Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Diary of Anne Frank/Writers Theatre

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Fortunato, Thatcher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Sean Fortunato and Sophie Thatcher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The story of Anne Frank, a budding young Jewish woman entrapped by design, hidden in an Amsterdam attic where she bravely, almost joyously awaited what she felt certain would be liberation from Hitler’s regime, and her family’s return to a life of normalcy, has long been the stuff of schoolroom wonder, and schoolyard qualms. For Anne’s story is an adolescent glimpse into a world of cruelty, composed in a music that ignites a burning understanding for the socially privileged and the nationally coddled.

As from any horror, it is simple to look away from the megalomania and treachery that ended the promise of this young life that brimmed full of bounce, laughter, and love. Just as so many of us do when thousands of innocents are slaughtered the world over as struggles for power and money, clothed in robes of ideological reshaping and theological allotment, are robbed of their childhood birthright. Do we hide the horror from ourselves in that drawer in the attic of our hearts? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Homefront/Project 891 Theatre Company

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Chris Hart and Patrick Cameron/Photo: Kat Dennis

Chris Hart and Patrick Cameron/Photo: Kat Dennis

The old maxim says, “You can’t go home again.” Which is of course not true. It’s a lying old maxim, a blanket statement that ignores an entire class of people for whom home is eminently returnable. These homes are immutable certainties, testaments to the inertia of late-twentieth-century middle-class living. Living relics of the pre-Y2K world. “You can’t go home again” clearly never anticipated aluminum siding, barcaloungers and “Frasier” reruns.

That feeling holds true for Ron Popp’s new play “Homefront,” which is part of a very long tradition of American family dramas that center around the family settee and are concluded just in time for dinner. The play feels musty, like it was recently removed from storage. And the characters seem like people I would love to be friends with, but who are a little too boring to be all that interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: End Days/Windy City Playhouse

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Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

RECOMMENDED

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s existential comedy “End Days” sounds like a tongue-in-cheek choice for the Windy City Playhouse’s launch of its inaugural season. If their opening performance in the department-store-sized black box is any indication of their determination to go the distance by providing a completely moveable seating plan of up to 149, an elegant bar, and music and visual art that complement and question the themes of the play, then here is a new kind of Chicago storefront—one that relaxes an audience as they are immersed in the totality of an experience. And before you tell me this isn’t storefront theater, you’ll have to cross the stage to get to the bathrooms. Enough said. Artistic director Amy Rubenstein’s program notes include this important caveat: “We aim not to compete with the excellent art that already exists, but rather to complement.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Balm in Gilead/Griffin Theatre

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Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The evening begins in an explosion of noise. From the moment the audience enters, tramps and junkies and nightwalkers prowl around the space, almost like they’re protecting it from these well-heeled modern-day interlopers. Then the play begins and the gentle rumble of their spat-out chatter becomes a cacophony, a howling chorus of the street.

The play is Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” a foundational text in the history of the Chicago theater style. The way people talk about Steppenwolf’s legendary 1980 production, you’d think the actors walked off the stage and gave the audience a lap dance.

In Jonathan Berry’s new production with Griffin Theatre, currently running at The Den, might as well start with a punky “1-2-3-4” count-off. It launches in on Wilson’s glassy-eyed, motor-mouthed menagerie with fervor. Thirty-one different actors—a who’s who of the storefront scene that this play helped ignite—are crammed on the stage: yelping, yawping, fighting and scrapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Les Misérables/Paramount Theatre 

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »

Mr. Burns, Theatre Wit

RECOMMENDED

Paramount Theatre certainly knows its way around big Broadway musicals.  From “Cats” to “Miss Saigon” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” their Broadway Series has consistently offered full-throttle, lavishly produced reprises of beloved big-numbered musicals. This production of “Les Misérables” is no exception and includes such flourishes as a massive, revolving corkscrew of a set design that allows its actors to ascend above the action, but more often casts the viewer’s attention to the wretchedness below.  This design is especially effective at highlighting the initial hope then despair of the student-led Paris rebellion.

The cast here is superb, with Robert Wilde demonstrating enough stage presence and vocal talents to encompass the larger than life Jean Valjean. Rod Thomas’ brooding Inspector Javert also works especially in regards to him being able to flesh out the motivation for his relentless pursuit of Valjean.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Genius/Profiles Theatre

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Genius production photos 002

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The title of Kate Walbert’s “Genius”—now receiving its world premiere at the Profiles Theatre—refers to the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants—the prospect of a MacArthur prize provides the turning point in the play. Walbert’s script presents strong ideas about large subjects.

First idea: Talented public men in America betray the women they love over money, other women, fame, position and influence in an instant. They do this because they’ve always done it, and nobody has thought or said much about it. The more intelligent the woman, the better it feels to wipe one’s feet on her.

