Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Play’s the Thing

Three plays in three weeks. Oh joy!

Seasons tickets this year to Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier and Writers Theatre in Glencoe have brought many enjoyable evenings, two in recent weeks. Last week we also sandwiched in one play at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Had Writers Theatre’s As You Like It been a film production, I would have snapped up the DVD in the lobby on my way out of the theater. If the run hadn’t been ending, I would have gone to see it again. The actresses played with flirtatious glee the roles of Rosalind and Celia—Ganymede and Aliena—and then again Rosalind and Celia. At play’s end, we saw four weddings and restoration of the exiled duke, (a refreshing change from the main characters lying dead on the stage at play’s end, a frequent Shakespeare ending). My enjoyment of this play extended far beyond its happy ending though. The Forest of Arden, the setting for most of this pastoral comedy, appealed to my aging-hippie sensibilities. What’s not to like about the simple lives of this ragtag bunch of flower children singing and strumming guitars around campfires and sharing their food with strangers? Shakespeare’s lines were consistently funny. And last but certainly not least, brilliant actor Larry Yando’s punk-haired, trench-coated, beat-poet portrayal of Jaques invented a new oxymoron: melancholic glee. In a word, this production of As You Like It was delightful.

The ham in my recent Shakespeare sandwich was the world premier of Better Late at Northlight. This aptly named play told of delayed acts of love that turned out to be—not too late—but better late than never. The story, with just four characters, was fairly simple but contained by my count, six better-late acts of love. Veteran actors John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum played the former and current husbands of one woman, who arranges for them all to live in the same household while the ex-husband recovers from a stroke. Meanwhile, her son agonizes over his marriage, and her two husbands offer wisdom gained from their failures in life and love. This play, despite its many redeeming qualities, suffers from a pacing problem. The first third was hysterically funny—I mean a laugh-a-minute hysterical—the middle third was flat, boring story development, and the final third was a bittersweet, though satisfying, ending. Better Late is neither tragicomedy nor comitragedy—it’s more like a midlife mood swing. The other disappointment was that as meaty and intelligent as 95% of the writing was, the writers couldn’t have found nonobscene words for the actors to express anger and disappointment. Having said that, however, I would encourage people to see Better Late for its wit and wisdom. Don’t be too late—its run at Northlight ends May 11.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Comedy of Errors was simply brilliant. Again, seeing a Shakespeare comedy was refreshing. What a comedy of errors it was! Not one, but two, sets of twins, separated at birth find themselves at Ephesus at the same time. Imagine Antipholus of Ephesus’s and Dromio of Ephesus’s chagrin when Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse show up in Ephesus. Slapsticky confusion reigns until the mystery unravels and the separated twins reunite. Elevating the funny factor is the fact that the Shakespeare play is being filmed in a British movie studio next door to a munitions factory during World War II. That screenplay was written by Ron West. The lucky audience gets to doubly laugh as the actors and director iron out their personal and professional difficulties with melodramatic élan, replete with flouncing capes and arched-eyebrow exaggerations. All performances were spectacular, but I must say Ross Lehman’s portrayal of the film director Dudley Marsh and Dromio of Syracuse was nothing short of transcendent. From Dudley Marsh’s visionary directing and witty, clever handling of his prima donna film stars, through his own profound grief as his actress wife finds passion with a fellow actor, to his silly Harpo Marxish Dromio, Ross Lehman carried me through a wide range of emotions, as only Pachelbel's Canon in D can do~well, okay, Yanni can too. Somewhat like a constant fresh breeze with gusts up to 30 mph, this zany play within a play kept up the steady laughs with occasional laughs so hard we were holding our stomachs and slumping our heads on our friends’ shoulders. And doubling the fun—the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as we were.

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