Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Audience Annihilated Part 2: Gold Star Sticker/Dream Theatre Company

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RECOMMENDED

Some of the most unsettling characters in horror films aren’t the demonic phantasms or unkillable slashers, but the just-real-enough weirdos who inhabit the margins of the narrative, halfway between daytime reality and surreal terror. For a tense fifteen minutes, Dream Theatre Company will plop you down in their living room to be the object of sneering scorn in “Audience Annihilated Part 2: Gold Star Sticker.”

The sequel to 2011’s “Audience Annihilated Part One: Women Only Train,” “Gold Star Sticker” places the audience in the role of Princess, the kind of terrified bed-wetter child who always draws the parental short stick in these kinds of stories. The aforementioned weirdos are her caretakers—junkie mother (Nicole Roberts), ukulele-toting Juggalo boyfriend (Jeremy Menekseoglu), and an unexplained drug-pushing amputee (Amanda Lynn Meyer) with a very unsettling emphysema lung-rattle and an incredibly sweet satin Cubs jacket. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Silent Night of the Living Dead/New Millennium Theatre Company

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SilentNightoftheLivingDeadThere’s no sleeping in heavenly peace over at Studio BE where the New Millennium Theatre Company’s Christmas zombie comedy “Silent Night of the Living Dead” is attempting to offer up some gruesome holiday cheer. Unfortunately the title is pretty much the cleverest thing about this dead-on-arrival comedy. The ninety-minute, intermission-less show moves at an even slower pace than those slogging zombies, and by curtain call you’ll be groaning louder than the walking corpses.

The play starts with a bloody bang as the zombies violently attack their first victims in a department store. Witnessing the explosion of fake blood and intestinal fireworks live is a fun sight gag that zombie movies and TV shows can’t quite match. However, the gimmick wears thin quickly. I was even splattered with fake blood sitting in the back row, staining a favorite pair of pants I had on (which made sitting through this mess of a show even more infuriating). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Musical of the Living Dead/The Cowardly Scarecrow Theatre Company

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Photo by Michael Courier

Photo: Michael Courier

Co-creators Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts (who also share writing and directing duty) have somehow tapped into the collective desire for all things zombie with this slapdash musical comedy splatterfest. Now in its fourth year, “Musical of the Living Dead” has upgraded to a space at Stage 773 and continues to consistently draw enthusiastic crowds. And, though the show certainly has its moments, I can’t say I completely understand what the draw is. The majority of the jokes fall flat, with the actors unsure if they are playing it campy, as a parody or just straight-up comedically and, of the nearly twenty songs in the show (with music performed by a muted live band in the back of the theater), only a few of them are genuinely catchy and memorable. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Audience Annihilated Part Two: Gold Star Sticker/Dream Theatre Company

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RECOMMENDED

audienceannihilatedLet’s start with this: I’m not one to make sweeping statements, but “Audience Annihilated Part Two: Gold Star Sticker,” in all its brief but intense fifteen-minute glory, is easily the scariest play (if that’s what this show could be classified as) I’ve ever attended. I’d like to leave it at that and let you discover the rest for yourself (which any fan of a good, solid scare should do immediately), but perhaps a bit more information is necessary.

There are haunted houses. There are horror plays. And in the twisted space between the two there’s Dream Theatre’s truly disturbing “Audience Annihilated” concept, in which you, the audience member, sit passively in the midst of a terrifying world that rapidly unravels around you. In 2011, with “Audience Annihilated Part One: Women Only Train,” writer/director Jeremy Menekseoglu tested the waters of this haunted house/horror play mashup, creating a world in which an American waiting for a late-night train was sucked into a violent and gory underworld. And while “Part One” was indeed frightening, “Part Two,” in which the concept has been tightened and perfected, is disturbing on a whole other level. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All Girl Frankenstein/The Chicago Mammals

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Photo by Bob Fisher

Photo: Bob Fisher

RECOMMENDED

The Chicago Mammal’s “All Girl Frankenstein” is more akin to sculpture, film, dance, performance art or poetry than strictly narrative-based theater. But, as a Rorschach test of an idea filtered through the highly stylized sets, costumes and sound design of the Mammals’ vigorously creative ensemble, “AGF” is a strangely affecting piece of art. And, though the experience is in fact highly theatrical, AGF owes a great debt to film and the notions of manipulating time through editing as well as the stylized and strategic use of sound design.

In fact, “AGF” is not so much an adaption of “Frankenstein” as it is an evisceration, dissection and celebration of particular themes: sex, death, creation, unrequited love, filial and family duty, and yes, prurience, extracted from the original text and then grafted onto other theatrical forms such as commedia dell’arte, dance, film and perhaps even Butoh to create a loose and highly original riff on the seminal Victorian text. Such creative bricolage is a hallmark of what could be considered postmodern. But The Mammals seem far less concerned with classification and more interested in exploring—and even indulging (by their own admission)—what they enjoy, as opposed to creating anything immediately artistically classifiable.

