BLKS

BLKS
Nora Carroll (Octavia), Leea Ayers (June) and Celeste M. Cooper (Imani)

In the late stages of 2017, critics and publications across Chicagoland are running their “Best of The Year” in theater pieces. I am 100 percent convinced that if “BLKS” the Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere from Aziza Barnes, debuted just a few weeks earlier, it would sit atop most — if not all — of these lists.

Barnes, an award-winning poet and playwright, brings a vibrant, hilarious, painful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful script to the Steppenwolf stage. It’s hard to briefly describe such a nuanced piece of work, but I will try. Because I want to make sure everyone who comes across this review buys tickets. Press materials offer a promising hint of the rich material audiences will find:

“F**ked up sh*t happens. After an unsavory wake-up call, Octavia decides to put off her troubles and have one last turn up with her friends. In poet Aziza Barnes’s ingenious portrait of a day in the life of four young black women discovering life’s uncomfortable truths in New York City, ‘BLKS’ explores the joy and anguish of growing up and out.”

All this and so much more. Infidelity, illness, Black Lives Matter, income inequality, violent misogyny, grief and stereotype questioning of all kinds. ‘BLKS” tackles all of these issues and rather than feeling overstuffed, every word of dialogue, every movement onstage, is organic. On top of all the rhetorical goodness, this particular production is blessed with talent in abundance — technical, set design and performance.

Directed by Nataki Garrett, the play is set in 2015 against the backdrop of a cigarette selling Eric Garner’s real-life murder by members of the New York police department. The women at the center of Barnes’s theatrical triumph have their eyes wide open. The aforementioned Octavia (portrayed with endearing layers of complication by Nora Carroll) is a young, black lesbian writer with all the cultural baggage that society forces her to carry because of it. Even in New York City.

Octavia has career and romantic issues on top of those inherent to her displacement within the white patriarchy, but she’s also in possession of brains, humor and terrific friends. Imani (brought to life by a strong and vulnerable Celeste Cooper) is a striving stand-up comic who misses her father and also suffers dating complications. But there is — quite literally — nothing she won’t do for her sisters. When Octavia discovers something unpleasant during an early morning trip to the bathroom, Imani is out the door to CVS with all the urgency of a confused but committed partner-in-crime.

June (a gorgeous and deep Leea Ayers) is the only hetero member of the tribe, as well as the sole professional with STEM goals and a huge sack of weed at the ready. But she’s also susceptible to warmly traditional moments. When times get hard, nothing lifts June’s spirits like donning her old cotillion dress — and smoking a blunt.

Finally we have Ry (a terrific Danielle Davis), the casual sex buddy/girlfriend/partner of Octavia, dependent upon the day and mood of the commitmentphobes. Ry and Octavia are also teammates on a filmmaking project. The complications in their story are exactly the messy ones you’d expect from an ill-defined mix of business with pleasure.

That is the beauty of “BLKS.” The characters are dynamic and unique, as well as universal. We may not all be as funny and resilient (seriously, this is one trying day for the gals), but we experience the same broadly categorized challenges. Where are our careers going? Whom shall we choose as a mate — if we choose at all? How do we live our truths against the judgmental assaults of the outside world?

And yet Barnes’s brilliantly drawn characters very much own their blackness. They don’t have all the answers, but they will not go unseen or unheard. And “BLKS” should not go unwatched — by anyone. One of 2017’s best productions.

“BLKS” runs through January 28, 2018 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theater Company website

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Visiting Edna

visiting-edna

There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll do it plainly without the contrived effort at sugarcoating. “Visiting Edna,” the world premiere, debut offering of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 41st season, is a bloated, confusing mess. It’s a disappointment on many levels.

In the first place, Steppenwolf is world-renowned for its general quality. Any bombs, while occasionally inevitable, are nonetheless a reputational letdown for theatergoers. Further, playwright David Rabe and Tony Award-winning Director Anna D. Shapiro have earned stellar reputations for their career work. It’s, therefore, natural to expect repeat genius. Audience members will not find it here.

Press materials offer the following plot summary:

“Edna has suffered a number of losses as she has aged, and now faces the stealthy advance of cancer embodied by an intimate figure she could do without. Home for a visit, Edna’s son Andrew tries to bridge the gulf between the childhood love they shared and the aggressively polite but baffling relationship they now live with.”

As this public relations excerpt suggests, Cancer (Capital “C”) actually appears onstage as an embodied human presence. Tim Hopper, the talented Steppenwolf Ensemble Member who inhabits the role, does his level best. But as written by Rabe, Cancer is, well…. totally boring. Insecure and semi-hysterical at certain intervals, dry and sleepy at others, the character does not possess the magnetism and sense of danger that ought to be endemic to such a force of human suffering.

Incidentally, Rabe names Cancer “Actor Two” and the choice grows more mystifying with the production’s opening scene. Along with “Actor One,” who’s actually an anthropomorphized TV set played by Sally Murphy, all mystique is immediately shed through confessional monologues from the two characters. If you’re going to devote minutes of dialog to unnecessary explanation (there’s nothing subtle about either of these portraits), why not just call them what they are in print? It’s not enticing. It’s annoying.

