At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater/Upstairs Studio
by Dan Zeff
Chicago –GQ and JQ, the Q Brothers, are the artistic masterminds who created two dazzling rap deconstructions of the Shakespeare plays “The Comedy of Errors” (“The Bomb-itty of Errors”) and “Funk It Up About Nothin’” (“Much Ado About Nothing”). But those dazzling exercises in wordplay and rhyme were light- hearted works that lent themselves to comic treatment. Could the brothers succeed by applying their irrepressible rap approach to one of Shakespeare’s most intense tragedies, “Othello”?
No problem. At the Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs Theater the brothers have nailed the drama, renaming it “Othello: The Remix.” Their adaptation displays all the verbal wizardry of the earlier two shows without defiling Shakespeare’s original. Indeed, “Othello: The Remix” can be congratulated on capturing the essence of the Elizabethan classic without utilizing a sentence of the Bard’s script, substituting streetwise dialogue salted with contemporary references to Eddie Murphy, Dumbledore, and the like. The bottom line is that the show is superior rap and very good Shakespeare, not a playgoing package on offer every day.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The production uses just four actors, plus a disc jockey who presides over his turntables on a balcony above the stage. The four men play all the central characters in the play except Desdemona, who never appears in the flesh, though her presence is heard as an off stage voice. The actors wear coveralls and change characters with the addition of a wig, a cap, or an apron. They are in constant physical animation, firing off their rhyming lines at the speed of sound. The language comes out so fast and furious that it’s almost impossible for the spectator’s ear and mind to process every word. But what does get absorbed is pretty wondrous.
In “The Remix,” Othello is a music company executive. The evil Iago is a member of his group, a trusted assistant who secretly hates his boss because he believes Othello has sabotaged his career as a recording artist, giving preference to Michael Cassio. Roderigo is a dorky lighting designer for the group and Iago’s dupe, as in the Shakespeare play. Bianca is Cassio’s hot blooded Latina lover and Emilia is Iago’s R-rated wife.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The adaptation runs about 80 minutes, plus an unnecessary intermission, but still touches the narrative high points of the longer Shakespeare drama. Othello is the black wooer of the white Desdemona. Iago destroys both of them by getting into Othello’s head, insinuating that Desdemona is betraying him with Cassio. Othello finally kills Desdemona on stage, though the woman is invisible, what should her body represented as an empty space on a steamer trunk that serves as a bed. Othello smothers her with a pillow in a scene of genuine high drama. I’ve seen numerous stagings of the play and none generated a greater sense of horror than Othello’s pressing the pillow onto the surface of the trunk.
The adaptation retains the high drama of the original but the unique Q Brothers rap-driven wit is continually in evidence. “The Remix” remains a tragedy but there are lots of laughs along the way, all legitimately within the frame of Shakespeare’s story. Maybe the highlight of the Q Brothers wizardry is Emilia’s rap feminist song, with the other three actors as a female backup trio. The song, called “It’s a Man’s World,” is a resentful blast against the way women are abused in a society controlled by males. It’s hilarious, angry, and oozes with insights about the female predicament.
The cast consists of Postell Pringle as Othello, Jackson Doran as Cassio and Emilia (terrific leading the “It’s a Man’s World” song), GQ as Iago, and JQ as Roderigo, Bianca, and the record company CEO Loco Vito (for some reason portrayed as a huge fan of professional tennis). They are all spectacular in dominating the dense rap language, their motors running from first moment to final blackout. The interaction within the ensemble, the sheer memory skills required to master the rap lines, and the quick changes in character are stunning.
The intimate Upstairs Theater is a perfect venue for the production. The scenic design by Scott Davis is minimal and his all-purpose coveralls costumes allow the action to flow at its high speed tempo without awkward breaks as the actors change wearing apparel. The sound design by James Savage does not lack for decibel power and Jesse Klug’s lighting provides appropriate illumination accents.
The protean heroes of the event are, of course, the Q Brothers, who wrote the show, directed it, composed the music, and delivered exceptional performances (Rick Boynton does get a credit as a developer of the concept).
“Othello: The Remix” will not offend Shakespearean true believers and it won’t antagonize listeners who are not friends of rap music. Indeed, the Q Brothers should make converts of both adversarial groups. The show was a huge critical and commercial hit in England, where the locals might be wary of American interlopers mucking about with their beloved Shakespeare. But what’s not to like?
“Othello: The Remix” runs through April 28 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $20 to $35. For performance times and ticket reservations, call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
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Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Belarus Free Theatre was formed in 2005 as a performance company to dramatize the oppressive conditions that afflict the citizens of the east European country of Belarus, oppression so severe it is almost comical, though not to the people who must endure it (a person can be arrested for excessive eye contact, for standing in a public place with another person, or for clapping in public).
The Free Theatre has carved out an international reputation for its politically charged productions, but at considerable personal cost. Members have been harassed, lost their jobs, been arrested and brutalized, and exiled. The company is banned from performing in Belarus but it is carrying its message outside its totalitarian borders. The troupe is stopping at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for a too brief six-performance run called “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker.”
The company consists of five men and four women. The production runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, mixing brief dramatic scenes with monologues and ensemble choreographed movement. The performers speak in Russian and Belarus with simultaneous translations appearing on a screen at the rear of the playing area, along with film projections. The show is performed an empty square stage, with props limited to plastic chairs, along with balloons, three bags of sugar, and a red fabric curtain. This is an actor-driven show that makes a persuasive case for Belarus taking a page from the grim history of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
is the capital of Belarus. It was almost totally destroyed during World War II
and rebuilt as a modern city with flavorless government-sanctioned
architectural styles dominating. The show takes the audience on a tour of the
city, with its squares, as well as the country at large (Belarus has no
seacoast and no mountains). In spite of official disapproval and harassment,
there is a vigorous, if desperate, nightlife in Minsk, but the city is hell for
young people and artists of any age.
Photos Credit: Nicolai Khalezin
The pervasive metaphor for “Minsk, 2011” is sex. Sex seems to be part of the air the young people of Minsk breathe, but it’s not sexy sex. It’s not happy and loving or even erotic, but joyless, sometimes violent, and desperate. In an after hours club for gays and transsexuals, patrons pursue sexual contact with almost hysterical intensity, filling the room with profanity and vulgarity. One scene portrays three scantily dressed and fearful women auditioning before a tight-lipped government official for work in a strip club. Still another scene dramatizes a student who has a near disastrous encounter with two men she met on the Internet.
There is much lyricism, both verbal and visual, in the show. The company sings folk songs with genuine feeling. After a blizzard, the city forces imprisoned prostitutes to help remove the snow. Instead of punishment, the prostitutes find the snow removal liberating as they happily rise above the ground.
The Free Theater’s mosaic portrait of life in Minsk is unfailingly bleak. The rule of dictator Alexander Lukashenko is absolute, unforgiving, and paranoid in its distrust for anything resembling a free spirit. Any deviation from a state-established norm is considered an offense against the government. Belarus must be a hateful place to live, and yet the performers feel connected to the country. Some have left family behind. At the end of the show, they sit in a row and offer short monologues about their sometimes ambivalent feeling for Minsk. They can’t live in it and they can’t live without it.
Photo Credit: Nicolai Khalezin
The production has been conceived, directed, and adapted by Vladimir Shcherban, a major figure in Belarus theater who was dismissed from his position as a director at a national theater in 2006 for his cooperation with the Belarus Free Theatre. He’s an artist who has paid a heavy price for his commitment to his art. His production is continuously engrossing, partly because of the gripping and chilling subject matter and partly because of the pace and variety of the performances.
By the end of the show, the performers have created a persuasive mosaic of life in Minsk. That includes an eloquent scene that describes an explosion in a Minsk underground station that may or may not have been a terrorist bomb. The most riveting moment comes near the end when a naked young lady (Yana Rusakevich) is coated with jet black ink and wrapped in a cocoon of paper until we only hear her voice from within her paper prison. She finally emerges, seething with anger and bitterness, cracking a whip. The scene is obviously a metaphor, its meaning not clear to me, but as a theatrical moment it is indelible.
Unfortunately, the production suffers from the subtitle approach. As lovers of foreign films know, the viewer often must decide between reading the dialogue and watching the performers. It’s a no-win choice, exacerbated by the rapid speech patterns of the performers that require translations to flash by on the screen before they can be adequately digested. The white letters on the white screen make reading even more difficult. I finally opted for focusing on the players. They are the show and what I missed in literal translation I recovered in the commitment, versatility, and theatricality of the acting.
The second half of the show’s title “A Reply to Kathy Acker,” will be meaningless to most spectators. Acker was a writer associated with the punk cultural scene in New York City during the 1970’s and 1980’s. She wrote a prizewinning short story “New York in 1979” that views the city through a prism of its sexuality. The Free Company obviously draws parallels between Acker’s vision of NYC and the sexuality of modern Minsk. A program note connecting Acker (who died in 1997 at the age of 50) with “Minsk, 2011” would have been helpful.
The phrase “triumph of the human spirit” has become something of a cliché, but the Belarus Free Theatre embodies that triumph, without self pity and without ranting. The ensemble is a brave and talented group and one hopes that sooner rather than later they will be able to return to their country in freedom. They have earned it.
“Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker” runs through Sunday at the Upstairs Theater at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. All tickets are $20. Call312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. January 2013
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At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Redmoon is famous for its work in puppet theater. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is the preeminent classical theater in the region. So when the two companies combine on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s late romance “The Tempest,” the prospects are enticing for a special evening of theater.
The adaptation, titled “The Feast: an intimate Tempest,” indeed is something special if the audience seeks a production of vivid, sometimes startling, originality. The visual and auditory aspects of the adaptation carry the evening. But patrons shouldn’t expect a coherent narrative line or probing insights into the story and characters. This is a theatrical experience for watching and listening, not necessarily for thinking.
The adaptation, created and directed by Jessica Thebus and Redmoon co-artistic director Frank Maugeri runs about 65 minutes with no intermission in the intimate Upstairs Theater at the CST. As the title states, this is an intimate “Tempest.” There are only three actors, plus two behind-the-scenes puppeteers. John Judd plays Prospero, the magician who rules an enchanted island, Twelve years before the start of the action, he was marooned with his daughter Miranda after being deposed from his kingdom in Milan by his treacherous brother Antonio and Alonso, the king of Naples. Now Prospero creates a storm that wrecks a ship on his island, a ship that carries Antonio and Alonso and a cluster of other characters, including Ferdinand, the son of the king of Naples and soon to become Miranda’s beau.
Shards of the plot are doled out by the adaptation but viewers who don’t know the story will struggle to figure out what’s happening. In the opening minutes, Prospero rehearses parts of the narrative with the other two characters in the play, the sprite Ariel (Samuel Taylor) and the monster Caliban (Adrian Danzig). Prospero impatiently rings a bell to restart a scene each time the other two characters fail to satisfy him with their line readings. The audience isn’t secure as to whether they are watching Prospero’s rehearsal or the actual events in the story. And the momentum of the jagged narrative is often blunted by extended silences that suggest deep dramatic waters I couldn’t identify.
The language in “The Feast” comes from the Shakespeare original and preserves some of the more familiar passages of “The Tempest,” notably Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” monologue (but we don’t get to hear Miranda proclaim “O Brave new world”). Judd’s Prospero is an irritable old man who still melts with emotion as the play winds down. His Prospero treats Ariel and Caliban as slaves, which they are in “The Tempest,” especially the brutish and brutalized Caliban. Ariel and Caliban portray other characters from the original, like Miranda, Ferdinand, and a pair of drunken stewards injected by Shakespeare for comic relief, while they also plead for their freedom from Prospero’s magical powers.
The action takes place on and around a stage of wooden planks, shaped like a cross. Multi media images are projected onto screens at the rear of the playing area. Ariel and Caliban change characters by assuming wonderfully expressive masks. The mask that Danzig wears as Caliban is a marvel of grotesque ugliness. The mask representing Miranda delicately replicates a beautiful and gentle maiden. The action is enhanced by atmospheric lighting effects and sounds that vary from dissonant jazz lines to pop songs that sound like they are being played from a scratchy 78 rpm record. The play’s final moments are a real coup de theater of light and sound.
The three actors all do well, with Judd demonstrating that he would make a fine Prospero in a full length and more orthodox presentation of “The Tempest.” Taylor and Danzig are kept busy moving from character to character but in their rendering of Ariel and Caliban they briefly suggest the characters’s resentment toward Prospero that helps drive “The Tempest” narrative. Danzig’s transformation into the monstrous Caliban as soon as he puts on the Caliban mask is particularly effective.
The design team for “The Feast” includes Andrea Everman and Jesse Mooney-Bullock, who worked on the puppets and masks; Neil Verplank, credited as “scenic engineer/builder;” lighting designer Andrew H. Myers; projection designer Mike Tutaj; composer and sound designer Jeffrey Allen Thomas; and co-costume designers Sue Haas and Anna Glowacki. They have combined to create a fresh and absorbing sensory experience for sympathetic audiences.
The CST is to be commended for lending its resources to Redmoon to nurture and finally stage this adaptation. It’s a high risk endeavor but the risks were worth taking. A person with CST management said that “The Feast” is a hot ticket and while negotiations are underway to extend the show, there is no guarantee it will run beyond its scheduled closing date. So enterprising lovers of Shakespeare and cutting edge stagecraft should act accordingly. Patrons may not like everything in the adaptation, but they have to admire the imagination and commitment captured in those 65 minutes.
“The Feast: an intimate Tempest” runs through March 11 at the CST Upstairs Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com/feast.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com. January 27, 2012
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Murder for Two—A Killer Musical
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Murder for Two—A Killer Musical!” is a two-hander that attempts to spoof the Agatha Christie-ish country house murder mysteries of the 1920’s and 1930’s. But this show, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs Theater, has a gimmick. One actor plays an investigating police officer and the other actor plays all the suspects plus three young members of a boys chorus who happen on the murder scene.
The result will be pleasing to audiences with a very large tolerance for low comedy. For those of us with a resistance to mugging that attempts to pass for humor, the show is a pretty long sit.
“Murder for Two” is the creation of Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics). Kinosian also plays half of the cast, the one who handles the multiple characters. The police investigator is played by Alan Schmuckler, who has much the better of the evening.
The show opens with a blackout in which an author named Arthur Whitney is shot to death during a blackout that is supposed to kick off the man’s birthday party in his country house. Officer Marcus Moscowicz (Schmuckler) quickly arrives on the scene and spends the rest of the performance time attempting to identify the killer. Of course, everyone at the birthday party has a motive, including the policeman.
Kinosian goes through one character after another, and therein resides one of the show’s problems. Kinosian plays an assortment of males and females, but fails to convert any of them into a minimally two-dimensional human being. I had trouble following who he was impersonating from moment to moment, with his one-size-fits-all vocal inflection. Kinosian is also given to excessive amounts of mugging and mincing about with his rubbery lanky physique.
the murder mystery in the show is nonsensical, but it should still be
substantial enough to hold the viewer’s attention. If we don’t care whodunit,
the interest in the story dials down to almost zero. A long-running farce
called “Sheer Madness” had a totally inane plot, but by the end of the evening
the spectator was really into finding the killer and that tension kept the
evening afloat. Not so with “Murder for Two,” and the actual solution to the
murder is so off the wall that the audience can only blink in mystification.
The dialogue is separated by several songs, performed by the two actors who also accompany themselves skillfully on a piano that dominates the set. The numbers are mostly patter songs and several do have clever lyrics, notably a piece given to the boys chorus called “A Lot Woise” (“woise” as in “worse” with a Brooklyn accent). There are also are a few happy sight gags and a droll line or two of dialogue. But mostly its camp time, especially from Kinosian. Schmuckler at least makes a character out of the policeman. He’s an ingratiating stage presence in contrast with Kinosian’s glut of “please laugh at me” impersonations.
The show is billed at 90 minutes without an intermission and on opening night the performance ran a full 15 minutes longer than that. An 80-minute playing time would definitely serve the show well, squeezing out the more egregious mannerisms. And the writers need to settle on an ending. There were at least three possibly closures on opening night but the performers didn’t seem to know how to get off the stage, finally ending with a high speed piano duet.
The CST production is the show’s world premiere so presumably it is still available for tweaking. The first order of business is shortening the playing time. Next would be revising the book to make the storyline more substantial. It would be helpful to elevate the comedy above mugging and thrashing about, though the enthusiastic opening night audience didn’t seem to mind.
Ultimately, perhaps, “Murder for Two” is a matter of taste. Audiences willing to settle for a high energy pair of performances in the service of a silly story could find this show a larky, entertaining evening. Others will start looking at their watches fairly early in the proceedings.
For the record, David H. Bell is the director. The clever and creative designers are Scott Davis (set), Jeremy W. Floyd (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), and James Savage (sound)
“Murder for Two—A Killer Musical!” runs through June 19 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of 21/2 stars. May 2011
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Funk It Up About Nothin’
At the Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is treating local audiences to a return visit of “Funk It Up About Nothin’” before the show heads to Australia for a six-week tour. Patrons who enjoyed the original version will find this production just as clever, ebullient, and funny. First timers will be blown away by one of the real hoots in recent Chicagoland theater history.
“Funk It Up” is a hip hop adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s been created and directed by the Q Brothers, GQ and JQ (Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum) who also star in the show. The current staging returns five of the six performers from the 2008 show. The sixth actor, Elizabeth Ledo, is performing in the current CST downstairs Courtyard Theater revival of “As You Like It.” Her replacement is Jillian Burfete, a pixie young lady like Ledo who delivers the same kind of saucy high-energy performance. The other returnees, in addition to the Q Brothers, are Postell Pringle, Ericka Ratcliff, and Jackson Doran. The cast plays a baker’s dozen of characters, with much cross gendering, a gay stereotype, and even a cameo appearance by a John Wayne wannabe as a local judge.
A seventh on-stage performer is Adrienne Sanchez, who presides over the turntables at one side of the playing area as DJ, the purveyor of the recorded hip hop beat that propels the show.
The Q Brothers adaptation broadly follows the “Much Ado” storyline, with their own cheeky embellishments. Beatrice and Benedick still indulge in their battle of wits, sharing the narrative with the romantic subplot of Claudio and Hero. But the “Funk It Up” Hero is as much spunkier lass than the innocent victim in Shakespeare’s comedy. “Funk It Up” retains the Messina, Italy, location but instead of victorious soldiers led by military commander Don Pedro visiting the town, Pedro is a rock star and Benedick and Claudio are part of his entourage.
My summary of the 2008 production’s glories still holds and can be quoted without revision. “Some knowledge of the ‘Much Ado’ plot is helpful, but even spectators unfamiliar with the Bard’s comedy should be swept away by the velocity of the production and its rampaging river of rap rhymes. ‘Funk It Up’ doesn’t utilize a single line of Shakespeare that I could detect, though there are plenty of droll inserts from modern pop culture, like ‘You Can’t Handle the Truth!’ The Q Brothers have made the play their own, language-wise, and their skill at sustaining the play’s momentum for a full 70 minutes is breathtaking.”
A second exposure to the show reaffirms the genius of the dense and dazzling flow of rhymes that pour from the stage. I’d love to own a CD of the show to revel at leisure in the dexterity (and occasional raunchiness) of the lyrics and dialogue. The ability of the ensemble to fire off the language at warp speed and still make it all intelligible is a wonderment.
“Funk It Up” is hip hop with the accent on hip, peppering the audience with bull’s-eye wisecracks, insults, R rated japes, comic tongue-twisters, and versified verbal cadenzas. The visual and literary ingenuity of it all is dazzling.
The production fits snugly in the CST Upstairs Theater, with the performers using the aisles as gangways to the small stage, dominated by Brian Sidney Bembridge’s witty stylized set. Debbie Baer’s costumes are a riot of hip hop grunge, illuminated by Toby Knyvett’s brash lighting.
The 2008 show ended with a tantalizing reference to the Q Brothers’ next project, a rap music assault on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The current “Funk It Up” staging retains that closing reference. Thus far there has been no indication of when/if we will get “Dream” as filtered through the madcap imagination and intelligence of the Q Brothers, but we can live in hope.
“Funk It Up About Nothin’” runs through February 13 at he Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. January 2011
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At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater(Upstairs)
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Earlier this year, three Chicago theaters staged plays by Athol Fugard that portrayed the evils of apartheid in South Africa during the 1970’s. By a quirk of scheduling, a short play called “Itsoseng” is providing a kind of melancholy epilogue to the cumulative impact of those three plays.
“Itsoseng” (the name of an impoverished black South African township) covers several years in post-apartheid South African starting in the early 1990’s. The tyrannies of white rule no longer exist, but the bleakness of life for black South Africans remains. The poverty is still there, the lack of hope, and the frustration with an uncaring government. But there has been an emotional sea change. Despondency replaces the anger and revolutionary ardor of the apartheid period. There is no enemy to feed the individual’s sense of outrage and frustration. Helpless despair reigns supreme.
“Itsoseng” is the autobiographical creation of a black South African actor and writer named Omphile Molusi. It’s being presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of the company’s admirable World’s Stage series.
“Itsoseng” originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008 and its popularity led to an equally successful transfer to a London theater. The reviews were highly laudatory and the show became a natural fit for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and artistic director Barbara Gaines, who passionately believes in the play and in Molusi.
Molusi is the sole actor in his play, though he creates a number of characters as the 65-minute show unfolds. Molusi plays a 24-year old black man named Mawilla. The play opens and closes with Mawilla at a funeral. Who died and what the death means to Mawilla is revealed during the narrative that covers about 14 bleak years in Itsoseng.
Mawilla describes how the end of apartheid, so filled with possibilities of social and economic rejuvenation, has led to a life that betrays that promise. Revolutionaries burned down the local shopping center as a symbol of white oppression and locals looted the stores. But the shopping center was the township’s economic heart and repeated government promises to rebuild it proved empty. Meanwhile unemployment insidiously drains the energy from the community.
Mawilla falls in love with a young woman named Dolly, but she is forced into prostitution to sustain herself. The life finally kills her, dealing Mawilla a devastating personal blow. At the final blackout Mawilla somberly talks of dreams as all he possesses, but they are hollow dreams that won’t be fulfilled.
“Itsoseng” sounds glum and for most of its performance time it is. What lifts the show above grim kitchen sink realism is Molusi’s performance. The performer, only 29 years old, takes us through the tribulations of Mawilla and his friends with considerable dramatic and theatrical resource.
Molusi is a versatile performer with a strong stage presence, a likable young man who communicates easily within the intimacy of the small Upstairs performing space at the Chicago Theater Company. But while Molusi tells an affecting and occasionally humorous story, there isn’t quite enough substance to sustain a full length evening, even one of only 65 minutes. The English productions apparently ran 75 minutes. The discrepancy in time could have resulted from a faster delivery or from text cuts.
Whatever the playing time, too much of the material strikes a single glum note. I also sometimes struggled with Molusi’s thick South African accent and occasional injections of South African dialect. But I still left the theater filled with admiration for the performer and I would love to see the young man playing a starring role in a more substantial play that really taps into the range of his performing skills, like one of Athol Fugard’s dramas.
“Itsoseng” runs through June 20 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $28 to $38. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. June 2010
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The Walworth Farce
At the Chicago Shakespeare Studio Theater
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—When I saw Enda Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago, I thought it was the most preposterous play I’d seen in years, a complete waste of an evening. But Walsh’s Irish comedy-drama harvested a cornucopia of positive reviews in Britain, good enough to propel the show to a 2009 cross-country American tour.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has snared “The Walworth Farce” for six performances. I entered the CST Upstairs Theater on opening night with grim foreboding, recalling the misery of sitting through the show in Edinburgh in 2007. But that was then and this is now. “The Walworth Farce” is still preposterous, but somehow the preposterous factor has been converted into a positive. Or perhaps the amazing performances in this production trumped the Edinburgh staging to elevate the play into an engrossing, disturbing (and funny) viewing experience.
The play takes place, apparently during real time, in a grungy 15th floor walkup apartment in a housing project on Walworth Road in south London. The action starts off full tilt with Dinny and his grown sons Sean and Blake enacting some kind of convoluted play set in Cork, Ireland. The play’s farcical elements include mistaken identities, cross-dressing, florid overacting, and knockabout humor.
