Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Beginning of Days: Windy City Playhouse Aims to Be A New Theater for New Audiences

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Amy Rubenstein, Artistic Director of Windy City Playhouse, on the set of "End of Days"/Photo: Alex Huntsberger

Amy Rubenstein, artistic director of Windy City Playhouse/Photo: Alex Huntsberger

By Alex Huntsberger

Normally when a new theater company opens in Chicago it is cause for little fanfare. Small storefront companies come and go with the transience of a celebrity parody twitter account. However when the Windy City Playhouse announced its inaugural season last summer, the theater community took notice. Unlike the usual bands of scrappy, broke college grads hoarding pennies and launching kickstarters, The Windy City Playhouse announced that they would be opening with a full four-show season cast with Equity actors in its very own brand-new 150-seat theater. It was bold, it was different, and on March 19 it’s going to become a reality.

The seeds that would eventually grow into the Playhouse were first sowed four years ago, when artistic director Amy Rubenstein and her family moved back to Chicago from L.A. Although she has enjoyed a very successful career in real estate, Rubenstein started out as an actress, gigging around Chicago for many years before moving out west. So when she moved back, Rubenstein started attending theater shows around town with her husband. And she was dismayed at what she found—not on the stage, but in the audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Twentieth-Century Sage: The Goodman Theatre Celebrates the Work of August Wilson

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 (L to R) Director Chuck Smith and Anthony Irons (Wolf) in rehearsal for Two Trains Running/Photo: Liz Lauren

Director Chuck Smith and Anthony Irons (Wolf) in rehearsal for Two Trains Running/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Mary Kroeck

In 2007, the Goodman Theatre gave August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” its Chicago debut. With that, the theater did something historic. It became the first theater in the country to have produced all ten works in Wilson’s “20th Century Cycle,” a series of ten plays, each one chronicling the lives of African Americans and set in a different decade of the 1900s. Now, nearly ten years after Wilson’s death, the Goodman is at the helm of a citywide celebration of Wilson’s legacy.

“August Wilson, in my humble opinion, is probably the most important playwright of our time,” says Chuck Smith, a Goodman resident director and curator of the Wilson retrospective. “[The 20th Century Cycle] is something that can be used as a beacon of what African-American life was like in the twentieth century for ages to come. I think it’s going to be a while before any other kind of body of work comes along that depicts a segment of our community over a hundred years that really brings it to life. What he’s done is historic.”

At the center of the Goodman’s August Wilson Celebration is his Tony-nominated play, “Two Trains Running,” which is also being directed by Smith. Not only is the play one of Smith’s personal favorites, but it’s one he believes audiences today will greatly connect with, though it is set in 1969. Read the rest of this entry »

Lend Us a Tenor: Brandon Jovanovich Books an Unusual “Passage”

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Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Kristen Hoebermann

Brandon Jovanovich has played heroic tenor roles here and around the world but this month is revealing two other sides of himself: playing the role of Walter, a German diplomat and husband of a former Auschwitz guard in “The Passenger,” the rediscovered Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at Lyric Opera, and singing diverse material of his own choosing on Harris Theater’s final “Beyond the Aria” recital of the season with soprano Amber Wagner and Ryan Center baritone Will Liverman on March 10.

“It’s a heck of a piece,” says Jovanovich of “The Passenger” in his Lyric dressing room, with scores for oratorios he is also working on visible on the piano. “There is a lot of jazz in it, some swing, there’s some funk happening there. There is some dissonance but it is also transparent in a lot of spots. It’s important to let the music speak for itself and not work against it. Read the rest of this entry »

Near The Center: Indiana Theater Wants Chicago to Know They’re Worth the Trip

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Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre/Photo: Bridget Earnshaw

Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre/Photo: Bridget Earnshaw

By Raymond Rehayem

“It’s really close, I mean it’s about thirty minutes. Some people think it’s Muncie and that’s way far away compared to Munster which is just right next door.”

Artistic Director William Pullinsi is addressing the challenges of convincing Chicagoans to cross the state line for a show. I confess I myself made this geographical error, Googling “Muncie, IN” before looking up his Theatre At The Center. On the verge of its twenty-fifth season, the Northwest Indiana venue has in Pullinsi a seasoned professional well-accomplished in luring unlikely theatergoers. Now in his tenth year with the Munster nonprofit, Pullinsi first gained recognition for introducing and popularizing the dinner theater format at the Candlelight Playhouse. “We thought people would like that—a full evening, dinner and a show—though we were concentrating on the show.” As a student in Washington, DC, Pullinsi set out to find a theater space. “I started to look at any place I could think of. And I found a beautiful place that had a 500-seat room available, one of these buildings that mostly catered dinners and parties for congressional Washington. So I talked these guys into doing the drinks and dinners and they would make their profit on that, and I would sell the tickets for the shows and make the profit on that.” After two seasons in DC, in 1961 Pullinsi opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, Illinois. For nearly forty years the Candlelight drew Chicagoans just beyond the city limits, right across Harlem Avenue. Read the rest of this entry »

News: Chicago Dramatists Artistic Director Russ Tutterow Steps Down

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Russ Tutterow

Russ Tutterow

On February 3, Chicago Dramatists announced that long-time Artistic Director Russ Tutterow was stepping down. Tutterow has held the role for thirty years and helped shepherd hundreds of new works to the stage. He will be replaced, on an interim basis, by Meghan Beals, who previously served as the company’s Associate Artistic Director from 2010 to 2012.

Tutterow, who had been on medical leave since August of last year, will be moving into the role of Artistic Director Emeritus and will continue to work with the theater in a consultative capacity.

Chicago Dramatists is the only theater institution in the city dedicated solely to both the development and producing of new plays. Under Tutterow’s leadership, the company grew from a small cohort of playwrights in 1979 to a network of more than 150 today, with its Resident Playwright program providing a home for numerous Chicago playwrights.

Tutterow said in a prepared statement, “For more than three decades, Chicago Dramatists has been a place I call home and it will continue to be as I move into an emeritus role. As I pass the torch to Meghan, I’m excited about the direction our organization is taking in blending the traditions that made us successful with a pioneer approach that will take our work into the future.” Read the rest of this entry »

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: David Schmitz, New Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux


By Brian Hieggelke

Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.

What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2014: Stage

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Top 5 Plays of 2014
“Smokefall,” Goodman Theatre
“Newsies,” Broadway In Chicago
“The Midnight City,” Firecat Projects at Steppenwolf Garage
“Hedda Gabler,” Writers Theatre
“King Lear,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater
—Brian Hieggelke

Top 5 Plays of 2014
“Hair,” American Theater Company
“Lookingglass Alice,” Lookingglass Theatre Company
“Happy Days,” Theatre Y
“Othello,” Gift Theatre
“The Language Archive,” Piven Theatre Workshop
—Hugh Iglarsh

Top 5 Dance Performances of 2014
“Swan Lake,” Joffrey Ballet
Compagnie Kafig: “Correria Agwa,” The Dance Center of Columbia College
“The Art of Falling,” Hubbard Street Dance + The Second City
Contemporary Choreographers, Joffrey Ballet
Dance Theatre of Harlem, Auditorium Theatre
—Brian Hieggelke Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Intimate Years: Redtwist Theatre Looks to Season Eleven

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Redtwist Theatre's storefront location

Redtwist Theatre’s storefront location

By Aaron Hunt

With thirty-six Joseph Jefferson nominations and nine wins since Redtwist Theatre’s first show in the Edgewater neighborhood opened in September 2003, it might seem that the company didn’t spend much Cinderella-time by the fireplace. But none of Chicago’s storefront theaters skate through more than ten years without some bumps along the way and this season Redtwist celebrates the anniversary of their residency at 1044 West Bryn Mawr with an eleventh season entitled “Rising From the Ashes.”

I spoke with Redtwist’s artistic director Michael Colucci and original member Johnny Garcia about the company’s journey and the alchemy that has given the company its status and resiliency. Colucci was transplanted from New Jersey to Chicago in 1981. “It was because of a corporate job change,” he says. “The company shipped my boss [here]…and he said, why don’t you come with me? There’s an opening in Chicago.” He smiles. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Colucci arrived at the beginning of Chicago’s storefront theater boom. Body Politic, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens and other financially strapped, artistically rich organizations re-envisioned street-level real estate no longer fiscally viable for traditional business into storytelling spaces. Rent was cheap, and small but ardent collectives of newly graduated artists bursting out of Chicago’s universities remodeled these “homes” for theatrical expression.  Colucci found himself swept into this tidal wave. He studied acting, left his corporate job when his acting career gained momentum, then added coaching and stage direction to his portfolio. His studio became the Actors Workshop Theatre, and then morphed into Redtwist. The company moved into Edgewater in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

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