Checking in: Chicago theater stars holding their own in NYC

February 16, 2011

In New York last week, I caught up with three theater muck-a-mucks with Chicago connections: director Gary Griffin, performer Andre De Shields and actor/writer Charles Busch.

At this very moment Griffin is enjoying a two-week holiday in Costa Rica, and he's earned it, having had two Chicago productions running at the same time, "As You Like It" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (through March 6) and "The Mikado" at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He also found time for a concert staging of "Lost in the Stars" for New York's City Center Encores! Series, with which Griffin has been associated for some years. I saw "Lost in the Stars," the 1948 musical by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson based on Alan Paton's novel, "Cry, the Beloved Country." The musical adaptation is a simply-told but deeply affecting tale of South Africa at the time Apartheid was becoming official government policy in the late 1940's. Its tale of two fathers, black and white, who bridge the racial divide through mutual grief, remains profoundly moving. It may be Weill's most richly melodic score and it was beautifully sung (only the black characters sing), played and staged at City Center. As soon as he returns from Costa Rica, Griffin heads to Canada for his third season with the Stratford Festival, where he'll stage a lavish production of "Camelot" (April 16-Oct. 30).

The inimitable Andre De Shields currently is appearing in a true rarity, the 1621 Jacobean tragedy "The Witch of Edmonton" at Red Bull Theatre (through Feb. 20), an Off-Broadway venue that specializes in Jacobean repertory. Something of a legend among Chicago old-timers, De Shields began his career here 40 years ago in the national tour of "Hair" before joining the Organic Theater and appearing as super-villain Xander the Unconquerable in "Warp!" the world's first science fiction epic in serial form. This was in the very early 1970's, a decade ahead of "Star Wars." In New York, his home for several decades, De Shields has starred on Broadway in "The Wiz," "Ain't Misbehavin," "The Full Monty," "Play On!" and "Harlem Nocturne" among other shows. At regional venues, De Shields has appeared in "Death of a Salesman," "Tartuffe," "The Bacchae" and "Waiting for Godot" (here at the Goodman Theatre) among many other roles. Lucky for us, he finds his way back to Chicago every few years and has a particular association with Victory Gardens Theater. Indeed, he'll be back at VG May 14-June 12 to star in "The Gospel According to James," a new play by VG Ensemble Playwright Charles Smith. De Shields and the play will be seen first at Indiana Repertory in Indianapolis (March 22-April 10).

Finally, Charles Busch! What can one say about the little drag star Northwestern didn't want? Busch's obsession with period Hollywood movies and divas began while he was a Northwestern University theater student 30 years ago, and NU really didn't know what to make of him. I met Charles (I think people called him "Chuck" back then) when he was just out of NU and beginning to write and perform in Chicago clubs. Soon after, Charles moved to New York and became an Off-Broadway star. Over the years, Busch has developed a loyal following for his clever shows, which are half parodies of Hollywood film genres and half tributes to those genres and their stars. In addition to writing, Busch always played the female lead in "The Lady in Question," "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," "Psycho Beach Party" and "Die Mommie Die!" (the last two also turned into films). I caught up with Charles after seeing his latest creation, a compilation of all the great nun movies ever, "The Divine Sister," currently at the Soho Playhouse (through Memorial Day) in which he channels Rosalind Russell and Ingrid Bergman in the same habit. His infectious grin, rubbery face and impeccable comic timing are as sure as ever. Charles also is functioning as writer only on a new play to be produced in July at Primary Stages in NYC, "Olive and the Bitter Herbs." His previous effort as writer only, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," ran for 777 performances on Broadway.
 

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