Saturday, April 2, 2016

Interlude - Chicago theatre reviews

In one of the posts a while back, I discussed going to see 3 plays in Chicago.  Despite a minor scare Sat. afternoon, I did manage to make all three.  (And it turns out that Yankee Tavern played Chicago an entire year ago, so I didn't just miss it.)  Had we stuck around another few days, I might have gone to see Long Day's Journey into Night at Court Theatre.  I heard good things about it, but could not make it (and I saw a good production in Chicago 6 or 7 years ago).  It looks like that will run until April 10 if interested.

I enjoyed all 3 plays I did see.  I would probably recommend Brecht's Galileo first, though it does run 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Then Dreams of the Penny Gods at Halcyon, and finally The Flick at Steppenwolf.  I knew what I was getting into with The Flick, which is 3 hours of realistic banter between low-level employees at a struggling movie theatre in Worcester, Mass (not far from Boston).  Actually, while The Flick is not my idea of a well-constructed play, it is interesting seeing the stretching of theatrical conventions (as well as seeing a play so deeply about the lives of workers as workers).  I would say the same thing about Conor McPherson's Port Authority, which is much less traditionally theatrical than his other plays, such as The Seafarer.  I can also see why audiences who don't really know what they are getting in for with The Flick are leaving at intermission.  I was a bit surprised that the young guy next to me left, while the couple on the other side (who had taken their coats and everything with them) came back.  It runs through May 8 at Steppenwolf.

As I discussed in my post about trying to help bring certain productions to Toronto, I think The Flick would work beautifully over at the Aztec Theatre on Gerrard.  I'd still kick in a few bucks to try to make it happen, but I don't feel the need to see it a second time.  (I do hope that the company that is supposed to put on The Aliens actually lives up to that, since I want to see it; the plot reminds me just a bit of Bognosian's subUrbia.)  I've told a couple of theatre companies here they should consider Yankee Tavern.  Maybe one of them will bite.  I'm actually willing to make a bigger effort to try to bring Stupid F***ing Bird to Toronto (skipping it may have been my biggest mistake from the previous trip to Chicago in August 2015), so if anyone is interested in trying to co-produce this, let me know in the comments.

I can't really discuss Dreams of the Penny Gods much without spoiling it, but I will say it is a dark play (perhaps a bit bleak though there are certainly some comic aspects to it) about a dysfunctional family.  Most of the characters view religion as a way out of their problems, in one way or another.  The set is really quite interesting, as the family makes its living renting out storage lockers and they live on site, so everything is cluttered.  I'll come back around and discuss some aspects of the plot, but this should give you some sense of whether this is of interest.  The play runs through all of April, so there is plenty of time to go check it out.  Details here.

I don't know that one can really spoil the plot of Brecht's Galileo, since it is drawn so much from his life, particularly the fact that the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his writings about the earth not being the center of the universe.  But the play is a bit more ambitious than this.  On the one hand, it shows that the church itself was divided with some reformers or at least some priests not completely opposed to science.  Brecht suggests that the Pope knew the truth but ultimately forced the recantation to forestall uprisings in the north of Italy.  In other words, politics were far more central than theology to the decision to persuade Galileo (by showing him the instruments of torture and letting his imagination do the rest).  That said, there is one memorable scene (Act I, Scene 6) where an older Cardinal completely loses it when he is forced to think about humanity's insignificance if indeed the Earth is not at the center of the universe.  It was quite an interesting dissection of egotism and to some degree why religious impulses develop in the first place: "Mankind is the crown of creation, as every child knows, God's highest and dearest creature.  How could He take something so miraculous, the fruit of so much effort, and lodge it on a remote, minor, constantly elusive star? ... {No, impossible.} [The earth] is the centre of the universe, I am at the centre and the eye of the Creator falls upon me and me alone."

The staging is great, with video projections at times that helped illustrate some of the celestial mechanics for instance.  Still the play is too long, and most of that comes down to Brecht's writing.  There are four scenes right before the intermission that basically convey the exact same information with only minor variations.  At least two of them could have been combined or excised completely.  (I've been dealing with this in one of my plays where an actor told me that things were just dragging and that a scene or two should be trimmed, since the audience would already have made that leap and didn't need so much repetition.  I'm not always so sure about that -- I'm finding audiences are just kind of thick -- but I have come to agree that a quicker pace is almost always justified.)

Things move along much more quickly in the second half.  We see that Galileo is willing to sacrifice his daughter's happiness in the pursuit of scientific truth.  Towards the end, there are some discussions about how scientists probably ought to think more about the implications of their research on society (to this day, many scientists do not agree with accepting such restrictions, even self-imposed).  Certainly it is depressing watching conservative political parties turn anti-science to a degree that is quite astonishing (back in the 1970s when the Republicans were relatively moderate they were quite supportive of scientific research (though harnessed in the service of industry) and were willing to protect the environment); those days are long-gone, and the Conservatives in Canada are certainly not much better.  Thus, it feels appropriate to focus on the anti-science aspects of the script and downplay the (very) rare moments where Galileo does worry about where his ideas will lead.  To a certain extent the producers of the play do this by linking the dates in Galileo's life to what was going on in the U.S. from the 1930s to 1950s (particularly the McCarthy hearings), but the point is somewhat lost at the end, since I have no idea what Mexican/US border 1953 was supposed to signify.  Some of the dates seem to mesh with the tribulations of J. Robert Oppenheimer (as well as Brecht himself being called to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee), but of course the atomic bomb had already been unleashed long before 1953.

But I digress... I wasn't crazy about the puppet show scene in the second act, since it just was so tonally off from the rest of the production (though it was probably the most Brechtian thing about the whole play).  I'll have to see just what is actually written in the script.*  The one other place I thought Brecht made a huge blunder is when Galileo's young assistant gets in an argument with the Grand Duke (who at the time was a boy of 9) and they actually tussle on the ground and an astrolabe is broken.  There is no way this would have possibly have transpired like that, as the assistant would have been thrown in jail and quite likely whipped. Remy Bumppo are faithful to the script here, but it is just absurd.

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles, and I am very glad to have finally seen the play.  It runs until May 1, and I would recommend any Brecht fans in Chicagoland to go.

With that, I will sign off temporarily, but I'll discuss Dreams of the Penny Gods in a bit more detail in a follow-up post, but as I mentioned that review will have spoilers.

* Brecht does set this up as a separate scene with performers at a carnival spoofing the Pope, so making it a puppet show is not a huge stretch.  The scene's function is basically to show that Galileo's challenging of Papal authority in the matter of astronomy was filtering down to the general public, which severely upset the authorities and ultimately caused them to take a harder line with Galileo.

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