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

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

We'll Leave the Porchlight on

So the Porchlight Theatre in Chicago is currently mounting a production of Norman and Simon's musical version of The Secret Garden. A few years ago, M's Cana!dad was in a production of it as Dr. Neville Craven. I pondered it for a moment and came to the conclusion that it was probably not Ms kind of musical, adding, "But he does get to slap a child."

M has soprano problems, and soprano lines are thick on the ground in TSG. We both have moppet problems, and TSG has two. Nonetheless, it works for me. It's not my favorite musical ever, but I do enjoy it.

I'd seen a relatively big production of it at the Auditorium Theatre several years ago, and I was interested to see what Porchlight would make of it, as they've been inching their way towards "not so little" company for a while now. The fact that they were staging at the creatively named Theatre Building (right next door to the place at which we saw Mexican Wrestling Macbeth), rather than at some teeny tiny hole in the wall theatre was an intriguing sign. (Not a slam on hole-in-the-wall-theatres, which I love, but this is an interesting move for a company that I've been watching for years.)

If I REALLY insisted on the point, M would've gone with me, or I could've gone alone. However, my niece is about to turn 12 and one cannot begin the suburban subversion too early. I asked my sister to ask her if she wanted to catch a matinee, we decided on a day that would fit her schedule (yes, my niece's dayplanner is so packed that I have to talk to "her people"), and we came up with last Sunday.

I drove out to Arlington Heights, arriving at the homestead around noonish (after learning why one really does NOT want to exit the Kennedy and take Arlington Heights Road all the way up to them). I met their "dog" (a majestic, 3-lb, shih tzu-king charles spaniel mix [they can't let him out in the yard alone because of the coyotes {and they might have a raccoon under their deck, which presumably might eat him up and never know}]), stayed out of a fight about flip flops vs. sparkly backless shoes (I did lobby for tights, but I went unheeded), and we were off. Sitting in traffic with an almost-12-year-old is something at which I'm out of practice. It had its trying moments, but it was kind of neat, too.

Example of trying moment: C (niece) is telling me about seeing Amish people (probably Menonites, really) at Silver Dollar City (Uh, I've already disclosed that my parents summer home is a double-wide in Blue Eye "Just Steps from Branson!", MO, right?). Down with her comprehensive ignorance in a way I imagine she won't be in a few months, she asked, "They had cellphones and Nikes, but weird bonnets and other clothes. What's up with that?" I explained that the Amish and Menonites (to a lesser extent) avoided the use of technology, because they liked the idea of communities of people who all depend on each other for everything.

She then persisted, "But what ARE they?" I think she didn't appreciate my "Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata . . ." etc. answer, but it did get her clarify: "Are they a religion? Are they Christian?" So I explained that yes, they were Christian sects that originally split from others because, among other things, they were pacificists and didn't believe in infant baptism. C has this strange conversational quirk: She will sometimes reflexively ask "What's that mean?" while staring off into space. I don't know if it's ADD related or what, but it can be kind of a drag. So I said, "You know what it means?" Her attention visibly shifted back to the conversation, she looked slightly embarassed, and said, "Well, I forgot." So I asked what an infant was, and she said, "OH!" At the very least, she learned a valuable lesson about never asking Carter or an athropologist, "What's up with that?"

Other topics of conversation on the drive ranged from Old Navy vs. Abercrombie (which, she disdainfully informed me, was NOT the same as Abercrombie & Fitch, because it's FOR KIDS) to immigration ("But that's stupid. Papa's (her great grandfather) an immigrant.") to Rent.

We arrived on Belmont and found a metered space in front of a Tattoo parlor. I jokingly suggested we get her a tattoo, to which she said, "Ew." Thinking for a minute, she leaned in close and asked if I had any tattoos. I said I didn't and told her the heart-warming story about how Uncle J came home one fine Mother's Day morning with his tattoo. (This is not to be confused with the Mother's Day morning when Uncle J came home having totalled his car somehow. He could not enlighten us as to how for reasons that are depressingly ovbious.)

She then looked around carefully before whispering, "Do you have any . . . BODY PIERCINGS?" Again, I was forced to reveal my squareness and admit that, no, other than my ears, I am piercing free. She then wrinkled her little face and informed me that her friend liked a band and one of the guys had his NIPPLE pierced. I refrained from sharing any funny nipple piercing stories with her, though.

Of course, this entire conversation is taking place against the backdrop of Belmont and Sheffield, the piercing, tattooing, body modifying, PVC-clothing-wearing, gothic identity capital of Chicago. I'll grant you, most of the usual denizens are not yet out and about at 2 PM on a Sunday, and many of them were probably off visiting mom, but C's STAGE WHISPER had the potential for comedy.

As we walked down to pick up our tickets, she slipped her hand into mine and said, "I feel weird today. I feel like holding your hand." I'll hold on to that memory until she's 21 or so and might feel like doing that again. After getting our tickets, we still had half an hour until the doors opened, so we trotted over to Bittwersweet for a snack. The girl had 2 scoops of vanilla with hot fudge and caramel (quite possibly this was contraband, but what are aunts for?), I opted for potato-asparagus soup (I'd had nothing but a granola bar yet). During this time, another of her quirks revealed itself. Every 6 seconds or so, she asked, "Do we have time? Do we have time? I like to be early." What a refreshing change from your MOTHER who has been late for everything for the last 42 years, my dear.

Just as we were leaving Bittersweet, there was a regrettable influx of what appeared to be Cubs fans. 2:40ish is a little early for a game to be over. I sure hope they didn't miss the Cubs completely blowing it in the 9th, 'cause that gives me a happy. Anyway, influx of yuppies complicated our exit somewhat, and we did end up being later to the theatre than I would have liked (especially since 7 million women had decided to drop by to use the theater's 3-stall bathroom).

It was general admission, and I really hadn't anticipated it being as full as it was. However, there was some group of like 35 children, most Japanese and Indian, that had reserved a big section of seats (the place probably seats 120 or so). We wound up in the front row slightly to stage left. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but C has front-row lust, so it worked out fine, except for the jackass in the magenta ultrasuede blazer (I couldn't have made that up if I tried) who kept trying to move people so that he would NOT HAVE TO SIT WITH THE CHILDREN HE CAME WITH. Fucker.

The director (and artistic director of the company) came out to pimp the company, their next season (they're doing Assassins, and yet he went on about how Ragtime will be the biggest challenged they've faced. HA!), and to introduce the play. That means it's time for me to spend an inordinate number of electrons talking about the staging.

The space they were using (the Theatre Building has several) is a mid-sized black box theatre (tiers of seats descending to the floor, in front of that, a very slightly raised sqare stage), but they were using it in pretty typical proscenium fashion, which is about all the size would allow. In constructing their proscenium, they'd taken a leaf (HA!, 'cause see, it's like a garden theme) from the production of Into the Woods that I saw at UIUC in '03. Basically, they'd cut a proscenium with an irregular outline out of plywood, then punched out irregular shapes in that, filled it in with a translucent material and projected shifting natural colors of light through it, giving the impression that all of the action was taking place within a metaphorical (often quite jungly [not Jungian {necessarily}]) garden.

The actors entered from a catwalk downstage left and, apparently, the musicians were seated nearby. This made for some sound problems as we were right in front of the band and anyone who was facing toward stage right was often inaudible to us. I'm not sure they had too many options with their space limitations, but the acoustics of the production were uneven at best.

The whole stage was maybe 12-feet deep, so the set designers (Richard and Jacqueline Penrod) had their work cut out for them. I'm happy to say they rose to the occasion. Leaving about 60×0f the downstage area free for action, they constructed two arcs (actually, there may have been three, total, it was a bit difficult to see from our off-center position), one upstage of the other, extending nearly from "wing to wing" (in so far as their were any wings at all. Each of these had three or four archways cut into it, and the openings were offset from one another, which gave the stage much more of a feeling of depth than it really had. The downstage-most archways were filled in with a gauzy material and frequently chorus members would stand behind them, turning themselves into the creepy, looming portraits inside Misselthwaite Manor. The set of arches upstage from this were filled in with mossy material that could either be lit to highlight the texture and give it an outdoorsy feel or could be made to look like the flat, crumbling interior of the manor. Loved it, although the strings of flowers hanging within the upstage arches at the end might've been too understated.

Two low, moveable benches at stage left and right were semi-permanent features that gave the actors the opportunity to convey movement over a landscape, or to vent some of the legendary Yorkshire manic energy in the case of Dickon and Martha. When necessary, small beds were rolled on and offstage, for Mary in the opening scene and obviously for Colin for much of the show. The only bitchy commentary I'd make on set dressing is to note that Colin's bile-green bed linens certainly conveyed the feeling of a sick room.

The costumes were pretty great as well. Mary progresses through a series of floral-patterned dresses that range from shockingly fake-looking Victorian up through a much prettier, more natural green and pink ensemble by the end. Martha's rich russet-toned, tea-length gown was a better choice than sticking to traditional servant black and white. The Ayah's costumes were astoundingly beautiful (and so was Anjali Asokan, who played her, for that matter), if probably not quite in period.

It's just possible that Nicholas Saubers (the designer) ever-so-slightly lost his shit when costuming Nicholas Foster, who played Neville, but I think we can forgive him. Tragically, I can find no pictures of his ankle-length, pin-striped Count Dracula smoking jacket, complete with giant sateen French cuffs and a stand-up collar. Seriously, that jacket was DOPE. And given that Foster is tall, whip-thin, and ever-so-slightly-Sting-circa-The-Bride-like, who could resist? Not I, that's for damned sure. The real problem is that this costume makes it look as though Neville is always lounging around, one bon bon away from needing a marabou bed jacket, whereas Archibald is looking like he might drop by the PAN American EXposition in Buffalooooo. In Buffallloooo.

The only other eyebrow I raised at costuming was for Lily. I was totally on board with going cream silk. Bethany Lindner (the actress) is beautifully fair, and the blonde wig (I assume it was a wig, or at least a piece added in) was perfect (a relief given how up close and personal we were). But I must ask what the hell was going on with her hips. Have a look at those triple Ds on Amounet's head and now imagine those bra cups increased about 3-fold, transformed into puffy cream silk, and tacked on to the hips of a very slight woman. I don't know if the problem was that Elizabeth Haley, who played Lily's sister Rose, was much more naturally buxom and bonny and didn't need any lateral bustle help, or what, but Lily's pontoons were almost enough to distract me from Lindner's performance. Almost.

One of the reasons I was fairly determined to see this production was the fact that the cast was getting universally glowing reviews. It's particularly tricky with youngsters as leads, so given that even the reader had good things to say, I wanted to see this for myself. I agree about 95% with those reviews.

I'll start with the Lindners, Bethany and Michael (Lily and Archibald [respectively, for those of you who might like to gender challenge your children early]). What a bonus that these two are married in real life and happen to be so damned talented. The number of times I unexpectedly teared up at their scenes together is enhanced by the knowledge that, by this point in the production, they must really hate each other to the point of wanting to grind glass in one another's faces. Such is the way of theatre, and yet such professionalism and believability. In all seriousness, Bethany's voice was tailor-made for Lily and she made a difficult, quite operatic role look easy, which has to have been a nightmare in such a small space. Michael seems to have had to work harder to exercise his range, but he managed it beautifully. Any flaws in his singing were more than compensated for by the emotion he brought to the role. Archibald can be a bit . . . well . . . low-rent Rochester-y, but Lindner brought just enough sarcasm that it made him much more believable.

Neville is another role that can easily go all Snidely Whiplash (especially in that pimped out coat [have I mentioned my mad hot love for the pimped out coat?]). Foster seems to have conquered that instinct by going a little more passionately mad than I've seen before. That's a touch of a problem at the (frankly, way-too-pat) denoument, when it's implied that Neville just needs to get a life, rather than "Neville done gone crazy for his brother's wife," but it's such an interesting choice for so much of the play, I'm not knocking it. His voice was also not what I'm accustomed to for Neville (Richard Westerberg, who is also Cinderella's prince on the Broadway cast of Into the Woods, is Neville on my recording, and he has a giant, resonant voice), but other than some difficulty containing jerky body movements during Lily's Eyes, I'm noting it as a difference, not a downgrade.

One thing that surprised me in seeing the show again is how small Martha's role actually is. Of course, she has two big numbers that are, in the words of Anya "Break-away pop hits," so when listening to the soundtrack, she appears pretty focal. There's also the fact that my friend D, the perky fluteplayer, once played Martha, so I think of the character especially fondly. But really, she's not around much. That's a shame because Angela Ingersoll was quite charming (although also quite wee, a bit of a problem given the 17-year-old comparative giantess playing Mary) in the role, despite some difficulty with the thankless Yorkshire accent.

I was a big, big fan of Luke Mills as Dickon. I seem to recall in the book that Mary and Dickon are much more of an age (I mean she's supposed to be 11ish and he's supposed to be maybe 14 or 15?). In the musical, Dickon is, no doubt about it, an adult (he's sung by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on the soundtrack). That can get creepy in a hurry. Mills has a kind of slightly crazed youthfulness that works, though, and he had excellent rapport with his Mary. Add to this the fact that he had the physicality and vocal chops for the role and you've got something approaching the Platonic ideal of Dickon-ness.

Jim Sherman's Ben was slower and more arthritic, and less the spry, cranky man I've come to expect. However, he played the comedy well with Mary and once again alleviated the sheer gothic horror of Misselthwaite. Too much gothic horror and one begins to wonder why Mary doesn't see the moors as a viable alternative. Here, given Gabrielle Brite's fantastically scary Mrs. Medlock, a lighter Ben worked well.

Elizabeth Haley as Rose had a great voice, but her innately haughty look and her avoidance of Mary might have been a touch overplayed. That may be less an objectively problematic set of choices on her part than it was trouble in contrast to Stan Wash's Albert. Wash is golden haired, angelic, and exudes such tenderness for Mary that Haley's interpretation of Rose looks much harsher and more calculated, rather than the character being a somewhat immature socialite, which is what I think is intended.

Abigail Traube and Brandon Zale (good to see our Czolgosz from the Boxer Rebellion's production of Assassins, and much improved on the acting front) worked extremely well with Wash, Haley, Asokan, and Bethany Lindner to form the all-important chorus. This show moves pretty constantly and without a chorus that can absolutely nail the (quite complex) transitions, it's going to be a long two hours. Likewise kudos to everyone for pulling off the near-constant waltzing without ever drawing attention to how little room they actually had to work with.

That leaves . . . the moppets.

First of all I have to share my amusemenet at the fact that Drew Mikusa (Colin), who probably stands at about 4'2" inches and might weigh in at 65 lbs after a hefty meal, has apparently played Big Jule in Guys & Dolls. Beyond that amusement, though, I've got nothing but praise for this kid. He was a terrific actor, he nailed the accent, and although I'm not usually a fan of the pre-pubescent-boy voice (see earlier musings on the counter-tenor approval rating scale), it will be a heartbreak when his changes. "Round-shouldered man" usually has me reaching for the skip button in a hurry, and I think I'd lost sight of the fact that there's something really touching in it among the treacle. Mikusa's rendition did a great deal to shift the pathos/bathos balance. He and Bethany Lindner were transcendant (groin-grabbingly so!) in "Lift Me Up/Come to My Garden."

But what about the main-freaking-character one or two of you may be wondering by now. First of all, I think Mallory Baysek is cheating more than actors usually do by using a headshot that's gotta be 6 or 7 years old. Other reviews peg her at 17, currently. I have no particular beef with keeping one's sanity by casting a kid who's a bit older and more mature for such a meaty role. Furthermore, Baysek has a fine voice (one that would be improved by a little less reliance on vibrato, but I think that's more a training problem than any technical shortfall).

However, I've got to say that I'm not on board with the glowing reviews of her acting. I have a feeling she's used to a much bigger house, but the house would've had to be 10 times the size of Porchlight's to justify the ritual abuse of facial expressions of which she is guilty. Yes, I know Mary is supposed to be pinched and yellow. I gave her a good chunk of the first act to show me that it was a choice, but she ran around looking like a cross between Munch's "The Scream" and a sharpei for the entire show. She was at a 15, facial-expression-wise, and we needed her at about 5. She was also a little far to the Haley Mills (and crrrrroooooown thy goooood with brrrrraaaaahhhtahhhhoood) end of the accent spectrum for my tastes. She wasn't irrevocably broken, but I do wonder what went on behind the scenes directorially speaking that this was what we ended up with.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you been to any of the
Branson shows while visiting your parents?

12:52 AM  

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