Lexis Praxis III: Chicago Writers Taken to Stage/Kiss Me, Kate | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Lexis Praxis III: Chicago Writers Taken to Stage/Kiss Me, Kate 

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LEXIS PRAXIS III: CHICAGO WRITERS TAKEN TO STAGE

Zebra Crossing Theatre
at Neo-Futurarium

Virtually any element of theatrical presentation can distract from the spoken word. So the compromise between the visual and the verbal is at the root of the eight page-to-stage projects that make up Lexis Praxis III. This is the third year that Zebra Crossing Theatre has Chicago directors and writers collaborating on adaptations of nontheatrical material--some of which stress the visual and some of which stress the verbal.

At one end of the spectrum is Greg Allen's staging of Richard House's "Milk." Lillian sits in a chair drinking tea by the light of a solitary floor lamp and talks to us about her upstairs neighbors Simon, a health-care worker, and Terry, Simon's charge, who has AIDS. Terry reminds Lillian of her own son, who was murdered years earlier, perhaps by his gay lover. Though Lillian is more nurturing and sympathetic than Terry's mother, he accuses her of not liking him. "Yes, you're right. I don't like you very much," she answers. "But I think what is happening to you is cruel and wrong. . . . Such a loss should never be accepted." And she continues to bring Terry the daily glass of milk she's not even sure he drinks anymore.

Diana Slickman, who delivers a sensitive performance as Lillian, never leaves her chair as she relates these events to us, and Chet Grissom, playing all of the other characters, steps onto the stage only when speaking. The two of them create a deliberate stasis that allows us to turn our full attention to House's carefully crafted prose.

A stark contrast to this recitation-with-props presentation is Lar Horgan's division of Lisa Buscani's "Feeding Big LaQuita" among nine actors, who fragment the narrative line so much that finally it's lost completely in the welter of vocal pitches, tempo changes, focus shifts, hand clapping, and unexplained repetition of key words and phrases. In the end all that stands out is a brief section where a solo voice took the lead for several lines and we could listen to what was being said rather than how it was being said.

Then there's Andrea Urice's "Japan," based on three poems by Joan Fisher and Maxine Chernoff. Urice makes it no secret that she's using words as mere accompaniment to the vocalizations, movement, music, and tableaux created by two black-clad dancers (Lee Chen and Daisy Castro), one black-clad violinist (Mary Mikva), and one black-clad speaker with a red umbrella (Beth Boyden).

Timber Weise's interpretation of S.L. Wisenberg's "Plain Scared," an exploration of the author's fear of open places ("I can't leave the city," her narrator insists, while beach balls printed with maps of the world rain down upon her), and Heather Riordan's interpretation of Peggy Shinner's ambivalent memoir of her mother, "If I Lived in Maine," both border on having too much clutter, with their slides and overhead projections. Riordan also includes a superfluous omniscient narrator who speaks less than a dozen lines, which the main characters could easily have uttered--and without breaking the focus of the scene. Having Wisenberg's cosmopolite carefully set a magic circle of cortisone pills around her is a cute bit of stage business, but it contributes nothing to our understanding of the character. (You can almost hear Weise thinking, "Gotta have more visual interest--she's just sitting there.") Yet Susan Boothe brings an engaging klutziness to the part, and Margaret Kusterman's generous, uncaricatured portrayal of Shinner's all-too-human mother rescues a reminiscence of little interest to anyone but its author.

The young Victor Wells, under the direction of Catherine Slade, bends his voice nicely around Haki Madhubuti's "Whatever Happened to Luther?" Kelly Ann Corcoran's interpretation of four poems by Lydia Tomkiw is ready to be made into a rock-poetry video, with its punk-metal score and Cass Fricke standing in the middle of an oh-so-boho clutter of cigarette ash and crumpled newsprint to tell us how she hates Johnny, an obnoxious dweeb who goes to banks and writes "This is a holdup" on the backs of deposit slips, "randomly replacing them in their piles, leaving them for some unsuspecting customer to fill out and bring to the teller. Do you think that's cute, Johnny?"

Chicago has long had more training facilities for performers than for playwrights. Though the only professed purpose of Lexis Praxis is to "give action to words," these projects also serve to attract writers into theater and to offer directors practice in the collaborative process--which can only make for more and better theater.

KISS ME, KATE

Athenaeum Theatre Company

Adapting Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew into a musical comedy presented few problems to Cole Porter in 1949, but making its potentially sexist plot palatable to modern audiences is another matter. Kiss Me, Kate, with its play-within-a-play structure, has Petruchio humiliating his Katherine into compliance, even spanking her like a child at one point, and has the two actors playing these parts, the divorced Fred and Lilli, continue their squabbling backstage until he devises a way to bring her around to his way of thinking. The Athenaeum Theatre's production adroitly sidesteps the disturbing ramifications of this relationship by depicting Fred as a stumble-footed tough guy in the Tom Selleck mode, so that the forthright but not unreasonable Lilli is understood to be more than a match for him at times. Thus love may conquer all with no overtones of male bullying or female capitulation.

Our social consciences appeased, we can kick back and enjoy some of the most enduring and popular classics of the American musical theater, including the haunting "So in Love" (recently recorded by K.D. Lang), the flirtatious "Always True to You in My Fashion," and that anthem of show business, "Another Op'ning." All are rendered by the enthusiastic and talented cast with remarkable ease, considering there's no amplification in the 1,000-seat auditorium. Tom Quinn and Morra Miller do ample justice to the roles of Fred and Lilli, but are eclipsed by Jim Struthers and Breisa Youman as the friable Bill and his fun-loving fiancee, who warble and tap with plenty of theatrical sparkle. Bennett Cin and Mary Barrett as Fred's valet and Lilli's dresser have some nice scene-stealing moments, but Carlos Rodriguez and Brownson Ives Cullen walk away with the show as two stagestruck gangsters whose rendition of the witty "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" ("If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus") earned them not one but two encores from the appreciative audience the night I attended. The members of the chorus display varying degrees of skill--some appear to be worrying about their shoelaces--but star watchers should take note of a dancer named Todd McConnville and his infectious smile.

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