Category Archives: Theatre

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire served up the most moving time I’ve spent in a theatre in a long while.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a play-within-a-play. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, is arrested and put in a holding cell to await the Inquisition. He waits with his assistant, among those who also wait: if they’re lucky, just to be tried for theft or murder; if unlucky, to be called before the Inquisition. The other prisoners rob Cervantes of his belongings, including a manuscript. To ransom the manuscript, he enlists his fellow prisoners’ aid to present a story which he hopes will convince them to let him keep his manuscript.

In other productions I’ve seen (or performed in), both the outer and the inner play are set in 16th-17th century Spain. For this production, director Nick Bowling (and designers  Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Jesse Klug, Nancy Missimi, Robert E. Gilmartin, and Sally Weiss) reimagined the setting of the outer play, presenting the characters as modern—people you could easily imagine populating a present-day holding cell. Since these people had no notion of when they might be allowed their day in court, if ever, the production evoked associations with any justice system that’s arbitrary and unfair. As we know from the news, there are too many people in the world being held unfairly even in our supposedly enlightened age.

You should go. To this production, if you can, though it’s only possible until August 14, 2016. If you can’t attend the Marriott production, your next best bet is probably to listen to a Broadway cast album of the show. Don’t bother with the movie.

The ensemble acting and vocals at the Marriott Lincolnshire were sublime. While I can’t mention everyone, I need to say that for both acting and singing, Nathaniel Stampley, Danni Smith, and Richard Ruiz brought the production to a peak of near-perfection. I think it was the combination of the immediacy (or maybe the timeless feel) of this production and the beautiful vocals that put it over the top for me. I wept like a tiny little girl. In my defense, I was not the only one. I heard sniffles from BK, Sis, Cookie, and Cookie Jr., as well.

There are people who knock the musical as reducing Cervantes’ work too much, or as having too simplistic a message. I can’t speak to the former since I haven’t yet read his novel. As to the latter, I say, “hooey.” Evil remains in the world, and it’s not illusory. We have our work cut out for us. If anything, even a Broadway musical, can give us the courage to face the task, I say revel in it.

And then sally forth.

Sense and Sensibility – the Musical!

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre photo by Liz Lauren

If you reacted to the above blog title the same way I did to the announcement of this production in the Chicago Shakespeare subscription notice for 2014-2015, a spit take might have been involved.

I’ve really enjoyed some Jane Austen re-imaginings. The movie Clueless is probably my favorite, if you don’t count straight-up dramatizations, like A&E’s Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson’s film version of Sense and Sensibility. Still, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a Jane Austen musical. Maybe the life I lead is too sheltered…much like that of an Austen heroine. However, my curiosity won out almost immediately. We chose a subscription package that included Sense and Sensibility, and we’re glad we did.

My first hesitation had to do with the addition of music to the story. How, I wondered, does music make much sense in this world, outside of the occasional spinet-playing required of accomplished young ladies and/or during ball scenes? Fortunately the musical integration felt seamless—no more evident in obviously musical scenes than it was in others. The music worked well stylistically—at least for me—in that it was used to fully reveal the characters’ emotions while all the time they outwardly appeared calm and unruffled. I know that’s how music often functions in musicals, but it worked particularly well in this genteel Regency setting, where appearing to be in control of every aspect of one’s life was the ultimate goal. These characters only truly revealed their feelings in song.

The singers were all pretty fabulous; to my mind Sean Allan Krill might just be one of the best singing actors I’ve ever heard. While his voice was glorious, it was the passion he brought to his songs that really knocked my socks off.

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre photo-Liz Lauren

I can’t imagine a better set. It was fluid and flexible, while still feeling opulent when necessary, and you definitely knew when you were in a different location. The costumes were good, with Marianne’s second act ensemble being particularly striking.

Overall the show wasn’t a perfect experience for me, but I tend to be picky and opinionated about theatre. A few script, directorial, and musical choices distracted from the overall effect. However, as a whole, I felt the play worked. I teared up at the right parts; I stood up to applaud at the end.

Here’s my takeaway: if you have even a passing interest in Jane Austen novels and/or romance, and generally enjoy musicals you will probably enjoy this show. It’s been extended by popular demand until June 14, 2015 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier.


