Back From Vacation
Your PopCulteer has returned from his non-working trip to Chicago. Of course, it was so much fun and we saw so many cool things that I’m going to tell you a little bit about some of it right here in PopCult.
Our main reason for going was to see the world premiere of the new play by Tracy Letts (Mrs. PopCulteer’s favorite playwright), Mary Page Marlowe. As a happy coincidence, before leaving for The Windy City, we discovered that Lauren Sivak, who officiated our wedding a couple of years ago, was appearing in a production of The Secretaries, another play which we were able to work into our trip. So here, for the benefit of our readers living in or heading to Chicago sometime in the next few weeks, are my short reviews.
This was our first experience attending one of Chicago’s “storefront theaters” and it was a blast. The Secretaries was written around twenty years ago by The Five Lesbian Brothers, Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibble, Peg Healy, and Lisa Kron. They create provocative lesbian theatre for the masses through the fine, feminist art of collaboration. More recently, Lisa Kron won a Tony Award for her work adapting Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for the stage. This is the Chicago premiere of The Secretaries.
It’s a little tricky to describe the plot of The Secretaries, because the tone is just as important, if not moreso. Many people describe it as “Twin Peaks meets…” and that’s pretty apt because there’s some very David Lynch-like weirdness going on here. However, the humor is even darker than his. This is a play about a secretarial pool at a lumber company and among the everyday office hi-jinks, there are elements of cult worship, serial killing, eating disorders, disturbing fetishism, and body shaming. These are not your typical office politics.
We join the story as Patty (Erin Barlow), the new girl, is trying to fit in and impress Susan (Kelli Simpkins), the domineering office manager. Ashley (Megan Reardon) is Susan’s perfect second-in-command, Peaches (Sadieh Rafia) is the chubby, fun-loving secretary constantly struggling with her weight, and Dawn (Lauren Sivak) is the token lesbian of the secretarial pool. Sivak handles a dual role and crosses gender lines as Buzz, Patty’s lumberjack love interest.
The entire cast is phenomenal. Their work as an ensemble gels so well that it’s difficult to single out any one member for special mention. Kudos do go to Lauren, the reason we went, who is hilarious and convincing in both her roles. Kelli Simpkins is quite a commanding presence onstage, which is entirely appropriate for her role. She comes across like a combination of Marlene Dietrich and Charles Manson.
The Secretaries is a brilliantly directed, darkly funny, and entertaining thrill ride. It runs through June 12 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago. Ticket information can be found HERE
Mary Page Marlowe
Written by Tracy Letts
Presented by Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
It’s always cool to go to a legendary, world renowned theater to see a show and be able to point at the stage and say “that’s where we got married.” It’s even cooler when you’re seeing the world premiere of a play written by one of the most acclaimed playwrights of our age, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright/actor Tracy Letts. My first encounter with Letts’ work was 2010, when Charleston Stage Company produced Superior Donuts. I’ve since seen movies based on his works Bug and Killer Joe, plus the big screen adaptation of August: Osage County (which is way more entertaining and much more complete on stage).
One of the more remarkable aspects of Letts’ work is that each new work seems so stylistically divergent from what he has done earlier. Superior Donuts had the tone of a 1970’s “relevant” situation comedy while Bug was a nightmarish descent into paranoia and self-destruction with science fiction overtones. Killer Joe is a white trash crime drama, while August: Osage County was a dark, comic family drama that came across like Edward Albee on steroids.
So it’s no surprise that Mary Page Marlowe isn’t like any of his previous works. This play examines the life of an unremarkable woman using non-chronological vignettes to create a linear storyline not unlike the movie Citizen Kane. However, Citizen Kane applied this approach to a larger-than-life “very important person” whereas Mary Page Marlowe examines the much less bombastic life of a regular person.
The title role is played by six different actresses: Blair Brown, Carrie Coon (seen left), Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch, and Rebecca Spence. The play jumps around, bringing us flashes of this woman’s life, which build to what the audience feels is a complete picture.
The opening scene shows a middle aged Mary Page Gilbert explaining to her teenage children that she and their father are splitting up and she will be leaving them in Dayton, Ohio with their dad to finish out the school year while she moves to Lexington, Kentucky and reverts to her maiden name.
The next scene shows us Mary Page Marlowe, on the brink of adulthood, having a sleepover with friends. We are then treated to a series of vignettes that show the title character as a child, as a confused young mother, as an elderly woman, as an older woman coping poorly with tragedy, and as a woman at peace on her deathbed.
Throughout the play we learn more facts and details that paint a picture of who this woman is and build a context to help explain why she does what she does. The end result is an intensely satisfying character study of the type of person we don’t normally get to meet in drama. There are definitely dramatic events depicted, but Letts excels in applying his storytelling ability to what is essentially a normal person’s life.
In lesser hands, this idea may not have worked. But the execution is so note-perfect at every level –writing, directing, and acting– that we are left with an absolutely stunning, lovely, and touching life story. Not based on any real person, with Mary Page Marlowe, Letts has created someone that the audience cares about.
The acting is phenomenal. The six actresses who share the title role each bring their own style and approach to the character without contradicting what the others do. With Tony Award winners and nominees among the ranks, this is no surprise. Acting simply doesn’t get any better than this. In other roles, Madeline Weinstein stands out as Mary Page Marlowe’s daughter, Wendy and Alan Wilder, Ian Barford, Kristin Fitzgerald and Sandra Marquez are also quite amazing in their brief roles. With six actresses sharing the title role, this is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word and the entire cast does terrific work.
Much of the credit for this must go to the director, Anna D. Shapiro, who managed to bring Letts’ script to life in a perfect manner. With this being Steppenwolf, every detail is executed perfectly from the stage design to the costume design to the lighting and the innovative use of a moving set and projections to create so many different locations for the scenes.
Mary Page Marlowe is running at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted Street, Chicago until June 5th. Ticket information can be found HERE
Theatre Week Continues
You would think that after seeing two great plays in Chicago your PopCulteer would be all theatered out. We even had the luck of running into Tony-nominated actress (and Facebook friend of Mrs. PopCulteer, Mel Larch) Carrie Coon in the lobby after Mary Page Marlowe. However, we are lucky to have cool live theatre here in Charleston too.
In fact, our plan is to see the Charleston Light Opera Guild production of Spamalot Friday night, and then, since your PopCulteer has to be in Huntington part of the day Saturday anyway, we plan to check out the Arts Resources for the Tri-State production of August: Osage County. So that’ll make four live theatre productions (half of them written by Tracy Letts) in three cities in eight days. Which is not too shabby for someone who hasn’t been to a movie theater for almost two years.
That’s it for this week’s PopCulteer. Expect our regular features to turn up in their regular slots over the next week.