Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Beyond Fable: The Evolution of Community Performance at the Pivot Arts Festival

Festivals, Musicals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »
Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

By Aaron Hunt

In May 2012, Julieanne Ehre and Katy Collins co-produced what they coined a “Fable Festival” in Edgewater. Cafes, empty storefronts and restaurants hosted such delectable, multi-discipline concoctions as puppet folklore, American mythology and ten different playwrights’ interpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But what came next is anything but a fiction, although animals, mythical creatures, natural forces endowed with human qualities, and life lessons are still a part of the magnificent tale that has become Pivot Arts.

“This is a pivot of partnerships. We’re really about being a pivot-point for the arts, and bringing communities together,” Ehre, now Pivot’s director, told me over coffee in an Uptown cafe. Ehre had served as artistic director of Greasy Joan & Co. for five years, and was the NEA/TCG New Generations “Future Leaders” Fellow at the Goodman Theatre, where she served as producer on Latino Festival, New Stages Series, and conceived of and produced the Goodman’s “Artists Talk” series. Collins, (currently a Pivot artistic associate), had been the artistic director of Vintage Theater Collective, and was no stranger to production herself. Between the two, the wealth of talent on Chicago’s North Side, and the buy-in of local businesses, “Fable Festival” not only entertained and facilitated conversations both within the Edgewater/Uptown community but also “over the fence” as well, when residences of adjacent neighborhoods wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. But when the festival was over, what next? In June of 2012, the conversation began. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Barriers: The Chicago Inclusion Project Makes its Debut

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Top row from left: Behzad Dabu, Todd Garcia, Emjoy Gavino, Barbara Robertson Bottom row from left: Yunuen Pardo, Anthony Fleming III, Delia Kropp, Michael Patrick Thornton Middle: Charin Alvarez, Bryan Bosque

Top row from left: Behzad Dabu, Todd Garcia, Emjoy Gavino, Barbara Robertson
Bottom row from left: Yunuen Pardo, Anthony Fleming III, Delia Kropp, Michael Patrick Thornton
Middle: Charin Alvarez, Bryan Bosque

By Mary Kroeck

Emjoy Gavino, Michael Patrick Thornton and Chay Yew are familiar names in the Chicago theater circuit. Gavino is a teaching artist with Barrel of Monkeys, ensemble member of Remy Bumppo and was recently in Court Theatre’s world premiere of “The Good Book.” Thornton had a recurring role on the television show “Private Practice” and is a Jeff Award-winning actor who recently appeared in Lookingglass’ production of “Title and Deed.” Yew is an Obie Award-winning director and the artistic director of Victory Gardens. Individually, these three have impressive resumes. However, one challenge they, and many others in and out of the theater profession, have struggled with, is how to create a more inclusive and diverse environment within the city of Chicago for artists to grow. So, along with other members of the theater community, Victory Gardens and the League of Chicago Theatres are joining together to launch The Chicago Inclusion Project.

“We have exceptional African-American theater companies and Latino companies and LGBTQ companies, but it’s rare for all these different, vibrant communities to have the chance to share the same stage or even be considered for the same project,” says Gavino, The Chicago Inclusion Project’s founder and producer. “That’s our aim. That’s why this initiative is necessary.” Read the rest of this entry »

Opera or Musical? The Eclectic Sound World of Ricky Ian Gordon

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Norfolk, Virginia - March 26, 2011: Ricky Ian Gordon, 55, the ubiquitous composer at Harrison's Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday, March 26, 2011 where he is preparing for his latest opera, "Rappahannock County". Its worldwide premier is on April 12 in Norfolk.

Ricky Ian Gordon

By Dennis Polkow

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has written instrumental music over the years, but “there’s no getting around it,” he admits, “I’m most excited by the voice. My mother was a singer, I was her accompanist and a lot of what making music is about to me is my relationship with my mother. Also, when I was eight years old, I became obsessed with opera. But then, I was also obsessed with Joni Mitchell and the Beatles: I was obsessed with words through music. I’m less inclined to go to a symphonic concert than I am to go to the opera. I’m a man of the theater.”

Gordon was writing musical theater pieces early on, “When I thought that musical theater was going in a particular direction. At one point when I was a kid, ‘The Consul’ was done on Broadway. ‘Porgy and Bess’ was done on Broadway—not the recent version that Audra McDonald did, but the actual opera was done on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim’s shows had full orchestras when they originally premiered and were very musically sophisticated. If you listen to Audra McDonald’s first CD, ‘Way Back to Paradise,’ I think it gives you a sense of where we as composers thought the musical theater was going. But that didn’t happen.” Read the rest of this entry »

Family Affairs: Sarah Ruhl Brings Her “Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical” Home to Piven Theatre Workshop

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Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl

By Hugh Iglarsh

The area premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical” at Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop is a big event in a small venue, and therein lies a tale.

The Wilmette-born Ruhl has been honored by everyone from the Pulitzer and Tony committees to the MacArthur Foundation, PEN and the NAACP. In plays like “In the Next Room,” “The Clean House,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Passion Play” and “Orlando,” Ruhl has established a reputation as an intellectually ambitious writer with a poet’s voice whose works are redolent of myth and fantasy, yet grounded in today’s social and psychic landscape.

She is, in short, a hot property, her works sought after by major theaters from Yale Rep to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. to our own Goodman. She also has a powerful, life-long connection to the Piven Theatre Workshop, having begun her dramatic training there in fourth grade. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Profiles, Theater, World Premiere 2 Comments »
(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”

-News etc., Opera, Profiles No Comments »

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 »

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