Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

I Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll All Christmas: Dee Snider’s Spirited Musical Tale

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Dee Snider

by Raymond Rehayem

Some folks wanna rock. Some folks wanna white Christmas. Dee Snider wants to spread rocking yuletide cheer.

“Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale” debuts this season here in Chicago, where we rock year ‘round and where last winter resembled Santa’s polar headquarters. Best known as the singer and leader of the eighties heavy-metal hit-makers Twisted Sister, Snider has built a diverse resumé, spanning music, radio, television, film and now, stage. Speaking to the amiable Snider, it’s clear he brings a great enthusiasm to all these disciplines, while never taking for granted his success in any field.

“When I went to write my autobiography, they didn’t want me to write it. They were like, ‘Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can write.’ I said let me do a few chapters, and they loved it, so they let me write my own book. I’m blessed to have all those talents.” Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond the Limits of Language: Happy Days at Theatre Y

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Melissa Lorraine

Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

By Hugh Iglarsh

If any one play embodies Theater of the Absurd, it’s Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which protagonist Winnie chatters away through Act I while buried above her waist in, well, waste. In Act II she is up to her neck in it. No explanation is proffered. Her situation is what it is, somewhere between open-ended visual metaphor and vaudeville schtick. It is a provocation to the audience and a kind of torture for the exposed and immobile performer. But if we’re all lucky, out of this chaos of word and image something begins to happen between viewer and actor that has little to do with the conventions of story or character, or even theme. It’s something both simpler and deeper: a kind of communion.

“A Beckett play is really a score, it’s music,” says poet-playwright-scholar András Visky, who has come from Romania to direct Theatre Y’s soon-to-open production of this rarely revived 1961 classic. “Nobody goes to a Bach concert and asks, ‘What does it mean?’ Beckett inherited after World War II the fully meaningless language of the Western tradition—a culture that, as he himself saw, doesn’t protect you from murder. So he felt he had to go back to a zero point, beyond the limits of language.” Read the rest of this entry »

Unfolding Their Own Myth: Definition Theatre Company Stakes Out Fresh Theatrical Space

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Kelson McAuliffe, Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, Jessica Dean Turner, Mercedes White, Aurora Adachi-Winter, Neel McNeill/Photo: Joe Mazza

Kelson McAuliffe, Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, Jessica Dean Turner, Mercedes White, Aurora Adachi-Winter, Neel McNeill/Photo: Joe Mazza

By Loy Webb

There is a contagious energy that fills the room upon meeting Definition Theatre Company (DTC). One look at their bright hopeful eyes, erect self-confident posture, and fiery passion for theater, and their ebullient spirits latch on to you. Gnawing at your inner soul, inspiring you to dream bigger and aim higher.

Most chalk this up to naive youthful enthusiasm, cautioning them to be more realistic in their endeavors and mindful of the traditional trajectory others before them have taken. However while these young people are big dreamers, they are not naive. They just understand the power of “unfolding their own myth,” as the poet Rumi states.

Founded by six University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign BFA alumni who are rising artists in their own right—Tyrone Phillips (artistic director), Julian Parker (executive director), Kelson McAuliffe (development director), Jessica Dean Turner (social media director), Aurora Adachi-Winter (casting director), Mercedes White (marketing director) and a later added seventh company member Neel McNeill (Managing Director)—the company was born out of their frustration with the lack of opportunities for multicultural artists in the American theater. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Whale Trail with Joe Forbrich: Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Whaleship Essex”

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Hugh Iglarsh

Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.

The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved. Read the rest of this entry »

Acting With and For Hope: Collaboraction and Park District Invite Chicagoans to a Different Kind of Crime Scene

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Crime Scene 2013 Parks Tour

By Raymond Rehayem

“We’re telling the real story… we see this stuff. We’re telling the grown-ups what’s really happening, the adults don’t really know. That’s because most of the violence that’s going on is with the youth.” So says Monique, a young performer explaining how she and the other nearly two dozen ethnically diverse local teen girls (and one white teen boy, see below) contribute to the upcoming Collaboraction/Chicago Park District theatrical event “Crime Scene Chicago: Let Hope Rise 2014.” The teens comprise the Crime Scene Youth Ensemble, key participants in the multifaceted “touring theatrical reaction to violent crime in Chicago” which unfolds over a month, starting at Collaboraction’s Wicker Park space and touring to a quartet of Park District venues over four subsequent weekends. Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming Pools and Movie Stars: Gregg Opelka Makes “The Beverly Hillbillies” Sing

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Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart/

Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart

By Aaron Hunt

“I’d really fallen in love with Cole Porter, and his music, and just became obsessed with hearing all these obscure recordings. I saw a musical revue which was called ‘The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter.’ And I remember seeing that, and after I came out of that I wanted to write a musical. That was the light-switch moment for me. This was what I wanted to do.”

