Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: My First Time/Broken Nose Theatre

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MFT6

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Usually when you hear someone use the phrase “the universality of the human experience” it’s a load of hooey. People use it to justify why their production of “Timon of Athens” should be considered relevant to today’s inner-city youth. It’s a weak bromide offered by the Powers That Be to justify telling their stories instead of yours. Anytime I find myself about to use it, I stop and seriously reconsider my position.

That being said, Broken Nose Theatre’s “My First Time” really benefits from the universality of the human experience. And I mean that. Seriously. The show, which Broken Nose is remounting after originally producing the Chicago premiere, began its life as a website: myfirsttime.com. Founded in 1998, the site invited people to anonymously submit stories of how (and why and when and with whom) they lost their virginity. As of this writing, the site has had more than 50,000 entries.

Finally, in 2007, producer Ken Davenport turned it all into a play, drawing from individual tales as well as audience surveys and general statistics. The show reminds me of the work of Dan Savage in its desire to sample from and normalize the vast array of humanity’s sexual experiences. It includes good sex, bad sex, loving sex and rote sex. There are stories of gay awakenings, of why people decided to wait. There is incest, there is rape. There is pretty much everything. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Intimate Apparel/Eclipse Theatre Company

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Kelly Owens and Brandon Greenhouse

Kelly Owens and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Tim Knight

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As I sat watching “Intimate Apparel” presented by Eclipse Theatre Company, the words of renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie echoed in my mind: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.” Adichie’s idea—that we as women, no matter how successful we are in our own right, are somehow invalidated if we are not married—is the same societal fallacy that Esther (Kelly Owens) faces in Lynn Nottage’s play set in New York City in 1905.

Esther, a successful seamstress of intimate apparel—especially for an African-American woman during that time –has recently turned thirty-five. Feelings of jealousy, longing and inadequacy emerge as she sits sewing a camisole for a young woman in her boarding house getting ready to be married. Mrs. Dickson (Frances Wilkerson), the African-American woman who took Esther in at seventeen and runs the boarding house, insists her time will come. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Much Ado About Nothing/Midsommer Flight

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Ashlee Edgemon and Martel Manning/Photo: Zack Whittington

Ashlee Edgemon and Martel Manning/Photo: Zack Whittington

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Some of the nicer things in life really are free, such as Shakespeare served al fresco on a summer evening by the talented and community-minded Midsommer Flight theater collective. Now in its third year, the troupe is presenting a rollicking, high-energy “Much Ado About Nothing” at Schreiber, Gross and Touhy Parks on the North Side.

I saw the production at Schreiber, an unpromising square of hardpan near Clark and Devon. The feng shui could have been better. Performing without a backdrop or well-defined stage, the actors struggled at first against the background hubbub—including one ad-lib moment when a passing cyclist, noting the kiss planted by Benedick (Martel Manning) on the pretty Beatrice (Ashlee Edgemon), shouted with perfect comic timing, “Give her another for me!” But once the plot picked up steam after a halting, exposition-laden opening, the audience became hooked on Shakespeare’s trenchantly comic take on the war between the sexes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stoop Time/You&Me Productions

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Joni Arredia

Joni Arredia

“Stoop Time,” a new play staged by You&Me Productions, opens up with friends Jo (Angela Bullard) and Nora (Joni Arredia) having drinks, sharing laughs and recounting stories on Jo’s stoop. Their jovial drunken night is interrupted when a stranger, Reyna (Krystel V. McNeil), comes desperately seeking her lost necklace. Upon helping Reyna to find the necklace, Jo invites her to stay the night, but not without protest from both Nora and Jo’s ex-husband Wolfe (Colin Reeves). Wolfe reminds Jo that she always takes people in. Jo insists that Reyna is not a “stray,” that something is different about her. She turns out to be right. Reyna’s father Richard (Watson Swift), was the head doctor of the hospital Jo worked at while doing relief work in Haiti with Hut Outreach, when she was a nineteen-year-old student at DePaul University. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Principal Principle/Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago

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Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

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This summer Chicago audiences are given another chance to see “Principal Principle,” a timely tale examining the potential polarizing effects of assigning corporate data-gathering systems to the educative process in an attempt to ascertain broad-based student “success,” while holding teachers responsible for the necessarily weighted outcomes. Set in a Chicago public high school, playwright Joe Zarrow, an artistic associate at Theatre Seven, has created characters that initially seem stereotypical, a useful device in telling what seems so complex a story. And yet they become beautifully fleshed, and these fulsome creations do not detract from the focused plotting of what might be expected to feel lecture-like; these are very real people, approaching a challenge they were never trained to meet, each in her own particular way, based on her skill set, while unable to fully commit to a system that considers each student a statistic rather than an individual, to be reached, positively affected and released into a world with some semblance of an academic and a social toolkit.

Four English teachers share, examine, cajole, quarrel and teach each other extremely hard lessons in their shared office. Working in a “middle of the road neighborhood” with a “ninety-five-percent African-American” student population, the women are widely varied in their approach to the onslaught of corporate Change Management that has travelled from the world of business to the public school classroom. Read the rest of this entry »

A Peek at the Process: In the Studio with Thodos’ Budding Choreographers

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Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

By Sharon Hoyer

For dancers, summer is a season of creative experimentation and growth, with ample opportunities to participate in residencies and intensive classes both in the city and without. Summer is also the time when a few dance companies become incubators for new choreographic talent within their ranks. Thodos Dance Chicago was among the first in the city to offer budding choreographers in the company the opportunity to practice the craft backed by extensive resources, and to have the resulting works performed on a main stage. Melissa Thodos provides her company members audition and rehearsal space, a budget, a lighting designer and a panel of experts to provide feedback both early in the process and close to the performance. They get a taste of artistic production in the big leagues: auditioning, creating work, running rehearsals, gathering collegial feedback. I sat in on the second panel showing at the Drucker Center and got a glimpse of how seasoned dance professionals nurture and challenge the next generation of artists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Othello/The Gift Theatre

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(L to R) Kareem Bandealy  and Michael Patrick Thornton

Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton

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“O these men, these men!” sighs Desdemona (played by Brittany Burch), who is soon to be murdered by her jealous husband, Othello. She is confiding her bafflement to her friend Emilia (Darci Nalepa), who will meet the same fate at the hands of her husband, Iago. Othello’s paranoid rage and Iago’s duplicity and hatred are like the storm roiling the sea around the play’s island setting, chaotic and destructive forces that crash down hardest on the women these soldiers of empire are pledged to protect.

The Gift Theatre’s clear, strong and elegant version of “Othello” captures both the furious momentum and thematic nuances of Shakespeare’s examination of race, patriarchy and authority. Director Jonathan Berry and his skilled cast and crew have brought to the Gift’s tiny stage a production that grips us from the first moment and does not let go. Dan Stratton’s abstract and austere set, Christian Gero’s evocative musical segues and Sarah Hughey’s subtle, noir-style lighting never distract us from the dramatic essentials of language, movement and gesture—which is to say, the acting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Men Should Weep/Griffin Theatre Company

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(l to r) Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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It’s been thirty years since Ena Lamont Stewart’s “Men Should Weep” was last produced in the USA and I’d wager a rampant run of Stateside revivals is unlikely. It’s steeped in a thick working-class Glasgow dialect. Despite its standing as one of “One Hundred Plays of the Century” per the National Theatre of London’s take on the twentieth, this far into the twenty-first the show offers nothing audiences haven’t seen. And the whole thing clocks in closer to three hours than two. But Stewart’s script provides a showcase for a fine ensemble and that’s exactly the sort of cast Griffin Theatre Company has assembled.

From the title you might think the men keep their softer emotions under wraps, and you’d be half right. While downtrodden dad John Morrison checks his sadness for most of the play, his son Alec (the other main male) is a weepy, pathetic, despicable crybaby. They’re both quick to raise their hands in anger, though. Among the many societal concerns addressed here by Lamont Stewart, the meaning of masculinity is of high importance. While the elder Morrison often struggles with that demanding breadwinning duty of traditional manhood and his view of women is typically condescending for his era, John does exhibit strength and an unshakable sense of responsibility. Alec, conversely, fails as a man and by any measure of humanity. He’s helpless, cuckolded, shiftless and alternately groveling and physically abusive to his wife Isa. If there’s any mystery, it’s how John and his saintly wife Maggie have raised such a wretch. Times are tough for men and women in this Depression-era tenement, but only Alec and his selfish, dishonest, cruel wife are utterly vile. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Gun Show/16th Street Theater

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Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

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Everyone has an opinion about guns. And everyone has a “gun story.” Whether it’s tragic, a tale of survival or just something from the news, everyone has a story that deals with guns. “The Gun Show,” directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, at 16th Street Theater explores various stories of one person, playwright EM Lewis, and her complex relationship with these weapons.

In this world premiere, 16th Street Theater artistic associate Juan Francisco Villa recites Lewis’ script exactly as directed in her rules: “1. Never put down the script. 2. Don’t leave anything out. 3. Don’t stop until the end.” It’s not often that a playwright is in the audience at every show to see if these rules are being followed, but in this case, the playwright is also the show’s main character; Villa was chosen to tell her story. There are several moments where a flashlight, like the kind a police officer would use, is turned toward Lewis—to call her out on something or to ask a question. When this happens, she never speaks, only gestures, and after a short amount of time, Villa continues to recite the script. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Qualms/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Karen Aldridge,  Keith Kupferer,  Arrington, Greg Stuhr,  Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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With the way that the phrase polyamory has been tossed around over the last few years you would think that modern social psychologists invented the concept. And according to a flurry of recent articles with titles like “Why Polyamory May Be The Answer To Your Dating Woes” and “There Is Life Outside Of Monogamy, And It Actually Works Amazingly Well” there are more and more people who seem to think that they—and perhaps their significant other(s)—would benefit from such arrangements. So Bruce Norris’ new play investigating “the lifestyle,” as a character calls it, enjoying its world premiere at Steppenwolf right now, seems right on time for the sexual zeitgeist.

Except his play is not about this hot topic, it’s about swingers. And though a character tosses the word “polyamory” out there in reference to their lifestyle at one point, it seems incongruous with their actions. For the record, while both involve open relationships, polyamory is the practice of being involved in multiple, ongoing, loving relationships, while swinging is essentially monogamy plus open sex. Since the setting for this show involves four distinct couples meeting for a sex party (from which they will all return to their separate homes), it seems that they fall firmly into the latter rather than the former. But then, maybe I’m wrong, the swingers here don’t get much time to discuss the specifics of their lifestyle. They’re mostly just being ranted at by the male half of an uneasy and on-edge new couple. Read the rest of this entry »