Theater Review: TWO DAYS IN COURT: Benet’s THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER and Gilbert and Sullivan’s TRIAL BY JURY (City Lit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Order in the court! Closing its season with dueling gavels, City Lit Theater offers Two Days in Court in only 90 minutes. Merrily combining Gilbert and Sullivan’s first hit, the “dramatic cantata” Trial by Jury, with Stephen Vincent Benet’s historical romp The Devil and Daniel Webster, it’s a charming double-bill of courtroom one-acts.

High-spirited legal larks set in the 19th century, these witty works gently spoof the limits of the law. Directed by Terry McCabe and peppily performed by a cast of 17, the double delight deftly fuses silliness with sagacity. A good time is definitely on the docket.

Based on his 1936 short story, Benet’s clever tour-de-diablo plays like an exuberant mural by Thomas Hart Benton. Played on set designer Evan Frank’s spartan New Hampshire farmhouse in 1841, it’s a war of wills between Old Scratch (Lee Wichman), a Boston lawyer who is also (and not incidentally) Satan, and the famous statesman and abolitionist orator Daniel Webster (Bill Chamberlain), a native of Marshfield and as flinty as New England soil. “Live free or die!”

Faced with the plight of a young farmer (Nate Strain) who imprudently sold his soul (in a “ten-year mortgage” due at midnight) to quit a gambling debt, they summon up a “Jury of the Damned,” colonial Americans who carry their own curses. This captive audience will prove the ultimate test of Webster’s excoriating attack on human trafficking of every sort.

Interestingly, it’s not a trick or technicality, an evasion or a subterfuge, that Webster employs to out-fox the Father of Lies. It’s an eloquent appeal to the love of freedom that apparently makes Americans come above any deal with the devil. Performed with frontier freshness, this very likable folkloric showdown confirms both the eloquence of Webster and the playful “primitivism” of a tall tale-telling Stephen Vincent Benet.

Originally a curtain raiser for Offenbach’s La PericholeTrial by Jury, an 1875 mini-operetta by the great W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan is now a curtain closer. As exuberant as ever, this happy froth mocks a “breach of promise of marriage” suit between aggrieved fiancée Angelina (Sarah Beth Tanner) — our Plaintiff — and the cad Edwin (Jimmy Hogan) — our Defendant — who abandoned her before the altar. Still clad in her wedding gown and accompanied by her chattering bridesmaids, this Plaintiff wants substantial damages for a broken heart.

In no time this flirtatious battered bride seduces the five credulous jurymen and, most of all, the Learned Judge (Savoy opera aficionado Kingsley Day). This bewigged worthy is in fact an unreconstructed womanizer, typical of this very pre-feminist trifle. Day makes him a befuddled caricature of upper-class cluelessness.

Sullivan’s supple score, perfectly warbled thanks to music director Daniel Robinson, is diverting to delirious. Superb satire, Gilbert’s topsy-turvy nonsense shrewdly skewers unqualified but connected magistrates, unctuous soubrettes who play on people’s pity, and a worthless defendant who considers marriage a very movable feast. Nothing could be more fun.

Full of true and false conviction(s), City Lit’s irresistible combo delivers a rich mix of country-fried wisdom and Victorian absurdity. Two Days in Court is well worth one evening on Bryn Mawr Avenue.

photos by Steve Graue

Two Days in Court:
The Devil and Daniel Webster & Trial by Jury
City Lit Theater
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri and Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3;
Mon (May 13 & 20) at 7:30
ends on May 26, 2019
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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