Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Downpour/Route 66 Theatre Company

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DOWNPOUR 2

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Before Caitlin Parrish began to write for television’s “Emily Owens, M.D.” and “Under the Dome,” she was an award-winning playwright. With director Erica Weiss at the helm, Parrish’s “A Twist of Water” enjoyed success in Chicago and off-Broadway. The team reunites for “The Downpour,” given a vibrant production here through an oversized Chicago picture window. If Parrish’s work in television has kept her busy for the last two years, and if “The Downpour” has been two years in the making, I am left to ponder what effect this splitting of focus might have had on this play. The first act left me beautifully shaken, the second act beautifully dissatisfied.

The familial dysfunction on display in “Downpour” is as unrelenting as a tidal wave, and as mysterious layer after a homicidal lie is revealed, I was all gooseflesh. Like any good thriller, the list of potential victims mirrors that of possible suspects, presumed reality brushing up against unwieldy truths. What is the inherent danger in the older sister’s pregnancy? Why does the younger sister write children’s books where the child-protagonist is always locked away? Why does the husband never question the large scar on his wife’s head? Can a happy whoremonger change? What does the incessant theme of water portend? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Death Tax/Lookingglass

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J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Paragraph One. Playwright Lucas Hnath’s having a Chicago moment, with his “Isaac’s Eye” in simultaneous production at Writers Theatre this fall. “Death Tax” (Can you imagine the groan emanating from the marketing department when that title was announced?) is a tight, seventy-five minute exploration of healthcare, morality and family ties getting its Lookingglass treatment behind the capable direction of Heidi Stillman. In typical Lookingglass style, the set exists mostly in the imagination: a simple black square painted on the floor with the audience seated in a square as well, on three of four sides. But the sense of being “boxed in” is palpable throughout this play that wears its structure on its sleeve, with lead J. Nicole Brooks announcing each of five scenes in place of conventional transition. Paragraph Two. The only character in every scene, Brooks delivers a fiery, riveting performance as the nurse Tina tending to a dying old woman Maxine (Deanna Dunagan striking a perfect note of manipulative vulnerability) who’s convinced that her only child, her grown daughter, is secretly paying Tina to hasten her demise, for tax purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Isaac’s Eye/Writers Theatre

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Ledo, Grapey, Banks (background), Hooper, horiz

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Lucas Hnath is not concerned with getting it right. He’s concerned about getting it true. From the outset of his devious new play “Isaac’s Eye” he states that this story is filled with “ether”: the unseen stuff that allows us to understand the things that are true. Hnath has taken this idea from his play’s subject, Isaac Newton, and extrapolated it to encompass the work itself. We are told that most of what we are about to see did not happen. The play even helps us to distinguish fact from fiction by having the actors write everything in the play that is factually true on a chalkboard. It’s as though Hnath is saying “we’ll leave the history to the lecture hall and get on with the business of art.” And get on with it he certainly does.

I don’t think that “Isaac’s Eye” could ask for a better Chicago-area home than it finds in Writers Theatre. Their particular blend of skill, empathy and wit is a perfect match for Hnath’s humane but intellectually ambitious script. Out of one part fact and two parts whole cloth, “Isaac’s Eye” spins a tale of a young, hungry entirely unknown Newton (Jurgen Hooper). After somewhat vaguely agreeing to marry his longtime (and long-suffering) companion Catherine (Elizabeth Ledo), Isaac promptly has her contact an old friend of her father’s, Robert Hooke (Marc Grapey), a scientist extraordinaire and member of Isaac’s ticket out of Nowheresville: The Royal Society. After reading Isaac’s papers Hooke is immediately threatened by the young man’s considerable intellect and agrees to meet him in person, the better to shut him down. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Midnight City/Firecat Projects at the Steppenwolf Garage

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Tony_Stan

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Tony Fitzpatrick is moving to New Orleans, and his friend Stan isn’t happy. That about sums up the premise of “The Midnight City,” currently playing at the Steppenwolf Garage. It is a loose, shambolic reminiscence of both a man’s life and a city’s. How things change and how they stay the same.

Fitzpatrick is a local artist and grade-A curmudgeon, a holdover from the Studs Terkel era (editor’s note: he’s also a “Newcity” contributing writer). I was not familiar with him prior to attending, and can definitely report that I’ve been missing out. The show’s structure—if it could be accused of having something so square—revolves around conversations between him and his longtime compatriot Stan Klein. The two bicker about Fitzpatrick’s impending move, rail against the hardscrabble city being lost to gentrification and reflect upon the history of their own relationship. For all of Fitzpatrick’s self-proclaimed punk-rock credentials (including his friendship with Lou Reed which, okay, is a pretty solid line on the ol’ resume) the show is very much a paean to The Good Ol’ Days. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins/Forget Me Not Theatre Company

