'Opus' a timeless soldier's tale; muted 'Encores'

"Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony" 

City Lit Theater's five-year-long "Civil War Project," undertaken in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest conflict in United States history, dovetails with the longest war we've waged — the ongoing one in Central Asia. Though one would have to stretch pretty hard to touch policy parallels between the Union-Confederacy bloodbath and Afghanistan, "Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony" handily makes the case that most wars take the same toll on soldiers — loss of innocence, fear, and sheer mind-numbing purgatorial boredom between fights.

One letter summarizes the stasis between crises that defines life in the combat zone with "Every day is a Monday out here." Another lists the three things that are most likely to claim one's life in combat — "bullets, bombs, and egos."

Putting these personal documents onstage isn't a new idea, as anyone who has seen Griffin Theatre's touring production of "Letters Home," which also features correspondence from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, can attest. But Elizabeth Margolius and Terry McCabe's decision to intersperse the contemporary experiences of soldiers on the front with a moving selection of Civil War-era songs — from well-known classics such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" to somewhat lesser-known ballads such as Stephen Foster's "Was My Brother in the Battle?" — adds undeniable emotional heft. Classic spirituals such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" remind us of the human cost of slavery.

Directed by Margolius, the six-member ensemble brings stirring vocal nuance to the songs (aided by Gary Powell's deft musical direction), and a generally understated — sometimes too understated — reportorial delivery to the letters. The structure is a bit shaggy, given the aforementioned lack of clear historical parallels between the wars. But just as many in the South viewed the Union forces as unwelcome occupiers, so too, as the letters attest, do many Afghanis. "Sometimes I feel like I'm invading their privacy," says one soldier.

This isn't an anti-war screed by any means, though one sometimes wishes that the creators had taken a stronger point of view on what the decadelong conflict in Afghanistan has meant to our national conscience. But as a simple and moving tribute to the courage required of men and women in uniform across the ages, it leaves a lump in the throat.

Through May 13 at City Lit Theater, Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $25 at 773-293-3682 or citylit.org

"Encores: After the Theatre and Other Stories" 

Joyce Piven has a love affair with the stories of Anton Chekhov — she's staged several adaptations of his work at the theater she and her late husband, Byrne, founded 40 years ago. But though there are delightful moments in "Encores: After the Theatre and Other Stories," directed by Piven and featuring a trio of tales by the Russian master of wistfulness, this 60-minute sampler platter feels a bit thin in execution.

There is, to Piven's credit, a clear narrative arc through the three pieces – from imaginary infatuations to adult infidelity. In the title piece, a young girl, fresh from a performance of Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin," imagines a love triangle in which she stars. In "The Trick," a young woman is haunted forever by a careless declaration of love made by a sledding partner one wintry day. And in Sarah Ruhl's well-honed version of Chekhov's "Lady With a Dog," a married jaded roue finds himself undone by an affair with the equally married title character that grows far more serious than he intended.

But the performances, many of them by members of the Piven Young People's Company, don't capture the shifts in tone sufficiently to suggest the growing shadows over the hearts of the characters, and the physical staging also feels stagnant. This is story theater that hasn't quite negotiated the leap from page to stage.

Through May 20 at Piven Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston; $25 at 847-866-8049 or piventheatre.org


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