Blood and Gifts
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – An audience should be grateful to see a play that is well written and beautifully staged. When that play provides a meaningful educational experience, the audience is thrice blessed. Consider “Blood and Gifts” at the TimeLine Theatre.
and Gifts” is a docudrama that explores the role of the United States in
Afghanistan from 1981 to 1991, one of the most controversial military and
political events in modern American history. The author is American playwright
J. T. Rogers, who obviously has steeped himself in the diplomacy and
personalities of the Afghanistan campaign and explains it to audiences with
clarity, high drama, and some humor. It’s an exciting story to watch unfold,
and also deeply disturbing. Afghanistan cost the United States government
billions of dollars and thousands of casualties, both American and Afghan, for
an outcome that can fairly be called a disaster.
Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch
Rogers centers the narrative on a CIA operative named James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane). Warnock sees U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as essential to the national interest lest that country be taken over by an invading Russian army. Warnock is a ramrod straight patriotic American with tunnel vision about defeating Russia during the Cold War. He makes clandestine visits to Afghanistan to form alliances with local warlords as well as the military in neighboring Pakistan. If they will join the United States in battling the Russians, we will provide modern weapons and suitcases full of cash (the gifts of the play’s title).
The United States isn’t exactly going it alone in the country. Its nominal ally is Great Britain, personified by a droll and boozing British diplomat named Simon Craig right out of a Graham Greene novel. Warnock also forms an unlikely relationship with the Russian representative in Afghanistan, a wry and personable man named Dmitri Gromov. Most of the story takes place in Afghanistan, with a few scenes in Washington during the second act. The Washington scenes give the audience some insights into the political maneuvering by the CIA to win congressional support for an Afghanistan war that seems to be lurching along with no indication that victory is at hand.
As the years go by in the conflict, it becomes obvious the United States is in over its head. Warnock has tunnel vision about holding off the Russians and won’t, or can’t, recognize the deep political, cultural, and religious divisions within Afghanistan society that are resulting in horrific atrocities and civil war. Warnock seeks someone he can trust to be America’s reliable eyes and ears on the ground, but the country is a morass of betrayals, greed, incompetence, and cross purposes, all subsidized by American money and often American blood. The final moments deliver a dramatic haymaker that certifies just how badly the U.S. has misjudged the entire Afghanistan operation and how dearly we may have to pay for our miscalculations in the future.
Most spectators will enter the theater with only a hazy idea of what the Afghanistan conflict was all about. The TimeLine has organized a display in the lobby that attempts to trace the war from its inception to the present. This display is well worth viewing as a Cliff Notes guide to the life and times covered by the play.
The play itself, under the taut and incisive direction of Nick Bowling, is staged in the intimate theater, with the audience divided into opposite sides and enclosing a long, narrow slice of performing space. Collette Pollard’s set design also includes a balcony that winds around the theater and gives the action vertical as well as horizontal energy.
The production gives the Rogers script a sense of absolute authenticity with some pinpoint casting, especially in portraying the various Afghan and Pakistani characters. The Afghan costumes look just right on the half dozen actors who persuasively represent the Afghan fighters (Jenny Mannis is credited as “costume consultant”). Kareem Bandealy plays Abdullah Khan, the warlord seeking American weapons, with total credibility, giving the viewers a vivid glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of the Afghan soul that elude the American representatives, to the irretrievable damage of the American cause. Bandealy is giving one of the must-see performances of the season. Behzad Dabu is terrific as Khan’s second in command, a young man with a huge taste for American rock music. Anish Jethmalani is very good as a demanding Pakistani colonel (he takes over for Bandealy as Khan after June 9). Over the past couple of seasons, it’s become obvious that local theater can draw from an impressive pool of Asian actors, and three of the best are integral parts of “Blood and Gifts”).
Photo credit: Lara Goetsch
Kane is the spine of the play as Warnock, a decent if somewhat humorless man who sees the world in Cold War terms. His dedication to what he views as critical American interests is honest and unstinting, and with the best of intensions he makes a mess of everything. The play’s humor comes from Terry Hamilton’s breezy Dmitri Gromov and the whiff of John Cleese in Raymond Fox’s Simon Craig. David Parkes plays Warnock’s CIA boss with just the right note of weary cynicism, showing us a man daily faced with hard choices in a most imperfect world. The remainder of this exceptional ensemble consists of Craig Spidle, Demetrios Troy, Owais Ahmed, Josh Odor, Emily Ariel Rogers, Andrew Saenz, Peter Sipla, and Don Tieri.
On the technical side, in addition to the designs by Pollard and Mannis, the visual production benefits from the projections by Mike Tutaj that keep the viewer abreast of the time chronology, and Jesse Klug’s evocative lighting design. Abdullah Wardak and Habibullah Wardak are credited as cultural consultants and thus must be saluted for their contribution to the “you are there” realism of the narrative.
“Blood and Gifts” is not only great theater, it should be required study for every college political science class exploring the turbulent history of modern southwest Asia, the source of so much grief for the United States. The play is a cautionary tale of the consequences that follow intervention in a global area we do not understand. The play demonstrates that we aren’t so much the Ugly Americans in Afghanistan as the naive Americans. It would be comforting to claim that Afghanistan was a learning experience for America, but consider the subsequent record.
“Blood and Gifts” runs through July 28 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars May 2013
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Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” at the TimeLine Theatre is a short play that teases and tantalizes. It’s sexier and more exotic play than the typical TimeLine dramatic fare, but it maintains the theater’s credentials for solid acting and resourceful staging. How it will go down with the theater’s patrons will depend on their tolerance for ambiguity.
Naomi Ilzuka’s 85-minute play touches on weighty matters, but requires the audience to connect lots of plot and character dots to make the viewing experience coherent. For some audiences, the play will be stimulating intellectually and enticing in its many small mysteries. Others will find it difficult to follow and irritating in its elusiveness. Everyone should admire the production’s visual creativity.“Concerning…” moves back and forth between Yokohama, Japan, in the 1880’s and today. The title refers to a nineteenth-century manual written by a Dutch trader for Japanese readers to instruct them on how to use Western cameras, photography being an unknown art in Japan. The first scene is meeting between Adolfo Farsari, a young Western photographer living in Japan, and Isabel Hewlett, a middle-class Western matron in Japan accompanying her businessman husband. Isabel visits Farsari’s studio to have her photo taken in a kimono as a souvenir of her contact with traditional Japanese life. Farsari was a real-life figure who settled in Japan, taking pictures that became collector’s items in the West the next century, capturing images of geisha girls, rickshaw drivers, and food vendors.
