Taste of Iceland has taken over Chicago for a four-day festival of Icelandic cuisine, art and culture.
Among the events was an architecture talk and vodka tasting at Marshall’s Landing in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The Mart overlooks a splendid view of the riverfront with examples of Chicago’s own stunning architecture just outside the window.
There, we visited a presentation by Halla Helgadottir, Managing Director of the Iceland Design Centre Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Centre has the distinction of being the most visited museum “per capita” of any museum in the world, the joke being that with Iceland’s small population it is estimated that more than 10% of the nation has visited the museum.
Helgadottir shared photos of several of Iceland’s architectural points of interest including the Harpa Concert Hall whose exterior looks as though it has been chiseled out of a giant sold piece of crystal clear ice.
Conversely, there was a photo of a farm house that was built largely underground and was reminiscent of the dugouts built by prairie pioneers in Kansas and other parts of the Midwest during the great westward expansion in the U.S.
Like the prairie pioneers, the Icelanders have precious little wood so alternative building options are required.
Twenty-three year old Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Bryce Gangel) returns home from an extended absence anxious to share the news with her parents that she has found the love of her life, and that the two are planning to marry.
The couple’s news will test everyone’s commitment to their own values, revealing their previously acknowledged and unacknowledged prejudices.
The year is 1967, the height of the civil rights era. The Draytons are best described as an affluent liberal white family. Joey’s new boyfriend, Dr. John Prentice (Michael Aaron Pogue), is black.
Dad, Matt Drayton (Tim Hopper) is the publisher of a progressive newspaper while mom, Christina (Mary Beth Fisher) is the owner of an upscale art gallery.
Joey has secretly decided to surprise everyone by inviting the Dr. Prentice’s mother and father (Jacqueline Williams and Dexter Zollicoffer) to a family dinner that includes her dad’s close friend, Monsignor Ryan (Dan Waller).
The meal will be prepared by the Drayton’s long-time African-American domestic helper, Matilda “Tillie” Binks (Sydney Charles). Both the Monsignor and Tillie are considered to be a part of the Drayton’s extended family.
However, Christina’s assistant, Hilary St. George (Rachel Sledd), catches wind of the relationship and immediately goes into action to avoid what she perceives to be a potential scandal that might be bad for business as well as the Draytons’ social standing
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at the Court Theatre by Todd Kreidler is based on the screenplay by William Rose for the movie of the same title.
The movie version featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, was a turning point in “race relations” in the late 1960s. Tracy’s final soliloquy is often excerpted as an example of racial tolerance as well as an example of fine acting.
In short these current actors have big shoes to fill, ultimately doing a really fine job of finding their own voice and putting their own interpretation on each of their roles.
This production is expertly directed by Marti Lyons who keeps the pace lively and helps the actors adeptly avoid the challenges related to performing this iconic material.
This is a perfect ensemble in which there is no need to draw attention to any one actor except to say that the roles of Tillie and Monsignor Ryan bring much appreciated, occasional comic relief which each of the respective performers do without distracting from the essence of the story-line.
Likewise Bryce Gangel as the ingénue character at the center of the storm perfectly presented bright eyed optimism and youthful exuberance tempered with an undeniable realism.
The monochromatic set by Scott Davis includes white cacti on the patio and unornamented, mid-century furnishings with avant-garde artwork prepared by scenic artists Scott Gerwitz and Julie Ruscitti.
The black and white palette reminds us that we are literally dealing with a black and white issue that have shades of gray with only occasional hopeful bursts of color.
Costume Designer (Samantha Jones) whom I remember from The Court Theatre’s “Belle of Amherst,” really knows how to make exceptional clothing for her women that complements the production.
In this case the colorful artistic outfit for Hilary St. George who appears at the very beginning of the play immediately helps to set the time period and give us some insight into the flamboyant aspect of the character. Christina Drayton’s dinner outfit with shawl is the perfect at-home informal hostess attire, and Joey’s simple cocktail dress with gray tights is exquisitely tailored with a sixties vibe. Both used tone-on-tone fabrics that stay in the monochromatic color range without being simply black and white.
It was fun to be a part of this mixed age group audience for this particular play in the center of Hyde Park, long recognized as a liberal multi-racial and multi-cultural community. The laughs and gasps were more audible and more frequent then I have heard in a while and which I am certain was a result of many of the audience members understanding this material in a more intimate and first hand way, as either participants or witnesses to similar real life stories.
DETAILS: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is at the Court Theatre (on the campus of the University of Chicago) at 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago, through April 15, 2018. For tickets and other information call (773)753-4472 or visit CourtTheatre.
Based on the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac” originally written in French verse by Edmond Rostand in 1897, this translation by Michael Hollinger adapted for the stage with Aaron Posner is a successful reinterpretation using a more modern dialog that preserves much of the courtly charm necessary to the play’s setting.
The title character of Cyrano (Michael B. Woods) is an accomplished courtier in 17th Century France, an unparalleled master of the sword and the word whose personal relationships are hampered by what he perceives as a hideous deformity, namely a grotesquely enormous and unsightly nose.
Cyrano conspires with a fellow comrade-in-arms, Christian (Zach Livingston) to woo and win the affection of the lovely Roxane (Vahishta Vafadari). Christian will supply the good looks while Cyrano supplies the requisite language of love.
Cyrano’s own self-hate is his worst enemy that keeps him separated from his desire.
The fight choreography by Jon Beal was a highlight of this production making me wish that the same level of effort was put into the rest of the lackluster performances.
Since none of the actors seemed fully invested in their characters I must set the fault at the feet of Director Steve O’Connell’s ability to rally the troupe.
Though this adaptation aims to “ditch the pretentions” it should not be at the expense of nuance and the basic humanity of the characters nor the charm of the language. Here the actors rely too heavily on the words to do all of their heavy lifting and doing little to breathe life into their respective roles.
BoHo is intended to be “a launching pad for up-and-coming actors” but in this case was a lost opportunity to show us what you got.
This Cliff’s Notes version provides a few memorable moments provided mostly by the text and is a good introduction to the book however, it definitely lacks panache.
DETAILS: ‘Cyrano’ by BoHo Theatre at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago runs through April 15, 2018. For tickets and other information call or call (773) 975-8150 or visit BoHoTheatre.com.
This play may not be for everyone, but for those who enjoy intellectual stimulation and are willing to sit back and contemplate some of the harsh realities and complexities of the human experience, this is a performance you will not soon forget.
Just the title, ‘Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,’ a grim tale by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Eric Bentley, is enough to discourage a sizeable percentage of theater goers looking for the next feel good musical but this is theater at its best, relevant and thought provoking.
Brecht is one of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century who courageously stood up for injustice and openly shed a light on the social and political changes that were transforming his life and the lives of people around him.
Let’s address the “elephant in the room.” It’s a Haven Theatre production that is a two-hour, forty- minute commitment (with ten minute intermission). Before it began I wondered, “Why did they not consider trimming this down a bit?”
Then it occurred to me that it would be like taking a few movements out of a Beethoven symphony. It is as long as it needs to be.
The production is a series of well orchestrated vignettes that explore the impact of Nazism on German society. Each carefully crafted segment represents a different aspect of the social strata and/or one of the essential institutions that comprise our sense of community.
These include the institutions of friendship, love, marriage and family as well as public institutions of mercantile, manufacturing, and government. All of which require “trust” and “honesty” to function properly.
It is important to remain cognizant of the fact that this play was first performed in 1938, a full two years before the U.S. officially entered the war in Europe. The author was describing the events of the day without benefit of hindsight. He was saying, “Wake up people and look at what is happening around you.”
To some, the themes will resonate with the politics of today. That is not to say that life in the U.S. in 2018 is anything like Nazi Germany in 1938 but it may be a cautionary tale of what can happen when the seeds of mistrust are sewn and paranoia blooms.
Brecht was writing in an era before television and the Internet, where newspapers, theater and radio were the communication technology of the day. Even talking pictures were a relatively new phenomenon. The point being that words and the subtlety of language was paramount.
A genius of dialogue, in this play Brecht has a way of writing conversations that sound like a person’s inner thoughts or self-talk being spoken aloud. The result for the audience is a sense that these are your own thoughts. It puts you into the brain of the character and creates a strong feeling of intimacy.
Psychodrama is a therapeutic tool developed around this period intended to help people struggling with inner conflicts to confront their most intimate thoughts by acting them out. No doubt Brecht was inspired by this technique but used it in a most public way.
Director Josh Sobel has done a good job with this group of young actors. The competent Haven Theatre ensemble made their way through this marathon production at a good pace with a few outstanding individual performances.
This is the kind of play that brought about method acting. It requires the actor to “dig deep” and expose his or her own emotions. I am not certain that every cast member has gotten to that level at every moment but this will be a process that will certainly develop over the run and will no doubt have inconsistencies from day to day, but that is the beauty of live theater.
