Play On!

Goodman Theatre

“If music be the food of love, play on,” moans Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” There’s music galore in Play On!, Sheldon Epps’s reworking of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy–20-some songs by the great jazz composer Duke Ellington. But if this is excess, it’s wondrous, not wretched: this revised version of last year’s Broadway flop is one of the most entertaining shows in recent memory. With a wonderful cast (led by two Tony-winning former Chicagoans) whose buoyant performances are complemented by vividly colorful sets and costumes, this production richly merits the standing ovation it won at the recent midweek performance I attended.

Epps’s pairing of Elizabethan bard and African-American bandleader is inspired: Ellington’s emotional range and stylistic variety were truly Shakespearean in breadth. Epps and the brilliant arranger Luther Henderson have raided Ellington’s overflowing songbook to create a score that ranges from elegantly yearning ballads (“Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”) to gritty, grinding blues (“I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues”) to infectiously upbeat dance numbers (“Hit Me With a Hot Note”). Ellington wrote with an array of collaborators–Billy Strayhorn, Harry James, Barney Bigard, Mack David, Irving Mills, and Paul Francis Webster are among those represented–and the lyrics are not all of equally high caliber. But even the most simpleminded sentiments are given thrillingly subtle nuance by the composer’s complex harmonies, unpredictable melodies, and deep yet tensely reined-in feeling. And it’s amazing how well the score suits Shakespeare’s story; when a quartet of disappointed lovers sings, “I sit and I stare, I know that I’ll soon go mad,” it’s almost a direct paraphrase of lines from Twelfth Night.

Turning Shakespeare’s fanciful Illyria into “the magical kingdom of Harlem” during “the swingin’ 40s,” Play On! focuses on two couples whose members spend most of their time pining for the wrong partner. Vy, modeled on Shakespeare’s Viola, is an aspiring songwriter recently arrived in New York from her Mississippi home (“I don’t want your Dixie,” she sings of her plans to trade in “southern skies” for “that classy uptown style”). She falls in love with the bandleader Duke–a reactionary sexist despite his Ellingtonian urbanity. But since she’s posing as a man in order to make it in the macho world of jazz, she can’t tell Duke how she feels about him. Meanwhile Duke is hung up on Lady Liv, the “black butterfly” star of the Cotton Club, but she wants nothing to do with him. So Duke enlists his new pal “Vy-Man” to plead his case–only to have Liv, like Twelfth Night’s Olivia, fall for the girl she thinks is a boy. Liv is also adored by Rev, a straitlaced Uncle Tom who manages the Cotton Club for its white owners; he’s despised as a “bought and sold Negro” by Liv’s Fats Waller-like pianist Sweets and her scat-singing maid Miss Mary (surrogates for Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch and Maria). Like Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, Rev is duped by his clownish enemies into thinking he can win Liv’s love if he changes his style, dressing up in an outlandish yellow zoot suit and posing as a strutting, jive-talking hepcat, which only makes everyone think he’s gone crazy.

Passing mischievous comment on the romantic roundelay is Vy’s uncle Jester–a cross between the Shakespearean troubadour Feste and the Harlem song-and-dance men John Bubbles and Avon Long (both of whom are best remembered for playing the dandified drug dealer, Sportin’ Life, in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). The Jester role seems tailor-made for Andre De Shields, a onetime Organic Theater actor whose unforgettable performance as the reefer-sucking Viper in Broadway’s 1978 Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ is echoed in his sleekly serpentine moves here: “You can’t go hither if you can’t slither,” he hisses. De Shields and portly, gap-toothed Ken Prymus team up for the showstopping blues number “Rocks in My Bed,” and Cynthia Jones as Miss Mary joins Prymus on the bubbly comic duet “Love You Madly.”

Natalie Venetia Belcon conveys Vy’s transformation from goofy country bumpkin to elegant urbanite through such songs as “I Didn’t Know About You,” and though Charles E. Wallace’s Duke starts out as a weak counterpart to Belcon’s Vy, they’re well matched in their climactic duet, the exquisite “Prelude to a Kiss.” Tall, physically versatile Paul Oakley Stovall makes a marvelous Rev, ranging from understated pathos in the delicate, little-known “Don’t You Know I Care” to rambunctious comedy in his outlandish Cab Calloway turn as he leads the nine-person chorus in a rousing, rowdy “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Best of all is Tonya Pinkins, a native Chicagoan seen on the stages of Goodman and Victory Gardens before she won a Tony for Jelly’s Last Jam. With her lush voice and masterful dynamics, she’s nothing short of stunning as the temperamental Lady Liv: stylishly sultry one moment and earthily erotic the next, this magnificent singer and beautiful actress can do more with a mischievously animalistic whimper than many actresses can do with a ten-minute monologue.

Cheryl L. West’s patchy but serviceable script effectively preserves Shakespeare’s themes of sexual misunderstanding and the contrast between romantic illusion and reality, even though she trims some of Shakespeare’s characters and transforms the story’s ending. (Where in Twelfth Night Olivia ends up with Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, Play On! eliminates the brother figure altogether and pairs Liv with Rev–a satisfying change that heightens the duo’s psychological transformation, bringing Liv down to earth while shaking Rev out of his priggishness in a way that echoes Duke and Vy’s emotional maturation.) Mercedes Ellington’s choreography is exuberant but sometimes messy; even the lamest dance moves and clunkiest dialogue, however, jump for joy in the savvy performances of this stellar cast. James Leonard Joy’s set (influenced by Romare Bearden), Michael Gilliam’s lighting, and Marianna Elliott’s playful period costumes set the stage awash in rich colors–from wine-dark reds and moody indigos to glowing oranges to sleek black on black–establishing a glamorous storybook Harlem that frames the magnificent Ellington score.

The Playboy of the Western World

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Great music also suffuses The Playboy of the Western World. Not the kind played on instruments–though there is an onstage Irish band, featuring pipes, drums, a flute, and a fiddle–but the flowing cadences of Irish speech, arching like waves on the emerald isle’s western coast, preserved and poetically heightened by playwright John Millington Synge in his 1907 masterpiece, a tragicomedy that ranges from broad farce to a bleakness more commonly associated with his countryman Samuel Beckett. Synge wasn’t trying to romanticize the Irish oral tradition, however: his intent was to expose, with simultaneous irony and sorrow, the gulf between its lyrically lilting words and the mean, miserable reality of a townful of distinctly unpleasant peasants.

Directors have often soft-pedaled Synge’s earthy ugliness in favor of a lighter, more humorous interpretation; the great Abbey Theatre actress Marie Nic Shiubhlaigh lamented in 1956 that “nowadays, the play is done as a comedy–and is invariably successful. When it was given for the first time it was played seriously, almost sombrely, as though each character had been studied and its nastiness made apparent.” She’d have approved Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of the Celtic classic; director Doug Hughes of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre (where this production will play after its run here) gives Playboy’s gab its due without ignoring the grit.

Inspired by an anecdote Synge heard while visiting Ireland’s Aran Islands–at the suggestion of his friend William Butler Yeats (coincidentally, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Synge’s first journey to the Arans)–Playboy is a theatrical tall tale: cloddish country lad Christy Mahon finds himself cast as an outlaw folk hero after killing his abusive father–not with a gun, he notes (“I’ve no license, and I’m a law-fearing man”), but with a spade while they were digging spuds. Seeking “a safe house” from the British-dominated police, Christy comes to rest at an inn some miles from his home, where people who don’t know him welcome his bravado and braggadocio (the tale of how he killed his father grows more elaborate each time Christy tells it). The innkeeper’s young daughter, a feisty virago called Pegeen Mike, makes a play for Christy, as does the rowdy middle-aged Widow Quin; Christy chooses Pegeen, and it seems he’s set for life in his new identity as “the playboy of the Western world”–until his father shows up, bloodied and bandaged but very much alive.

Satirizing the fickleness of fame and the thin line between celebrity and notoriety, Synge shows how Christy quickly turns from savior to scapegoat in the public’s mind. (The character’s name signals a blasphemous allegory, and Christy’s climactic torture and humiliation–at one point he’s ritually dressed in women’s clothes–recall not only the passion of Christ but the sacrificial deaths of many a hero in pagan mythology, from which much of Christianity is derived.) And when Christy sets out to “kill” his father a second time, Synge underscores what Pegeen calls the “great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed,” showing how folklore–the eloquent oral tradition expressing what Synge called “a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent”–elevates acts condemned in normal life. Playboy’s rich language and sardonic story remind us over and over of the “great gap” between poetry and reality–of the superstitious piety of the peasants (with their frequent prayers to “God, Mary, and Saint Patrick”) versus their spiritual squalor, of the boastfulness of drunken men versus their blustery cowardice when forced to act. By the play’s climax–when Christy is truly transformed into a “mighty man,” not by Pegeen’s love but by her treachery–Synge has created an unforgettable, complex, detailed portrait of the dichotomy between the lilting music of Ireland’s oral tradition and the guttural coarseness of its people’s lives.

Hughes’s staging, though hampered by some clunky blocking on the long, narrow playing area, effectively communicates the grimness of Synge’s vision as well as its glory. While Jim True’s Christy is a bit bland in the play’s early portions, he rises powerfully to the ironic climax; his courtship of Martha Plimpton’s feral Pegeen is both tough and tender, though Plimpton may be found a bit wanting by viewers familiar with Siobhan McKenna’s great performance in the 1962 film version. (At last weekend’s press preview, Plimpton ruined her magnificent last lines–“Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World”–by drowning them in sobs. The passion is admirable, but the poetry needs to be there too.) Fine supporting performances are given by Jerome Kilty as Pegeen’s red-faced father (his authenticity in this kind of role makes him fascinating even when he fumbles his lines); B.J. Jones as her weaselly fiance; Bradley Armacost as a hanger-on at the pub (though his scene partner, the usually excellent Rob Riley, comes off as a Cornish caricature from a British sitcom); Georgina Stoyles, Melanie Moore, and Laura Ruth as a squealing trio of worshipful villagers; Lanny Flaherty in a macabre turn as Christy’s too-mean-to-die dad; and Moira Harris as a mercurial, flirtatious Widow Quin, clinging to girlish ways she should have outgrown long before.

Anita Stewart’s marvelous set features a rustic, run-down shebeen with seemingly ancient rock walls and an earthen floor littered with hay; behind it rises a sky that ranges from beautiful bright blue daylight to a red-streaked sunset to a pitch-black, rain-drenched night, recalling Synge’s description of people “debased and nearly demoralized by…the endless misery of the rain.” Even with its flaws, Steppenwolf’s Playboy is a welcome reminder of how satisfying theater can be when competent, committed actors, designers, and directors trust a great text.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Play On! photo by Liz Lauren; The Playboy of the Western World photo by Michael Bosilow.