Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Life After Death: Polarity Ensemble Theatre Gives Author New Life in “The Afterlife Trilogy”

Profiles, Theater, World Premiere 1 Comment »
(l to r) Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

By Mary Kroeck

The arts community lost a staggering number of incredible talents in 2014. Arguably, no death caused the world so much shock as the suicide of Robin Williams. He and his works were beloved by so many that few could reason why or how he could no longer continue to live. Yet, in his death, he shined a staggeringly bright light on a topic that has far too long been in the dark: mental illness.

Long before news of Williams’ passing broke, Richard Engling and Polarity Ensemble Theatre were preparing to take on the enormous task of honoring one of Engling’s dear friends who also struggled with mental illness. Among a slew of other titles she was a passionate writer and an inspiring teacher, always challenging herself to set goals and meet or exceed them. Her name was Fern Chertkow and she and her story are getting a new life in “The Afterlife Trilogy,” which consists of two novels—“Visions of Anna” by Engling and one of Chertkow’s posthumously published works, “She Plays in Darkness”—and a play “Anna in the Afterlife,” also written by Engling. Read the rest of this entry »

Critic’s Postcard: Fairies and Snakes at Moulin Rouge

-News etc., Dance, Dance Reviews, Musicals, Performance, Performance Reviews, Profiles, Recommended Dance Shows, Recommended Performance No Comments »
Photo: S. Bertrand

Photo: S. Bertrand

By Zach Freeman

There are very few theatrical venues in the world that can boast anything like the history, cachet and all-around tourist-centric sexiness of Moulin Rouge, now celebrating its 125th (!) anniversary. With that in mind my wife and I made our way to the iconic red windmill at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmarte district a few weeks ago, expanding our trip to Paris to include the latest offering from “the most famous cabaret in the world.”

Entitled simply “Féerie” (Fairy), it turns out that this production—which has been running since the end of 1999—is every bit as flashy, ephemeral, evocative and simple as the name implies. For clarity’s sake I should add that by “simple” I just mean “nearly plotless”—with 1,000 costumes, eighty dancers, six horses and five pythons (yes, you read those last two correctly)—this show is anything but simple in the technical sense. But more on that in a bit.

Entering the historical eighteenth arrondissement theater through a throng of camera-toting tourists and fellow attendees is a theatrical experience in itself. The bright red carpet and brighter lights successfully immerse you as you check in and are guided to your table. (With 900 seats, it’s no surprise that they don’t trust you to find your way alone.) The space is set up like a massive, two-story restaurant, allowing for customers booking 7pm tickets to eat dinner before the 9pm show. Since we opted for the 9pm show, we arrived at our table post-dinner and were promptly greeted with glasses of champagne. Read the rest of this entry »

Twentieth-Century Sage: The Goodman Theatre Celebrates the Work of August Wilson

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 (L to R) Director Chuck Smith and Anthony Irons (Wolf) in rehearsal for Two Trains Running/Photo: Liz Lauren

Director Chuck Smith and Anthony Irons (Wolf) in rehearsal for Two Trains Running/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Mary Kroeck

In 2007, the Goodman Theatre gave August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” its Chicago debut. With that, the theater did something historic. It became the first theater in the country to have produced all ten works in Wilson’s “20th Century Cycle,” a series of ten plays, each one chronicling the lives of African Americans and set in a different decade of the 1900s. Now, nearly ten years after Wilson’s death, the Goodman is at the helm of a citywide celebration of Wilson’s legacy.

“August Wilson, in my humble opinion, is probably the most important playwright of our time,” says Chuck Smith, a Goodman resident director and curator of the Wilson retrospective. “[The 20th Century Cycle] is something that can be used as a beacon of what African-American life was like in the twentieth century for ages to come. I think it’s going to be a while before any other kind of body of work comes along that depicts a segment of our community over a hundred years that really brings it to life. What he’s done is historic.”

At the center of the Goodman’s August Wilson Celebration is his Tony-nominated play, “Two Trains Running,” which is also being directed by Smith. Not only is the play one of Smith’s personal favorites, but it’s one he believes audiences today will greatly connect with, though it is set in 1969. Read the rest of this entry »

An Invitation to Drama and Drinks: Sixty Years Ago, Chicago’s Compass Reinvented Comedy

Comedy, Profiles 1 Comment »
 David Shepherd, Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, Circa 1955

David Shepherd, Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, circa 1955

By Hugh Iglarsh

Two great experiments mark the mid-century history of the University of Chicago. The one everybody knows about was the first sustained nuclear reaction, which occurred in a crude little ziggurat of graphite and uranium under Stagg Field and produced, among other things, the apocalyptic paranoia of the Cold War. The second, which occurred sixty years ago this July in a tavern (long since razed) on East 55th Street, was David Shepherd’s and Paul Sills’ Compass, the first modern improvisational theater. This path-breaking cabaret act was, among other things, an attack on the Cold War cultural atmosphere, attempting to break through the paralyzing conformity via a new-old art form that was spontaneous, playful, self-reflexive, participatory … and very, very funny, to boot.

Pregnant with its own contradictions, the Chicago Compass experienced only middling commercial success and lasted but eighteen months, despite developing and launching an array of talent that included Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Shelley Berman, Severn Darden and Barbara Harris. It is now best known as the precursor of Second City, which offers a commercialized brand of the original Compass vision.

But what Second City popularized, the Compass actually invented. And now the story of that period of intense creative ferment is told in Mark Siska’s recently released documentary, “Compass Cabaret 55.” Created in the Compass spirit of low budgets and DIY ingenuity, Siska’s film is a fascinating backward look at what might almost be described as an alternative cultural history, one focused not on stars, spectacles and marketing, but rather intellect, community and imagination.  Read the rest of this entry »

Lend Us a Tenor: Brandon Jovanovich Books an Unusual “Passage”

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Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Kristen Hoebermann

Brandon Jovanovich has played heroic tenor roles here and around the world but this month is revealing two other sides of himself: playing the role of Walter, a German diplomat and husband of a former Auschwitz guard in “The Passenger,” the rediscovered Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at Lyric Opera, and singing diverse material of his own choosing on Harris Theater’s final “Beyond the Aria” recital of the season with soprano Amber Wagner and Ryan Center baritone Will Liverman on March 10.

“It’s a heck of a piece,” says Jovanovich of “The Passenger” in his Lyric dressing room, with scores for oratorios he is also working on visible on the piano. “There is a lot of jazz in it, some swing, there’s some funk happening there. There is some dissonance but it is also transparent in a lot of spots. It’s important to let the music speak for itself and not work against it. Read the rest of this entry »

Near The Center: Indiana Theater Wants Chicago to Know They’re Worth the Trip

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Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre/Photo: Bridget Earnshaw

Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre/Photo: Bridget Earnshaw

By Raymond Rehayem

“It’s really close, I mean it’s about thirty minutes. Some people think it’s Muncie and that’s way far away compared to Munster which is just right next door.”

Artistic Director William Pullinsi is addressing the challenges of convincing Chicagoans to cross the state line for a show. I confess I myself made this geographical error, Googling “Muncie, IN” before looking up his Theatre At The Center. On the verge of its twenty-fifth season, the Northwest Indiana venue has in Pullinsi a seasoned professional well-accomplished in luring unlikely theatergoers. Now in his tenth year with the Munster nonprofit, Pullinsi first gained recognition for introducing and popularizing the dinner theater format at the Candlelight Playhouse. “We thought people would like that—a full evening, dinner and a show—though we were concentrating on the show.” As a student in Washington, DC, Pullinsi set out to find a theater space. “I started to look at any place I could think of. And I found a beautiful place that had a 500-seat room available, one of these buildings that mostly catered dinners and parties for congressional Washington. So I talked these guys into doing the drinks and dinners and they would make their profit on that, and I would sell the tickets for the shows and make the profit on that.” After two seasons in DC, in 1961 Pullinsi opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, Illinois. For nearly forty years the Candlelight drew Chicagoans just beyond the city limits, right across Harlem Avenue. Read the rest of this entry »

Something Old, Something New: Terry James Reflects on Marriott’s Forty-Year Success Story

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Photo: Mark Campbell

Gene Weygandt and Joe Leonardo/Photo: Mark Campbell

By Aaron Hunt

The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is kicking off its fortieth anniversary season and I had the chance to speak with executive producer Terry James. “I came here as an actor in 1981. It was just a theater and a resort in the middle of all these beautiful fields.” Given his thirty-year stint at Marriott, James is perhaps the best positioned to talk about the magic formula that continues to keep Marriott—one of the few remaining in-the round, arena-style houses in the country—Greater Chicago’s longest-running, and most-subscribed musical theater, with 507 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations and 93 wins to its name.