The austere set design by Yu Shibagaki may shock you as you enter the performance space, but it is thought provoking and lends itself well to the production. The lighting (Claire Chrzan) and sound design (Sarah D. Espinoza) as well as the movement direction of dramaturge Abhi Shrestha adds thoughtful artistic depth.
A personal note. I had the good fortune to witness history as an eleven year old actor (Crown Prince Medici) in the Goodman School Theatre production “Life of Galileo” starring blacklisted stage legend Morris Carnovsky, directed by blacklisted actor Howard Di Silva in a play written by a blacklisted playwright Berthold Brecht. Though Brecht wrote this play about the censored astronomer in reaction to the Nazi experience it unfortunately found new relevance in the McCarthy Era illustrating the importance to remain ever vigilant to potential fascism.
DETAILS: ‘Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,’ a Haven Theatre production, runs now through March 11, 2018 at The Den Theatre 1331, N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Running time 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit
If you are a fan of macabre humor you will love this insight into Poe offered by Black Button Eyes Productions’ talented ensemble.
A musical written by Jonathan Christenson (book, music and lyrics), it investigates the life of one of America’s favorite poets and novelists purported to be the father of the modern detective mystery as well as a talented spinner of tales of horror and suspense.
Act One covers separation and death in the young boy’s life as well as his proximity to mental illness which together with an active imagination combined to create horrific visions and fantasies.
Act Two continues to explore the impact of his youthful experiences on his life and his work culminating in a suggestion of mystery surrounding his abrupt and unexplained demise.
Though the material is dark it is skillfully balanced by a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor that keeps it entertaining and fun.
The production is brilliantly cast. Each of the seven performers Kevin Webb as Edgar Allan Poe with Megan DeLay, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Ryan Lanning, Matt McNabb, Maiko Terazawaand Jeremy Trager could not be more perfect for their respective roles.
There is no competition on stage or mugging for the spotlight. Director, Ed Rutherford seems to have a clear vision that is well executed including important lighting (Liz Cooper) and sound effects (Robert Hornbostel). The surprise treatment of Poe’s great love “Sissy” is charming.
Music Director Nick Sula with the aid of his three piece band including synthesizer does an outstanding job setting and maintaining the fast pace that keeps the action moving.
If you are familiar with the works of Poe you cannot help but anticipate what they will do with his famous poem the “The Raven” which does not disappoint.
If you are a fan of vocal harmony you will love this score. Though lacking a real breakout number, Christenson’s music is very sophisticated and has a modern but slightly nostalgic feel that lends itself perfectly to the historic storyline.
Every performer has a beautiful voice – so much so that I would be willing to watch this as a concert without the splendid costumes of Beth Laske-Miller and campy choreography of Derek Van Barham.
The venue is super comfy with great sightlines and sound system operated by Kirstin Johnson was well modulated making the rapid musical dialogue easy to hear and understand.
This is a short run so get tickets before it can be seen “nevermore.”
DETAILS: Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, is at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway Ave., Chicago through Jan. 28, 2018. For tickets and other information visit Black Button Eyes Productions.
Guest reviewer Reno Lovison is a proud alum of the Egdar Alan Poe Elementary School (K-5) in Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood.
For shear spectacle “Turandot” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is worth seeing.
Chinese Princess, Turandot, has proffered a challenge to all eligible Princes, that he who can successfully answer three riddles asked by her shall win her love. Unsuccessful suitors will forfeit their life by beheading at sunrise.
The bigger question is whether Turandot is actually interested in love or is she more interested in exacting revenge on all men for the death of her ancestor Princess Lo-u-Ling?
Enter Prince Calaf, a stranger who is immediately smitten by Turandot. He cannot resist the challenge in spite of the pleading of the Ping, Pang and Pong whose duty it is to prepare all matters related to either the execution or the wedding.
Weary of the many deaths, the trio attempts to lure Calaf with the promise of hundreds of other beautiful women but to no avail. Neither can Calaf be dissuaded by his father’s faithful slave woman Liu whose love for him is pure and deep, based on the fact that he smiled at her.
With an impressive, if somewhat cliché, set by production designer Allen Charles Klein and lighting by Chris Maravich, once the curtain is up and the chorus begins to sing the audience is immediately drawn to the performance.
The large lighted glass sphere center stage adds to the exotic illusion of the intersection of heaven and earth as well as the theme of hot and cold. The use of wood, moonlight and lantern-light combined with the muted tones of the costumes contributes to a feeling of a mythological ancient Chinese experience with an overarching sense of foreboding.
