If you have never heard Nina Simone sing “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” you need to click here. Dominique Morisseau’s masterpiece script embodies the pain and desperation of Simone’s song (which serves as a backdrop). The struggles Nina (AnJi White), Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear), and Damon (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) face in escaping crime are all the more heartbreaking with the realization that not all three will find the happiness they seek. Each is a soul whose intentions are… if not “good,” at least essential for survival. A stellar script (second in recent memory only to Bruce Norris’s The Whale) thrives with three award-worthy performances and expert direction from Ron OJ Parson.
This spectacular year in Chicago theater featured many shows with social conscience along with the usual crop of musical revivals. Here are my picks for the top 10 Chicago shows in 2015:
Joanna McKenzie Miller was perfectly cast as the lead of this production about Catherine Reed, a young mother who bonds with her fellow workers at Chicago’s Radium Dial Company. The four women’s friendship emphasizes the tragedy as each falls sick and dies after decades of licking brushes lined with radium. The minimalist set and costuming were a perfect match for the subdued but haunting score.
Being a fan of puppetry, particularly the use of puppetry to push boundaries, I was excited for my third show—the comedy Hand to God. In fact, Hand to God provided some immediacy for this vacation as it is closing on January 3.
Tyrone—a loud-mouthed, violent, and possibly demonic hand puppet—begins and ends the play with hilarious monologues about the nature of evil (spoiler alert: it’s humans who created evil… not the other way around). Steven Boyer keeps his hands moving at light speed as Tyrone rants, raves, and attacks both his ventriloquist Jason and the four other characters in this outstanding ensemble cast.
Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Elmo, stated in a Nightline interview that children are not surprised to see a large man in his 50’s standing behind his creation, moving his mouth in sync with Elmo. “They don’t look at me,” he says.
Rough House, a company specializing in using puppetry to create unique theatrical experiences, builds upon the same phenomenon throughout their original show Sad Songs for Bad People: A Puppet Play. From the start of the first musical number—the betrayed-lover-turned-murderer ballad “Delilah”—eyes are glued to a felt-faced lounge singer narrating his tale beside a screen where silhouette puppets present the action. Watching the actors is fun, but the focus always shifts back to the life that they bring to each puppet through choreographed movement.
Sad Songs for Bad People, featuring puppet design and direction by Mike Olean, delivers on its promise for a night of music, puppets, and murder. The nine songs presented by the cast of six musicians and puppeteers are stitched together by connections to death, each involving a very different visual experience.
Continue reading “Sad Songs for Bad People: A Puppet Play — Rough House (11/21/15)”