Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona/Oak Park Festival Theatre

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Tim Martin, David Keohane and Scot West

Is there a more appropriate way to pass the dog days than with Shakespeare’s canine comedy? This early, patchy and problematic work—whose dramatic summit is the appearance of Crab, the melancholic mutt—is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour warm-up exercise for the career to come. Its glimpses of genius in training are scattered within a plot that lurches rather than flows and ends without delivering a dose of poetic justice. To succeed on stage, “Verona” must be played as a pure farce, distracting us from the script’s dropped stitches. It shouldn’t just be the dog that chews the scenery.

Director Lavina Jadhwani—together with costumer Emily McConnell—sets the action circa 1983, with doltish suitor Thurio (Tim Martin) done up “Preppy Handbook” style, and everyone else bringing back long-repressed memories of the Brat Pack and “Beverly Hills 90210.” Maybe it’s meant to link the feudal arrogance of Verona’s privileged gentlefolk with the consumerist excesses of the Reagan era. Or maybe the troupe is just having a little retro fun. Unfortunately, the silliness is only skin deep, plastered atop a sometimes sticky earnestness. The result is a show that’s serviceable and intermittently entertaining, but which never achieves a consistent tone or point of view. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pippin/Broadway In Chicago

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Sam Lipps as Pippin perfoming in Pittsburgh.

Sam Lips as Pippin perfoming in Pittsburgh/Photo: Martha Rial

RECOMMENDED

Mind-numbing with its soft-rocky up-tempo songs and pop-ish ballads, the 1973 and 2013 Tony Award-winning “Pippin” continues to charm all save the occasional music lover. If any song in “Pippin” can be interpolated into any other Stephen Schwartz musical and vice-versa, the fascinating characters and the universal truth of this storyline authorizes this circus-cantata’s continuance in the canon.

Sam Lips is the triple-threat package and as Pippin he gives an emotionally winsome, wispy-voiced, nimble, bookish, swashbuckling, musical theater-Hamlet; a frequent Broadway understudy, Lips proves his leading-man chops. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre Company

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Cody Proctor and Nina O'Keefe

Cody Proctor and Nina O’Keefe/Photo: DEF

RECOMMENDED

Something tells me old Anton might have rather enjoyed “Stupid Fucking Bird” if his body had aged as well as his work. Sideshow Theatre Company’s lofty yet godless (re)vision of “The Seagull” is particularly Chekhovian in its absolute conviction of its own pointlessness, lending this one-year-out remount a certain unimpeachable and pitch-perfect irony.

The play is achingly heartfelt and hysterically funny, often simultaneously. Toward the end of the first act, each character is allowed to trump dramatic convention by telling the audience exactly what they want. While most desires are in line with their origin characters—love, admiration, fame, sex—Uncle Sorn (a wonderfully unhurried Norm Woodel) proclaims to want just a hug. “A hug that lasts a month,” he adds melancholically. In an ambitious work full of grand gestures and cutting swipes at grand gestures, it is small moments such as these that key us into the profound subtlety of playwright Aaron Posner’s adaptation.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: [title of show]/Brown Paper Box Co.

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Matt Frye, Anna Schutz, Neala Barron, and Yando Lopez/Photo: CB Lindsey

Matt Frye, Anna Schutz, Neala Barron and Yando Lopez/Photo: CB Lindsey

RECOMMENDED

With four mismatched chairs on the stage of Rivendell Theatre’s cramped Edgewater space, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s “[title of show]” is set within environs which contribute to the perfect piece of self-referential meta-theater that it is.

This is a musical about the creation of a musical. It is a play that starts with two creators Jeff (Yando Lopez) and Hunter (Matt Frye) talking on the phone about wanting to write a musical together. Each scene is supposedly a transcript of their actual discussions along the way. Two of their friends, Heidi (Anna Schutz) and Susan (Neala Barron) come along for the ride. The ensemble put together by director M. William Panek does a wonderful job filling each role with a vitality that shines throughout the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire/American Players Theatre

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Tracy Michelle Arnold and Eric Parks/Photo: Carissa Dixon

(l to r) Tracy Michelle Arnold and Eric Parks/Photo: Carissa Dixon

RECOMMENDED

Watching Tennessee Williams’ classic portrayal of lust and longing in New Orleans under the Wisconsin stars, on an especially hot and humid night, adds an extra element of authenticity to director William Brown’s outstanding take on the work. Though the nature of APT’s large proscenium stage makes it difficult, if not impossible, to create a sense of claustrophobic collision through scenic design in the way that David Cromer’s renowned production at Writers Theatre did back in 2010, Kevin Depinet’s set is nevertheless up to the task at hand, offering a perfectly functional take on French Quarter slumming, circa 1950. But the set is not the point, anyway, in the face of such larger-than-life characters as Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bette: Live at the Continental Baths/Hell in a Handbag

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(left to right) Caitlin Jackson, TJ Crawford, Will Wilhelm and Jeremy Ramey in Hell in a Handbag's BETTE, LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS, a musical tribute to the Divine Miss M's legendary NYC concert, directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik with music direction by Jeremy Ramey. Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Caitlin Jackson, TJ Crawford, Will Wilhelm and Jeremy Ramey/Photo: Rick Aguilar

RECOMMENDED

Ever the crowdpleasers, the folks at Hell in a Handbag follow the touchy and pushy “Miracle!” with a loving tribute to Bette Midler, a longtime ally and prominent cultural icon in the gay community. Less openly transgressive than “Miracle!,” “Bette: Live at the Continental Baths” nevertheless contains Handbag’s characteristic mix of tenderness and camp.

The weight of the production rests on the shoulders—and, I suppose, chest—of ensemble member Caitlin Jackson, who captures Midler’s bawdy humor as well as the underlying pathos that guided her to the Continental Baths in the first place. Jackson makes you feel as though you’ve known her, and by extension Midler herself, for decades. Even when the material doesn’t land—and some of it will not for younger audiences—it still works thanks to her confident presence and preternatural delivery. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 15 BREATHS/About Face Youth Theatre

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 (center, left to right) Jimbo Pestano and Nikki R. Veit with the cast of About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of 15 BREATHS, directed by Ali Hoefnagel/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

(center, left to right) Jimbo Pestano and Nikki R. Veit and cast/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

RECOMMENDED

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words sum up life’s most difficult struggle and it is precisely what is at the heart of About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s production of “15 BREATHS.”

Through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Harold, we are taken on a journey of his quest for self-determination. He is forced to leave his small town in Texas for the much bigger city of Chicago after it is revealed that he is gay. We encounter a litany of characters that both impede and advance his quest.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Perfect Ganesh/Eclipse Theatre Company

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Ganesha (Michael Harris) and Margaret (Elaine Carlson) watch Harry (Phil Higgins) and Katherine (Jeannie Affelder) walk through a square in India in Eclipse Theatre's production of"A Perfect Ganesh" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steven Fedoruk. Running July 16-August 23, 2015, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.  For tickets call the box office at 773-935-6875 or visit www.eclipsetheatre.com.  Photo by Scott Dray.

Michael Harris, Elaine Carlson, Phil Higgins and Jeannie Affelder/Photo: Scott Dray

Rarely in my experience has a play that starts so well gone so flat by the end. The opening scenes of “A Perfect Ganesh” are perfectly hilarious, from the moment old friends Kitty (Jeannie Affelder) and Margaret (Elaine Carlson) arrive at the airport, ready to ditch their dull suburban lives for a two-week jaunt to India. They have a common, semi-concealed motive for the trip: to find healing in the land of the River Ganges for the pain and guilt each feels for a son who has died.

Terrence McNally’s formidable wit flies thick and fast in the exchanges between the bubblingly enthusiastic Kitty and phobically negative Margaret, two very different New England matrons with a Felix and Oscar chemistry. It helps that Affelder and Carlson are consummate pros, effortlessly conveying their characters’ mutual irritation and ennui. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Loving Repeating/Kokandy Productions

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Emily Goldberg and Amanda Giles/Photo: Jeff Meyer

Emily Goldberg and Amanda Giles/Photo: Jeff Meyer

RECOMMENDED

The idea of a musical tribute to Gertrude Stein is, on its face, overwhelming. Anyone with passing familiarity with the late poet’s propensity for playful and often anarchic verbosity might imagine an entire evening of single-sentence observations endlessly rearranged to a cyclical, Terry Riley-like score. And yet what we get instead is a play written by one of Chicago’s most celebrated adaptors (Frank Galati), scored by a Tony Award-winning composer (Stephen Flaherty) and helmed by a theater company intent on keeping the musical a relevant modern form. Under the direction of Allison Hendrix, Kokandy Productions presents a work that begins with a bit too much repeating and concludes with just the right amount of loving. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Grand Concourse/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Mariann Mayberry, Victor Almanzar and Brittany Uomoleale/Photo: Michael Brosilow

(L to R) Mariann Mayberry, Victor Almanzar and Brittany Uomoleale/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

I’m writing this twenty-four hours after the final blackout and “Grand Concourse” is still making me unsettled. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen run out of the basement of a Catholic church, the play explores the limits of forgiveness with playwright Heidi Schreck putting her nun protagonist Shelley (Mariann Mayberry) through hell and high water. Shelley’s kitchen caters to homeless transients like Frog (Tim Hopper, with Francis Guinan assuming the role starting August 11) who’s friendly and will sell you a joke book for a dollar but has serious mental health problems. She also has to deal with volunteers like the enthusiastic but unstable Emma (Brittany Uomoleale) who keeps all-but-propositioning the church’s handyman Oscar (Victor Almanzar). Shelley has taken to timing her prayers with a microwave clock, so she doesn’t have much inner grace to begin with, and Schreck treats her more like Job than Daniel in the lion’s den. Read the rest of this entry »

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