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

 

 

 

‘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.

Read More

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

Read More

“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

Read More

“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.

Read More