Thursday, August 28, 2008

Trust (Open Eye Productions) - 8/28/08

"Trust" (8/28/08) staged by Open Eye Productions was a solid show of a mostly mediocre play. This ensemble piece by Steven Dietz is a meditation on the fragility of relationships, trust, and desire. For an Off-Loop show, this production features a suite of convincing performances and a fascinating lighting design. However, we've seen all this play has to say before.

Rating: *1/2 (out of *****)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saltimbanco (Cirque du Soleil) - 8/24/08

Cirque du Soleil's "Saltimbanco" (8/24/08) at Toronto's Air Canada Center is the first Cirque show I've seen in an arena. Hopefully this is not a trend, as I really enjoy the intimacy of being under a tent. That being said, this show continues Cirque's winning streak: I have never had a bad time at one. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Just get me back under the tent!

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

All's Well that Ends Well (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/23/08

"All's Well that Ends Well" (8/23/08) at the Festival Theatre as directed by Marti Maraden was a gentle, stately production. But maybe too stately. After seeing electric productions of "Hamlet" and "Caesar and Cleopatra" on the same stage, this one left me a bit disappointed. Had I seen this one towards the beginning of the trip, I suspect I would have had a different impression of this beautifully performed show.

Rating: ** (out of *****)

Hughie (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/23/08

"Hughie" (8/23/08) by Eugene O'Neill and starring Brian Dennehy is the first half of a double bill at the Studio Theater (the second half being Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape"). I saw Mr. Dennehy in "Hughie" at the Goodman Theatre a few years back (also directed by Robert Falls), and his performance struck me as deeper and more desperate, which may be attributable to the space; the Goodman is a barn compared to Stratford's intimate Studio Theatre. Kudos must go to Joe Grifasi, who is magnetic as the night clerk.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Krapp's Last Tape (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/23/08

Performed as the second part of a double bill (to Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie"), Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" (8/23/08) at the Studio Theatre continues to grow after repeated viewings (typically true of Beckett, for me). Brian Dennehy's sensitive performance is masterful, especially when paired with his animated performance in "Hughie". There is minimal dialogue in "Krapp", but Mr. Dennehy's facial expressions, body language, and timing express the state of his character to heartbreaking effect.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Music Man (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/22/08

This production of "The Music Man" (8/22/08) was one of the most satisfying musical productions I have seen anywhere. It's refreshing to see a show that is just perfectly calibrated (and has a full orchestra); in no way does the audience here feel force-fed. Director Susan H. Schulman and her cast trust the material, and collectively they let the story unfold effortlessly and beautifully. Patrick Clark has designed a post card perfect production to boot. I've long questioned how "Music Man" could have won the Tony for Best Musical over "West Side Story", but with this altogether luminous and magical production, I now see how.

Rating: ***** (out of *****)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Caesar and Cleopatra (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/21/08

This production of "Caesar and Cleopatra" (8/21/08) also at the Festival Theatre is fast and wildly entertaining. Caesar here is played by Christopher Plummer, whose charismatic and generous performance anchors the show. Nikki M. James as Cleopatra was lovely, but a bit one-note for my tastes (Anika Noni Rose was initially scheduled to play the role of the young seductress). The festival's new artistic director, Des MacAnuff, has staged the George Bernard Shaw play to spectacular effect: huge set pieces, spectacular costumes, crowd-pleasing performances, judicious cutting of the text. But too much style rather than substance?

Rating: **** (out of *****)

The Taming of the Shrew (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/21/08

I thought the "The Taming of the Shrew" (8/21/08) at the Festival Theatre was a convoluted production. It's now being performed as a play within a play, with Queen Elizabeth I presiding (?!) over the performance. The show, overall, was admirably performed, but all the directorial touches (Peter Hinton, director) distract rather than enhance.

