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Theater in Chicago has a bold immediacy that sets it apart from what you see elsewhere in America, and Barbara Gaines’ new Chicago Shakespeare “Hamlet” is the embodiment of all that is best and most distinctive about it. A cunningly abridged modern-dress-and-pop-music staging that eschews the tired clichés of that genre, this “Hamlet” flies across the stage with the gut-ripping speed of a slug from a .45, featuring a performance of the title role by Maurice Jones that is flat-out spectacular….
Costumes notwithstanding, this is not a high-concept “Hamlet” but a down-the-center revenger’s tale of grief run amok, a tragic thriller that begins by the grave of Hamlet’s murdered father and ends with a stageful of corpses. What happens in between unfolds on a thrust-stage set that suggests a black hole of despair, one around which Mr. Jones stalks like a starving panther. The technology, like the décor and music, is very much up to date—you’ll be astonished by the way in which Ms. Gaines and her designers conjure up the dead king’s ghost—but the emotions are timeless.
It’s a tribute to Mr. Jones’ acting that he makes so colossal an impression in a production whose cast includes a goodly share of Chicago’s top actors…
When I bristle at a show everyone else loved, I occasionally catch myself wondering whether my head was screwed on tightly enough. That’s why I decided to review a Chicago-area revival of “Next to Normal,” the 2008 Brian Yorkey-Tom Kitt pop-rock musical about bipolar disorder that won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and knocked out most of my colleagues. Unlike them, I found its portrayal of mental illness to be prettified and glib, and wondered whether “Next to Normal” might be more believable when mounted by David Cromer, America’s greatest stage director, for Writers Theater, America’s finest regional theater company. Sure enough, it is, to a degree not far from staggering….
As always, Mr. Cromer finds the tough center of truth in a script and puts it on stage as simply as possible, intensified by a poetic naturalism to which he alone holds the key. In his hands, “Next to Normal” becomes the story not of a crazy diva-mother who gets all the best tunes but of a nuclear family shattered by a sickness too strong for love. Everyone and everything, even the offstage pit band, is satisfyingly understated, including Keely Vasquez, who plays Diana, the manic mother who goes off her meds. Ms. Vasquez is so plausible that she comes across not as a singing actor but as a mom-next-door who stuns her neighbors by slashing her wrists….
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The trailer for Hamlet:
David Cromer talks about his revival of Next to Normal: