Chekhovian takeoff is serious fun


Imagine children named for popular characters who then take on some of those people’s  characteristics in situations similar to their namesake’s and you get some idea of what to expect in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha And Spike.’

Ellen Phelps (sonia), Billy Minshall (Vanya) and Sisie Steinmeyer (Masha) at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club
Ellen Phelps (Sonia), Billy Minshall (Vanya) and Susie Steinmeyer (Masha) at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club

Written by satirist and witty playwright Christopher Durang, and directed  by Mark E. Lococo, Loyola University Director of Theatre, the play is currently bringing chuckles to the Citadel stage in Lake Forest.

When Vanya’s adopted sister, Sonia, says she had a bad dream – “I’m 52 and not married,” he answers, “You are 52 and not married.” He asks her if her dream was a documentary.

Seriously funny, the play is, in a sense, a tribute to Anton Chekhov’s understanding of sibling relationships, middle-aged angst and boredom.

A mash-up of Chekhov’s characters in ‘The Seagull,’ ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘The Three Sisters,’  the action plays out in a Bucks County, PA farmhouse in an increasingly attractive region outside of Philadelphia. Kudos to Scenic Designer Michael Lewis for creating a terrific setting on Citadel’s intimate stage.

Vanya and Sonia, named by their late parents who were professors, still live in the house where they grew up but it is owned by their sister Masha, a successful actress who pays the bills instead of an aging, male relative. Of course the land includes somewhat of a cherry orchard.

The play’s title, alone, clues audiences in to Durang’s play as a Chekhovian takeoff. Instead of an aging professor bringing his young, beautiful wife home, Masha shows off her young lover, Spike who likes to undress to show off his bod.

Add to the mix, Cassandra, a colorful psychic cleaning lady, blends Greek tragedy with Haitian voodoo for some delicious, almost Carol Burnett-style comedy.

It all works because of perfect, inspired casting.

Billy Minshall, Father Mark in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding is the ideal, philosophical, gay Vanya. He is writing a play seen through the eyes of a molecule that is left when the earth destructs. His rage at Spike’s representing current cultural and societal change, is worth the price of admission.

Multi-talented actress/director Ellen Phelps wears the life-has-passed-me-by Sonia role so well she might have just stepped out of Chekhov’s world. But unlike a Chekhov play, she goes to a costume party, her first outing in years, and dresses as Maggie Smith going to an Oscar ceremony. Afterwards, Phelps does an amazing phone piece as a woman who doesn’t know how to respond when a man she met at the party calls for a dinner date.

Susie Steinmeyer, outstanding in Citadel’s ‘Lend Me A Tenor’ and ‘Jake’s Women,’ projects just the right amount of celebrity aura and angst as an  actress who doesn’t want to admit shes aging.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater regular Colin Morgan is superb as the witless boy-toy Spike. Lizzie Schwarzrock is delightful as ingénue Nina, a next door neighbor who admires Masha and wants to be an actress.

Judy Lea Steele, a veteran of Chicago theater, brings the house down when she crazily warns of various misfortunes as Cassandra.

North Shore theater goers are lucky to have the production so close but it is worth a trip north for Chicagoans.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha And Spike’ is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd. lake forest, now thru May 28, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 735-8554 or visit Citadel.


‘Marry Me A Little’ entertains big



Joy, passion, happiness, pessimism, satire and angst, the various moods of brilliant composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim are all represented in ‘Marry Me A Little’ at Porchlight Music Theatre.

Austin Cook (The Man) and Bethany Thomas (The Woman) in 'Marry Me A Little' at Porchlight Music Theatre. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist
Austin Cook (The Man) and Bethany Thomas (The Woman) in ‘Marry Me A Little’ at Porchlight Music Theatre. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist

Magnificently performed with an amazingly broad vocal range by Bethany Thomas and artfully sung and played on the piano by multi-talented Austin Cook, the Porchlight production is a special treat for Sondheim fans.

The 21 pieces that make up the show include rarely heard songs.

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Ethel becomes Juliet when Shakespeare falls in love


Try saying ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’ as the name of a play by William Shakespeare.

After hearing that phrase in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and thinking “you’ve got to be kidding,” the reason for the nutty title makes sense if willing to accept that the bard started out like an embryonic chick breaking through its eggshell rather than a fully developed hen ready to produce offspring.

Marlowe (Michael Perez) works with a frustrated Will Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger) in 'Shakespeare in Love' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, now through June 11, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Marlowe (Michael Perez) works with a frustrated Will Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger) in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, now through June 11, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay of the same title, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ starts with a young, struggling but talented Will Shakespeare.

He’s under pressure to hand over a new play to two different sponsors but is unable to go beyond a beginning phrase and a working title with “Ethel” as the heroine.

In the witty minds of Norman and Stoppard, Will needs help from friends, foes and rivals to replace Ethel and pirates with better protagonists.

What develops is the play that eventually becomes his famed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tragedy and also the germ of an idea that leads to the ‘Twelfth Night’ comedy.

Along the way, expertly guided by Director Rachel Rockwell and with spot-on portrayals from a talented cast, the Chicago Shakespeare version provides fascinating insight into the precarious profession of play writing and production,  men-only acting companies and the lack of women’s rights in the sixteenth century England of Queen Elizabeth I.

Kate McGonigle is delightful as Shakespeare’s muse, Viola de Lesseps. She dresses as a boy to be Romeo in his new play, but unmasked, she is the inspiration for his Juliet. Viola is also the name of the heroine disguised as a male in  ‘Twelfth Night.’

Nick Rehberger successfully depicts a somewhat bumbling, young, penniless Will Shakespeare who falls in love with Viola. He becomes so tongue tied talking to her he needs descriptive poetic phrases from his friend, playwright Kit Marlowe, well interpreted by Michael Perez.

Part of the fun of the play is that the characters, from theater owners and acting company managers to actors and playwrights, were real people back in Shakespeare’s time.

Viola (Kate McGonicale) dances with the uninvited Will (Nick Rehberger) at a ball held by her father. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Viola (Kate McGonicale) dances with the uninvited Will (Nick Rehberger) at a ball held by her father. Photo by Liz Lauren.

However, the play’s  message turns out to be that the Romeo-style Will and Juliet-style Viola don’t turn to suicide just because their romance can’t lead to a happily-ever-after ending.

Viola has been pledged to a titled gentleman who wants her family’s money to establish plantations in Virginia so she has to leave England with him. Will is already married although he says they are separated.

Of course Chicago Shakespeare’s physical theater complemented by Scott Davis’ scenic design adds the right historic setting, but Susan E. Mickey’s wonderful period costumes are important to set the characters into their station in English life.

Details: ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago,  now through June 11, 2017.  For tickets and other information call (312) 595-5600 and visit Chicago Shakes.




Scientific moral dilemma bumps against friendship and ambition


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.)


‘Aladdin’ has it all



If looking for a spectacular family show with fantastic music and dance numbers, eye-popping staging and costumes and an exotic fairy-tale style rags to riches, princess and palace story, then ‘Aladdin’ fulfills all those wishes.

'Aladdin' at the Cadillac Theatre. Deen vanMeer Photo
‘Aladdin’ at the Cadillac Theatre. Deen van Meer Photo

The Broadway musical, now at the Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre on its 2017 national tour,  is everything a show-goer would expect from Disney.

Although based on Disney’s 1992 movie, ‘Aladdin,’ the stage musical, has the type of fabulous dance numbers and costumes loved by Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfield.

Of course Tony Award winners are involved.  Casey Nicholaw from ‘The Book of Mormon’ is the director and choreographer and Gregg Barnes (‘The Drowsy Chaperone’) is the costume designer.

But families who loved the film will still have the score by Grammy and Academy Award winners Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice plus new numbers by Menken and Chad Beguelin who did the book

And there are the wonderfully familiar characters of the Genie, exquisitely interpreted by Anthony Murphy, Aladdin, delightfully portrayed by Adam Jacobs who played the title character on Broadway, and Princess Jasmine, the contemporary female role nailed by Isabelle McCalla.

Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine). Photo by Deen van Meer
Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine). Photo by Deen van Meer

Naturally, there is the diabolical Jafar played by Jonathan Weir with old-fashioned foiled-again style characterization and evil laughter who is joined in his quest for the sultan’s throne by the comic Iago (Reggie De Leon) who is human, not a parrot this time.

Aladdin’s three street pals are fun to watch in a skillfully done fight scene with palace guards. The trio are Zach Bencal as Babkak, Philippe Arroyo as Omar and Mike Longo as Kassim.

The whole story: an Arabian tale of poor boy meets titled girl, they fall in love, girl doesn’t want to have to marry a prince who will rule her or her kingdom, boy locates magic lamp whose genie turns him into a prince, girl and boy re-connect, are separated by an evil person and finally, wed, takes about 2 hours and 25 minutes including intermission.

Details: ‘Aladdin’ is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph St., now through Sept. 10, 2017. For tickets and more information call (800) 775-2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago.

Letts offers a vista of middle age



Viewer alert! If you’re a white, 50s-something male you might empathize with Wheeler in ‘Linda Vista,’ playwright/actor Tracy Letts’ latest  play with a middle-aged white, male protagonist. Otherwise you might wonder why this guy doesn’t move on.

Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora Vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Unlike Arthur Przybyszewski, the 50s-something proprietor of an Uptown  Chicago donuts shop in Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” Wheeler isn’t quietly fading away.

Instead his favorite word is “f…” as he loudly rails against the current US political scene, his almost ex wife, life in Southern California, his tendency to be in humiliating situations, his lack of ability, poor personality and karaoke.

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Characters represent ideas not real people in ‘Mystery of Love and Sex’



Playwright Batheseba Doran has placed opposite backgrounds and personalities into already trying circumstances in ‘The Mystery of Love & Sex,’ now at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

Haley Burgess and Travis Turner in 'The Mystery of Love & Sex' at Writers Theatre. Michael Brosilow Photo
Haley Burgess and Travis Turner in ‘The Mystery of Love & Sex’ at Writers Theatre. Michael Brosilow Photo

The play opens with college students Charlotte (Haley Burgess) and Jonny (Travis Turner), inviting Charlotte’s parents, Howard (Keith Kupfere) and Lucinda (Lia Mortensen), over to Charlotte’s dorm room for dinner.

Charlotte had chosen the college, somewhere in the South over Yale to be near Jonny, her long-time neighbor and dear friend.

Howard and Lucinda want to know more about the kids’ relationship and are determined to be understanding if Jonny becomes part of their family.

Charlotte wants to see if she should be having a deeper relationship with Jonny even though she admits to being attracted to a female college student. Underlying her concern is an attempt to kill herself years ago when she was bullied after saying she thought another girl was attractive.

But the play is about more than exploring sexual propensities. Charlotte is white and Jewish while Jonny is a black Baptist who believes in having a traditional, Baptist family even though he later admits to affairs with other males.

Then there are the parents’ problems. Howard, a successful mystery writer is a New York Jew and Lucinda, an elegant woman who needs a cigarette during tense situations, is a born and bred Southern belle who converted when they married. Their marriage is experiencing mid-life angst.

The situations of exploring sexuality, midlife-crisis, mixed faith marriages and mixed race relationships are real. But throwing them all into the same play has given the dialogue and actions a  contrived feel. That is even with the exceptional acting of Burgess as Charlotte.

Turner, who was outstanding in Lookinglass’ “Thaddeus and Slocum” and Second City’s “Longer, Louder Wagner” at the Lyric, appeared uncomfortable with his clichéd dialogue as Jonny.

As good as actors Kupferer and Mortensen are, it felt as if you were watching them perform the dialogue of representative characters rather than becoming real people.

Details: ‘The Mystery of Love & Sex,’ written by Bathsheba Doran and directed by Marti Lyons, is at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, now through July 9, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 and visit Writers Theatre.


