Objects in the Mirror

Lily Mojekwu (Luopu Workolo), Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) and Breon Arzell (Zaza Workolo)

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.

Gloria

gloria
Ryan Spahn (Dean), Jennifer Kim (Kendra), and Catherine Combs (Ani) in ‘Gloria’

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.

Wonderful Town

wonderful-town
Jordan Brown (Wreck), Kristin Villanueva (Helen), Bri Sudia (Ruth) and Lauren Molina (Eileen)

 

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 ingĂ©nue 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.

 

Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews. and Casseroles: 1976

Soups
Cliff Chamberlain as Kim Durst and Ty Olwin as Kyle

The very first production I ever saw and reviewed on behalf of EDGE Media Network was 2009’s “The Crown You’re In With.” Running at Chicago’s legendary Goodman Theatre, the work was my inaugural Rebecca Gilman experience. An artistic associate of the company as well as a member of the vaunted Artistic Collective, Gilman is an original talent with the ability to weave stinging sociopolitical commentary into unapologetically human stories using sharp, witty dialogue.

The Chicago premiere of “Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” marks the eighth collaboration between Goodman and Gilman, a slate of artistic offerings that also includes “Luna Gale,” winner of the 2016 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. The newest production bears a hackneyed tagline that belies its intelligence: “Life was sweet in a small Wisconsin town… then corporate America came to the table.” The good news is this marketing sin is entirely forgivable.

Dramatic voiceover trope aside, the destructive themes with which the script grapples are appropriately ominous. Because when the curtain rises on the small-town Wisconsin Durst family, introducing them as completely dependent on the area’s only large employer, Farmstead Cheese Factory, we already know how the story ends. And it’s not happily. “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976” tells the decimation tale of good working class manufacturing jobs in America over the last 40 years.

Corporate greed, globalization, families without options forced to take “progress” on the chin. Sound familiar? It’s meant to. Artistic Director Robert Falls and playwright Gilman, now collaborating on their fifth Goodman production, have ironically evolved into the well-oiled narrative machine so hated by the fictional Farmstead workers.

Supported by a flawless cast that includes Chicago theater veteran Cliff Chamberlain as Durst family patriarch, Kim, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” is almost operatic in its depiction of the slow-motion destruction of an entire way of life. We know from the vantage point of 2016 that working and middle-class families continue to be squeezed by economic changes that began long before the Great Recession.

Gilman uses the hardworking, ambitious Durst family to tell the story of organized labor purposefully busted by the pursuit of greater profit margins. But the finished product is evolved beyond from the ham-fisted propaganda of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Dursts, including Kim’s college dropout wife Kat (Cora Vander Broek) and precocious teen daughter Kelly (the fabulous Lindsay Stock) are fully-formed characters. There have been choices and sacrifices. There are regrets and valid fears for the future. There are complicated dynamics between people who love each other honestly (and dishonestly).

Even the supporting characters avoid one-dimensional stereotype in the capable hands of Gilman and Falls. Elderly socialist neighbor and family friend JoAnne (Ann Whitney) is a surrogate mother to Kat and Kelly, not a precious caricature of Bernie Sanders talking points. And Angela Reed infuses Elaine, the wife of the cheese factory’s new corporate manager, with a loneliness and eagerness to connect with something real that removes some of the venom from her painful choices.

“Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” captures an elusive moment in time. When exactly did the “American Dream” with its promise of shared success for hard work and loyalty, start to slip away? What could we have done to stop it? While attempting to locate the beginning of the end, Gilman’s script also explores the flaws in armchair quarterbacking.

To watch the emotional, complicated plight of the Durst family is to understand that small moments and decisions have consequences bigger than one nuclear household. Day-to-day survival often requires the conscious suppression of long-term strategy. Americans can’t afford to deliberate when they have to eat. This is no less true in 2016.

In short, we have another Gilman/Goodman winner in town. It’s going to be a busy summer season of quality theater, but this one is a don’t miss.

“Soups, Stews and Casseroles” runs through June 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

Feast

Source: http://www.goodmantheatre.org

The Albany Park Theater Project describes itself as a “multiethnic, youth theater ensemble that inspires people to envision a more just and beautiful world.”

At the curtain drop of the troupe’s latest production, a remounting of its 2010 “downtown debut,” “Feast,” ANTP Artistic Director David Feiner confessed to pride in the college attendance rate of the program’s graduates equal to satisfaction with the show. Many of the company’s committed children matriculate and become first generation university students from hardworking immigrant families. It’s an inspiring accomplishment and message in a post-Great Recession country where the American Dream often feels more elusive than ever.

APTP is a worthy non-profit, deserving of the Chicago theater community’s patronage. It would be so even if it produced mediocre artistic offerings. Luckily for all parties, including fans of good work, Albany Park Theater Project offers some of the most exciting, visceral, rhythmic storytelling in the Windy City. “Feast” marks the company’s fifth straight partnership season with the legendary Goodman Theatre.

Having been privileged enough to see and review the group’s 2013 foreclosure crisis-themed stunner, “I Will Kiss These Walls,” as well as a later examination of the nation’s broken immigration system, “Home/Land,” I have long admired the intersection of bold socioeconomic commentary, good writing and go-for-broke performances that are the hallmarks of an APTP experience.

Moreover, the results are completely unforced. With “Feast,” billed per press materials as “a 90-minute piece that explores food’s role in nourishing individuals and communities,” the group’s 2010 class did their research. Collaborating with adult theater mentors, the young artists “conducted more than two dozen interviews,” resulting in a script that asks a briskly paced series of existential questions. How does hunger (or abundance) affect personal security, the soul, the creative spirit, pride and family?

Though the APTP vision and mission is bigger than any one year’s cast, the quality of the performances in “Feast” is simply overwhelming — in all the right and sometimes purposely painful ways. A prime example occurs in the Link Card vignette. Featuring three young ladies with diametric views of the digital food stamps, the script is brave enough to consider Link as an application process fraught with bilingual tension, a source of well-fed joy, however brief, and a bottomless source of social shame. There are no wrong interpretations and no judgment.

But there are amazing acrobatic feats, a child’s soliloquy and an angry, defiant determination to break the cycle of poverty. Three voices and a full picture of an issue that is finally gaining the increased attention it deserves with this decade’s Occupy Wall Street movement, the rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s voice and the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Income inequality is having its moment, but as “Feast” makes clear, issues of hunger and want go back generations — to the fields of the Philippines and the villages of Mexico, as well as the cities, suburbs and towns in the United States. Food is wrapped in ritual, in love, in opportunity, in perceived success. However the weight of these concerns are nicely balanced in the production through stylistic APTP trademarks that lighten the load.

The kids transition in and out of the performance with a unified percussive display that demands their feet, hands and copious energy to make a joyful but large statement. We are here. This issue is here. And none of us are going anywhere until we figure it out. Because people who work hard and dream should have enough in their bellies to sustain their bodies and spirits.

It’s tough to single out any one performer from the harmoniously accomplished cast of 25. There are beautiful but haunting voices, dancers, drummers, gymnasts, physical comedians and touching dramatists. The tapestry of an imperfect reality held up for our collective examination. Albany Park Theater Project’s triumphant “Feast” is a deliberately hungry celebration of the company’s past, in the critical present, that deserves a very popular near future. See it.

“Feast” runs through August 16 at the Goodman Theatre, 1170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.