Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Dark Humor: The Ups and Downs, and Downs, of a Chicago Comedian’s Struggle

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Photo: Elle Metz

Photo: Elle Metz

By Elle Metz

On a bright stage in a dark room at The Annoyance Theatre in Lakeview, two men, bouncing slightly on their toes, peer into the audience. Seventeen people—mostly young and casually dressed—gaze back. One woman sips a light beer. A goateed man sits up straight in his chair. The two performers, Derek Shoemaker and Blair Britt, ask for a suggestion to start their improvisation.

“Cadaver,” someone calls out. Shoemaker and Britt immediately step back to the middle of the stage, facing each other like sparring partners.

Shoemaker has a round face framed by a dark brown buzz cut and perpetual two-day scruff. Tonight he wears maroon slacks, a short-sleeved, blue-and-white-checked button up and red Vans sneakers—a typical performance uniform for him.

In this first scene, Shoemaker plays a police detective and Britt a medical examiner. They’re trying to solve a difficult murder case. Shifting their weight forward and back, the men discuss the case and gesture toward an imaginary body lying on a morgue table in front of them. Britt rants that he can’t find anything wrong with the body. A knowing look crosses Shoemaker’s face.

“We know about your gift,” Shoemaker says. “We know that you can touch bodies…”

“No, I’m not doing that again, alright,” Britt replies. “I’m not!” Read the rest of this entry »

The Trial By Theater: Contemporary Playwrights Inspired by the Prague Master in Kafkapalooza Festival

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Hutch Pimentel, First Floor Theater Artistic Director and Festival Co-Curator

By Hugh Iglarsh

At a time when pop culture often seems like the only game in town, First Floor Theater’s annual literary festival is a refreshing reminder of drama’s richer possibilities. For the third year in a row, the Wicker Park-based troupe is commissioning local playwrights to create short works inspired by a literary master, which will be presented together for a short mid-August run. It was the Brothers Grimm in 2013; last year, it was Mark Twain’s turn.

This year, eight established and emerging Chicago dramatists—Marylin Campbell, Kristiana Colon, Amanda Fink, Skye Robinson Hillis, Ike Holter, Karen Kessler, Brett Neveu and Ariel Zetina—will be taking on the tormented Mittel-European Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who gave us not only his hauntingly enigmatic novels, tales and aphorisms, but also the adjective Kafkaesque, describing the individual’s experience of the opaque, alienated and labyrinthine reality that constitutes modernity. In such works as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle,” Kafka used a deadpan and dreamlike writing style to capture the chronic, subtle strangeness of life within godlike systems and institutions, whose agendas can be neither comprehended nor resisted. He is the prophet of a propagandized and surveilled state, at least as relevant in the era of Gitmo and Snowden as he was in the nineteen-twenties, when the world was convalescing after one catastrophe and slouching toward a worse one.   Read the rest of this entry »

Transformative Stories: A Reservoir of Healing at Erasing the Distance

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Greg Geffrard, TayLar, Angela Alise, Ronnell Taylor, Tiffany Renee Johnson

Greg Geffrard, TayLar, Angela Alise, Ronnell Taylor, Tiffany Renee Johnson

By Loy Webb

“This is turning into a therapy session,” says actress Angela Alise as she wipes the tears from her eyes. “Which it always does with Erasing the Distance,” Erasing the Distance (ETD) founder Brighid O’Shaughnessy responds, laughing at the aftermath her heartfelt answer has created.

It’s that kind of sincerity and empathy that has made ETD more than a theater company and into a reservoir of healing for individuals dealing directly and indirectly with mental illness.

This “therapy session” started when O’Shaughnessy described her encounter with a young woman named Marlena. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Moth GrandSLAM/The Moth

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The Moth GrandSLAM 1: Into the Wild

The Moth GrandSLAM 1: Into the Wild

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Starting a show by making audacious promises to the audience—you will laugh, you will be amazed, etc.—is usually a misguided path to disaster. But host/MC Don Hall came off as more soothsayer than bloviator as The Moth Chicago GrandSLAM delivered on all accounts. The Moth storytelling series is a well-known mainstay to the Chicago area, with shows every couple weeks at Martyrs and Haymarket. The format is fairly simple: story tellers put their name in a hat, and those drawn get five minutes to tell a story compatible with that evening’s theme. But the GrandSLAM serves as a special event held a few times throughout the year, with the purpose of pitting ten Moth winners against each other for the grand prize of bragging rights. Three sets of judges—including a group of former Moth GrandSLAM winners, members from local LGBTQ storytellers OUTspoken and a randomly selected crew of audience members—scored each story on unspecified criteria. The theme was “Mea Culpa.” Read the rest of this entry »

Making Miss Simone Proud: “Black Lives, Black Words” Explores “Do Black Lives Matter Today?”

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Reginald Edmund

Reginald Edmund

By Loy Webb

“I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” A poignant question raised by the iconic songstress Nina Simone, whose music encapsulated the pain, beauty, brilliance and proud blackness of an entire generation during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Simone was a purveyor of truth and hope during those turbulent times and her impact is unparalleled. However, she’s gone now and as times change and more problems plague our nation, new artists must step up to take on the “artist’s duty,” as Miss Simone dubs it, and reflect the current times.

One playwright, Reginald Edmund, has stepped up to that challenge. His writing persona, uncompromising in truth and unapologetic to whom it might offend, is a complete 360 to his quiet, almost shy personality. Writing is his safe place and thus the obvious method of response to the second-wave Civil Rights Movement, as he calls it.

Feeling helpless after seeing the events in Ferguson, yet inspired by the political and social action that resulted across the country from such atrocities, he felt the need to do something and include other artists as well. That effort turned into “Black Lives, Black Words,” a ten-minute-play reading series where some of the most political contemporary black playwrights explore the question “Do black lives matter today?” Read the rest of this entry »

News: Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays Offers Local Playwrights a Chance to Develop Their Work

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Playwright Aline Lathrop with director Hutch Pimentel

Playwright Aline Lathrop with director Hutch Pimentel

Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s eighth Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, featuring four plays written by local playwrights, began last night at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

Originated in 2006 by artistic director Richard Engling and Polarity’s co-founder Ann Keen, the annual Dionysos Cup highlights four plays from Chicago-area playwrights, which are performed twice over a two-week period.

This year’s Dionysos Cup plays, selected from a pool of around seventy submissions, are “widely divergent” in subject matter, according to Engling. On the program are “Leavings” by Gail Parrish, “…And Eat It Too” by Aline Lathrop, “Girl Found” by Barbara Lhota and “The Charisma of Flying Saucers” by Mary Beth Hoerner. Read the rest of this entry »

The Play Is the Sing: Longtime Stephen Sondheim Collaborator Paul Gemignani on “The Shakespeare of Music”

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Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gemignani

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gemignani

By Dennis Polkow

“You know, you should start thinking about symphonic suites from your shows because you’re going to need them someday,” conductor and longtime Stephen Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani recalls telling Sondheim early on. “He knew that we would need them, but he would not sit down and write them.”

Sondheim, whose initial success was as a lyricist with Leonard Bernstein in “West Side Story” and Jule Styne in “Gypsy,” composed his own music to go with his own lyrics in “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.” From that show on—with the exception of writing lyrics for Richard Rodgers’ “Do I Hear A Waltz?” after the death of Rodgers’ partner and Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II—Sondheim would be the composer and lyricist for a string of shows that managed to revolutionize the Broadway musical.

“He’s one of these people that comes along every so often, like a Gershwin or a Rodgers, someone you can learn a lot from if you’re a composer or if you’re a musician like me. And in this man’s case, not only is he a musician, but he’s a poet. That, to me, makes him very unique.”

Despite his reputation as a lyricist, Gemignani insists that Sondheim’s musical prowess is no less formidable. “I started out with him where people said, ‘He writes great lyrics, but he can’t write a melody.’ Are you kidding me? He is a dramatist who writes to character completely. If you listen to all these musicals he wrote, tell me that the same man wrote ‘Company’ that wrote ‘Into the Woods.’ Tell me that that same man who wrote ‘Follies’ wrote ‘Pacific Overtures.’ They don’t even sound alike. That is the most unique thing about him. It’s like he’s the Shakespeare of music.   Read the rest of this entry »

News: The Gift Theatre Adds Nine New Ensemble Members

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The Gift Theatre artistic director and ensemble member Michael Patrick Thornton and Natural Gas artistic director Kyle Zornes in YOU & ME presented by The Gift Theatre’s in-house improv team Natural Gas at The Den Theatre;

Kyle Zornes and Michael Patrick Thornton

The Gift Theatre announced Monday the addition of nine new playwrights, directors and actors to their ensemble, expanding the group to thirty-one full-fledged members.

The new ensemble members include playwrights Will Eno and Laura Marks; actors Cyd Blakewell, Darci Nalepa, Keith Neagle, Mary Ann Thebus and Kyle Zornes; and directors Marti Lyons and Erica Weiss.

“We’ve been collaborating with the folks consistently for the last few years,” the Gift’s artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton said. “They’re already a part of our family.” Read the rest of this entry »

Mid-Life and Lost: Bringing Christopher Durang’s Tony Winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to The Goodman

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Mary Beth Fisher and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo:  Liz Lauren

Mary Beth Fisher and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Elle Metz

Last year saw a surge of a certain type of film, the mid-life crisis, coming-home movie (see: “The Judge,” “This is Where I Leave You,” or “Are You Here” for examples). The plot, while differing slightly from film to film, follows a similar path: a financially stable but emotionally stunted middle-aged adult is called home (usually for a parent’s funeral) where they’re faced with old romances, disgruntled siblings and a crisis of conscience. Inevitably, their time at home shows them the error of their ways and realigns their priorities.

Starting this month, this story—only fresher and funnier—is coming to the stage at the Goodman Theatre in the form of Christopher Durang’s Tony award-winning play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The play’s director, Steve Scott, is a prolific Chicago-based director, whose other productions at the Goodman include “Blind Date,” “Dinner with Friends,” “Wit” and the 2011 and 2012 editions of “A Christmas Carol.” To him, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” reflects his own increasingly confused perspective on the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Career Candor: Gloria Estefan goes Off the Cuff about “On Your Feet”

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(l to r) Emilio Estefan, Gloria Estefan, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra/Photo: Bruce Glikas

Emilio Estefan, Gloria Estefan, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra/Photo: Bruce Glikas

By Dennis Polkow

Gloria Estefan has made an international career out of singing and dancing, the very essence of what happens in a Broadway musical. As such, it might seem she would be a natural to play herself in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” which is having its pre-Broadway world premiere performances in Chicago.

“I’m too old,” Estefan admits. “The span of time is me between seventeen and thirty-two, which is the age I was when I had my accident and broke my back and they said I would probably never walk again, let alone perform.

“And it’s kind of weird to play yourself. You know, it’s funny, my daughter is an amazing singer and she’s at Berklee College of Music and is just stepping out. Everybody is saying ‘Oh my God, she should play you,’ because she’s like my clone, this little girl. Ridiculous pipes, she plays every instrument, she’s an amazing drummer, so musical. Her reaction was, ‘Mom, I’d have to kiss Dad!’ She’s not in the play as a character because she didn’t exist at the time that we’re covering in the play. But it’s fantastic to me that she co-wrote an original tune that’s a pivotal scene in the play that is very emotional.” Read the rest of this entry »

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