Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Lady Windermere’s Fan/Dead Writers Theatre Collective

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(l to r) Megan Delay and Joanna Riopelle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Megan Delay and Joanna Riopelle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Oscar Wilde is generally acknowledged as one of the most skillful wits to have written in the English language. His plays are filled with wicked jibes at the expense of British society of his day, and of human nature overall. While it isn’t as famous as “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” one of Wilde’s earlier works, contains much of the banter and barbed humor that makes for a pleasantly comedic evening.

And that’s exactly what one gets in this new production from Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Director Jim Schneider helms a show that is beautifully staged upon an impressive set by designer Moon Jung Kim. The whole evening is a feast for the eyes. Patti Roeder’s costumes are glorious to behold. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Three Sisters/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover

Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

In college, the old adage goes: sleep, work, social life; choose two. For Anton Chekhov, a similarly triangular logic exists: happiness, knowledge, safety; choose two and constantly long for the third. Or better yet: choose all three, believe they are within your grasp, discover how wrong you were, become disillusioned, find an adequately expressive metaphor, sink into existential grief.

The Hypocrites adaptation of “Three Sisters” aims to bring Chekhov to a generation of “Downton Abbey” viewers. It is an honorable task that the company is more than equipped to handle. There are moments of audience-baiting—a casual “whatever” or two gets dropped—though things mostly stick to the script. There is a wedding, a fire, a couple of affairs and a duel, all of which take place offstage. Like a decadent feast, the real story takes place in the kitchen, not the dining room.

Naturally, this is Chekhov’s prerogative. Given the atmospheric nature of “Three Sisters,” the challenge is in staging. Director Geoff Button is undeniably talented in this regard. While the period and tableau may require rigidity, his actors remain fluid and graceful. They work harmoniously toward the play’s delightful anticlimax and dour conception of life constantly on the cusp of truly beginning. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Paranoid Style in American Politics/First Floor Theater

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(left to right) Mitch Salm, Luke Michael Grimes, Kate Cornelius-Schecter and Amanda Fink/Photo:  Subar

Mitch Salm, Luke Michael Grimes, Kate Cornelius-Schecter and Amanda Fink/Photo: Subar

RECOMMENDED

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a new play by Emmett Rensin now premiering with First Floor Theater, takes its name from a famous 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter. In the essay, Hofstadter surveys the Goldwater-era radical right and sees a raving bunch of loons convinced they are locked in an eternal struggle against the forces of darkness. It’s the sort of work that you could read and, minus a few period-specific references, be utterly convinced that it was written yesterday.

Rensin’s play doesn’t discover any further insights into the American Conservative mind, but it does employ the paranoia and ideological extremism therein to craft an enjoyable political whodunnit. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Bloodhound Law/City Lit Theater Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
bloodhoundlaw press pic _2

David Fink, Alex Glossman, Brian Bradford/Photo: Tom McGrath

RECOMMENDED

Playwright Kristine Thatcher has written an important play, and it has landed in the hands of exactly the right theater company for its world premiere. Commissioned and produced as the fifth and final installment of City Lit’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Project, “The Bloodhound Law” examines Illinois’ abolitionist stance leading up to that war. Beginning with the story of journalist Elijah Lovejoy, who dared to print anti-slavery editorials and was subsequently shot to death in Alton, and ending the journey with Chicago’s Common Council’s internal skirmishes over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, or The Bloodhound Law, Thatcher’s historical dramatization of this tale of human rights denied gallops all the way from downstate to Chicago’s City Hall.

City Lit regularly produces adaptations of literary works, making this type of project particular to their province, and their team’s steady hand is very much in evidence. Director Terry McCabe wisely keeps his nine actors onstage throughout, giving them the freedom to rise from their seats, don a hat or a vest, and undertake another of the multiple characters assigned to all without the shuffling of entrances and exits. Liz Cooper’s lighting design keeps the focus of the narrative distinct, and dialect coach Catherine Gillespie succeeds with a yeoman’s assignment of forty-two characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum/ Porchlight Music Theatre

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

RECOMMENDED

Coming on the heels of their insightful production of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Porchlight Music Theatre provides just enough silly to make “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” work. To make up for the lack of memorable hit numbers (although “Comedy Tonight” will keep you humming the next day), director Michael Weber keeps the pace and antics high. Flourishes include a very funny amount of tragedy in the opening number (as if to prove this is indeed a comedy) as well as a decidedly “cheeky” Miles Blim (as Hero) at the beginning of the second act. These fresh ideas go a long way in ensuring that the redundancy of characters dressing in drag, dressing as each other, or dressing as each other in drag is funnier than it is stale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sounds So Sweet/Black Ensemble Theater

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Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Written and directed by Rueben D. Echoles, “Sounds So Sweet” follows the Harris family on their journey to lay their matriarch to rest. As the Harris’ gather in Mississippi to host Grandstine’s (Yahdina U-Deen) “Going to Heaven Party,” they reflect on the soundtrack of their lives, which mainly features hits from R&B, hip-hop and soul girl groups from the 1960s to the present.

