Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2

Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.

Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.

Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Arsonists/Strawdog Theatre

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(L to R) Mike Ooi, Jared Fernley, Robert Kauzlaric, Blair Robertson/Photo: Chris Ocken

Mike Ooi, Jared Fernley, Robert Kauzlaric, Blair Robertson/Photo: Chris Ocken


I once lived next door to an aspiring young arsonist. On either side of the house I shared with a different kind of flame, two homes were gutted with fire before the kid was caught. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured. If my neighborhood had been full of the kind of folks in “The Arsonists” I wouldn’t be so grateful for everybody’s survival. Except for put-upon maid Anna (Rebecca Wolfe, engagingly frustrated with and casually disdainful of everyone else) the characters, on opposite ends of the political and economic spectrum, are fairly equal in one regard: their laughable repugnance. Anna seems apolitical and, given her position in the employ of the wealthy and unambiguously greedy Biedermann (Robert Kauzlaric, hilariously arrogant and cowardly), we can guess her financial state is above that of the unemployed wrestler and waiter for whom this play is named. She’s in the middle of all the madness, bearing no explicit complicity in the impending disaster while surrounded by the grotesquely guilty—the only one seemingly sane or worth saving. She’s like an argument for the placating nature of a steady job. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Methtacular!/About Face Theatre

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Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow


In case you were wondering, yes, you read the title of this show correctly. It’s called “Methtacular!”And I must say that the title is a very apt one, as Steven Strafford’s one-man autobiographical show is equal parts “meth” and “tacular!” Produced by About Face Theatre, the show follows Strafford’s experiences in the early oughts as a struggling actor in Chicago, or more accurately, as a flourishing crystal meth addict who struggled to fit in acting gigs around it. While it doesn’t reinvent either the one-man-show or the harrowing-personal-account-of-addiction wheel, the show hits home anyway. Simply put, it is funny and it is sad and it is an incredibly enjoyable ninety minutes spent in the company of a man who has a story to tell and the chops to tell it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre

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Nina O'Keefe/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Nina O’Keefe (center) /Photo: Jonathan L. Green


In a way Chekhov is a lot like Nirvana, in that it’s really easy to forget how great he was when you’ve been inundated with a century of increasingly pale imitations. If Chekhov’s “The Seagull” were considered his “Nevermind,” then Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” would be Creed’s “HumanClay.” Yet in “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tragic/comic/foolish/wise/heroic/cowardly (alright, alright Chekhovian) protagonist Konstantin fantasizes about new forms of theater, ones that will shake off the dusty old retreads and lead audiences into a brave new tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that playwright Aaron Posner has chosen “The Seagull” for the funny, heartbreaking, fourth-wall battering post-punk manifesto that is his play “Stupid Fucking Bird.” And happily for both Posner and local audiences alike, Sideshow Theatre Company has given the show a breathless (as in “Breathless”) Chicago premiere.

The play itself is sometimes a little hard to describe in that it simultaneously is “The Seagull” and is not. The characters are all in place (with one notable consolidation) and the story follows the original to a tee… except when it doesn’t. However, the dialogue is all original and Posner creates a number of gorgeous original exchanges, except when he’s directly riffing on the original with smart-ass lines like “Because it’s slimming.” The best way to summarize it is that Posner uses “The Seagull” the way a child uses a Power Rangers action figure to concoct his own original story. He uses it to ask what the hell is wrong with our theater and, by extension, what the hell is wrong with us. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ecstasy/Cole Theatre

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(l to r) Layne Manzer, Michaela Petro, Boyd Harris  and Maura Kidwell/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Layne Manzer, Michaela Petro, Boyd Harris and Maura Kidwell/Photo: Michael Brosilow

The inaugural production of Cole Theatre, Mike Leigh’s “Ecstasy,” begins with a naked Jean (Maura Kidwell) and Roy (Joel Reitsma), in her run-down London flat. Whatever they’ve just done, from the superficial small talk and the swiftness of Roy’s exit, it doesn’t take much to see love wasn’t in it.

And we see why when Roy comes ready for another session, but this time his wife Val (Lauren Pizzi) shows up. While Jean cowardly disappears, her best friend Dawn (Michaela Petro) is left alone to fight for herself against Roy’s violent attack on her and his wife.

Thankfully, a horrific situation is avoided and the only indication of a scuffle is the broken bed—which they solicit Dawn’s husband Mick (Boyd Harris) and Len (Layne Manzer), an old friend they recently reconnected with, to fix. With these old friends in the same room, the craziness turns into a drunken night of fun and memories. All seems well until Mick and Dawn leave and we see just how much pain resides in that London flat. And A Red Orchid Theatre provides the perfect space for Grant Sabin’s set, allowing for a true fly on the wall sensation. Read the rest of this entry »

What? The Fringe! Fifth Annual Fest Presents Fifty Shows At Five Venues

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Rob Lloyd: Who, Me.   Photographer: James Penlidis. Designer: Lliam Amor

Rob Lloyd: Who, Me./Photo: James Penlidis. Design: Lliam Amor

By Raymond Rehayem

Look, up on the Northwest Side, it’s the Fifth Annual ChicagoFringe Festival. What was once the very outskirt of the Blue Line is now an emergent theater hood per festival executive director Vinnie Lacey:  “Theater happens everywhere in Chicago.To call any place a theater district is laughable to me. We found a home in Jefferson Park that has really revitalized the festival.”

What follows is frayed and I ain’t about to weave it together seamlessly. Frankly that wouldn’t be very fringy. Forward, then, with a few featured fringe funambulists…

Fringe Won: Po’ Chop describes her long-form burlesque “Black as Eye Wanna Be” as an exploration of oppression and a celebration of black identity.  “I would say of black female Americans, but it’s not done in a way that’s isolating if you don’t identify as such.” The show, featuring “an all-queer cast” pulls its soundtrack from black women musicians through history. “We ask that the audience brings one item that represents oppression to them. My whole repertoire directly looks at race, sexuality, politics…  I don’t really do traditional burlesque. It’s more like neo-burlesque, with performance art. In traditional burlesque the woman is presented in a demure kind of non-aggressive role. They’re typically taking the audience out of reality and putting them into a fantasy world.  I am working toward presenting femininity in a powerful, aggressive manner. I’m not presenting myself necessarily in a glamorous way. I’m presented in something that’s a little bit more accessible, though I might be playing with gender a little bit. So I might have facial hair, or I might have a dick or something of that manner.  The sexy part, I don’t even consider that when I’m working on burlesque acts.”

Starting a thread to somewhat stitch this together, I posit if there’s a fringe there must be a mainstream as well—and if there’s anything that unifies mainstream art, it’s the desire to entertain. So, what percentage of Po’ Chop’s focus is on entertaining the audience?

“Zero percent. I’m not interested in entertainment. I want to communicate something that’s provocative and makes people think. We have iPhones for entertainment. But,” Po’ Chop adds, “they’re gonna have a good time!” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Clemente: The Legend of 21/NightBlue Performing Arts Company

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Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

The creation and delivery of a historical play presents very specific challenges. The story of the life of any individual, no matter how private and quiet it might seem to others, is a fulsome thing, and the telling of it requires heart-stopping decision-making. The central plot line must drive the narrative, with all the supporting information, no matter how juicy, supplying its named purpose. Add to this trial the fact that the examined life is that of an international celebrity, stir in several songs and call it a musical, and you are up to bat, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, with the opposing team leading by a single point.

Writer and director Luis Caballero strikes out with his attempt to tell the story of Roberto Clemente, the acclaimed Puerto Rican baseball player. His poverty-stricken beginnings, his eighteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his numerous awards and his celebrated charity work that led to his death in a plane crash are the stuff that could fill a theatrical offering with drama and music. But what is the central story? The rampant racism that he encountered within the sport? His marriage to a girl of a different faith? The physical ailments that he overcame to become the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter? His giving back to his Puerto Rican roots during the off-season, creating opportunities for that country’s children? His sensational death that awarded him martyrdom? “Clemente: The Legend of 21,” heroically attempts to highlight each of these story arcs with equal examination, with the unfortunate result that plot lines appear, and then suddenly disappear, while another, previously unexplored and unexpected element leaps to center stage. Each story line receives its own climax, which I found to be battering. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Coraline/Black Button Eyes Productions

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Behind: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground (Left to Right) Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon

Background: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground: Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon


I arrived at City Lit Theater’s space to see Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Coraline” a complete Neil Gaiman virgin. I’d heard that the novelist’s 2002 horror/fantasy novella was a more overtly twisted “Alice in Wonderland” literary romp, and never gave it a second thought. That is, until director Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption of “Coraline” was nominated for an Academy Award. Then I was nearly annoyed that what I had deemed to be a grotesque morsel of British-against-British thievery was continuing to occupy a place in popular culture.

But composer Stephin Merritt and playwright David Greenspan’s musical rendering of Gaiman’s story has drawn me in, put me in my place. If Merritt’s notion of instrumental scoring for his music for “Coraline” (the young adventuress accompanied by toy pianos, the “real-world” grownups supported by a typical upright, and the “others” from behind the soon-to-be unlocked door singing over a baby grand with various found objects shoved between the piano strings) sounds like a 1970s music education thesis on new ploys for introducing young people to the orchestra, I found the actuality of it charming, and music director Nick Sula’s preparation and presentation, as always, terrific. And if the plot-line loses just a tiny bit of zip two-thirds of the way through, when the sung bits that come and go so quickly as to hardly qualify as proper songs nearly vanish, “Coraline” recovers quickly, and then drives to the finish. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind/The Neo-Futurists

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Friday night with thirty minutes to go before the doors to the Neo-Futurarium open, a line already snakes down Ashland and around the corner onto Foster. With patrons ranging from traditional theater-types to bros to hipsters and various types in between, it’s readily apparent that “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” (TML from here on)—the longest-running production in Chicago, which recently celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary—is still drawing in crowds and then shaking them up in the Neo-Futurists’ signature style.

Many know what to expect from the sometimes hectic, rapid-fire “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” structure of TML because they’ve seen it before and many more have only heard secondhand what they’re in for when attending this unique production. After entering the theater, audience members are promptly given a “menu” which lists the name of thirty individual plays, each with a unique number before it. In order to move the show along, audience members are asked to yell the number of the show they’d like to see next in the moments immediately following the end of the previous play. This results in an excited barrage of numbers being shouted from all corners of the audience in between each vignette and serves to not only jolt the audience but to amp up the action on stage as well.

With titles like “The One Time I Didn’t Hate Kids.” and “I don’t need any help.” these brief plays range from sight gags to physical comedy to one-liners to occasional forays into the deeper aspects of the human condition. Each delivers in its own way—though the quirky comedic bits tend to work best, especially when coupled with a more oblique reference to emotional implications. Read the rest of this entry »