American Theatre Magazine, July/August 2006anw-atm-crop


TimeOut Chicago, November 2008

The prophecy of Mosesitamar-moses

A dynamic New York writer
makes his ATC debut.
By Anne Nicholson Weber

What changes when you’re no longer “an emerging playwright,” “a promising new voice,” “an up-and-comer”? Ask Itamar Moses, whose precocious, high-minded work has been compared to that of Tom Stoppard. He has five full-length plays and an evening of one-acts in multiple productions around the country this season—including American Theater Company’s major reworking of his 2005 Celebrity Row.

Moses’s first answer is that, as you get more established, you start to annoy your peers. “You go from being someone who no one wants to take a chance on—so it’s like trying to break into Fort Knox to get produced—to being someone who’s taking up slots and everyone else is like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course. They’re doing another fucking Itamar Moses play.’ ”

Which highlights one of 31-year-old Moses’s artistic preoccupations: ambitious guys competing for recognition. In Bach at Leipzig (produced at Writers’ Theatre last year), six 17th-century musical mediocrities jostle for a coveted post. In The Four of Us (a play inspired by Moses’s relationship with Everything Is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer), a young playwright can’t stomach the extravagant success of a novelist friend . And in Moses’s newest play, Back Back Back, three baseball players take steroids (or not) as they compete for top rookie status.

Not that the acutely self-aware Moses  — the Berkeley-raised son of a psychotherapist and an Israeli film professor — has overlooked his own competitive streak. “It’s actually insane when you say it aloud, but living in the New York artistic community and being in that peer group and all knowing each other, you start to be, like, ‘But I don’t have a play in New York this season. How can I go to the parties?’ ”

Moses has a second answer to our question, though, and it cuts closer to the bone. “As the doors start to open and more projects come your way, you’re like, ‘That’s so great! People want me to work on these projects!’ And suddenly you have 21 projects, and you’re half-assing all of them. Then people are like, ‘He was a lot better when he was struggling.’ ”

A fear of “half-assing” is of immediate concern. When Moses ducks out of rehearsal at ATC for our interview, he has that glassy-eyed, scruffy look of exam week. After ten minutes of somewhat distant conversation, he confesses his mental machinery has been occupied rewriting Act II, scene something of Celebrity Row.  Clearly, there is work to do.

PJ Paparelli, ATC’s artistic director, isn’t fazed. He scheduled Celebrity Row — Moses’ imagining of the interactions among Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Latin Kings leader Luis Felipe and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, all of whom at one time were inmates together at a maximum-security prison in Colorado — knowing that Moses had taken it apart and the pieces were still all over the floor. “Yes, I was worried that Itamar wasn’t finished with it,” he acknowledges. “But that’s the risk we took.”

Paparelli sounds slightly less resolute when he mentions that Moses is leaving to prepare for the Off Broadway premiere of Back Back Back. “The problem is time,” he says. “Itamar will be back to make more changes when we see it with an audience. It will be very stressful for everyone, but we can’t say ‘we have to stop’ just at the moment when the most important collaborator, the audience, enters the room.”

Despite the pressure, Moses has quickly learned to roll with the business’s assorted punches. Consider, for example, the 2005 Off Broadway premiere of Bach at Leipzig. None other than Stoppard himself had called the play “a splash in the making,” a quote that was picked up in preview stories about the show. Maybe that’s why New York critics dug in their heels and gave the play, as Moses puts it, “quite a spanking.” For him, “there was something quite freeing about that. Because the worst thing that can happen is The New York Times says your play is horrible. And then you still wake up the next morning. It was a strange gift.”

But maybe the most telling answer Moses gives to our question is that experience doesn’t count for all that much. “You can’t fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Well, I wrote this play and I wrote that play and they worked pretty well.’ None of that sits down with you when you start to write the next one. So I always have to get back into that mind-set I had sitting in a college dorm room with no expectation that anyone would be interested in anything I was writing. And then earn it every time.”

Celebrity Row opens at American Theater Company Monday 20. See Resident companies.  


