Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Cicada/Route 66 Theatre Company

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Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Route 66 Theatre Company introduced itself to the Chicago and national scene with total transparency, both in name and in mission statement, undertaking to introduce, develop, produce and “export new works for the stage.” Using the highway of its name, the company has travelled with its productions to Los Angeles and New York. 2014 makes its first full season of new work.

Beautifully cast, with fine production values, the players and the production team throw themselves wildly into the “Cicada” hopscotch championship and never step on a crack. The nine-member ensemble immerse themselves in the material, inviting the audience into the story, while supporting each other seamlessly. As Lily, Amy Matheny runs to the dark place required of her, and lives there unstintingly. Aaron Kirby plays Lily’s son Ace, jumping through every flaming circus hoop required of him. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design coddles the audience, and then holds them by the hand and runs with them through every twisting transition. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dorian/The House Theatre of Chicago

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RECOMMENDED

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Flashing lights, club music, alcoholic beverages, a coat rack, wristbands and people mingling seem more like traits of a party than a play. However, this is what audience members walk into at House Theatre’s production of “Dorian.” Needless to say, once the show officially begins, the party just keeps rolling and the audience is taken on an avant-garde theatrical journey.

“Dorian,” is a new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” from playwrights (and House Theatre company members) Ben Lobpries and Tommy Rapley (Rapley also serves as director and choreographer). Like the novel, the play tells the story of a man who desperately wants to hold onto his youth at any cost and magically receives his wish.

Though the show’s story can be quite dark, there is a great mix of comedy and drama in the script, which is fantastically brought to life by Patrick Andrews (as Basil, a tortured artist and love interest of Dorian), Kelley Abell (as Sybil, a performance artist and another of Dorian’s love interests), Manny Buckley (art critic extraordinaire), Ally Carey (Sybil’s daughter, Isabelle), Lauren Pizzi (a socialite in the art world), Alex Weisman (as Alan, a man infatuated with Dorian) and Cole Simon (as the titular Dorian). Dance and movement are just as important as the dialogue and comedic punch lines are hit just as cleverly as Dorian’s blades cut skin and echo his destruction. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mud Blue Sky/A Red Orchid Theatre

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Mierka Girten, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, Matt Farabee/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Mierka Girten, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, Matt Farabee/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Images from the early days of mass airline travel, the “Mad Men” years, depict the life of a flight attendant (then called stewardesses) as one of high-flying youth and beauty, of casual romance and carefree partying. But the passing years brought on anti-discrimination laws that prevented the airlines from their early practices of hiring and firing based on age and looks and so, today, many of our flight attendants resemble their employers: aging and tired.

It is this world, that of today’s flight attendants facing early retirement, absentee parenting and a generally groundless life, that playwright Marisa Wegrzyn takes on with her witty and wistful new play, “Mud Blue Sky,” being given its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre. Beth (played with a resigned demeanor that permeates her physical presence by Natalie West) checks into an airport hotel near O’Hare and seems to want nothing to do with the partying planned by the slightly younger Sam (played with sparkling energy by Mierka Girten). Turns out she has her own plan that involves buying pot to soothe her aching back from a high-school-age pusher who takes a break from his prom night to sell her a quarter ounce (Matt Farabee, holding up against this den of cougars who see him variously as an object of lust and longing and mothering). Before long, they’re all in Beth’s room, joined by Angie (the effervescent Kirsten Fitzgerald), a former co-worker who’s been jettisoned from her job for weight issues, and is adrift in the suburbs of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

30 Plays, 60 Minutes, 25 Years: A Quarter Century of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”

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By Hugh Iglarsh

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

“What are the hallmarks of American culture that are also typical of ADD? The fast pace. The sound bite. The bottom line. Short takes, quick cuts … High stimulation. Restlessness … Speed. Present-centered, no future, no past.”
—Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction”

At this point—after twenty-five unbroken years of performance in Chicago, of two generations of sell-out crowds, of untold thousands of two-minute sketches and hundreds of actor-writers, of spinoffs and Edinburgh Festivals and Hear ye-Hear ye civic proclamations—it is fair to say Greg Allen’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” is more than an institution; it is a movement.

Allen and his cohorts have made their “neo-futurism” a hot commodity, spawning affiliated groups everywhere from San Francisco to Montreal, and developing into a perpetual motion theater machine, whose unique rituals of admission and spectatorship turn play-going into a kind of collaborative performance art. Neo-futurism is arguably the biggest, most durable entrant on the local scene since Second City began improvising fifty-some years ago. And like Second City, “Too Much Light” (hereafter TML) has created a precise and endlessly repeatable formula for achieving a tightly engineered spontaneity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

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Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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

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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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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

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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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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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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 »