Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The President/Oracle Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-or-3173022665-OHungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar loved this country enough to begin citizenship proceedings. But he had no love for capitalist deal-making; his sharp criticism of American business arrangements and human manipulation shines a light on questionable ethics through fast-paced humor.

The detailed Mr. Norrison (John Arthur Lewis) is set to join his family on a well-deserved mountain vacation. But his naïve charge, Lydia (Michelle M. Oliver), the daughter of Norrison’s wealthy and influential customer, announces that she is married and having a baby with Tony (Travis Delgado), a militant, communist cabdriver. In a flurry of wheeling and dealing, Norrison proceeds to transform everyman Tony into a titled captain of industry.

The ensemble brings the right energy to their broadly drawn characters; Lewis is smoothly corporate in his brokering and decision-making and Oliver endows her character with the sensual daffiness Lydia requires. The suitably ardent Delgado negotiates the transition between radical firebrand to titan of industry with confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pinkolandia/16th Street Theater

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Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

RECOMMENDED

Artistic director Ann Filmer (who directs  ”Pinkolandia”) and the 16th Street Theater stay in stride in this multilayered, culturally significant, fictional retelling of a refugee family from Chile assimilating into 1982 Wisconsin. At the heart of the story are twelve-year-old Beny (Maritza Cervantes) and her eight-year-old sister Gaby (Hannah Gomez). Beny has been in the states since she was three, when her parents Tomas (Carlos Diaz) and Camila Rodriguez (Stephanie Diaz) were forced to leave Chile after a military coup d’etat in 1973. There are several revealing story lines: an “uncle” (Miguel Nunez) comes back to the family, reigniting the revolutionary spirit; the children are having problems assimilating into the Wisconsin neighborhood; and the youngest daughter is repeatedly ignored to the point of a total withdrawal. In all, this is a play about estrangement and a family trying to forgive themselves and their countrymen in their past, while trying to cobble together a better future. But does this desire for a better life come at too much sacrifice and guilt? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Great God Pan/Next Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

It’s been one of those days for Jamie (Brett Schneider), the shaky protagonist of Next Theatre’s “The Great God Pan.” First, he discovers that his live-in girlfriend Paige (Kristina Valada-Viars) is pregnant, a development this man-child is not prepared for. Then Frank (Matt Hawkins), a long-lost grade school friend, tells him that he may well have been molested decades ago by Frank’s father—an incident that Jamie cannot remember, either because it never happened or has been strategically forgotten.

Jamie’s attempt to cope with these two entangled situations is at the heart of playwright Amy Herzog’s seventy-five-minute work. Is his inability to commit to Paige due to a repressed history of sexual abuse? Is his poor recollection of childhood a means of warding off traumatic memories? Is his aura of anxiety and defensiveness a symptom of past horrors or just his tightly wound, default personality?

Unfortunately, we never quite learn the answers to these key questions, as Herzog has written only the first two acts of a three-act play. The abrupt ending, which arrives just before what should be the climax, comes off less as pregnant ambiguity than as cop-out, relieving the writer of the responsibility of taking a position and seeing the situation and characters through. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Our Class/Remy Bumppo

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RECOMMENDED

Our Class fireThe World War II massacre in Jedwabne, Poland was long considered to be one of the worst Nazi war crimes; hundreds of Polish Jews were trapped in a barn and burned alive. But while Poles historically blamed occupying Nazi forces, recent findings determined that an angry Polish mob served as the real killers. Tadeusz Slobodzianek tries to make sense of the seemingly senseless, looking at this complicated impulse to turn on friends, neighbors and in this case, classmates.

The piece follows schoolmates as they endure the shifting political sands of 1930s and 1940s Poland. The town’s communities are slowly marginalized; the Jews are ostracized as prayer is introduced into the classroom by the Catholics, and the Catholics are then pushed aside by the invading Soviet Union as the local Catholic Club is transformed into a cinema. Hostilities reach the boiling point as the Nazis invade Poland; it doesn’t take much German influence for neighbor to turn against neighbor. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Place in the Woods/The Fine Print Theatre Company

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RECOMMENDED

FPT-3A topical family drama that reaches its true heights in its comic moments, The Fine Print’s production of Erik Gernand’s “A Place In The Woods” is unassuming and refreshingly unpretentious. Seating the audience on either of two sides of the homespun sparse kitchen which is the sole setting lends a fly-on-the-wall feeling as we witness a personal, familial tale wherein the decay of aging leads to revelations over a tragedy that occurred in the glow of youth—a heartbreaking fall from innocence that has sullied all the years since with deceit, distrust, and lingering loathing.

Shaun (James Bould)—gay, urban, successful, worldly, impatient—returns to the small-town scene of his teenage misery with his own thoughtful and inquisitive teen son Alex (Jacob Bond) in tow. The family matriarch (Barbara Berndt) has been acting increasingly alarmingly—the onset of Alzheimer’s is presumably to blame—and the begrudgingly responsible Shaun returns to the rickety house where mom and Shaun’s less reliable older brother (Mike Rice) still reside. All the festering sarcasm amongst the adults of the family stems from the death of the older brother’s best high-school pal, who it turns out was also Shaun’s first love. The most somber moments ring true and nearly all the comic bits—of which there are a welcome many—are as funny as any of the better sitcoms but with more emotional honesty. Some of what falls in the middle of the spectrum between tears and laughter affects a bit of an After School Special earnest prosaicness but this is outweighed by the heft of both the more dramatic and the more hilarious exchanges. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: God’s Work/Albany Park Theater Project

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

“God’s Work” isn’t a theater piece that unfolds linearly, but more of a concept constructed from moods and feelings, with scenes often tying together or melting into each other in a dreamlike fashion. The evocative lighting design by Jeremy Getz and the frequently beautiful compositions by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel play across Scott C. Neale’s stony gray multilevel set to create a sense of unreality that permeates the story. But, in fact, this unreality—a harrowing tale of abuse and redemption—is based on a true story, gathered and told by the Albany Park Theater Project in their fourth play produced on a Goodman stage.

Constantly threatened and punished by their dictatorial, religiously fundamentalist father (a stern Vincent K. Meredith), a constantly growing group of children (every few scenes a few new kids are “born” and added to the ensemble) seek refuge amongst each other as they try to please their uncaring father and understand why they suffer. “They’re good kids and they do what God wants,” replies one sibling, heartbreakingly, when asked why other kids at school seem not to be dealing with the torments that they are. Among this group is Rachel (a spunky Maidenwena Alba) who not only serves as our narrator at the opening and closing of the piece but gives us a character to focus on and follow in this tangle of children. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show/About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising

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Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

This gal’s got some real balls. Is that too blue for you? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist such a nice opening. Oh, she’s got one of those too.

Lest you think I’m being too irreverent, be advised that the protagonist of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is frequently in your face about the uncommonly dual genitalia s/he possesses. Portrayed by actress Fawzia Mirza in a commanding and at times fierce near-solo turn in About Face Theatre/Silk Road Rising’s downtown production, the titular character delights—like any good comedian—in confronting the audience. If you’re squeamish about anatomy or gender designations, be forewarned. And if you’re British, be prepared to bear the brunt of an increasingly fiery assault on your imperial history that surpasses even the abuse heaped upon Brahman/i’s sidekick, a hapless but sympathetic (and sympathizing) bass player who commits no less a sin than daring to sit, uncommitted, partly in the dark and partly in the spotlight reserved for the star.

It’s Brahman/i who really straddles the line between dark and light, and so many other borders as well—at times making a case for understanding and tolerance, and at other times venting with a self-assured righteousness befitting one named after supreme, infinite reality. Also like the Hindu concept of Brahman, our hero in this play escapes gender classification. S/he flirts with such designation—and with some of the audience as well—but don’t expect any easy answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Haunting of Hill House/City Lit Theater

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HillHouse-press-photo-3-378x400

Sheila Willis and Edward Kuffert/Photo: Austin Oie

The early spring evening turned ominously autumnal as I approached the holy stone building that houses City Lit Theater. Unfortunately nothing nearly as spooky transpired inside during City Lit’s world-premiere adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House.” City Lit specializes, as their name implies, in bringing literary works to the stage. Here they adapt an acclaimed novel by Shirley Jackson, best remembered for her unnerving short story “The Lottery.” The tale of Hill House centers on an investigation of its purported supernatural characteristics spearheaded by one Dr. Montague (an appropriately haughty Edward Kuffert) and the effect his exploratory stay in the old mansion has on the doctor and the handful of guests he has invited to join him.

The book is widely praised as an exemplar of psychological terror and was turned into a well-regarded film within a few years of its 1959 release. Owing to its literary origins, this Hill House is a wordy affair. The 1963 movie version has the cinematic bag of tricks at its disposal to assist in the transition to the big screen. This stage adaptation instead embraces the verbosity as a strength, which—despite the convincing set design, heavy reliance on flashy lighting and thunderous sound effects and amenable turns from a capable cast—yields an evening not so different from a staged reading. Indeed, much of the production’s nearly two-and-a-half hours is given over to a pair of narrators. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo: Jenny Anderson

Photo: Jenny Anderson

Superhero origin stories are interesting beasts. We know precisely where the story will end up (a hero is born!) before it even begins. What matters in this subgenre (if that’s what it can be called) is not so much what the ultimate outcome is, but rather how to get the story from point T-minus A to point A in the most interesting way without making the pre-known destination look like a foregone conclusion. And of course it’s preferable to toss some new characters into the mix while also providing new insight into existing characters. “Peter and the Starcatcher”—written by Rick Elice based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson—handles most of these tasks with goofy gusto, giving us a helter-skelter background story for the puckish Peter Pan.

The original Broadway production won five Tony Awards in 2012 (winners for scenic, costume, lighting and sound design serve as the design team for this production and it certainly shows). The imaginative design work—a clever combination of faux bootstrappy big-budget costumes and set pieces and truly elaborate lighting and sound design—helps to sell a story that may not necessarily be more than the sum of its parts. Because despite the impressively inventive delivery of this story by an energetic and engaged cast—directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers pull earnestness and meta-asides from these actors in equal measure—Elice’s script is a bit too self-indulgently silly for its own good. Read the rest of this entry »