The Outs and Ins of Philip Dawkins

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philip-dawkins-playwrightI first encountered Philip Dawkins in 2007 at The Paper Machete, Christopher Piatt’s “Live News Magazine.” It was a back-to-school show, and Dawkins – who had then been teaching playwriting in the Chicago Public Schools for 10 years – opened his monologue with comments his students had written on a class feedback survey form. An example: “How many plays have you seen in the past year?” Answer: “0. And proud I don’t watch gay shit like that.” Another example: “I’m interested in learning more about theatre and theatre arts.” Answer: “Not really. Sorry, I don’t take it up the ass.” It was heartbreaking and oddly hilarious. But what stuck with me more than those sophomoric expressions of hostility and homophobia was Dawkins’ tone of wry and bemused empathy.

Four years later, Dawkins’ play, The Homosexuals, was nominated for a Jeff Award. Since then he has become a regular at the Jeffs, with four nominations and two wins. His 2016 hit, Charm, featured a 60-something black transsexual teaching etiquette to a bruised and rambunctious gaggle of queer teens. His other 2016 hit, Le Switch, was a romantic comedy about marriage equality. Both played to sold-out houses in mainstream theaters. read full article


Chicago’s Own Puppetmaster

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Chicago PuppetmasterMichael Montenegro has been making extraordinary puppet theater in Chicago for more than 15 years, but only recently has his work been turning up on the stages of some of Chicago’s major companies.  Two seasons ago he created what the Chicago Sun-Times called the “heart-breakingly tender” puppet-children in the back seat of the car for Next Theatre’s 2005 production of  Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home.  The Chicago Tribune specially noted his “soulful” little boy puppet that was the centerpiece of the closing tableau of The Duchess of Malfi at Writers’ Theatre last spring.  And, last fall, the Chicago Tribune called his work the “highlight” of Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika at Lookingglass Theatre.  Now, with Writers’ production of The Puppetmaster of Lodz, his work is at the very heart of a major Chicago production.

It might be surprising that an artist so universally acclaimed could have hidden his light under a bushel for more than a decade.  But self-promotion is not a skill of the self-effacing Montenegro.  Furthermore, it is only recently that Chicago’s mainstream theater has incorporated puppetry into its theatrical vocabulary.  Maybe it’s happening now, as Montenegro suggests, because the Sesame Street generation has joined the ranks of theater patrons.  Or maybe it’s just the vagaries of theatrical fashion.  read full article


Six Things To Know About Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge

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Brian Bembridge

I watched theatrical designer Brian Sidney Bembridge at work during tech week at Writers’ Theatre as he finalized the lighting for The Duchess of Malfi. Even from afar, he was someone you couldn’t help liking — relaxed (even in the crucible of tech), friendly, positive, focused, professional. Only after I asked him for an interview did I discover that he is already the darling of the Chicago theatrical press, more written-about than many well-known Chicago actors.

That’s partly due to his productivity (last year he designed the sets and/or lights for 30 shows). And to the quality of his work, of course: he’s won four Jeffs, three After Dark Awards, an L.A. Weekly Award and top mentions in Time Out Chicago and New City. He’s also a conscientious self-promoter, who makes room in his already-packed schedule for people like me. And it can’t hurt that he’s someone you can really enjoy spending two hours with over a cup of coffee at a Greek Town café.

Here are six things I learned about Bembridge in the course of our markedly non-linear conversation:  read full article


Gary Houston: A Voice of Experience

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Gary HoustonI asked for this interview after seeing Gary Houston’s performance in The Artistic Home’s production of Romulus Linney’s Unchanging Love.  I’d never seen him act before that; I’d never even heard of him.  But the ease and conviction of his work were striking.  On Google I found a couple of articles from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s about avant garde productions Houston directed here during that fertile period of Chicago theatre history, but after that nothing.  His IMDB entry on-line lists one or two film or television roles each year for the fifteen years.  So I figured maybe he was a former Chicagoan living now in L.A. and back here for a nostalgic taste of applause and deep dish pizza.

