A dark tale of a white whale

Moby Dick by Theatre in the Dark. Clockwise from top L: Robinson Cyprian, Corey Bradberry, Elizabeth McCoy, composer Nick Montopoli, and Mack Gordon. (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Moby Dick by Theatre in the Dark. Clockwise from top L: Robinson Cyprian, Corey Bradberry, Elizabeth McCoy, composer Nick Montopoli, and Mack Gordon. (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

3 Stars

Theatre in the Dark metaphorically sets sail to harpoon the quintessential fish story that is “Moby Dick.”

Maybe you read it in high school or enjoyed Gregory Peck in the screen adaptation proffered one Sunday afternoon by Frazier Thomas on Family Classics, or maybe you’ve missed the story all together.

This 90-minute version of the tale crafted by producing artistic director Corey Bradberry captures the essence of Herman Melville’s classic seafaring novel. It does so in a kind of CliffsNotes fashion that preserves the storyline while doing fair justice to the primary characters including vivid descriptions of the elusive and menacing great white whale, itself.

No need to keep your eyes peeled. Theatre in the Dark is a Chicago based  company specializing in telling stories through sound so this production can be more accurately described as a live radio drama. In this case, it is broadcast via the Internet on Zoom.

The voice of Elizabeth McCoy as the narrator, Ishmael, has a fresh and active timbre. She provides a colorful tone that becomes the foundation of the aural composition.

However, her delivery, at times, is more reminiscent of a Saturday morning children’s librarian than that of an experienced youth intimately recounting details of a horrific, bone-chilling odyssey.

In his portrayal of third mate Stubb, Mack Gordon provides a grizzled gruff but kindly attitude that is imbued with a sense of camaraderie and discipline as well as a longing for home.

“Thar she blows!” He gives it the sweet taste of simple pleasures that have come to define the mental portrait of those hearty souls whose livelihood and willingness for adventure caused them to choose one of the most perilous vocations of all time.

The velvety basso tones of Robinson J. Cyprian as the vengefully obsessed and austere Captain Ahab offers the contrast needed to add aural dimension to the production while simultaneously suggesting the underlying foreboding of his true quest.

Augmented by original music of Nick Montopoli, the soundscape design of Bradberry and Gordon fully delivers the background auditory impressions required to set the stage. It puts the listener on the deck of the Pequod in the midst of the action.

Dim the lights. Don your foul weather gear. Then, settle down with your mug of grog to enjoy the recounting of this time-honored maritime adventure.

“Moby Dick” runs 90 minutes plus a 10 minute intermission. It is online through April 10, 2021. For tickets and information visit theatreinthedark..

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A Christmas Carol in the dark

3 Stars

 Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

Theatre in the Dark celebrates the end of 2020 with their spin on Charles Dickens’ beloved classic tale of self-reflection and repentance.

My first impulse is to suggest that this year more than others in recent memory is a perfect time to reflect on the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. But  I realize that human suffering and greed are continually with us to a greater or lesser degree and  that the Christmas spirit as defined by Dickens is our meager attempt once a year to rise above petty self-interests and consider the greater good. “God bless us, every one.”

“A Christmas Carol” is a fictional expose on the Victorian life and times of  Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a character whose very name has become synonymous with miserliness, as in “That guy is a real Scrooge.”

In the story, this tightwad scrimps on coal in the winter months, begrudges his only clerk a day off to celebrate the Christmas holiday with the family and, in response to a solicitation of aid to the poor asks, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

When pointed out that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge suggests that “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

His comment exemplifies a degree of callousness and disregard for the welfare of others for no reason other than to hoard his wealth which we learn brings him no personal pleasure.

As the story begins, Scrooge is visited by the specter of Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner. Marley warns of the torments he has endured in the afterlife as a result of his own greed and indifference. He suggests Scrooge may escape the same fate if he undergoes visitations with three additional apparitions – the ghosts of Christmas present, past and future.