Soprano Amber Wagner who appears in the title role has a powerful voice that soars above the entire company providing the character of Turandot with a commanding vocal presence the role requires.
Unfortunately, she has difficulty projecting the complex dichotomy required to be a convincing alluring “ice princess.” This was compounded by her costume being the only one, including the headdress, that seemed inappropriate and did not contribute to the realization of the essence of her character.
Stefano La Colla as Calaf in his Lyric debut is charming though he never really commands the stage. In Act One he was lost in the crowd and at times he seemed unsure where he should be. In spite of that, the much anticipated “Nessun Dorma” in Act Three does not disappoint.
Also appearing in her Lyric debut is soprano Maria Agresta as Liu who offers what is perhaps the most dramatic performance. This is due in large part to the sympathetic nature of the role itself but also to her sensitive portrayal and beautiful voice.
Ping, Pang, and Pong played by Zachary Nelson, Rodell Rosel, and Keith Jameson are veterans of the Lyric who provide wonderful energy and comic relief.
The Lyric chorus and orchestra are outstanding as always. At times the stage is crowded with more than 75 singers including the addition of more than 20 members of the Chicago Children’s Chorus who contribute another level of texture to the vocal tapestry.
Puccini’s score riddled with Asian influences is not driven by melody but is rather a complex nuanced series of compositions more reminiscent of a symphony. This really gives the orchestra an opportunity to shine because they are as important as the singers not simply accompanists.
The third act is dominated by “Nessun Dorma” which is perhaps the most melodious number. It is cleverly reprised for the finale leaving the production with a powerful musical finish and the audience with a tune we can all hum on the way out the door.
This “commercial” ending is a bit out of step and perhaps belies the fact that composer Giacomo Puccini died before he could finish the opera.
The story has a few moral and ethnocentric issues that may be considered to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. This can be a distraction for some but consider using it as an opportunity for thoughtful contemplation and discussion of social change while you simply enjoy the music and the shear spectacle of a grand tradition.
“Turandot” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, through January 27, 2018. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with two intermissions. For tickets and more information visit Lyric Opera.
The Windy City Winds recently celebrated their Third Season Fall Concert at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago, playing a selection of American Originals. The program covered a thoughtful selection of American music suitable for wind, brass and percussion.
Windy City Winds is a not-for-profit adult community concert band founded on the premise that many accomplished musicians who were music majors or played instruments in college have little opportunity to play seriously after graduation, particularly if they do not pursue musical careers.
The 55 talented volunteer players age twenty-one and over are all experienced playing at the college level.
Mark and Sarah Mosley co-founded Windy City Winds in September 2015 and serve together as Music Directors.
Mark Mosley is an articulate and engaging conductor. He enthusiastically opened the first half of the concert with the very familiar and playful “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein partly in homage to the composer’s upcoming 100th birthday being celebrated in 2018.
They continued with “Night Song” by Joliet native Ron Nelson featuring a rare euphonium solo by Eon G. Cooper. The rich basso instrument takes charge of the central theme and sings sweetly with a low lyrical line through the entire piece.
You almost can’t get more uniquely American than Charles Ives, in this case the “Fugue in C.” The program notes describe Ives as “nostalgically quoting popular, patriotic and church music from his youth, while boldly embracing dissonance and experimenting with polytonality, rhythmic complexity and tone clusters.”
The band concluded the first half with “Chester” based on the patriotic tune of William Billings which became the unofficial hymn of the Revolutionary War. This variation is composed by Pulitzer Prize winning American composer William Schuman who in 1961 became president of the NYC Lincoln Center for Performing Arts.
After a brief intermission Sarah Good Mosley conducted the six movement “Divertimento for Band, op. 42” by Vincent Persichetti described as “…distinctly urban and American – energetic, lonely, humorous, and nostalgic.”
She followed next with ”October” by popular contemporary composer Eric Whitacre who is largely known for his choral music as the artist-in-residence at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. His composition “Sleep” inspired the work of Dutch born artist and current Wisconsin resident Anne Horjus ..
Mark Mosley closed the concert with “Chorale and Shaker Dance” by John Zdechlik. “The short chorale theme is original, while the Shaker melody ‘Simple Gifts’ is familiar to many.”
Windy City Winds will perform two concerts in 2018 at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 2335 N. Orchard St.in Chicago: March 9, “Cityscapes” Winter Concert, and May 11, “Adventures” Spring Concert. Admission is free (donations welcome). For more Information visit Windy City Winds.
Dressed in a never been worn Hawaiian shirt and accompanied by one of the biggest Jimmy Buffett fans I know we were ready to “Escape to Margaritaville” and party. Unfortunately this ship barely left port. In fact it will be moored at the Oriental Theatre on State and Randolph Streets in Chicago through December 2, 2017.
A new musical that premiered at the LaJolla Playhouse near San Diego, CA in May 2017, “Escape to Margaritaville” is based on popular favorites and some new songs of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
Essentially, two young women embark on a paradise bound, girls pre-nuptial buddy trip. Rachel (Alison Luff) hopes to distract her best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard) away from her fat shaming fiancé Chad (Ian Michael Stuart) while also gathering volcanic soil samples for her super potato battery invention. Yes that’s right.
Soon after their arrival at the “not as described in the brochure” Margaritaville Resort the two become entangled with Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) the house acoustic guitar strumming musician and his sidekick Brick (Eric Petersen) the beach side bartender.
The predictable and sophomoric story line suffers in a valiant attempt to humorously weave elements of various Jimmy Buffett lyrics into the plot. The sitcom inspired dialogue by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley is not all that funny, though the performance of aging beach bum J.D. (Don Sparks) and his perpetual search for salt was cringingly amusing.
J.D. hopes to reignite his relationship with Margaritaville proprietress Marley (Rema Webb) who seems to have been (through no fault of her own) left behind from a previous production of South Pacific.
The entire cast does an admirable job of wading through this low waterline script. But neither they nor the spectacular set designs of Walt Spangler could lift this vessel. One inspired moment was an all too brief swimming sequence compliments of “Flying by Foy” who provided the aerial expertise and apparatus.
The winsome secondary duo of Tammy and Brick shone the brightest. Their singing and acting performances, together with the theme that Brick loves Tammy just as she is, seems timely and charming.
A peculiar highlight for me was Brick’s flashback induced dancing dead insurance salesman zombies.
I know that Jimmy Buffett fans are crazy about his music and love him as an entertainer but in this production the music never really pays off.
You’ll hear favorites like “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “I Will Play for Gumbo,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and of course the title number, “Margaritaville.”
At this performance the cast was joined at the curtain call by the man himself, Buffett, and the audience was thrilled. The excitement level rose tenfold.
The production should strike a chord with Jimmy Buffett fans and might play well in island resort venues but for general theater goers who are looking for a memorable experience I can only somewhat recommend..
DETAILS: Escape to Margaritaville’ is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., through Dec. 2, 2017. For tickets and other information call (800) 775 2000 and visit Broadway in Chicago.
It seems virtually every day there are fabulous artistic programs being offered all around Chicago, many of which no one ever hears about. These gallery exhibits, theatrical productions and musical performances are often presented by individuals of exceptional quality and sadly only have one presentation.
On Nov. 10, 2017 a concert of the music composed by Chicago native Regina Harris Baiocchi was one of those exceptional events at Sherwood Community Music School / Columbia College on South Michigan Avenue.
Baiocchi’s music has been performed by the Chicago and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and in concerts around the world. Her refined and sophisticated compositions are inspired by various musical genres and are often informed by the experiences of African Americans, women and poets.
A poet herself, her music is very lyrical but she likes to play with percussion and the dynamics of sound.
In the opening piece, “Miles per Hour” the lone trumpet of Edgar Campos is heard only offstage for a full minute or two before he slowly emerges from the wings. Providing a sense of musical motion heard at first in the distance then moving toward you.
The impressionistic “Deborah” is inspired by a painting by Lillian Brulc has the most talented and versatile Dr. Jimmy Finnie, percussion chair at Indian State University, moving adroitly between marimba, vibes and drums accompanied by Beverly Simms, piano.
“Ask Him” is a page from the composer’s jazz book it has a sultry quality fully enhanced by the vocals of Dee Alexander with Dr. Thomas Wade Jefferson (North Park University & Sherwood Conservatory) on piano, accented by the saxophone of Edwin Daugherty.
Baiocchi returns to her “classical” sensibilities in a modern solo cello (Jill Kaeding) performance “Miriam’s Muse” accompanied by Michael Keefe, piano.
“Farafina” described as a vocal jazz suite work in progress is translated as “Land of the Black Skin,” features an un-ornamented vocal by Cherresa Lawson giving it a haunting call and response quality, accompanied by Jimmy Finnie on marimba and David Bugher on vibraphone with an African style rhythm.