As Grandstine’s youngest daughter, Marcia, Dawn Bless undoubtedly steals the show. She is a powerhouse singer and, when the family isn’t recollecting fond memories of their dearly departed, they’re snooping into Marcia’s romance with her longtime friend, Robert Clarkson (Casey Hayes).

The cast is musically strong overall, but the majority of the acting lacks a certain realism to draw the audience in. In addition, while the song selection is varied enough for audience members of all ages to enjoy, the book is extremely cliché, predictable and feels more like filler between musical numbers than substantial text moving the story along. The best number of the show is an impressive mash-up of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the Destiny’s Child hit “Survivor.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lips Together, Teeth Apart/Eclipse Theatre Company

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Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Kristin Collins, Dennis Grimes, Carin Silkaitis, Nathaniel Swift/Photo: Scott Dray

RECOMMENDED

Since their 1997/98 season, Eclipse Theatre Company has focused on one particular playwright for all of their adventures, or revisited a group of previously examined authors for one of their two Celebration seasons. Eclipse often explores the playwright’s less familiar work, and they have done exactly that with their first production in a season devoted to fecund playwright Terrence McNally. “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” never opened on Broadway, but enjoyed a respectable run off-Broadway, with formidable actors Christine Baranski and Swoosie Kurtz in the cast. While McNally may seem to wax over-long (the evening comes in at three hours, with two intermissions) for his somewhat dated subject matter, it is difficult to discern what pieces of the puzzle could have been dispensed with, while leaving the myriad, interlocking themes intact.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?/Second City e.t.c.

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l to r) Lisa Beasley, Tim Ryder, Carisa Barreca, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Eddie Mujica and Scott Morehead/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lisa Beasley, Tim Ryder, Carisa Barreca, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Eddie Mujica and Scott Morehead/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

Satire works best when it has enough of a bite that even those laughing can feel the teeth marks. Too gentle and the jokes just feel safe and congratulatory for those in agreement, but too much and it’s hard to keep laughing. This narrow playing space is what keeps a lot of sketch stuck in the relative safety of an inoffensive nonsense land (where, to be fair, some of the funniest concepts and characters live and flourish—not everything needs to have a point). Still, Chicago audiences are lucky that the cast members of “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?”—a slow build of a revue that starts out a bit flat and rises to some impressive peaks—know exactly when and how to push things for the sake of comedy serving as a message delivery system.

To be clear, “Soul Brother” nails some easy targets (and nails them well): the NFL’s record (or lack thereof) of supporting their players, Scientology, the George Lucas museum. But it also delves into much headier territory with equally funny aplomb: remembering 9/11, the dark underbelly of the sex trade, words white people can say that black people can’t, laws based on religious beliefs. And, surprisingly, there’s even a wordless sketch that hits many of the same emotional high-points as the legendary intro to “Up,” delivering more of a gut-punch than a punchline. Across the board, this is very smart, intentional writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Belmont Burlesque Revue/Belmont Burlesque

Performance, Performance Reviews, Recommended Performance No Comments »
Photo: Chris Neseman

Photo: Chris Neseman

RECOMMENDED

If you’re looking for an enchanting emcee who can walk the fine line between low-key and high class while sipping a giant martini, look no further than MsPixy, the quick-witted host of the Belmont Burlesque Revue (BBR). Languidly pacing the stage in a shimmery evening gown, she leads audiences through this eighty-minute mix of burlesque, comedy, music and magic (or “a variety of entertaining and often sexy-like things,” in her words) every other month on a stage at Theater Wit with a rental agreement that MsPixy describes as similar to “your cousin who stays on your couch,” since the revue essentially borrows another show’s set for the night.

On Saturday night, the abstract set for Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Grown-Up” provided a space for the ladies (known collectively as the Belmont Bombshells) and gents of BBR to perform upon. And perform they did, opening with a parasol-spinning Bombshell quartet that may have been the weakest number of the night, but set the stage for the kind of shimmying and teasing that ever-growing burlesque audiences have come to expect. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Martyr/Steep Theatre Company

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(l to r) Walter Brody, Brando Crawford and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Lee Miller

Walter Brody, Brando Crawford and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Lee Miller

A high school student in Germany, alienated by the hypocrisy and materialism of his surroundings, turns to religious literalism. Soon, he becomes a gleaming-eyed fanatic at war with society and in search of martyrdom and its promised celestial rewards.

It sounds like the next act might involve a bit part in an ISIS decapitation video, but it’s Jesus that young Benjamin Sudel has found. Or at least a quasi-fascist variant that’s far more about smiting and damning than blessing and forgiving.

Unfortunately, the point of Marius von Mayenburg’s “Martyr” is lost in translation in this U.S. premiere. Perhaps in its original German, the play’s episodic, pseudo-Brechtian structure could carry an audience through Benjamin’s journey from disaffection to pathology to (telegraphed) violence. But director Joanie Schultz, who recently gave us a terrific “Yankee Tavern” at American Blues Theater, here disappoints. “Martyr” comes off as a dyspeptic and superficial freak show, in which the playwright’s smugness and contempt seems to parallel that of his insufferable anti-hero. Read the rest of this entry »

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