Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Bible Bingo/Royal George Theatre

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Good Bible Bingo photoVicki Quade, creator of  “Put the Nuns in Charge” and co-writer of “Late Nite Catechism,” has put together an interactive show filled with Catholic humor. Our Lady of Good Fortune is in need of money. So, Mrs. Mary Margaret O’Brien (Vicki Quade) decides to host a good old-fashioned bingo fundraiser.

As with “Late Nite Catechism” the host of “Bible Bingo” rotates among several actresses. The show is scripted, but is lightly improvised based on audience participation.  Quade had little trouble entertaining the largely Catholic audience the night I attended. She is a truly gifted improviser. Even her conversations with a few rather tipsy audience members were handled with the utmost professionalism and cunning humor, commenting that they were “filled with spirit, but not the Holy Spirit.” Her quick wit solidifies why “Late Nite Catechism” has been running for more than twenty years. 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 »

Review: The Oregon Tail Burlesque: You Have Died of Sexy/Gorilla Tango Burlesque

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Photo: Braden Nesin

Photo: Braden Nesin

One of the earliest educational video games—“The Oregon Trail”—crosses paths with one of the earliest forms of entertainment—nearly naked ladies shaking it—in Gorilla Tango Burlesque’s latest collision of geek culture and burlesque. An enjoyable show and possibly a wish fulfilled for gaming nostalgists, “The Oregon Tail Burlesque: You Have Died of Sexy” may be about the most unlikely such mash-up you’re going to see—and it has a lot of potential. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Magical Exploding Boy and the Invisible Circus/The Actors Gymnasium

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Simone Lazar/Photo: Cole

Simone Lazar/Photo: Cole Simon


The circus has come to Evanston. Actually, it never left; The Actors Gymnasium has been teaching the circus arts in Evanston for almost twenty years.  Their latest endeavor, “The Magical Exploding Boy,” is more a showcase of the professional and emerging talents making up the Actors Gymnasium (the program credits five professional artists and four times as many students) than an actual play.

The very loose plot here centers on Dean Evans (a veteran clown who has performed his art extensively in Chicago and New York City) trying (and failing) to make it in the corporate world. Evans, performing mostly as a mime and without makeup, is very amusing in his drift downward. His everyman looks and surprisingly subtle facial expressions go a long way in emphasizing the absurd. Will Howard plays the strong man who, literally, lifts Evans up from time to time. The two of them play well off one another and coax many laughs out of little more than just being on stage together. Tying things together somewhat is the wise, hobo clown Lindsey Noel Whiting who, armed with a ukulele, sings quirky, original songs that drive the production forward. The story still does not always make sense, but to paraphrase one of the songs, the plot points don’t always have to add up. This is a circus act after all; it only has to entertain. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Option Up!/Stage 773

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Photo: Rob Smith

A casual setting and an enthusiastic pair of hosts don’t quite add up to what “Option Up!” is striving for, but it’s early going and there’s much promise in this new monthly event at Stage 773. Host Christopher Pazdernik and his comic foil, the versatile pianist Aaron Benham, present performers from current Chicago stage productions in a setting akin to a late-night talk show. Pazdernik riffs freely on theater happenings past and present and demonstrates a near-encyclopedic knowledge of musicals while Benham interjects with the occasional quip or anecdote. 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 »

Review: Trapped in a Room With a Zombie/Bucket List Productions and Room Escape Adventures

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Creepy hands behind doorSometimes the title of a show can give you some clear direction as to its content (“Death of a Salesman,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Conversations on a Homecoming”). Other times the title is intentionally opaque (“Blood on the Cat’s Neck,” “Pink Milk,” “Simpatico”). But sometimes, oh sometimes, the title of a show can literally tell you exactly what that show is and exactly what’s to be expected. Up until this weekend I thought “Old Jews Telling Jokes” was the best example of this last kind of show I had seen. But Bucket List Productions and Room Escape Adventures have done them one better with “Trapped in a Room With a Zombie.”

What happens in this show you ask? Come on, you don’t really ask that do you? Not with that title you don’t. But I’ll give you the rundown anyway. In this interactive production you (and up to eleven other people) find yourselves locked in the laboratory of a brilliant doctor whose latest experiment has gone horribly awry, resulting in her transformation into one of those undead things we’ve heard so much about over the last few years. And she’s hungry and searching for fresh meat. Luckily for you and your group, she’s chained to a wall and has a very limited reach. However, over the course of this sixty-minute adventure there’s a buzzer that sounds every five minutes, signaling that her chain will now extend an additional foot, giving her further reach into the room and giving you less free room to maneuver your way around. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Flea Market: An Evening With Marc Kelly Smith/Raven Theatre

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Photo by Mike Kadela

Marc Kelly Smith/Photo by Mike Kadela


Marc Kelly Smith is one of the most natural, purely comfortable actors on the stage. It’s a joy to see, and it comes across immediately, this intense ease that allows him to dip into his rich palate of emotional engagement and paint a canvas of real human strife—love, regret, sustained longing and anger. He capitalizes on this loudest of emotions in a way that is reminiscent of Timothy Edward Kane’s recent full-throttled portrayal of Hector in “An Iliad.” Smith is in touch with his own brand of divine rage, but in a way that also speaks to the southeast Chicago native in him, where a grandfather, or father perhaps, would lay one too many harsh hands down on the kid. An Archie Bunker (“All in the Family”) with a stick sort of scene. This all comes through in his ninety-minute show, “Flea Market.”

Marc Kelly Smith is a Chicago icon. He is the poetry slam founder who started an international movement. The artist Tony Fitzpatrick introduced him at the Cultural Center a couple of years ago saying, “He has changed the way poetry is understood.” At the Society of Midland Authors last April, Guggenheim chairman and Chicagoan Edward Hirsch leaned into Smith and said, “You’ve created something really beautiful.” Writer Stuart Dybek turned to his novelist son, Nick Dybek, when Smith was recently performing poetry and said, “He’s the best performer.” In one of the great essays written about Smith and the poetry slam, “The Second Throat,” award-winning poet Patricia Smith wrote, “Darting about the theater, his eyes meaningfully manic, Marc Kelly Smith did what he’s always done so masterfully—he dropped like fuel on a fire that, up until then, everyone thought had been contained.” Currently, he runs the longest-running show in Chicago at the Green Mill every Sunday. Because of this, his own art is often left behind. Which is remarkable, because he’s the most talented one in the bunch. Read the rest of this entry »

Deck the Sets: Chicago Stages Go Holiday Crazy

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The Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit

By Zach Freeman

As any denizen of the theater who’s been in this town for any amount of time knows, Chicago DOES theater. With more than 250 active theater companies and a constantly growing number of venues, if you can’t find a good show to attend on any given night, you’re just doing it wrong. And this holiday season Chicago is really throwing down the gauntlet of performance options with more than forty (yes, you read that right) holiday shows. And yes, almost all of them are Christmas-related. In fact, there are almost a dozen versions of “A Christmas Carol” alone.

But Chicago is a diverse city and our theater companies reflect that. We’re not talking about several dozen versions of the same old stuff, we’re talking about more than forty completely different takes on the holiday season. It’s a lot for any one person to take in, so we thought we’d help you determine which show (or shows) you should be seeing over the next month or so to get yourself into the appropriate holiday mood (whatever that means for you).

We can’t list them all, but here are twenty to get you started. Here we go… Read the rest of this entry »