Homos, or Everyone in America

“Playing with traditional, linear, and narrative conventions, Homos leaps back and forth between past, present and everything between to take a look at two young, bookish, Big Apple men falling (and trying to remain) in love as massive cultural shifts swirl around them. Scenes boast Sorkinesque rapid-fire dialogue, impacted by events such as 9/11, President Obama’s 2011 repudiation of the Defense of Marriage Act and rising public consciousness of insidious hate crimes.

The play also shines a light on the heterogeneity of the LGBTQ ‘community,’ despite American culture’s seeming preference for pouring all members into one rainbow-hued bucket. The Academic is presented as the traditionalist: a monogamist conscientious about moving through orderly stages (love, cohabitation, and then marriage) with a desire to live in the ‘right’ neighborhood. Conversely, The Writer abhors convention. Uncertain about committing beyond the moment, eager to smash cisgender norms and vocabulary, besotted with the chaos, noise and mood swings of New York’s creative circle, The Writer exhibits a self-pitying and destructive streak that stands apart from The Academic’s more earnest approach to intimacy.”

Read the full post at The Broadway Blog.

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WOZ: A Rock Cabaret

WOZ
Kimberly Lawson, Kevin Webb, James Nedrud and Edward Fraim

Listen. The limited run of “WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” at the Victory Gardens Theater boasts Tony Award nominee Andre De Shields as a cast member. This fact alone guarantees quality entertainment.

De Shields, a three time Jeff Award winner, recently appeared in the delightful late 2015 senior-focused musical “Gotta Dance.” I was also privileged to watch him work in Mary Zimmerman’s lavish 2013 production of “The Jungle Book.” His talent and charisma are literally the stuff of legend, a diverse career spanning 47 years and counting.

But I am very pleased to report that “WOZ” offers so much more than the fantastic musical stylings of one Andre De Shields. Created by Will Rogers and Kimberly Lawson, who performs double duty as the show’s unorthodox Dorothy, the work is a joyous 75-minute reimagining of book and film classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The plot is moved through the device of a contemporary pop music soundtrack sung by powerhouse performers. It begins with Kelly Clarkson and ends with Roxette. And it works so well.

However it’s not just the music that brings fresh perspective to a worn and loved American classic. The show is unabashedly naughty, adult fun. Neil Patrick Harris lookalike Kevin Webb brings physical comedy chops and a soaring voice to Dorothy’s BFF, the Scarecrow. In Webb’s take, the straw man is in need of more than a brain. In fact he’s got a little extra stuffing in his pants for James Nedrud’s Tin Man.

The two actors exhibit fluid chemistry, no surprise having witnessed them perform together in Pride Films and Plays 2015 winner, “Angry Fags.” Their dramatic skills were on full display in that work, but I had no idea Webb and Nedrud could sing and dance like a couple of impish angels. Add Edward Fraim to the mix as the Cowardly Lion and this Dorothy with the ruby Converse All-Stars is more than ready to bop her way down the Yellow Brick Road.

Along the way of course, Dorothy and her unlikely gang meet with Clara D’Onfrio’s Glinda the Good Witch as well as Heather Currie’s Wicked version. These two familiar foils are invested with fun quirks that add nuance to otherwise one-dimensional characters. Who knew that Glinda was such a spotlight-hogging diva? Or that the Wicked Witch might just be a mean, misunderstood drunk? Both women are marvelous with huge, projecting voices but I was especially impressed by D’Onofrio’s range. Mariah Carey is a tough challenge but she moves through “Hero” with alternating restraint and release and never misses a note. Pitch perfect.

Once Dorothy and her companions reach Oz, they find Andre De Shields, perfectly cast as the enigmatic, legendary Wizard. My first thought on his performance is that Guns N’ Roses should probably retire “Welcome to the Jungle” from the band’s live set. That number has been officially OWNED by a slightly built senior citizen with plenty of sex appeal left to spare. De Shields’ Wizard is scary, enticing and powerful, pivoting believably to vulnerability through his exposure as an omniscient fraud.

Helmed by Scott Gryder with musical direction from Nick Sula, “WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” is wonderfully captivating. It makes something new and exciting out of beloved tradition – without being blasphemous. In fact love and respect for the source material is never in doubt. It’s unfortunate that the run is so brief. It’s the only real transgression of this sinfully fun summer theater offering.

“WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” runs through July 17 at the Victory Garden Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-871-3000 or visit the Victory Garden Theater website.

Noël Coward’s Private Lives

Coward

I recently had a discussion with a colleague about the Noel Coward revival currently taking place on Chicago’s theater scene. Pride Films & Plays just wound up its production of “Design for Living” at the Rivendell Theater, which Paul and his wife attended. Later this week, Remy Bumppo will raise the curtain on “Fallen Angels” at Greenhouse Theater Center.

My colleague and I were discussing the general “chattiness” of a Coward script, and I drew a comparison between the cheeky, mid-20th century artist, and prolific, present-day play and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Both men have earned a place in the literary canon for witty, rapid-fire dialogue that (not coincidentally) gained public popularity in parallel with the modernization, mechanization and quickened pace of Western culture.

But you know what? When I proposed the analogy to Paul, I’d never actually read a Coward script, nor audited a production. Strange for a critic with a Master’s in English Literature and nearly seven years of theater criticism under her belt, but true nonetheless. This past Sunday afternoon, I addressed the oversight by attending the press opening of Coward’s most famous piece, “Private Lives,” from ShawChicago Theater Company. I had high expectations given Coward’s fame and ShawChicago’s solid reputation for quality shows. I’m sorry to report that these expectations were sorely disappointed.

“Private Lives,” as directed by Barbara Zahora, is a failure on many levels. But I suppose it’s logical to start with the questionable and distracting decision to have the four major players read their lines from music stands. This lent the appearance of a table read, rather than a fully developed production, and the actors themselves seemed at a loss.

As a divorced couple, newly married to other partners, Mary Michell and Michael Lasswell (Amanda and Elyot, respectively) strike the right vocal notes of banal boredom, self-involved passion and elite, upper class carelessness. So it would have been nice if they’d been able to look each other in the eye beyond the moments of physical altercation that occur in the script. How are audiences supposed to feel an indivisible connection between these two characters, when they are mostly standing still and flipping sheets of paper?

Leslie Ann Handelman does solid, whiny work as Elyot’s new bride Sybil — from a dialogue perspective. But the character’s lack of movement underscores that one is indeed, watching a performance. The comical wailing is there but there’s no corporeal bond with the material. It’s just line reading. And possibly the most likable character in the story, Amanda’s husband Victor, would have been so much more in the able Doug MacKechnie’s hands, if he’d been able to come out from behind the stand and engage a his audience.

I still found Coward’s writing fundamentally interesting and entertaining. So much so that I was prepared to forgive “Private Lives” its humorous attitude toward domestic violence. When the play was first produced in 1930, it was a different era. Women had the vote, but were struggling to shed the public and legal perception of them as frivolous property deserving of a slap.

However I was unfortunate enough to be seated next to an effusive male patron, who audibly repeated the “best” in misogynistic lines and laughed uproariously at the mere mention of assault. And as I think I’ve made clear, I had nothing else to look at. No scenery. No characters engaging with each other.

As it turns out, Coward and Sorkin have more in common than a general proclivity toward wordiness. The latter is famous for the “walk and talk” directing technique that provides fluid action served up alongside lengthy monologue. It gives the discourse organic liquidity. Sorkin doesn’t work without movement. Note to Director Zahora: Coward doesn’t either.

“Private Lives” runs through Dec. 14 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-587-7390 or visit the ShawChicago website.