High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Sunday, June 06, 2004

A Case of Ds

Every few months, I wrench myself from inertia and make a vow not to take Chicago for granted. There's so much going on music-wise, theatre-wise, and so on, that it's pathetic how infrequently we take advantage of that. However, our track record over the last few weeks has improved. Last night, we ventured to the Western 'burbs for dinner at Bistro Marbuzet and a performance of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Circle theatre.

The theatre and restaurant were basically at Madison (0 N/S) and Harlem, so the directions took us all the way up Harlem for 99 blocks. We missed the memo that Harlem was where the crazy people were going to be last night. However, we did learn that the Culvers on Harlem is now open: Cheese Curds at a fast food place. God Bless America.

We were about 15 minutes late for our reservation after stumbling three blocks from the parking space to the restaurant. I have these shoes that are nothing but trouble. They're absolutely flat Chinese silk slippers, so you'd think they would be the least problematic shoes ever until you realize that they have the fasteners from hell. Yes, these are, in fact, the shoes that I screamed "I have a Master's degree, damnit!" at once upon a time. The problem now is not that I can't get them closed, but that the closure on the left one constantly slips down the strap. So I hope the denizens of Forest Park liked my lumber-hop down their fair streets.

Bistro Marbuzet is owned by chef Jack Jones, who has a number of places within the city proper, none of which I've ever been to. My choice was proximity-based with a boost from MetroMix, saying it was pretty good.

It was certainly a pretty place, done mostly in dark woods. The bar is gorgeous, but wasn't particularly well-stocked---not a lot of interesting choices from what I could see. It's at the front of the space and separated from the dining area by a network of light-colored wood chevrons coming together so you feel like you're looking into the shelves of an over-sized wine cellar. From the dining room, you can see into a glassed-in actual wine cellar, which was quite wee. Their wine list by the bottle was fairly large (by the glass was, sadly, quite limited), though, so I can't imagine that was the whole of their cellar.

The appetizer menu was calculated to appeal to people like me and, sadly, not people like M: Seafood gratin, escargot, lobster quesadillas, crabcakes. Not really his speed, particularly as he's still sick. We settled for entrees---sesame and coriander-crusted tuna for me and the steak and frites for him.

The food was good, but not amazing. They have a different definition of what "medium" is apropos tuna (I should have gone medium-rare anyway), and apparently think that a 9-inch-high stack of frites is a reasonable quantity of food to give to one person. The tuna's crust and sauce were quite tasty and the wasabi mashed potatoes were quite wasabi-y, but a touch runny. Our server, who had been very attentive at the outset, dropped off the face of the earth once our entrees arrived, and we ended up not having time for coffee or dessert. As it was, we really had to book back to the theatre to make it in time for the show.

They were just about to close the house when we scampered in and found two seats in the front row--- dangerous place to be in an audience participation show, but there you have it. The space was fairly small, probably 12 or 13 feet wide and 30 feet long. The raked part of the theatre would have seated about 80 or so, and they'd added two or three rows of chairs in front of that. Given the space limitations, I'm not sure that was a great idea, but then again, the place was very nearly sold out.

The show is based on the last work written by Dickens. He died in the middle of its serialization and seems to have left very little information regarding how it would wrap up. Thus, the "mystery" has been of interest for some time. There's an indifferent book called The D Case (that's not quite fair; The D Case begins swimmingly, but veers off at the end, winding up pathetic) that tries to work it out, and there's also this musical as well as a boatload of scholarly work on the issues.

The conceit of the musical is that the production is being mounted by a company in a traditional English music hall. Dickens's text is presented in the style of a traditional melodrama. The company manager introduces new characters as they arrive and pointing out clues as they're dropped in the audience's lap, and the actors "break character" from time to time and speak to the audience in the guise of their music hall personae.

The only other production of this I've seen was in a High School something like 16 years ago. I didn't remember the show very well at all, but I do have a vague recollection that, whereas John Jasper, Drood himself, and Durdles were pretty hammed up, Rosa, and Reverend Crisparkle, were played absolutely straight, and the Landless twins were much darker. It's hard to fault the decision to uniformly go for the wacky in this production, because "The Company" had such great rapport and were so funny with one another. Nonetheless, Dickens's text and the musical numbers that didn't directly engage the audience felt almost like an intrusion, partly as a result of that decision.

The staging wasn't especially creative, and I'm not sure that they thoroughly thought through some of their space limitations. the proscenium and apron were pretty straightforward nods to Victorian-era theatres---wooden with gilded cherubs. Unfortunately, I think someone went a bit overboard with the knotty pine treatment and it ended up looking a bit more like "American Unabomber Hunting Lodge" when I think they were shooting for "Drone's Club."

When the main curtain was open, the scene was primarily set with exaggeratedly false oil-painted backdrops and a few set pieces. They seemed to have the ability to unfurl backdrops either fully upstage or at center, but for the most part, they didn't take full advantage of the mid-sized stage, choosing to do a lot of the action on the apron with the curtain closed entirely, which I'm not sure was a great decision, particularly in conjunction with the extra rows of seats added in to the front of the house. This basically put the performers in the audience's lap much of the time, which was a bit oppressive for those of us in the front row.

I do have to give honorable mention to a couple of set pieces, though---the Sapsea tomb was quite well done (although they had some trouble with it when they rolled it in at the end of the show, resulting in a couple of stage hands scampering off in plain sight after the curtain had been pulled back. Likewise, the train at the top of Act II was also phenomenonal---pity it was only around for about a minute.

The whole cast was really quite good. The Company Manager/Mayor Sapsea, in particular, must have been exhausted by the end and deeply grateful for the occasional duet that gave him a break. John Japser started out a bit uneven (then again, he's not on stage for two seconds before he's launched into a big, weird muscial number with the servants standing by and not participating), but really warmed up by the end. Princess Puffer was also very good, although her confession to Rosa at the end was a bit stale.

The Reverend Crisparkle didn't work so well for me. He was tall and thin and constantly twitchy and goofy, which is certainly a valid way of playing the role. However, I have such fond memories of the guy who played him in the previous production I saw, who was small, and round and hiliarious in his complete sincerity. I will admit that I completely lost it when he started using his plain wooden cross as a fairy godmother wand during "No Good Can Come from Bad." The woman playing Drood (I was unaware that this was traditional---he was a boy in the first production I saw), was very good---very much in the style of Kate-it's-short-for-Bob. She also reminded me very much of my friend D, an even bigger musical theatre nerd than I, and that's always a good thing.

Rosa, Helena, and Neville, were kind of indifferent. Rosa has to be a bitch of a role to play and they never seemed to make a real decision of how to play her. In addition, her musical hall persona was sort of a generic popular-girl bitch, and the actress didn't seem to take to that role either. Her voice was fine, and a couple of times I thought I saw some interesting choices take hold (in her song with Jasper, she seemed almost to be giving into the seduction), but then they were kind of dribbled away. Her strongest scene was the song in the graveyard with Drood.

Helena suffered from both an uninteresting Rosa and a failure to really develop either her relationship with her or with her brother. In addition, they seem to have placed a huge amount of stock in her "geographically untraceable accent," and had her attempt a vaguely Apu-like subcontinental accent that really, really didn't work, particularly as Neville had a very generic British accent. The actress seemed to be giving the role her all, but there wasn't much to give her all to. Neville seemed even more at sea---his accent wavered, he seemed uncomfortable with his lines, and didn't even seem to know the blocking too well, which was a pity. I remember Neville being my favorite character from the first production.

Still in all, this show must be a nightmare to mount, particularly with limited funding: Costuming is expensive, the cast is immense (7 main characters, 4 minor, and a chorus of 5 [including one with the most unfortunate forehead I've ever seen topped by the most unfortunate, forehead-accentuating wig I've ever seen]), and there's a whole lot going on at all times. It's not too much of a surprise that a couple of characters seemed to slip through the cracks. The choreography and blocking, which must have been nightmarish in so small a space, were well done throughout (although likely could have been improved by using a bit more of the stage more frequently). Overall, the whole production was obviously done with a lot of love and enthusiasm, and was thoroughly enjoyable. I have to concur with M that the play itself is not much to write home about, so it speaks well of the performers that they were able to make it such a good time.

Of course, the best part of the whole evening was when the Company Manager was working the crowd during the final number. He grabbed M's hand and enthused, "Your Majesty! How wonderful to see you hear, all the way from Bavaria!" Another of his secret identities revealed!

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