Back of the Yards

Saturday I went to the Newberry Library, which graciously presented a free reading of the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman’s one-act play, Back of the Yards. 

Set in the 19th century, the didactic Back of the Yards’ dramatizes the question of “What should we do to help poor kids who’re getting into trouble with the law?” It’s a moralistic story which reminded me of Medieval morality plays. The acting was compelling even though it was a reading so they had the script in their hands.

Plot: A priest and policeman meet on the street and discuss what to do with troubled youth. The priest, who believes in training and offering services to the youth,  challenges the officer because the cops go easy on kids guilty of petty crimes. The kids then ignore any warnings and increase their offenses. A neighborhood woman then joins their conversation.

The play then goes to illustrate this argument when a neighborhood hoodlum is shot and dies in the hospital. After the woman goes off to console the vicim’s mother. The priest and cop continue their discussion when the woman’s son arrives with a bloody arm. Soon we learn that he was part of this incident and he plans to leave town to avoid arrest.

My Take: The play hasn’t lost its relevance — and sadly may never. The script was rather heavy-handed and plodding, but the acting rescued the story. While they performed the reading with the scripts in hand, they put a lot of emotion and professionalism into their work, thus keeping the audience interested.

Prior to the play, there were three speakers, long-winded all, who provided background. I’d say they all praised the playwright too much. If this was an example of his work, he’s not on par with the greats of his era.

Still who can criticize a free play with professional actors? Certainly, not me. I’m glad I went.

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Guys & Dolls

Last weekend I got to see Northwestern University’s production of Guys & Dolls. Though I knew the name and some of the big numbers like “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” and “A Bushel ‘n’ a Peck,” I hadn’t seen the show and wasn’t clear on the storyline. First performed in 1950, Guys & Dolls is set in New York City and follows a bunch of gamblers who cross paths with some Salvation Army types. Gangster Nathan Detroit, who’s been engaged to his sweetheart Adelaide for 14 years, needs to find a site for his floating crap game, but as the cops are on to him, he’s got no takers. The Biltmore Garage is possible, but the manager wants a hefty deposit for his troubles.

Nathan is sure he can convince gambler Sky Masterson to bet that Sky can take Save-A-Soul Sergeant Sarah Brown to Cuba. That’s a sure thing as A) Sky will bet on anything and B) Sarah is far to holy to agree to a date.

What follows is a lot of toe-tapping music, unlikely romance, and the antics of small time criminals.

The Northwestern performers all had great voice and sure steps. When I saw all the steep steps on the stage, I was amazed that no one took a tumble. How the girls in their heels managed, I’ll never know. Certainly they have more grace than I do.

The casting was excellent, with one exception. I applaud them for color blind casting and having the two lead women be African American. The numbers where some men were cast as chorus girls was funny. The one thing that I found a distraction was that Sky Masterson was played by a woman. It wasn’t that they made Sky and Sarah a same sex couple, It was that they expected the audience to buy into a very feminine woman with classic long blonde hair and feminine make up, to be considered a 1940s man. My friend and I both had trouble buying that choice. I’d have done some color blind casting for Sky.

The play is a lot of fun, but hasn’t aged all that well. It’s clear that for the women, their life goal is to be a stay at home wife. Though Adelaide works as a showgirl and Sarah is a missionary, their goal is to marry and stop working. Also, it’s clear that the norm for women is to find a man and then go to work changing him for the benefit of society. Now we realize that it’s better to find someone whose character you like as is since changing someone is a difficult if not impossible job.

Nonetheless, I recommend if you’re anywhere near Evanston, IL from now till March 3, check out Guys & Dolls.

Elecktra

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Electktra & Klytämnestra (sic)

Last night I saw the Lyric Opera’s Electra by R. Strauss. I’d just read Agamemnon so I was lucky to see this story, which is the next in Aeschylus’ trilogy. When Agamemnon ends, when Clytemnestra (in German Klytämnestra) kills her husband because he killed their daughter Iphigeneia to appease the gods. Their son, Orestes is outraged and wants revenge.

This opera opens with some maids gossiping about Elektra, Orestes’ sister,  has been acting oddly. Only one maid stands up for the Elektra.

The setting is stark and dystopian. A columned palace has rubble all around. Everyone’s dressed in drab grays and browns. Later Elektra comes out and laments her father’s death. She asserts that her siblings and she will dance at their father’s tomb. Hmm. I suppose that was some custom in ancient days.

Kytämnestra comes on stage and she’s quite a sight. While I picture her as a Greek goddess, what I saw was truer to the composer’s vision, i.e. a solid German woman. The costume was much like the scenery – savage, brutal and dystopian. She looked more like a monster than a woman. I found it odd that neither Klytämnestra nor her ladies had sleeves. The bottom part of their gowns, though dark and depressing, seemed to cry out for sleeves of some kind. All these noble women had frightful, garish make up.

