Mondays with Mike: The play’s the thing

October 16, 2017 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike by

Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield (left) leads a discussion with the cast of The Rembrandt during Sunday’s touch tour. From left to right, cast members are Francis Guinan, John Mahoney, Karen Rodriguez, Joe Dempsey, and Gabriel Ruiz.

Back in 1974, I was a high school senior courting a girl who was in the drama club and who aspired to a career in the theater. To impress her, I saved my shekels and bought two tickets to a performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives when it was at the Blackstone Theatre. It starred Maggie Smith, whom I only knew from the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

At that time, I knew nothing of theater. It seemed like the symphony—a lofty thing.

Well, it was a hell of a good introduction. The whole thing was magical—those real live people up there on stage. Just being there made me kind of nervous for them. But they pulled it off with aplomb—Smith was, as always, fantastic. (I found this interview Roger Ebert did with Smith while she was in town for the performance.)

I haven’t always lived where theater was plentiful or affordable. But if I did a top ten list of things I’ve loved about living in Chicago, theater would be right up there. This past weekend reminded me of how lucky Beth and I are in that way.

To start, we got a Saturday morning call from our friends Steven and Laura—a friend of theirs couldn’t make it to a matinee performance of A View from the Bridge at Goodman Theatre that afternoon—and the price was especially right: Free thanks to Steve and Laura’s generosity. Did Beth or I want to go? Beth had enjoyed Teatro Vista’s production of A View from the Bridge at Victory Gardens Theatre back in 2014, so I lucked out.

It was a gray, rainy, coldish Saturday, and let’s say the content of the play didn’t bring sunshine to bear. But, the quality of the play, the extremely unusual staging, and the performances were inspiring in the way only live theater can be. Really powerful—the guy who plays Eddie, the main character, is unbelievable.

The next day, Beth and I headed to Steppenwolf for The Rembrandt, a play starring two stalwart ensemble members, Francis Guinan and John Mahoney (he of Frasier TV fame). Steppenwolf regularly puts on touch tours for people with visual impairments—Beth’s written about the one she attended for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s a privilege to get in on these things—if Beth invites you, go. To start, Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield—who puts these things together—and the entire staff are remarkably helpful and at ease. That last part ain’t easy—I get nervous when I’m around more than one blind person at a time.

Set designers, artistic directors and other crew come on stage to talk about the play, prompted artfully by Hatfield, who serves as a sort of MC. They explain why they made certain choices in the production—and then a crew member describes the physical set in great detail. For The Rembrandt, the set used an ingenious Transformers-like assembly that allowed them to convert a scene set in a present-day art museum into Rembrandt’s studio in a few seconds while the lights were out.

But that was topped by a discussion with the cast members, who always are amazingly generous and down-to-earth. That includes those, like Mahoney, who’ve gone onto great fame and fortune. Hatfield draws them out to describe—physically and otherwise—the characters they play. One funny thing: These are people who remember, by rote, line after line after line. But when Hatfield asked each actor to recite their first line from the play, some had a difficult time remembering their first line outside the context of the performance.

Regarding Mahoney: he was incredibly warm, articulate, self-effacing—he’s a treasure professionally but also a guy you’d like to have in your family.

Guinan was also terrific—he got right up on stage before the play when the people with visual impairments are invited to walk on stage and touch the sets. He acted as sighted guide and answered questions.

The play runs without intermission and is divided into four parts. It sort of lived up to the mixed reviews I received, which cited unevenness and choppiness. The first and the last parts were marvelous in my opinion, the others were far from bad but didn’t seem connected with the others.

Then again, I have a friend who likes to say, “If you find a talking horse, don’t criticize it for bad grammar.” That’s sort of how I felt about this one. Two out of four was good enough to make it all worth it. In fact, the last part—featuring an intimate conversation between Mahoney and Guinan playing a couple who’d been together for decades—was worth it by itself.

Beth and I left exhilarated and tired in the way that only theater leaves us. And we marveled to think that the cast and crew were going to do the whole thing again later that evening—just as the cast and crew did at Goodman the day before.

I don’t know how they do it. But I’m grateful they do.

Pat Fraser On October 16, 2017 at 5:19 pm

I loved The Rembrandt. Cried like a little baby at the end.
Glad you guys liked it too.
A lot of funny side jokes if you work in a museum, too.

Al Hippensteel On October 16, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Shekels? Those darn things always get stuck in the washers and dryers at the laundromat.

Sharon Kramer On October 16, 2017 at 6:05 pm

I really love your columns. There is a bit of Mike Royko in you as well as Studs Terkel. How’s that for a compliment.

Benita Black On October 17, 2017 at 4:52 pm

So glad we have this in common, Mike & Beth. I’m a theater baby myself, having seen my first play for my 5th birthday and have never stopped. I, too, loved the theater scene in Chicago – great stuff at many different price points, Something for everybody. The special events for the visually impaired are incredible. Terrific.

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