Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

30 Plays, 60 Minutes, 25 Years: A Quarter Century of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”

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By Hugh Iglarsh

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

“What are the hallmarks of American culture that are also typical of ADD? The fast pace. The sound bite. The bottom line. Short takes, quick cuts … High stimulation. Restlessness … Speed. Present-centered, no future, no past.”
—Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction”

At this point—after twenty-five unbroken years of performance in Chicago, of two generations of sell-out crowds, of untold thousands of two-minute sketches and hundreds of actor-writers, of spinoffs and Edinburgh Festivals and Hear ye-Hear ye civic proclamations—it is fair to say Greg Allen’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” is more than an institution; it is a movement.

Allen and his cohorts have made their “neo-futurism” a hot commodity, spawning affiliated groups everywhere from San Francisco to Montreal, and developing into a perpetual motion theater machine, whose unique rituals of admission and spectatorship turn play-going into a kind of collaborative performance art. Neo-futurism is arguably the biggest, most durable entrant on the local scene since Second City began improvising fifty-some years ago. And like Second City, “Too Much Light” (hereafter TML) has created a precise and endlessly repeatable formula for achieving a tightly engineered spontaneity. Read the rest of this entry »

Geeking Out: Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival Enters its Second Year

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Plan 9 Burlesque

Plan 9 Burlesque

By Raymond Rehayem

Back in the cathode ray days of my pre-HD childhood, when my father bemoaned my obscure taste in comic books (“What are the X-Men? Why can’t you like something popular like Spider-Man, so I can buy you something?!?”) it wasn’t just uncool to have geeky tastes, it was downright inconvenient. Miss an issue of mutant boarding school mayhem and you had better pedal your ten-speed to your only local comic shop (if you were in so fortunate a locale) and pray on the way that there will be a bagged back issue to fill the gaps in your knowledge of Homo Superior developments.

It’s a vastly altered reality in which the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival (aka Nerdfest) gears up for its second annual undertaking this month at Stage 773. I credit the MP3 for making handheld gadgetry irresistible and CGI for making big screen superheroes passable. Regardless, nowadays there’s nothing mysterious about an old Green Lantern t-shirt. It’s quite the opposite.

“Nerd is kinda norm now,” opines Nerdfest co-creator Katie Johnston-Smith. A self-identified nerd who temporarily abandoned the fold due to middle school mockery, she confesses to a concern that returning to nerd-dom around the time it rose in stature may make her “a poseur.” But Johnston-Smith’s enthusiasm for geek culture proves the authenticity of her allegiance. Following last year’s inaugural success, the festival’s committee came up with a free monthly night of fan fiction readings to sustain and build interest leading up to this year’s Nerdfest. Johnston-Smith and co-founder Fin Coe curate and host “Hey, I’m A Big Fan: A Night Of Fan Fiction Readings” every third Wednesday at Stage 773, for which participants specifically write new material. Much, though not all, of the fan fiction is erotic in nature. Despite seemingly intense prospects like “a very graphic sexual version” of the sitcom “Full House,” Johnston-Smith describes the ongoing monthly series as “low stakes and chill.” A selection of the best “Hey, I’m A Big Fan” readings—as chosen by the festival committee and the fanbase—opens the festival on Wednesday. Read the rest of this entry »

Ride On: Puppet Bike Celebrates a Decade on the Streets of Chicago

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puppet bike

Photo: Keith Schmidt

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt

As a relatively recent Midwesterner, I associate Chicago with outdoor festivals, pop-up art shows and street theater. And while the Berghoff’s Oktoberfest and the Christkindlmarket cater to a certain type of Germanic nostalgia, the most endearing of all Chicago traditions comes in a brightly-painted box.

With puppets.

Most of us have seen the Puppet Bike in action on Michigan Avenue or in Andersonville, or perhaps glimpsed it in its sadly shuttered state in between shows. It doesn’t appear much in our recently punishing winter weather, and can be reclusive in the scalding summer heat. But when serendipity is in your favor, and you happen upon the syncopating Steiff animals in their slightly tatty glory, the show is suddenly for you and you alone. You’re standing there with your mouth open, a child again for a few wonderful moments.

Actual kids love it too.

As of January, the bike has been on the street for ten years, an amazing achievement for Jason Trusty, its founder and the original puppeteer. He initially meant it as a side project that evolved out of a coffee bike concept. Trusty has kept the Puppet Bike supplied with self-nominated puppeteers over the years, a roster limited only to those able to pedal the large, increasingly rickety structure around the city. The list has even included several women. Read the rest of this entry »

Theater Tree: Piven Theatre Workshop Branches out with Polly Noonan Directing “The Language Archive”

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Photo: Chris Zoubris

Photo: Chris Zoubris

By Hugh Iglarsh

The paradox of theater is that it is the most ephemeral of arts, yet the most closely tied to history and memory. Born of the desire to honor the gods and heroes, theater continues to weave the past into the present, giving shape and meaning to our private and collective lives. Time is both canvas and content to the dramatist and performer, as they seek to capture a critical moment or situation, render it sharp and clear, and pass it on.

No institution is more redolent of Chicago performance history than Piven Theatre Workshop, the combination acting school and performance troupe based in Evanston. For more than forty years, the Workshop has kept alive the presentational style, improvisational quality and game-based creative process pioneered here during the mid-twentieth century. Since that time, improv has developed into a global industry, with all the attributes of mass production and hype associated with the profit motive.