During the photo session, Hewlett meets Farsari’s Japanese servant girl and a rickshaw driver covered in tattoos who serves as Farsari’s model. Isabel is sexually repressed and unhappily married, but Farsari has little patience with her patronizing Western attitudes toward Japan. The action then catapults to modern times and centers on Dmitri Mendelssohn, a young academic who collects nineteenth century Japanese photographs of the kind Farsari created, though most of his work was destroyed in a studio fire.
Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch
The action goes back and forth in time, with tenuous connections made between characters from the two centuries. We learn that Isabel Hewlett mysteriously disappeared after leaving Farsari’s studio and was never found. At the end of the play, she delivers a monologue describing how she ran off with the tattooed rickshaw driver for some fabulous sex and permanently fell in love with the Japanese landscape.
Ilzuka obviously is intrigued with photography as an art for that preserves a moment in time after its subjects have died or changed irretrievably. She also introduces issues about forgery and the power of photography to be altered or abused for nefarious purposes, like the invasion of privacy and blackmail. An there is the question of just how truthful a photograph can be when the viewer is unable to tap into the thoughts and emotions of the subject frozen in time and place.
Each scene ends with a blinding burst of light, resembling a camera flash, to further drive home photography as the play’s thematic pivot. There are additional striking lighting effects designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge and mood-setting projections by Mike Tutaj. Include Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design and original music and the historical and contemporary costumes designed by Janice Pytel into the design mix and you have a physical production of considerable resourcefulness.
The five-member cast does well by Ilzuka’s script, especially Michael McKeogh who takes on the dual roles of Farsari and the modern academic/collector. Rebecca Spence is excellent as Isabel Hewlett and Craig Spidle is good, as always, this time as both Isabel’s husband and a twentieth century American in Japan on business and a lineal descendant of Isabel’s husband, though I may have gotten that wrong. The Japanese characters are excellently played by Kroydell Galima as the rickshaw driver and a modern con man selling bogus photos to Mendelssohn, and Tiffany Villarin as Farsari’s studio assistant and the collector’s English translator while he’s in Japan.
Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch
The various scenes hold up as stand-alone mini-dramas but at the end of the play I was thrown by the rapid time shifts and the questionable relevance of some of the scenes within the greater scheme of the play. The problem is complicated by the playwright’s decision often to tell the audience what’s happening through monologues rather than permit the characters to act out the narrative. Isabel Spence’s elopement with the rickshaw driver needs some connective tissue. We hear about the love affair in her own words but we never hear the driver speak, though we understand that the woman is sexually frustrated and intrigued by the exoticism of Japan, in contrast to her constricted life as an American woman married to an unsympathetic husband.
Lisa Portes directs the production satisfactorily. Any difficulties I had with the play reside in the writing and not in the staging and acting. I still left the theater feeling dissatisfied that I hadn’t fully gotten my arms around the play. “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” can be recommended for its visual presentation and its willingness to engage in stimulating ideas, but the overall storytelling was too elusive for me.
“Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” runs through April 14 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheratre.com.
The show gets a rating of 2½ stars. January 2013
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At the TimeLine Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Wasteland” at the TimeLine is a drama about two American soldiers held as prisoners during the Vietnam War. It’s brilliantly performed and thought provoking, but it’s grueling for the performers and grueling for the audience.
“Wasteland” is a two-character play but the audience only sees one. The other character is separated behind a wall in a connecting room. The rooms exist an in underground cave in an unknown location. It could be in Vietnam, or some other country embroiled in the Vietnam War. But for the POWs, their world is shrunk to their cramped cells and outside life may as well not exist.
Joe has been living in isolation as a POW for six months. At the beginning of the play he is joined by Riley, known only by his voice on the other side of the wall. The play runs 100 minutes without an intermission and covers 18 months of captivity. During the show the two kill time bantering and arguing, anything to break up the boredom and loneliness and fear and homesickness and desperation that swamp their lives in their claustrophobic subterranean world.
The audience learns that Joe is gay. He’s from the Northeast leading to immediate culture clashes with Riley, a good old boy Texan. Joe is bitter toward the government for what he perceives as their botching of the war and their indifference toward the troops in the field. Riley is a super patriot. For him, the government can do no wrong and any sacrifice is justified to hold back the tide of Communism from American shores. President Nixon will find a way to get them out of Vietnam and back to the United States.
Photo by Lara Goetsch
To pass the time and to keep up their spirits, the two men play word games, argue over the movies, and sing songs. Predictably, they also get on each other’s nerves. The two are separated by their political views and by Joe’s homosexuality (Riley is unapologetically homophobic). But in the end they cling to each other emotionally and psychologically in spite of the separating wall. They urgently need each other to get through their ordeal, which could last indefinitely if death doesn’t intervene.
“Wasteland” is receiving its world premiere at the TimeLine. The playwright is local writer, actor, director Susan Felder. Her script may be tiresome to read with its reliance on obscenities, the natural lingo of the two prisoners. But there is some black humor in the dialogue and a couple of the verbal confrontations crackle with tension, especially the furious debate over the justification of the war. The bottom line is that Felder’s writing takes flight in live performance, or at least in the electric TimeLine performances.
The play makes daunting demands on the two actors and on director William Brown. The TimeLine stage is converted into Joe’s craggy underground cell (realistically conveyed by scenic designer Kevin Depinet). The cramped set confines Joe to a few square yards of space where he does calisthenics and tries to keep his living space reasonably tidy. But “Wasteland” is a language rather than a physical drama, expressive and occasionally eloquent for all its reliance on profanity.
Felder’s writing portrays the resilience of the human spirit under intolerable conditions produced by the brutality of war. But it’s hard to watch, knowing that this specific play may be fiction but its story was acted out hundreds of times during the Vietnam War, with American POW’s penned up under vile conditions in prisons scattered throughout the war zone.
Nate Burger gives a wondrous performance as Joe, the on stage prisoner. He rings all the emotional changes on the character’s imprisonment—bitterness, anger, a determination to keep his sanity at all costs, occasional glimmers of hope that dissolve into despair. Steve Haggard has an equally taxing role as Riley, with its own challenges because Haggard has to act entirely with his voice. But he evokes a vivid picture of a young man outwardly full of bravado but inwardly ready to crack under the strain of his imprisonment. Burger and Haggard make up an indelible team and only they know how much their roles take out of them each performance.
William Brown keeps the story taut and fluid, extracting
performances of remarkable commitment from his two-actor ensemble. The designs
by Rachel Anne Healy (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), and Andrew Hansen
(sound) solidify the oppressive atmosphere.
Photo by Lara Goetsch
“Wasteland” necessarily skims over some externals. We never see how Joe keeps his barren cell free of human waste. He doesn’t shave and his hair doesn’t grow. His jailers never appear, and are only briefly heard in off stage chatter. So even though a year and a half pass, time seems to stand still, as it does for the prisoners who battle tedium and discomfort and depression in the days without end that face them.
