Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Every Theater Deserves a House: The Story of a Backyard Theater

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Photo: Ryan Bourque

Photo: Ryan Bourque

By Sean Kelley

In a city with such an established and vibrant theater scene, there are many institutions that could easily make the case that the beating heart of Chicago theater lies within their walls. Is Chicago theater’s heart on the stage of Steppenwolf, one of the nation’s most successful theater companies, the home stage of Malkovich, Allen, Sinise and all the rest? Is it sitting in the balconies of the theater district in the Loop watching “Book of Mormon” or “Wicked” as they make their way through town before moving westward on their trek from Broadway to the Pacific Ocean? Is it in one of our venerated improv comedy theaters like Second City or iO Chicago taking a suggestion before pulling a comedic play out of the ether? Or is it in one of Chicago’s many small storefront theaters, striving to grow and put something truly new into the world?

All of these places are part of the body of Chicago theater. They are her hands and bones and eyes and teeth. The heart though? The heart of Chicago theater? That’s the 3031 stage in John Wilson’s backyard. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Matters: Chicago Connections Within Lyric Opera’s “The Sound of Music”

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Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Aaron Hunt

In her autobiography, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Maria von Trapp wrote of her confusion when the Mother Abbess of Nonnberg Abbey encouraged her to forsake her aspirations to the sisterhood in favor of answering God’s will: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” It was with this creation of a family that the wheels were set in motion for the careers of The Trapp Family Singers, the 1959 musical, “The Sound of Music” (the final collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II), and the 1965 film starring a practically perfect Julie Andrews. The aerial footage of Andrews spinning around on the top of the Tyrolean Alps outside Salzburg, palms opened upward in both supplication and celebration, and then that brilliant Rodgers score swirling and rising until hearts are so full that there isn’t another choice except voice, except song, has leapt into America’s collective conscious for the past half century.

Lyric Opera of Chicago hopes to send that gift twirling toward the next generation with their new production. Last year Lyric launched their American Musical Theater Initiative with “Oklahoma”; critics mostly raved, houses were sold out, extra performances were added. “The Sound of Music” is primed to repeat this success, given that the casting list includes a movie star, a television star, a Broadway diva and some Chicago-based leading ladies of the Joseph Jefferson Award-winning category. And not so surprisingly, nearly all of the stars of the production have one or more Chicago connections.

If there is a headliner in this romp, it would be Billy Zane as the zipped-up, guitar-strumming Captain von Trapp. Even though a successful film career has taken him all over the world, Zane grew up in Chicago. “There’s no more indelible horizon than Lake Michigan. I grew up basically on Ardmore and Sheridan overlooking that lake from the fourth floor, right off aptly named Hollywood Beach,” Zane revealed to a number of Chicago-area reporters during a telephone interview. Zane remembered fondly his time at Evanston’s Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where he acquired “the foundation of an appreciation of the American songbook.” Read the rest of this entry »