Rating: ** (out of *****)

Shakespeare's Universe: Her Infinite Variety (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/21/08

"Shakespeare's Universe: Her Infinite Variety" (8/21/08) at the new outdoor Festival Pavilion, is a meditation on the different faces of women during Shakespeare's time. A fun diversion and nothing more.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hamlet (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/20/08

I previously saw Ben Carlson as "Hamlet" (8/20/08) under Terry Hands' (a former RSC artistic director) direction at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There, I was struck by the clarity of his performance. Here, at the Festival Theatre, Mr. Carlson is reprising the role, this time under Adrian Noble's direction. His performance has grown tremendously: not only is the clarity still there, there is now an anguished urgency to his performance that is absolutely riveting to behold. He now grabs hold of the audience and hurtles it headlong into Hamlet's labyrinthine journey. The production itself is world class; minimal and stylish and always exciting to watch (it's now set, I believe, right after World War I). The balance of the company are also first-rate.

Rating: ***** (out of *****)

Fuente Ovenjuna (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/20/08

This was one of the true highlights of my Stratford experience (along with "The Music Man" and "Hamlet"). "Fuente Ovenjuna" (8/20/08) at the Tom Patterson Theatre is about a small medieval Spanish town whose inhabitants muster themselves to revolt against their tyrannic overlord. Director Laurence Boswell has put together a riveting production that draws the audience in and virtually takes them on the town's difficult but ultimately redemptive journey. Lovingly performed, this deceptively simple production lifts the spirit and makes one appreciate being a part of the collective. Stunning.

Rating: ***** (out of *****)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cabaret (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/19/08

I've seen numerous productions of "Cabaret" (8/19/08) now. This one (at the Avon Theatre) manages, I think, to give a more accurate visual depiction of of the crumbling Berlin setting; other productions I have seen (including Sam Mendes' 1990's incarnation) have tended to shoot for a more stylistic depiction. I found Amanda Dehnerts' staging to be exciting: it's paced at an inventive furious pace, effectively incorporating distancing Brechtian methods. The trio of lead performances were first-rate (Bruce Dow as the Emcee, Trish Lindstrom as Sally, and Sean Arbuckle as Cliff); these actors fully inhabited their dead-end characters, and the result is heartbreaking and exhilarating.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Trojan Women (Stratford Shakespeare Festival) - 8/19/08

"Trojan Women" (8/19/08) by Euripides at the Tom Patterson Theater continues to prove a timeless, gut-wrenching experience. Although this version does not come with all the bells and whistles of Mary Zimmerman's powerfully apocalyptic staging at the Goodman Theatre, director Marti Maraden has given us an equally effective staging which highlights the individual tragedies of the characters. The cast gives an emotionally heightened performance, but special kudos to Martha Henry as Hecuba; her roars of anguish will live in my memory. A great start to my first festival experience.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Stratford Shakespeare Festival - 8/19/08 to 8/23/08

I will be attending the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for the first time this week. The festival is considered the foremost of its kind in North America. The town of Stratford is about two hours southwest of Toronto; it's a quaint, lovely town that has retained its unique charm through the years. I am scheduled to see the following productions:
  • Trojan Women (Euripides)
  • Cabaret (Kander & Ebb)
  • Feunte Ovenjuna (Vega)
  • Hamlet (Shakespeare)
  • Her Infinite Variety (Hinton)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Shakepeare)
  • Caesar and Cleopatra (Shaw)
  • The Music Man (Wilson)
  • Hughie (O'Neil)
  • Krapp's Last Tape (Beckett)
  • All's Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Torch Song Trilogy (hubris Productions) - 8/17/08

This was a mediocre, shrilly acted revival of Harvey Fierstein's seminal look at gay life in the early 1980's. A word of caution: only the latter two segments of the trilogy are being performed here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Great Opera Choruses (Grant Park Music Festival) - 8/16/08

The Grant Park Music Festival's season ended with this concert of its "Great Opera Choruses" (8/16/08). The evening was spectacular and the music robustly and beautifully performed. A fitting close!

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Birthday Party (Signal Ensemble Theatre) - 8/15/08

I believe that the Signal Ensemble Theatre is one of the best up-and-coming Off-Loop theater companies in the city. They have a fine core of ensemble actors and their programming to date has fully exercised (but not over-stretched) its capabilities, both from an acting and design standpoint. I found this production of Harold Pinter's seminal "The Birthday Party" (8/15/08) to be their finest production to date. In the past, I've found their work to be strictly "by the books"; however, with this production, these guys have incorporated bold directorial vision to the mix. The result is one of the best Off-Loop shows of the summer.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dangerous Beauty (American Music Theatre Project) - 8/14/08

AMTP's world premier production of "Dangerous Beauty" (8/14/08) has many things going for it: a charismatic and spectacular principal performance from Broadway actress Jenny Powers, period-perfect costumes, and some very lovely musical moments. However, there are some aspects that need to be worked on in order to make the show work. The book needs to be overhauled from it's current state of Schizophrenia. Additionally, some of the lyrics are currently cringe-inducing, and would seriously benefit from some rewriting. That being said, I think there is real potential for this musical about an "honest courtesan" to succeed.

Lookingglass Alice (Lookingglass Theatre Company) - 8/14/08

"Lookingglass Alice " (8/14/08) remains one of Lookglass's wholly successful works of theater. It's a spectacular, sophisticated, and heartfelt adaptation of the Lewis Caroll's Alice adventures. I saw "Alice" a few years back when it was first unveiled, and I have to say that this viewing left me more transported than my initial experience. In the central performance as Alice, Lauren Hirte is still giving an utterly charming and beguiling performance. This one is very highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Act I of Die Walkure (Grant Park Music Festival) - 8/13/08

This was one of the most satisfying classical music outings I've had so far this year. Act I of Richard Wanger's Die Walkure (the second of four parts in the monumental Ring Cycle) was performed with passion by the Grant Park Music Festival. What's impressive this piece, and characteristic of Wagner's operas, is the way the orchestra expresses the emotions of the story. Hence, staging and scenery almost become unnecessary. It seemed like the weather was on the same page as well: the beginning of the opera's plot takes place on a dark and stormy night and was accompanied with heavy downpour; those who weathered the weather were rewarded with ravishing spring-time music, which was duly accompanied with dramatic sunshine through the receding clouds.

A Rabbit's Tale (Blair Thomas) - 8/13/08

Staged at the mammoth Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Blair Thomas's puppet show "A Rabbit's Tale" (8/13/08) impressively managed to charm, despite only being accompanied by a piano. This is recommended family fare.

Walking With Dinosaurs (United Center) - 8/13/08

"Walking With Dinosaurs" (8/13/08) was a spectacular arena pageant through the eras in which dinosaurs reigned. Narration was kept to a minimum, allowing the impressive animatronics do the work. Spending much of my childhood as a dino-geek, this hour and half spectacle not only delighted the kids which comprised half of the United Center audience, but myself as well!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tell Me on a Sunday (Bailiwick Repertory Theatre) - 8/11/08

With a lovely and affectingly vulnerable performance from Harmony France at the center of Bailiwick's "Tell Me on a Sunday" (8/11/08), this one-woman musical with a one hour running time charms and satisfies. Terrible acoustics and mediocre production values aside, this is a heartfelt revival of one of Andrew Lloyd Weber's melodic and genuinely emotional shows.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Wild Party (New Provincetown Players) - 8/6/08

The production of Andrew Lippa's stylish musical "The Wild Party" (8/6/08) at the New Provincetown Players left much to be desired. Certainly, the talent is there. However, this production severely lacked directorial and visual flair necessary to make any production of this episodic and claustrophobic musical work.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Plaza Suite (Eclipse Theatre Company) - 8/1/08

Eclipse Theatre Company has revived a well-acted, attractive production of Neil Simon's relationship trilogy, "Plaza Suite" (8/1/08). Each of the three independent acts (each sharing the same setting, a suite in NYC's Plaza Hotel) were rendered with infectious comedic flair. Eclipse continues its string of solid revivals with this one.

Willy Wonka (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) - 8/1/08

"Willy Wonka" (8/1/08) at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was a visually appealing musical adaptation of the classic children's book by Ronald Dahl. However, the show's hard working cast was given sub par material to work with and the results were labored. Indeed, at just over only an hour, the show just about wears out its welcome. Kids may be charmed by this "Willy Wonka", but adults will most likely be checking their watches with uncommon frequency.