January 17, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Donald Trump, using the pseudonym Frumprich, is plotting to take over a University of Chicago dormitory with plans to turn it into a posh hotel for alumni returning for reunion weekend. He and his cohorts are searching for the alumnus who owns the spOOgle, a set of glasses that allow you to look into a person’s soul.
Before you run for cover, know that it is only the latest madcap plot of the Revels, playing at the Quadrangle Club in Hyde Park January 29 and 30, and it will be former U of C graduate student, Dan Friedrich, playing The Donald. Andy Austin, the group’s clever scriptwriter for the past eleven years, will reveal only a little about this year’s musical to be performed by University professors and staff members, best-selling author Sara Paretsky, and neighborhood residents such as Barbara Flynn Currie, majority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, and other friends.
“The conspirators plan to drug the alums and then go through their suitcases, but a spy has switched the Ambien for a stimulant, and a wild party follows,” Andy revealed. “Our scripts often get very complicated because there are 22 people in the play, and everyone always wants a speaking part. The dorm becomes the Grand Hotel Parc Cache Cache, French for ‘Hide’ Park.”
Most cast members return yearly due to all the fun, and anyone is welcome to participate. The cast features actors of all ages, and the appeal is universal. “My first year of writing the whole script, Don Randel, who was University president at the time, appeared in it and played his flugelhorn. He was magnificent. When he moved to New York, we welcomed President [Robert] Zimmer with a march in his honor, and we had past University presidents Hanna Gray and Hugo Sonnenschein onstage at the same time representing a medieval court,” she said.
In 2005, Andy and her late husband, the beloved professor and humorist Ted Cohen, were invited by well-known Hyde Park volunteer, Jean Meltzer, to take over the productions. Ted played the drums each year and Andy revived the Revels with her zany and intricate plots set in a variety of the University’s most popular sites, such as Botany Pond, the Smart Museum, and Rockefeller Chapel.
A former Chicago courtroom artist for ABC, Andy wrote of her intimate glimpses of defendants like the Chicago Seven radicals, John Wayne Gacy, various mobsters, the Black Panthers, and others in her book “Rule 53”.
Another author, best-seller Sara Paretsky, is always a Revels star. “I get to sing fake music to a real aria, and this year it’s ‘Dove Sono.’ I demand: ‘Dove Sono our pool tables?’ (which are now no longer at the Quad Club to the regret of many members),” she said.
She continues, “It is all so energetic and well done, and I am in awe of Andy’s creativity. Before Andy came along, it was much more parochial song and dance. Now there are so many skilled arts and crafts people involved. And several cast members such as Sara Stern and Lauren Miller have sung in light opera. As a writer, I am often alone, working on a book. Being a part of this community is terrific, and I love seeing how this musical comes together.”
Currently writing her next V.I. Warshawski novel, Paretsky attends the five-day-a-week rehearsals, daily the week before the show, with great pleasure. For all V.I. fans, the athletic detective (born on Chicago’s Southeast Side) will travel to rural Kansas – where Sara grew up – to investigate biological warfare in this latest installment, due out in 2017.
A lover of lieder and a singer throughout her life, Sara laments that she had to resign from one choir because she “can’t count musically.” She is the wife of retired University of Chicago professor, Courtney Wright, now a high-energy physicist at Fermilab.
Several write the music for the show, including Randall West, Colin DeJong, and Thomas Christensen, Avalon Foundation Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University.
Noted composer Julian Harvey, who plans one day to stage a cabaret show of his Revels songs, writes at least three or four new songs per show.
“Andy normally presents the song situations to the composer, and it is up to him or her to come up with something appropriate,” he said. “I should mention one occasion when I came up with a song idea independently. When I learned that the show was about the Galápagos Islands, I decided that one of the characters, played by Trip Driscoll, should sing a ditty about being a turtle. At first, Trip was somewhat annoyed with the assignment, but when he found out what the plot was about, all was OK.”
“The majority of the songs are humorous, even the love songs. One genre that seems to creep in occasionally is doo-wop. I am at a loss to explain why,” Julian said.
David Bevington, preeminent Shakespeare scholar and Phyllis Fay Horton Professor of Distinguished Service Emeritus, serves as the group’s historian. His latest role will be the aristocratic butler, Dunsinane, although David misses the huge sombrero he wore in last year’s Revels. The Yale critic Harold Bloom has called David “one of the most learned and devoted of Shakespeareans.” “We always give him a name from Shakespeare, this year from ‘Macbeth,’ and he played ‘the bard’ one year,” Andy explained.
David traces the name Revels back to the Inns of Court in London. “The master of the Revels was the one in charge of the partying and entertainment.” At the University of Chicago, “The Revels began in the early 20th century at the Quadrangle Club. In its charter was the charge to promote the arts and humanities,” Bevington said. “Towards the end of the century, the shows sort of fell apart, but with Andy’s energy, it is doing very nicely. It is a jolly evening and a great fund-raiser for the Club.”
One of the reasons David stays on is to encourage professors to be cast members. “The Revels history is rich with stories of legends like Bob Ashenhurst and Ned Rosenheim, they were our Gilbert and Sullivan. Bernie Brown, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, and cardiologist Rory Childers performed as ourdeus ex machinawho come in to save the day. And doctor and scientist Fred Coe has been terrific as well,” he said. Oncologist Phillip Hoffman may set the record of appearing in the most productions.
“The University offers many opportunity to participate in the arts and letters, starting with the acting troupe, the Blackfriars, which was founded in 1903 and produced the legendary ‘Naughty Nineties’ in 1919. Now there’s our current Gilbert and Sullivan, a student organization called the Dean’s Men, which produces a Shakespeare production each quarter, and various reading and discussion groups.”
Andy will begin again after the curtain closes and the cast party ensues to quiz cast members about what roles they would like to play in the future.
“We also look at what costumes we can recycle, such as our cancan skirts, which became Flamenco dancing skirts in this play,” she said. “Part of my wedding dress became a hat!”
Cast and composers seem to agree that their favorite show was the one centering on the World’s Columbian Exposition with the famous Midway nearby a starring attraction. “It was called ‘The Impossible City’ and seemed to me to be the one most like a Broadway show,” shared Julian Harvey. “I would love to have it produced again, although, in true Revels tradition, there are many, many performing parts.”
“The Revels gives many professors, students, Hyde Parkers and others a chance to show off their acting, singing and dancing chops. Also, it is an opportunity for a prestigious university to poke a little fun at itself, which I consider to be a useful activity. I should point out that Andy’s ability to create appropriate parts for so many performers is quite admirable.”
The Quadrangle Club is located at 1155 E. 57th Street in Hyde Park. For more information on the Revels, or to purchase tickets, call 773-702-7221 or visit quadclub.uchicago.edu.