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Photo3-FMN-Alice

Tim Steinmetz and Chris Fowler/Photo: Chris Zoubris

One and one and one is indeed three, but peppering a production with such notable equations doesn’t add up to much when the play being staged is less engaging than this failed math pun I’ll never complete. If you’re going to indulge constant references to other art throughout a piece, you should dare to make sure the piece in question at least has a hint of the quality of the work referenced. For a show that starts and ends with a Brian Wilson “Pet Sounds” masterpiece, the only things of near equal interest in between are other referenced existing cultural works. The discarded Madonna cassette from the personal collection of evicted and/or locked-out misery case Gideon? Gideon’s ungiftable copy of Wire’s “Pink Flag” that young Esra refuses? They’re worlds apart on my personal preference scale, but both contain more depth and intrigue than Nick Flynn’s script. The titular character is a smug, cold embodiment of something horrible and heartless—presumably our economy, or more broadly the American Way of Life—and the game she allegedly devises is anything but inventive. Mostly, it’s a framework for unoriginal monologues on life from the three other characters—Gideon, Esra, and the creepily self-mythologizing, possibly pedophiliac suit named Ivan. If Alice wins, it’s in the same way a referee who fixes a match can be seen as victorious. 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 »

Review: Mnemonic by Complicite/Red Tap Theatre

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Pavi, Proczko, David Cady Jr., Gage Wallace, Jake Szczepaniak, Robert Oakes (above) & Chris Carr/Photo: Austin D. Oie

Pavi, Proczko, David Cady Jr., Gage Wallace, Jake Szczepaniak, Robert Oakes (above) & Chris Carr/Photo: Austin D. Oie

They say the clothes make the man, and so I think can a space make the theater company. For years, Red Tape Theatre was safely ensconced in a cavernous and decrepit old gymnasium attached to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lakeview. The place oozed a sort of American gothic charm that more than made up for its relative shortcomings. And the sheer size of it compared to the glorified closets that many other storefront companies have to work with allowed Red Tape the freedom to pursue expansive works that others simply could not. I think back to their 2012 production of Caryl Churchill’s “Skriker,” with its ever-shifting labyrinth and remember being wowed that a storefront theater could so successfully realize a piece of such expansive ambition.

Sadly those days are now past. Red Tape’s tenancy at St Peter’s has come to an end and they are now itinerant. I had hopes when going to see their production of “Mnemonic by Complicite” at the DCA that perhaps the chance to create a new space might prove freeing, that it would unlock new creative avenues heretofore unexplored. But it was not to be. I’m not entirely chalking things up to the new digs, but what I saw was not a company that looked free. It was one that looked lost. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Coward/Stage Left Theatre

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Brian Plocharcyzk/Photo: Johnny Knight

Brian Plocharczyk/Photo: Johnny Knight

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“An armed society is a polite society,” goes the old NRA slogan. Perhaps, but it’s also an insane society, as demonstrated by Nick Jones’ play “The Coward,” receiving its Midwestern premiere courtesy of Stage Left.

The courage-challenged individual in question is young Lucidus Culling, played with appropriate fussiness by Brian Plocharczyk. He’s the son of a howlingly mad British nobleman (Stephen Walker), who has already lost two sons on the field of honor and apparently won’t be happy until he has lost his third and last. Lucidus, a cross between Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Disney’s Ferdinand the flower-sniffing pacifist bull, is torn between the pressure to prove himself a true aristocrat—i.e., a polished, casual killer—and his passion for ranking butterflies by beauty. And then there’s his infatuation for the social butterfly Isabelle Dupree, who has won his heart and handkerchief but, as the play opens, values neither. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Game’s Afoot/Drury Lane Theatre

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Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

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“She was ruthless. She was evil. She was a theater critic, for God’s sake!”

Delivered in the baritonal vocal stylings of Chicago’s own national treasure Alene Robertson, this pronouncement brought the press opening of Drury Lane’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” to a howling halt. One of America’s foremost farceurs, Ludwig continues to churn out theatrical charmers with his carefully researched comedies, chock full of good-old-fashioned slapstick and one-liners. Winner of “Best Play” at the 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Awards, “Afoot” does not disappoint.

Given the winning whipped-cream treatment by artistic director William Osetek, this production whizzes along, immersed in the art décor era of real-life protagonist William Gillette (Derek Hasenstab) by the expert design of scenic director Kevin Depinet, Greg Hofmann’s lighting, Maggie Hofmann’s fabulous costumes, and Ray Nardelli’s sound design. If you haven’t toured the Connecticut castle built by the Broadway star of his own play, “Sherlock Holmes,” you will walk away feeling as if you’ve had a taste. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Whaleship Essex/Shattered Globe Theatre

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Photo: Emily Schwartz

Photo: Emily Schwartz

Which graduate of our public school system hasn’t read the CliffsNotes for Melville’s “Moby Dick,” along with Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “Beowulf?” With “The Whaleship Essex,” sailor/playwright Joe Forbrich makes his case for theatricalization of the story that inspired Melville’s epic tale of man-against-whale, with its page-after-page descriptions of waves and eschewing of substantial sub-plotting, steering it into modern-day parable by examination of man’s zealous quest for oil, with its attendant consequences.

Director Lou Contey takes on the formidable challenge of telling a story with fifteen actors running about the stage all at once, jostling and climbing and sputtering songs. If one of the greatest challenges to hit a directorial desk is the staging of “crowd scenes,” Contey’s steady hand on the rudder saves us from potential seasickness. Read the rest of this entry »