Free for one moment

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Many issues that women dealt with a century ago still hang over their heads and affect their lives, work, families and relationships.  From wanting to feel protected while searching for freedom to embracing dreams while being steered toward stereotypical roles, women continue to struggle against being controlled.

Maddie Burke, l, Heather Chrisler and Scott Shimizu in 'Machinal' at Greenhouse Theater. Photo by Evan Hanover
Maddie Burke, L, Heather Chrisler and Scott Shimizu in ‘Machinal’ at Greenhouse Theater. Photo by Evan Hanover

These issues are front and center in the Greenhouse Theater Center’s compelling revival of “Machinal,”a play by Sophie Treadwell that hit Broadway in 1928.

The play is based on the life and trial of Ruth Snyder, a ruthless and manipulative murderess who, with her lover, killed her husband for a double indemnity insurance payout. But Machinal’s protagonist, “Young Woman,” portrayed by Heather Chrisler, is nothing like the real Ruth Snyder.

She garners the audience’s empathy as she encounters the demands of a rigid and unfriendly workplace and a life of struggles to support her mother.

In the midst of an argument over whom she should marry, she asks her overbearing mother, “Did you love Pa?”  Her mother replies, “I suppose I did . . . I don’t remember.  What difference does it make?” The mother pushes her daughter into marrying a man for financial gain.

Years later, feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, Young Woman’s goal is to free herself from captivity.

Chrisler does an excellent job as she captures the complexity of the main character and the challenges faced.  She portrays a frightened woman who follows the daily rules of work, marries someone whom she doesn’t love, gives birth to a child she doesn’t want, pleads with everyone to “Let me alone” and eventually finds a lover outside of her marriage who contributes to her ultimate demise.

The nine other cast members are wonderful as they play multiple roles including Young Woman’s co-workers, mother, husband, lover, doctors, nurses, trial lawyers, reporters and priest.

With minimal props on a stage devoid of scenery, the ensemble lights up the audience’s imagination in innovative ways that draw them into this mesmerizing story—a story that ends with Young Woman declaring, “I wanted to be free.  I wanted him out of the way. It made me free for one moment!”

Directed by Jacob Harvey with movement by Elizabeth Margolius, Machinal is a play that addresses the balancing act that women have long attempted.

DETAILS: “Machinal” is at Greenhouse Theater Center (Upstairs Main Stage), 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago through Sept. 24, 2017.  For tickets and other information visit Greenhouse Theater or call (773) 404-7336.

-Francine Pappadis Friedman

 

 

A sweet Shakespearean romantic comedy under the stars

RECOMMENDED

One of summer’s finest pursuits is viewing a William Shakespeare play while reposing under the stars and sipping a smooth wine.

First Folio Theatre affords that experience with a first-rate production of the Bard of Avon’s “As You Like It” on the grounds of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.

Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is 'As You Like It' at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography
Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is ‘As You Like It’ at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography

The gently rolling hillside forms a natural amphitheater for the two-story wooden stage and for audiences to spread their blankets and pop their picnic baskets.

Directed by Skyler Schrempp, this delightful tale meanders among a tangle of storylines and a large cast. The plot weaves family feuds, banishments, mistaken identities, forgiveness and love triangles.

Most everyone finds themselves exiled in the lush Forest of Arden. That is, until truths are revealed and couples happily pair up in marriage like they typically do in Shakespearean rom-coms.

The highly polished cast numbers nearly two dozen, many of them First Folio returnees and almost all with previous Shakespearean credits on their resumes.

Leslie Ann Sheppard shows great flexibility in her dual-gendered role as Rosalind. At the onset, she is a favored and stylish family member of the royal court. After she is banished, she heads to the forest and adopts a male persona for safety reasons.

She is accompanied by her cousin and best friend Celia, played adroitly by Vahishta Vafadari who takes on the guise of a peasant. The young women venture a convoluted path to find their loves.

Courtney Abbott is charming and comedic as the mohawk-crowned, androgynous jester Touchstone.

Tempering the frolic is Kevin McKillip as Jacque, a melancholic lord. With great gravitas he delivers one of Shakespeare’s most well-known soliloquies, the one that begins with “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg advances the setting as ambiguously modern-day, yet-far-away with attire that borrows from vintage, punk and club-kid cultures.

