“So sign all your yearbooks, give a last glance
We’ve all missed the prom but you’re used to this dance
Soon a figureless shadow will drown out the sun
Hey baby, it’s the end of the world
I hope you had fun”
Chicago trip this time was full of the usual suspects of music and dancing and old bars and old friends but had a hard time getting theater into our scheduled. But the two shows we saw, both revivals, were fucking doozies.
Balliwick Chicago held the Midwest premier of Passing Strange, Stew (with assistance from Heidi Rodewald)’s roman a clef about feeling suffocated growing up in LA and trying to find himself through Amsterdam and Berlin while he grows up the way most of us do, he realizes that hypocrisy goes both ways and everything can let you down, most of all yourself, but that’s how you find something that looks like glory.
As Stew held the role of Narrator himself in the original New York productions, backed by his band, this is a show that lives and dies by the narrator more than any of the other actors. The Narrator has to be (as Harry Chapin sang) “Observer or participant or huckster of belief” all at various points and he has to anticipate and cue the emotional tone of the play as it changes. Balliwick Chicago outdid themselves with Jayson “JC” Brooks, leader of the always-stunning rock and soul band The Uptown Sound (who also appear with a guest guitarist/cellist and a different keyboard player). Brooks is the coiled-spring in the mousetrap; the character’s aware of his own benefit of omniscience and is a sarcastic, needling presence trying to get the protagonist “Youth” out of his own head and to engage with the world. There’s a rage in Brooks’ performance and a physicality that makes for one of the most electrifying things I’ve seen on a stage in a long time.
Brooks’ singing, as I think should go without saying given my previous gushing (he made my favorite live shows list both the last two years) is perfect. He sings hooks with such a layered emotional and rhythmic palette that the one hook that really matters, the one line that shows up in several songs and is the axis of the play’s gravity, “Just when it was starting to feel real”, takes a few repetitions before it hits the audience like a fist in the stomach. Like any great soul singer he knows exactly what to hold back.
Steven Perkins plays Youth with a charm that lights up any scene he’s in (all of them), enough youthful impudence and that about-to-burst feeling of wanting to make art but not being quite sure how to do it or what that entails. The three pieces – one in each setting – of his art the play shows us work on a couple of levels, beyond being among the funniest sequences in the theater, they show the character moving through phases and maturing in ambition and they also give a sense of the art created around him in the three different settings of the play. There’s a beautiful self-awareness in the performance and not in the character that in seeking revelation the real risk isn’t getting hurt or even hurting others, it’s looking ridiculous. Being derivative, pretension, over-earnestness are all chrysalises that need emerged from, and you always come out a little rawer while you grow your next skin.
The other actors are all great and really bring something to the table. Special notice should be paid to Laura Renee Frederick who plays Mother. She has a stunning duet with Brooks and a palpable frustration and love that means she’s a presence suffusing everything that happens even after she’s off stage for most of the Berlin and Amsterdam sequences, and with maybe the best holy-shit-did-I-just-hear-that voice of the entire cast. Also notice to Osiris Khepera who plays a pair of not-quite-ridiculous characters but does them with such warmth and reality that they’re unforgettable, specific people, including the Reverend’s son/music director who smokes Youth up and shows him another world even as he admits he hasn’t seen it. Khepera in this sequence says the line that really cracks the situation open for Youth and the audience, “Slaves have options. They can revolt… or die. Slaves have options. Cowards only have consequences.”
Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is stunning. She understands the sense of stillness in a production where so much is thrown at the audience, where power chords ring and decay and are echoed by the bodies on stage, but she also keeps the grimy diy space energy this kind of theatre needs.
The other play I saw couldn’t have been more different on a surface level, 13 actors playing 15 speaking parts from a writer with canonical status, Lanford Wilson, and written in a post-Eugene O’Neill stylized realism. At the same time, there’s a sense that the Hot L Baltimore can be taken as the other side of the coin, where ambition goes when luck and skill aren’t there to back it up.
The title is obviously a sign, an old hotel with one letter burned out, in what’s implied to be the start of a very hot summer, and the levels packed into that are indicative of the play as a whole. Also key is it being set on Memorial Day, because the fallen – and the falling – are everywhere. The play’s extremely ‘70s in its throbbing on-the-nose-while-still-using-sleight-of-hand arguments that are all really about America even while they’re about the noise down the hall or bad sex or being unable to sleep or or snooping neighbors or a ghost with a sweet voice or a father who never came back and in its layer of beautiful grime over some very solid storytelling even Aristotle could nod approvingly at. Most arcs are resolved as much as they could be without betraying a basic reality but as in most plays, the joy of the verbal jousting and the physical passion is the meat of what to watch.
With this much dense, overlapping dialogue, obviously the actors need to be on point and Steppenwolf never lets me down on that score. Particular standouts are Kate Arrington – so recently seen in The Parallelogram as a crumbling statue of a woman unstuck in time – as Suzy and de’Andre Aziza as April (from Passing Strange on Broadway), two old friends and prostitutes; Jon Michael Hill as the too-studious new night clerk/manager (it’s never quite made clear), James Vincent Meredith as the older manager who seems a little glad to be almost done with all of this, and Mollie Regan as Millie, and endless source of strength wrapped up in fragile lattice work.
MVP is director Tina Landau, who keeps all the balls in the air in this piece and then some, any nuance the play has is highlighted enough that if you’re looking you can catch it but submerged enough that if you don’t see it, the fabric still has that sense of loss, is still colored by that action. It’s a bravura, astonishing feat of soul-gymnastics. Attention should also be paid to James Schuette, Scenic Design, who made the kind of two-story carved out set you can almost smell, and Deb Styer as Stage Manager (with Rose Marie Packer, Assistant Stage Manager).
I love Columbus and I love bragging about our homegrown art but there’s something very satisfying about getting out of town and seeing how other people do it, with casts full of people you don’t have any preconceived feelings about one way or the other.