Through a nightmarish one-night odyssey, Scrooge sees his negative effect on others, his disregard of positive role models and a lonely end and lamentable legacy if he does not change.

Dickens’ story continues to work as a modern day parable, revealing the darker nature that lurks within us all.

Scrooge’s journey of self-discovery demonstrates that we can each contribute by paying a little more attention to our place within our community and our part in society.

Observing the loving interactions of the Cratchit family and the kind words of nephew Fred, we realize that it is not just about money. We can be greedy with our emotions and personal interactions as well.

Dickens and the cast of Theater in the Dark also pull at our heart strings through the now iconic character of Tiny Tim who, in contrast to Scrooge, has come to exemplify innocent good cheer in the face of adversity and demonstrates that love does not require monetary wealth but can be given freely in abundance.

This iteration of “A Christmas Carol” is offered as an Internet version of a radio drama designed to be enjoyed in a now, largely bygone, aural tradition. Delivered via zoom it requires only a good set of speakers or a headset. The experience is very much like sitting around your living room reading aloud with friends.

There were no real standout performances though Corey Bradberry as Scrooge did a credible job weaving a thread of continuity throughout the production. The rest of the cast was more than adequate but really broke no new ground nor did they really rise to the level of any of the well-known movie versions or other well regarded stage adaptations.

Still, I do not fault Theatre in the Dark for taking a stab at this. After all, live theater is about having your crack at stepping into the skin of various characters and seeing what it’s like to be them.

This is an ensemble production with each of the actors Sarah Althen, Kathleen Puls, Mack Gordon, and Corey Bradberry playing several roles. The story was adapted and directed by Mack Gordon, featuring original music by Jake Sorgen with sound design by Gordon.

The danger of doing a classic is akin to being a cover band.  If you do not play exactly like the original you will be criticized for not being an exact replica. The other option is to be completely original so it is clear you are doing something fresh.

In this case, think Bill Murray’s version or the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, that has become a classic in its own right.

Unfortunately this company really did neither so the question becomes why choose this version over a number of other options? The main reason is the audio aspect.

If you or your kids have not experienced a radio drama you might find this a refreshing option. If the listener has no previous experience with the play they will be relieved of the burden of comparison.

Finally, Theater in the Dark offers a pay as you please option so it’s a great way to try something new while supporting smaller theater companies during the stay-at-home-period.

To be clear I did not dislike this performance but would put it into the realm of a very good reading as opposed to a thoughtfully well-crafted production. If you’re home with the kids, consider this as a way to develop listening skills sitting in the dark and enjoy some peaceful quiet time together.

Interestingly, the cast is simultaneously in Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver which expands the notion of live theater. The Internet performance is delivered via Zoom with the help of stage manager/sound engineer Cory Bradberry.

I listened via an iPad with amplified computer speakers connected via an analog cable which allowed me to easily adjust the volume in the room. There is no picture to be concerned with so screen sharing is basically a useless option. Also be forewarned that screen sharing via Zoom in most cases will not broadcast the audio so keep it as simple as possible by using a tablet or computer.

Theatre in the Dark is offering Live online performances of “A Christmas Carol” through December  24, 2020. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at www.theatreinthedark.com.  For info only (no ticketing), call (312) 285-0314.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reno Lovison

 

A broader Christmas Carol message

Manual Cinema A Christmas Carole (Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema)
Manual Cinema A Christmas Carole (Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema)

3 stars

Manual Cinema, an innovative company that blends story-telling, puppetry, actors, music and sound to tell a story, mixes Charles Dickens’ moralistic holiday tale with current phrases and crises in its premiere of “Manual Cinema A Christmas Carol.”

Given the current pandemic challenges, instead of presenting the show at Court Theatre where the company did “Frankenstein” or Chopin Theatre for “End of TV, its take on the Dickens’ story streams live to audiences per performance from Manual Cinema’s Chicago studio.

