Friday, August 16, 2019

Review of True West at Steppenwolf Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called True West. It was written by Sam Shepard and directed by Randall Arney. It was about two brothers who were staying at their mother's house while she was away. The brothers had taken two very different paths in life, The oldest, Lee (Namir Smallwood), had gone on a soul searching trip to the dessert, while Austin (Jon Michael Hill), the youngest, had made a family and started a career in screenwriting, but when Austin has a meeting with a producer named Saul (Francis Guinan) at the house, Lee sees this as a good time to prove that he can be as successful in Austin’s profession as his brother. This show is about family, masculinity, and damage. This show is overpowering and beautiful and twisted, right up my alley.

This show has a lot of humor that is very messed up. This adds a lot to the dynamic of the brothers. One of the most memorable moments for me was when Lee had taken up Austin’s profession, so Austin thought he would do what Lee had been doing, stealing. So Austin went to a large number of houses and stole an abundance of toasters. He then decided to make toast in each of the toasters on 0 hours of sleep and slowly started to act crazed and more crazed as he made this toast. I should also mention that his brother was screaming at him to not make toast this whole time. This is so brilliant because it puts together two very vital parts of a play, advancing the relationship and humor. It makes the audience feel more uncomfortable over time because when the lights first come up on a room filled with toasters it is immediately humorous, but as the scenario continues you realize how unhealthy these people are and you realize how many houses he had to break into and how crazy he must be to break into all these houses. Austin also is brushing off all of his brothers cruel comments which had almost broken him before. This bit of prop comedy comes with so much beautiful baggage that adds so many layers to the situation.

The dynamic between the brothers had some beautiful parallels with the coyotes that are referenced multiple times in the play. At first I was confused as to why the coyotes were so largely referenced and why it added to the story, but by the end it all rounded itself out with out being tied up in a neat bow. The final motif showed how the brothers were like the coyotes; they fought and howled for power for no reason other then the need for dominance. Another layer of the siblings' relationship is that they are very similar. The brothers are always saying that they are so different, but they both want the same thing; they want power over the other. But what they want they both cannot have at the same time. This is where the bulk of the conflict comes in; they both want the same thing and go about getting it by both going through this elaborate game of copycat and trying to prove to the other that they can be just as successful as they are.

Obviously, by the way the brothers act, they must have not have had a healthy childhood, and in this play we get a taste of why the brothers are the way they are. When Austin and Lee’s mother comes home, she comes back to a complete disaster. There are dead plants (and the only reason she asked Austin to housesit was to water the plants). Tons of toasters and paper are tossed about the room and their mother does not freak out. She walks around the room telling her kids that it was for the better that they failed at their ONE JOB and that now she doesn’t have responsibilities, which she says she likes. She does not assert herself in any situation; even when her sons might kill each other, she brushes it off and tells them to take it outside. I think that this shows where a lot of deep-seated trauma comes from. It seems like the mother thinks that her letting them do what they want is showing her trust of them and therefore her love, but I think that this showed neglect. And given that their father is unreliable and can't even care for himself, which we learn in a heartbreaking story Austin tells, Austin and Lee may have felt that she also did not care about them. When two siblings don’t feel love/equal love from their parents, they turn against each other in a fight for superiority in their parents' eyes.

People who would like this show are people who like intriguing backstories, partly hidden comparisons, and an abundance of toasters. I think this is an amazingly done piece of work and I loved it. I'm still thinking of it weeks later.


Photos: Michael Brosilow

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review of The Wizard of Oz at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Wizard of Oz. It was by L. Frank Baum, adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Music and lyrics were by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. It was directed by Brian Hill, with music direction by Kory Danielson and choreography by Kenny Ingram. It was about a young girl named Dorothy (Leryn Turlington) who lived in Kansas with her aunt and Uncle (Emily Rohm and Jared D. M. Grant) but wanted to do more with her life than just stay in the real town that she grew up in. Focused on the struggle of keeping her dog safe from her evil neighbor (Hollis Resnik) who wants to take him away, she missed her chance to get into the cellar, and is transported by tornado to Oz, a colorful world that needs her help. So with the help of some friends she meets on the way--the Scarecrow (Marya Grandy), the Tin Man (Joseph Anthony Byrd), and the Cowardly Lion (Jose Antonio Garcia)--she goes on a mission to defeat the evil witch who has been oppressing the citizens of Oz. In the end, she realizes that her home meant more to her than she may have once thought. It is about family, love, and bravery. This is a classic story that I think a lot of families will enjoy.

My favorite numbers were the ones with the highest dance intensity, which were "Jitterbug," which is a song cut from the original movie, and "Merry Old Land of Oz." I feel like the ensemble of this show was very strong. They brought energy to those songs and seemed fueled by each other. These were the moments you could see they were all totally committed and you could see them all having fun. I liked how the choreographer kept the feel of the original movie's choreography but also made it unique. I really loved the Emerald City Guard (Grant) and I thought his part was humorous, but not at all forced, which can be hard with a role that's been done so many times.