Gradually the audience recognizes that the three men have been performing this insane and anarchic play over and over again for 20 years, ever since Dinny left Cork for London. His sons have become willing prisoners in the apartment for most of their lives, Sean leaving occasionally to purchase supplies. But their claustrophobic existence is dominated by the tyrannical Dinny orchestrating the play that turns out to be rooted in the reason he left Ireland two decades ago, a dramatic exercise he requires to retain his shaky sanity.
The narrative is difficult to follow and only near the end of the play does the viewer hear a more or less realistic and accurate account of the events in Ireland that drove Dinny and his sons to this bizarre lifestyle in London. Even then loose ends dangle, truth and fantasy being blurred after so many performances in the apartment over so many years.
The story receives a jolt of reality when a fourth character enters, a black grocery clerk from a nearby supermarket come to deliver a bag of groceries Sean had left behind that morning. The girl injects a note of normalcy into the proceedings and we see with her eyes just how bizarre Dinny and his boys actually are. We had been so wrapped up in their weird playacting that their freakish world was actually making a kind of perverse sense.
The appearance of the girl changes the dynamic of the playacting and leads to a not entirely convincing but still stunning violent conclusion. The concluding image of madness and death should stay with the spectator long after the final blackout.
In Edinburgh, I left the theater in complete disbelief that Dinny’s play could be acted with almost ritual sameness for so many years without the sons going bonkers (Dinny obviously had long ago tipped over into megalomania and paranoia). And Sean and Blake remaining willing prisoners in the squalid apartment for most of their lives stretches belief behind the breaking point.
But to the glory of the ensemble from the Druid Ireland theater, “The Walworth Farce” now works, thanks to the intensity and commitment of the actors. Michael Glenn Murphy delivers an astonishing performance as the bombastic and menacing Dinny, a memorable display of physical and psychological obsession. His performance is the lynchpin in selling the play to the audience and the show is unthinkable without his volcanic dramatizing.
Tadhg Murphy repeats his Edinburgh performance as Sean, the more mentally scrambled of the two brothers. Raymond Scannell is Blake, the son who plays all the female roles in Dinny’s twisted psychodrama. The young men are both brilliant, as they must be to stay even with Michael Glenn Murphy’s tumultuous Dinny. Mercy Olejade plays the grocery clerk, a character who could easily be washed away by the titanic emotions flooding from the three male characters. But Olejade carves out a major contribution to the production’s success, mostly by looking silently baffled and terrified by the antics of those three wild Irishmen throughout the second act.
Director Mikel Murfi ratchets up the madcap comedy and dramatic tensions with commendable theatricality. This is not a play for an introspective Method director and “The Walworth Farce” has found the right man in Murfi’s let-it-rip style. The physical production is first rate, from the set and costume designs by Sabine Dargent to Paul Keogan’s lighting.
“The Walworth Farce” may be unreadable as a script. It demands the kind of fervent and no-holds-barred acting it gets from the Druid company to seize the imagination. I’m still not convinced of the merits of Walsh’s play, though the walls of my earlier dissatisfaction definitely have been breeched. But the acting grabs the audience by the throat and even if we aren’t sure what’s happening on the stage we are fascinated by the characters and what they put themselves through. For connoisseurs of impressive acting, this is a “must” event.
“The Walworth Farce” runs through Sunday at the Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are 7:30 p.m. through Saturday with 2 p.m. performances Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $46 and $56. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. October 2009Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Michael Pennington is giving a master class in Shakespeare at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It’s an event not to be missed by anyone with an interest in the Bard, which is to say, all serious theatergoers.
Pennington has been one of England’s leading classical actors
for a generation, a performer and director familiar to CST audiences from
Chicago appearances with his English Shakespeare Company. He calls his one-man
show “Sweet William,” a distillation of more than half a century of watching,
studying, and performing Shakespeare.
Pennington estimates he’s spent 20,000 hours in Shakespeare plays on world stages, and that doesn’t include rehearsals, personal reading, and authoring several books on the dramas and comedies. Clearly the man’s credentials are in order when it comes to an informed discussion of Shakespeare’s life and works.
Pennington presents his show as a personal verbal essay. He performs on a bare stage, the only prop being a throne-like wooden chair (a red handkerchief is also used to great effect in one scene). Pennington dresses casually in slacks and a sport shirt. The minimalist presentation fits perfectly in the CST’s intimate Upstairs Theater, where the two-hour production assumes the form of an informal living room chat.
Pennington dates his love of Shakespeare back to his first exposure to the playwright at the age of 11 when his parents took him to see “Macbeth.” It was love at first sight (and hearing) and the springboard to a distinguished theater career.
The actor organizes “Sweet William” as a chronological trip through Shakespeare’s life from his birth in Stratford to his theater years in London and then his retirement and death back in Stratford. Along the way Pennington injects asides and anecdotes as well as swatches from the plays and sonnets to illustrate particular points.
