Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Methtacular!/About Face Theatre

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Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow


In case you were wondering, yes, you read the title of this show correctly. It’s called “Methtacular!”And I must say that the title is a very apt one, as Steven Strafford’s one-man autobiographical show is equal parts “meth” and “tacular!” Produced by About Face Theatre, the show follows Strafford’s experiences in the early oughts as a struggling actor in Chicago, or more accurately, as a flourishing crystal meth addict who struggled to fit in acting gigs around it. While it doesn’t reinvent either the one-man-show or the harrowing-personal-account-of-addiction wheel, the show hits home anyway. Simply put, it is funny and it is sad and it is an incredibly enjoyable ninety minutes spent in the company of a man who has a story to tell and the chops to tell it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre

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Nina O'Keefe/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Nina O’Keefe (center) /Photo: Jonathan L. Green


In a way Chekhov is a lot like Nirvana, in that it’s really easy to forget how great he was when you’ve been inundated with a century of increasingly pale imitations. If Chekhov’s “The Seagull” were considered his “Nevermind,” then Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” would be Creed’s “HumanClay.” Yet in “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tragic/comic/foolish/wise/heroic/cowardly (alright, alright Chekhovian) protagonist Konstantin fantasizes about new forms of theater, ones that will shake off the dusty old retreads and lead audiences into a brave new tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that playwright Aaron Posner has chosen “The Seagull” for the funny, heartbreaking, fourth-wall battering post-punk manifesto that is his play “Stupid Fucking Bird.” And happily for both Posner and local audiences alike, Sideshow Theatre Company has given the show a breathless (as in “Breathless”) Chicago premiere.

The play itself is sometimes a little hard to describe in that it simultaneously is “The Seagull” and is not. The characters are all in place (with one notable consolidation) and the story follows the original to a tee… except when it doesn’t. However, the dialogue is all original and Posner creates a number of gorgeous original exchanges, except when he’s directly riffing on the original with smart-ass lines like “Because it’s slimming.” The best way to summarize it is that Posner uses “The Seagull” the way a child uses a Power Rangers action figure to concoct his own original story. He uses it to ask what the hell is wrong with our theater and, by extension, what the hell is wrong with us. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ecstasy/Cole Theatre

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(l to r) Layne Manzer, Michaela Petro, Boyd Harris  and Maura Kidwell/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Layne Manzer, Michaela Petro, Boyd Harris and Maura Kidwell/Photo: Michael Brosilow

The inaugural production of Cole Theatre, Mike Leigh’s “Ecstasy,” begins with a naked Jean (Maura Kidwell) and Roy (Joel Reitsma), in her run-down London flat. Whatever they’ve just done, from the superficial small talk and the swiftness of Roy’s exit, it doesn’t take much to see love wasn’t in it.

And we see why when Roy comes ready for another session, but this time his wife Val (Lauren Pizzi) shows up. While Jean cowardly disappears, her best friend Dawn (Michaela Petro) is left alone to fight for herself against Roy’s violent attack on her and his wife.

Thankfully, a horrific situation is avoided and the only indication of a scuffle is the broken bed—which they solicit Dawn’s husband Mick (Boyd Harris) and Len (Layne Manzer), an old friend they recently reconnected with, to fix. With these old friends in the same room, the craziness turns into a drunken night of fun and memories. All seems well until Mick and Dawn leave and we see just how much pain resides in that London flat. And A Red Orchid Theatre provides the perfect space for Grant Sabin’s set, allowing for a true fly on the wall sensation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Clemente: The Legend of 21/NightBlue Performing Arts Company

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Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

The creation and delivery of a historical play presents very specific challenges. The story of the life of any individual, no matter how private and quiet it might seem to others, is a fulsome thing, and the telling of it requires heart-stopping decision-making. The central plot line must drive the narrative, with all the supporting information, no matter how juicy, supplying its named purpose. Add to this trial the fact that the examined life is that of an international celebrity, stir in several songs and call it a musical, and you are up to bat, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, with the opposing team leading by a single point.

Writer and director Luis Caballero strikes out with his attempt to tell the story of Roberto Clemente, the acclaimed Puerto Rican baseball player. His poverty-stricken beginnings, his eighteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his numerous awards and his celebrated charity work that led to his death in a plane crash are the stuff that could fill a theatrical offering with drama and music. But what is the central story? The rampant racism that he encountered within the sport? His marriage to a girl of a different faith? The physical ailments that he overcame to become the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter? His giving back to his Puerto Rican roots during the off-season, creating opportunities for that country’s children? His sensational death that awarded him martyrdom? “Clemente: The Legend of 21,” heroically attempts to highlight each of these story arcs with equal examination, with the unfortunate result that plot lines appear, and then suddenly disappear, while another, previously unexplored and unexpected element leaps to center stage. Each story line receives its own climax, which I found to be battering. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Coraline/Black Button Eyes Productions

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Behind: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground (Left to Right) Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon

Background: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground: Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon


I arrived at City Lit Theater’s space to see Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Coraline” a complete Neil Gaiman virgin. I’d heard that the novelist’s 2002 horror/fantasy novella was a more overtly twisted “Alice in Wonderland” literary romp, and never gave it a second thought. That is, until director Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption of “Coraline” was nominated for an Academy Award. Then I was nearly annoyed that what I had deemed to be a grotesque morsel of British-against-British thievery was continuing to occupy a place in popular culture.

