Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Sunday in the Park with George” Shimmers

(Theater review for Fantasia and Fugue / DePaul University’s JOUR 511, Arts and Entertainment Reporting)

“White: A blank page or canvas,” begins Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” a directive that the Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s new production emphasizes with some nice digital effects: the backdrop screen gradually etched in with the familiar colors and dots of George Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” elements removed and added at character’s dictation. Lively as the show’s commitment to faithful and high-definition recreation of the legendary, Art Institute-housed painting is, however, it is the cast who color in this intimate, charming revival.

“Sunday” hinges on the success of its leads, and both delivered at Wednesday’s opening night performance. Jason Danieley as George transitions smoothly from Act I’s intense, controlled Seurat to the artist’s outwardly cocky, inwardly questioning great-grandson. But it’s Carmen Cusack’s dynamic Dot who ignites the play’s emotional spark, quickly establishing range in the opening title song as she dances from frustration to admiration and back again, selling the spectrum admirably. Danieley and Cusack demonstrate a subtle but comfortable rapport, connecting convincingly across multiple characters. At Dot’s revelation of pregnancy, a quiet moment capping off chaos, the leads silently communicate amidst the stir, Dot defiant, George finally fazed. Later, as twentieth-century George and grandmother Marie, the two play off one another with an amused tenderness. The supporting cast also does some deft comedic work, with Heidi Kettenring pulling particularly impressive double-duty in Act I as both a flirtatious German servant and spoiled American tourist.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater last tackled the show in 2002 in its theater Upstairs, a space the confines of which necessitated a radically stripped-down approach to the show’s central artwork. While the Courtyard Theater provides for a better tribute to Seurat’s work, the venue is cozy enough to again demand creativity from returning director Gary Griffin. He succeeds in making a virtue of close confines, incorporating aisles and other available space into the dramatic action, expanding the play’s world while drawing it around the audience.

Extra: Director Gary Griffin discusses “Sunday in the Park with George”

A story of the creative process, of the pursuit of two men to achieve “balance, light, and harmony,” to find inspiration in the blank page or canvas — the new “Sunday in the Park with George” succeeds in its celebration of the artist’s pursuit, but more than that injects it with life. It is not for the audience here to watch a studied recreation of a nineteenth-century masterpiece, or a twentieth century musical masterwork, but to feel the world brought before them. Good staging provides the frame; the actors bring the light.

(Through Nov. 4 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. at Navy Pier. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Tickets beginning at $48, at 312-595-6500 or http://www.chicagoshakes.com.)

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