"Sender" by Ike Holter, a Red Orchid Theatre production

Oh to be 35 again – and experiencing Chicago theater for the first time.  Sender, by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, would have sent me to the moon.  This play is well crafted; the acting is excellent; the direction sharp and coherent; the stage and the theater small and gritty. 

But, it’s 30 years later and we’ve been there, done that.  Guess this is part of the price of seniority – not much wows us.  However, this play and Steep’s The Few are the best we have seen this summer.

We saw Holter’s Exit Strategy last summer at the Jackalope Theater.  It dealt with Chicago teachers facing the closing of their high school – a reality in the Chicago Public School District.  It, too, was well written, but Sender shows growth and maturity - also a better troop of actors. 

Interesting that both Sender and The Few begin with the surprise appearance of the male central character who has disappeared for one and four years.  Did the authors attend the same workshop?  It is an interesting device for introducing all sorts of mayhem. 

There is an extended sequence in this play where the two male characters, one the returnee and the other the bereft best friend, rebond.  The language and action seemed so real and true (lots of beer involved, of course) that I asked DBH after the performance how, as a man, he felt about the scene.  He confirmed my reaction. 

Like The Few, Sender deals with characters living on the fringe - in this case, artsy, marginally employed millennials.  One works at Groupon.  Ever read their offer descriptions?  Groupon prides itself on employing Chicago artsy folks, especially actors who need day jobs.  They are given license in writing up offers, often resulting in unintelligible jargon probably fun and funny to their cronies.  They make good grist for the playwright.
Score:  Prince

Orgy at the end

DBH and I leave for Tucson in a week – so we decided to go out in a blaze of Chicago theatrical glory.  Three very different experiences: Macbeth, All Our Tragic and The Whaleship Essex.

Nmon Ford

Nmon Ford

Macbeth, the opera version by Ernest Bloch, and staged by Chicago Opera Theater, is a rather lugubrious 1904 version of the Scots tragedy, totally saved by Sean T. Cawelti, the Video Designer.   Not that there were not great moments of opera:  Nmon Ford as Macbeth was both eye and ear candy.  We will see more of him in larger opera venues.  The few minutes of chorus time were splendid.  98% of the score was quasi-modern atonal, but the chorus was robust and alive with late 19th century tonality and lots of major and minor chords.  

Table with video above

Table with video above

Sean T. Cawelti transformed the huge box of the Harris Theater into a stage framed with integrated video action.  The three witches (here zaftig, young women) aimed video camera at their faces and bodies, producing huge close-up projected videos over the stage, which often featured other action.  (The viewing challenge was not unlike attending an NBA game and finding yourself focusing on the video screens rather than the live action.) The only furnishings on the stage were a 25 x 6 table on which most of the action centered – and a few plain gray chairs.  Video directly over the table doubled the action.  Video at the corners transported the featured singer into swirls of mirror images, almost seeming to reveal the inner mind.  How does Mr. Cawelti do it?  Who knows, but he is magical.  In our previous Chicago Opera Theater production, he designed the shadow puppets and video elements.  Again, a significant enhancement to the theatrical experience.  www.seancawelti.com

Survivors in their "whalers"

Survivors in their "whalers"

The Whaleship Essex, produced by Shattered Globe Theatre, and written by ensemble member, Joe Forbrich, is based on the book, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex.  This book was originally published in 1821 and written by First Mate Owen Chase just months after he returned home to Nantucket. It is the basis for Hermann Melville Moby Dick.  The theater version includes 15 crew members that move from naïve land-lubbers to seasoned crew to dying survivors after a whale rams and sinks their ship.  Survivors travel 2000 miles in three whalers.  Most died and were eaten by the rest.  No rainbows and unicorns in this story.  Overall, well done, well-staged.  I particularly enjoyed the sea chanties and spirituals that tied the story together.

Helen of Troy and her daughter, Hermione

Helen of Troy and her daughter, Hermione

Then there is All Our Tragic – 12 hours in the theater.  Yes, you read right, 12 hours.  We arrived about 10:30 A.M. to be there when the doors opened to obtain prime seats.  And we really didn’t leave the theater until 11:15 in the evening.  The event combines the 22 surviving Greek tragedies (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) into a single 12-hour epic.  We loved it.  This is “balls out”, “think no small thoughts” theater.  What you expect in Chicago.  14 actors each played three roles and it seemed that many were in all the episodes, but that would be impossible.  Still the pages of lines memorized and characters inhabited are staggering.  Several things noted:
* 90% of the attendees were under 40 – Chicago is a young theater town.
* The producing company, The Hypocrites, gets it.  Everything was perfectly handled from comfortable chairs, to restrooms cleaned, to lots of food, to a totally engaged and accommodating staff.  We were left with nothing to complain about…
* We don’t know nearly enough about the Greek tragedies.  Yes, we will reread them and enjoy them more than ever.

So we depart Chicago infused with the great cultural life and look forward to Tucson where the thoughts are not so large nor the productions so daring.  But we anticipate fun at the local theater and frequent visits to the cinema for the Metropolitan Opera Live broadcasts.  


Toad kissing in Chicago theaters...

DBH and I are back in Chicago and hitting the theater circuit again.  Not that we don't do theater in Tucson - that has become a joy for us.  But here there are so many theater groups that our Wednesday - Sunday calendars are frequently booked up.  And then there is HotTix - 50% off most tickets + a service charge.  It's run by the League of Chicago Theaters and the box office is just down Michigan Avenue in the Water Works building.  So here's our rundown since May 11th.  For those of you new to toad kissing, that's what you have to do to see really great theater.  You kiss a lot of toads until you find a prince...

The Creditors, written in 1889 by Strindberg produced by Remy Bumpo -  about an ex-husband, a current husband and the wife.  Excellent production with all the dark, cruel scheming you might expect from turn-of-the-century Scandinavian author.


Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller - produced by Theo Ubique Cabaret.  Just music and all the greats from the 50's and 60's.  Charlie Brown, Up on the Roof, Poison Ivy,  etc, etc.  This is the same group that did the full production of Cats on a 10 x 30 foot stage in a room seating less than 100 people.  Fantastic.

Spoon River Anthology - Edgar Lee Masters' stirring 1915 poem cycle transformed into an emotional theatrical experience, as the deceased citizens of one small American town tell their stories from their home on cemetery hill - it's a musical!  The Provision Theater Company hit this one out of the park.


Barnum - The life of P.T. Barnum with songs by Cy Coleman, produced by The Mercury Theater Group.  Excellent.  A tiny stage filled with circus performers, high wire acts, singers and dancers.  I loved it.   

This House - UK's National Theater live telecast to the Music Box Theater.  Shows the action in the Whips' offices of Parliament in the years leading up to the change in government from Labor to Tory with the election of Margaret Thatcher.  Excellent.  Aided greatly by watching several months ago the original BBC production of House of Cards. 

The Emigrants by Slawomir Mrozek, produced by The Organic Theater Company.  Excellent acting - almost three hours on stage by two actors.  But what a boring script.  James Joyce would be stimulating after Morzek.  Next time, we'll look at who is the playwright as well as what the reviews say about the acting.             


The Audience - Written by Peter Morgan and starring Helen Mirren.  Another National Theater Live performance - 110,000 watching around the globe, largest audience ever.  Stunning, as Queen Elizabeth trots through her 11 PMs and their weekly 20 minute update.  All as imagined by Peter Morgan.  I laughed, I cried, it's so much better than Cats.

More information on the National Theater Live events.  Check them out in your city. http://movies.msn.com/movies/article.aspx?news=813677

 ©annboland.com 2013


A Good Dose of Chicago Theater

DBH and I are in Chicago for several weeks.  I’m doing the Hancock Hustle with my family on the 24th of Feb.  Coming in early gives me a chance to practice in our 24 story building.  I’ve climbed the equivalent of the Hancock twice this week – the first time a breeze, the second a real test of character.  And in between we did two theater matinees, with the other gray hairs.  Our theater pair was not the sort you would associate with matinee goers:  The Motherf**cker with the Hat (TMWH) and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (BTBZ).


TMWH was staged at Steppenwolf.  Not an ensemble piece, but directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna Shapiro, who directed August: Osage County on Broadway and in London.  BTBZ was at Lookingglass, lately one of our favorite Chicago venues and only six blocks from home in the old Water Tower. 

If they were competing plays, BTBZ wins hands down.  Compelling drama about the war in Iraq from the pov of good and evil Iraqis, crazed Marines and dead zoo animals.  My only hesitation about awarding further kudos to the play is that the tiger cursed.  He cursed man, god, zoos, his appetite – using human swear words.  Tigers would not stoop so low.  It demeaned the character. Most people swear because they cannot formulate more appropriate words to express their frustration.  A tiger would be more thoughtful and deliberate.

Caged "tiger" guarded by Marine

Caged "tiger" guarded by Marine

TMWH is about low-life, recovering and non-recovering addicts.  Yes, it’s full of foul language, but consider the source.  These characters are frustrated all the time.  And in the morass of addiction and the fragility of recovery, they sling foul language like laser lights – lots of display, but no one hears or reacts to the hurt.  It’s just the way they talk.  Sad.  The play was well acted (remember its Steppenwolf, so it’s scream theater), but not really memorable.  Just sad. 

©annboland.com 2013