Throw in a couple of fascinators, a pair of black-and-white wingtips, and a few dirndl skirts, and you get the feeling you’re somewhere else.

A summer evening at First Folio Theatre is as idyllic as the Forest of Arden. Arrive early to enjoy the natural landscape. The staff sets out citronella candles, but bring mosquito repellent.

DETAILS: “As You Like It” is at First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, through Aug. 20. For tickets and other information, call 630-986-8067 or visit First Folio.

— Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

 

Drury Lane deals a winning hand with ‘The Gin Game’

RECOMMENDED

In both life and cards, we must play the hands we are dealt. That truism is powerfully revealed in Pulitzer winner “The Gin Game” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in 'The Gin Game' at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner
Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in ‘The Gin Game’ at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

Fonsia Weller and Weller Martin are two reluctant residents of a shabby senior-living home, having run out of money and options. They strike up an acquaintance and begin playing gin to pass the time. As their games and conversation progress intimate secrets are revealed and they begin to discover each other’s weaknesses in both cards and life.

The two-character drama by D.L. Coburn brings together the legendary talents of real-life married couple and Jeff Award winners Paula Scrofano as Fonsia and John Reeger as Weller. They dodder and totter about the stage as though the infirmities of advanced age were real.

Both exhibit vast emotional range as the relationship between their characters builds to its explosive conclusion.

Scrofano and Reeger have appeared in over 150 plays in the Chicagoland area, 30 of them at Drury Lane. With “The Gin Game,” they join an illustrious roster of duos who have performed these roles, among them Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

The Drury Lane production is artfully directed by Ross Lehman, who last directed the couple in 1986.

The show begins before the audience is fully seated as two non-speaking crew members dressed as nursing aides in medical scrubs set the stage with apathy. They lounge about, one smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone, and the other reading a magazine. They grudgingly leave only when Weller enters the scene.

Kudos also to the creative team which includes scenic designer Katherine Ross, lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan and projection designer Mike Tutaj.

Drury Lane is known for highly detailed set design, and the “Gin Game” follows suit. The play takes place on an unkempt patio, which is decked out with mismatched furniture, an overturned chair, stray hoses and flower pots, and a weary-looking Santa Claus yard ornament. At the back of the set, images of the home’s resident activities, drab furnishings and medical equipment are projected at intervals to reveal the hopelessness inside.

“The Gin Game” is not a pleasant story. The subject matter is bleak, and the second act especially is pounded with profanity. But it’s worth seeing, just to watch theater icons Scrofano and Reeger in yet another transformation.

DETAILS: “The Gin Game” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Aug. 13. For tickets and other information, call (630) 530-0111 or visit Drury Lane Theatre.

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

Bette Davis is back for another bow

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When I was a youngster, I would often hear my parents mention their favorite movie star, Bette Davis.  Decades later, I gravitated toward old films and I, too, became a huge Davis fan.

Jessica Sherr does 'Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies' at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jessica Sherr
Jessica Sherr does ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies’ at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jessica Sherr

As I watched ‘Dark Victory, ‘Now, Voyager,’ and her many other movies—some of them numerous times—I found myself reciting a few of her lines along with her. I thought I knew almost everything about Ms. Davis until I recently saw the captivating play ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies’ currently at The Athenaeum Theatre.

The one-woman show, written and performed by Jessica Sherr, is a fascinating look at Davis’s life and career. It only took a few seconds to actually feel that the actress and playwright on stage was the real Bette Davis.

Jessica Sherr not only resembles the actress in her early thirties but her voice, expressive eyes and mannerisms emulate Davis.  And the one-act play’s staging and set design are such that allow Sherr to change costumes while she continues talking to the audience, never missing a beat.

Often in just a sentence or two, Sherr takes the audience through various stages of Davis’s life, beginning with her relationship with her parents, especially her mother whom Bette called “Ruth” after her father left them when she was ten years old.

Sherr then touches on Davis’ career beginning when on stage in New York.  Not being a blonde and no taller than five-foot three, she fondly reminisces about her earlier years by commenting, “They don’t care what you look like!”

Invited by an agent who saw Davis on stage, she left New York and traveled to Hollywood to begin life as a movie star. Even though she became known as a Hollywood “hometown girl,” she still missed New York and has said, “I hate California—it’s so damn sunny it makes me sick!”