He’s amused and somewhat flattered when I explain this over an iced tea in an Andersonville diner.   In fact, his film/television work has mostly been cast and filmed here.  He did  have a small but rewarding scene in Fargo, but that was shot up in Minnesota.  Otherwise he’s been working in Chicago theatre — when not honorably unemployed — for the past 35 years or so.  read full article


 Audiences: The Other Half

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TheatergoerThe great British music hall comedian Max Wall used to say at the end of every performance:  “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.  You have been half.”  Which means that the quality of theater in Chicago depends not only on the vision and talent and sweat of the theatre artists involved, but also — equally — on the quality of our participation as audience members.

So this week on the Talk Theatre in Chicago interview podcast, we’re shifting our focus to the other side of the footlights, from the artists to the audience.   How do we, as theatre-goers, find the kind of work we respond to?  How can we learn more about the work we are seeing?  What attitudes should we bring into the theatre with us?  And how can we keep the conversation going after the house lights come up?

One way is to take advantage of the extraordinary resources many theaters are offering to theatre-goers who take the trouble to search them out.  For instance:

On the Steppenwolf home page is an “explore” link for each of the current shows.  Click through that link for the critically acclaimed Diary of Anne Frank — to take one example — and find a video clip from the production, a video interview with the director and one of the cast members, and a link to the video diary of the young star, Claire Elizabeth Saxe. read full article


Theater Off The Map

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Children's Theater

Some of the most crucial work in Chicago’s theater community is being done off the map, where few reviewers or members of the Jeff Committee ever venture.

I’m not talking about a company of young geniuses producing avant garde multi-media theater in someone’s garage off Division Street.  I’m talking about shows like The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales at Lifeline, or Vittum Theatre’s The Shakespeare Stealer, or Tireswing Theatre’s Jataka Tales at the Cultural Center — affordable, artistically ambitious theater for children and young people.

The League of American Theatres and Producers recently published its annual study of Broadway audiences, “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2005-2006.”  It found — as have numerous studies before it — that the strongest factor in creating future audiences is exposure to theatre as a child.  So companies like Lifeline, Vittum and Tireswing are creating the audiences that will, in a decade or two, turn up at Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and that avant garde multi-media production somewhere off Division Street.

Tyrone Guthrie reportedly said once that the only great theater you see is when you are very young.  If he’s right, these companies are not only doing the crucial work of creating tomorrow’s audiences, they are also making the greatest theater in town.


On Theatre Reviewing

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Theatre CriticTheatre reviewers make personal, un-testable and necessarily fallible judgments that have enormous impact on the careers of artists. Former New York Times critic Frank Rich could once single-handedly make or break a Broadway show.  He was rewarded with the moniker “the Butcher of Broadway.”  The relationship between reviewer and reviewed can get pretty cranky.

But most critics sincerely love the theatre, admire theatre artists and hope to contribute to the art form.  The question is how.  read full article


Sheldon Patinkin Knows His History

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No Legs No Jokes No ChanceThe vibrant history of the American musical is explored in Chicago author Sheldon Patinkin’s encyclopedic and opinionated new book, “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance” : A History of American Musical Theater.  Patinkin guides readers through the evolution of the American musical from its roots in 19th Century burlesque, revue and operetta to the phenomenon of modern-day extravaganzas such as Wicked and Rent.

Patinkin is a beloved elder of the Chicago theaterscene.  Now chair of the Theater Department of Columbia College Chicago, and also artistic consultant for both The Second City and Steppenwolf Theatre and ensemble member of The Gift Theatre, Patinkin has been observing and contributing to the Chicago theater for almost six decades.  He was there at the University Chicago with the band of brainiacs that became The Compass Players, and he was there at the beginning of The Second City phenomenon — a “founding uncle” as he puts it. read full article


New Grown-Ups on the Block

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Theatre MirTheatre Mir’s remarkably assured production of David Edgar’sThe Prisoner’s Dilemma launches a promising new company onto the Chicago theatre scene.  But this is not a scrappy company of 20-somethings fresh out of theatre school.  Artistic Director Rob Chambers, currently a faculty member at DePaul, has been directing for 30 years while pursuing a parallel 25-year career in arts administration, including eight years with Second City.  The ensemble also includes well- established Chicago actor Danica Ivancevic (Uma Productions’Faith Healer, TimeLine Theatre’s Hannah and Martin) and  DePaul Theatre School faculty-member Rachel Slavick.  Even the five “kids” in the company — Yosh Hayashi, Stephen Loch, Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, Mira Vasiljevic and Jeremy Young — are in their 30s, and have masters degrees and five or ten years of work under their belts.

