The Minutes

Steppenwolf Theatre Company brought out the big guns for the world premiere of “The Minutes,” the latest from Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts. The playwright is a bonafide literary superstar, and the first production of his new work is rewarded with a commensurate cast.

I’ve reviewed 126 shows for EDGE Media Network in the Chicago market, and feel blessed to have witnessed this particular mix of talent sharing a stage. With direction from Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, six ensemble members and other well-known performers unite to deliver a hilarious and menacing look at the political dynamics of a fictional city council. Think “Parks and Recreation” with a side helping of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “The Minutes” is quirky, current and frightening. Among other takeaway thoughts, I was left wondering what board of directors groupthink experience left Tracy Letts so jaded.

In press materials, the play is described as “a scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power that exposes the ugliness behind some of our most closely-held American narratives while asking each of us what we would do to keep from becoming history’s losers.” Just a few weeks removed from Columbus Day, and on the cusp of the Christmas season and its white-centric Jesus narrative, “The Minutes” forces audiences to reckon with the historical fairy tales that have always buttressed America’s claims to Manifest Destiny.

What a fine group of actors Steppenwolf has assembled to tell this story. Kevin Anderson, Ian Bradford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Petersen are the ensemble members drafted to “The Minutes'” dream team. Each embodies a small-town government caricature, starting with his or her unsubtle name.

Guinan for example, plays Mr. Oldfield, the council’s longest tenured member, and on the surface, a doddering man with parking space entitlement issues. Murphy’s Ms. Matz is a ditzy, disorganized young woman who shows up to meetings under the influence. Petersen’s Mayor Superba is a fittingly puffed up champion of ceremony and by-law.

During the first half of the 100-minute production (no intermission), these characters and others are played for laughs. And they get them. The chemistry between the seasoned performers is evident and satisfying. Seating Penny Slusher’s Ms. Innes next to Guinan’s Mr. Oldfield is a particularly directorial inspired choice. The pair of weary, disapproving elders have some of the best lines, and the give and take energy between Slusher and Guinan yields giggles even when their characters are silent.

Letts allows no pause between the plays farcical first half and the darkness that descends onstage in the second. Audience members who attended Tuesday night’s premiere were helpfully cautioned by Steppenwolf staff members to use the bathroom or take a second drink into the theater. No intermission means no time to catch one’s breath before the action takes a darker turn. When “Parks and Recreation” becomes “The Lottery.”

It would be an extra disservice in this case to reveal any spoilers, because the journey, however ultimately creepy, is its own reward. Suffice it to say the dramatic tension unravels through the municipal cipher of meeting minutes. And I can only thank the universe for allowing me to live long enough to see Francis Guinan dance Haka.

There are a few quibbles related to the script itself. Ms. Johnson’s herd mentality doesn’t jibe with the acts of record keeping resistance that propel the script toward its conclusion. A fine performance from Brittany Burch renders the deus ex machina diversion forgivable. And at the play’s end, Cliff Chamberlain’s Mr. Peel doesn’t count five offstage beats before re-emerging as a completely different person. I’d like to believe total character capitulation would be a somewhat more deliberate process.

But as I mentioned, these are mere quibbles and won’t prevent audience members from carrying “The Minutes” with them long after the curtain closes. This is an important work and theater lovers are unlikely to see this combination of artistry and talent again anytime soon. Any one of these actors can — and has — carried a production on his or her own. As a team, they are simply amazing.

“The Minutes” runs through January 7, 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website

Advertisements

Wild Boar

Scott Shimizu as Johnny, Fin Coe as Yam

 

As the curtain descends on Silk Road Rising’s United States premiere of “Wild Boar” it’s hard to escape the suspicion that something has been theatrically lost in translation. The work from acclaimed Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong passed through several notably capable hands before coming to the Silk Road stage. It seems there can be too much of a good thing because ultimately, the production just doesn’t work.

It’s hard not to root for a show that addresses so many urgent issues at once — freedom, censorship, income inequality and sexual dynamics among them. The press packet synopsis describes “Wild Boar” as a “gripping investigation of journalistic integrity, city planning, and social conscience… When a controversial professor goes missing, an editor and his student band together to publicize the truth. Old flames spark and friendships are tested in this intense thriller about media manipulation, fake news, and who gets to speak for the poor.”

Normally, a show’s plot summary doesn’t dive deep enough to expose the production’s shortcomings. “Wild Boar” is an exception. The work is clearly crammed with ideas, including a few left out of the program such as deforestation with a dash of magical realism. There is too much happening for an audience to digest in a meaningful way. Yet, underneath the scattered ideological indictments, there’s not enough character development to lay claims to suspense or thrills. The work lands with a narrative thud.

Where’s the breakdown? As I mentioned, Chong’s work was carried out of the theatrical kitchen by a number of cooks. “Wild Boar” was translated from Chinese to English by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith. From there it was adapted by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly,” “Yellow Face,” “Chinglish”) and directed by Helen Young. That’s four strong narrative voices struggling for control atop Chong’s original script.

As I found myself becoming progressively lost in what the production was attempting to say, I thought several times of the child’s game of Telephone. A message is shared, then distorted through individual consumption and interpretation so that the final result bears little resemblance to intention.

The consequence is that “Wild Boar” looks and feels like a familiar form of social justice propaganda. Upton Sinclair meets Hong Kong’s urban congestion. It is devoid of emotional investment. This is ironic and unfortunate considering the authoritarian ideas and expressions being critiqued. Is the flatness a result of too many ideas or voices, or a function of idiom lost between two wildly disparate languages? I wish I read Chinese so I could look for answers in Chong’s manuscript.

Instead, like most other American audience members, I rely on the artists who touch the material to make it come alive. In the Silk Road Rising incarnation, Chong’s dialogue does not. The only truly interesting, three-dimensional character work is performed by actress Emily Marso (Agent, Karrie, Sunny).

I didn’t even realize until I sat down to peruse the program after the fact that the actress inhabits three different personas. I can’t hazard a guess as to why this is necessary, as it also seems to be for Fin Coe, who plays two different men. I suspect there are thematic ties uniting the shapeshifting, but I don’t know what they are.

At a time when American democracy is feared to be on its own quick slide toward authoritarianism, a land of the one percent abandoning the Constitutional ideals of self-government and equality, liberal theater audiences should be ready for “Wild Boar.” Instead the Silk Road Rising production feels like it’s not quite ready for us.

“Wild Boar” runs through December 17 at Silk Road Rising, 77 W Washington Street, Lower Level, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-857-1234 x201 or visit the Wild Boar website.

 

Me Too: Louis C.K. Joins Hollywood’s List of Outed Sexual Predators

Yesterday afternoon, hours after the cancellation of his film, I Love You, Daddy, Louis C.K. publicly admitted that yep, he’s been a creepy wanker. I’d tell you what the shelved movie is about, but I can’t bring myself to type the words. So I invite you to read New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz’s account of needing a “barf bag” to endure the disgust. And oh by the way, C.K. – which is apparently an acronym for “cock” – also uses the “N” word in the movie. We really missed out, America. There’s just not enough self-involved, middle aged, white male stories of privilege being told (see: Election 2016).

C.K.’s fans have always found him edgy and – in a cruel irony – honest. The man traded on this reputation to create sometimes artistic, often funny content that also, from any angle, included plenty to make one wince. It was part of the brand. But hey, he was all in on Hillary Clinton, even if he felt the need to use the word “bitch” to describe her toughness. He has two young daughters. American audiences validated him. Unconventional feminist for sure, but we’ll take allies anywhere we can find them. Cool, I guess.

Except no. Louis C.K. and the guerilla-style perversions with which he attacked up and coming female comics were no secret to the industry. The power players – who are overwhelmingly male – enabled and uplifted a sick man who made them rich and famous by association. Let the shame hang on you now, Hollywood industrial media complex. You’ve also given us Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, Brett Ratner, Charlie Sheen, Woody Allen, Billy Cosby, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly and Casey Affleck. None of these men committed their wide range of predatory acts in the shadows. Some of them, like Charlie Sheen, made TV millions after allegedly assaulting a young Corey Haim, and knowingly exposing female partners to HIV. That’s #Winning in the anything goes patriarchy.

And of course, Louis C.K., a writer on The Dana Carvey Show in 1996, has been running around with his dick in hand for over 20 years. His own work made no attempt to camouflage it, and still he kept rising (pun acknowledged, if not intended). In March 2012, now-defunct website Gawker, published a blind item entitled, Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?

I’ll give you three guesses, but you only need one.

Five and a half years ago, the author wrote, “this shameless funnyman whips it out at the most inopportune moments, often at times when his female companions have expressed no interest in watching him go at it.” Yes, this checks out with what we now know. But appallingly, no one but the victims – two of whom who were intimidated by C.K.’s manager Dave Becky after one particular Aspen incident – would publicly say the emperor of American comedy was wearing no pants.

Well there were a few folks who decried the star’s penchant for pud pulling, but they’re women, lesbians or both. Why listen to them? Funny lady Tig Nataro, the deadpanned creator and star of Amazon’s One Mississippi, publicly distanced herself from her former collaborator long before the story broke this week. Jen Kirkman, Roseanne Barr and others have talked about Louie C.K.’s reputation as a glorified subway creep in an expensive trench coat. Nataro wisely advised the comedian to “handle that.”

As we know, after the quick flight of C.K.’s many entertainment partners this week, his weird, traumatizing business has been handled for him. No longer will the wildly successful comedian have access to talented, ambitious women he degrades by pleasuring himself. Louis C.K. belongs in intensive therapy, not on our screens. The victims deserve to be heard, if they wish. They must be believed regardless. And if the timing were not so totally cynical, while still lacking in honesty, the comedian’s Friday afternoon admission of guilt might have offered a chance to begin healing. The too little, too late, empathy is almost touching, nearly enlightened:

“I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not…. what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

We know there are more than five brave women who’ve endured the full Louis. C.K. experience. And we know that there are more predators hiding in Hollywood’s sunshine-filled plain sight. And that should make us all angry, mad enough to finally start calling these pigs back to the trough (I’m looking especially hard at you, male allies). There’s no excuse for Louis C.K.’s behavior. But the celebration and inner-circle secrecy that allows powerful men to illiberally victimize women and young boys is what’s truly inexcusable.

Handle that.

A Foggy Feminist’s Clarity

A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, October 21, I delivered an address at the Fall Conference of the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Wheaton-Glen Ellen, IL Branch. Or as Bob characterized it while watching a video replay of the speech, “Beckytime at the Apollo.” The clip betrays awareness of speaking to an audience comprised of my supportive, social justice-minded mother-in-law, a gaggle of former students and an army of elderly, pissed off academic women. If ever there existed a friendly crowd for the subject I was invited to engage…

Comfortable showmanship aside, my passion for the material was real as it gets. Because October 21 was an important day in recent feminist history. Exactly nine months after the international Women’s Marches of late January 2017, local AAUW leader Danielle Byron asked me to speak about the impact from a female journalist’s perspective. The group had two questions about the largest protests in U.S. history: “What has happened in the last nine months? And what is being ‘birthed’ for the future?”

So many ways to respond to these questions as an objective observer of a cultural moment, and I did use research and statistics to point to positive trends such as the 17,000 women and counting since Election Day who are looking to run for office. I discussed the ignominious downfalls of a growing list of bipartisan pigs who have built powerful careers on the abuse of women and children. The encouraging, growing social awareness that predators do not deserve our celebration and silence.

Yet I’m not an impartial observer of my gender, of the battles it has fought and must continue to fight, am I? By virtue of my anatomy, experiences and growing activism, I am both participant and recorder of this moment in history. Thus my AAUW address was sprinkled with quotes from my writing and started where any larger narrative offered with individual interpretation must – with my own story.

As longtime readers of this blog are well aware, I had a distressed childhood, raised by two mentally ill parents. Our home was one of addiction – substance abuse, compulsive gambling and my father’s obsessive compulsive disorder which manifested itself in hoarding rituals. These were the physical challenges, which were rivaled only by complicated psychological ones – pervasive, often counterproductive dishonesty, simmering rage and tribal divisions where the sides were always subject to change.

These formative experiences taught me a few important lessons that were perversely empowering as I grew into an adult:

  • Resilience: fall constantly, get right back up, regroup and charge forward again
  • An admiration for honesty and order versus cynicism and lies
  • A curious lack of awareness regarding traditional gender roles

I’ve reflected on the third lesson more and more often from the position of a 39 year-old woman growing in enlightenment (or trying her damnedest).

My father was the more ill parent and my mother, a registered nurse, was the family breadwinner. Neither parent taught me to sit pretty and wait for the proverbial knight to come along. I was encouraged to apply myself to, and excel at everything – studies, sports, music, fist fighting. My father in particular, was just as proud if I came home with an “A’ grade, a trophy, or a swollen lip from scrapping with a neighborhood bully of any gender identification. I knew intuitively and from my parent’s example that I was going to have to fend for myself in every sense of word. Everything would be a fight.

Frequently the fights occurred between myself and my mother, who established a competitive and adversarial relationship with her eldest daughter. Ritual shame came early and often as I worked to avail myself of opportunities Gloria never perceived herself as having. My rapport, such as it was with mom, was marked by a curious and painful Catch-22. I was driven to excel at everything I took on, yet if I shone too brightly at any effort, it was somehow an affront, evidence of arrogance. I was a source of bragging rights, or a cypher for my mother’s own bitter sense of wasted potential.

Well into my 20s, if you’d asked me which gender suited me better, I would have proudly and unselfconsciously replied that I was a “guy’s girl,” a tomboy who enjoyed sports and verbal sparring more than the color pink and making myself pleasant to everyone else. I never had more than two close girlfriends at a time. Like the young fool lacking in self-awareness that I was, I convinced myself I was more comfortable with men than women. It would be years before hard knocks, therapy, and an adulthood free of the bizarre, warping influence of my mother exposed a programmed traitor to my gender and its systemic inequality. I did nothing because I felt nothing. Because I was convinced all doors were open to us if we were ready to walk through them alone.

How awesomely, pitifully naïve. How sadly ignorant.

We will kick the unopened doors alright, but we won’t do so it solo. With each passing year, I embrace the “feminist” label attributed to my work in terms both derisive and admiring. I continue working to synthesize the shame and gender isolation I once felt, with gratitude for the opportunity to discover pride in my womanhood. The chance to continuously learn and grow, the privilege of being able to use my words and physical presence to agitate for change.

Toward the end of my AAUW remarks, I said this regarding the immediate future of our gender. But I was also painfully aware of personal challenges that lie ahead:

“We have so much work to do. So much in fact that it can be demoralizing. It can cause anger, paralysis, fear and plain old fatigue. It’s normal and it’s ok to give into it now and then. We need our rest, our quiet time, our emotional releases. It’s ok to ask why in the hell we still have to fight these fights.”

Yasmina’s Necklace

One part romantic dramedy, one part recent world history lesson and an all-encompassing story of human resilience and possibility, “Yasmina’s Necklace” is a substantial addition to Goodman Theatre’s 2017/2018 season slate.

Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik and director Ann Filmer collaborate to bring this excellent production to life with familiarity and respect. The two female artists developed a successful rhythm in 2016, working together on the play’s premiere at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois. Their comfort with the material — and each other — is evident in the faultless fluidity with which thought, word and action roll across Goodman’s Owen Theatre stage.

Per the press material synopsis, “Yasmina’s Necklace… explores two disparate Muslim families coming together as their children embark on a relationship.” This simple plot description is accurate as well as discreet, for the story transcends continental, cultural, racial and social divisions to yield a piece of art that is uniquely American. And uniquely appropriate viewing for this particular moment in history.

Nearly 15 years after our country’s spurious post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, more than six years after the commencement of the Syrian civil war and as President Trump’s nativist positions yield ideological and legal clashes over immigration and refugee policies, “Yasmina’s Necklace” forces audiences to take a look at the human costs of these events in totality. Blowing across the stage in gorgeous, intense gusts of pain, emotion and love, Malik’s script is a moving realization of the titular character’s paintings in all their complexity.

Sussan Jamshidi brings a formidable combination of strength and vulnerability to the role of Yasmina, “a young Iraqi artist who has hardened herself against the possibility of finding happiness after fleeing to Chicago from her war-torn homeland.” The refugee is tough and weary, however her personal trials have not diminished a will to help others escape terror.

Nor has Yasmina lost the ability to dream and create in inverse proportions to the limited emotional range on exterior display. Jamshidi, who also brought life to the character in 16th Street Theater’s 2016 production, treats her alter ego like the uncommon, modern social justice warrior she is. The actress’ performance fully exhibits the dignity Yasmina deserves.

The storyline stretches a full year between Yasmina’s initial meeting with Sam (Michael Perez), an American-born “salad” Muslim, born to an Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother. Sam’s confusion about marriage, corporate marketability and social mobility is reflected by a struggle with his given name, and stands in contrast to Yasmina’s wounded self-assurance. The duo’s initial dislike for one another is as organic as the attraction that develops over time.

Though the cast turns in lovely work without exception, it is no accident that the two women who grace the stage completely own the material. As Sam’s socially anxious but doting mother Sara, Laura Crotte is a marvel gifted with equal portions of comedic timing and dramatic presence. A theoretical distaste for aligning her family with blue collar refugees is quickly cast aside as Sara grows in love and appreciation for Yasmina and her father Musa (a completely winning Rom Barkhordar). Crotte gives audiences the biggest laughs as well as aching moments of quiet tenderness. She is astounding.

Allen Gilmore, a Jeff Award-nominee who impressed me in last spring’s “Objects in the Mirror,” is back on the Goodman stage as Imam Kareem, the spiritual advisor who helps Yasmina, Sam and their respective families navigate the challenges of uniting varied experiences into a cohesive, healthy present and future. My companion for the evening, never accused of possessing a strong memory, identified Gilmore from “Objects” without a need to open his program. In response to a quizzical look, he responded, “It’s that voice. I’d recognize it anywhere.” Fitting then that Glimore is cast as an authority, one happily lacking in condemnation and open to change. This forward-thinking imam even follows the Paleo diet.

“Yasmina’s Necklace” is full of wonderful surprises, heartrending emotion and excellent dramatic and technical work. A must see.

“Yasmina’s Necklace” runs through November 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3820 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.