Flutist Nathalie Joachim performed “Praise Dance” unaccompanied and reminiscent of a shepherd on a hillside revisits the composers’ penchant to explore the way brass and wind instruments interact with the atmosphere and seemingly hang in the air.
“Hold Out for Joy” is from the opera “Gbeldahoven: No One’s Child” by Regina Harris Baiocchi based on the lives of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. A soulful melody performed by Cherresa Lawson with vibraphone accompaniment (David Bugher).
Natalie Joachim (flute) returns with “Three Brevities” composed by Regina’s mentor Dr. Hale Smith providing some insight into her own musical inspiration.
“Nilisikia Sauti Kubwa” is a holiday choral music based on Swahili poetry arranged for tenor (Kameron Locke), trumpet (Edgar Campos), crotales (Jimmy Finnie) and piano (Michael Keefe). Once again with a beautiful lyrical melody Ms. Baiocchi allows the lone trumpet to sound like a voice in the distance as the tenor vocal rises slowly above the instrumental in this piece translated as “I Heard a Voice.”
The concerts concluded with two contemporary jazz songs, the cool “Lovers & Friends” and the upbeat “Dream Weaver” with Dee Alexander (vocal), Edwin Daugherty (saxophone) and Thomas Jefferson (piano).
Regina Harris Baiocchi is a thoughtful, versatile, and accomplished composer. Selected works can be heard at a concert of “6 Degrees Composers” 2:30 PM on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at Roosevelt University, Ganz Hall, 430 South Michigan Ave., Chicago. Admission is Free.
If what you remember of Emily Dickinson from high school literature is that she was a spinster recluse who wrote free verse poetry about death you will be happy to know that at the Court Theatre you will be spending time with a much different Dickinson. This one imagined herself to be “The Belle of Amherst.”
Maybe you asked, how could anyone who in adulthood never traveled more than a few miles from home, avoided her neighbors and had few if any friends, be an interesting subject for a one actor play.
But, sharing insights into her writing process, familial relations, lost loves and admirers, Kate Fry portrays a much spunkier, wittier version of the poetess than most of us imagined.
Fry grabs our attention the moment she makes her entrance and keeps the audience captivated for the remainder of the two-act play.
Captivated – now there is a word I believe Emily Dickinson “could take her hat off to.” She speaks of her love of words, how they look, how they sound and what they mean.
We learn that Dickinson did not have a love of life as we traditionally think of it. Rather she had a love of living. She says that just having life is the greatest thing imaginable.
When her poems are rejected for publication she says that like a bird she does not sing for others, she sings because she must sing. Likewise she lives because she must live and revels in the simple acts of living.
The action takes place on a visually stunning set designed by Arnel Sanciano – a kind of floating box within a box presented on an angle and a bit off center like the title subject.
The inner box is mostly monochrome with the only bright colors coming from glimpses of nature outside her windows and the numerous plants brought inside.
Sanciano’s set is perfectly complimented by the luminous effects of Lighting Designer Mike Durst who paints the monotone interior with wonderful shades of lavender and thoughtful shadows that augment the various moods of the many stories being told.
Since this is a play about words and a person who built her life around choosing just the right one, it is imperative that the dialogue can be heard distinctly and Sound Designers Andre Pluess and Christopher LaPorte do not disappoint us.
It may be a function of the excellent third row center seat I had but every word was clear as a bell (no pun intended) and did not have that artificial electronic sound.
My one minor criticism was the use of some background music that was periodically intended to enhance the mood. I found it more of a distraction particularly in one scene where it sounded like someone’s annoying cell phone melody.
Samantha Jones’ dresses for Fry were beautifully crafted, detailed and suited to the period.
A one performer play is indeed largely about the actor, who in this case was perfection but the overall production is all about the director.
In such a play the director is more important than ever because it is through him, in this case, Sean Graney that the performer gets all of her feedback.
It is up to the actor and the other crafts people to provide options and have the talent to execute ideas that emerge, but the director is truly the holder of the vision. He is the one who will decide what we all will see, and I like what I saw.
So in the end this is a true collaboration of stage craft. There is only one actor so the set, sound, and costumes are essential to help paint a fuller picture. Everything must be perfect and it really was.
DETAILS: ‘The Belle of Amherst’ by William Luce’ is at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. on the University of Chicago campus through Dec. 3, 2017. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 753-4472 or visit Court Theatre.