An early clue that audiences will be experiencing more than the basic story of Scrooge’s enlightenment, are the cards on a mantel behind actor/puppeteer N. LaOuis Harkins who introduces the story as Aunt Trudy and is the voice behind each character. The cards range from holiday wishes to get well and condolences.

“Trudy,” married to Joe whom she said died of COVID in August, is going through her late husband’s story-telling box of puppets. Her seemingly drawn-out reluctance to use them and present the tale for family members on zoom, makes sense at the end.

But the story needs to unfold so no ALERT here. Just appreciate the tale’s broader message. Oh, and have Kleenex handy for the graveyard scene.

The show is 60 minutes followed by chat time with performers. For tickets and more information visit Manual Cinema/Christmas Carol.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

A Dickens of a story

 

One-Man A Christmas Carol by Writers Theatre (Photo by Joe Mazza)
One-Man A Christmas Carol by Writers Theatre (Photo by Joe Mazza)

3 1/2 stars

So many Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to see On Demand, stream live or hear, such as Goodman Theatre’s audio drama. And so little time. Wait! With the pandemic still going on there is plenty of time to catch a couple more interpretations.

Among them is Writers Theatre’s “One-Man A Christmas Carol” acted, narrated and adopted by Artistic Director Michael Halberstam, reviewed here. Another one that will be reviewed tomorrow is Manual Cinema’s “Christmas Carol.”

Because each production is different and brings the strengths of a professional team, all three shows merit time and ticket. Given Dickens’ adroit telling of his moralistic, ghostly novella, “A Christmas Carol” is a story worth repeating.

Viewers of the Writers Theatre’s show, produced in collaboration with HMS Media and directed by Stanton Long, are sure to get caught up in Halberstam’s portrayal of Scrooge, the ghosts, the Cratchit family and assorted other characters.

Background projections occasionally add interest to the telling although it would work as well as a radio show. What does work for me is that, though annotated, Halberstam does use Dickens’ original words and phrases.

What I didn’t expect, considering how often I’ve seen different productions of “A Christmas Carol,” is to tear up during the ghost of what’s to come’s visit to the Cratchit household.

That poignant scene really showcased Halberstam’s fine acting.

For ticket and other information visit Writers Theatre or call (847) 242-6000.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

A modern spin on a classic toy story

The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)
The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)

3 stars

“Steadfast Tin Soldier” is reprised for the third year (this year online) by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The plotline devised by nineteenth century Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen might be described to a modern audience as Toy Story 1.0.

It is difficult to say when or where the idea of a theatrical performance about the secret life of toys may have begun. There is of course The Nutcracker Suite, another perennial favorite and no doubt others that predate them both.

In this toybox tale a damaged tin soldier falls in love with a beautiful dollhouse ballerina who is already evidently in a relationship with the somewhat hideous jack-in-the-box.

An unfortunate turn of events sends our soldier hero on an odyssey that separates the lovers until their surprising reunion with a shocking twist.

This version written and directed by Mary Zimmerman presented as a pantomime, has no dialog, relying heavily on the physicality of the actors to tell the story.

The five person cast features Lookingglass Ensemble Members Kasey Foster (Ballerina) and Anthony Irons (Goblin), with Joe Dempsey (Nursemaid), John Gregorio (Rat), and Alex Stein (Steadfast Tin Soldier). In addition to their primary roles each member plays a variety of subordinate roles as well.

Joe Dempsey and John Gregorio are responsible for much of the comedic action with the highlight being a romantic encounter between a Fish Monger and the Nursemaid.

Foster and Irons perform an amusing, slow-motion skirmish as two boys who tussle over the found toy soldier with choreography by Tracy Walsh.

The evocative original music score composed by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert is skillfully executed by Leandro López Várady (Music Director/Piano), Greg Hirte (Violin), Juan Horie (Cello), and Constance Volk (Flutes) in a post-modern genre with jazz elements. The effect is reminiscent of a silent movie with the music setting the tempo of the action and providing emotional accents.

There are no songs per se but rather a series of instrumental vignettes and therefore no lyrics except for the finale number that sort of sums up the moral of the story for those who might be a bit confounded by the various goings on.

My first impulse is to say that this is a non-traditional performance but then I realize that is only true in a modern sense. Actually this production is full of ancient stage craft borrowed from a number of traditions.

There is of course pantomime, music, puppetry large and small designed by Chicago Puppet Studio, circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, and body movement that can certainly be included in the realm of dance, though this is not a ballet to be sure.

Virtually any person from essentially any language group or culture would be able to understand the essence of this story that portrays basic archetypes experiencing universal human relationships.

Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic along with her team provide a kaleidoscope of color and bold fabrics that would rival a Venetian masquerade. Dramatic oversized hats and body silhouettes give the production a kind of Alice in Wonderland feel that accentuates the fantasy.

A two legged deer in fancy dress offers a dreamlike effect with a touch of absurd elegance. The giant baby head and hands, big eyeball peeping inside the dollhouse and anthropomorphized rat, all contribute to the phantasmagorical quality that borders on a nightmare or at least an oversized children’s book.

As a kind of caution, it is fair to say that by some modern standards the characters of the steadfast soldier and ballerina might be regarded as predictable and cliché so should be considered within the context of the time in which they were written.

It is also important to remember that Anderson like the Brothers Grimm did not avoid tough subjects that warned of the harshness and unfairness of life. After all Anderson wrote of a ballerina whose feet are cut off to break a dancing spell and a little match girl who ironically dies in the cold.

At a time when we are all challenged by outside forces, when little boys are taught that they do not always have to be “good soldiers” and little girls can be something other than ballerinas, this could be a good catalyst for discussion about gender roles and in the age of COVID, how each of us deal with adversity and even death.

The entire performance is notably only one hour long which combined with the amusing storyline and delightful theatrics makes this an ideal first experience for younger or otherwise uninitiated theater goers.

I am sure it was originally conceived to capture the attention of Michigan Avenue shoppers who would be happy to have a short respite to round off their holiday excursion before returning home.

However, I think it is fair to say that though an entertaining visual spectacle, this is not exactly a feel good holiday story.

Parents who bring children with curious minds should be prepared for some difficult questions relating to the fate of the main characters.  I would not recommend this for children under twelve.

The production holds up well as an Internet presentation though I suggest trying to get it displayed on the largest screen possible, and perhaps most importantly, with the best sound system you have available. Both of these factors are likely to enhance your enjoyment especially if you are viewing it with other people.

I briefly previewed the performance on my desktop with a 19” monitor and some decent speakers but watched the entire production via Roku using the Stellar app on a 32” TV (sitting pretty close) with headphones that provided exceptional sound. This proved to be quite an effective experience.

If you have a large screen TV 50” or more with a good sound-bar or speakers I think you will be quite pleased when viewing this via the Stellar app with multiple people.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier runs 1 hour with no intermission through December 27, 2020 online. The production will stream through Stellar which manages ticket validation and program delivery. Tickets and information is available at lookingglasstheatre.org

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reviewer Reno Lovison is maintaining social distance and enjoying the intersection of theater and technology.

Tis the season for ‘A Christmas Carol’

Larry Yando as Scrooge in Goodman theatre's audio version of 'A Christmas Carol' (Photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre
Larry Yando as Scrooge in Goodman theatre’s audio version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre

3 stars

Goodman Theatre’s long-running holiday favorite opened Dec. 1, not as a play on Goodman’s Albert Theatre’s stage or a show filmed live to be seen on certain dates or a zoomed show to watch now and later.

Running through Dec. 31 at carol.goodmantheatre.org, Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol” in 2020 is a fresh, 80-minute production performed as an audio play.