“Wasteland” runs through December 30 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. October 2012
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at the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “33 Variations” at the TimeLine Theatre starts out with a character asking the question, Why did the great German composer Ludwig van Beethoven write 33 variations on a trivial little waltz by a mediocre amateur composer? The logical audience response to the question is, Who cares?
Playwright Moises Kaufman expands the mystery of the 33 variations into a drama that makes us all care. He explores the power of music, the ambiguity of history, the complex relations between a mother and daughter, the bravery and tragedy of fighting a fatal disease, and the many sides of friendship. So the scholarly problem of the variations is just a narrative hook for one of the most stimulating plays to hit Chicagoland theater in recent seasons, precisely what local patrons have come to expect from the TimeLine.
Kaufman writes “33 Variations” on two chronological levels. One takes place in the early 1800’s with Beethoven in Bonn, Germany. The other is set today, as we follow an American music scholar named Katherine Brandt as she visits Bonn to examine archives that might hold the key to why Beethoven invested so much time and inspiration on the variations.
Kaufman’s dramaturgy takes us into Tom Stoppard territory, with separate storylines played out simultaneously on the stage by characters unaware of each other’s presence and sometimes speaking the same dialogue at the same time. As the story shuttles back and forth between today and the nineteenth century, the drama grows in narrative complexity to a poignant climax.
Brandt has more on her plate than trying to solve the riddle of Beethoven’s variations. She faces a prickly relationship with her daughter Clara, an intelligent young woman who can’t seem to find herself in life. More critically, Katherine is diagnosed with the incurable Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Her life becomes a race against time as she tries to complete her Beethoven project before the disease overtakes her. Clara engages in a battle of wills with her stubborn mother over how to deal with the disease. The daughter’s life is unexpectedly complicated by an improbable romance with a male nurse named Mike, who is working in Bonn and involved in Katharine’s treatment.
Photos by Lara Goetsch
Back in the early nineteenth century, Beethoven throws himself into the variations, battling poverty and growing deafness and the importunities of his publisher Anton Diabelli, who composed the modest little waltz. Diabelli has signed up many of the great composers of the day to contribute a single variation on to the waltz for a commemorative publication, and Beethoven’s interminable delays threaten the enterprise with dire financial consequences. But Beethoven won’t be hurried, bullying his friend and secretary Anton Schindler as well as the hapless Diabelli.
While all these plot threads steam along, a pianist in full formal wear presides at a concert grand piano in the middle of the stage, performing excerpts from the variations to suit the moods of the narratives.
The play starts lightly, with Beethoven initially portrayed as a comical curmudgeon in a white fright wig. But the density of the themes take hold in the second act. Katherine’s research into Beethoven’s variations is based heavily on written evidence left behind by Schindler, but that evidence may be bogus, suggesting the historical record is so unreliable as to be unusable. Katherine becomes close friends with a German woman named Gertrude Landenberger, a curator of the Beethoven archives who plays an increasingly intimate role in Katherine’s life that ultimately stretches their friendship to the breaking point.
Moises Kaufman is best known as the creator of two docudramas, “The Laramie Project” and “The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” both dealing realistically with homophobia. Kaufman based “33 Variations” partly on actual characters. Beethoven did employ a secretary named Anton Schindler and Anton Diabelli was an actual Viennese music publisher who wrote the little waltz that triggered Beethoven’s burst of creativity. But the play’s stirring emotional confrontations and literate and witty dialogue come from Kaufman’s pen, not from a historical record. Kaufman deftly interweaves the stories separated by almost 200 years, and their unification at the end of the play is as logical as it is tearjerking.
Photo by Lara Goetsch
Credit director Nick Bowling with a sureness of touch that keeps the complex storytelling accessible and absorbing. The cast, in the usual TimeLine tradition, is flawless. Janet Ulrich Brooks is first among equals as Katherine Brandt, an academic relentless in her pursuit of the truth behind the variations who becomes a heartbreaking case history of a strong woman, her body destroyed by disease but not her spirit or dignity.
Jessie Fisher turns the problematical role of Clara into dramatic gold, carving out a rich portrait of a young woman pulled in multiple directions with her difficult relationship with her mother, her inability to settle on a career, and her affair with Mike, a likable young man who initially seems underqualified for a woman of Clara’s intelligence and spunk. But as the play goes on, Ian Paul Custer allows Mike to grow into a worthy helpmate in Clara’s anguish over her mother’s deterioration as well as a sympathetic lover. The modern side of the play is completed by a fine performance from Juliet Hart as Gertrude Landenberger, who blossoms from a no nonsense minor figure in Katherine’s scholarly quest to a woman of compassion and steely strength.
The performances are just as good on the nineteenth century side. Terry Hamilton, who never disappoints, is an entertaining and ultimately wise and affecting Beethoven for all his bluster and irritability. Hamilton illuminates Beethoven’s passion for his music in one breathtaking scene where he and the pianist join to feverishly dissect the musical components of the variations. As Diabelli and Schindler respectively, Michael Kingston and Matthew Krause turn two characters who are essentially comic foils for Beethoven into three-dimensional characters.
George Lepauw was the impressive classical pianist onstage the entire performance. He alternates during the show’s run with Igor Lipinski. One quibble. Spectators sitting near the stage and close to the piano may at times have trouble hearing the dialogue over the volume of the instrument.
MikeTutaj brings nineteenth century Bonn to life with his vivid projections. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set consists of a bed on one side of the stage, the piano in the middle, and a table on the other side, but in combination with Tutaj’s visuals, it’s sufficient to establish a strong backdrop for the action. Alex Wren Meadows designed the costumes, notably the authentic looking nineteenth century outfits for Diabelli and Schindler. Keith Parham (lighting) and Andrew Hanson (sound) complete the fine physical production.
“33 Variations” runs through October 21 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 327 5252 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
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My Kind of Town
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Audiences at the TimeLine Theatre expecting a no brainer indictment of Chicago police torture are in for a surprising, unsettling, and suspenseful evening. What could be a black and white exposure of police brutality turns out to have a disturbing amount of gray in its mix.
The play carries the cynical title of “My Kind of Town,” acknowledging the pop song that celebrates Chicago but also a probable culture of police brutality. The play is the work of investigative journalist John Conroy, who wrote 22 articles on police torture in Chicago from 1990 to 2007. Conroy may not be an experienced professional playwright, but in “My Kind of Town” he’s written a complex, human, and disturbing drama that can unnerve the spectator with its ambiguity.
Conroy’s play is a fictionalized version of the scandal that emerged from newspaper and government investigations from the 1980’s to the present. The story centers on a police detective named Dan Breen and his colleagues and what they did to arrested men in the basement of Area 2 headquarters that resulted in a confession rate approaching 100%.
One of those confessions was extracted from Otha Jeffries, a violent and hostile young black thug accused of murder. Jeffries sits on death row after being convicted of murder based on a confession he insists was given under torture. Otha’s mother is on a crusade to exonerate her son. Ironically, his father is a police officer who stands aloof from Otha’s violent and anti-social behavior.
The play also brings in Breen’s wife and sister, as well as a female state’s attorney, a black former police detective who may have knowledge of the brutality, and a lawyer working pro bono to exonerate Otha. In a series of scenes that shift back and forth in time, we see the stresses that the brutality scandal inflicts on the characters. There are the domestic strains tearing apart the Jeffries family and the tensions between Breen and his wife, who wants to believe her husband is clean, but can’t help but wonder. Enormous pressure is put on the black former detective and the state’s attorney to close ranks with their police brethren against charges from outsiders that could ruin careers and personal lives. Loyalties are tested, lies are told, and memories are conveniently vague.
The implication throughout the play is that the torture charges are legitimate, but that invites the uncomfortable matter of the ends justifying the means. Breen, who never admits any wrongdoing, proudly claims that he and his colleagues are the first and last line of defense against the killers and rapists that infect the city. If the police don’t protect citizens against criminal depredations, who will? It’s a statement that will resonate with members of the audience, even those who consider themselves of a liberal persuasion, when they confront the specter of lawlessness and violence that may be just down the street, with only the police standing in the way of mayhem.
by Lara Goetsch.
And it’s not that the police are pictured as cold-blooded bad guys. Breen is active in charity work. He’s a decorated veteran and a policeman flooded with citations of merit. If he is guilty, it’s not out of a love of power but a dedication to keeping the city streets safe from vicious criminals like Otha Jeffries.
The second half of the play turns into an engrossing courtroom-type drama as Otha’s lawyer and the young man’s parents struggle to secure Otha a hearing that could get him off death row. Who will testify truthfully and who will lie to save their reputations and to keep the faith with the policemen under fire? If telling the truth means releasing Otha Jeffries onto the Chicago streets to continue his life of violence, maybe the truth isn’t so attractive an option. The play sets up an ethical and moral dilemma for key characters that nobody in the audience would care to face.
The play does not end in neat resolution or closure. Real life does not resolve issues presented in “My Kind of Town” in a tidy and satisfying package. The spectators leave the theater awash in perplexity. It all should be cut and dried but instead “My Kind of Town” raises issues that leave the thoughtful spectator’s mind churning with unease.
The TimeLine ensemble is filled with pinpoint casting. As the eye of the storm, Charles Gardner delivers a chilling and persuasive performance as Otha Jeffries, a man so twisted by society and his own demons that he is a menace to his family and to society at large. It’s a scorching and uncompromising piece of acting that doesn’t let the viewers off easy in ordering their sympathies. Ora Jones is brilliant as Otha’s anguished mother, desperate to clear her son of the murder charge while recognizing that liberating him from prison could release a destructive force too far gone in anger and hostility for redemption.
David Parkes gives us multiple, and conflicting, sides of Dan Breen. The audience will have no trouble accepting Breen as a sinister force within the police department, intimidating and brutal. And yet he’s a good family man, an ornament to the community, and devoted to forming a barrier between the violence of the streets and law-abiding citizens. It’s hard to admire the character but it’s just as hard to reject his dedication.
The rest of the cast falls in line with the excellence of the principals—A. C. Smith as the black detective, Derek Garza as Otha’s lawyer, Danica Monroe as Breen’s wife, Carolyn Hoerdemann as her sister, Maggie Kettering as the state’s attorney, and Trinity Murdock as Otha’s father. The ensemble is beautifully orchestrated by director Nick Bowling, who lays out all the tangled emotions of the story with power and realism.
by Lara Goetsch.
The production is performed at a brisk pace that reinforces the intensity of the story. Brian Sidney Bembridge designed the effective multi-level set for the intimate theater space. Alex Wren Meadows designed the costumes, Nic Jones the lighting, Mike Tutaj the video, and Mikhail Fiksel the sound (and composed the original music).
For the record, dozens of men have been released from Illinois prisons because their confessions were extracted under torture and the city of Chicago has paid out tens of millions of dollars in compensation to victims of police brutality.
“My Kind of Town” runs through July 29 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com. June 2012
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At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Enron” tries to dramatize the Enron financial scandal that served as a poster child for everything greedy and immoral and corrupt in the American financial system. Lucy Prebble’s play originated in London, where it was a big hit. The show transferred to Broadway, where it died after a few performances.
Maybe the British enjoyed the on-stage portrait of corporate malfeasance that made America look so bad. Maybe the London production was better than the Broadway version. Based on the production at the TimeLine Theatre, I’ve got to side with the dismissive American audience reaction. In spite of a typically resourceful TimeLine staging, “Enron” is not a satisfying play.
Granted, the subject matter does not lend itself to dramatization—all that accounting chicanery and smoke-and-mirrors balance sheet manipulation gets pretty rarefied for an audience that probably has its hands full balancing the family checkbook every month. Prebble does a decent job of laying out the intricacies of the Enron rise and fall so the attentive spectator can grasp the main fiscal issues.
The play rightly concentrates on the chief real-life personalities in the scandal, notably Enron president Kenneth Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. A fourth person, and the only major female character, is Claudia Roe, evidently a blend of a couple of actual women high up in the Enron power pyramid. Kenneth Lay isn’t developed very well in the play and Claudia is a fifth wheel. She has a few scenes with bite, but if the woman was omitted entirely from the story the narrative would not have suffered.
The play really belongs to
Jeffrey Skilling as strongly performed by Bret Tuomi. Tuomi’s Skilling is an
overbearing bully in love with himself as a visionary. His vision for Enron
initially sends the company skyrocketing into the international corporate
firmament before it plummets back to earth when the Enron balance sheet is
finally exposed as a sham concealing billions of dollars in debt. Skilling was
sentenced to 24 years and 4 months in prison for his role in the Enron
calamity, but he always proclaimed his innocent and is appealing his conviction
to this day.
Photo credit: Lara Goetsch
The Jeffrey Skilling in Prebble’s play is more of a tragic figure than villain, a man carried away by his belief in his own brilliance until Enron spun out of control and suddenly thousands of people were unemployed while corporation executives were selling millions of dollars worth of Enron stock before the crash. The “Enron” Skilling may be distasteful and take the Darwinian dogma of the survival of the fittest to the extreme, but he isn’t really presented as a criminal. His corporate reach basically exceeded his grasp. For me, “Enron” applied a coat of whitewash to Skilling’s Enron career and I found that troublesome.
