"Artist Descending a Staircase"
Once again Remy Bumppo Theatre Company has gone off the beaten path to find a gem. This time it's “Artist Descending a Staircase,” an early radio play by Tom Stoppard.
First broadcast by the BBC in 1972 (and later adapted for live theatre), the 90-minute piece revels in themes familiar from Stoppard's subsequent plays, such as “Travesties,” “The Real Thing” and “The Invention of Love.” Part murder mystery, part romance and part humorous exploration of the meaning and purpose of modern art, it combines time travel, a tragicomic plot twist involving mistaken identity and a whole lot of sparkling wit. Even the title is a joke: It alludes to Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”
Remy Bumppo's lively broadcast, ably directed by James Bohnen, requires careful listening because the time shifts aren't always clear, especially at first. The play opens with the sound of an artist, Donner (Peter A. Davis), falling down the stairs. This has been recorded by Beauchamp (Nick Sandys), a colleague whose art now is focused on taping the sounds of everyday life. He and a third artist and roommate, Martello (Annabel Armour), examine the recording (in which a fly has a prominent role) and conclude that a murderer must have awakened Donner from his sleep and pushed him down the stairs to his death. Beauchamp and Martello accuse each other of the crime.
All three artists are elderly and have known each other for half a century. As the two survivors speculate about what happened, they descend backwards in time as far as 50 years to 1914, when they embarked on their careers and became immersed in, or scornful of, various artistic movements and each other.
A woman was at the center of it all, as is almost always the case. Her name was Sophie (Aurura Real De Asua) and she was blind. Muse and model, she was a friend, lover and source of discord with unhappy consequences. At the end, the play returns to the present, but the mystery is never solved conclusively.
While neither the plot nor the characters are completely compelling, “Artist Descending a Staircase” overflows with pronouncements about art that range from clever to hilarious. One of the artists proclaims, for example, that “a post-Op pre-Raphaelite is Dada brought up to date.” Another, faced with the age-old problem of justifying the existence of art to those who are hungry, concludes that the solution is to make the art edible.
The fallibility of memory is another common Stoppard trope. As Beauchamp and Martello reflect on the past, they're repeatedly at odds about what happened and how they remember it, so much so that a crucial relationship hangs in the balance.
All four actors deserve credit for bringing “Artist Descending a Staircase” to life, though I admit the radio play has whet my appetite for the Stoppard's live version. Sound designer and engineer Christopher Kriz is responsible for the evocative, sometimes over-the-top effects.
Through April 18. Free but registration required. remybumppo.org
“Chicago Sings Rock & Roll Broadway”
Porchlight Music Theatre pulled out all the virtual stops for “Chicago Sings Rock & Roll Broadway,” its annual fund-raising concert, which premiered on March 20.
Directed by artistic director Michael Weber with music direction by Jermaine Hill and Linda Madonia. it was filmed at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts and presented online for the first time. More than 50 Chicago artists, including Darilyn Burtley, Donterrio Johnson, Heidi Kettenring, Michelle Lauto, Andrew Mueller, Sawyer Smith, Tiffany T. Taylor and Bethany Thomas, performed numbers from scores of musicals, interspersed with greetings from now-Broadway stars, such as E. Faye Butler, Sean Allan Krill, Susan Moniz and Kathy Voyto. The Guy Adkins Award for exceptional and lasting contribution to the state of the art of Chicago music theater went to Felicia P. Fields.
Like all the Porchlight concerts, this one was as enlightening as it was entertaining. The starting point was “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1960, the first Broadway musical to use an electric guitar in the orchestra. The end of the decade brought “Hair” (1967), the first full-fledged rock musical.
Proceeding more-or-less decade-by-decade, the hour-and-forty-five-minute program also grouped songs into thematic medleys, among them the Bible medley, the mega-musical medley and the bio-musical medley. The exception, sort of, was the finale, with a bunch of songs from 2005 to the present that didn't quite fit anywhere else.
Each section was preceded by an informative narrative featuring fascinating tidbits about the shows and vintage photos from productions. That was my favorite part both because I learned some new things and was reminded of others I'd forgotten. Some of the song choices seemed odd, while the quality of the singing and dancing was uneven, though overall enjoyable.
Through April 18. Tax-deductible tickets $25 - $500. porchlightmusictheatre.org