Born on the South Side, Gregg Opelka’s family emigrated to Northern Glenview. The third of nine children, all of whom were given piano lessons (Gregg’s seemed to stick), he attended Loyola Academy. His required studies of Greek and Latin would stand him in good stead in his later career.  “I was a British poetry freak. Other kids were outside playing ball, and I was reading Keats and Shelley. I attended Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, then got a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Classics. Preparing to be a crusty old college professor, stuck in academia. But I always played the piano as I kid and I was drawn. I missed it. I was getting more and more seduced by the musical theater.” Opelka started sneaking off to the practice rooms in the student union, to keep up his Haydn and Mozart. Opting out after earning his MA, Opelka headed for Boston, where he focused seriously on his pianist chops, before returning to his native Chicago in the mid-1980s.   Read the rest of this entry »

Brigadoon It: Rachel Rockwell’s Goodman Debut Brings a Classic Out of the Fog

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Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for "Brigadoon"/Photo

Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for “Brigadoon”/Photo

By Dennis Polkow

Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell seems to be the lady with the golden touch, the one with an uncanny talent for taking old classic shows that you thought you knew and giving them an entirely new luster.

Recognition for Rockwell’s extraordinary body of work via a run of musical theater successes at suburban venues such as Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre and Paramount Theatre is the milestone of Rockwell making her downtown directing debut at Goodman Theatre.

“It feels really good,” says Rockwell on a lunch break from rehearsals for “Brigadoon” at Goodman, “and it’s not lost on me at all what a big deal this is. I never worked at the Goodman when I was an actor and I always wanted to. And here I am!” she says with a genuine enthusiasm tempered with a charming humility.

“My Mom worked here,” Rockwell continues. “She was the Oracle in Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Pericles.’ The other thing I am so proud of is that the Playbill will be filled with names that will say, ‘making their Goodman debut.’ Almost every name. These are some of the finest musical theater talents in the city of Chicago who never get to work in their own theater district! That to me, is a real coup, that all of these brilliant people are doing a musical at the Goodman in this theater district for the first time, and we’re all doing this together!” Read the rest of this entry »

Sails Pitch: Sting’s “Ship” Comes in After Long Songwriting Drought

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Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

By Dennis Polkow

“As a songwriter,” Sting admits, “I had experienced a long drought.” Rarely inactive, Sting, now sixty-two, had been involved with a number of projects since his last solo album of original material, 2003’s “Sacred Love.” Among these were an album of Renaissance master John Dowland, a Christmas album and even a reunion tour with the Police.

Nonetheless, how does a singer-songwriter who has won sixteen Grammy Awards and sold some 100 million albums worldwide across a thirty-five-plus-year career account for the experience of songwriter’s block?

“Too much me, me, me,” he jokes, “Self-obsession. I had to break this drought somehow and as it turned out, turning to the landscape of musical theater—a very exciting art form—I was suddenly giving voice to other people, characters other than myself. When I did, songs started coming out of me again like projectile vomiting.”

The end result, “The Last Ship,” is both a new Sting album of songs written for the musical of the same name that will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago, and the play itself, which is getting ready to begin previews on June 10 at the Bank of America Theatre. Read the rest of this entry »

Scores Galore: The New Chicago Musical Theatre Festival Features Eight World Premieres Over Two Weeks

Festivals, Profiles, Theater 3 Comments »

ANTHEM

By Aaron Hunt

“Many mumbling mice, Are making merry music in the moonlight, Mighty nice,” sing six fresh-faced, eager-eyed young performers in unison, up the scale and then back down. David Kornfeld, musical director of “Mr. Munch has a Murmur,” is leading vocal warm-ups from behind a portable keyboard, snuggled away in The Mountain Room of Bubbles Academy, a childhood learning center in Lincoln Park, the walls painted with deer drinking from pools of water, porcupines, a campfire and tents, and a gargantuan bumblebee in front of the frosty-grey mountains.

Cast members have gathered with guitars, a ukulele, an autoharp and a swarm of highlighted, marked and re-marked pages of music and lyrics to rehearse the story of a country-music singer and his might-be girlfriend on vacation in New York City. L.C. Bernadine, who adapted the book from a short story by Mark Sanders, passes out some new lyrics, and cast and crew have a relaxed chat about how the new words will fall on the audience’s ears, and the potential to enunciate them at the required speed. We learn a lot about this entry in Underscore Theatre Company’s Chicago Musical Theatre Festival listening to the cast sing the song in question, “Keep Walkin’.” Lyrics such as “If you want to live to talk about New York someday… speed it up… move along… keep walkin’,” suggest the collision of two unique worlds. Read the rest of this entry »