Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

The Social Media Yada Yada

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Who has time to read websites anymore? All the cool kids in town are too busy reading print magazines (or are we mistaken here?). Luckily you can find us on the same social platforms that every other blog, publication, and laundromat in town are on – so be sure to check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

If you’re like us and don’t want to succumb to your worst Candy Crush impulses every morning commute, you can stay on top of Newcity’s newest stories by liking our Facebook page and following our Twitter feed.

Also, the polls are now open for our legendary Best of Chicago issue – have you voted? Today’s the day.

Beyond the Limits of Language: Happy Days at Theatre Y

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Melissa Lorraine

Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

By Hugh Iglarsh

If any one play embodies Theater of the Absurd, it’s Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which protagonist Winnie chatters away through Act I while buried above her waist in, well, waste. In Act II she is up to her neck in it. No explanation is proffered. Her situation is what it is, somewhere between open-ended visual metaphor and vaudeville schtick. It is a provocation to the audience and a kind of torture for the exposed and immobile performer. But if we’re all lucky, out of this chaos of word and image something begins to happen between viewer and actor that has little to do with the conventions of story or character, or even theme. It’s something both simpler and deeper: a kind of communion.

“A Beckett play is really a score, it’s music,” says poet-playwright-scholar András Visky, who has come from Romania to direct Theatre Y’s soon-to-open production of this rarely revived 1961 classic. “Nobody goes to a Bach concert and asks, ‘What does it mean?’ Beckett inherited after World War II the fully meaningless language of the Western tradition—a culture that, as he himself saw, doesn’t protect you from murder. So he felt he had to go back to a zero point, beyond the limits of language.” Read the rest of this entry »

Not Getting Lost: Stage 773 Finds its Place in Chicago’s Theater Training Center Explosion

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Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

By Sean Kelley

In the world of American acting, fame and fortune are to be found on the coasts in Los Angeles and New York. However, many of America’s most successful actors and comedians come to Chicago to make their bones before making a go at the Big Apple or Hollywood. Chicago’s theater scene is full of young performers looking to learn their trade and beef up their resumes. It should come as no surprise then that Chicago is also home to some of America’s foremost training centers for acting and comedy. The School at Steppenwolf regularly turns out actors who may be the next Joan Allen or John Malkovich. Second City and iO Chicago churn out Tina Feys and Stephen Colberts like clockwork. Sure, find fame and glory on the coasts, but if you want to become a great performer, come to Chicago first.

Chicago has spent decades fomenting its place as a theatrical hub, but in recent years things seem to have really taken off. Chicago’s performance training centers are experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Vaunted Chicago institutions are expanding dramatically (as theaters are apt to do). The Annoyance Theatre recently moved into a brand new space overlooking Clark Street. Second City is expanding in Pipers Alley and, of course, Charna Halpern’s iO Chicago has moved into a gorgeous new space on Kingsbury Street. Annoyance, iO and Second City expanded to accommodate the ever-growing multitudes of eager young performers looking to take their stages and classrooms. Each of these theaters has been around the block and earned the reputation that brings actors from the world over to their doors. But it is not just the old warhorses that have benefited from the legions looking to learn. In addition to these established institutions, there are several new kids on the block looking to help guide the next generation of performers. One of them is Stage 773. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Whale Trail with Joe Forbrich: Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Whaleship Essex”

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Hugh Iglarsh

Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.

The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved. Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming Pools and Movie Stars: Gregg Opelka Makes “The Beverly Hillbillies” Sing

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Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart/

Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart

By Aaron Hunt

“I’d really fallen in love with Cole Porter, and his music, and just became obsessed with hearing all these obscure recordings. I saw a musical revue which was called ‘The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter.’ And I remember seeing that, and after I came out of that I wanted to write a musical. That was the light-switch moment for me. This was what I wanted to do.”