This show is for anyone who wants a closer look at Bette Davis – the ten-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Academy Award Best Actress winner for her roles in ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Jezebel.’

Along with a closer view of her career, you’ll learn about Davis’s marriages, her relationships, her Hollywood friends, the others she avoided and how she stood up for what she wanted, plus how it eventually turned out.  And there’ll be many laughs along the way.

Details: ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” is at the Athenaeum Theatre,  2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. A last minute extension now continues the show through July 9, 2017. For tickets more information visit AthenaeumTheatre  or call 773-935-6875.

-Francine Pappadis Friedman

Scientific moral dilemma bumps against friendship and ambition

RECOMMENDED

Two doctoral candidates are compelled to examine their morals, their friendship and their futures as they re-examine the data that has driven their scientific careers for the past six years.

Adam Poss (Arvind Patel) and Priya Mohanty (Sanam Shah) in 'Queen' at Victory Gardens. Liz Lauren Photo
Adam Poss (Arvind Patel) and Priya Mohanty (Sanam Shah) in ‘Queen’ at Victory Gardens. Liz Lauren Photo

Priya Mohanty (Sanam Shah), a statistician, and Darci Nalepa (Ariel Spiegel), an apiologist, are on the verge of presenting scientific evidence proving that pesticides are responsible for colony collapse disorder, a worldwide epidemic causing honey bees to abandon their hives and disappear.

The problem could potentially threaten the food supply and the very existence of life on this planet.

The two women have been the backbone of the soon to be published findings conducted on behalf of a liberal California university research lab headed by Stephen Spencer (Dr. Philip Hayes) who has his own professional ambitions that rely on the cooperation of his two junior associates.

Even though the play is intelligently written by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Joanie Schultz, “Queen” has the potential to get bogged down in its own dialogue.

Luckily in the hands of this capable cast, this premier performance avoids becoming too technical and laborious and, if anything, at times sounds a bit like an episode of CSI some city or another.

Adam Poss(Arvind Patel) lightens the entire mood of the production and helps keeps the story moving. Arvind is a successful New York derivatives trader and Sanam’s current candidate for marriage. He is concerned more with enjoying life and far less with global environmental issues or the associated moral challenges.

Their relationship has been mutually arranged by the couple’s parents, on the basis that their two grandfathers played golf together in India. On their first date Arvid is explaining to Sanam, his decision to move “all-in” on an opponent during a Texas Hold’em poker game.

The scene is genius and insightful on the part of the playwright as it helps define Arvind’s character while providing an opportunity for the two to bond over a statistical observation.

This play is very millennial. It is filled with cell phones, laptops and cultural diversity while dealing with women’s career issues, relationship issues and environmental issues that are all wrapped up in a very smart package.

Shekar considers the conflicts and uneasy alliances between the academic scientific community and commercial enterprise. It’s timelessness is the moral struggle that reinvents itself in every generation, testing our humanity.

Details: ‘Queen’ is at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, through May 17, 2017. For tickets and more information call (773) 871-3000) or visit Victory Gardens.

By Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison produces business videos. His interest in theater began very young. He studied with the Jack & Jill Players Children Theater and earned his Equity Card appearing in several professional Chicago productions at the Goodman Theatre, Mill Run, Melody Top and Ivanhoe. Reno does content writing, blogging and business articles and has authored two non-fiction books. See business video at Renoweb.)

 

‘Silent Sky’ – the stars are in alignment

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Oh, heavenly days. “Silent Sky” is the true story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a historic but unsung astronomer at Harvard University’s observatory in the early 1900s. She made ground-breaking advances despite never being allowed to use a telescope.

Cassandra Bissell as Henrietta, an unsung 1900s "computer lady" in Harvard University's observatory. Photo by D. Rice
Cassandra Bissell as Henrietta, an unsung 1900s “computer lady” in Harvard University’s observatory. Photo by D. Rice

Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” is a poignant and sweet look at Leavitt’s ambition, desires and accomplishments, cleverly punctuated with bursts of humor. Melanie Keller artfully directs the Chicago premiere at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.