Siobhan Redmond and Darrell D’Silva
Photo courtesy of the National Theatre of Scotland
and Royal Shakespeare Company

Imagine the war-torn Scotland that Malcolm and his English allies found themselves in, once the tyrant Macbeth was defeated.

If that isn’t intriguing enough, imagine that rumors of Lady Macbeth’s demise were mistaken. Imagine if her madness, too, was a rumor, probably put about to discredit her, and that Macbeth’s power had come to him because of his marriage to her—that she was the true heir to Scotland’s sovereignty. Then imagine that an Englishman who means well is in charge of restoring peace to a country where all this is true—a country he cannot begin to understand. You’ll have the setup for Dunsinane by David Greig. Artists from the National Theatre of Scotland and Royal Shakespeare Company are visiting Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier from February 26-March 22, 2015 to share this riveting production.

Have I mentioned that Sis gets me a subscription to Chicago Shakespeare every year? It’s a combination birthday and Christmas present. Sometimes we choose the three-play series, sometimes the four-play, and sometimes—though not often—we go for all five. This was one of those years, but oddly, we were iffy about Dunsinane. During our post-performance discussion, we remembered how we almost didn’t go. I channeled Julia Roberts (in Pretty Woman) to assert, “That would have been a big mistake. Huge.”

Dunsinane was about peace and war and politics, including sexual politics. There were a surprising number of laughs in it. In part, it was a cautionary tale about a nation that sees itself as a stronger, more culturally advanced power than its neighbors deciding to go in and meddle in the “lesser” culture’s government to keep themselves safe and bring enlightenment and better government. The nations in this story were England and Scotland, but they could just as well have been the United States and “pick-any-nation-we-believe-is-unstable-and-poses-a-threat-to-our-security.”

There was so much food for thought in this play, so many questions raised. Is peace a natural state, or even possible? What makes a person bad or good? In the end, will one of them do more (or less) harm than the other?

The writing was so excellent I haven’t even touched on the production, so here is what I haven’t said: while some roles were more demanding than others (Siobhan Redmond as Gruach, Darrell D’Silva as Siward) the ensemble’s acting was stellar, the direction and design (Roxana Silbert, Robert Innes Hopkins, Chahine Yavroyan) were so good as to seem inevitable, and the live music by Nick Powell grabbed me by the heart from the first drumbeats.

I feel lucky just to have seen it. You can still get tickets for some performances, though many are sold out as of this posting. Until March 22, 2015, check with Chicago Shakespeare.

Pericles at Chicago Shakespeare

Pericles suffered through a lot of shipwrecks

Usually when we see Shakespeare, we have some idea what to expect. Because of my past life as a theatre person, I rarely see an unfamiliar Shakespeare play in production. Either we’ve already seen a particular play (often multiple productions of it, in fact), or I’ve at least read it. However, Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of those plays you almost never see in production for several reasons. First, it’s not considered one of Shakespeare’s best. Also, most people believe Shakespeare was not the sole author. A skeezy guy named George Wilkins is often credited with the first 9 scenes and Shakespeare with the last 13 or 14. Whenever I studied Shakespeare, it was one of those plays everyone turned up their nose at, so I never even read it.

Because we didn’t know quite what we’d let ourselves in for, and because we were there early enough, we decided to take advantage of one of the great features of Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier, the preamble. About an hour before many of the matinee performances, you can hear a lecture about the play you’re about to see; Stephen Bennett from Roosevelt University was the lecturer we heard, and he was excellent.

A good preamble helps place the play in context within Shakespeare’s canon, and the presenting scholar will also talk about the director’s production choices. The director, David Bell, who has a resumé as long as your arm, has wanted to direct Pericles practically forever. Bennett sketched out  some of the liberties Bell took with the script. The main change was doing away with the John Gower character, who was a historic figure (poet and a buddy of Chaucer’s) but not someone most modern audience members would have a clue about. Gower’s speeches were split among various members of the ensemble. For my money, Bell’s adaptation worked beautifully.