CSO features Stravinsky and Fauré Requiem

There’s still a chance to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra do the “Funeral Song,” a recently rediscovered work of Igor Stravinsky.

Conducted by renowned Stravinsky interpreter Charles Dutoit  who is guest conducting the CSO now through April 15, the “Funeral Song”  is on the program tonight, April 8, at 8 p.m. and again April 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Dutoit guest conductor at CSO. Photo compliments of CSO
Dutoit guest conductor at CSO. Photo compliments of CSO

Stravinsky wrote the piece after the death of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov more than a century ago, but it was only rediscovered when its orchestral parts, found at the St. Petersburg Kimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory, were recently pieced backed together.

The Stravinsky work leads off a program that includes Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with soloist Truls Mork and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major.

For a special Easter program Dutoit will conduct the CSO in Fauré’s Requiem featuring the Chicago Symphony Chorus, soprano Chen Reiss and baritone Matthias Goerne April 13,14 and 15.

Reiss, an Israeli soprano who has performed with conductors Zubin Mehta, Sir Simon Rattle and James Levine, will be making her CSO debut. Goerne, a German baritone who has appeared at the Met, Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera, is returning to Symphony Center for the “Requiem.”

Dutoit is chief conductor and artistic adviser of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The programs are at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. For tickets and other information call (800) 223-7114 or visit CSO.


Beyond the daylight world


The power of ‘Beyond Caring,’ now premiering in the US at Lookingglass Theatre, is how ordinary the characters and their circumstances seem.

J Nicole Bbrooks, Wendy Mateo and Caren Blackmore in 'Beyond Carin' at Lookingglass Theatre. Liz Lauren photo
J Nicole Brooks, Wendy Mateo and Caren Blackmore in ‘Beyond Caring’ at Lookingglass Theatre. Liz Lauren photo

They are three female temp workers, two blacks and one Hispanic, that are so desperate for work that they take the night cleaning shift in a sausage factory and put up with an alpha-male boss who seemingly doesn’t care about their problems.

A fourth worker is an intelligent, black male who also does the shift but has been there for about two years.

After 90 minutes (no intermission) of watching Caren Blackmore as rheumatoid arthritis worker Ebony-Grace, J. Nicole Brooks as strong-willed, single mother, Tracy and Wendy Mateo as Sonia, a penniless Hispanic woman who is likely homeless, plus Edwin Lee Gibson as Phil, their depression-wracked co-worker, you deplore what they have to go through to keep overseer Keith D. Gallagher (Ian) happy.

It gets even worse towards the end of the play when the already exhausted workers are requested to stay longer because of a new sausage trial so they have to clean previously used grinding and other machines.

It’s ugly. But sitting just to one side of the action as a fly on dirty, bare walls, it feels as if what is viewed is a normal way of life for people who have no other recourse.

 Edwin Lee Gibson and Caren Blackmore in 'Beyond Caring'. Liz Lauren photo

Edwin Lee Gibson and Caren Blackmore in ‘Beyond Caring’. Liz Lauren photo

The feeling of coming into an actual, barren workplace, carefully created by scenic designer Daniel Ostling, is enhanced by the audience having to walk into the set through heavy, see-through plastic panels that separate the work room from the lockers.

The only part of the experience that would have been helpful would have been stronger back story definition so the audience could better understand the three women’s circumstances.

Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, the US premiere is his Americanized adaptation of the National Theatre production of his play that debuted in London. The Lookingglass play is a Dark Harbor Stories production by David Schwimmer and Tom Hodges.

Post –show conversations will be held following the 2 p.m. matinees on April 9, 16 and 23. In addition, Lookingglass is partnering with Chicago Worker’s Collaborative to bring people from Englewood, Elgin, Little Village and Waukegan to see the show at no cost, on April 9, 23, 30 and May 7.

Details: ‘Beyond Caring’ is at Lookingglass Theater in the Chicago Water Works building at  821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, now through May 7. For tickets and other information call (312-) 337-0665 or visit Lookingglass Theatre.

‘Silent Sky’ – the stars are in alignment


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.)