Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The King & I/Marriott Theatre

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Heidi Kettenring

Heidi Kettenring

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There are those who may grouse at the remounting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that paved the way for J.R. Brown, Guettel and Sondhiem. But “South Pacific” won’t go away, no matter the amount of hair-washing. There will continue to be corn-filled, beautiful mornings, and a tinkley tune set in 3/4 time, slowly swelling in orchestration and tempo until we remember our first carousel ride is not disappearing any time soon.

And just why might that be, you Grumpy Gusses, longing for louder percussion and more overt hurt? Is it the melding of perhaps overly romantic lyric to hummable melody? I won’t pretend that has nothing to do with the equation; we do like to leave the theater humming, Jason, and be able to recite at least a phrase or two of the lyrics, Stephen. But let’s look for just a moment at the themes of the pieces these two giants wove, subtly, into their effervescent canon, in light of the times in which they lived. They chose material that, in lesser hands, might have been considered too subversive to survive at the box office. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Strandline/A Red Orchid Theatre

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(l to r) Dado, Natalie West and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Dado, Natalie West and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Michael Brosilow

The (figurative) curtain opens upon a tempest, as a boat off the Irish coast founders and sinks amid hysteria and confusion onshore. Sadly, that also describes Abby Spallen’s 2009 play, which drowns potential audience interest in a foaming sea of over-plotting.

Director J.R. Sullivan, who years ago gave us an unforgettable production of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” has here chosen lesser material, and despite a valiant effort on the part of the performers, can impart neither life nor clarity to this tangled script. Whenever the show’s momentum flags, which is often, the playwright tosses in another backstory bombshell, perhaps in the belief that complexity equals depth. But the two are not the same, and considering the uniform unbearableness of the play’s major characters, one quickly begins to wonder whether the plot convolutions are worth keeping straight.

Maybe an Irish audience could find a nugget of meaning hidden within this meandering tale of death and its aftermath. But on an American stage, it comes off as an obscure family quarrel fought out by characters whose conflicts and motivations never gel. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Lieutenant of Inishmore/AstonRep Theatre Company

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(l to r) Chadwick Sutton, John Wehrman, Robert Tobin and Tim Larson/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Chadwick Sutton, John Wehrman, Robert Tobin and Tim Larson/Photo: Emily Schwartz

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The indiscriminate momentum of violence drives the action and the banality of its coarse adherents provides the comedy in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” The humor in Martin McDonagh’s play is as black as the cat that propels lead character Padraic back to his hometown, where he’s feared and loathed by all save young lass Mairead, smitten with Padraic’s self-appointed rise in the ranks and giddy with her own revolutionary aspirations.

The cat’s named Wee Thomas but might more informatively be named MacGuffin. That’s an Irish name right? Scottish? Sorry, I dunno. Point being, the cat explains Padrea’s bloodlust no more than that cinematic sled justifies Charlie Kane’s moral failings. Padraic is irredeemably violent. Concern for his childhood pet is just one of any number of triggers that’ll prompt him to pull out your toenails, rip out the nipple of your own forced choosing, or blow out your brains. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Happy Days/Theatre Y

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Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

RECOMMENDED

Director András Visky, in collaboration with designer Péter Szabó, roots this Samuel Beckett adaptation in our time and space through the visceral force of sound, design and Theatre Y’s unique surroundings at the sanctuary of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square. The universality of Beckett’s story remains intact as Winnie (Melissa Lorraine), a woman buried up to her waist in act one, and neck in act two, chats to her husband, the seldom-seen but ever-present Willie (Evan Hill) as she goes about her tightly narrated daily routine.

Seeing the mound that buries Winnie interpreted as digital garbage, instead of as earth, provokes the audience into questioning how deep we truly are in our own digital lives and whether they are a part of us, or rather, if we are a part of them. Those familiar with “Happy Days” may notice specific liberties that both the director and the set designer have taken in order to adapt to both the theater location and the theater itself as well as this modern premise.

There is a universality to “Happy Days” that transcends time and space; the audience is not just invited to witness a couple’s life and relationship conclusion, but compelled to think about their own life in parallel. The fact that the pair is played by a real-life married couple breathes real life into this adaptation, making it feel that much more intimate (at least to this real-life married couple of reviewers). The all-engulfing digital mound on stage is never addressed; however, it is cleverly intertwined throughout the two acts and is brought to blinking, flashing life in key moments of despair, making it obvious that while we will always have the quintessential “big problem” of Mother Earth calling us back, we now have an extra pile to deal with. The set is raw, urban and intimate, all qualities of Chicago at one moment or another. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Hundred Flowers Project/Silk Road Rising

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Kroydell_Hannah_and_Karmann_Hundred_Flowers

I am loathe to call any art masturbatory. What art isn’t, really? So in a wholly unforgivable act of self-satisfaction, I hereby deem Christopher Chen’s script for “The Hundred Flowers Project” to be Maosturbatory. No, scratch that as cheap and unnecessary. Let me start again. Let this be a review with no past. You do know, comrades, this is all subjective? This act of reviewing? In one seat I slightly suffer; across the aisle another chap laughs knowingly. His smug chortle informs my casual displeasure. I am not writing about this show, I am writing about writing about this show. Scratch that, let me start again. Let this be a review which is forever beginning.

Scratch all this. I was trying to annoy you in a very self-referential way, to communicate my take on this play. Maybe I’ve gone and done it, maybe I haven’t got it in me. Where Chen’s play aims to succeed is exactly in that space where I’m most annoyed: it’s a show that baldly correlates the cultish act of theater-making with the cultish murderous fiction Mao Tse Tung built around himself at the cost of countless lives under the banners of truth, progress, the people and the assorted favorite lies of megalomaniacs. At the show’s start, what appears to await us is a play about the making of a play comparing the zeitgeist of Maoist China with the zeitgeist of social media in our contemporary West. Such a show could be ghastly and trite, or it could draw the likely predictable parallels in some fascinating fashion. Alas, such a show never really materializes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Parade/BoHo Theatre

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Nathan Carroll as Craig

Nathan Carroll/Photo: Allison King

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Director Linda Fortunato and the cast of BoHo Theatre’s production of “Parade” know that the game is to tell a story. The trial of Leo Frank, an inveterate miscarriage of justice that caused a Jewish man living in Georgia to be tried, convicted and executed for the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, the entire ghastly situation coated in lies and bribes and greed and the ready depersonalization of anyone considered as “other,” is a story indeed, a historical horror that should shake us into the realization that we watch this same sin committed again and again, while so few move a finger in protest. This cast-congregation preach the story like the revival meeting it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sweeney Todd/Porchlight Music Theatre

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(l to r) Rebecca Finnegan and David Girolmo/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

Stephen Sondheim’s long, lauded, and continuing career in the lyric theater has given opportunity for discovery as to his compositional demons, and the fire he uses to bully them into delivering meticulously melded words, married to inseparable pitch and rhythm. The combination of his music and lyrics fall on the ear as surprisingly as a secret newly whispered, and then sear immediately into memory, poetry that is exactly right; leave out one word or one pitch, and everything is lessened. The necessities for success, from start to finish, sit profoundly on the page. We have no reason to disbelieve his sharing in interview and print of the haunted, solitary process that drives him to agonize over every shred of text and melody.

In Porchlight Music Theatre’s mounting of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” there is much honor paid to the immaculate compositional construction that continues to make the piece a favorite. Musical director Doug Peck’s chorus blasts and floats the intricate harmonies and transgressive changes of meter flawlessly, racing about the stage delivering full-voiced Greek-chorus commentary while hauling furniture, adjusting flats, spinning the staircases of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, and turned out in Bill Morey’s period-perfect costumes.

But an accent coach is sorely needed to provide accents that ground us to place and time-period. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pseudo-Chum/The Neo-Futurists

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(l to r) Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann

Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann

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Disclosure, before the sharks circle: I like to be amused. I’m generally not amused by art about art, whether it concerns its own making or whether it ruminates on or examines other art. Sean and Carolyn Benjamin’s “Pseudo-Chum” is highly amusing, and/but it’s also about itself and about other art. Once upon my own youth I had a writing teacher who instructed that the one thing you should not write about is writing. Thanks to this Neo-Futurists production, I’m violating this in the extreme: writing about writing about writing. Is there a solution to this dilemma? As a meta fact there is. I just ain’t gonna mention a single of the play’s cultural references. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Romulus/Oracle Theatre

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Oracle_ROMULUS_cred_Joe-Mazza-Brave-Lux_1

Photo: Joe Mazza

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The setting starts out so lovely. You walk into Oracle’s cozy little cabin of a space off of Broadway and you’re greeted with what looks like a charming Tuscan villa. It’s the kind of place that the erstwhile star of a Nancy Meyers movie might retreat to “find herself.” Sure everything’s a bit grayish and decaying and there appear to be giant ragged holes in that patio umbrella but, look, there’s a bowl of fruit! What a charming still life. What could go wrong with such a lovely bowl of fruit? Well, when the play you’re about to see is set during the death rattle of the Roman Empire and you’re in the hands of a pair of men—Gore Vidal and Friedrich Durrenmatt—who don’t exactly traffic beach-read escapism and, really, when it’s an Oracle show in general, the answer turns out to be: pretty much everything.

The play is called “Romulus” and it is Vidal’s rather loosey-goosey adaptation of the play “Romulus the Great” by Durrenmatt. The latter was a mid-century Swiss playwright who specialized in withering, absurdist take-downs of capitalism, and the former was one of the great lefty lions of said century’s back half. Needless to say, money and empire and Rome and America and conservative values and patriotism don’t exactly fare well. Director Kasey Foster and a spirited cast offer a rousing production that adds a daffiness of its own to Vidal and Durrenmatt’s polemical lunacy. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »