Writers Theatre opens studio with parody of sacred theater cows
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Given the title — “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf” — the addition of the words “A Parody” hardly seems necessary. After all, in one fell swoop, Writers Theatre alerts us to the fact that three landmark plays in the American theater canon are about to be spoofed and/or mangled, including Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then parody and satire might well compete for that honor. So what better way to inaugurate Writers’ Gillian Theatre, the flexible (50- to 99-seat) studio space in its new Glencoe home, than to bring a little irreverence into the room, along with a nod to Chicago’s satirical improv tradition? After all, sacred cows exist to be slaughtered (remember the “Last Mama-on-the Couch Play” sequence in George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” which boldly satirized Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”?) And if you cleverly toss in a sendup of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” along with brief references to “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Iceman Cometh,” you’ve got quite a comic feast of zanily skewered theatrical conventions.
‘DEATH OF A STREETCAR NAMED VIRGINIA WOOLF’
When: Through July 31
Where: Writers Theatre,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Info: (847) 242-6000;
Run time: 65 minutes with no intermission
By the way, did I mention that “Death of a Streetcar”— created by Second City veterans Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen, written by Sniffen and directed by Stuart Carden and Michael Halberstam — is 65 perfect minutes of pure fun that should have particular appeal to theater lovers who may have seen just a few too many of the classics during their nights in the dark? (The enduring exception is Writers’ unforgettable 2010 production of “Streetcar,” directed by David Cromer.) On top of all that, this show is being performed by many of Chicago’s A-list actors.
It is set, as it must be, in the Big Easy, with Linda Buchanan’s fabulous set an homage to New Orleans style, complete with shutters, wrought iron railings and flocked wallpaper, and Jenny Mannis’ costumes spot-on versions of “the originals.” Of course the location is a bit skewed, with the plantation home where Blanche DuBois grew up now smack in the middle of downtown, and large enough to house the extra characters.
As for the basic plot line, think Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which interweaves the stories of a slew of disparate fairy-tale characters whose destinies overlap. Here, the iconic characters arrive in New Orleans with all their neuroses in full bloom, but with just enough twists to make them fresh. And smoothing the way is The Stage Manager (the beguiling Sean Fortunato), the self-proclaimed “folksy narrator” from “Our Town” who quips that we should think of him as “warm butterscotch over Mark Twain.”
The first to arrive at what is now something of a bed-and-breakfast is Blanche DuBois (Jennifer Engstrom, fresh from her virtuosic turn in A Red Orchid’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Mutilated”). The faded Southern belle, who is in her perpetual state of erotic heat, has just escaped from a mental institution. She claims she is to be married yet is ready to seduce anyone, from her sister’s hot husband, Stanley Kowalski (Michael Perez, whose T-shirt bears a perpetual sweat stain), to Willy Loman (the ever-droll Marc Grapey as the loser relegated to a heavenly seat in “Our Town”), who has shown up a week too late for a seminar on successful salesmanship.
Arriving by train from New England are Albee’s fabled couple: the failed university professor George (John Hoogenakker, who has transformed himself into a dead ringer for Albee) and his hard-drinking, emasculating wife, Martha (an aptly blowsy, foul-mouthed Karen Janes Woditsch). They claim they are there to reunite with their heretofore imaginary son.
Stanley, who rebels against his traditional caveman-like stage persona, turns out to be an autodidact who not only knows about the Napoleonic Code but has a taste for philosophy and watercolor painting. And while he doesn’t play his famous poker game, he does prove to be a champion bowler, and in one hilarious scene (with brilliant sound effects by Josh Horvath), all four male characters converge at a bowling alley. (In another clever bit, Stanley makes his classic cry for his wife, Stella, but only after their mobile phone connection is lost.)
Fast, furious and funny, “Death of a Streetcar” might have you hoping for a sequel. Eugene O’Neill and Anton Chekhov would be naturals, and it’s almost time for an August Wilson sendup, too. “Hamilton” will have to wait, but the musical theater possibilities are endless. Think “My Fair Lady has a Spring Awakening.”
[Note: Beginning July 19, Greg Matthew Anderson, just in “Arcadia,” will take over the role of George.]