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Chicago Scene
by Michael A. Van Kerckhove
March 2007

Greetings, everyone, and Happy Almost Spring! Chicago hit a deep freeze, (and Northwest Indiana was pummeled with snow.) Despite that, there have been plenty of post-holiday theatre treats. The spring season is shaping up as well.

Hypocrites on a Hot Tin Roof

The Hypocrites presented a December-to-February winter marathon of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams’ mega-classic of familial and sexual dysfunction and denial. The production was presented at the recently opened Building Stage West Loop warehouse performance space. The Building Stage as a company was “founded to support a working process that draws heavily on the physical theater tradition and its concept of the actor-creator.”

Hypocrites artistic director, Sean Graney, and his design team shared this mission as they transformed the entire space into a southern plantation. The space also allowed Graney to easily add his signature expressionistic touches.

The Jeff Recommended production featured Jennifer Grace as Maggie and John Byrne as Brick. Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun-Times) compared them, perhaps unfairly, to great Maggies and Bricks before them — Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Lange, Paul Newman, and Tommy Lee Jones — but felt they held their own as she proclaimed “the icy tension between these two [was] spot-on from start to devastating finish.”

The company is currently in the middle of their run of Maria Irene Fornes’ “Mud” through April 8, also at The Building Stage.

The Face of Justice

This winter, About Face Theatre presented a Chicago revival of Emily Mann’s 1984 docu-drama, “Execution of Justice,” the first major production in 20 years. Based on trial transcripts and other evidence, the piece tells the story of Dan White, the man who assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Despite being directed by Gary Griffin (The Color Purple on Broadway), and featuring an ensemble of 12 powerhouse Chicago actors, live percussion, and video monitors showing archive footage, the production received a mix reaction. A major question in reviving a work such as this rests in its ability to achieve its initial impact — in both style and content — with current audiences.

Chris Jones addressed this in his Chicago Tribune review. He felt that “from our current chronological remove, it doesn’t provide enough context.” Also, Mann’s decision to keep Milk out of the text and focus on White may have made sense at the time, but Jones felt that if you “watch this play now … you find you want more of the gay revolutionary and less of his assassin. Maybe thats because we’ve met so many more Whites since 1978.” He adds that “younger audiences need to see more of what he achieved.” Still, there are others who felt that the direct connection between the biases of 1978 and the ever widening social gap of today were plainly evident.

Next up for About Face is an internal revival of their cult hit “Pulp,” Patricia Kane’s take on lesbian pulp fiction novels. May 2-20.

A Thief in Rogers Park

This spring, The Side Project, Far Northside Rogers Park’s storefront theater pillar, presents the Chicago premiere of Lee Blessings 2000 drama, “Thief River.” The play tells the story of Gil and Ray, two farm boys from Minnesota whose 50 year plus relationship is shown at three periods of their life: ages 18, 43, and 71. Six actors play the couple (as well as other roles) as the years intertwine to show us their youth, the decision by one of them to move to the city, and their melancholic and haunted older age.

Blessing’s use of various archetypes and conventions has been both questioned and justified. Likewise, the inevitable comparison to the film “Brokeback Mountain” was in itself inevitable. In Rick R. Reed’s write up in The Windy City Times, Blessing tells of his unawareness of the Annie Proulx novella when he wrote the play seven years ago. One of the most glowing reactions comes from The Chicago Reader’s Albert Williams: “Even in its most intense moments of loving intimacy and brutal violence, [the play] is devoid of sentimentality, melodrama, and political grandstanding as it asks us to consider how its characters’ lives — and by extension our own — are shaped by conflicting values of changing times.” Through March 25.

White Horse of a Different Color

March treats us with another musical production by White Horse Theatre Company, whose mission is “to re-imagine the art of musical theatre through an innovative and diverse perspective.” This time around they present “The Wiz,” Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown’s urban adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.” Notices commend the ambition of this, not quite, 5-year-old group in tackling both the score and the story in an Oz-obsessed era in American theater and literature. For the most part, they succeed. Ease on down to Theatre Building to witness the show yourself. Through March 25.

Hell’s Revival

This winter, those queens of “parodage” (parody + homage) remount their musical send-up to women-in-prison films of the 40s and 50s, “Caged Dames.” Writer David Cerda and Director Scott Bradley took inspiration from such film titles as the 1950 Eleanor Parker vehicle, “Caged” and (according the Trib’s Chris Jones) “The Big Doll House” (with Pam Grier), and “Chained Heat” (with Linda Blair) to create their own story of an “innocent young woman … who … finds herself in the Calumet City Women’s Penitentiary at the mercy of the sadistic, “oyster-loving” prison matron, Elsie Emerson, and her sniveling love-struck sidekick, Schnitzy.”

What particularly drew Cerda to the original sources was “the noir style combined with exploitation film disguised as a women’s ‘message’ film.” All the right ingredients for a great Handbag production! And according the company’s blog, Cerda recently viewed the Maria Montez-Sabu film, “Cobra Woman.” Despite his overall disappointment, could this be the inspiration for the next Hellish romp? Stay tuned at

Plan Bernhard

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s “Traffic Jam Series” is a three-week winter festival, which “provides an intimate and unique intersection of language, lyrics, poetry and music, creating a fresh perspective on expressing the American story.” They recently welcomed comic legend Sandra Bernhard. This marked her return to Chicago after a five-year absence.

After a personally disappointing and smoky appearance on the Park West club stage in 2002, she took hold of the theatrical side of her roots for a new show, Sandra Bernhard is “Plan B from Outer Space.” In a phone interview with Chris Jones, she told him, “I have relinquished my tough, bitchy edge. I had to. I saw people racing past me on those reality shows.”

She apparently hasn’t lost her spirit as series producer, Tim Evans, remarked in his blog that “being in the path of the chaotic and remarkable tornado that is Sandra Bernhard” was one of the highlights of this experience.

The company is currently running Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in the Upstairs Theatre, Laura Eason’s adaptation of “Huck Finn” for the Young Adults Series, and is hosting The House Theatre for their production of “The Sparrow” in the Garage space.

A Toast to Dog & Pony

This Spring, Dog & Pony Theatre Company will present Noah Haidle’s comedy, “Mr. Marmalade.” 4-year-old Lucy is a lonely youngster wading through the dysfunction of her family with her imaginary husband, the titular business man who is anything but sweet. She talks to the plants and has a friend named Larry, who is pregnant.

I enjoyed reading the play when it was published in American Theatre magazine a few years ago, and would love to see this Chicago production. I relate to young Lucy’s attempts at making sense out of a world that’s forgotten her. The show runs April 5-May 5 in the downtown Storefront Theatre.

Little Bits

• NewTown Writers presented “Solo Homo 5” at their new home, Live Bait Theater March 5-7. I was on hand to present a new piece, “The Death of a Jock,” based on a poem I wrote in high school. Other performers included Mark Byrne, Cookie Crumbles, Sarah Haas, Joshua Kartes, Marcos Martinez, Aaron Nathan, Mike Rogers, Cin Salach, Joe Steiff, and James Wilke.

• My partner, Ernie, did much commuting between South Bend and Chicago to direct two wonderful shows for Young Audiences.

• The hit Broadway musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” ends its successful Chicago run at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place. It features my buddy Derrick Trumbly. The ends March 25.

Well, my friends, that wraps up this edition. May you all enjoy your shamrocks, chocolate Easter bunnies, and daffodils, until next time.

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

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