Andrew Fastow is the most complex character in the play, a young accounting genius who manufactures the complex financial gimmicks that precipitate the company’s fall. As superbly played by Sean Fortunato, Fastow is an eager and ambitious man who finds a mentor in Skilling. If Skilling is the major malefactor in the Enron disaster, Fastow is the major facilitator.
The play does suggest the combination of naiveté and complicity among the U.S. government, the financial press, the Arthur Anderson accounting firm, and the Lehman Brothers brokerage house that enabled Enron to rise so high with such shaky financial underpinnings. The play injects vaudeville-like bits to dramatize Enron’s ascent and decline, like a ventriloquist, three performers wearing the heads of dinosaurs and blind mice heads, a song and dance act, and two Lehman Brothers occupying the same suit. Possibly the playwright felt her script needing a little lightening up, lest the weight of the financial discussions grow too ponderous, but I found these interludes distracting and trivializing.
Rachel Rockwell steps aside from her status as the hottest musical theater director in the area to direct this play. Her staging moves briskly and the arcane subject matter comes across lucidly and frequently with high tension and some comedy. But there is a slackness in the script her directing cannot overcome. The play starts slowly and spectators unfamiliar with the Enron story may spend the first 20 minutes wondering where the play was going. The storyline is hurt by the weakly drawn character of Kenneth Lay and the failure to integrate Claudia into the crux of the plot.
Caryl Churchill, another contemporary British dramatist, wrote a play called “Serious Money” that displayed the greed, materialism, and cynicism of the financial world in the United Kingdom with more edge and insight than nearly anything in “Enron.” Prebble’s play could use the explorations of the no-holds-barred motivations that illuminated the Churchill play. Skilling and his colleagues were terrible people who caused flagrant damage to this country through their relentless determination to make money and more money by any nefarious means. “Enron” needs to cut deeper and be angrier. I found the superb presentation of the Enron saga in the TimeLine lobby more engrossing, edifying, and disturbing than most of what occurred on the stage.
To fill out the record, Amy Matheny plays Claudia Roe with the ferocity required for a woman executive to survive in the macho Enron boardrooms. Kevin Depinet and Nick Sieben designed the scenery, Elizabeth Flauto the costumes, Jesse Klug and Greg Hofmann the lighting, and Kevin O’Connor the sound. Mike Tutaj designed the film and video projections that flashed above the stage throughout the evening.
Photo credit: Lara Goetsch
“Enron” runs through April 15 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 ext. 6 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. February 2012
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The Pitmen Painters
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“The Pitmen Painters” tells the improbable real-life story of a group of four coal miners (and a “dental mechanic”) in the north of England who, against all odds, became noted painters.
Their story is told by British playwright Lee Hall, who demonstrated his facility with the artistic aspirations of the English working class in his motion picture, then musical, “Billy Elliot.” The TimeLine Theatre is presenting the play in one of those pinpoint productions that have made this company’s work an essential playgoing experience for discerning local audiences.
The story begins in 1934 when a group of blue collar Englishmen gathers to attend an art appreciation course sponsored by the Workers’ Education Association. Their instructor is a middle-class academic named Robert Lyon who recognizes immediately that he won’t reach this group of uneducated men through standard slide projections of painting masterpieces. His unlettered students never heard of the Renaissance and didn’t recognize the name of Leonardo da Vinci. He mentions the name of the artist Titian and one of the miners says “God bless you.” So Lyon decides that the way to engage his pupils is to put them to work creating their own art, not analyzing the art of others. Thus was born the Ashington Group, named for the town in Northumberland where the men lived.
If the story wasn’t based on fact, audiences might have trouble accepting the play’s premise. Almost immediately, the students start talking about art in an articulate and passionate way that would reflect credit on a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. Their first paintings produced at Lyon’s urging are remarkably accomplished for men who never held a paintbrush in their hands before. About a third of the way into the first act we are in the presence of characters who can talk the talk and walk the walk as far as art is concerned. It’s like they were all suppressed painters just waiting for a man like Lyon to press the right buttons. And this from men who spent their lives since the age of 10 or 11 in the backbreaking work of mining coal.
The painters are likable two-dimensional character, except for a young man named Oliver Kilbourn. His mates are entertaining enough, but Kilbourn, probably the most talented of the group, separates himself with his intense involvement with art and the one man whose life is changed through the act of painting. Kilbourn struggles between two worlds--his working class roots and the world of art, and he cannot reconcile them. The monologue in which he expresses the emotional and psychological impact of art on his life is a highlight in a play filled with eloquent statements about painting.
The play has all the trappings of an adult education course for the audience, leavened with humor and some sentimentality. The dramatist addresses numerous cogent questions about art. Does it belong to the educated elite or can it also be the property of the working class? Does the artistic experience belong to the artist or to the viewer? What is the difference between the worth of a painting and its value? What cases can be made for representational versus abstract art? Should a painting have a meaning, especially a political meaning? The play does frequently take on the flavor of a college Art 101 course, but the questions raised are all worth considering and the literacy of the often heated discussions makes “The Pitmen Painters” a very stimulating evening, even for viewers who don’t consider themselves art aficionados.
Dan Waller is the first among equals in the ensemble as Oliver Kilbourn because the character is the most fully rounded person in the play. The audience follows Kilbourn’s turbulent emotional journey from miner to artist with fascination and sympathy. The others in the Ashington Group aren’t nearly as complex and provide most of the play’s abundant comedy. They are played by William Dick, Jordan Brown, James Houton, and Steven Pringle with a genial realism that never slides into patronizing. And bless all of them for speaking in North Country accents that are intelligible without ever losing their authenticity (thank you, dialects coach Tanera Marshall).
Andrew Carter is first rate as Robert Lyon, a man who mentors the artists in the group but still uses them to advance his own career. There are two women in the story. Loretta Rezos is outstanding as a wealthy art patron who take as a genuine interest in the Ashington Group, almost but not quite bridging the cultural gap between her upper class background and the blue-collar artists. And there are two brief but incisive appearances by Amanda Schaar as a live model who flusters the miners.
Director B.J. Jones does a splendid job of orchestrating the essentially talky play so it doesn’t lapse into preachiness or milk the uncultured miners for condescending laughs. The physical production profits from Timothy Mann’s minimalist set design within the intimate TimeLine playing area, as well as the spot-on period costumes by Jacqueline Firkins, Charles Cooper’s lighting, and Joshua Horvath’s sound. Mike Tutaj provides the informative projections.
