Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Sex on the Brain: Playwright David Ives Riffs on Goodman’s “Venus in Fur”

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Amanda Drinkall in "Venus in Fur"/Photo: Liz Lauren

Amanda Drinkall in “Venus in Fur”/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Raymond Rehayem

“I like to leave a play behind,” says playwright David Ives. “This play feels very old to me. It’s like four plays ago already.”

The play in question is Ives’ “Venus In Fur” and the show’s great success is the reason I bug him about it for the better part of an hour rather than leave it in his illustrious past. The comedy isn’t just currently in production at the Goodman Theatre; it’s being staged all over the place. “Most produced play in the country this season; not bad.” notes Ives. “I planted that rumor myself. I’m only kidding.” I kid that Noam Chomsky once planted a similar rumor about his own ubiquity. This garners the first of several laughs from the affable former Chicagoan. “I’m happy to be in the same category as Noam.”

The play explores the relationship between Thomas, the writer/director of a stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth-century similarly titled erotic novella, and Vanda, the surprising actress who captures Thomas’ imagination in his search for the ideal lead. This reliance on derivation is in keeping with what Ives calls his “translaptations”—Ives’ own translations which he morphs into original adaptations. He has a practical explanation for his fondness for this technique. “I’m very bad at plot. It’s very nice to take someone else’s thing, and it could be an 1870 German erotic novel, and to have a story that you can use to your own purposes. There’s not much plot in theater. Usually it’s an investigation of some situation. And I hate making those plot decisions. The nice thing about ‘Venus in Fur’ is you get two people in a room and you don’t have to worry too much about plot. They are grinding away at each other in this kind of self interrogation so I just let them go.” 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 »

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 »

Improvised Advice: Switch Committee Recommends Jumping Off a Cliff

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switchcommitteeBy, Joshua C. Robinson

Switch Committee—David Schwartzbaum, Ryan Nallen, Alan Linic, Dave Karasik and Collin Dahlgren, best friends and iO Chicago graduates—perform their own version of the venerated improv form, the living room, by starting with an honest conversation that organically evolves into a scene, leading audience members to call them a Cook County Social Club. Switch Committee recently secured a Thursday night show at iO with an open run, and have been performing with their friends Lethal Action Force Saturdays at midnight. After they opened for L.A.F., Newcity caught up with the boys of Switch Committee for a late-night interview.

Watching you guys it’s evident that you have incredible group mind, could you speak to that?

Ryan: I think it’s because we’re all friends, we’re all best friends. We’re around each other all the time.

Dave Karasik: A lot of what you see on stage is exactly us, just hanging out. It feels like it’s just a fun conversation in a living room, just messing around.

Collin: We’ve had times where there are five-person piles, and there’s no show, it’s just us having fun. Read the rest of this entry »

Full Nelson: The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon

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Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

By Brian Hieggelke

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Pre-Production Notes
When he gets the email from A Red Orchid Theatre’s publicist that Michael Shannon is available to do a cover story, the reporter has to move fast. Shannon’s back in Chicago for the theater company’s twentieth-anniversary production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” and it starts July 4. The reporter has limited familiarity with his work, having somehow managed to never see him live in spite of his long career on local stages, knowing him only from his Academy Award-nominated role as the troubled John Givings, Jr. in “Revolutionary Road” and his recurring role in “Boardwalk Empire” as the creepy G-Man Nelson Van Alden. It’s gonna require a crash course.

To get his head around the subject, the reporter makes a list of adjectives that come to mind when he thinks of Michael Shannon: creepy, brooding, tall, gangly, face of a fallen Puritan, mysterious, Christopher Walken, disturbed, unhinged, dangerous. The reporter cautiously commits to the story.

And there’s this: “Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter” on the website Funny or Die has been watched 3,805,601 times. Add sense of humor to the list.


