Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Pictured: Nicole Armold, Jenna Coker-Jones, Greg Foster, and David Sajewich. Photo by Brett A. Beiner.
By Erin Shea Brady
In their new (beautifully designed) Venus cabaret space, Mercury Theater has mounted a perfectly good production of Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY. There are a few standout performances, Eugene Dizon’s music direction is stellar, and director L. Walter Stearns (with help from video designer Liviu Pasare) has made excellent use of the space, leaving us with a uniquely immersive experience that elevates the script and score.
However, with the amount of talent so clearly displayed in this ensemble and team, I’m looking for more. While it’s worth commending, talent alone is not enough to invest or move or reach people, a feat which musical theater has the power to achieve in spades. Mercury’s production lacks urgency and point of view, doing little to earn this revival beyond its experiential presentation.
The theater community is demanding a new standard of purposeful storytelling, a stronger call to answer the question “Why now?” — particularly when mounting a revival. Musical theater, with its fandom and nostalgia, is precious to audiences in a way that other forms are not, and so has often been exempt from engaging in deeper conversation with the real world.
The game, here, is changing. Musical theater has an opportunity to affect audiences uniquely, an opportunity which many artists are taking full advantage of. Stearns’ production of COMPANY does little to ground, contextualize, or revitalize the piece, and therefore, has little effect. The closest it comes is “Another Hundred People,” the production’s most successful number in staging, tone and relevance. As Marta, Kyrie Courter puts us right on the streets of our city in a smart and endearing performance, and for this audience, where meals are shared and conversations with strangers are fostered, the sentiment lands for the number’s duration — but on the whole, I’m still not sure what I’m meant to invest or what I’m meant to take away.
Theater does not (and should not) exist in a vacuum and pressing cultural conversations are hard to ignore. The choice to remount COMPANY, which broadly discusses the value of close relationships (romantic and not) in our lives, leaves me wondering — aren’t there more impactful ways to talk about closeness, those in which gender roles are less archaic? With standards being higher for the representation of women and the acknowledgment of a spectrum of gender on our stages, a by-the-book production of COMPANY just doesn’t hold up. Our protagonist, Bobby, is a thirty-something cisgender, heterosexual dude who is seeking a woman to complete him. Yes, there is something deeper going on as he grapples with what it takes to let a person in, but without directorial comment on the reductive nature of Bobby’s glorified bachelorhood, or an awareness of time and place, his search makes little impact.
There is a considerable amount of talent within this ensemble, which deserves to be noted. With remarkable comedic timing and an impressive vocal performance, Allison Sill elevates April from “dumb blonde” to someone quite lovely and self-aware. Jenna Coker-Jones (Amy) brings a ton of energy to the cast and handles what could easily be awkward audience interaction with mastery. Heather Townsend and Steve Silver give a lot of heart to Joanne and Larry, delivering strong, grounded, and memorable performances.
My point is not to say that all theater must have a political bent or that the future of musical theater rests on the shoulders of the makers at Mercury, but to say that in order to make a lasting impact, in addition to talent, tools, and resources, theatermakers must also employ purpose, invention and point of view when choosing to revive a work.
COMPANY runs through June 3rd. For more information visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.