The show ends ironically in 1948 with the miners anticipating a glorious national future when the arts will flourish for the working class and not just as the playground of the upper classes. But within a few decades Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed the coalmines, obliterating the miners’ livelihood and culture. That historical progression will resonate much more with British audiences but TimeLine audiences can still bask in the pleasures of a wonderfully acted play that accessibly deals with challenging matters in an adult, in the best sense of that much abused word, manner.
“The Pitmen Painters” runs through December 4 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $42. Call 773 281 8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars.
Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo. com Sept.2011
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The Front Page
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The TimeLine Theatre is opening its next season in August at the Theater Wit on Belmont Avenue instead of its home base on Wellington Avenue. Could it be that the TimeLine expects its revival of “The Front Page” to be so popular that it wants its space on Wellington available through the summer?
If that’s the strategy, it’s well founded. The TimeLine “The Front Page” has long run written all over it, introducing or reintroduce playgoers to perhaps the finest comedy in American theater. But the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur classic is more than a barrel of laughs. It’s a portrait of an age in Chicago, the freebooting newspaper era of the 1920’s and the political corruption the press fed on. It’s a nostalgia piece with relevance to the present day. For all its comedy, the play has a callous edge beneath the endless wisecracks. If it’s the funniest play in American theater before Neil Simon, it’s also perhaps the most cynical.
“The Front Page” takes audiences back to a decade when Chicago actually had eight daily newspapers. The reporters in the pressroom at City Hall are a band of brothers bonded by their lust for a good story, and they are also fierce competitors, always ready for a bare knuckle battle to scoop the opposition. Sensationalism was the preferred method and the reporters commonly bent the truth when they didn’t break it. But that’s the way the game was played.
The reporters were overworked, underpaid, and skeptical of the world around them. They complained constantly but the newspaper life was in their blood and the scent of a hot story fueled their testosterone-drenched professional existence.
“The Front Page” plot revolves around the anticipated execution of anarchist Earl Williams for killing a policeman. Because the policeman was black, and because a local election looms, the execution is being promoted by the city politicians to secure the black vote and scare the white population with the specter of radicals plotting to undermine the government. Sound familiar?
“The Front Page” is a superior ensemble piece led by Hildy Johnson, ace reporter for the Chicago Examiner, and his hard boiled editor, Walter Burns. The duo are the first among equals in the take-no-prisoners fight for the story of Earl Williams’s escape from jail within hours of his highly anticipated execution, thanks to the incompetence of the sheriff.
The first act introduces the members of the press to the audience and got the TimeLine staging off to a slightly sluggish start. The actors seemed a little awkward as they bantered and insulted their way through another day at the office. But in the final two acts (the production just has one intermission) they all hit their stride. Walter Burns doesn’t appear until the second act and he instantly becomes the catalyst who sends the action careening into the realm of blissfully manic farce.
The Earl Williams escape is the play’s engine, but there is a subplot involving Hildy resigning from the Examiner to marry a sweet young thing named Peggy and move from Chicago to New York City and a safe advertising job. Burns does not look kindly on losing his start reporter, leading to the immortal last line in the play. In the play’s funniest scenes, Hildy tries to nail the Earl Williams story while desperately trying to convince the disapproving Peggy he is serious about marriage and leaving the journalistic jungle of the pressroom.
“The Front Page” doesn’t sugarcoat the hard attitudes of the period. The reporters are comfortable with their racist and ethnic humor and they are cruel in their abuse of a harmless prostitute who invades the pressroom in support of Earl Williams. These are men desensitized by the moral squalor they immerse themselves in every day. They have no illusions, and sympathy is the first man down in their occupation.
For the Chicago press, politicians are the enemy. “The Front Page” captures the smarmy, self serving Chicago political scene of the day with priceless caricatures of the mayor and the sheriff, bumblers who live only to be elected and dip copiously into the civic till.
The pressroom in the TimeLine production is a perfect microcosm of the journalistic society of the 1920’s. The reporters are crowded together in the shabby room, bouncing off each other verbally like protons. The nature of the comedy requires this kind of intimacy. The audience surrounds the action on four sides and the first row of spectators is within inches of the junk laden desks the reporters call home.
P. J. Powers (Hildy) and Terry Hamilton (Burns) make a terrific team. Like the play, Powers builds slowly in his role but once the action hits the fan with Earl Williams’s escape Powers is a marvel of frenzied physical and verbal motion. Hamilton, who never disappoints as an actor, hits the stage running with his first appearance, manipulating and lying his way to the biggest story of the year, or maybe the decade, or maybe the millennium. Burns does not shirk from superlatives.
Bill McGough as the sheriff and Rob Riley as the mayor deliver gorgeous portraits of sleazy wheeler-dealers desperate to survive politically, truth and justice be damned. Among the reporters, I particularly liked Mark Richard as the fussbudget Roy V. Bensinger from the Tribune and Michael Kingston as McCue from the City Press. Virtually all the characters in the play are based on real life people, an indication that Chicago must have been quite a place to live during the Roaring Twenties.
“The Front Page” is very much a macho play, but there are a handful of important supporting female roles, all played to perfection at the TimeLine. Angela Bullard is a hoot as Hildy’s prospective mother-in-law, a flustered woman caught in the maelstrom of pressroom machinations. Bridgette Pechman Clarno makes a surprisingly fresh and human character out of the long suffering Peggy. And Mechelle Moe strikes an almost tragic note as Mollie Malloy, the hooker who stands by Earl Williams when the justice system is ready to railroad him to the gallows.
Director Nick Bowling does a splendid job of building the action to a sustained crescendo in the final two acts. Collette Pollard’s seedy pressroom is the perfect environment for the play’s high-velocity shenanigans. Lindsey Pate designed the spot-on 1920’s costumes. Heather Gilbert designed the lighting and Andrew Hansen the sound. Credit Julia Eberhardt with successfully amassing all the period props, from Benzinger’s rolltop desk to an antique stapler.
“The Front Page”
is scheduled to run through June 12. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.,
Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are
$28 and $38. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. April 2011
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To Master the Art
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – I didn’t attend the 2009 Julia Child motion picture “Julie & Julia” and I never saw any of Child’s television shows or used one of her cookbooks. So I entered the TimeLine Theatre with no preconceptions about Child, but wondering how the biographical “To Master the Art” could hold the stage. After all, how much drama, or comedy, could there be in the life of a woman who gained celebrityhood as an expert on French cooking?
The answer, on the evidence of this show, is Not a whole lot. The play portrays Child as an interesting but not compelling woman. Much more dramatic his Julia’s husband Paul. It’s Paul Child’s confrontations with the McCarthyism of the U.S. government that provide the play’s most dramatic moments.