The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene One: “The Power of Celebrity”
Thanks to his starring role as Superman’s foe, General Zod, in this summer’s superhero blockbuster, “Man of Steel,” Shannon now has action figures in his likeness. “When I was doing press for the movie, in every interview,” Shannon says, “someone would ask me, inevitably, ‘Are you prepared for it to all change, for your life to be completely different now?’ And I would kind of get a quizzical look on my face and say, ‘I suppose. I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to,’ but you know, you have enough people ask you that question and you think, maybe it really will, maybe it will be like Beatlemania or something. But it’s not.” Read the rest of this entry »

Poor Jud Is Alive and Well and Doing Parkour: David Adam Moore Stars In Lyric Opera’s “Oklahoma!”

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Photo: Magda Krance

Photo: Magda Krance

By Johnny Oleksinski

David Adam Moore is an anomaly in the cast of Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” A baritone who performs regularly with companies around the world, Moore is the only traditional opera singer of the pack, which quite impressively includes Broadway notables Ashley Brown (“Mary Poppins” and Lyric’s “Show Boat”) and John Cudia (“The Phantom of The Opera”), and is directed by Chicago and New York’s shared son, Gary Griffin.

Moore has come to “Oklahoma!” direct from Lyric’s recent, electrifying production of André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” in which he played Stanley Kowalski during the student performance—a most memorable experience at a company he’s become incredibly fond of. You might expect a guy who regularly inhabits fearsome foes like Stanley and Jud to come across more intimidating than, say, a Curly or a Mitch, but Moore is as pleasant and easygoing as can be. He’s honored to be a part of this production, the first in a five-year series of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows at Lyric, and he doesn’t mind in the least being the only person onstage with an opera background. Read the rest of this entry »

Untitled Article: Young Jean Lee’s Latest Show Plays the MCA

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Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee/Photo: Blaine Davis

By Zach Freeman

As a twenty-six-year old graduate student studying Shakespeare at Berkeley and working on her dissertation, a frustrated Young Jean Lee, fed up with academia, went to a therapist for help. The therapist started by posing a question to Lee that she was told to answer off the top of her head: “What do you want to do with your life?” Lee was so shocked by her own response (“I want to be a playwright.”) that she asked the therapist for a do-over. Recounting the moment later, Lee jokes that, “If you’re studying Shakespeare and you say that you want to be a playwright and you have no experience playwriting, it’s like being a veterinarian and saying that you want to be a dog.”

Still, over the last decade, the Korean-American Lee has managed to make more than a name for herself in the world of experimental theater, she’s won Obies and created an oeuvre of provocative, high-profile pieces that defy easy categorization. Among others, there’s “The Shipment,” a “Black identity politics show” (her words), “Church,” a surprisingly earnest exploration of Christianity and “We’re Gonna Die,” a show about that one thing that every single living human has in common (hint: see title). Read the rest of this entry »

To Sleep Perchance to Dream: The immersive world of Dream Theatre Company’s “Amleth”

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Anna Menekseoglu as Ameleth

Anna Menekseoglu as Amleth

By Zach Freeman

“We’re out on the fringe,” says Jeremy Menekseoglu, artistic director of Dream Theatre Company, sipping a beer in the brightly lit underground area of Sakura Karaoke Lounge in Chinatown. “We’re constantly experimenting and just trying to push this new style. And I sometimes think that we don’t belong further north. We don’t belong in the mix of that. We couldn’t do a show at Theater Wit or 773 or something like that because we couldn’t control the lobby. We couldn’t control everything.” Menekseoglu’s wife Anna, who serves as managing director of Dream Theatre, agrees. “I like that we’re in East Pilsen with the art stuff. It feels like a place where we’ve been accepted for what we are.”

After just over a decade in Chicago, Dream Theatre Company and the prolific Menekseoglu (who, by his own count, has penned forty-something full-length plays) have come to be known for dark, atmospheric shows, staged mostly in the company’s storefront location. Whether it’s a deeply frightening original horror play or an unexpectedly grim adaptation of “Peter Pan” or “Winnie-the-Pooh,” there’s a certain immersive experience that is intrinsically tied to any Dream Theatre show (all of which are original works and almost all penned by Menekseoglu). Read the rest of this entry »