Riffs | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Riffs, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Playwright Bill Harris intended this work to be "closer in form to jazz than conventional theater," a choice that's echoed in the play's structure: its three acts offer three distinct variations on a theme. In keeping with the tenets of jazz, flourishes and details evoke the play's essential character. The show's refrain is a tender meditation on the process of aging while its characters--four elderly African-American men--take turns navigating the melody, sharing their individual experiences and observations.

This is certainly fertile ground for exploration, and Harris does well at communicating his affection for jazz through his characters. Still, there's a wealth of potential in Riffs that's only hinted at in the midscene breakdowns and impromptu jams that are meant to counter Harris's otherwise rigid structure with the musicality of jazz.

The ETA cast is excellent, especially Willie B. Goodson, who anchors the show with his graceful, nuanced portrayal of cynical ringleader T. Mims. But director Ron O.J. Parson--who evoked tone beautifully in his production of The Horn for City Lit two years ago--doesn't play fast or loose enough here. Though his staging aptly portrays the slow, methodical actions of men who aren't as spry as they once were, ultimately it's not kinetic enough to echo the power, fury, or rawness of jazz.

--Nick Green

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