Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Cirque Dreams Holidaze/Cirque Dreams

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Ornaments on Tree
“Once upon a dream…” begins the brief narrative introduction for this trippy holiday dazzler, before launching into more than two hours (including a twenty-minute intermission) of singing, stunt-work and spectacle. And it certainly feels like a dream, offering escapist entertainment with no real through-line—aside from the very clear, often intentionally over-the-top, focus on Christmas and cold weather. Scenes shift at a moment’s notice: a twirling pair of skaters giving way to jump-roping reindeer (Elizabeth Butterfield, Brandon Harrison, Anthony Lee, Gary Schwartz) or a vaguely elfin guy (Aleksandr Rebkovets) balancing an ever-growing stack of glasses and candles on his forehead.

The set is an almost overbearing Alice in Winterland fantasy world, consisting of monstrous inflatables, a giant climbable Christmas tree and innumerable moving parts that get pushed, thrown, pulled, ridden and slid onto the stage throughout. The impressive and (mostly) endearing cast of thirty pop in and out of the action sporting various crazy costumes and even crazier talents (along with constant crazed grins—the holidays are beyond exciting, after all). “This seems like a show put together by a communist leader to lull us into submission,” a nearby patron whispered about thirty minutes in. This is not untrue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Holiday Bizarre/Foiled Again

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Foiled Again promo pic full size


It was the trio kazoo-version of “Carol of the Bells” that completely did me in. No one can make a pretty face with their lips wrapped around a kazoo. I couldn’t even applaud, because I was doubled over with laughter.

Vocal trio Foiled Again (Allison Bazarko, Rob Lindley and Anne Sheridan Smith) have crafted their annual holiday show into an homage to the television Christmas specials that aired from the fifties into the seventies. A zanier version of the Lennon Sisters-minus-one, they keep the evening light and mostly family-friendly, with the sort of gentle musical stylings, comic sketches and variety songs that kept baby boomers and their children checking the dates and times of their favorite shows twice to make sure they didn’t miss these events, pre-TiVo. Special instrumental soloists are highlighted, and every “sister” has a vocal solo, with repeated “step-outs” within numbers, one singer carrying the song with the other two crooning perfect oohs and aahs in the background. Beginning with a fizzy version of Irving Berlin’s “Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” the trio launches “Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling” when someone helps Bazarko find some bells to shake.

Continuing to chat with the audience and astonish with their arrangements, the trio singingly trips their way through tunes as varied as Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” and medleys of more classical carols such as “Love Came Down” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Holiday Spectacular/Kiss Kiss Cabaret

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Kiss Kiss Cabaret1


Let’s begin by admitting that burlesque-type entertainment is not to everyone’s taste. Then let’s revisit the sage advice about trying everything twice to see if you like it, since you might have gotten it wrong the first time. Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s “Holiday Spectacular” revives the spirit of the genre with revelations both dramaturgical and corporeal. A chorus of stripping lovelies perform routines both time-honored and unexpected, a naughty-but-nice pas de deux-couple deliver the shivers that thrill, and a gentleman-juggler proves that vaudeville is still with us. All are lovingly and leer-fully corralled by a clown MC, whipping-and-warming up the audience. Here we have comedy, vaudeville, lots o’ burlesque, and there’s a little magic thrown in for good measure; all the ingredients for a sexy, fun-filled romp. Burlesque has roots going back to the 1840s, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. But enough of the academics. Bring on the girls!

The lady (and I use that term with cheerful looseness) MC Tamale sports long red hair and a whitened face adorned with two red hearts. The night I attended, she knew the names of many of the guests (especially those celebrating birthdays), and showcased a gift for being able to turn a heckle into a funny exchange, and then keep it going as a subplot throughout the show. Tamale has clear talents and makes descriptions of her youth fun, but learning the cardinal Rule of Three—you must push a bit, a story, or a catch-phrase to the third delivery to get the full laugh, and then never mention it again—will make her an unstoppable comic force. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Goldfish Project: Procreation/The New Colony

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Comedian Shawn Bowers has an intriguing, slightly stomach-churning hobby: he poses as a young, attractive woman (Margie) on dating sites, baiting and then reeling men in for revealing conversation. Shawn has spent years pursuing this game, and periodically presents his research in the form of a new installment in his series. The newest offering contains the qualifier “Procreation.” Bowers explained the reason for this branding in a short section of the extended skit (about seventy minutes without intermission) but, while slimed with the same faintly stinky charm that permeates the entire piece, he lost me entirely on this point. I was suspicious as to why this comedy sketch-cum-cultural anthropological exercise needs not just one “curator,” (Bowers) but two, with Sarah Gitenstein adding her curation-ness. But then I have no idea of just how extensive the content of Bowers’ research might be, or what one does to be qualified to maintain and interpret the scientific findings at hand.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Spring Spectacle: Bellboys, Bears, and Baggage/Redmoon

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Photo: Al Zayed

Photo: Al Zayed


Just an upward glance and a bird on a wing away from Redmoon’s vast Pilsen warehouse space there’s a building emblazoned with the graffiti “Memories Are Sacred.” While Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” is the clear springboard for Redmoon’s Spring Spectacle, this spray-painted sentiment could have just as likely inspired the fetishistic visual cataloging of life’s stages that serves as this show’s intricate backdrop.

Upon entering “Bellboys, Bears, and Baggage,” theatergoers are faced with three doors and one of many literary allusions written on the walls or otherwise eminent throughout the surroundings. It’s Shakespeare’s oft-repeated line depicting us all as merely players upon the world’s stage. From this first of many decisions which you, player, make, you immediately recognize your choice’s irrelevance. It’s the same world/stage beyond all three doors, with myriad scenes and rooms for you to focus or pass on. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: f(H2T): From Here to There/NON:op

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Where are you now? Where are you going? What lies between those spaces? “From Here to There” invites us into a literal and metaphoric journey into these questions. The collaborative project, installed in Bridgeport Art Center, is the creation of more than twenty artists as part of Chicago-based arts collective, NON:op.

Canopies, sculptures and other structural installations guide audience members or rather, participants, on a literal path through the warehouse space where they encounter music, dance, video, and the visual arts among other artistic forms. Participants may choose which elements to focus on, the position of their viewing and how long they stay in a space. Like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of an elephant, each persona will walk away with a different experience. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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: 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 »