But composer Stephin Merritt and playwright David Greenspan’s musical rendering of Gaiman’s story has drawn me in, put me in my place. If Merritt’s notion of instrumental scoring for his music for “Coraline” (the young adventuress accompanied by toy pianos, the “real-world” grownups supported by a typical upright, and the “others” from behind the soon-to-be unlocked door singing over a baby grand with various found objects shoved between the piano strings) sounds like a 1970s music education thesis on new ploys for introducing young people to the orchestra, I found the actuality of it charming, and music director Nick Sula’s preparation and presentation, as always, terrific. And if the plot-line loses just a tiny bit of zip two-thirds of the way through, when the sung bits that come and go so quickly as to hardly qualify as proper songs nearly vanish, “Coraline” recovers quickly, and then drives to the finish. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind/The Neo-Futurists

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Friday night with thirty minutes to go before the doors to the Neo-Futurarium open, a line already snakes down Ashland and around the corner onto Foster. With patrons ranging from traditional theater-types to bros to hipsters and various types in between, it’s readily apparent that “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” (TML from here on)—the longest-running production in Chicago, which recently celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary—is still drawing in crowds and then shaking them up in the Neo-Futurists’ signature style.

Many know what to expect from the sometimes hectic, rapid-fire “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” structure of TML because they’ve seen it before and many more have only heard secondhand what they’re in for when attending this unique production. After entering the theater, audience members are promptly given a “menu” which lists the name of thirty individual plays, each with a unique number before it. In order to move the show along, audience members are asked to yell the number of the show they’d like to see next in the moments immediately following the end of the previous play. This results in an excited barrage of numbers being shouted from all corners of the audience in between each vignette and serves to not only jolt the audience but to amp up the action on stage as well.

With titles like “The One Time I Didn’t Hate Kids.” and “I don’t need any help.” these brief plays range from sight gags to physical comedy to one-liners to occasional forays into the deeper aspects of the human condition. Each delivers in its own way—though the quirky comedic bits tend to work best, especially when coupled with a more oblique reference to emotional implications. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Medea/Dream Theatre Company

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The character of Medea haunted Greek culture like a nightmare, embodying patriarchal anxiety and guilt. It’s a fitting subject for Dream Theatre Company’s resident playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu, who has taken Euripides’ familiar tale of the horrific vengeance of a woman wronged and transformed it, for better or worse, into a graphic horror story suited for an age not of gods, heroes and Fate, but rather of family dysfunction and random violence.

Rachel Martindale is a seriously crazy Medea, enraged at her husband Jason of Golden Fleece fame. Jason–played by the same Jeremy Menekseoglu, who also directed and designed the production–has dumped her for the young and pretty Glauce, princess of Corinth (Amanda Lynn Meyer). With a royal marriage in the offing, the graspingly opportunistic Jason has use neither for his aging wife–whose sorcery skills saved his fleece many times during his Argonaut days–nor their two neglected young sons, Mermeros and Pheres, played convincingly by Anna Menekseoglu and Madelaine Schmitt, respectively. The parentally challenged Jason cannot even remember their names, referring to them simply as “your sons.” Medea also is not the epitome of unconditional love, waterboarding her children as a disciplinary measure. What most distinguishes this version from the Euripidean original is that the kids are not props and plot devices, but rather the moral center of the play–the tragedy is theirs, not their absent and abusive parents’. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hank Williams: Lost Highway/American Blues Theater

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(l to r) Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight

Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight


It’s Audrey (played by the willowy Cora Vander Broek), Hank Williams’ put-upon first wife, who best sums up her husband’s fatal contradictions: “You wear a $500 custom suit—and I bet you haven’t changed your underwear in a week.”

American Blues Theater’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a warts-and-all musical portrait of the man who in the late 1940s essentially invented modern country and western, serving as the genre’s first superstar, legend and martyr. Directed by Damon Kiely, the play has the very American ambivalence of all such stories, simultaneously celebrating the art while lamenting the self-destructiveness of the artist, and underscoring the vital link between the two. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hellish Half-Light: Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett/Mary-Arrchie

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(l to r) Stephen Walker and Adam Soule/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Stephen Walker and Adam Soule/Photo: Emily Schwartz


Samuel Beckett was a genius, one of the great talents of the twentieth century, like Ernie Kovacs or Thelonious Monk. So when a theater company does a fine job staging some Beckett, where do I get off saying much more than thanks? Beyond offering Mary-Arrchie Theatre my gratitude for mounting six fairly short, very Beckett pieces in one quick evening, I offer you—the reader and perhaps a genius in your own right—the following details. If you read these things for recommendations, I recommend you skip my review and just go to the show. Simple enough. You’re welcome.

“Hellish Half-Light,” named for a line in the sixth and most technical of these miserable marvels, strings the works together seamlessly, as if they were written to be performed in this order. Director Jennifer Markowitz has sequenced the pieces so effectively that their combined presentation has a rhythm that matches Beckett’s own merciless yet intoxicating cadence. These brief pieces succinctly distill Beckett’s bleak outlook on life while emphasizing the humor, making this barely hour-and-a-half presentation a treat for fans of Beckett and also a great introduction for those familiar only with the title of his most famous play. Those who disdain Beckett will suffer as much as any of the multiple characters each member of this adept cast portrays. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor/First Folio Theatre

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The Merry Wives of Windsor Production Photo E

You learn a lot about the level of commitment of a company of actors—to say nothing of the commitment of the audience enjoying them—when both are willing to engage in the rain because, as the Bard himself would say, “the play’s the thing.” Thus, as rain began falling during Act II of First Folio’s opening night of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the cast took no mind of it, and audience members simply covered up or took out umbrellas.

This went on for a time before the show was interrupted since, as First Folio managing director and show producer David Rice put it over the loudspeakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a small squall that will pass quickly, please come into the mansion until it does.” The “mansion” is none other than the former home of coal baron Francis S. Peabody, a delightfully opulent environment to come into out of the rain. Yes, the powers that be have sophisticated weather-tracking devices and have storm evasion and the safety of the venues’ performers and audiences down to a science.   Read the rest of this entry »