The play opens with Leavitt leaving her Wisconsin home to become one of the backroom “computer ladies” who map the sky using photographic images on glass plates. It’s a tedious job far beneath the menfolk. Meanwhile, her sister stays behind to raise a family.

Leavitt immerses herself in the work. She not only discovers about 2,400 previously unknown variable stars but also discovered the relationship between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.

Her findings, for which she received little credit, paved the way for other astronomers to measure stellar distances.

Gunderson, who received the 2016 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatists Guild, explores societal themes that are relevant a century later: marriage and motherhood versus career, chauvinistic attitudes toward women in the workplace, and the quest for knowledge.

The script contains enough real science to lend authority but not so much that dazes the audience. The romantic interlude seems a bit contrived. However, it serves to show the sisters are not so different after all.

The entire cast delivers performances that sparkle. Especially notable is Cassandra Bissell, who plays Leavitt with both determination and vulnerability. Hayley Rice is the pleasant, kindly married sister Margaret.

Jeannie Affelder as Annie Cannon and Belinda Bremner as Williamina Fleming are Leavitt’s work colleagues who, by the play’s end, have joined the suffragette movement. Wardell Julius Clark is perfectly pompous as their boss.

Special mention goes to Michael McNamara, whose lighting design has us believing we truly are looking into the cosmos..

Details: ‘Silent Sky’ is at First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, through April 30. For tickets and other information, call (630) 986-8067 or visit First Folio.

Reviewed by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

(Guest reviewer Pamela Dittmer McKuen  is an independent journalist and author who specializes in home, architecture, fashion and travel. Her bylines have appeared in the Chicago Tribune plus dozens of consumer, trade, association, corporate and collegiate publications. Visit her travel blog at allthewriteplaces.)

 

The disco beat is hot at drury Lane’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’

 

RECOMMENDED

When life is going nowhere, dance it out. That’s the gist of “Saturday Night Fever,” the latest musical to open at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Erica Stephan (Stephanie Mangano and Adrian Anguilar (Tony) in Drury Lane's Saturday Night Fever Photo by Brett Beiner
Erica Stephan (Stephanie Mangano) and Adrian Anguilar (Tony) in Drury Lane’s Saturday Night Fever Photo by Brett Beiner

Based on the 1977 hit film, “Saturday Night Fever” the musical follows Brooklyn teenager Tony Manero, who escapes his dead-end job at a paint store by spending weekends at the 2001 Odyssey disco. It’s the role that launched John Travolta to stardom and made white suits a style icon of that generation.

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We’re “Crazy” about new Gershwin musical

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“Crazy For You” is a musical rom-com warmly embraced by the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin.

Now running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, the song-and-dance extravaganza is loosely based on the 1930s Gershwin musical “Girl Crazy. The original production starred Ginger Rogers and marked the stage debut of Ethel Merman.

"Cast of Crazy for You" at Drury Lane Theatre
“Cast of Crazy for You” at Drury Lane Theatre Photo by Brett Beiner

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“Smokey Joe’s Café” – a sweet and savory musical journey to yesterday

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” is making its Drury Lane debut in Oakbrook Terrace. It’s a high-energy song-and-dance production that looks nostalgically upon a bygone era and infuses it with soulful longing and a few belly laughs. The show opened on Broadway in 1995 and played more than 2,000 performances before closing in 2000.

Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Will Skip and Tyrone L. Robinson in "Smokey Joe's Café" at Drury Lane. Photo by Brett Beiner
Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Will Skrip and Tyrone L. Robinson in “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Drury Lane. Photo by Brett Beinera

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“Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” revival is a delightfully good time

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding,” one of Chicago’s longest-running hit shows, has returned after a seven-year hiatus, and it hasn’t aged a bit. The boisterous Italian nuptial farce and interactive dinner-theater engages its “guests” with servings of outrageous humor, heart-warming good cheer and just the right bit of naughtiness.

Hannah-Aaron-Brown (Tina), Billy Minshall (Father Mark) and Mitchell Conti (Tony)
Hannah-Aaron-Brown (Tina), Billy Minshall (Father Mark) and Mitchell Conti (Tony)

New this time around is the two-venue staging within the Belmont Theatre District. The production begins with the wedding ceremony at real-life Resurrection Church and moves for the reception to nearby Vinny Black’s Coliseum AKA Chicago Theater Works.

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