The story covers a period from 1948 to 1961, starting with Paul Child’s assignment to the American Embassy in Paris and Julia’s introduction to the French. The play ends with the successful publication of Julia’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and a hint of the television exposure two years later that would eventually make her a household name.
We first meet Julia as an innocent in Paris, unable to speak the language and very much feeling the American outsider. To give some meaning to her rudderless life, Julia signs up for a French cooking class and comes under the tutelage of a master chef named Max Bugnard. With Bugnard as mentor, Julia blossoms into a cook who eventually wins Cordon Bleu accreditation. Against all the odds, Julia and a French colleague publish her book on French cooking, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Paul Child is charged with selling American culture to the French through exhibitions sponsored by the U.S. government. But he runs into the anti-Communist intolerance of the State Department. In the play’s strongest scene, Child faces down a pair of State Department functionaries who want to taint him as a Communist fellow traveler and even question if he is a homosexual because he is an artist and drinks wine.
Overall, “To Master the Art” is a valentine to French culture in general and French cuisine in particular. Julia’s cookbook tries to convert Americans from the trash eating of TV dinners and fast foot to the glories of French cooking. Julia is like a missionary among the barbarians, celebrating the joys of good food and good wine. The French characters are mostly decent and wise, while many of Americans are clueless if not downright ugly.
Janes Wodtisch is convincing as Julia, capturing the woman’s search for some
purpose in her life that leads to her conversion to the splendors of French
cooking. Her Julia is a fighter as she grapples with the intricacies of French
cuisine and then pitching her book to a scoffing publisher who considers it
un-saleable. The audience can rejoice with Child in the ultimate success of “To
Master the Art of French Cooking.” Still, that’s a pretty slender reed to on
which build an entire play.
Thank heaven for Craig Spidle’s bravura performance as Paul Child. The character is performing on a much larger stage with much larger stakes—the Cold War between Russia and America and the scare tactics of the McCarthyites. Spidle beautifully conveys Paul’s love for Julia, his doubts about her fixation on French cooking, and above all his refusal to cower before the intimidation of the red baiters in the U.S. government.
Eight supporting actors take on about 20 roles, French and American. Terry Hamilton, as always, is superb, this time as Max Bugnard and Julia’s right wing father disappointed by his daughter’s liberal leaning and hostile to her choice of who he sees as a leftist husband. Ann Wakefield has some good scenes late in the play as Avis DeVoto, the woman largely responsible for getting the cookbook published. Amy Dunlap is very fine as Jane Foster, an American ensnared by the McCarthy communist witch hunt. Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross, and Ethan Saks are all good as three American GIs who join Julia in her first cooking class. Juliet Hart and Jeannie Affelder round out the ensemble in multiple roles.
William Brown (who also directs) and Doug Frew wrote, and rewrote, “To Master the Art” over a four year period and it’s the first play Timeline has commissioned and given a full production. The project obviously has been a labor of love for everyone involved. That includes scenic designer Keith Pitts, costume designer Rachel Anne Healy, lighting designer Charles Cooper, and music and sound supervisor Andrew Hansen.
Julia Child died in 2004 just a couple of days short of her 92nd birth. She was a cultural icon during the final decades of her life and this play is an honorable exploration of 13 crucial years in her life. Fans of the lady likely will get more satisfaction from the play than I did. On the other hand, during the early part of the evening, a cooking fragrance wafted through the theater that had me salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
“To Master the Art” runs through December 19 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $28 and $38. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. November 2010
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The TimeLine Theatre has an unfailing facility for selecting stimulating plays and then nailing them with exceptional productions. The TimeLine adds another gold star to its resume with its engrossing staging of Peter Morgan’s drama “Frost/Nixon,” an exploration of Richard Nixon that may win the approval of Nixon’s advocates and antagonize opponents who consider the man a political monster.
Morgan is a British screenwriter who re-creates a famous series of televised debates that English media personality David Frost conducted with Nixon in 1977. It’s a fascinating story, reinforcing Nixon as probably the most riveting figure in American political life since Franklin Roosevelt. It’s been a generation since Nixon resigned the presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, but there are still people convinced the ex president got a raw deal from liberal opponents. Others remain convinced he is one of the great villains in American history.
“Frost/Nixon” is a kind of companion piece to a two-character play called “Nixon’s Nixon,” which presents Nixon in a considerably less positive light. But it isn’t nearly as good a play.
“Frost/Nixon” is a study in contrasting personalities. Frost was a golden boy on the international media scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He may have been an intellectual lightweight, but he was charismatic, articulate, and most important, as one character observes, “He understood television.” Nixon is crafty, secretive, paranoid, and obsessed by a conviction that he is misunderstood and unjustly vilified.
At the beginning of the play, Frost is down on his professional luck. He’s lost his American television show and he regards his declining professional status with despair. He yearns for the fame and privileges that come with popularity and success. Frost’s TV interviews with Nixon are a desperate attempt to recover his A list status in the media world.
After tortuous, and much criticized, negotiations, Frost signs up Nixon for the interviews for a hefty fee, arousing sneers from mainstream media types for his “checkbook journalism.” Frost also has to agree to limitations in the interview format.
Nixon has his own agenda. Not only does he relish the large fee, he sees the interviews as his ticket to public exoneration and even a pathway back to the circles of power he so urgently misses. So ”Frost/Nixon” resolves itself into two ego trips on a collision course.
The play runs about 1 hour and 50 minutes without an intermission. The first half is dominated by suspense as the interviews are precariously nursed into reality. Once the contracts are signed, conflicts arise among Frost’s staff about strategy to go after the ex president. Nixon turns out to be a wily adversary, using the interviews as a self serving forum to elevate the man into an elder statement of some charm and dignity. Frost is facing disaster. If he can’t lure Nixon into damaging admissions, the interviews will be a fiasco.
In the final interview, about Watergate, Frost finally triumphs. Nixon admits to wrongdoing in office and apologizes to the American people. The play suggests that Nixon wanted to purge himself of the burden of his concealed crimes and his confession was more a consequence of his weariness than any probing by Frost. More ammunition for a sympathetic view of the man. The interviews prove wildly successful with the public and the media. Frost again takes his place on the ‘A’ list of world media types, and Nixon returns to San Clemente.
Whether the play
gives Nixon a partial pass on his transgressions is beside the point. Morgan
wasn’t writing a documentary, he was writing a play about people in conflict
and about the power of the media, especially television, to shape public debate
through one dimensional images.
If the play isn’t a faithful record of history (there is a revealing late night phone call from Nixon to Frost that never happened), so be it. Peter Morgan is interested in writing an engrossing play based on historical events, not a history book. Even the most vigorous Nixon despisers will concede the play is a grabber, and who can say the playwright played fast and loose with the truth? The play has the ring of credibility, whether or not you agree with the playwright’s interpretation.