But the other side of the Chicago theater legacy—the tradition of story and chamber theater, in which characters narrate as well as enact their role—has never become as commercially viable a proposition. The Workshop is one of the few direct successors to Paul Sills’ Story and Game Theaters of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when local performance was less showbiz launching pad and more cultural resource. The Workshop remains a rock of community commitment, approaching theater not as an end in itself, but rather as a way to forge connection and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: TJ & Dave/iO Theater

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TJandDaveRECOMMENDED

It’s late on a blustery winter night in Wrigleyville and aside from a few mounds of icy snow the streets are mostly empty. But inside the iO Theater there’s a line that bunches around the ticket window, the entry and the stairs to the second floor, as those who booked in advance pick up their tickets and others anxiously wait to find out if any seats will open up at the last minute.

“I’m just here on the off chance that a ticket might open up,” the guy directly in front of me tells me eagerly. On a sub-freezing weeknight when most sensible people are staying home and warm, this 11pm show is sold out, with a waiting list. And this is fairly standard for TJ & Dave, a duo of improvisers that perform in this slot every Wednesday night at iO and have been working together for more than a decade.

As with most improvisational shows, the setup is minimal—the lights go down, a song plays, the actors take the stage (a few chairs make up the entirety of the set). Wearing what might be described as “business casual,” TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi take their time before getting started. Jagodowski puts his hands over his eyes and slowly looks over the crowd with a knowing smile, while Pasquesi crisscrosses the stage in long strides, sometimes seeming to be rearranging the chairs, sometimes just roaming. They then introduce each other, say the infamous words, “trust us this is all made up,” and without a suggestion the show begins. Read the rest of this entry »

Play Time: How to Binge on Chicago Theatre Week

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DebClapp-colorprint-headshotBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

A relatively new phenomenon, Chicago Theatre Week is the opportunity for both the diehard fan and the average Joe to explore and enjoy the variety of theater that Chicago has on offer on the cheap with 100 productions all offering reduced ticket prices for the duration of the event. In its brief tenure, Chicago Theatre Week has joined the ranks of Restaurant Week on the list of “amazing activities with which to lust away an entire week in Chicago,” and rightly so—but what is it about Chicago theater that makes it special? And what better time than Chicago Theatre Week to find out?

We asked Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which organizes Theatre Week, to share her insights with us.

What got you interested in theater in Chicago?
I moved to Chicago to work at the Goodman and I really wasn’t aware at the time that there was such an amazing theater scene happening here… At Goodman I was privileged to be able to work with such companies as Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna and Congo Square. Those companies and their high levels of artistic quality, craftsmanship and professionalism gave me my first glimpse of what was going on in Chicago and got me interested in what was happening in the rest of the city. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 4 Comments »

In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sketchy City: Chicago Sketchfest Brings a Thousand Performers to its Stages

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Siblings of Doctors

Siblings of Doctors

By Michael Mellini

A single sinner navigating heaven’s dating scene, video tributes to Janet Jackson’s greatest hits, a fundraiser to crush Chicago’s rising murder rate, a frazzled Mary Todd Lincoln taking on variety-show host duties: these are only a few of the offbeat setups invading Stage 773 when the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival hits the Lakeview venue beginning January 9. Now in its thirteenth year, the country’s biggest sketch fest will host 150 comedy troupes showcasing their best material throughout the eight-night run.

“The lineup is exceptional this year,” says festival creative director Brian Posen. “Not that it hasn’t been in the past years, but we had to turn away really good talent, about 150 troupes, because we just didn’t have the room.” Although some groups from previous years are on the roster again, Posen assures that no year of the festival ever feels the same. “The festival always recreates itself,” he says. “Sketch comedy groups rarely last more than a couple years, so there’s a constant rebirthing of new and exciting groups. When any art form grows, whatever the norm is, [artists] must break it, so it’s very exciting as a sketch geek to see how performers are changing the norm and how material is presented differently.” Read the rest of this entry »

Big Bouffonery: Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival Balances Art and Entertainment

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Muualla1_Chiara_ContrinoBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

The release reads, “First of its kind in the U.S., the 2014 Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival brings shows from around the world together January 6th through 12th.”

If, like me, you are not the type to enjoy clowns and dancing elephants, make sure you read further; this is not your average big-top, “shiny shoe” circus. This is the circus peculiar to much of Europe, Quebec and a slow trickle in the United States, a circus unlike that of Vegas’ “Cirque du Soleil”—it is innovative, small, plucky and growing steam.

Curated by Matt Roben and Shayna Swanson, two mightily seasoned performers in their own circus-y rights, the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival is the nation’s first contemporary circus festival. The focus of contemporary circus is to create artistically insightful and emotionally affecting work, such as one-man contortionist acts or late-night cabaret mime. This circus has existed in Chicago for years, but never has such a streamlined attempt been made to make the City of Big Shoulders THE city for circus; as Roben puts it, the festival is an attempt to make Chicago “the epicenter of circus for the United States.” Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2013: Stage

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Top 5 Plays of 2013
Simpatico, A Red Orchid Theatre
Head of Passes, Steppenwolf
Smokefall, Goodman Theatre
Measure for Measure, Goodman Theatre
Hank Williams: Lost Highway, American Blues Theater
—Brian Hieggelke

Top 5 Plays of 2013
The Aliens (A Red Orchid Theatre)
Book of Mormon (Broadway in Chicago)
Head of Passes (Steppenwolf)
Pink Milk (Oracle Productions and White Elephant)
Simpatico (A Red Orchid Theatre)
—Zach Freeman Read the rest of this entry »