Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival/Underscore Theatre Company

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HowToRunForMayor-3

(l to r) 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 re-working 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.

A one-act play, despite its expectedly quick-moving structure, nevertheless requires a plot that begins with a premise, presents a conflict and concludes. “How To Run For Mayor” has, in its growth, yet to answer those qualifications. Seeming to rely heavily on the structure of sketch comedy, and borrowing unfortunately from the surprises of Theatre of The Absurd, the piece introduces the characters unwisely, produces a conflict of character-conscience, and attempts to resolve itself by stomping through a pool of self-pity, with the slightest and most obvious lesson.

Trent Eisfeller gives a compelling portrait of a handsome and quite insane incumbent mayor, with really terrific hair. The creators introduce this character, the antagonist, first, which isn’t the strongest choice, as the story seems to begin with the protagonist’s entrance. Eisfeller is left to set the tone with a bizarre monologue, where exposition might better serve. Eisfeller’s pretty, lyrical voice is taxed by the histrionic screaming as written and/or directed, perhaps funny at first, falling flat before the finale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike/The Goodman Theatre

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 (L to R) Mary Beth Fisher , Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

(L to R) Mary Beth Fisher , Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The opening moments of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are pure Chekhov. A brother and sister sit in their country home staring at a pond, hoping to see a blue heron and marinating in their regrets. Then the sister propositions her (adopted) brother, their Jamaican housekeeper shows up shouting disturbing prophecies and pretty soon a half-naked movie actor is dancing around for all to see. That’s when you remember that this isn’t Chekhov. This is Christopher Durang doing Chekhov. Instead of “I’m a seagull,” it’s “I’m a wild turkey.”

Directed by Steve Scott, the Goodman’s production features Goodman mainstay Mary Beth Fisher as Masha, a bitterly aging movie starlet who has returned home to inform her much more withdrawn siblings, Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) that she is selling the family home in which the pair currently reside. Masha’s much-younger boyfriend Spike (Jordan Brown) is also in tow. He’s an up-and-coming actor but already a master idiot. Masha feels threatened by Spike’s attraction to Nina (Rebecca Buller), the neighbor girl who is herself an aspiring actress. Sonia and Vanya feel threatened by pretty much everything. The housekeeper, Cassandra, takes after her namesake and practices voodoo; if it weren’t for the utter commitment of actress E. Faye Butler, the character would feel just as problematic as she actually is. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown/Pride Films & Plays

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Nelson Rodriguez/Photo: David Zak

Nelson Rodriguez/Photo: David Zak

RECOMMENDED

There is something magical about sitting in an audience and witnessing the moment that a piece of theater officially becomes dated. Despite being twenty years old, Guillermo Reyes’ play “Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown” stands the test of time heartily. Sure, the references are solidly in the mid-nineties throughout, but most of them still ring with truth. That is, until one of the characters notes that gay marriage isn’t allowed legally in America. The timing of this production by Pride Films & Plays couldn’t be more perfect. The electric feeling within the theater is palpable immediately following that observation, as the viewer realizes that what the play is addressing is now historical fact, rather than current reality. The freshness of the recent decision of the Supreme Court creates a somewhat surreal viewing experience.

Director Sandra Marquez stages the show in a tight space quite effectively. Nelson Rodriguez bops around the stage from character to character while grabbing costumes off of the walls and quickly shifting into new personas. Each character is drawn broadly, but then honed to a sharpness that opens wounds and lets their depth come out. I could not be more impressed with Rodriguez’s range. He tackles seven separate characters and each is uniquely crafted in a memorable way. Were this not clearly a one-man show, it would be easy to think back on the performance and compare the efforts of the various actors in the show. That is how distinct Rodriguez’s characters are. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Titus Andronicus Project/The Home for Wayward Artists and The Public House Theatre

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Titus Project 1

Dear theater-goer, as “The Titus Andronicus Project” at The Public House Theatre demonstrates, never pay good money to see any theatrical production with the word “project” in its title. That epithet suggests some dubious result of modern industrial teamwork, like the Hoover Dam or a three-year ethno-musicological study of the war songs of the Arawak Indians.

This “project” was the fruit of seven months’ labor by an energetic troupe of young actors calling themselves The Home for Wayward Artists, who, with the best intentions, may have believed they could rescue Shakespeare’s poorest play from the contempt voiced by critics such as George Bernard Shaw, who said of  Titus that “Beaumont and Fletcher… wrote a good deal that was pretty disgraceful, but at all events [the later Shakespeare] had educated them out of the possibility of writing Titus Andronicus.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Matawan/The Ruckus

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Susan Myburgh/Photo: Jeff Bivens

Susan Myburgh/Photo: Jeff Bivens

“If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.” Or so the song says. If you were to apply that wisdom to “Matawan,” the latest from The Ruckus, you might throw in germs, poverty, loneliness, grief and sharks as well. Self-described as “Our Town” meets “Jaws,” “Matawan” is dismembered by contradictory aims and left an uncongealed mass of raw ideas.

As a talented company broadening its horizons, the general gluttony of this production is perhaps just a form of growing pains. “Matawan” regularly feels like teenagers finding a box of their parents’ old clothes. There is an admirable amazement and truthful honesty as the cast discovers itself through history made personal by emotional investment. Yet the result is also clumsy, self-conscious and visibly mismatched. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All Our Tragic/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover

Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

One might think that Sean Graney’s title for his play/adaptation/mashup/opus “All Our Tragic” is a bit of playful hyperbole. But nope. It’s all in there. From Prometheus on the rock to Herakles butchering his children to Oedipus and Troy and Orestes’ revenge on Klytaimnestra, “All Our Tragic” is an entire survey course in Greek tragedy crammed into a single twelve-hour play.

Oh yes, about that. It’s twelve hours long. And it is definitely worth it.

Adapted by Graney from all thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies, “All Our Tragic” is as liberal with its source material as it is with its blood effects. It isn’t necessarily meant to be an “accurate” adaptation of the classic tragedies—which were themselves a remixing of mythology, history and commentary. It treats the plays like raw ores that Graney melts down to then forge into something bigger, grander and truly epic.

And as much as the play is a never-ending parade of death and misery and woe, it is also shot through with irreverence. The play isn’t only alive, it is also keenly self-aware. And that’s good, because Greek tragedy is weird, man. Dragons and spear brides and witches, and… . But by allowing the play to laugh at itself, Graney pre-empts our own ironic detachment. We are allowed to laugh with the play, rather than at it. And then we cry with it too. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Black River Falls/The Curious Theatre Branch

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Matt Rieger/Photo: Jeffrey Bivens

Matt Rieger/Photo: Jeffrey Bivens

As the lights come up on the first scene of “Black River Falls,” a refreshing bit of father-son banter places us firmly in 1978. Dad (Matt Rieger) sits on the couch watching football as his teenage son Gary (John Machesky) returns unexpectedly from deer camp. It is a simple living-room scene that captures a very natural rhythm of dialogue between father and son. The comedy within the scene grows out of familiarity, rather than snappy one-liners.

This play is a slice of life presented on stage. That’s something that many naturalistic plays shoot for. That being said, it is normally accomplished within a structured plot that has a climax and a bit of a conclusion. Bryn Magnus’ script lacks both. Instead of a clearly driven storyline, we see a series of events that happen and then come to an abrupt and unexpected end. And when I say unexpected, I don’t mean that there’s some surprising twist. I mean that when the lights came up and bows were happening, I was thinking, “Wait… so that’s it? What?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Moby Dick/Lookingglass Theatre Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere 1 Comment »
Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

RECOMMENDED

“Moby Dick” is the leviathan of American literature, diving deeper than any other work into the mysteries of human nature and destiny. Shakespearean in scope, biblical in flavor, Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century novel most memorably gave us the one-legged, lightning-scarred figure of Captain Ahab, whose mad quest for the white whale that “dismasted” him turns the voyage of the Pequod into a Jim Jones-style death cult.

Director-adapter David Catlin, fresh from his spectacular “Lookingglass Alice,” shows he is as comfortable with the sublime as the whimsical, crafting a gripping version of the novel that captures both its epic scale and sharp characterizations. In association with The Actors Gymnasium, Catlin and company have created a kinetic, circus-like theater space that engulfs the audience and makes Melville’s watery world come alive. Set, lighting and sound designers Courtney O’Neill, William C. Kirkham and Rick Sims deserve an ovation for their depiction of the sea’s moods, from tropical languor to typhoons that mirror Ahab’s inner turmoil. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Who & The What/Victory Gardens Theater

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(L to R) Susaan Jamshidi, Shane Kenyon/Photo: Michael Courier

Susaan Jamshidi, Shane Kenyon/Photo: Michael Courier

When characters clash in Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What,” they do so under a number of different banners. The play, receiving its Midwest premiere at Victory Gardens, has conflicts informed by religion, generation, tradition, gender, family and love. It is a multi-faceted portrait of the ways in which we can be at war with each other. However, for vast stretches of its 110-minute run time, the play is also at war with itself.

“The Who & The What” is half comedy and half drama—just like life, really. But this play doesn’t so much blur the lines between the two as it does lurch awkwardly between them. Akhtar is an accomplished writer of plays, novels and films, but here it can feel like he’s a beginning driver learning how to work a clutch with the action often stalling out mid-shift. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Work of Art/Chicago Dramatists

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Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs/Photo by  John Sisson Photography

Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs/Photo: John Sisson

There could be many reasons to entitle a play “A Work of Art,” but by doing so the author is either telling you that the play is about a piece of art, whether real or figurative, or the author has the hubris to declare their own work to be something significant and affecting. As there isn’t a piece of physical art seen or even mentioned within the text of Elaine Romero’s new opus, it is easy to infer that the playwright has made some gross assumptions about her piece.

Perhaps Romero intends the character of Sabrina (Jennifer Coombs) to be seen as tragically damaged in some beautiful way that would make her a living work of art. That would justify the title. However, what we get is a tale of a woman who has difficulty in dealing with the death of her brother, told in a disjointed manner that is difficult to follow and populated by individuals who are difficult to empathize with. This isn’t compelling art. It is what happens when the stream-of-consciousness path of ideation involved in playwriting is put down on paper verbatim. It is a mess, and not a beautiful one. Read the rest of this entry »

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