Born on the South Side, Gregg Opelka’s family emigrated to Northern Glenview. The third of nine children, all of whom were given piano lessons (Gregg’s seemed to stick), he attended Loyola Academy. His required studies of Greek and Latin would stand him in good stead in his later career.  “I was a British poetry freak. Other kids were outside playing ball, and I was reading Keats and Shelley. I attended Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, then got a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Classics. Preparing to be a crusty old college professor, stuck in academia. But I always played the piano as I kid and I was drawn. I missed it. I was getting more and more seduced by the musical theater.” Opelka started sneaking off to the practice rooms in the student union, to keep up his Haydn and Mozart. Opting out after earning his MA, Opelka headed for Boston, where he focused seriously on his pianist chops, before returning to his native Chicago in the mid-1980s.   Read the rest of this entry »

Big Laughs: The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival Returns with Seventy Shows

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Liz MacArthur and Jill Valentine

Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine

Comedy has come a long way. In the old days, many male comedians believed with all of their hearts that women just weren’t funny. The comedy world was once filled with barriers for female comedians. Times have changed and while many of those barriers still exist, many women have taken their rightful place in every echelon of the comedic world. To celebrate this welcome change, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival (CWFF) was created.

Festival founders Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur—both veterans of the Chicago comedy community who worked on the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, another of Chicago’s big comedy extravaganzas—saw an opportunity to create a festival that focused on women. By applying their experience and expertise, they created the CWFF in 2012.

Now for the third year in a row, the CWFF takes to the stage to celebrate women in comedy. Unlike many other comedy festivals that focus on a specific genre of comedy such as sketch or improv, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival features every type of comedy, from stand-up to burlesque to musical comedy; if it’s funny, it has a place at CWFF. Read the rest of this entry »

Every Theater Deserves a House: The Story of a Backyard Theater

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Photo: Ryan Bourque

Photo: Ryan Bourque

By Sean Kelley

In a city with such an established and vibrant theater scene, there are many institutions that could easily make the case that the beating heart of Chicago theater lies within their walls. Is Chicago theater’s heart on the stage of Steppenwolf, one of the nation’s most successful theater companies, the home stage of Malkovich, Allen, Sinise and all the rest? Is it sitting in the balconies of the theater district in the Loop watching “Book of Mormon” or “Wicked” as they make their way through town before moving westward on their trek from Broadway to the Pacific Ocean? Is it in one of our venerated improv comedy theaters like Second City or iO Chicago taking a suggestion before pulling a comedic play out of the ether? Or is it in one of Chicago’s many small storefront theaters, striving to grow and put something truly new into the world?

All of these places are part of the body of Chicago theater. They are her hands and bones and eyes and teeth. The heart though? The heart of Chicago theater? That’s the 3031 stage in John Wilson’s backyard. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Matters: Chicago Connections Within Lyric Opera’s “The Sound of Music”

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Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Aaron Hunt

In her autobiography, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Maria von Trapp wrote of her confusion when the Mother Abbess of Nonnberg Abbey encouraged her to forsake her aspirations to the sisterhood in favor of answering God’s will: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” It was with this creation of a family that the wheels were set in motion for the careers of The Trapp Family Singers, the 1959 musical, “The Sound of Music” (the final collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II), and the 1965 film starring a practically perfect Julie Andrews. The aerial footage of Andrews spinning around on the top of the Tyrolean Alps outside Salzburg, palms opened upward in both supplication and celebration, and then that brilliant Rodgers score swirling and rising until hearts are so full that there isn’t another choice except voice, except song, has leapt into America’s collective conscious for the past half century.

Lyric Opera of Chicago hopes to send that gift twirling toward the next generation with their new production. Last year Lyric launched their American Musical Theater Initiative with “Oklahoma”; critics mostly raved, houses were sold out, extra performances were added. “The Sound of Music” is primed to repeat this success, given that the casting list includes a movie star, a television star, a Broadway diva and some Chicago-based leading ladies of the Joseph Jefferson Award-winning category. And not so surprisingly, nearly all of the stars of the production have one or more Chicago connections.

If there is a headliner in this romp, it would be Billy Zane as the zipped-up, guitar-strumming Captain von Trapp. Even though a successful film career has taken him all over the world, Zane grew up in Chicago. “There’s no more indelible horizon than Lake Michigan. I grew up basically on Ardmore and Sheridan overlooking that lake from the fourth floor, right off aptly named Hollywood Beach,” Zane revealed to a number of Chicago-area reporters during a telephone interview. Zane remembered fondly his time at Evanston’s Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where he acquired “the foundation of an appreciation of the American songbook.” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »