Let’s Hear It for the Rainbow Tour
Eleven shows in seven states in eleven days. Pretty good, if I do say so myself.
Day One: Friday Night in Chicago, Illinois – GENESIS by the Definition Theatre Company. If Bruce Norris can write a type of sequel to A RAISIN IN THE SUN, why can’t Mercedes White write a prequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece starting soon after World War I?
Walter Lee, Sr. enters, looks into a cradle and speaks tender words to his little son Walter Lee, Jr. He promises him a house in which all will have their very own bathroom. “There’s nothing you can’t do or be,” he insists, as we get lumps in our throats, knowing that the optimism is ill-founded even before Walter pledges “One day, I’m gonna own that railroad.”
Actually, in the play’s first surprise, Junior isn’t born yet, and Senior is simply practicing how he’ll talk to his son. At the moment, he and Lena (Ms. White, too) are deliriously happy as recent arrivals from the South to prosperous Chicago where dreams come true.
And, of course, as we’ll see, where dreams are deferred. On a more secure path are two other African-Americans: Yolanda, who plans to marry a wealthy but substantially older man, and Tiffany, who intends to rise in the one way blacks could back then: by becoming a professional entertainer.
A second surprise becomes the main event of the excellent GENESIS, whose only problem is its generic title. On the other hand, A RAISIN IN THE SUN isn’t a logical name for Hansberry’s play, for it certainly doesn’t tell us what the show’s about. And it hasn’t hurt it a whit in lo these many decades, has it?
Day Two: Saturday Afternoon in Chicago – STUPID FUCKING BIRD at Victory Gardens. In Aaron Posner’s new work, Conrad has written a play which will star his beloved Nina who will instead love Trig who had been involved with Conrad’s mother, a famous actress and – wait a minute, is this an update of THE SEAGULL?
You bet it is – and because these are theater types, why doesn’t anyone say “You know, we’re reliving Chekhov’s play?” And why pick names so close to the originals?
Conrad is equally as angry about theater as Konstantin is in the original. “Do you ever go?” he asks anyone who’ll listen. “No, no, I know, you think you ‘should,’ but do you ever, of your own free will?” Conrad blames what’s being produced, saying that it only appeals to “ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school.” Well, m-a-y-b-e … but I suspect that if prices were affordable, many more people would attend. Don’t lotteries and rush seats prove that?
Saturday Night in Munster, Indiana – WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN at Theatre at the Center. This was a poignant experience, for a week earlier, Bernie Yvon, cast as the cab driver, was killed in an accident. See my column in the upper left-hand corner in the blue box at www.mtishows.com
Day Three: Sunday Afternoon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – CABARET at the Off The Wall Theatre. This was so extraordinary it demands a column of its own. Next Friday!
Sunday Night in Chicago – OPTION UP! at Stage 773. Christopher Padzernik holds a monthly session where he interviews a musical theater performer. Padzernik’s breezy interviewing style served well Mark David Kaplan, whose Thénardier at Drury Lane has made him eligible for a Best Musical Supporting actor Jefferson Award. Alas, the traffic was bad from Milwaukee so I got there right in the middle of his LION KING story, so I didn’t get the joke that tore down the house. But I’m so glad I arrived in time to hear his haunting rendition of “What More Can I Say?”
Day Four: Travel Day. It had to happen.
Day Five: Writing Day in New York City. As Ella Peterson sang, “The party’s over … the piper must be paid.”
Day Six: Wednesday Night in Brooklyn, New York – THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT at Theatre for a New Audience. When Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s play opened in Paris, was there a New Jersey joke. Here there’s one delivered by Kathryn Hunter, who’s a combination of Zoe Caldwell and Nancy Walker but her own special creation, too.
So is her character: a woman who not only has a memory that’s photographic, but also one that is a veritable tape recorder. She remembers everything she’s seen and heard, which gets her in job trouble with employers who are threatened by her prowess.
(But why is this being discovered only now in a woman who’s clearly middle-aged? )
A lot of learning is a dangerous thing. The unnamed lady must endure a DieHard Battery of tests to prove her mettle, and that leads to further complications. “Was it a good idea for her to meet us?” asks one of her doctors. That’s arguable, but there’s no question that theatergoers should meet the magnificent Hunter in this mesmerizing role.
Two other stories interweave. One involves a man who, when reading letters, only sees colors. That doesn’t sound so good, but we see his point when he says to his doctors “Why do you want to take away this rich world I live in?” The second story tells of a man who must learn to walk again after a severe paralysis. “I wouldn’t know I had a body,” he says, “if I couldn’t look at it.”
Add to this card tricks. Seriously: card tricks. They’re pretty terrific, as is THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT.
Day Seven: Thursday Night in New York City -- THE FATAL WEAKNESS at the Mint Theatre Company. Back in the ‘40s, most high-class women took the high road when they discovered that their husbands were philandering. Thus, Mrs. Ollie Espenshade will display calmness and dignity when she learns that Paul has strayed. Ah, but at play’s end, she’s not so cool and decides on an action worthy of a lovesick minor.
George Kelly’s forward-looking post-war comedy-drama wryly comments on aging husbands who have spent 28 of their 56 years married when “very few realize what they look like,” as Ollie’s friend Mabel wisely observes, made better by Cynthia Darlow’s extraordinary free-wheeling performance; she knows enough to punctuate a laugh with a tug of both her jacket’s lapels -- and only to do it once (unless able director Jesse Marchese reined her in).
As Paul, Cliff Bemis has that overly gregarious manner that guilty hubbies use to indicate they’re happy at home so they can deflect suspicion. Kristin Griffith’s Ollie is so patrician that had Kelly seen her, he might have renamed his character Patricia. A subplot has the younger generation show an entirely different kind of marital problem; Sean Patrick Hopkins and Jillian Taylor each make a good but different case for ending their union.
Note that each man and wife expects the other couple to reconcile without remotely believing that they themselves could possibly remedy its situation. But where marriage is concerned, everyone has a fatal weakness.
Day Eight: Friday Night in Mason City, Iowa -- THE MUSIC MAN returns home to the city where its famous bookwriter-composer-lyricist Meredith Willson was born. Next Friday, check out www.mtishows.com.
Day Nine: Saturday Afternoon in Minneapolis, Minnesota -- THE WHITE SNAKE at the Guthrie Theatre. Chalk up another memorable visual feast from Mary Zimmerman. This time, she’s taken on a venerable Chinese fable that may well have inspired THE LITTLE MERMAID. White Snake (the sensitive Amy Kim Waschke) wants to be human, too, and through magic she and trusted friend Green Snake (the droll Tanya Thai McBride) become pretty young women. White Snake falls in love with Xu Xian (the earnest Jake Manabat). She soon becomes the woman behind the man, making him more successful in business and a father-to-be. They’re both happy until a monk insists on telling Xu Xian that he’s married to a snake. That leads to rack and ruin.
If only the church could have stayed out of their business, they’d be in a metaphorical Eden still. The monk’s insistence that “it’s not natural” brings up another type of love that the church doesn’t endorse, for all the good its protests are doing.
Day Ten: Sunday Afternoon in New York City -- THE MONEY SHOT at Manhattan Class Company. Neil LaBute dispenses an hour of admittedly humorous conversation before he finally reaches the plot and matter at hand. It’s a sexual issue, and seems a pretty small one, at least for Hollywood folk, whom this play gleefully skewers.
Fred Weller superbly portrays a terminal dimwit who believes he’s an intellectual although every other statement he makes underlines his native idiocy. Callie Thorne’s Bev is intent on correcting his every error, first out of a need for accuracy and later from hatred. Gia Crovatin and Elizabeth Reaser are their respective mates; LaBute has adapted a scene from THE CRUCIBLE for the former (honest!) and makes the latter a star whose most every sentence is a credit from her resume -- including her references to her charity work that are meant to prove what a great person she is. This may be LaBute’s least effective play, but at least the comedy comes from truth.
Day Eleven: Monday Night in Madison, New Jersey – THE PHYSICISTS at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The physicists in question have acted so irrationally that they’ve been institutionalized. Ah, but this was their carefully crafted plan. They know that if they’d stayed in the outside world, they would have been pressured to make bombs bigger than the hydrogen, and then where would we all be? Better that they keep themselves far away from the human race.
We’re always talking about Duerrenmatt’s THE VISIT, but how about this equally astonishing play that he wrote after that one? Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Bonnie J. Monte okayed a reading to see if it’s worthy of her mainstage next season. If she does it, I’d happily see it again. If she doesn’t – well, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein, if it goes to another place, I am going to like it there.
— Peter Filichia