“I think part of the reason we’ve been successful is because of the mix of programming that was developed over the years,” James told me. “We’re doing a classic, a seldom-done show, a new take on a show, a new work; we don’t do the same type of show all the time.” Read the rest of this entry »

From Beau Sides Now: Rhino’s O’Reilly Looks at the Good and Bad of Life on Chicago’s Fringe

Festivals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »

FSCN0264 bw

By Raymond Rehayem

“Go Fuck Yourself” is surely the most provocatively titled of the five Beau O’Reilly one-acts featured in the 26th Annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. O’Reilly got a surprising reaction when he brought the idea to his theater company. “I expected everybody to go, ‘God, this is terrible! You can’t do this, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot’,” explains O’Reilly. “That’s not what happened: the majority of people who read the play thought, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written.’”

In the play, the co-founder of Curious Theatre Branch portrays a mean old actor/writer whose work grows increasingly short until “finally he’s doing this piece called ‘Go Fuck Yourself’ where that’s the only line in the play. It’s extremely satirical about making theater in the Chicago fringe. It’s mean, and it’s nasty, and it’s silly, and it’s funny. It’s mean-funny. Over the past five or six years, I’m consciously writing to what’s funny about the uncomfortable situation. For a long time, I was just writing the uncomfortable situation. And then I realized I liked it better when it was funny.”

Having helped helm Chicago’s longest running fringe festival all these years, O’Reilly is entitled to assail the scene. Asked to also define it, he first points to one frequent Rhino contributor’s aversion to the term. Read the rest of this entry »

New Cabaret in Old Uptown: Kiss Kiss Crew Launches Theater With NYE Hullabaloo

New Year's Eve, Performance, Profiles, Theater No Comments »

Artist’s rendering of the Uptown Underground Grand Promenade

By Raymond Rehayem

I am even less qualified to build a stage, rig lighting, or put up drywall than I am to put on some pasties and do burlesque. Actually I might look strangely alluring in the aforementioned nipple patches installing one of the Uptown Underground’s lovely chandeliers, but my point is when I recently toured the venue I couldn’t visualize how wonderful it will look for its nearly sold-out New Year’s Eve opening night. It was still under construction. Luckily Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Chris O. Biddle and Jenn A. Kincaid, the pair behind this new 7,000-square-foot theater, were there to fill in the gaps in my imagination.

In the basement of architect Walter W. Ahlschlager’s 1926 Uptown Broadway Building, the cabaret arts mecca that the Kiss Kiss founders envision will occupy a space which—per neighborhood lore—once housed a speakeasy. The building’s ornate exterior immediately evokes the era.

While scouting locations, Biddle couldn’t believe the fortuitous availability of this historic edifice. “I knew the address,” he explains, “and I thought ‘surely it isn’t that big caramel wedding cake.’ And it is. It’s this beautiful baroque style.”

Like many cakes, the lowest level is the widest. There are columns on either side of what Biddle describes as the “grand promenade,” the western side actually extending under Broadway’s sidewalk. Passage between these columns will take you beyond the elevated main stage, past a wall of retro amusements such as vertical pinball machines, art deco claw machines, and a fortune-telling machine, to a more intimate secondary performance space. With the main stage seating 150, the secondary stage seating fifty to sixty, and multiple dressing rooms to facilitate the overlapping of performers, the entertainment need never stall. In what’s being dubbed the Moon Room of the Starlight Lounge, a gal will sip martinis perched on a six-foot-high crescent moon acquired from a Twin Cities production of “Mame.” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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