Like other Shakespeare “problem plays”, notably my favorite, The Winter’s Tale, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me the way it does many theatregoers. It gave me the opportunity to wisecrack, Mystery Science Theater style. My favorite comments (delivered to Cookie, sotto voce) included: “Kidnapped by pirates is good.” and “She’s only mostly dead.”

Also, I think it would be an interesting experiment to take one of these less-loved Shakespeare plays and try to reimagine it in novel form, maybe explaining the plot holes. I’m mulling the idea over for an upcoming project.

Anyway, if you live in the Chicago area and  this post has piqued your interest, Pericles is still at Navy Pier until January 18, 2015.

Million Dollar Quartet

Apollo Theater in Chicago

This is my last Bro-related post for a while. Bro and Bride went back to Houston a few weeks ago, but we did take one more fun excursion—not previously shared in this space—while they were in town.

Bride said that at some point during their visit, she’d love to see some theatre. A lot of times when people say that, they mean they want to see one of the big touring shows. This can be an occasion for eye-rolling from a host who lives in the area and knows that Chicago’s local theatre is awesome. However, Bride knows there are plenty of worthy shows all over Chicago, and she was happy to see something homegrown.

Left to my own devices, I might opt for an original play, something on the experimental side, like In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story at Lookingglass Theatre, but we needed to pick something everyone would like. We hoped to get into the Second City revue, but you can’t exactly do that at the last minute.

Luckily, we ended up finding tickets to Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo Theatre. The Apollo is a fun little theatre. They’ve previously produced other shows along the same lines as Million Dollar Quartet, by which I mean musicals based on actual performers/events, which feature their big hits as kind of a backbone to the proceedings. Sis and I saw Always Patsy Cline there some years back. On that occasion, and before we even got into the performance space, we discovered that they served Schlitz beer, a brand we hadn’t seen in years. The reason they were serving it became clear very shortly into the performance, when we saw the actress playing Patsy knocking them back.

Yep. At the Apollo, they encourage you to bring your drinks into the theatre. Once Bro discovered this, he was totally on board with the entire concept. Other than a pretty relaxed theatrical experience, though, we weren’t sure exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. The good news is, it was a lot of fun: a tight show that clocked in around 90 minutes, with no intermission. So you’d be all right attending in the middle of the week, even if you live in the suburbs, because you still won’t be up too late.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, Million Dollar Quartet is based on an actual event—the night of December 4, 1956. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley were all at Sun Records together, and magic happened. It’s a great excuse to hear some fun music, like Who Do You Love, Sixteen Tons, Hound Dog, Whole Lotta Shaking…I could go on and on. The actor/musicians blew me away, especially Lance Lipinsky as Jerry Lee Lewis and Shaun Whitley as Carl Perkins. But really, the show was about a pivotal night in the life of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. He was an artist in his own right, or at least a muse, and people just don’t remember him in the same way that they remember the names of the guys in the quartet. Anyone who’s ever tried to express something new artistically could relate to Sam Phillips’ struggles. That’s what spoke to me most about Million Dollar Quartet. It had something for everyone, or at least something for everyone in our group: fun, drinks, music and a thought-provoking, character-driven story line.


Making Merry on April 23rd

Shakespeare insult mug – a study aid

Prithee, gentle readers, knowest ye the day that slips, like knave of hearts, into mine bosom on the 23rd of April? Why, ’tis naught but the day to maketh merry in the verbal vein of our dear bard, William!

In other words, April 23rd is “Talk Like Shakespeare Day.” I’m alternately thrilled and terrified when it rolls around. There’s no question it takes energy and commitment, but if you can pull it off, it’s highly entertaining. Here’s what usually happens: I’ll talk like Shakespeare when I first greet someone but then revert to my usual manner of speaking. If I’m met with a blank stare, my Shakespearean talk will peter out fast, but when my conversational partner is into it, we might trade Elizabethan banter for 15 minutes or so.

This year the festal day is especially fun because my writing peeps in The Journey are just getting back into Shakespeare Reader’s Theatre.

Here’s how that started: last summer, inspired by Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing, Tim (aka NewMexicoKid) decided we needed to get together and read Shakespeare. We met a few times and read from The Winter’s Tale and the Henry trilogy (that would be Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V) and it was almost as much fun as riding bicycles. I got to play Falstaff! Never in my life could I have predicted that. I said at the time that all the Journey would have to do would be to start up on American musicals. Let me play Professor Harold Hill and my thespian dreams will be fulfilled.

Anyway, it’s once more into the breach, dear friends. Shakespeare Readers Theatre revives this Saturday. I can’t be at the first session, but we have another one coming up early in May, and I’ll be there with bells on. Or jester’s motley. Point is, I’ll be there. I start practicing for it on April 23. Here is a helpful site, if you want to play along.

Gorey at LUMA

B is for Basil, assaulted by bears*

Mary Anne Mohanraj recently spilled the beans on Facebook about the Edward Gorey exhibits at Loyola University Museum of Art (aka LUMA). My BFF Cookie went to Loyola for both her undergrad and med school, so she was all over the idea of visiting her old stomping grounds. Her daughter (and my goddaughter) Cookie Junior was on spring break, so we all went together.

If you watched the PBS show Mystery during the 90s, you already know Gorey’s style from the animated opening credits. Or you may have seen his elegant, unsettling work–somewhat Victorian or Edwardian, with a touch of the Gothic–in The Gashlycrumb Tinies or The Doubtful Guest. In addition to illustrating his own work, he worked for a time at Doubleday Anchor, providing book art for such famous works as Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot.

He resisted classification in many ways. He wrote, he illustrated, he did theatrical design. In fact, he won the 1977 Tony Award for Costume Design (and was nominated for set design) for Dracula.

Since he preferred not to be classified, there’s no way I’ll attempt it here. Edward Gorey must be seen (in person, the web doesn’t do him justice) to be appreciated, and I feel that I just scratched the surface during my recent visit. Well, Bro is visiting in late April. Maybe I can sucker—uh, talk—him into a trip to LUMA. In any case, I need to get back there before the exhibit closes on June 15, 2014. Next time, I’m bringing a notepad and pencil so I can take numerous notes.

*Image: Edward Gorey, B is for Basil assaulted by bears from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, pen and ink, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963, Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved

Woo-Hoo! Free Story!

An anthology of dreams

Getting ready for Capricon, and I have miles to go before I sleep. So, huzzah! Today is free fiction day on CB’s Mojo. I’m sharing a story that previously appeared in an anthology produced by The Journey.

The anthology, Drops of Midnight, was edited by Steven White. About a dozen of us (including such luminaries as Tim Yao and Katherine Lato) contributed. Here’s the teaser from the back cover:

In the dark alleys and gaslit pubs of lower London you can buy almost anything—including dreams.

Here you can purchase small glass bottles offering tales stolen from the subconscious. Taste the longing and regret of a woman escaping her father’s fate and trying to live up to his memory. Experience the dreams of a child trapped in a coma, needing to fly. Feel the pain and nobility of a dreamer living through the Holocaust, or a general on the eve of battle. Some dreams are surreal encounters, like meeting a faded celebrity; others are dark nightmares, like a demon torturing a man for his past. One woman daydreams of a lost loved one; another man makes a bargain that may cost him his dreams.

Sample a bottle of stolen dreams—twelve stories spanning time and place from writers exploring daydreams and nightmares.

Be careful which one you open…

This is how my story begins:

Belarus Lost
In honor of the Belarus Free Theatre

This isn’t my room.

Every morning it takes me awhile to remember that I’m not home. Only it isn’t morning yet. The only light in the room comes from a tiny amber LED on my cell phone as it charges.

My roommate and fellow actor, Elizaveta, snores softly in the next bed, undisturbed by whatever roused me. Of course, I wasn’t fully asleep. I haven’t slept well since we escaped.

We barely got out of Minsk with our skins intact. I’m still waiting for my body to release all the fear and tension of those last miserable days, when we didn’t know how many of us would get away, and how many would spend the next fifteen years—maybe more—in prison. Assuming we lived through the interrogations, that is.

Mercifully, all nine of us made it to New York. The play that we risked everything to perform was well received. Our American hosts praised our bravery and provided a house for us to stay in. They’ve also been trying to help us figure out what to do when the month-long theatre festival for which we were booked is over. One after another, they present solutions for us to consider. Aleksey and Natalya, our leaders, enthusiastically examine every idea they offer.

