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.
With The Recommendation, Windy City Playhouse solidifies itself as a theater company at the forefront of immersive theater.
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.*
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, 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.
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 shakespearences.com 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.
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.
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 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.
Thank goodness Chicago audiences embraced this musical about the city’s infamous Haymarket Affair of 1886. The folk music score by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld is a fitting tribute to labor leaders like Albert Parsons (Erik Pearson), Lucy Parsons (Bridget Adams-King) and August Spies (T.J. Anderson), who were in the process of unifying working people around the cause of an eight-hour workday when a bomb destroyed their peaceful protests. I was able to see Haymarket on its second extension at its second theater; hopefully we’ll see another remounting in the near future.
To start with the greatest asset of this adaption of a 1976 movie: Bryan Cranston. Not just his acting, but the effects that propel a close-up of Cranston’s face across the entire back of the stage during Howard Beale’s iconic breakdown. From my seat in the front row, I saw Cranston run up the aisle in a state of dementia and then shed tears as he decries a country where corporate money dominates the needs of everyday citizens. And, yes, I felt angry as Cranston stood in dead silence, and then exploded in Beale’s mantra: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (if you want, you can purchase a $20 coffee cup with the slogan in the lobby)
An early conceit of Bruce Norris’s Downstate is that the convicted sex offenders—to varying degrees—view themselves as victims. Their parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) says as much when she is questioning Felix (Eddie Torres) about his using the internet at the local library. Felix at first denies it, and then he decries the society that has placed this limitation on him. Felix looks like he is going to cry, Ivy looks exhausted, and far to stage right a window is ominously covered in cardboard—a hint that the larger community is the most unhappy character of all regarding this living situation.