Second idea: Even the smartest American woman by habit protects and nurtures her man’s over-estimation of his own powers as thinker, creator, artist, humanitarian or scholar.  Superior women ego-stroke without thinking about it because it’s what they’ve always done. Walbert implies it’s time that women who think stop acting as props for mediocre, needy male egoists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Outside Mullingar/Northlight Theatre

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Kate Fry and Mark Montgomery/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kate Fry and Mark Montgomery/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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John Patrick Shanley’s newest play is the tale of Anthony Reilly, a man who believes himself to have no value to anyone else, a man who has dedicated his life to a farm that his father won’t leave to him after death, a man who takes every insignificant event as a sign from God, a man who isn’t right in the head. Mark L. Montgomery plays this man. It is a complex role that at times seems to flow so naturally through Montgomery that one might think he actually behaves like the wise dullard that he portrays in Northlight Theatre’s production of “Outside Mullingar,” directed by BJ Jones.

At its heart the play is a romantic comedy about Anthony Reilly finding his true love in the neighbor girl he has been ignoring for the past thirty years. Rosemary Muldoon (Kate Fry) is the last of the play’s four characters to hit the stage, but is the first to really bring vibrant energy to the play’s words. It is a good thing, then, that she is the eventual love interest of Montgomery’s character. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: These Saints Will Burn/The Plagiarists

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Tony Kaehny and Jeaux the Crow/Photo: Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

Tony Kaehny and Jeaux the Crow/Photo: Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

Bursting with imagination, bereft of dynamic narrative, this retelling of the Joan of Arc story is a dazzling mess of a play, more first draft than finished work. Playwright Robert Stewart never gets a firm grip either on the character of Joan, who develops not a whit over the show’s two hours, nor her remarkable history, which is reduced here to meandering psychodrama.

Director Jack Dugan Carpenter’s realization of this under-ripe script is a feast for the eyes, featuring Andrew Marchetti’s Bread and Puppet-style puppets, a sarcastic talking crow (skillfully voiced by Tony Kaehny) and tiny maquettes of medieval French cities, courtesy of designer Kailee Tomasic. The toylike mise-en-scène imparts an appropriately hallucinatory quality to the bare stage on which Joan makes her fateful journey from voices-hearing peasant girl to teenaged heroine to martyr at the hands of the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Bounds: River North Dance Chicago’s Hanna Brictson Pushes the Limits

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Hanna BrictonHanna Brictson grew up in River North Dance Chicago, first as a student, starting at the age of twelve, then as a company member straight out of high school, eventually working her way up to rehearsal assistant. This week, the Elgin native and Princess Grace Award nominee makes her choreographic debut with the company, which premieres as part of the Auditorium Theatre’s “Made in Chicago” series, in honor of its 125th anniversary season.

Many dancers move from company to company. What has kept you at River North?
There has always been a build happening. It’s never been stagnant on the artistic side. As a dancer you’re always searching for a challenge; [artistic director] Frank Chaves is always bringing in new choreographers and challenging the dancers in new ways. There’s also the jazz style, which we’re now getting away from with contemporary work, but it will always be our foundation. Jazz is my background so the environment is comfortable and still challenging.

Tell me a little about your new work, “Beast.”
The piece is danced by all the women in the company. I’m also dancing in it which is a challenge in and of itself. It’s based around my life experiences that have pushed me to have the personality I have. It’s about pushing the limits of what we think we can do. We all believe we can handle only so much; it’s about pushing beyond the walls we set up for ourselves. When we break through these walls, we sometimes discover the alter ego we have as females, our inner beast.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that to choreograph on friends has been the most special opportunity, because I know these people inside and out. Which is what River North is all about; we’re a family. (Sharon Hoyer)

At the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (800)982-2787. Saturday, March 28 at 7:30pm.

Critic’s Postcard: Fairies and Snakes at Moulin Rouge

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Photo: S. Bertrand

Photo: S. Bertrand

By Zach Freeman

There are very few theatrical venues in the world that can boast anything like the history, cachet and all-around tourist-centric sexiness of Moulin Rouge, now celebrating its 125th (!) anniversary. With that in mind my wife and I made our way to the iconic red windmill at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmarte district a few weeks ago, expanding our trip to Paris to include the latest offering from “the most famous cabaret in the world.”

Entitled simply “Féerie” (Fairy), it turns out that this production—which has been running since the end of 1999—is every bit as flashy, ephemeral, evocative and simple as the name implies. For clarity’s sake I should add that by “simple” I just mean “nearly plotless”—with 1,000 costumes, eighty dancers, six horses and five pythons (yes, you read those last two correctly)—this show is anything but simple in the technical sense. But more on that in a bit.

Entering the historical eighteenth arrondissement theater through a throng of camera-toting tourists and fellow attendees is a theatrical experience in itself. The bright red carpet and brighter lights successfully immerse you as you check in and are guided to your table. (With 900 seats, it’s no surprise that they don’t trust you to find your way alone.) The space is set up like a massive, two-story restaurant, allowing for customers booking 7pm tickets to eat dinner before the 9pm show. Since we opted for the 9pm show, we arrived at our table post-dinner and were promptly greeted with glasses of champagne. Read the rest of this entry »

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