What the play does demonstrate is the enormous power of television to shape public opinion, at least in the days before blogging, texting, Facebook, and Twitter. As Nixon himself notes “But television and the closeup—they create their own sets of meanings. The medium indeed is the message.
There may be a dispute about Morgan’s treatment of Nixon, but nobody can challenge Terry Hamilton’s superlative performance as Richard Nixon. Hamilton vague resembles Nixon facially, but the actor concentrates on the man’s speech patterns and body language. For spectators old enough to remember the actual Nixon, Hamilton’s portrayal is almost eerie in its fidelity to the man’s voice and gestures. But Hamilton really soars in capturing the man’s temperament—breezy, calculating, pugnacious, superficially self deprecating, and self righteous.
As David Frost, Andrew Carter is spot-on as the blond, youthful, self confident TV personality who seems overmatched by Nixon’s canny manipulation of the TV tapings, until the final admissions.
The supporting cast is superb. Matthew Brumlow serves as the play’s narrator as journalist Jim Reston, a liberal and a Nixon hater who wants to see Frost destroy the ex president. Don Bender plays one of Frost’s key advisors and Dennis Grimes is Frost’s British TV producer. David Parkes is Nixon’s military aide. His devotion to his boss and cynicism about his enemies adds another layer of sympathy to the ex president’s side of the equation.
Beth Lacke plays Caroline Cushing, a woman Frost picks up during an airplane trip who becomes his romantic companion. Ian Maxwell has a deft comic cameo as famed literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazer. Jessica Thigpen and Michael Kingston round out the outstanding ensemble.
Louis Contey directs, flawlessly orchestrating an essentially all-talk no-action drama into an insightful vehicle that never flags in interest. Keith Pitts designed the set dominated by the two padded chairs used in the interviews. Alex Wren Meadows designed the costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Andrew Hansen the sound. Mike Tutaj’s video and projections contribute valuable visual resonance to the production.
“Frost/Nixon” runs through October 10 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $28 and $38. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. August 2010
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The Farnsworth Invention
At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago–Who deserves credit for television as we know it? Was it the smalltown Utah inventor genius Philo Farnsworth or the Russian immigrant Jew turned business tycoon David Sarnoff? That’s the historical question Aaron Sorkin investigates in “The Farnsworth Invention,” receiving its local premiere in a typically fast-paced and resourceful epic production by the TimeLine Theatre.
The title of the play indicates the credit belongs to Farnsworth. But, Sorkin speculates, not so fast. The historical record is not clear and to compound the uncertainty, the playwright admits with no apologies that his play at times plays fast and loose with the facts. Indeed, “The Farnsworth Invention” isn’t so much about who invented TV as how the two principals tried to shape history in their favor and how posterity judges the main agents in the drama.
The play has been called a docudrama and criticized for being more of a classroom exercise than a workable drama. Not at the TimeLine, where “The Farnsworth Invention” moves with the speed of an engrossing suspense story, a fascinating study of two outsized characters on a collision course.
The play is also about storytelling in the theater. Sarnoff and Farnsworth take turns as narrators, like the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” The narrative shifts back and forth between the two principals, always driving forward toward the moment when the scientific breakthrough arrives that turns television from an impractical laboratory exercise into an invention with enormous potential to impact society.
In the play, Sarnoff and his RCA mega corporation are the winners while Farnsworth disappeared into alcoholic obscurity. Both men are allowed to present their case but the play ultimately tips toward the more articulate and complex Sarnoff. He may not be more right than Farnsworth, but he’s more persuasive.
Sarnoff’s side possibly won because of scientific spying, though Sarnoff insists he never strayed beyond the letter of the law. Sarnoff may have sailed close to the wind morally, but the man was also an idealist, and a naïve idealistic in hindsight. He started his executive career in radio and was incensed when an early radio station dared to sell commercial advertising. Sarnoff insisted that radio, and later television, should be pure mediums that would benefit all humanity by transmitting entertainment and information without the taint of paid advertising.
Sarnoff was the first in his circle to recognize the immense potential of television once the technical bugs were worked out. One of his colleagues claimed ”The thing’s a monstrosity, David. It’s huge and unsightly. Think of a person’s home, where the hell are they going to put it?” To which Sarnoff responds prophetically, “Where they used to put their radio.”
As a production, ‘The Farnsworth Invention” is not for a faint-hearted theater. The 2007 Broadway production employed 19 actors. The TimeLine staging uses 16--the performers playing Farnsworth and Sarnoff and 14 others who impersonate dozens of named and unnamed characters. That’s a lot of people to accommodate on the compact TimeLine stage. Plus, the play consists of numerous short scenes that require scenery changes on the fly. The TimeLine solves the logistical problem by having characters rapidly roll sets and props on and off stage, even the complex apparatus of Farnsworth’s laboratory. A balcony at one end of the playing area provides the action with vertical as well as horizontal space.
By the end of the evening, the audience doesn’t know who or what to believe. Farnsworth and Sarnoff both come across as flawed but brilliant, Farnsworth as a scientist and Sarnoff as a marketer. There is enough credit to around for both of them, not that the true creator of TV is such a burning question these days. But Sorkin has endowed the story with some witty lines, crackling confrontations, and a stage full of absorbing characters (though occasionally played for easy laughs). This is a literate, sometimes tense, often humorous show that deserved better than its brief run in New York City.
The TimeLine production features P.J. Powers as a commanding and entertaining David Sarnoff. As written, the character upstages the more callow Philo Farnsworth but Rob Fagin gives the scientist a good shot with his boyish and edgy charm and his obsession with creating what no man had created before, live pictures that could be transmitted through space. The supporting cast is populated by strong male performances from Larry Baldacci, Kurt Brocker, Sean Patrick Fawcett, Jeremy Glickstein, Tom McElroy, Bill McGough, and Jamie Vann among others. The women play lesser roles, though there is a strong performance by Bridgette Pechman as Farnsworth’s loyal and plucky wife, Pem.
Director Nick Bowling has done a masterful job of orchestrating the complex physical production. With all those scenes and all those characters, the narrative thread could have been lost in confusion, but Bowling keeps the storyline clear and vibrant throughout. John Culbert designed the set, Lindsey Pate the period costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, Kevin O’Donnell the sound, and Mike Tutaj the projections. Special praise goes to Emily Guthrie for designing a mass of properties that are huge aids in telling the scientific side of the birth of TV.
“The Farnsworth Invention” runs through June 13 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $35. Call 773 281 8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars.Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org