Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Trial By Theater: Contemporary Playwrights Inspired by the Prague Master in Kafkapalooza Festival

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Hutch Pimentel, First Floor Theater Artistic Director and Festival Co-Curator

By Hugh Iglarsh

At a time when pop culture often seems like the only game in town, First Floor Theater’s annual literary festival is a refreshing reminder of drama’s richer possibilities. For the third year in a row, the Wicker Park-based troupe is commissioning local playwrights to create short works inspired by a literary master, which will be presented together for a short mid-August run. It was the Brothers Grimm in 2013; last year, it was Mark Twain’s turn.

This year, eight established and emerging Chicago dramatists—Marylin Campbell, Kristiana Colon, Amanda Fink, Skye Robinson Hillis, Ike Holter, Karen Kessler, Brett Neveu and Ariel Zetina—will be taking on the tormented Mittel-European Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who gave us not only his hauntingly enigmatic novels, tales and aphorisms, but also the adjective Kafkaesque, describing the individual’s experience of the opaque, alienated and labyrinthine reality that constitutes modernity. In such works as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle,” Kafka used a deadpan and dreamlike writing style to capture the chronic, subtle strangeness of life within godlike systems and institutions, whose agendas can be neither comprehended nor resisted. He is the prophet of a propagandized and surveilled state, at least as relevant in the era of Gitmo and Snowden as he was in the nineteen-twenties, when the world was convalescing after one catastrophe and slouching toward a worse one.   Read the rest of this entry »

News: Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays Offers Local Playwrights a Chance to Develop Their Work

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Playwright Aline Lathrop with director Hutch Pimentel

Playwright Aline Lathrop with director Hutch Pimentel

Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s eighth Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, featuring four plays written by local playwrights, began last night at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

Originated in 2006 by artistic director Richard Engling and Polarity’s co-founder Ann Keen, the annual Dionysos Cup highlights four plays from Chicago-area playwrights, which are performed twice over a two-week period.

This year’s Dionysos Cup plays, selected from a pool of around seventy submissions, are “widely divergent” in subject matter, according to Engling. On the program are “Leavings” by Gail Parrish, “…And Eat It Too” by Aline Lathrop, “Girl Found” by Barbara Lhota and “The Charisma of Flying Saucers” by Mary Beth Hoerner. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival/Underscore Theatre Company

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Molly Parchment, Ryan Semmelmayer, Paola Sanchez Abreu, Brian Healy, Rachael Smith and Mike Foster/Photo: Braden Nesin

How To Run For Mayor

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival provides an important birthing-space for Chicago-connected, nascent musical theater to access our city’s storefront-ethos, where new plays are frequently produced and honed. Despite the temptation to praise the sheer effort of the production team, adding music to words, vice-versa, or in combination, and of the performers to stretch themselves by quickly learning new material, and reworking it in a workshop situation, it is incumbent upon the reviewer to present a significant opinion of the offerings and their champions, in service to all involved. In the case of “How To Run For Mayor,” playwright Gilbert Tanner and composer/lyricist Aaron Aptaker (who also directs) enjoy this opportunity. Read the rest of this entry »

Funny Future: Looking For the Next Kevin Hart at the Break Out Comedy Festival

Comedy, Festivals, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows, Stand-Up No Comments »


By Loy Webb

When I was younger, my two sisters and I shared a room. One of our many Saturday rituals was flipping through magazines to find pictures to decorate our walls. Most of the pictures consisted of our favorite members of an R&B boy band called B2K (pretty hot in the early 2000s).

But my younger sister, I kid you not, cut out a picture of Kevin Hart and put it on the wall. She was in elementary school at the time mind you, and nobody knew who he was. He hadn’t had a major movie, a comedy special, let alone the title he has today as one of the world’s top comedians.

And if you walk into our house today, on that wall, between the old pictures of Kanye West, Destiny’s Child, Usher and Jamie Foxx, is a picture of a young Kevin Hart with a blurb on the side that reads “up and coming comedian/actor.”

I remember asking my sister why she put that picture up. She shrugged and said she thought he was cute. But maybe, just maybe, she saw his star potential. I know that’s pretty deep for an elementary school kid, but hey, a child shall lead them right?

Watching the two-day “Break Out Comedy Festival” presented by NBC Universal and Second City this weekend, I felt like my younger sister. I was not just bearing witness to the next generation of comedic talent, but the next generation of comedic stars with futures filled with blinding brightness. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Fable: The Evolution of Community Performance at the Pivot Arts Festival

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Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

By Aaron Hunt

In May 2012, Julieanne Ehre and Katy Collins co-produced what they coined a “Fable Festival” in Edgewater. Cafes, empty storefronts and restaurants hosted such delectable, multi-discipline concoctions as puppet folklore, American mythology and ten different playwrights’ interpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But what came next is anything but a fiction, although animals, mythical creatures, natural forces endowed with human qualities, and life lessons are still a part of the magnificent tale that has become Pivot Arts.

“This is a pivot of partnerships. We’re really about being a pivot-point for the arts, and bringing communities together,” Ehre, now Pivot’s director, told me over coffee in an Uptown cafe. Ehre had served as artistic director of Greasy Joan & Co. for five years, and was the NEA/TCG New Generations “Future Leaders” Fellow at the Goodman Theatre, where she served as producer on Latino Festival, New Stages Series, and conceived of and produced the Goodman’s “Artists Talk” series. Collins, (currently a Pivot artistic associate), had been the artistic director of Vintage Theater Collective, and was no stranger to production herself. Between the two, the wealth of talent on Chicago’s North Side, and the buy-in of local businesses, “Fable Festival” not only entertained and facilitated conversations both within the Edgewater/Uptown community but also “over the fence” as well, when residences of adjacent neighborhoods wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. But when the festival was over, what next? In June of 2012, the conversation began. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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