Starring Larry Yando who after years of portraying Dicken’s transformation of mean miser into giddy, generous gent, can most assuredly do Scrooge’s bah humbug in his sleep. Directed by Jessica Thebus, he and the rest of the cast bring the tale to life even without visuals.

However, it does matter how you listen. When first tried on my computer, I had trouble hearing all the words distinctly pronounced. But when tried later on facebook on my iPhone, it sounded much better. So, tip 1: If happy with the sound don’t worry but if not, try other devices. I didn’t catch all the narration when originally listening. But since the show does not have visuals so you know what is happening, the narration is very important. Chicago actor, writer, director Andrew White does an excellent job guiding listeners through the actions as the show’s narrator.

Secondly, although I do listen to music and news on the radio I felt I needed more to get into the personality of the recording and the  actors doing the show. So, tip 2: Before clicking on the show go to carol/goodman, click on The Play at the top and scroll down to the Behind-the-Scene trailer.

One last thought. The sound effects are excellent as is the music but I needed some magic. So, tip 3: Visit A Christmas Carol/35th Anniversary/ you Tube to learn about the show’s beginning, a director’s and Yando’s thoughts on the story and see a couple of short clips.

Enjoy the retelling in a different way.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

Related: Chicagotheaterand arts.com/around-town

Black Ensemble presents a battle cry

 

Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater
Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater

‘Legends the Musical: A Civil Rights Movement Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’

3 stars

Jackie Taylor, the amiable creative heart and soul of Chicago’s beloved Black Ensemble Theater, has declared 2020 as the company’s Season of Change. She opens with this original, ambitious, musical battle cry, a movement against the injustice and bigotry that’s overtaking our country today thanks to an administration that has set our country back 200 years.

And this is just the beginning of Taylor’s aggressive theatrical approach to helping combat the racism that’s reared its ugly head in America.

Continue reading “Black Ensemble presents a battle cry”

Start spreading the news ‘Judy and Liza’ are fabulous!

 

Left to right, Alexa Castelvecchi and Nancy Hays star in Judy & Liza. (Photo by Tyler Core)
Left to right, Alexa Castelvecchi and Nancy Hays star in Judy & Liza. (Photo by Tyler Core)

4 stars

Imagine what it was like in 1964 when Judy Garland and her daughter, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli, performed together for the first time at The Palladium Theatre in London. This was the only time these two superstars performed in a live concert together and it was electrifying.

Now, Chicago theatre-goers can experience the thrill of “Judy & Liza — Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert – A Tribute” at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The show is co-produced by Greenhouse and Nancy Hays Entertainment, Inc.

Continue reading “Start spreading the news ‘Judy and Liza’ are fabulous!”

‘Middletown’ encapsulates the comedy and tragedy of life

 

left to right Adrian Zmed, Sandy Duncan, Kate Buddeke in Middletown. (Photo courtesy of GFrour Productions)
left to right Adrian Zmed, Sandy Duncan, Kate Buddeke in Middletown. (Photo courtesy of GFrour Productions)

3.5 stars

Be prepared to laugh and cry If you go to see “Middletown,” a GFour touring production now at the Apollo Theater.

Written by “Timekeepers” playwright, Dan Clancy, the play’s strength is how it captures some of life’s funny moments and extreme low points as they are experienced and shared by two couples.

Continue reading “‘Middletown’ encapsulates the comedy and tragedy of life”

‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ is no mystery

 

Left to right, Elaine Carlson, Tracey Greenwood in Mrs. Warren's Profession. (Photo by Tom McGrath)
Left to right, Elaine Carlson, Tracey Greenwood in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. (Photo by Tom McGrath)

3 stars

It is late summer 1905 and Mrs. Kitty Warren (Elaine Carlson), a seemingly wealthy woman with no known extended family, finally reveals to her curious adult daughter how she is able to support their comfortable lifestyle.

Continue reading “‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ is no mystery”