Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chicago theatre previews - Sept. 2016

On my recent whirlwind trip to Chicago, I managed to catch two plays that were in final previews.  Both should be opening this weekend and running for 3 or so weeks.  I enjoyed both, though they were quite different plays.

The first one I caught was Sister Cities by Colette Freedman.  It will run through Sept. 18.  It was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this is its Chicago premiere.  Some details here.  Apparently, it has also been filmed for the Lifetime channel, though it seems like some of the dialog was cut and it is a more visual piece.  The play is set entirely in the living room, whereas in the movie version, most of the rooms of the house are explored.

The set-up is that the four sisters (all with different fathers and named for the place of their birth) rush home to deal with the sudden death of their mother, who was clearly a bit of a free spirit.  I'd rather not reveal too much of the plot, but it isn't going to be too much of a surprise to find out that various family secrets get aired now that the four sisters are reunited.  The play moves along at a rapid clip, clocking in just under 90 minutes.  As I said, I did enjoy it, but it is worth knowing that it seems to draw a bit on TV tropes in the way that humor is frequently used to mask emotion (there is more witty repartee than one would expect given the circumstances), there are a few sudden reversals that are a bit too convenient and the ending is implausible to say the least.

However, I was pretty excited to find out that at the preview I attended, Freedman was in the audience and actually engaged in a talk back with the audience, and it was one of the more enlightening ones I've seen in a very long while.  She mentioned that writing for a specific group of actors can deepen parts (and even speed up the writing process a bit, since you are drawing on an actual person), though that can make it somewhat difficult when the role then goes to someone else in a remount.  She wrote the part of Austin for herself and she considers it the juiciest role, though I tended to relate the most to Carolina, the type A personality.  I asked about Dallas, who strives to be the perfect wife, but seems to be the only one who really had ambivalent feelings about their mother.  Freedman said that that was intentional -- she is the only one who really saw through to the selfishness of the mother (who always put her own needs first ahead of her children, though she wasn't a total monster).  In some ways, I think this could have been a deeper, more profound play, but it's certainly entertaining.

The other preview was a more esoteric play -- Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés.  This is rarely performed, and people interested in seeing a fine production of the play should make tracks to see Halcyon's production (running through Oct. 8 - details and tickets here).  It is really hard to summarize the play, particularly as there are 8 cast members and the audience gets a chance to listen in on different discussions they are having throughout the play.  (This piece talks in general terms about the play.)  In the second half of the first act, the audience actually gets split into 4 groups and goes to 4 different settings (the kitchen, the lawn, etc.) to see smaller groupings of the actors.  It's actually a bit clever how the conversations can be overheard from different settings, which is likely how things would play out in a real house.  Rest assured, the audience will eventually see all 4 scenes, so no essential information is withheld.  It's really too difficult to describe what happens in the play, but Fefu is a bit of a free spirit who has a certain magnetism.  She converts one new acquaintance from being appalled to being inspired by her philosophy of life.  But perhaps all is not well in this idyllic setting?  You'll have to watch to find out more.

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