Our situation has begun to exhaust me. When I am away from the others, I wonder why I didn’t just seek work as an office clerk or a waitress. At least waitresses aren’t imprisoned for doing their jobs. But no, I had to have the magical electricity of the theatre, the thrill of passionate discussions late into the night, the certainty that our plays, which dramatize Lukashenko’s worst abuses, would save our country from his dictatorship. And finally, as it turned out, the necessity to flee if we wanted to reveal the truth about Lukashenko’s regime to a wider audience.

I don’t mean to make a sound, but something like a moan escapes my lips. Elizaveta stirs. If she finds me awake, she’ll ask what’s wrong and try to comfort me. I don’t think I can take that again. I’m tired of being the only one in our group who can’t seem to cope. I creep out of our room and close the door.

Now I don’t know what to do. I’m too jumpy to even consider sleeping. I thought a noise must have awakened me, but though I strain my ears, I hear nothing but the night traffic outside. I can’t just cower in the hallway. Of course no one is downstairs, but I won’t be able to relax until I’ve made sure.

I steal down the stairs in thick socks, wearing the old bathrobe that still smells of my mother’s potato babka. This house, lent to us by one of the rich New York theatre people, smells of a strong, scented cleaning product covering up mold, or old dust.

I look first into the dark kitchen. Nothing moves. I could turn on a light, but the street lamps outside, reflecting off a recent snowfall, provide enough light for me to be sure no one is in there.

Through a swinging door, I see no one in the deserted dining room. The living room, filled with mismatched, sagging furniture, lies across the central hall. I’m almost done making certain I’m the only one down here, but I won’t be able to let my breath out until I’ve checked the last room. I move back into the hall and approach the last door, which opens onto the library. And then I see.

The door is ajar. I push it open and go in. The room is so cold my breath comes in sharply. Immediately I see the reason, but the shock makes me unable to speak or scream. A window is fully open and a light-haired man helps a dark-haired, bearded companion over the sill and into the room.

To continue reading, click here.

If you’re interested in the rest of the anthology, here it is on Amazon.

Merry Wives of Windsor at Chicago Shakespeare

CST photo – theater interior

My sister Liz, who is the best sister in the world – or at least the best sister I’ve ever had – gets me a subscription to Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier as a combination birthday/Christmas gift every year. We usually see four plays, unless the season doesn’t excite us that much, in which case we choose the three-play subscription. This year, we were excited. Of the productions available, we chose Cyrano de Bergerac (with Harry Groener in the title role-loves me some Harry Groener!), Merry Wives of Windsor, Gypsy, and Henry V.

Some readers are probably scratching their heads right now, thinking not all the plays mentioned are Shakespeare. These readers are right to wonder. Usually Chicago Shakespeare tosses in plays by other authors. I think their reasoning goes like this: if we want to keep subscribers, we can’t only repeat Shakespeare ad infinitum. Even when you dress Shakespeare up in different periods, people only want to see Midsummer Nights Dream or Macbeth so many times before they’ve had enough and start subscribing to the Goodman or Steppenwolf instead.

So, yes. Cyrano de Bergerac is by Edmond Rostand. It kind of goes with Shakespeare on account of all the swashbuckling and the poetical language. Gypsy has a book by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It doesn’t exactly go with Shakespeare in any way, but it’s a great musical. Chicago Shakespeare has been exploring Sondheim’s work for several years now. We were late adopters on the musical front, but since starting to attend them, we’ve enjoyed these productions.

Husbands and Merry Wives – Official CST photo by Liz Lauren

Anyway: Merry Wives of Windsor. This version was set in post WWII Britain. We liked it. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect production. It was a laugh riot, though. Some of our favorite actors were featured, the music was often fun, and the dogs were a huge hit. I was looking forward to Merry Wives (and Henry V, which starts in April) because I’ve totally been into the Harry-related history plays lately. Of course, Merry Wives is a comedy rather than a history, but it does borrow Falstaff and some of his cronies, so there’s a tangential link. If you’re interested, this production runs through January 19, and you may still be able to snag some tickets.