The Dueling Critics guide to what's good right now!

September 23, 2011

Thirty days hath September but more than 50 shows--yes, really, more than 50--are opening in area theaters. With that much ground clutter, you need someone to sort the wheat from the chaff. Hey, count on the Dueling Critics, folks; that's why they pay us the big bucks. Kelly calls her recommendations "hidden treasures," while Jonathan prefers to call his "good shows." In either case, the DC have selected early-season hits playing at smaller Off-Loop neighborhood theaters.

KELLY: My first "hidden treasure" is a pearl of the deep, Moby-Dick at the Building Stage. This reworking of the company's 2006 rendition of the book proves to be even better than its memorable predecessor. This time, lightening up on the stage tricks and hewing even more closely to the text, adapter-director Blake Montgomery and his cast of six (three men and three women) succeed in stripping the novel to its essence. In so doing, they alter fundamentally our understanding of Melville's epic. As each cast member takes his/her turn in the black raincoat representing Ahab, each adopts the stance and gait appropriate to a one-legged man on board ship--which also happens to be the stance and gait of every Richard III you've ever seen. It's a parallel I'd never before considered, but each of these charismatically evil men uses rage at his destroyed body as a reason to destroy the whole world. And even more amazing was the moment, nearly buried in the book but emphasized onstage, when Starbuck stands with a shotgun in his hand gazing at the sleeping Ahab, trying to make himself kill the crazed captain before the captain kills them all. Because he's too virtuous to do so, the tragedy continues unimpeded--just as Hamlet's inability to kill Claudius while he's praying leads to more and still more bloodshed. Melville himself described Moby-Dick as a "deeply wicked book," and this production showed me why: because it preaches the utter impotence of good in the face of evil. Seems like a timely, if unwelcome, message. Kevin O'Donnell's music, performed by a trio of drummers and percussionists perched ghost-like above the stage, embodies the atmosphere of fear and loathing hanging over the Pequod. I hear the House Theatre plans to offer a Moby-Dick in the next year or so; they'll have a big boat to fill. Friday-Sunday through October 30; tickets $22, $12 for students; at the company's space in the unbelievably West Loop, 412 North Carpenter.

JONATHAN: Sounds fishy to me, toots. My first "good show" is Lee Blessing's Pulitzer Prize winner, A Walk in the Woods, presented by TimeLine (sic) Theatre but not in their usual space on Wellington Avenue. This 1986 drama isn't new to Chicago, but this first professional revival in many years gives a new twist to the drama of two arms neotiators, one American and one Soviet, trying to save the world from nuclear annihilation. With Blessing's OK, the Soviet diplomat is being played by a woman which provides unexpected force and nuance to the friendship that grows between the two individuals. In engaging performances under director Nick Bowling, Janet Ulrich Brooks is sly, tough and warm as Anya Botvinnik and David Parkes is elegantly crisp as American John Honeyman. Based on actual off-the-books negotiations which almost succeeded, A Walk in the Woods smartly poses the real-politik and demand for trust which are at the heart of any arms deal. It's being performed by TimeLine at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue (Chicago), through Nov. 20; 773-975-8150; $34-$44 with discounts for students/seniors.

KELLY: So much for Jonathan's wooden observations. At some point in Melville's Moby Dick, the narrator tries to determine what's so horrifying about the whale, and decides it's the color: "Its whiteness made the palsied world seem like a leper." Whiteness of a different sort likewise pollutes the world of Dael Orlandersmith's powerful Yellowman, an examination of African-American color-consciousness and its costs presented by Greenetree Productions. In the Gullah-speaking community of South Carolina, the shade of your skin determines your status, your opportunities and your self-concept. "Yellow" African-Americans (that is, those whose white heritage is manifest in their features) are higher-status than their darker fellows but are also considered weaker, more cowardly, perhaps even traitorous. Orlandersmith presents a couple divided by this internal color line: he's pale, she's dark, and their parents do everything possible to keep them apart based on this difference. (Does another Shakespeare play come to mind?) Under the nuanced and delicate direction of Jonathan Wilson, Deanna K. Reed and company artistic director J. Israel Greene portray the couple as well as the teachers, playmates, drunken mothers, and abusive fathers whose prejudices narrow and ultimately destroy their world. Their tour de force performances highlight the incantatory nature of Orlandermith's language--soliloquoy as poetry--and carry the audience right into the heart of darkness. Or, I should say, whiteness. At Stage 773 on Belmont; Thursday-Sunday through October 9; tickets $15-$25.

JONATHAN: Two-actor dramas and murderous whales. I'm not sure Kelly and I have offered much variety so far, so how about a big, sprawling costume drama based on a classic popular novel? Of course, keep in mind that The Count of Monte Christo is a convoluted tale of obsession and revenge and is not without its own set of murders, mayhem and horror. As adapted by Christopher M. Walsh, many of the subplots and side stories have been stripped away or slightly reassigned so that Edmond Dantes alone drives forward all the action, played with dark-and-brooding coldness by imposing Chris Hainsworth. Indeed, the inevitable outcome, as Walsh sees it, is the emptiness of the future for Dantes once his mission of vengeance is complete. Walsh also relegates to narration many of the action sequences which have been highlighted in other adaptations. Nary a sword is drawn in this version although knives and pistols make appearances. Director Paul S. Holmquist and his 11-person cast keep the story spinning along at a fast clip in a lavish physical production; one which certainly should make audiences think twice about their actions and motives. The Count of Monte Christo continues through Oct. 30 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Greenwood; 773-761-4477; $32-$35 with discounts for students/seniors.