And I’m not quite sure I could classify this if I tried. But I do know that I liked it.       Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Book of Spectres/Grey Ghost Theatre

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Photo by Alan Callaghan

Photo: Alan Callaghan

‘Tis the season for gothic tales and Grey Ghost Theatre obliges with Evan Chung’s original adaptation  of “The Book of Spectres.”  These ancient tales were originally anthologized in the early nineteenth century in “Das Gespensterbuch” (“The Book of Spectres”) by German authors Johann August Apel and Friedrich August Schulze.  Legend has it that the stories were revived and revised on a dark and stormy night by Romantic literary notables Lord Byron, his physician Dr. John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and her half sister Claire Clairmont, as they read them out loud to each other in the Villa Diodati.

The legendary fallout from this infamous encounter includes Byron’s jilting of the pregnant Claire Clairmont, the suicide of Shelley’s wife and daughter, the eventual marriage of Shelley to Wollstonecraft and the subsequent publication of Mary Shelley’s feminist gothic screed “Frankenstein.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 500 Clown Frankenstein/Viaduct Theater

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Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski and Dean Evans/ Photo: Justin Barbin

RECOMMENDED

“This is not the story of Frankenstein!” dejectedly screams the Storyteller of 500 Clown’s “500 Clown Frankenstein,” which opened in an exhilarating, fresh-faced seasonal remount on Wednesday night at the Viaduct Theater. From outward appearances—physical gags, scrappy costuming and an atomic bomb’s worth of forward emotionality—I can’t blame Lilly the clown for feeling a smidgen frustrated with her unwinnable circumstances. But Leah Urzendowski’s character, a rambunctious and unabashedly narcissistic showoff, is both right and wrong in her bemoaned assertion.

To be sure, there is substantially more plotting minutiae to author Mary Shelley’s race-to-the-finish effort in literary romanticism than in this race-to-the-finish attempted retelling of it. Boasting a treasure trove of dark and dreary back story, a strange encounter with a forested family and a jaundiced-looking creature’s well-spoken sentimental journey to the North Pole, the novel certainly ventures far beyond the confines of its iconic stormy castle. The book, since its inception having been viciously mined for simple horror fodder, actually carries a cumbersome weight of event-laden baggage. But, much to their dismay—and, on opening night, especially Dean Evans’ irritation—the ingeniously silly and miscommunicating clowns can barely escape easy-peasy Chapter One. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Funeral Wedding: The Alvin Play/The Strange Tree Group

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RECOMMENDED

Just in time for Halloween, Strange Tree Group’s “Funeral Wedding: The Alvin Play” returns for an engagement at the Signal Ensemble Theatre. This gothic and drawn-out ghost story focuses on Alvin Fisher (Daniel Behrendt), a somewhat charming but odd recluse who chooses to live in (or maybe haunt) his family’s attic. Joining Alvin at times are his sister Anne (Delia Baseman) and parents (Jennifer Marschand and Ron Thomas). It goes without saying that family secrets go a long way in explaining why Alvin is the way he is. Also complicating matters is Anne’s new fiancé and family physician Robert Elliott (Scott Cupper) whom Alvin loathes to no end. There is much more to this tale, but to give away any more detail risks ruining the suspense. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anna, in the Darkness/Dream Theatre Company

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RECOMMENDED

The atmosphere for this superbly haunting piece of Halloween fare is firmly established from the moment you’re guided by hand from the dimly lit lobby through the cramped and darkened theater and into your seat. There’s no casual conversation with the audience member next to you as you take in the cluttered living space that you’ve just entered, only a slowly growing feeling of dread, which is heightened as the show suddenly starts and a terrified young woman haltingly takes the stage.

As Anna, a timid special-education teacher trapped in her house and hunted by her fellow townspeople for something she may or may not have done, Megan Merrill gives a quietly powerful tour de force, nervously pacing her tiny living room and occasionally giving us glimpses of the inner strength this broken character may have once possessed. Not too far into this fifty-minute whirlwind, as Anna describes the comings and goings of her tormentors, we start to wonder whether or not she is a reliable narrator. Jeremy Menekseoglu’s darkly engaging script is clever enough to provide the question and Merrill is multifaceted enough to keep the answer from being obvious. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Life of Death/WildClaw Theatre

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It’s Christmastime in London and if the serial killer on the loose doesn’t take you out, the deadly plague that’s quickly spreading across town certainly will. WildClaw Theatre’s latest horror show is an ambitious endeavor, adapted by Charley Sherman from a thirty-six-page Clive Barker short story of the same name. “The Life of Death” follows Elaine Rider (Casey Cunningham) as she recovers emotionally and physically from a recent surgery that ended in an unexpected hysterectomy. Despondently watching the demolition of an old church, she meets the unconventional but professorly Kavanagh (Steve Herson, at once endearing and off-putting) and finds herself drawn to sneak into a crypt hidden beneath the church, where she comes across a (strikingly staged) mass of twisted, bloody corpses. As people around Elaine (friends and strangers alike) start dropping in increasingly gory fashion, she feels the presence of death in her life… and is oddly rejuvenated by it. Read the rest of this entry »