So many, many questions. And not the kind that invite exciting, intense debate between theater companions. Why is this production nearly three hours long with four different endings, where smart editing and well-chosen brevity would bring the messages into clearer focus? By contrast, I just saw “Wonderful Town” at the Goodman, a work of near-equal length that feels like moments. The scripts are different animals certainly, but watching someone die in slow motion doesn’t also have to be torture for the audience. Think “Marvin’s Room.”

Why is Andrew (Jeff-nominated Ian Barford) so touchy and insufferable? It’s hard losing a parent, and we’re told he endured some abuse from a long-dead father, but Rabe would have us mistake the character’s taciturn, ungenerous stubbornness for mystique. It doesn’t fly.

Debra Monk as the titular Edna turns in the cast’s best work. By no coincidence, the actress is also given the richest material to mold. Edna — lonely, in pain and one of the last survivors of her small-town Iowa peer group — is feistily determined to find a way to live and connect with those she loves in her remaining time. One aches for her palpable yearning to reach her son, to seize what might be the last I-Thou moment opportunity they have. She wants deep conversation; she wants adventure and truth. Instead, she is treated to deflection and impatience. It’s the script’s real tragedy.

Murphy, as the boob tube, also does some good comedic work. Hearing her breathe life into 1990s era “TV Guide” listings is nostalgic fun. But why is the play set during that period? I don’t know and should you purchase a ticket to this confused jumble, you may also be left with more questions than answers.

“Visiting Edna” is Rabe’s 18th play. I’m not sure how much rush there was, in the end, to bring it to the stage, but a feeling of forced commitment is there. This is definitely one to skip.

“Visiting Edna” runs through Nov. 6 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website

The SpongeBob Musical

SpongeBob the Musical
Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Sorry. I’ll try to be less childishly enthusiastic about “The SpongeBob Musical” for the sake of a literate review of the latest Broadway in Chicago production. But it’s going to be a challenge. The Pre-Broadway World Premiere of this take on the wildly popular cartoon series that began in 1999 is exuberant perfection. It’s nigh-impossible not to sacrifice one’s reserve (willingly) to the overwhelming joy that is every creative, technical and performance element of this show.

The plot, though it would hardly seem to matter given the source material’s colorful, loud reputation, is surprisingly and disarmingly approachable for all ages and cynicism levels. Press materials describe it as follows:

“SpongeBob and all of Bikini Bottom face the total annihilation of their undersea world… And just when all hope seems lost, a most unexpected hero rises up and takes center stage.”

A difficult narrative terrain is successfully traversed by Book writer Kyle Jarrow. The trick is to make the show feel like episodus interruptus for die hard “SpongeBob Squarepants” fans (such as ahem, myself — at least during the late undergrad years). At the same time, the production must be welcoming for newcomers to the 16-year cultural staple. My companion for the evening, a complete stranger to the Squarepants, watched a whole six minutes of the cartoon prior to last weekend’s press opening. By the performance’s regrettable curtain fall, we were equally besotted.

How can this be avoided? The music itself is terrific — diverse, radio-friendly and energetic. And with songwriters on the team such as The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper and T.I., this makes total sense. And yet it should not be taken for granted. I know “Hamilton” tickets went on sale this week in Chicago and the city has lost its relative theatrical mind over it. But “The SpongeBob Musical” deserves to be widely heard and seen. Such quality shall not be lost in the shuffle.

The production also comes with amazing audio/visual work, a set that literally has to be seen to be believed, costumes of which childhood (and adult) dreams are made and goodness me, the performances.

It almost seems unfair to single any one talent out for praise. These people are all-stars and coordinated with magnetic dexterity by show Co-Conceiver/Director Tina Landau. Landau, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company legend, is more than ready for Broadway. Perhaps it is she more than anyone who deserves the raucous and roaring applause the show will continue generating.

But despite what I just said, it’s incumbent upon my role as critic to heap kudos upon key performers. All are without exception terrific, yet Gavin Lee, as submerged Eeyore figure Squidward Tentacles, nearly walks off with the production. That man can dance like an angel with four feet. It’s hard enough for mortals with just two. I won’t say more because a continuous stream of delightful surprises is part of the magic. Just one more tease: Squidward’s big number is a show stopper.

And Ethan Slater, as the cartoon’s titular, kind-hearted and earnest if dizzy character, is everything. I mean literally everything: an acrobat, a man of a thousand voices, a break dancer, an amazing vocal talent and deft comedian. This 2014 Vassar graduate is about to break big — and deserves every bit of what promises to be a long career on the Great White Way.

“The SpongeBob Musical” is all superlatives and offers a genuinely inspirational message along with top-tier entertainment. The weary of spirit are especially recommended to buy their tickets before this refreshing, unexpected jolt of fabulousness departs the Windy City.

“The SpongeBob Musical” runs through July 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.