Being veterans has its pluses and minuses.  As Chambers puts it, “Now I know why most people are in their 20s when they do this.  Because of the energy, and because of the abandon.  We’re more realistic.  You keep asking yourself, ‘do we really want to do this?  Do we really have the energy?'”  His voice sounds a little ragged around the edges: “This has been the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”  read full article


 Learning to Play at Piven Theatre Workshop

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Piven Theatre WorkshopThis year, the Piven Theatre Workshop celebrates 35 years of training actors how to play. Byrne and Joyce Piven founded the Piven Theatre Workshop in 1973 to teach then-revolutionary techniques growing out of the improvisational theatre games and story theatre of Viola Spolin and her son, Paul Sills.   The technique uses what Joyce Piven calls “disciplined play” – games, improvisation, storytelling – to train actors.  Students become the parts of a machine, play slow-motion tag, or improvise dialog to tell well-known folk tales in their own words.  The goal is to help aspiring actors find artistic authenticity, spontaneity and individuality.

From its roots in the fertile soil of Chicago’s experimental theatre scene of the 1970s, the Workshop has grown to encompass a training center that serves 1,000 children and adults each year, a professional Equity theatre, and ambitious scholarship and outreach programs that allow under-served and economically disadvantaged students to participate in the Workshop programs.  read full article


Theater On The Lake

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Theater On The LakeEach summer, the Chicago Park District’s Theater on the Lake remounts eight shows from the previous off-Loop theatre season.  Eight weeks, eight shows, eight chances to sample some of the best of what Chicago’s flourishing off-Loop theatre scene has to offer; it’s a kind of Taste of Chicago for theatre-goers.

The venerable open-air building, located on the lakefront at Fullerton, was once a sanatorium for children suffering from TB.  Converted into a theatre a couple of decades ago, the building still offers stunning views and plenty of fresh air – too much, sometimes, when cold lake breezes leave audience members shivering in their seats.  The surrounding noise and energy from Lake Shore Drive traffic, runners and bikers on the bike path, and beachgoers on their way to and from Fullerton Beach, can be both exhilarating and distracting.

But the noise and energy that really matters comes from the off-Loop companies who bring their shows to the site.  The year’s season kicked off with The Misanthrope presented by Greasy Joan & Company and was followed by Pegasus Players’ Jitney. The remaining season includes:  read full article


 Rehearsing The Duchess

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Writers' Theatre

How do director, designers and actors prepare to realize John Webster’s Jacobean blockbuster, The Duchess of Malfi, for a modern audience?  What challenges do the artists face along the way?  How does their vision evolve over the course of rehearsal? 

This is the first in a series of articles documenting the upcoming production at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, adapted and directed by Artistic Director Michael HalberstamThis part addresses the problems posed by a text that’s almost 400 years old.

Part I: John and Michael

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was produced for the first time in 1614. That was a long time ago. Webster’s audience wore doublets and farthingales, danced the galliard, read Pliny’s Natural History (or pretended at parties that they had), attended public hangings, cheered and dreaded a king, and died of the plague or the clap more often than of old age.

So how — and why — do you stage The Duchess of Malfi today? In a speech welcoming his assembled cast at their first read-through, director and adaptor Michael Halberstam offers his answers.  read full article


Rehearsing the Duchess: Part II

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Duchess of MalfiRehearsing The Duchess: For The Duchess of Malfi costume designer, Tatjana Radisic, the challenge was to create a high-end fashion line for the rich and powerful inhabitants of a world that doesn’t exist.

This is the second in a series of articles documenting the production of John Webster’s tragedy directed by Michael Halberstam, which opens at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe this Wednesday, May 24th.

Part II: Tatjana

Costume designer Tatjana Radisic is accustomed to bridging worlds.