Unlike some one-man shows devoted to Shakespeare, “Sweet William” is not a survey of the playwright’s greatest hits—all those famous soliloquies that practically invite the audience to recite along with the actor. Pennington mines the riches of lesser known plays such as “Timon of Athens,” “A Winter’s Tale,” “Henry VI” part 3, and “Troilus and Cressida.” When he does explore the better-known works, he selects telling but less familiar passages to illuminate his thoughts.
Pennington has spent a lifetime steeping himself in Shakespeare’s life and times and he isn’t afraid to speculate where the factual record is sparse or nonexistent. He speaks persuasively about how the man might have spent the so-called “lost years” from 1585 to 1592. He analyzes how the social and cultural scene in Elizabethan London impacted on Shakespeare’s writing and how the ascension of James I, with his hedonistic court, turned Shakespeare’s plays darker and more cynical.
“Sweet William” may be an extended lecture but it avoids the taint of an academic exercise through Pennington’s ingratiating stage presence and his canny selection of material that makes Shakespeare’s life and works come alive with fresh information and stimulating insights. It should be stressed that “Sweet William” caters to spectators who know and care about Shakespeare, but that will be the profile of the typical CST audience. It’s doubtful that any patrons will stumble into the Upstairs Theater expecting a performance of “Xanadu.”
The bottom line is that Pennington delivers an adult show in the best sense of that abused term. He’s great company, droll and knowledgeable and gently opinionated. A most entertaining and literate evening.
“Sweet William” runs through February 22 at the Upstairs Theater at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $46 and $56. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. February 2009Contact Dan at email@example.com
at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The prospects did not look encouraging upon entering the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Upstairs Theater for the opening of “Edward II.” Before the performance, members of the audience were mingling on stage with the actors in costume, drinking beer and wine and generally having a jolly time. The atmosphere pointed more to a gimmicky, frivolous evening rather than a serious revival of the Christopher Marlowe historical tragedy.
Then the play took over, 80 minutes of uninterrupted drama (and melodrama), a scorching display of brutality, cruelty, greed, and betrayal.
The audience configuration was divided during the performance. Those who wanted to sit were placed on a balcony surrounding the playing area on all four sides. Spectators who chose to remain with the performers were moved unobtrusively from spot to spot on stage as the action dictated. The standing audience was unobtrusive during the play, a credit to the traffic control by company docents but mostly due to the power of the play.
The full title of the drama is “The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer.” Marlowe wrote the chronicle about 1592 and scholars have noted its close relationship to Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” Both deal with English kings totally unfitted to be kings, men who lose their crowns because of personal weakness. But Marlowe’s language is more accessible and visceral, the verbal engine that drives the narrative with nonstop and often merciless power.
The CST production, under Sean Graney’s endlessly inventive directing, compresses the Marlowe play into those white-hot 80 minutes of action. Edward II is a headstrong and petulant young man with an insatiable passion for an upstart Frenchman named Gaveston. The king lavishes all kinds of honors on Gaveston, earning the resentment of the English nobles and the hostility of Isabella, Edward’s queen.
Eventually the nobles conspire to murder Gaveston, leaving Edward distraught at the death of his lover, though he shortly takes on another young man, named Spencer, as his favorite. This public display of homosexual ardor must have startled Elizabethan audiences.
Under pressure from Lord Mortimer, now the queen’s lover, Edward is forced to resign his crown and eventually dies a miserable death, murdered at Mortimer’s orders. But Mortimer himself dies at the order of Edward III, the dead king’s son and a young man forced to grow up very quickly as the new monarch.
The CST staging puts the characters in modern dress. There are only a few props, notably a large chandelier lowered toward the end of the play to give Edward an airborne forum to vent his rage and futility. In one corner of the playing area stands a kind of prison cell, the place of execution for a considerable number of the characters. One after another they enter the room, plastic curtains are drawn, a gunshot is heard, and the curtains are opened again to reveal blood-spattered walls. Adding a striking macabre theatrical touch, a mysterious hooded specter enters after each execution, tolling a bell and collecting the corpse, who walks solemnly off stage behind the ghostly figure.
“Edward II” is not for everyone. The violence and brutality can be relentless. The murder onstage of Edward is particularly grisly. And none of the characters deserves the audience’s sympathy, all driven by either lust or ambition. There is a certain pathos to Edward’s end, but the man brought upon his own destruction, though nobody deserves to die as frightfully as he does.
Jeffrey Carlson leads the skilled ensemble as Edward, the passion-blinded and arrogant young man who allows his appetite for Gaveston to lead both of them to ruin. Carlson’s final scenes as Edward at the end of his tether have real emotional impact. Several members of the supporting cast play multiple roles. John Lister is especially good as the Bishop of Canterbury among other characters. Karen Aldridge effectively portrays Isabella’s shift from wronged wife to power-seeking adulteress. Scott Cummins is fine as the blunt, ruthless Mortimer and Kurt Ehrmann is excellent as his father and other characters. There is also good work by La Shawn Banks as Gaveston, Erik Hellman as Spencer, Zach Gray as the youthful Edward III, and Chris Sullivan and Lea Coco in a variety of roles.
