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Chicago Scene
by Michael A. Van Kerckhove
November 2005

Happy autumn, everyone! Well, it has been a year since the last election and now all those politically charged satires are but a memory. No W. lampooning this year, but there are plenty of theatrical offerings this new season to maybe help us forget that we still have three more years to go.

The Outer Circle
West Suburban Forest Park’s Circle Theatre closed its previous season in August with “What’s Wrong With Angry?” a coming of age, and coming out, drama by British playwright Patrick Wilde. The play — also the basis for the film “Get Real” — is often seen as an inferior cousin to “Beautiful Thing,” Jonathan Harvey’s play dealing with the same themes. But in Chris Jones’ Chicago Tribune review, he cites the talents of director Michael Matthews and his ability to cast well — and bring out stellar performances in his actors — to help make this a wonderful production of a mediocre script. In Scott C. Morgan’s Windy City Time write-up on the company, he quoted Artistic Director Kevin Bellie who received much positive feedback, including a letter from a closeted teenager: “He said the show changed his life, and that he felt he wasn’t by himself anymore."” That is the best review for which any piece of theatre can hope.

Circle kicks off the fall season with Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” followed by Neil LaBute’s “The Distance from Here.”

If Penguins Can Do It
In zoos from New York to Germany, stories of same-sex marriage in resident penguins have made for an interesting lens through which to look at our own raging debate. This fall, new Chicago theatre company, Theatre 5.2.1, takes the idea to the stage in “Tuxedo Love,” a musical by Laura Sturm and Jenna Newman about two male penguins (Jayson DeGeeter and David Fischer) who want to be more than just chaste zoomates. Opposition naturally ensues from other zoo animals such as the self, righteous Mr. Lyons (my friend, Michael Rashid) and a band of bully baboons. Part of the new company’s mission is to do a show for a 10-performance run, and then burn the script, never to be seen again: “The theatre of 5.2.1 is like a match struck in a dark room-illuminating, exposing, then burning out. Never to be struck again.” It is a fascinating idea, however, as Scott C. Morgan writes in his mixed review for Windy City Times, “the show…certainly has potential to be a contender.”

Ugly Baby
This September, our friends, playwright Philip Dawkins and director Eric Reda, took on gay marriage — and adoption — in the double bill of satirical one-acts: “Ugly Baby: 564 Things to Do with a Peanut & Bedfellas.” In the former, we find a gay couple in a hospital waiting room. Adoption plans go awry and minds change when they discover the child is the ugliest thing they have ever seen. The latter takes place behind the scenes of a gay wedding ceremony where the Jewish half of the couple learns that his Italian boyfriend is a member of the mob. Kosher meets gangster, as family members farcically come and go, and questions fly regarding love and trust. The show was produced by and was part of the Around the Coyote Fall Arts Festival, an annual event in Chicago’s Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood. The ensemble cast included Stephen Rader, Jaya Subramanian, Erez Shek, and Serina Brancato.

Dorothy in da House
Ernie and I are having a little “Oz Fest” this fall, and I don’t mean a heavy metal concert tour. The first installment: The House Theatre’s “The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz.” What makes this different from “Wicked” (our third and final Oz show on Thanksgiving), and our next one (details follow) is that this is a direct adaptation of Baum’s original story (and dare I say the classic film) by company member Phillip C. Klapperich. To understand The House is to realize its mission: “In The House, theatre, music, dance, magic, and spectacle combine to inspire the imagination, breaking down the barriers between actors and audience, uniting the two in the joy of storytelling.” Oz incorporates all these things in the forms of the Tin Man-as-folk-singer strumming a ballad about how he lost his heart, the Munchkins taking on various theatrical elements to bring Dorothy to speed on the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East, and by projecting the Wizard onto a column of cascading stage smoke. Cool. While the group has both its groupies and detractors, it has definitely made an impression on the Chicago scene in its three seasons.

When Oz Was
Part two of Oz Fest 2005 takes the form of “Was,” a new musical adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s 1992 novel. Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau directed the piece with book and lyrics by Barry Kleinbort and music by Joseph Thalken. It is the premiere production of the American Music Theatre Project, whose mission is “to nurture scholarship for music theatre as well as new voices in the art form.” The show, co-produced by Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre, was staged on campus with a mostly student cast. It is the story of the “real” Dorothy Gale (Alison Sparrow, then Morgan Weed) and the bleak reality of her time spent on a Kansas farm. There she meets Frank Baum (Brad Weinstock), a substitute teacher who is inspired by her story. It is the story of Jonathan (Dan Kohler), an AIDS-inflicted Oz-obsessed actor who flees to Kansas to find proof of Dorothy’s existence. It is the story of Jonathan’s psychiatrist, Bill (Weinstock), who, in the 50s, worked at a Kansas mental institution and cared for Dotty (Deanna Dunagan), an old woman who claimed to be Dorothy. Overall, the show does a good job at balancing the threads, making the connections, and finding the heart of the novel (cutting chapters from the perspective of Judy Garland’s mother and a make-up artist working on the movie.) It was a very long first act, however, and additional tightening would help give more of an impact. Still, the cyclone at the end of Act 1 — and a solid second half — hit the place in my own heart where Oz lives.

