Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Iphigenia in Aulis/Court Theatre

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Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Watching a Greek drama is odd, because your moral compass gets completely rewritten. There’s a moment in Nicholas Rudell’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” when Clytemnestra says to her husband Agamemnon something along the lines of “Remember when you met me and murdered my (first) husband and killed my two sons in front of me?” Clytemnestra then goes on to point out how she eventually got over that and forgave him and became his loving wife and bore a gaggle of beautiful children, one of which (the titular Iphigenia) Agamemnon is going to sacrifice to the gods so that he and the rest of the Grecians can go fight a war. It struck me as I was listening to these words that I am watching a play in which a man murdered his wife’s first husband and her children and then married her and yet… that fact is incidental to the action currently at hand. It’s barely relevant. A footnote.

I repeat, He murdered her husband and both of her sons in front of her and the entire reason she brings it up is to point out how she totes got over it.

If I saw a modern-day play wherein someone dropped that little tidbit in the middle of an argument, it would stop the play dead in its tracks. There is no possible way that the play could be about anything other than that. It would be “the big secret” that gets revealed halfway through Act 2. Or maybe the play would be a marriage that pulls double duty as a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Agamemnon’s act would not be treated as incidental. It would be very, very integral. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical/MSG Entertainment

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Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios

Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios


As a first time Broadway-esque experience, this year’s iteration of “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” performs its duties with enough pleasing flair and upright enthusiasm to charm its young audience into a return trip to the box office. For the nostalgic chaperones in tow, however, the show might disappoint.

The primary thrills are here: a perfectly frumpy, frothy Grinch with his fur extending six inches beyond his fingertips, the bump and wriggle of the candy-colored Whos and a set with silly psychedelia bending before the eyes. Timothy Mason’s book and lyrics and Mel Marvin’s music are suitably woven with Seuss’ intention, if not his joviality, but this is of minor concern. The kids came for the Grinch, after all.

And what a Grinch they get: Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley (“Oklahoma!”) is delightfully devious, with a sufficient growl to spook the youngest audience members and enough broad pluck to rope in parents. Aleksa Kurbalija, as a highly animated young Max the Dog, is a standout, full of physical wit and charm. Ken Land ties it together admirably as Old Max, in his tattered fur suit, reminiscing about the Christmas that changed Whoville. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Rape of Lucretia/Chicago Fringe Opera

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Britten Lucretia 3


If you are a newcomer to Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece “The Rape of Lucretia,” and aren’t familiar with the semi-legend told by Roman writers and remembered in paintings of naked, Rubenesque ladies fighting off swarthy, leering soldiers, make sure you attend Chicago Fringe Opera’s contemporary re-envisioning. If you know and love the opera as given traditionally, swallow hard twice, open your mind, and go anyway.

With a mission statement that calls for productions of American and English vocal works revisited and refurbished, CFO opens a neon door for a generation that grew up on television’s “CSI” and “NCIS” to pass through and connect to the material. Their first outing proves their ability to make good on their promise, and to attract a new audience to an operatic production which doesn’t feel remote to them. The night I saw the show the seats were packed with a youthful gathering that held their breath throughout, and then applauded and yelled during the curtain call like they were at a football game. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

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Hannah Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O'Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hanna Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O’Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow


The specter of loss hangs like a literal specter, a ghost, over Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” currently receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company. The loss of money, of security, of mothers and daughters and those we hold closest to us, of their respect and their love. Karam conjures up these fears and then sends them skittering off into dusty crevices where they become suspicious knocking sounds and burnt out light bulbs and darkened rooms and the ominous whirring of unseen machinery. 9/11 is present too, the latest loss of innocence for the nation itself. The inconceivable terror of a world that comes crashing down in fire, rubble and ash touches the play’s characters more closely than is first apparent. Karam has drawn up a world much like our own, where everything we know can be gone in a second.

The play itself concerns a single family, the Blakes. The parents, Eric (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), are blue-collar Catholic folk from Scranton, the kind that have purchased land for a lake house but have done so as a two-income household and with a fair amount of belt-tightening. They have come down to the wilds of Chinatown in New York City to spend Thanksgiving in the new apartment of their youngest daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker). Their other daughter, Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), is also there. She’s a lawyer from Philly with a failing intestinal tract and a recent separation from her longtime girlfriend. And Eric’s mother, who everyone calls Momo (Jean Moran), is also physically present, although her mind has long been lost to the ravages of dementia. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome/Stage 773

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Nick Curatolo, Analisha Santini, and David Kaplinsky/Photo: Stephanie Vera

Nick Curatolo, Analisha Santini, and David Kaplinsky/Photo: Stephanie Vera

“It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome” is a Christmas cabaret from Stage 773 artistic director Brian Posen that seeks to hearken back to the wholesome Christmas specials of the 1950s. These were shows that came pre-packaged with a lot of jokes, a lot of song and dance, and heaping helpings of heart. Unfortunately, “It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome” also hearkens back to the staid hackiness of those fifties specials and even the unfortunate racial tone-deafness.

