By Ian Rigg
Every show deserves its day in court. For what is a show but a trial before the public? A version of events presented in a bid to keep living? A compellingly told story meant to be applauded or condemned?
City Lit’s double bill of two long-defunct one acts—Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury—is such a tale of litigation and tribulation. While the material presented itself indicates that some things are meant to languish in obscurity, the theatermakers pleading its case make compelling arguments to possibly, maybe give them another chance.
Director Terry McCabe is brave to play these revivals straight, much as they would have been done in their heyday—from heightened language of folk Americana and chorus speech of the 6th grade literature standard, The Devil and Daniel Webster, to the glib artifice and pure pattering nonsense of Gilbert and Sullivan.
However, this commitment to style is a double-edged sword. Try as the players might, the bill of fare might not be palatable to a modern audience. It’s less in the production and more in that these one acts are historical artifacts. Theatre classicists will likely enjoy the show, but younger theatergoers not accustomed to its sensibilities may declare it a mistrial.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many things to appreciate here. It’s well-devised and crafted, and goes full-tilt in its flavor, with onboard talent in spades. Evan Frank’s set design is ingenious in its hidden utility. Liz Cooper’s lighting design makes the trial sequence in Daniel Webster truly spooky, rendering the well-timed jury of the damned in ghastly, ghostly greens. And Music Director Daniel Robinson helps these light opera songs shine: the show’s most brilliant moments come when the cast sings together in glorious unison.
For while not everything lands, what’s consistently commendable is the effort of this cast, giving it their all to revive these works.
Bill Chamberlain proves a regal, boisterous and thundering Webster, whose noble voice and heightened delivery makes him ideal for the statesman. Kingsley Day, apparently born to play patter baritones, is a saucy Learned Judge. Nate Strain commits to his turn as Jabez Stone, sweat of dread dotting the brow of his expressive face; it is a joy to watch him struggle with the horror of having sold his soul.
Sarah Beth Tanner has charm aplenty as the coquettish defendant. Ryan Smetana is a consummate professional in any show in which he appears. But it’s as a unit that the cast really shines. The jury of the damned in Daniel Webster is collectively chilling, working in dead-eyed lockstep. And as a ludicrously dysfunctional court in Trial By Jury, it’s a treat to see the cast work together and independently, firing on all cylinders and all sightlines to entertain with their tale of legal ineptitude.
Two Days in Court, if nothing else, proves that theatre is are meant to be heard before being judged: because whether a show’s guilty or innocent, well, that’s up to the audience to decide.
City Lit Theater presents “Two Days in Court” through May 26 at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago (inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church). More information and tickets are available here.