She came here from war-torn Serbia in 2000 with a degree from a five-year program in costume design and years of experience in Serbian theatre. But she had no idea how things are done in Chicago. “I knew nothing. Thrift store? What’s that? Where to find thrift store? Where to buy fabrics? Where to rent costume? Back home, you have to build everything or buy in regular store. There’s no place like Broadway Costumes where you can rent.”  read full article


Rehearsing the Duchess: Part III

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Actors Elizabeth Rich and James Meredith describe some of the challenges they faced in creating the pivotal love scene in The Duchess of Malfi, currently playing at Writers Theatre.

Making a Scene:  Elizabeth and James

In the first scene of The Duchess of Malfi, the recently-widowed Duchess promises her brothers that she will never remarry.  In the very next scene, she declares love to her steward, a commoner named Antonio, and marries him on the spot.  From that action follows all the ensuing violence and horror of the play.

Because the love scene between the Duchess and Antonio is pivotal to the plot, it carries a great deal of weight.  Elizabeth Rich  — who plays the Duchess in the current Writers’ Theatre production — puts it this way:  “You have to nail the love scene.  You have to care about the Duchess and Antonio as a couple, or nothing that follows matters as much and then it’s not as exciting a journey.”   James Meredith, who plays the Duchess’ lover, Antonio, echoes her sentiment.   “The audience must believe that these two people really love each other.  And more so because of the class differences that divide them.  I think when you get into relationships between different classes or religions or races, sometimes the love between those people has to be stronger than the love between two people who are of the same background because they have to fight harder through society’s obstacles to make their relationship last.”   As a black man married to a white woman, Meredith speaks from the heart.   read full article


What Makes Chicago Theatre Different?

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Upstaged- Anne Nicholson WeberThe question reminds me of an amusing book title I saw once:  Why Women Are Different.  But since New York is still undeniably the standard against which all U.S. theatre is measured, the implied question — “What makes Chicago theatre different from New York theatre?” — is maybe not so silly.   It certainly has very real repercussions in the lives of theatre artists.  The unique culture of Chicago theatre is what brings young actors, directors, playwrights and designers here in the first place, what continues to influence their work throughout their careers, and what keeps them here — or not.

When I was conducting interviews for a book on quite a different topic (how the cultural dominance of film and television affects live theatre) the Chicagoans I talked to — Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Linda Emond, now a leading New York stage actor who spent the early years of her career in Chicago, and Bob Falls, Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre — each had a something to say about what makes Chicago theatre different.  Here are some of their thoughts, excerpted from my book, Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age.

Martha Lavey

I am utterly chauvinistic; I like Chicago acting a lot better than I like New York acting.  To me, New York acting is extroverted in a way that just doesn’t feel true.  There is almost a presentational quality to the performance that serves the heightened ego of the audience because, if I’m winking at you while I am performing, then I am saying, “I’m not forgetting you, I’m doing this for you.”  read full article


 Sayers for Players: Lifeline’s Gaudy Night

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Frances Limoncelli - Lifeline Theatre

Frances Limoncelli is Director of Marketing and an ensemble member with Lifeline Theater. She adapted Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, Gaudy Night, for Lifeline’s current production, as well as two other Sayers novels previously produced by the company.  

How did Lifeline find this niche of literary adaptations?

Northwestern’s performance studies department, which was headed up by Frank Galati for so many years, was all about adaptation, so the founders had that background.  It was natural for them.  They also had a love for language and the written word which the entire ensemble shares.

Can you characterize Lifeline’s style?

Most plays have a reasonable number of locations and a reasonable number of characters.  And  we could do books that are small like that.  But we are always attracted to huge stories.  You know, we’ve done Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.  We’ve done Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  We staged the Battle of Gettysburg in Killer Angels.  And as you can see, sitting here in our theatre space, it’s not that big.  But what we love to do is to take a tremendously huge story, a story with scope and depth and breadth, and find creative ways to realize that scope.  We don’t have the Goodman’s size and budget, so we’re not going to give you physical scope.   Instead we’re going to give you imaginative scope.  And I think that comes across to our audiences.  We’ve done audience surveys where we ask them to describe us and even give them choices — are we this, are we that, are we the other thing?  We always think they’re going to pick “literate”, “smart”, “literary”.  Never.  Instead, they say, “creative”, “imaginative”, “surprising”, “physical”, “visceral.”  Those are the words they pick.  And I’m so happy about that, because that means we’re succeeding.   read full article