So I have three pieces of news…The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997) by Martin McDonagh

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Martin McDonagh is a master of taking observable information and factual statement, then turning it on its head.  The life, occasional tragedy, and high comedy of his work lies in his reveling in the surprises of life and the whimsy which accompanies them.  And nobody loves whimsy like an Irishman, just as nobody loves poetry like a Russian.

The Cripple of Inishmaan, which the Druid theatre company performed at the Shakespeare this March, is a key case in point.  Mr. McDonagh spends the first act introducing a variety of singular personages against an unusual setting, then reverses our expectations of who they are and what they are doing…but never does this come across as false, and only on occasion does he delight in pure illusion.  Rather, we discover how Billy Claven, crippled since birth and seizing a chance for importance when Robert Flaherty comes to Ireland in 1934 to direct Man of Aran, has a shrewd intelligence and passion lurking below his innocent visage.  The obnoxious busybody JohnnyPateenMike, who is trying to kill his mother by all but pumping her body full of alcohol, is revealed as a hero.  And in the final scenes, characters who appear to have proven themselves to us betray depths of complexity they don’t want to show.

Mr. McDonagh keeps the 2 hours and 20 minutes briskly moving, especially a final five minutes which turn from unspeakably dark to hopeful to tragic, and like the play itself always moving.  But more importantly, he keeps the laughter almost continuous, from gossiping to egg-throwing to arguments over candy to a non-stop use of the word “feck.” Like In Bruges, The Cripple of Inishmaan is obscene, sometimes brutal, brilliantly funny…and very human.

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Andrew and Stephen

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I’m writing this knowing I will be getting only the bare minimum of sleep tonight, but I was writing four other projects at once and don’t really care.

Today, for those of you who don’t know, is the birthday of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, and two more antithetical creators of art may never share such a characteristic as them.  Attending a college with musical theatre devotees, I quickly discovered that Lord Lloyd Webber is usually considered anathema, while Mr. Sondheim is a god whose altar must be worshipped at with utmost frequency.  Never mind that neither man has had a major new Broadway musical since 1994, the love and hatred are still fervent.

I never quite got it because I adore them both.

YET…I fell under Lord Lloyd Webber’s spell first, indeed almost had to, for the very first musical my parents ever took me to see was Jesus Christ Superstar.  To this day, I rank it as a fine work, and Evita and The Phantom of the Opera will always go down as two of the greatest productions in the history of the art.  There is a certain combination of obviousness, plaigarism, and pop pandering in Lord Lloyd Webber, but his gifts for melody never fail to win me over, even when he creates a work as unspeakably dreadful as the sequel we’re not going to talk about.

Mr. Sondheim took a while longer to penetrate my sensibilities, but every time I see and hear one of his musicals in full, I never fail to be captivated by the combination of intelligence and unexpected melodic/harmonic ideas.  There is a remarkable sense of traditionalism in Mr. Sondheim: the subject matter of Assassins, Into the Woods, and Sweeney Todd (my three favorite shows of his) is far from conventional, but in structure and song format he never strays far from the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein; couldn’t “Send in the Clowns” and “Not While I’m Around” fit into any Golden Age Broadway show?  And …Forum is still one of the most hilarious evenings of all.

So an equally happy birthday to both of them. 

Crime and Punishment by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus at the University of Chicago (2011)

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Let’s take a 700-page novel and turn it into an 80-minute play with three actors! 

Thoughts similar to this have inspired some excellent evenings of theatre in the past decade or so, but most of them have been played for laughs: the productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged and The 39 Steps, for instance.  But Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus use the technique on one of the most demanding and penetrating novels ever written, Crime and Punishment.  This is a double challenge, given both the book’s reputation and the distinctive voice of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  However, Ms. Campbell and Mr. Columbus have created an evening of theatre at its most ideal when performed right, as the University of Chicago recently proved.

Indeed, a dramatic version makes sense given that the book’s aim is to provide psychological insight into Raskalnikov, and having Raskalnikov speak purely for himself, addressing the audience in monologues (the story of the mare is a moment which puts a shudder in the shoulder) and the other characters through unmediated dialogue allows his conflicting ideas to come forth in what seems to be schizophrenia until we recognize how easily we, too, can shift in emotions.  Performed on a stark set with almost no props, the characters reduced to seven, Crime and Punishment on stage becomes almost as intimate as reading the novel alone in its simplicity.

Matt Seidel, a graduate student who when not studying English writes and performs startling acoustic pop-rock which sounds like Cat Stevens with a fifth of bourbon down him, brings Raskalnikov to life in a similar way: emotional, slightly tormented and unsure, but always full of verve.  You cannot take your eyes off him.  But he is matched by second-year Hayley Doner, who switches back and forth between four female characters with ease and brings the most prominent, Sonya the prostitute, to tear-jerking life.  Alessio Franko slightly overdoes the mannerisms of Petrovich, and the final scene between Mr. Seidel and Miss Doner is a bit too compressed, but these are quibbles overlooked in the face of the play’s best moments.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare, directed by Gary Griffin at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (2011)

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When you produce a disproportionate number of earth-shaking masterpieces, some are bound to be overlooked.  Case in point is William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a play with some of his wittiest lines, most immortal passages (“the seven ages of man” speech, “too much of a good thing,” etc.), and more intricate plotting.  Ask people to describe the plot and you may get an “eh?”  Suffice to say, it involves a whole lot of people falling in love in a forest which magically brings out the best in people and ends with a three-dimensional love quadrangle being resolved very nicely and the overhanging threat being resolved by a religious deus ex machina (my girlfriend’s summary).

The CST As You Like It, playing until March 6th, is a perfect treat for Valentine’s Day or any other evening you want or need a sweet night out.  The central romance between the strong but romantically desperate Orlando (the charming Matt Schwader) and the smart, clever, but also hopelessly fallen Rosalind (Kate Fry, a terrific actress who happens to be very sexy both as Rosalind and her male alter ego Ganymede) is the real “first percursor” to romantic comedies of ages gone by.  Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most modern characters in this age and all ages past and yet to come: a brilliant, self-possessed woman who metaphorically and for a while literally wears the pants in her relationship, but whose faculties include a sincere ability to be swept off her feet.  Miss Fry and Mr. Schwader are romantic, erotic, and very funny in their courtship…

Though not as funny as Philip James Brannon’s mock-stately Touchstone and, in the highlight of the show, Ross Lehman’s Jaques, an intellectual comic who takes pride in shooting over everybody’s head.  The acting is more uniform and assured than in the ambitious Romeo and Juliet in the fall, while Kevin Depinet’s scenery of forests, poetry, and a pereptual ticking clock is a Gordon Craig-style wonderland, and Jenny Giering’s original music fills the songs and dances with new life.

American Tragedy and Triumph, Elizabethan Tragedy and…Blue Shoes

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Sorry this is two days late.  There were some obligations beyond my control all weekend, but which did lead to one extraordinary cultural moment as, walking out of a men’s room at a downtown hotel, I heard the soft, resonant voice of Julie London, backed by some pitch-perfect acoustic guitar, piano, and strings, singing one of the more brilliantly dirty songs of all time.  “…I’ve got love in my tummy, and I feel like loving you.”

If only he was still in charge today...

Part of what gives tragedy its power is its efficacy in intermingling with so many other emotions.  It can be heartbreaking, tragicomic, absurd, and sometimes tinged with triumph.  The greatest American tragedy of all time did not involve Clyde Griffiths drowning his pregnant girlfriend, but a Shakespearean actor shooting a man in the back of his head…after that man, Abraham Lincoln, had used incomparable leadership to guide our country through its most desperate hour.  So many lives of Mr. Lincoln, notably that of Carl Sandburg and the retrospective papers of John Nicolay and John Hay, are laudatory statements focusing on the individual.  But in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), Doris Kearns Goodwin brings out Mr. Lincoln’s greatness better than any other writer to date by portraying him as one man among several: the Republican leaders and other politicians whom he slected for his cabinet, and whom he spent four years befriending, gently manipulating, and forming into a leadership circle without peer.

Mrs. Goodwin naturally focuses on Mr. Lincoln, and her depiction is most notable for what she does to the recent idea of the 16th President as struck with depression.  Mr. Lincoln was actually, according to her exhaustive evidence, melancholic, prone to periods of deep emotional distress but NOT depression.  To put it in simpler terms, Mr. Lincoln had a highly-developed sense of feeling and empathy which could sometimes take over in moments of pain, but this melancholy was also a source of strength.  It allowed him to be a devoted husband and father despite sometimes troubled relations with his family (one of the funniest moments is a description of Mary Todd Lincoln’s shopping sprees), and also worked the opposite way from depression by giving him a wonderful sense of humor, with a repertoire of hundreds of hilarious but highly-moral stories.  And above all, his empathy allowed him to understand the position of both the blacks and the Southerners as he created the policies which would set one grou pforever free and try to reconcile the other with the Union, to perceive the minds and desires of audiences for whom he crafted the most soul-stirring speeches in our country’s history, and crucially for Mrs. Goodwin’s purposes, to bring together his one-time rivals for the Republican nomination and several Democrats and Radicals into a potent cabinet.

On that note, my greatest pleasure from Team of Rivals was discovering more about the Cabinet members, some of whom I only knew as names in a history textbook and not the living breathing humans resurrected by Mrs. Goodwin’s pen.  The three main supporting characters are William Seward, the eloquent, conviction-filled, workaholic New York Secretary of State, whose struggle to balance work and family is still applicable today…Edward Bates, the eminent and highly-respected Missouri judge who preferred domesticity to politics but returned to become Attorney General…and Salmon Chase, the Treasury Secretary from Ohio, a man of profound ability but even more profound ambition and talent for conniving, who spent a decade, aided by his beautiful daughter Kate trying to seize the throne for himself, even after Mr. Lincoln gave him two appointments.  Throw in tempestuous Edwin Stanton, crotchety Gideon Welles, and the mutliple out-for-a-fight members of the Blair family, and Team of Rivals performs triple-duty as history, biography, and leadership manual.  Just as our current president made it required reading for the Executive Branch (though how well it’s worked for him I refuse to comment), I would urge anyone in any capacity of management or power to read and study it and learn how a good leader can inspire his group and concentrate his forces towards objectives in superior fashion.