This is a show with an all-white cast that features not one, but two rap numbers, a Martin Luther King puppet and an astoundingly uncomfortable joke about Kwanzaa—the joke is that two white people are telling you about it because no black people auditioned. With its big-band-era influences and lighthearted joie de vivre, the show actually reminded me of everything that is charming about “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane’s throwback Brat Pack style. It also reminded me why I hate Seth MacFarlane. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Porgy and Bess/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago


From the orchestral bubbles at the top of the show—piccolos piping and xylophones pounding—there can be no doubt that you’re in for an evening of Gershwin. The brothers George and Ira found inspiration in DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” and the music-half of the team had his chance to prove himself to the classical music world as a “real” composer. The lush melodies and deeply human lyrics of the songs, I mean arias, are exactly what one would expect to hear, if rangier, and requiring substantial vocal training. But the jagged recitatives in between, while proving George’s understanding of the classical oeuvre of his time, rest uneasily in the score.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production corrects this seeming unbalance with the imperative of theatrical connection to the text. With the “lines” between “numbers” half sung/half spoken, the words ring true, matching the lyrics, and the pitches ring on the ear as naturalistic. In keeping with this focus, the commitment to the marvelous characterizations is gut-deep, and wrenching. Director Francesca Zambello must be held responsible for this magic, along with a cast of fine professionals who both look as we might expect to see these characters, and attach to them and to each other like glue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mousetrap/Northlight Theatre

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I wouldn’t be the first critic to note that the real mystery of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is not who killed the hateful houseguest (who seriously had it coming) at Monkswell Manor in East Midlands, England, 1952 … but rather why this wooden, cliché-ridden whodunit is still packing ’em in, in the London of 2014. The sixty-two-year run is the longest in history, far outlasting far better works.

A detective might guess that the play’s longevity reflects its function as a low-level, easy-access secret society, making each viewer who manages to stay awake to the end a member of the Mousetrap Illuminati, pledged in the name of Dame Agatha herself to silence regarding the killer’s identity. That touch of freemasonry, plus the London producers’ genius for publicity (one early cast member was married under an archway of mousetraps), long ago turned this mouse of a play into one of the great tourist traps.

To be fair, the Northlight production has its positives. Parking is ample and free, Jack Magaw’s set is a beaut, and most (not all) of the accents are passable or better, thanks to the tutelage of dialect coach Eva Breneman. Izumi Inaba’s costumes, too, are spot-on in their genteel postwar dowdiness. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre of Chicago

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(l to r) Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell

Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell


Just once, I would like to invite someone along to see The House Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” without telling them what they were getting into. For someone who came in expecting Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the result would be at first jarring, then perhaps upsetting (they would at least be upset at me), followed by a growing sense of wonderment and then, finally, delight. Oh, and there might be some crying in there too. And fear. And laughter. And a deep, abiding hunger for sugar plums.

Back in its sixth incarnation since it originally premiered back in 2007, “The Nutcracker” comes complete with an almost entirely new cast and is as delightful as ever. Director Tommy Rapley surely deserves the lion’s share of the credit, as do the play’s original creative team, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich and Kevin O’Donnell. Taken from the original E.T.A. Hoffman short story, the show uses the basic ingredients of the story—Clara, Fritz, a Nutcracker, Uncle Drosselmeyer, rats and Christmas—and cooks up a fresh take. Fritz is now a soldier who died in the war and Clara, played with spunky vivacity by Jaclyn Hennell, is left alone to face the prospect of a Christmas without him. Clara’s grief-numbed parents (Ericka Ratcliff and Paul Fagen) have in fact banished the usual Christmas festivities altogether. When Clara’s sly uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) presents her with a Nutcracker that looks exactly like her dead brother, it is with an eye toward opening a family wound so that this time it can heal properly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hellcab/Profiles Theatre

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(PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow) Jeff Gamlin, Richard Cotovsky

Jeff Gamlin and Richard Cotovsky/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Watching “Hellcab” is sort of like having your heavily tattooed ex-con uncle wish you a merry Christmas. His breath may stink of whiskey and cigarettes, and you can’t look him in the eye without nervously glancing at the three blue teardrops etched on his cheekbone, but you know that deep in his heart he means well. And heck, he’s probably seen more misery in the past twenty-four hours then you’ve seen in the past twenty-four years. If anyone’s earned a little holiday vacation filled with eggnog and cheer and good will toward men, it’s him.

Receiving its third go-round at the Profiles Main Stage, Will Kern’s bilious theatrical nugget is a refreshing blast of stank air. It stars Richard Cotovsky as a lonely, hard-hearted cab driver spending his Christmas Eve on the job. In the course of a brisk eighty-minute runtime, Cotovsky transports a filthy parade of Chicagoans from one end of the city to another. Some appear as good people only to be revealed as jerks, some are outright jerks whose brief time only serves to reinforce the depths of their jerkiness. A diverse array of actors—thirty-three in all—come together to test both Cotovsky’s and the audience’s faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. As Cotovsky played the same roll in 1992’s  original production of  “Hellcab,” he brings a fantastic, Sisyphean sense of resignation to the cabbie’s fate. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Bread & Butter/Cristina Tadeo and Nicholas Davio

Dance, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »
Photo: Katie Graves

Photo: Katie Graves


The collaboration between dancer Cristina Tadeo and sound designer Nicholas Davio openly discusses the invisible hand in the arts that dictates whose work is seen, where and by whom: money. Tadeo interviewed Chicagoans working in the arts across all sectors—musicians, dancers, designers, administrators—about creative production, collaboration and risk, their choice to live and work here instead of New York or L.A. (though if we’re talking about monetary support for the arts, a better question might be why the U.S. and not Germany), measures of artistic value, and how they perceive success. There’s no way around the relationship between these questions and the root of all evil (though it often goes by softer euphemisms in arts circles: funding, patronage, the vaguely soothing “support”) and Tadeo is interested in talking frankly about just what that means for working artists. Read the rest of this entry »