Even though there were some memorable production numbers, this production felt pared down to me. I feel like most productions of The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz have made me feel like I was being transported to this new, glorious, technicolor place. But the spectacle in this production didn't achieve the shift in tone I was expecting. The tornado effect in this show had the actors attach a dollhouse in Dorothy's room to a harness which then twirled around the stage. It felt very detached from the magic that is usually so present. The tornado is usually the bridge between ordinary Kansas and the limitlessness of Oz, and so in my opinion it has to be spectacular to watch. Here it was interesting; it just wasn't exciting. Also Glinda (Rohm) seemed to just walk in without much fanfare. It made her seem less powerful to not have much grandeur accompanying her entrance. She could have been just in Kansas in a fancy dress, especially since the dress is still from that time period. The dress was beautiful, but since the entrance is the cue that we are in a magical place, it seems very underwhelming if the first thing we see is grounded in reality and treads on the ground.

I thought the costumes were beautiful. I especially loved the tree costumes. They were so memorable and sleek. It added to the dynamic of them being the backup singers for the Tin Man because they were reminiscent of the elegant gowns worn by Motown girl groups like in Dreamgirls. I liked how the Lion's costume looked like a toy in someone's room. It looked homemade, like someone's grandma made it. I liked how the costumes for the Jitterbugs looked both like bugs and like the dance move embodied--very free and young.

People who would like this show are people who like family-friendly classics, strong ensembles, and homemade lions. I think this is good show for young children to introduce them to theater and this story because it is not very scary or intense. The little girl I took with me to see the show enjoyed it--especially the real live dog, Derby, who played Toto.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of Come From Away (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Come From Away. The book, music, and lyrics were by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and it was directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging was by Kelly Devine and music supervision was by Ian Eisendrath. It was about a town called Gander in Newfoundland, who hosted 7,000 people stranded during the air space shutdown after 9/11. It is about their kindness and acceptance of people in need even though they may be different. It shows many different stories of the Newfoundlanders and the passengers and plane crews and how they fit together. I thought this was a very beautiful, moving, and surprisingly funny show. It restored my faith in humanity by showing that, if people try, they can help each other and show that even in dark times our vulnerability can connect us rather than divide us.

I really loved how the movement and music blended so well together. I feel like it heightened the sense of community and cohabitation. They used a lot of body percussion which added to the music. The very last movement in the show was a stomp featuring the whole cast simultaneously, which also emphasized the sense of community. They incorporated the band into the show by having them be the band at the pub and also present on stage throughout the show. The dance is very modern because it showcases real movements that people might do, but making them more fluid and emphasized. Like on the plane and the bus, whenever they were sitting in rows, they would do a lot of ripples of relaxation or stressed movement. It is a lot more effective than having dance numbers because they are talking about real people's experiences and the staging makes the movement seem almost everyday, and in that way it honors the stories of regular people.

Even though this is such a short play, I feel like I knew a lot about all the characters by the end because everything was so beautifully arranged that you got a well-rounded taste of every person's story. Three of my favorite characters were Bob (James Earl Jones II), Beverly (Becky Gulsvig), and Ali (Nick Duckart). They were all characters who had had experiences with discrimination. They were very interesting stories especially because each person was in a different place in their struggles with prejudice. Beverly had overcome prejudice to become the first female pilot for American Airlines. She had a song called "Me and the Sky" that talked about how she got to where she was today and how her world was shattered by the 9/11 tragedy because of something that had made her feel free and alive had killed so many people and had made others afraid of flying, the thing she loved most. I think it is a beautiful song and I love how all the women in the cast joined in the song with her, again emphasizing togetherness. Bob was another character who faced prejudice, but he noticed that the bulk of the discrimination and stereotyping he experienced as a black man in the U.S. was lifted when he got to Newfoundland. There is a moment in the show where the mayor asks him to stay in his house and he is surprised that everyone is so welcoming and inviting to him. The actor keeps those undertones of how he's lived in fear while still letting the audience find the moments of comedy in his shock at how nice these people are. Like when he was shocked when the mayor was asking him to borrow grills for a cookout and he expects people to at least yell at him and tell him to get out of their yards, but instead they invite him in for a cup of tea. It just shows how much of a genius actor he is that he can still be hilarious while maintaining dark and relevant undertones. In contrast to Bob, Ali was feeling more discrimination that ever because of the connection between Muslim extremism and the attacks. Because he was Muslim, many treated him like a threat even though he just wanted to help and get home. Before he can board a plane to get home, he has to go through a full-body search, which is against his religious beliefs, and an interview because they think he might be a terrorist simply because he is Muslim. At first I was worried that Beverly was adding to the discrimination against him, but after the search she apologizes. I don't think that fully makes it better or okay, but it shows that she is trying to make the experience less painful for him.

I also liked how there were two different stages of romantic relationships in this show. Kevin J (Duckart) and Kevin T (Andrew Samonsky) are struggling in an older relationship because they have different attitudes toward the situation they have been put in. Kevin J. feels frustrated and angry, while Kevin T wants to embrace the place they are in. Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) have just discovered a new relationship and are trying to figure out how to make it work when they live in different countries. I liked how open they were with each other and also how we got to hear their internal monologues about each other. It shows how relationships can come out of difficult situations and how terrible times can cause beautiful moments.

People who would like this show are people who like communities born out of catastrophe, everyday kindness made historical, and unexpected cups of tea. I think that this is an amazing and gorgeous show. I think it is important for people to see this show and consider how we can learn from the Newfoundlanders to become a better, more inclusive, and community-driven country.

Photos: Matthew Murphy