Team of Rivals falters only in retrospect.  Mrs. Goodwin’s sharply-plotted switching back and forth between the historical narrative and the biographies results in Mr. Bates losing prominence rapidly as the dramas of Messrs. Lincoln, Seward and Chase gain our interest, and every chapter ends almost exactly the same way with a platitude about Mr. Lincoln’s abilities which cries out for variation.  But these are nothing compared to her focused storytelling and superb construction…and her power to move.  My friend Alex told me that the final chapter made him tear up.  I went in not knowing what to expect, but there is a passage involving William Seward, who went from being highly critical of Mr. Lincoln to becoming his most trusted advisor and a close, close friend.  Mr. Seward was stabbed and nearly died himself as part of John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy, and and a few days later, whil recovering, he saw the flag flying at half-mast over the Capitol from his window.  No one had told him the news yet, but he summoned his strength and said to his attendants that the President had to be dead.  There could be no other reason for that flag to lie low, and more importantly, if Lincoln was alive, Seward choked, he would have been in this house to comfort his friend by now.  At that moment, my eyes welled over.

"For I never saw true beauty 'til this night..."

Mr. Lincoln, by the way, loved William Shakespeare and could spend hours talking about the canon, Henry IV being his personal favorite.  We still love Shakespeare today, and we always will, and I was reminded of this when my girlfriend and I saw Gale Edwards’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.  Even knowing exactly what would happen after study and endless exposure, we both were crying as Juliet stabbed herself and slipped under the dead Romeo’s arm in her final moments.  As the ancient Greeks knew very well, it is the familarity of a story well-told and put in the most resonant and poetic language which makes its emotional impact increase with every new telling.

Ms. Edwards, who has built a long career in Australia and worked with the RSC, has created a high-concept production which recalls the famed interpretation of her countryman Baz Luhrmann.  The set is bare space surrounded by faded, crumbling Neo-Classical architecture, part of which is scaffolded, which allows the Balcony Scene to take place.  In the beginning there are flashing police barricades, which are disassembled for the fight in Act I, Scene i.  Occasional chandeliers drop from the roof for the scenes in the Capulet mansion, and the lighting alternately floods the stage or produces a fine chiarascuro, with a conceit of Juliet bringing light to every space she enters, including a Godlike orange glow in the final scenes in the Capulet tomb.  In integrating the actors with the mise-en-scene, Ms. Edwards dresses her cast in leather, gives them swords and knives, and puts the Montagues in blue and Capulets in red, with Escalus (played by Kenn E. Head, an imposing black actor with a booming voice) dressed in a trailing coat and flanked by shaven-headed white guys in all-black suits.  Not the most imaginative idea ever, but it leads to some nice touches, as Mercutio appears in a coat of purple and green mixing with the blues and reds, the Nurse gets to parade around in a Hello, Dolly! getup for her big scene with Mercutio and the Montagues, and Juliet, who wears a virginal white dress for the proceedings, shows up for her wedding in sky blue shoes…and then changes to an ostentatious red leather jacket when she must reconcile with her father.

The acting quality varies from John Judd’s unfortunately bipolar Capulet to Brendan Marshall-Rashid, who seems to model his Paris after Peter Facinelli in the Twilight movies, to the very good David Lively playing Friar Laurence as a sort of Elizabethan Francis Collins, blending faith and science…to the fantastic Ariel Shafir performing Mercutio as a man with both a capacity for empathy and a zealous, delighted surrender to the Life Force.  Bounding about the stage, poking at his private parts with the Nurse (the delightful Ora Jones), kissing Tybalt in the swordfight, declaiming the Queen Mab speech with eerie grace, Mr. Shafir is a man I want to see again.  For the leads, Jeff Lillico is a fine Romeo, but Joy Farmer-Clary does not have a definitive conception of Juliet, switching back and forth between the Shakespearean spirit of pure love who, in Harold Bloom’s words, spoke some of the most romantic lines ever known to man (“My love is deep, the more I give to thee/The more I have, for both are infinite.”) and the fourteen year-old girl she is supposed to be in real life.

So this Romeo and Juliet is…well, Charlton Heston once wrote that being “okay” when you do Shakespeare is never good enough.  This isn’t great, but it’s more than okay.  The comedy still gives way to tragedy with the wrenching death of Mercutio, and the star-crossed lovers dominate the proceedings from the moment when Romeo and Juliet first spot each other across the room, she coy, he a man transfixed and lost in another…anyone who has ever cared about another human being has felt this infinite sensation, and no one will ever recreate it as well as William Shakespeare.

And on that note, let me leave you with the Ohio Express, because that organ is just so much fun and distinctly lacking from Miss London’s version…