Sean Graney’s directing (Graney also did the adaptation) endows the production with a relentless intensity. The story moves with raw propulsion from death to death as the English court turns into a slaughterhouse repository of the basest human emotions. Graney’s conception of the play is superbly reinforced by Todd Rosenthal’s set design, Alison Siple’s costumes, Philip Rosenberg’s lighting, and Michael Griggs’s sound. Together they create an intense environment within the intimate Upstairs Stage that visually reinforces the turbulent emotions of the play.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater deserves credit for bringing in Graney, perhaps the edgiest of Chicago theater directors, and allowing him to create this fierce vision of a rarely presented Elizabethan classic. The gamble has worked. This is strong stuff, but it’s the kind of risk-taking production that makes Chicago theater so rewarding.
“Edward II” runs through November 9 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Most performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $56. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. Oct. 2008
Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Funk It Up About Nothin’
at the Chicago
Shakespeare Theater(Studio Theater)
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Funk It Up About Nothin’” is a hip hop adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The rap version isn’t as witty as the Shakespeare original, but the Shakespeare original isn’t as clever as “Funk It Up.” I suspect that the American stage will be able to accommodate both shows very happily.
“Funk It Up” is playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs Theater. It’s a follow-up to the hugely successful “The Bombitty of Errors,” the hip hop takeoff on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” Both have been created by the Q Brothers, GQ and JQ (Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum). Both absorb the superstructure of the Shakespeare plays and convert them into continuously energetic, inventive, and comic rap extravaganzas.
“Funk It Up” is presented by six actors, with Adrienne Sanchez presiding over the turntables above the stage as DJ, the purveyor of the record hip hop beat that propels the show. The performers play multiple roles, wearing multiple costumes that must have churned the backstage into a frenzy of quick changes. The production runs about 70 minutes without an intermission, and a more verbally gymnastic 70 minutes won’t be heard on any Chicagoland stage this season.
The Q Brothers adaptation follows the “Much Ado” plot, with embellishments. The story’s core remains the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick, supported by the romantic subplot of Claudio and Hero. But Benedick isn’t a soldier visiting Messina, Italy, with his mates after the wars. His leader is still Don Pedro, but the Don now is a rock star instead of a military commander and Benedick and Claudio are part of his entourage.
Some knowledge of the “Much Ado” plot is helpful, but even spectators unfamiliar with the Bard’s comedy should be swept away by the velocity of the production and its rampaging river of rap rhymes. “Funk It Up” doesn’t utilize a single line of Shakespeare that I could detect, though there are plenty of droll inserts from modern pop culture, like “You can’t handle the truth!” The Q Brothers have made the play their own, language-wise, and their skill at sustaining the play’s momentum for a full 70 minutes is breathtaking.
In the hip hop edition, the dullard assistant constable Verges is ostentatiously swishy. Chief constable Dogberry is renamed Dingleberry for no apparent reason. But the Q Brothers have actually made one improvement. Hero is a wan figure in the Shakespeare play, the weepy victim of a dastardly plot to discredit her on her wedding day. But as played by the pint sized and feisty Elizabeth Ledo, Hero fights back, sneering at Claudio for his lack of faith and rejecting him after he rejects her but then recants. It’s a bold dramatic touch that would serve a “Much Ado” revival well.
In a condensed adaptation, the audience can’t have everything. There isn’t time to fully develop the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, tracing a comic arc from verbal enemies to lovers. But JQ as Benedick and Ericka Radcliff as MC Lady B (Beatrice) give it their best shot.
The cast’s versatility and stamina is remarkable. Everyone slips in and out of his or her roles without skipping a beat, literally. GQ as the villainous Don John, Dingleberry, and Hero’s father Leonato gives three distinct performances of comic distinction. The remainder of the ensemble consists of Jackson Doran as Claudio and a John Wayne-ish judge and Postell Pringle as Don Pedro and the oh so gay Verges. All six form an ensemble that delivers the tongue twisting dialogue and frisky physical action with nary a fluff, a tribute to their talent and the co-directing of GQ and JQ.
I did have some trouble picking up all the lines early in the show, partly because Sanchez’s rap beat tended to overpower the actors. Either she restored the proper balance or my ear adjusted, because as the show went on I tuned in more and more easily to the frolicsome but dense rap poetry.
Brian Sidney Bembridge designed the graffiti-drenched set that looks more like a site out of “Rent” than Renaissance Messina. Debbie Baer designed the wild hip hop costumes, Ryan Davies the lighting, and James Savage the sound.
I thought “Funk It Up” was even better than “Bombitty of Errors,” maybe because “Much Ado About Nothing” is a better comedy than “The Comedy of Errors.” This show seems tighter and totally without dead spots. The language gets a little salty, but the spirits are so high that it’s impossible to take offense at the profanity and sexual japes.
There is good news for the future. The Q Brothers apparently are working on their hip hop adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Let the good times keep rolling.
“Funk It Up About Nothin’” runs through August 3 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 595 5600.
For additional information about the show,
The show gets a rating of 4 stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com.