Orpheus in Chicago
When does a Chicago theatre company decide to produce Tennessee Williams’ myth-inspired tale of forbidden passion in small town Mississippi circa 1948? After Ernie and I saw an amazing production in August at the Stratford Festival of Canada. This fall, Chicago audiences were treated to American Theatre Company’s production of “Orpheus Descending,” Williams’ 1957 drama containing many of the playwright’s archetypal characters. Lady Torrance (Carmen Roman) is the middle-aged daughter of an Italian immigrant who runs a dry goods store whose patrons include many a gossiping townswomen. When the handsome drifter, Val Xavier (Steve Key), blows into town, he stokes passions in Lady long lost in her marriage to Jabe Torrence (Matthew Lon Walker), now a bullying invalid. With elements of past scandals, bigoted townsmen, and the unconventional and shunned Carol Cutrer (Cheryl Graeff) “Williams builds his tragic saga with excruciating deliberation until all hell breaks loose in the third act; that’s when this revival achieves gothic grandeur and Williams’s genius is manifest in all its grotesque glory.” (The Chicago Reader)

Rebecca’s a Rose
In other musical theatre goings on, Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off the season with the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents classic, “Gypsy.” Chicago music theatre rising star, Rebecca Finnegan (last seen as Mrs. Lovett in Porchlight’s "Sweeny Todd") stars as Mama Rose whose “eyes dart like Medea when they need to, but [who is] also a small-time Mama in the very best sense of that term.” (Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune) Jones goes on to say her take on the iconic song, “Rose’s Turn” “is mercifully muted, hesitant, unsure, and true.” While the physical limitations of the Theatre Building and the stripped down orchestrations make some “Gypsy” fans nervous, overall the reviews have been positive. The choreography, performances, and creative solutions to the limitations have drawn enough audience to extend the show into November.

For the Halloween season, Porchlight also presents “Macaberet,” a comedic musical review celebrating the macabre and morbid, whose satiric targets include supermodels and the Andrews Sisters. Porchlight presented the world premiere of the show in 1995.

Critics’ Picks
In Windy City Times’ Fall Theatre Preview feature, the paper’s theatre critics pick their favorites. A handful of their picks have November openings:

Next Theatre Company opens its 25th Anniversary season with Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” a young, gay man’s coming of age tale told on the drive home from his grandmother’s on Christmas Day. The play incorporates into the storytelling Japanese Bunraku puppets and the Japanese notion of the Floating World, which celebrates life’s fleeting quality. Wendy Robie, Troy West, and Julia Neary lead the cast. Artistic Director Jason Loewith directs. Through December 11.

Victory Gardens presents the Midwest premiere of gay Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz’s “Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams.” The play tells the story of a brother and sister’s search for each other set against the backdrop of both the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998 and the “Pedro Pan project” in 1961, which saw hundreds of Cuban children sent to America as their parents feared for them under the Castro regime. Directed by Diane Rodriguez. Through December 18.

This fall, Eclipse Theatre concludes it’s 2005 season dedicated to the work of Off-Off Broadway trailblazer, Lanford Wilson with “Talley and Son.” It is the final play in Wilson’s cycle of plays about the lives of the Talley Family of Lebanon, Missouri. Picking up where “The Fifth of July” and “Talley’s Folly” left off. “Talley and Son” examines a family beset with strains from within and without-and about to begin its inevitable decline — a powerful examination of American values at the end of World War II. Louis Contey directs at Victory Gardens. Through December 18. The company’s 2006 season will be dedicated to the works of Rebecca Gilman.

Blazing Trails
In other trailblazing news, on October 30, the Bailiwick Repertory handed out its 2005 Larry Osburn Trailblazer Awards, given to local and national gay and gay friendly leaders. This year’s honorees included:
  • Betsy Brill, founder of Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd.
  • Randy Gresham, founder of NewTown Writers (hence my attendance this year!);
  • Patricia Kane, playwright
  • Jason West, mayor of New Paltz, NY, who performed 25 same-sex marriages in 2003
  • Bruce Vilanch, comedic writer-performer-volunteer-Center Square

Congratulations to all! It was a fun and inspiring evening.

For the Holiday Season, Bailiwick presents “The Christmas Schooner,” a musical for the whole family. It is the story of journey across the icy waters of Lake Michigan as a boat’s crew brings Christmas trees to Chicago. Now in its 11th season. For more grown up fun, Bailiwick presents “It’s a Fabulous Life!,” a musical by Albert Evans and David Sexton “that celebrates real family values, as our gay hero faces troubles Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey never dreamed of. As Joe rehearses ‘Rudolph the Rainbow Reindeer,’ he is driven to the brink of despair by family, church, and political tides.”

Well, that is all, my friends. The days are shorter and the wind off the lake is chillier — which makes an evening at the theatre all the more cozy. Cheers to a fabulous Holiday Season! See you in the New Year.

“Chicago Scene” columnist and playwright, Michael Van Kerckhove,
may be contacted at

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