Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: End Days/Windy City Playhouse

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Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

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Deborah Zoe Laufer’s existential comedy “End Days” sounds like a tongue-in-cheek choice for the Windy City Playhouse’s launch of its inaugural season. If their opening performance in the department-store-sized black box is any indication of their determination to go the distance by providing a completely moveable seating plan of up to 149, an elegant bar, and music and visual art that complement and question the themes of the play, then here is a new kind of Chicago storefront—one that relaxes an audience as they are immersed in the totality of an experience. And before you tell me this isn’t storefront theater, you’ll have to cross the stage to get to the bathrooms. Enough said. Artistic director Amy Rubenstein’s program notes include this important caveat: “We aim not to compete with the excellent art that already exists, but rather to complement.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Balm in Gilead/Griffin Theatre

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Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The evening begins in an explosion of noise. From the moment the audience enters, tramps and junkies and nightwalkers prowl around the space, almost like they’re protecting it from these well-heeled modern-day interlopers. Then the play begins and the gentle rumble of their spat-out chatter becomes a cacophony, a howling chorus of the street.

The play is Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” a foundational text in the history of the Chicago theater style. The way people talk about Steppenwolf’s legendary 1980 production, you’d think the actors walked off the stage and gave the audience a lap dance.

In Jonathan Berry’s new production with Griffin Theatre, currently running at The Den, might as well start with a punky “1-2-3-4” count-off. It launches in on Wilson’s glassy-eyed, motor-mouthed menagerie with fervor. Thirty-one different actors—a who’s who of the storefront scene that this play helped ignite—are crammed on the stage: yelping, yawping, fighting and scrapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Les Misérables/Paramount Theatre 

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Mr. Burns, Theatre Wit

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Paramount Theatre certainly knows its way around big Broadway musicals.  From “Cats” to “Miss Saigon” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” their Broadway Series has consistently offered full-throttle, lavishly produced reprises of beloved big-numbered musicals. This production of “Les Misérables” is no exception and includes such flourishes as a massive, revolving corkscrew of a set design that allows its actors to ascend above the action, but more often casts the viewer’s attention to the wretchedness below.  This design is especially effective at highlighting the initial hope then despair of the student-led Paris rebellion.

The cast here is superb, with Robert Wilde demonstrating enough stage presence and vocal talents to encompass the larger than life Jean Valjean. Rod Thomas’ brooding Inspector Javert also works especially in regards to him being able to flesh out the motivation for his relentless pursuit of Valjean.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Genius/Profiles Theatre

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Genius production photos 002

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The title of Kate Walbert’s “Genius”—now receiving its world premiere at the Profiles Theatre—refers to the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants—the prospect of a MacArthur prize provides the turning point in the play. Walbert’s script presents strong ideas about large subjects.

First idea: Talented public men in America betray the women they love over money, other women, fame, position and influence in an instant. They do this because they’ve always done it, and nobody has thought or said much about it. The more intelligent the woman, the better it feels to wipe one’s feet on her.

Second idea: Even the smartest American woman by habit protects and nurtures her man’s over-estimation of his own powers as thinker, creator, artist, humanitarian or scholar.  Superior women ego-stroke without thinking about it because it’s what they’ve always done. Walbert implies it’s time that women who think stop acting as props for mediocre, needy male egoists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Outside Mullingar/Northlight Theatre

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Kate Fry and Mark Montgomery/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kate Fry and Mark Montgomery/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

John Patrick Shanley’s newest play is the tale of Anthony Reilly, a man who believes himself to have no value to anyone else, a man who has dedicated his life to a farm that his father won’t leave to him after death, a man who takes every insignificant event as a sign from God, a man who isn’t right in the head. Mark L. Montgomery plays this man. It is a complex role that at times seems to flow so naturally through Montgomery that one might think he actually behaves like the wise dullard that he portrays in Northlight Theatre’s production of “Outside Mullingar,” directed by BJ Jones.

At its heart the play is a romantic comedy about Anthony Reilly finding his true love in the neighbor girl he has been ignoring for the past thirty years. Rosemary Muldoon (Kate Fry) is the last of the play’s four characters to hit the stage, but is the first to really bring vibrant energy to the play’s words. It is a good thing, then, that she is the eventual love interest of Montgomery’s character. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: These Saints Will Burn/The Plagiarists

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Tony Kaehny and Jeaux the Crow/Photo: Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

Tony Kaehny and Jeaux the Crow/Photo: Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

Bursting with imagination, bereft of dynamic narrative, this retelling of the Joan of Arc story is a dazzling mess of a play, more first draft than finished work. Playwright Robert Stewart never gets a firm grip either on the character of Joan, who develops not a whit over the show’s two hours, nor her remarkable history, which is reduced here to meandering psychodrama.

Director Jack Dugan Carpenter’s realization of this under-ripe script is a feast for the eyes, featuring Andrew Marchetti’s Bread and Puppet-style puppets, a sarcastic talking crow (skillfully voiced by Tony Kaehny) and tiny maquettes of medieval French cities, courtesy of designer Kailee Tomasic. The toylike mise-en-scène imparts an appropriately hallucinatory quality to the bare stage on which Joan makes her fateful journey from voices-hearing peasant girl to teenaged heroine to martyr at the hands of the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Two Trains Running/Goodman Theatre

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(L to R) Anthony Irons (Wolf), Terry Bellamy (Memphis) and Nambi E. Kelley (Risa)/Photo: Liz Lauren

Anthony Irons, Terry Bellamy and Nambi E. Kelley/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

I think August Wilson’s play scripts might do more heavy lifting than those of any other American playwright. And what I mean by that is that if you stay true to them and treat them with care, then your production’s pretty much taken care of. He’s done most of the work already. (For comparison, Eugene O’Neill’s plays sometimes seem like they’re the Hunger Games: a brutal, taunting onslaught meant to cull the weak from the Brian Dennehy.)

I write this not to detract from the fine work done by director Chuck Smith and the wonderful cast of Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” which the Goodman Theatre is producing as the centerpiece of its “August Wilson Celebration.” They do fantastic work. But they do it with a kind of humble deference to the play itself. The direction and the performances and the design are simply a delivery system for Wilson’s lyrical, transcendent prose.

And that feels just right. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Faust (Save Me or I’ll Die)/Runaways Lab Theater

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Faust

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Last Wednesday night I found myself in a first-floor apartment on the far North Side of Chicago, standing in front of a sofa conversing with a young playwright talking about her education and her budding writing career while we waited for the performance of “Faust (Save Me or I’ll Die)”—a version of Goethe’s “Faust, Part I”—to begin.

The apartment seemed unpromising as a staging area for a reading, let alone a play with the swift-changing scenes and the multifarious action that characterize “Faust.” We were talking in the living room, no larger than 400 square feet. To the east a small dining room divided a sun room on the northeast side of the apartment from a small kitchen on the southeast corner. I doubt the one-bedroom apartment encompassed 1,000 square feet.

I had been greeted at the building door by the director of the play, Olivia Lilley, a smiling, gracious young woman who took our coats and introduced us to the woman who held the lease on this night’s venue, the young playwright I ended up talking to.

The actors who made up the troupe of the Runaways Lab Theater, formed two years ago by a group of young thespians, were scattered about the premises, laughing and talking. By design, each performance of the company happens in a different place somewhere in Chicago. Paying playgoers are informed by email or text message where that night’s performance will take place. 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

RECOMMENDED

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: The Full Monty/ Kokandy Productions

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Scott Danielson, Garrett Lutz and George Toles/Photo: Joshua Albanese

Scott Danielson, Garrett Lutz and George Toles/Photo: Joshua Albanese

RECOMMENDED

They say nothing cures working-class misogyny, homophobia and general bigotry like a little strip tease. As it stands, those who attend Kokandy Productions’ mounting of “The Full Monty” are in for a lot more than just a little tease. Intimate and red hot, I’d say this ain’t your grandma’s musical but it most definitely is. And your aunt’s, your minister’s and your ex wife’s, too!

A castration anxiety comedy set in less-than-idyllic Buffalo, New York, “The Full Monty” gets pretty handsy with its irony though it knows best when to slow things down. Paced like a true Hollywood byproduct, the show soars toward its climactic “can do” first-act finale. The second half gets a little lost in the ballads but more than makes up for it with the emotional range of this ensemble. Confidence is a group sport and the fellas are undeniably better in duet or chorus. The well-endowed Ethan (Greg Foster) and mousy Malcolm (George Toles) are particularly arresting as new lovers though Jerry (Garrett Lutz) and Dave (Scott Danielson) outpace them in homoerotic gestures by a long shot. Read the rest of this entry »

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