorians killing boredom with a contest to see who could tell the best ghost story.  Using the same theatrical technique as the musical Man of La Mancha, Mary Shelley (Cordelia Dewdney) and her four listeners begin to perform her tale. Bits of the “actors ” egos and insecurities add depth to their play within the play.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Lookingglass (6/12/19) & Bloomsday—Remy Bumppo (6/20/19)

Hamlet—Chicago Shakespeare (6/5/19)

Back in the winter of 2014, I was entranced by Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Pericles. The play follows a cast of characters (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, among them) as they voyage around the Greek islands. There are death sentences, murder plots, shipwrecks, pirates, mistaken identities. David H. Bell’s production played out like a modern adventure film set within the soft, aquatic colors of ancient Greece.

I bring up Pericles mostly to explore a question: how do we choose which of Shakespeare’s plays are “cannon” and which are “the lesser works”? The website has made a study of logging the regularity with which Shakespeare’s works are produced.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are ranked as the top three—Pericles is right in the middle at 24, underneath the prominent comedies and tragedies and above most of the histories.

Maurice Jones

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Hamlet—Chicago Shakespeare (6/5/19)

Twilight Bowl—Goodman (2/10/19 & 3/2/19)

We tend to remember our teenage years as a period of profound uncertainty—a time when we experiment with various forms of rebellion on our path to figuring out who we want to become for the remaining 60 or so years of our lives. Rebecca Gilman’s latest work, however, makes a convincing argument that the years following adolescence—roughly ages 18 to 23—are our most insecure, scariest years. In fact, both times I left the play, I was convinced that the reason we do not have a word to label these years of our lives is because so many of us have simply blocked them from our memories.

Twilight Bowl 1
Anne E. Thompson (Sharlene), Heather Chrisler (Jaycee), Hayley Burgress (Clarice) & Becca Savoy (Sam).

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Twilight Bowl—Goodman (2/10/19 & 3/2/19)

The Woman in Black—Royal George (1/12/19) & On Clover Road—American Blues Theater (2/3/19)

Very exciting news—Broadway in Chicago, which generally promotes touring shows, is partnering with Timeline Theater for the Chicago premier of Oslo. The 2017 recipient of just about every Best Play honor (including the Tony) is a masterpiece. Relaying the improbable, year-long events that led to the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty of 1993, the script by Nick Bowling recounts how a Norwegian diplomat and her husband managed to get Israeli and Palestinian Liberation Organization officials into the same room based on the shared mission of stopping bloodshed.

The Tony-award winning production of Oslo at Lincoln Center. (Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Aronov, and Daniel Oreskes)

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The Woman in Black—Royal George (1/12/19) & On Clover Road—American Blues Theater (2/3/19)

Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

#1. Indecent (Victory Garden)

indecent_victory gardens

The Chicago premier of Indecent was just as triumphant as the Broadway production (which I made a specific trip to New York to see in 2017). The play spans more than 30 years and travels to two continents in telling the story of a Yiddish theater troop performing the controversial play The God of Vengeance. One aspect that particularly stood out to me on this second viewing was the conviction held by every member of the troop that art (and theater in particular) must be continued even when society turns its back.

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Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals