“In 2000, the United States had not felt the full pain of NAFTA and its crippling of the blue collar workforce. We had yet to experience the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the dot com bust, a housing market implosion and an ensuing, not coincidental spike in opioid addiction that followed these events.
By 2008, we had waved goodbye to Clinton’s budget surpluses, years of relative international peace and the promise of economic stability for those willing to work hard and pay their union dues. The methodical union busting that swept through American industries following NAFTA’s passage drives much of the action in Ms. Nottage’s electric script.
Veteran Ron OJ Parsons returns to direct Goodman Theatre’s rendering of Sweat. The story examines the lives of two generations of friends in a Pennsylvanian Rust Belt town just before, during and after everything about the community’s economic rubric changes. Where generations of residents once moved from high school graduation to factory floor, guaranteeing good wages, a pension and ability to provide for their families, NATFA demanded the acceptance of a new paradigm. Relocated production and the undercutting of worker bargaining which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II became the new normal. Opportunities and bank accounts shrank while the temptation to scapegoat “others” (typically immigrants and Americans with brown skin) proved irresistible.”
“Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls has chosen well in selecting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for a new adaptation, currently onstage in the Albert Theatre. One hundred and fifty years after its debut, the play’s themes feel ripped from today’s headlines. Press materials succinctly describe Ibsen’s complex masterpiece as follows, “When a water contamination crisis puts their community in peril, two brothers—Dr. Stockmann and Mayor Stockmann—face off in a battle of political ambitions and moral integrity.”
If this synopsis evokes visions of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or if it reminds one of the Flint water crisis, which is approaching its fourth lead-fueled anniversary, this is no accident. Falls’ staging of An Enemy of the People tweaks the timeless source material just enough to leave absolutely no doubt that we’re looking at today’s sociopolitical climate. Ibsen was ahead of his time but he didn’t coin the term ‘fake news.’ Audiences will see terrific actors in comely period costumes rather than MAGA hats, but Falls and his production team won’t let us leave Trump’s America.”
“Sometimes a fantastic piece of art is offered at the perfect cultural moment for receiving its honesty, and it amplifies a work that would still be effective in a vacuum. Such is the case with Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere of The Wolvesfrom playwright Sarah DeLappe.
#MeToo meets the empowered social consciousness of Generation Z in this 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist. DeLappe’s work introduces a number of twists to bring freshness to the teen girl coming-of-age comedy-drama. For one, all of the onstage action occurs on a truncated soccer field. Scenic design veteran Collette Pollard, a regular Goodman contributor, should clear space on her mantel come awards season. By the end of the performance, I was ready to fold my program into a Jeff Award and hand it to her. It’s hard to overstate how well the creative team as a whole executes DeLappe’s vision.
The dynamic and diverse cast of 10 young women who make up the players and supporters of a fictional soccer club do so much more than provide an audience with real, accessible and imperfect characters. The Wolves is a literal exercise in personal growth. For 90 minutes, these girls grapple with issues as complex and relevant as racism, eating disorders, death, sexual discovery, menstruation, gender dynamics and more – all while doing calisthenics. It’s like watching old Michael Jackson concert footage – how could he continue singing full-throated AND dance that way?”
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.
In art, truth — the search for it, the lack of it and the emotional pain these activities impose — is a universal concern. What is human life if not the constant pursuit of trustworthy community and informational reliability? The struggle provides endless creative inspiration. Yet somehow, in 2017 America, “Objects in the Mirror,” the work of Chicago native Charles Smith, arrives on the Goodman Theatre stage that much more urgently.
As I write these words, our country is struggling through a nascent Constitutional crisis that has its roots in the mysterious relationship between the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It could be months, even years before facts are laid bare and outcomes are decided. And while this catastrophe plays itself out on the world stage, works of art such as “Objects” remind us of an inescapable, universal truth. The reckoning always arrives. Always.
Playwright Charles Smith met a young, hungry actor in Adelaide, Australia in 2009. As press materials detail, Smith’s friendship with Shedrick Yarkpai grew, ultimately resulting in this story of the actor’s “valiant 10+ year (1995-2007) journey from war-torn Liberia through a number of refugee camps in Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, before his final relocation” to the Land Down Under.
As played by Chicago actor Daniel Kyri, Shedrick is a conflicted survivor: loyal, earnest and brokenhearted over separation from his mother Luopu (the phenomenal Lily Mojekwu). He is determined to build a life of which he can be proud, despite years of human horror and Dark Side temptation.
Though it’s impossible to be certain of playwright Smith’s process, it’s hard to overlook the parallels between Liberia’s brutal warlord Charles Taylor and the current President of the United States. The foot soldiers and water carriers of both regimes are desperate and disillusioned. In Shedrick’s retelling of his personal and national history, any community and security is sometimes preferable to frightened, isolated starvation. The Trump administration has steered clear of indiscriminate murder to be sure, but it’s not hard to feel the country slipping down an increasingly deep and morally corrupt surface.
It’s a testament to Yarkpai’s story, Smith’s writing and Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith (no relation) that “Objects” can feel so universal and personal, even as the action takes place “over there.” It also helps that every cast member is exquisitely talented and well chosen. In addition to powerful work from Kyri and the remarkable Mojekwu, Allen Gilmore as Uncle John Workolo is a revelation.
Workolo is the relentless center holding his tortured family together. His personal motto, repeated more than once during the play’s two-hour, 15-minute runtime, is that his kin and he survive or fall as one. He channels his considerable energies and focus into the noble pursuit of his family’s survival. He also seeks a life of which he can be proud — one in which a relationship with the truth is dictated by circumstances of the moment. Uncle John thinks on his feet, but his decisions are not always kind. Gilmore wrings every bit of emotionally-relatable nuance out of the material.
Ryan Kitley also turns in a good performance as Rob Mosher, an Australian lawyer who takes a personal interest in young Shedrick. The beauty of Kitley’s turn, the delicate artistry in fact of the entire cast, lies in uncertainty.
It’s possible to believe every player in Shedrick’s story means well without any confidence that anyone is telling the truth. Shedrick himself, while certainly sympathetic, demonstrates unreliability as a narrator. Does he make up drug experiences as a test of Mosher’s loyalty, as he tells Uncle John, or is his father figure the one being tried?
“Objects in the Mirror” is a gripping piece about the physical, metaphorical and spiritual challenges involved in living authentically. It deserves a wide audience.
“Objects in the Mirror” runs through June 4 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.
During the whip-smart first half of “Gloria,” Lorin (Michael Crane), a 37-year-old Head Fact Checker at a wheezing New York-based magazine, laments his state of living. Bored with a time consuming, dead-end job, surrounded by malcontents and suspicious that this may be all there is, Lorin opines that death must be not only sweet relief, but one’s first (and presumably only) opportunity to be noticed.
Such bitterness and cynicism permeates “Gloria,” a misanthropic look at two 21st Century workplace threats: technological displacement and disgruntled colleagues. A 2016 Pulitzer Prize-finalist from MacArthur Foundation Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the work strikes an engrossing balance between shock and familiarity that will necessarily follow audience members out of the Albert Theatre.
Directed by Evan Cabnet, who also helmed Goodman’s funny, disquieting and resonant 2013 production, “Teddy Ferrara,” this iteration of “Gloria” benefits from the original cast of the off-Broadway mounting. The syncopated performers know the material — and each other — which permits the script’s caustic humor to spew forth organically. Because absurdity and the fragility of life can be damned funny.
Press materials accessibly describe the plot as a meditation on Millennial office politics. “A group of ambitious twenty-somethings at one of New York’s most esteemed cultural magazines are pursuing it all — style status and success. When a seemingly normal day at the office turns out to be anything but, these aspiring journalists recognize an opportunity to seize a career-defining moment.”
I suppose that sketch is handy, but Jacob-Jenkins’ material is so much richer than convenient tropes. Suppose, as the opportunistic Kendra (a glorious Jennifer Kim) offers, that the slow destruction of print media and journalism can be blamed on factors beyond the monolithic growth and presence of the Internet. What if New York City’s famous gentrification and unaffordability is rooted in more than real estate trends and urban scarcity?
“Gloria” asks us to consider the possibility that the Yuppies and Baby Boomers who indulged, slacked and ennuied their way through the Me Decade and the Dot Com Boom, ruined socioeconomic and media career opportunity for everyone born after 1985. More than just provocative story material, the controversial idea is supported by a growing body of academic research pointing fingers in the direction of the post-World War II generation. A quick Google search yields article titles such as “Baby Boomers are Ruining the Entire World” and “Baby Boomers Ruined America: Why Blaming Millennials is Misguided.”
If the children of the Greatest Generation gobbled upward mobility and meritocracy like so many swarming corporate locusts, what’s left for today’s workers? Squeezed by low wages and high costs of living, teased by an American Dream displaced by continuous insecurity, mental health and self-esteem are increasingly difficult to balance. And the script seems to suggest that the excessively hungry, inhuman ambition displayed by some of the leads is a natural result. The new “Greed is good” as it were in a culture where there no longer seem to be any road maps.
“Gloria” is explosive, uncomfortable, hilarious and brilliant. I’ve already singled out Jennifer Kim, who does some great work as the unabashedly arch and calculating Kendra. Kendra’s frenemy Dean, inhabited by Ryan Spahn, is a portrait of sycophantic ingratiation that cannot withstand the intrusion of human desperation. And Janine Serralles brings surprising emotional heft to the role of Nan, a Generation X editor caught between culpability and a need for reinvention.
I have one minor quibble with “Gloria.” The use of operatic intros, outros and imagery feels a bit heavy handed. The material is tragic enough without the ham-fisted arias that seem otherwise irrelevant to the plot and character arcs. But this is easily forgiven by the truly original nature of the rest of the work.
As my companion and I finished a pre-show dinner, our server commented that she’d heard “mixed reviews” of the production. I’ve no doubt. This is a tough piece, with jarring, often discordant emotional demands. It may prove too much for the casual theater goer looking for mindless entertainment. Those who enjoy being provoked however, should clear space on their winter theater calendars.
“Gloria” runs through February 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.
Last year I went with a close friend to see a staging of “Carousel” at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. A rare Broadway turn for the famous venue, I was excited by the certain high-quality production values as well as a first viewing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
Oh the misogyny! I should have read the script before purchasing a ticket. I was not on critic duty that evening, just trying to enjoy a civilian evening at the theater. And I understand that the material was adapted in 1945 — certainly a different time for American gender relations. I can appreciate that perspective, but I’m just the wrong cat to indulge the sexist horror that is Billy Bigelow — in life and in death. While my pal wept at the production’s well-acted emotional denouement, I wanted to break the third wall for a serious feminist discussion with Julie Jordan.
So when I accepted an invitation to see and review “Wonderful Town,” the latest Mary Zimmerman-helmed production at the Goodman Theatre, I braced myself. The 1953 Tony Award-winner for Best Book of a Musical features 20 songs created by the legendary Leonard Bernstein. The music almost guaranteed to win, I scoffed at the brief plot synopsis. “Two sisters, one city, unlimited possibilities.”
Let me guess: another dated New York love story. Two female siblings, one beautiful and destined for great love, the other creative and intelligent but certainly a supporting character overlooked by the opposite gender. Each woman bound to be defined by male relationships.
I’m eating my prejudices as I type, washing down the cynicism with a refreshing glass of water. Because “Wonderful Town” was — and remains — a creation ahead of its time. Imagine if Lucy and Ethel were unmarried, career ambitious and in possession of more love and loyalty for one another than any man could equal. Think “Sex and the City,” post-WWII style (without the sex).
This is the story of elder sister Ruth, a budding fiction writer and reporter, and Eileen, an ingénue yearning for her big performance break. Director Zimmerman places the action in 1950s Greenwich Village rather the original Depression-era and it’s a great choice. Distant from post-1929 panic with its physical and cultural hunger, Set Designer Todd Rosenthal gives us a dreamlike, cotton candy land of artistic community. Yet the pieces remain functional and when necessary, convey the grime of a working class Big Apple.
What’s not grimy at all are the gorgeous costumes from Designer Ana Kuzamanic. The flounce and color are a perfect match for the rotating set. Even the frumpiest chorus characters are infused with enchanting whimsy.
It would be misleading however, to interpret all the fun shades and soft lighting as a statement of one-dimensional simplicity. No indeed. Ruth (Bri Sudia) and Eileen (Lauren Molina) are much more than their humble Midwestern roots and wide-eyed city freshness imply. They may wonder in song why oh why-o they ever left “Ohio,” but these gritty girls aren’t afraid of a little rejection, mansplaining or even jail time, in their determination to make it.
With delight it eventually dawned on me that Ruth is the main character of “Wonderful Town.” Infused with the power of the pen and far from man hungry, Ruth routinely sets her pride aside in the quest for a good story or better opportunity. I have already said that this work is ahead of its time. Spoiler alert: though she does end up paired with a partner, it’s one who needs her far more than she depends on him.
The soundtrack is delightful, no surprise given the Bernstein legend. Standouts include “One Hundred Easy Ways,” a humorous look at female empowerment as a detractor for the conventional man, and “Pass the Football,” a prescient treatise on celebrity culture.
At over two and a half hours with one brief intermission, “Wonderful Town” is on the longish side. However time flies with all the visual, audio and performance stimulus keeping the audience moving. It’s not a perfect show and there’s certainly some standard musical comedy deus ex machina to tidy the ending. That’s about the only convention viewers will find. Enjoy the precocious, lovely ride.
“Wonderful Town” runs through Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.