Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Today We Escape/Tympanic Theater Company

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Daniel Houle & Libby Conkle in "B.E.M."/Photo: Sergio Soltero

Daniel Houle & Libby Conkle in “B.E.M.”/Photo: Sergio Soltero


Any short-play festival will have a number of mediocre plays, a couple of stellar works, and one or two duds. In the case of “Today We Escape,” a twelve-play presentation based on the tracks of Radiohead’s album “OK Computer,” Tympanic Theatre Company has more than its share of better pieces.

Because the included works are presented in the order of the tracks that inspired them, there is a clear lack of curation in this festival. The plays are not ordered in a way that accentuates the pacing of the overall evening. This sadly means that the mediocre and bad plays are clumped all together in the front half of the night’s lineup. Of six plays that precede the intermission, Randall Colburn’s play “Terry” and Ted Brengle’s “B.E.M.” rise above the rest, but both go on just a little too long. A devised piece entitled “Choke” by Wren Graves and Natalie DiCristofano’s “There’s No Place Like Hoyne” are the evening’s low points, and both urge thoughts of leaving at intermission. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Steppenwolf Garage Rep 2015/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Carmen Molina, Claudia DiBiccari, Mykele Callicut, Paula Ramirez, Preston Tate Jr., Deanna Reed-Foster and James McGuire/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Carmen Molina, Claudia DiBiccari, Mykele Callicut, Paula Ramirez, Preston Tate Jr., Deanna Reed-Foster and James McGuire/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Heat Wave/Cold Basement Dramatics


A mention of the skin-ripping heat plague that either directly caused or contributed to 739 deaths in Chicago in the summer of 1995 still causes those of us who lived through it to walk through a Windy City winter with jaw-grinding thankfulness. The PR department of the Mayor’s Office spun a tale of deceit that denounced the families, churches and neighbors of the victims for failing in their duty as emissaries of first response. It was left to the CDC and the National Weather Service to disprove this machination, although the residue of finger-pointing still lingers in the city’s consciousness. The mystery of a steady supply of power afforded affluent neighborhoods, while the homes of impoverished, minority citizens suffered repeated, long-term grid failure, continues unsolved.

Steven Simoncic’s play, adapted from Eric Klinenberg’s book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” delivers the hard data of the tragedy, enlightening the horror by grounding his tale in humanity, and allowing the audience to breathe by the heavy use of humor. In lesser hands, such a play might force the watcher to disconnect for emotional safety; Simoncic holds our hands and walks us through the morgue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Nasty, Brutish & Short Presents/Links Hall

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“Nasty, Brutish & Short” is a wonderful title if not a particularly apt one for this DIY evening of storefront puppet theater. A more accurate title might be “Charming, Slightly-Rough-Around-the-Edges and Of Average Length.” Performing at Links Hall as a part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, the showcase ensures the “Chicago” part of the festival is well-represented, both in personnel and personality.

Curated by Taylor Bibat and Mike Oleon, the show consists of two programs on alternating nights, each featuring different short pieces.

For Program A, Sea Beast Theatre Company offers three vignettes. They are short, sea-salty nuggets of wit: a boy’s incredibly ill-fated voyage out to sea, a mermaid and a clam both soaking in whimsy and a post-apocalyptic mouse who builds itself a post-apocalyptic robot pal. However, that last show is performed in miniature with live video feed, one that was often hard to follow. Read the rest of this entry »

From Beau Sides Now: Rhino’s O’Reilly Looks at the Good and Bad of Life on Chicago’s Fringe

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FSCN0264 bw

By Raymond Rehayem

“Go Fuck Yourself” is surely the most provocatively titled of the five Beau O’Reilly one-acts featured in the 26th Annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. O’Reilly got a surprising reaction when he brought the idea to his theater company. “I expected everybody to go, ‘God, this is terrible! You can’t do this, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot’,” explains O’Reilly. “That’s not what happened: the majority of people who read the play thought, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written.’”

In the play, the co-founder of Curious Theatre Branch portrays a mean old actor/writer whose work grows increasingly short until “finally he’s doing this piece called ‘Go Fuck Yourself’ where that’s the only line in the play. It’s extremely satirical about making theater in the Chicago fringe. It’s mean, and it’s nasty, and it’s silly, and it’s funny. It’s mean-funny. Over the past five or six years, I’m consciously writing to what’s funny about the uncomfortable situation. For a long time, I was just writing the uncomfortable situation. And then I realized I liked it better when it was funny.”

Having helped helm Chicago’s longest running fringe festival all these years, O’Reilly is entitled to assail the scene. Asked to also define it, he first points to one frequent Rhino contributor’s aversion to the term. 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 »

Three Days of Pieces &/or Music &/or Love: Questions, Answers, and the Twenty-Sixth Annual Abbie Fest

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Mary-Arrchie Artistic Director Richard Cotovsky as Abbie Hoffman

Mary-Arrchie artistic director Richard Cotovsky as Abbie Hoffman

By Raymond Rehayem

Nope, Mary-Arrchie artistic director Richard Cotovsky doesn’t spend three days non-stop in character as the late political prankster for whom his long-running theater festival is named. “I do the Abbie Hoffman for the opening and closing. That’s really it.”

Following a 2pm Friday gathering at Daley Plaza (“It’s just a lot of yelling and screaming,” says the founder) festival participants—and anyone else who’d care to join—march down to Mary-Arrchie for the opening. Two and a half days later, the closing ceremonies commence. In between, a seemingly countless number of performers present “anything they want. The only criteria is that it’s an hour or less.”

Now in its twenty-sixth year, “The Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Theatre Festival” was initiated to commemorate the anniversary of Woodstock, yet was named after Hoffman—whose most enduring contribution to Woodstock was getting booted off stage by Pete Townshend. In keeping with the festival’s jam-packed nature, I asked a slew of participants the following questions:

A) bbie was known as a radical. What is most radical about your piece?

W) oodstock’s known as Three Days of Peace, Music, and—depending on which movie poster you read—Love. Which of these three concepts does your piece most address? Read the rest of this entry »

Big Laughs: The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival Returns with Seventy Shows

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Liz MacArthur and Jill Valentine

Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine

Comedy has come a long way. In the old days, many male comedians believed with all of their hearts that women just weren’t funny. The comedy world was once filled with barriers for female comedians. Times have changed and while many of those barriers still exist, many women have taken their rightful place in every echelon of the comedic world. To celebrate this welcome change, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival (CWFF) was created.

Festival founders Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur—both veterans of the Chicago comedy community who worked on the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, another of Chicago’s big comedy extravaganzas—saw an opportunity to create a festival that focused on women. By applying their experience and expertise, they created the CWFF in 2012.

Now for the third year in a row, the CWFF takes to the stage to celebrate women in comedy. Unlike many other comedy festivals that focus on a specific genre of comedy such as sketch or improv, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival features every type of comedy, from stand-up to burlesque to musical comedy; if it’s funny, it has a place at CWFF. Read the rest of this entry »

Scores Galore: The New Chicago Musical Theatre Festival Features Eight World Premieres Over Two Weeks

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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 »

Play Time: How to Binge on Chicago Theatre Week

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DebClapp-colorprint-headshotBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

A relatively new phenomenon, Chicago Theatre Week is the opportunity for both the diehard fan and the average Joe to explore and enjoy the variety of theater that Chicago has on offer on the cheap with 100 productions all offering reduced ticket prices for the duration of the event. In its brief tenure, Chicago Theatre Week has joined the ranks of Restaurant Week on the list of “amazing activities with which to lust away an entire week in Chicago,” and rightly so—but what is it about Chicago theater that makes it special? And what better time than Chicago Theatre Week to find out?

We asked Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which organizes Theatre Week, to share her insights with us.

What got you interested in theater in Chicago?
I moved to Chicago to work at the Goodman and I really wasn’t aware at the time that there was such an amazing theater scene happening here… At Goodman I was privileged to be able to work with such companies as Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna and Congo Square. Those companies and their high levels of artistic quality, craftsmanship and professionalism gave me my first glimpse of what was going on in Chicago and got me interested in what was happening in the rest of the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dickens in America/American Players Theatre

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Photo: Zane Williams

Photo: Zane Williams

Two sides of “Dickens in America” at American Players Theatre are very much at odds with one another. At one is an edutainment script fit for a literature-class trip. Although imparting undeniably interesting personal tidbits reflected in his writing, Charles Dickens’ segues between his novel readings have the robotic blurbiness of Disney’s Hall of Presidents. At the other end is a remarkably endearing performance by James Ridge that, while perhaps too uppity for a figure from a more constricted time, is living and fully transformative. He takes all of the Victorian drear out of the King of Victorian Drear.  Read the rest of this entry »

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