Chicago is hot! Read all about it in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I review Chicago Shakespeare’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and Strawdog Theatre Company’s revival of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats:
Chicago Shakespeare’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” gains immeasurably from being performed not in the company’s grand Elizabethan-style theater but in its upstairs house, a black-box performing space that has been set up for this production in a compact three-quarter-round seating arrangement. Taking his cue from the space, Gary Griffin, the Chicago director best known to New York audiences for his work on “The Color Purple,” has reconceived “Passion” as a chamber piece accompanied by five instrumentalists, with results as illuminating as were John Doyle’s similarly scaled productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.”
Part of what makes “Passion” so well suited to such treatment is that it its scale is already modest–though the emotions it portrays are unabashedly operatic. One way to approach this 1994 Sondheim-James Lapine collaboration is as a trope on a couplet by W.H. Auden: “If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.” Here the unequal partner is the sickly, unattractive Fosca (Ana Gasteyer), who becomes obsessed with Giorgio (Adam Brazier), a handsome soldier who is having an affair with Clara (Kathy Voytko), a beautiful but unhappy bride who cannot live with Giorgio save at the cost of losing her child. Fosca’s passion is so violent and all-consuming that it threatens her life. It also proves seductive to Giorgio, who has never known the disorienting sensation of being loved without limit: “Loving you/Is not a choice/And not much reason/To rejoice,/But it gives me purpose,/Gives me voice,/To say to the world:/This is why I live.”
Nothing in Ms. Gasteyer’s oddly miscellaneous resume–among other things, she spent six years on “Saturday Night Live”–prepared me for her anguished performance as Fosca, a notoriously difficult role which she interprets as memorably as did Donna Murphy and Patti LuPone before her….
If you think Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs theater is snug, wait till you see the headquarters of Strawdog Theatre Company, an L-shaped black box in a dingy storefront walkup. Yet that company, which is celebrating its 20th season, has a reputation that lured me to its production of “Aristocrats,” Brian Friel’s great 1979 play about a family of Irish Catholics who have sunk from upper-middle-class comfort into desperately shabby gentility. Rarely have my expectations been more satisfyingly surpassed. Strawdog’s “Aristocrats” is one of those revivals so excellent as to leave a critic with nothing much to do but order you to drop everything and go see it at once–and its excellence, like that of “Passion,” is deeply rooted in its clarifying smallness of scale. I saw it from the front row of the theater, sitting within arm’s length of a cast whose acting was so direct and unmannered that I felt as though I were dining with them….