The story continues with lots of lamenting from Elektra, who does hope that her brother can take action and get justice for her father’s death. Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister is somewhat caught in the middle, though she doesn’t see that there’s no safety in the middle. Chrysothemis just wants to get married and have a slew of children, but in a society so soaked in blood, that can’t happen. Klytämnestra expends her energy worrying about whether Orestes will seek justice through murder.

I found this story quite gory and very German, rather than Greek. The cast was heavier and the make up and sets were also dark and heavy. The performances were excellent except that sometimes Elektra waved her arms around in an odd way.

I was lucky to see the next installment of this ancient story, but I don’t think everyone needs to see it. My guess is that Il Traviata, which is also playing, is the better opera right now.

Cherry Orchard

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Northwestern’s The Cherry Orchard, 2019

Northwestern University does a splendid job with Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard. There’s a lot of humor infused in the characters of this eccentric, wealthy family, who’s on the brink of financial disaster and must choose to either gain some needed cash by selling their prized orchard and allowing it to be developed into cottages for middle class vacationers to use or to lose it all through inaction. The horrors of such a development upset the matriarch. She simply cannot allow such a change to her sacred orchard, to her familial land, the setting of her idyllic memories. Even if it means losing the orchard she wants her memories preserved like naturalists with their dead butterflies pinned inside a shadow box.

What’s the alternative, you ask? The other option is to allow the entire estate to be auctioned off. Practical folks may think it’s better to sacrifice the orchard and keep some of the estate. Isn’t that better than losing all?

Well, the central family consisting of a mother who grew up in the home, her brother, her daughter, and her adoptive daughter, who manages the estate, along with various hangers on, just can’t bring themselves to envision the solution of allowing the new middle class to tramp around their once glorious cherry orchard.

This production featured strong acting with performers who knew how to make the most of Chekhov’s irony and wit. The costumes and minimal set let the story take precedence. I really loved the Russian folk music.

The script has some updated, but not too modern, references and quips. Some worked, others didn’t. Why mess with a master though? I do want to reread the original play because my interpretation of the characters and their response to their money problems didn’t quite jive with this production. But that’s to be expected. There are plenty of ways to look at these people.

A minor criticism would be that in general, while good, the male performers weren’t as convincing as their female counterparts at conveying age. For some reason the mother truly seemed to be middle-aged, while the men who were her contemporaries or older, seemed like young people playing a part. But that’s a small criticism.

If you’re near Evanston, Illinois, check out The Cherry Orchard next weekend.

The Woman in Black

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The Woman in Black has been playing in London since 1987 and my friend has seen it four times. She invited me to see the Royal George Theater production. The play was engaging and acting was accomplished.

A man who wants to share his frightful experience with a ghost hires an actor to coach him. However, this man is so dull that the actor winds up taking the reins and performing the story himself. We see the two rehearse the tale of the man’s journey to a gothic, desolate mansion owned by a woman who’s recently died. In the course of this project, the actor comes in contact with the otherworldly Woman in Black.

The show is entertaining and whether you go with friends, your grandma or a child, there’s nothing objectionable in terms of content or language. It’s scary, but not something that would give anyone nightmares. All in all, it’s an entertaining show that I liked. I don’t see myself going again and again, but I’m glad I went.

Jane Eyre

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Hurry! You’ve got one last chance to see Jane Eyre at Northwestern University’s art center this weekend. I went last Saturday and was blown away with this production. Northwestern University is famous for its theater majors including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Charlton Heston,  David Schwimmer, Shelley Long, and more.  Thus its no surprise that the plays they put on are top notch.

In this story of orphan Jane’s hard life, the Northwestern students’ acting was, as usual, superb. The woman who played Jane was outstanding. Her voice was lovely. I’d list the names but the program didn’t print the names of actors’ ‘with their character’s name. every cast member was spot on.

I read the novel Jane Eyre a long time ago, but remember the general plot. This production used Polly Teal’s adaptation, which is a little confusing because at the start of the play Jane is reading to a woman who appears to be mad. She represents Jane’s wilder side, but then the same woman is Rochester’s mad wife. I think if I hadn’t known anything about the story, I’d have been thrown by that part of the plot.

The simple set design was sparse but set the right tone of 19th century elegance. For the attic where the madwoman was locked up, there was a platform with one lone chair which could be lowered and raised. This was a genius way to show the attic and how the madwoman haunted life in the mansion.

I love how easy and affordable plays at Northwestern are. Parking’s a breeze and it’s close to home. Tickets don’t cost an arm and a leg.

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