Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Four/Jackalope Theatre

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Michael  Kurowski and Robert Howard/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Michael Kurowski and Robert Howard/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Christopher Shinn’s “Four” first premiered in 2001 and over a decade later it seems very much a product of its times. First of all there’s the setting: Hartford, 1996, the Fourth of July. But there’s also a tone and an approach to its characters that calls to mind the nineties indie film scene. It’s a languidness of pace, a chattiness to the dialogue, the sense that something’s on the horizon but even when it gets here it might not break the surface.

Director Nate Silver does a capable job of tapping into these subsumed desires but he never encourages the play to breach its own still waters. His production for Jackalope Theatre is well-staged, well-acted, well-designed but on the whole it remains rather inert. It slowly goes limp when it should climax. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Book of Merman/Pride Films and Plays

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(l-r) Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold, Libby Lane/Photo: Pride Films & Plays

(l-r) Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold, Libby Lane/Photo: Pride Films & Plays

RECOMMENDED

After a successful run at Mary’s Attic, Pride Films and Plays has relocated “The Book of Merman” to the Apollo Theater Studio. The extremely intimate space is terrific for a show that has only three performers. However, for a show that is based upon a woman whose primary vocal quality was “Loud,” as pointed out in a number of pre-show videos of Ethel Merman’s television performances, the space may seem a bit cramped.

While Libby Lane’s portrayal of theater’s great belter may be missing a bit on the volume side of things, she captures the sound and attitude of the musical legend. I’m guessing that David Zak directs Lane to approach the part by sacrificing some decibels as a favor to the audience, and in order to present a more melodious sound. The melodies themselves are easily recognized as poor-man’s versions of songs from “Gypsy” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” The production can’t actually use the original tunes, but these altered versions are amusingly familiar. Because the show is poking fun at “The Book of Mormon,” the first words in the production are naturally “Hello! Hello!” And from that point on, the lyrics tend towards the clever, providing constant laughs throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This Is Modern Art/Steppenwolf for Young Adults

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(l to r) Jerry MacKinnon, J. Salomé Martinez Jr and Jessie D. Prez/Photo: Michael Courier

(l to r) Jerry MacKinnon, J. Salomé Martinez Jr and Jessie D. Prez/Photo: Michael Courier

RECOMMENDED

“Vandals cover Art Institute of Chicago’s wall with graffiti,” the headlines read in February 2010. Yet again five of this city’s degenerates decided to add to the already five million dollar bill for graffiti removal. It’s a potential felony, with fines up to $1,500 and possible prison time. Who in their right mind, knowing those odds would risk their personal freedom for such “trash,” as opponents of this practice would label it? The artists who reject the term vandal and are on a mission to prove that what they do is not a generic, knockoff or derivative form of modern art. That it is, in fact, modern art.

The Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of “This Is Modern Art” is an impassioned tribute to these often rejected artists. The play, based on the events of February 2010, is an attempt to fill in the gaps.

Rhonda (Brittani Arlandis Green) and Marco (Chris Rickett) brag about the new modern art exhibit at the Art Institute, while Seven (Jerry Mackinnon) vehemently argues that graffiti is just as valid. After his argument is rejected by Rhonda and Marco, we follow Seven and his crew – made up of JC (J. Salome Martinez Jr), Dose (Jessie D. Prez) and his girlfriend Selena (Kelly O’Sullivan) – as they make plans to do what no other artist in Chicago has ever done: create art outside of this esteemed museum’s walls. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cold/Dream Theatre Company

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Jeremy Menekseoglu and

Jeremy Menekseoglu and Nicole Roberts

The threadbare line between cynicism and sentimentality gets even thinner at Christmas. TV and movies would have you believe that the world is divided between smoldering Scrooges and gee-whiz George Baileys. “God bless us everyone” is fine and all but what about the people for whom the holidays are an actual struggle and not merely a convenient catalyst for emotional transformation? Of the many problems that flag Jeremy Menekseoglu’s “Cold,” the most glaring is its inability to rise above the basic tenets of your average Hallmark Christmas Story.

“Cold” is an uncomfortable play, and not always for the right reasons. Like a well-meaning younger cousin who’s just learned to play the guitar, it is an earnest production but one that lacks depth, taste and skill. Case in point: a guarded man is accosted by a flirtatious woman who drags him unwillingly into a whirlwind evening that causes him to question his life of isolation. Only then does he discover that she’s emotionally unstable and has used him to avoid her own crushing loneliness. He eventually resolves to risk being disappointed by actively pursuing her. She resists but eventually acquiesces after some shared emotional insight. Sound familiar? It should. This is the start of a real story. Unfortunately, it is as far as “Cold” gets. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Music Hall/TUTA Theatre Chicago

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(l to r) Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill/ Photo: Anthony La Penna

Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill/ Photo: Anthony La Penna

RECOMMENDED

Before the production leaves for New York City, TUTA Theatre Chicago’s “Music Hall” is a show that you should make special effort to get to. Zeljko Djukic’s interpretation of the Jean-Luc Lagarce script (translated by Joseph Long) is unlike anything else you’ll see in this city, refreshingly expanding the audience’s horizon through the pure simplicity of action and inaction.

The beauty of the piece stems from the fact that the audience itself must assemble the pieces of story to find the truth of the tale. When the lights first come up, we are treated to a dumb-show bit of clowning by Michael Doonan and Darren Hill who play the “Boys.” They are preparing a space for the upcoming performance of The Artiste (Jeffrey Binder), an aging, tired drag queen, who presumably had some success early in her career, though how long ago is difficult to determine. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Endgame/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

The plays of Samuel Beckett are self-contained worlds. They are shorn of history, context and anything resembling realism: life boiled down to its bone-broth essence. So when director Halena Kays gives us a production of Beckett’s “Endgame” that is itself contained in its own little traveling vaudeville stage wagon, it makes a refreshing amount of sense. And it helps that the set by Elizabeth Bracken along with the lights by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, costumes by Jessica Kuehnau Wardell and makeup by Nathan Rohrer all look fantastic. And seedy. And a little bit scary.

Kays however doesn’t fully embrace the starkness of Beckett’s vision, and it’s to the play’s benefit. Not only do all the characters speak in the playwright’s natural Irish lilt, but they wear the old-timey vaudeville heart of his style on their sleeve. They mug, they perform, they savor their moment in the (literal) spotlight. They seem of a specific place and specific time, and these glimmers of what once was make their irrevocable collapse all the more melancholic. Signs of children, an extinct species here, abound. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Redletter/The Neo-Futurists

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(l to r) Lisa Buscani, Trevor Dawkins, Bilal Dardai/Photo: Joe Mazza

Lisa Buscani, Trevor Dawkins, Bilal Dardai/Photo: Joe Mazza

RECOMMENDED

Decades ago when the Neo-Futurists were new at what they do here, I once duplicated scripts or some such documents for them in my arduous and artless role at the Kinko’s of Illinois flagship location. Some member came in to retrieve the copies when I mentioned that my own writing was very possibly the sort of work they might wish to produce. I was told with a dismissive and arrogant air “we have enough writers.” I confess there’s no connecting that offending individual with the Neo-Futurists’ current production. I’ll even damn my intro as unethical, while also excusing it as wholly appropriate. See, the current production “Redletter” is largely about journalism ethics.

And see it you should. Why? Because it’s entertaining, and ain’t that why you go to the theater? The Neo-Futurists seem to think so; all the shows I’ve seen there over the years have placed a premium on actually delivering an enjoyable experience. That’s not to say this show is slight. It tackles weighty issues of journalistic integrity and responsibility, as exacerbated by the immediacy of new media. But there’s really nothing new under The Sun, at any Times, or on this Daily Planet, and playwright Lisa Buscani knows better than to really place the blame for rampant lapses in reporting righteousness and accuracy on technological advances in the (near ubiquitous) availability of the news and the speed of its delivery. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Royale/American Theater Company

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Jerod Haynes/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jerod Haynes/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

American Theater Company’s production of Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” has as much heart as its title character Jay Jackson (Jerod Haynes). Inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, Jay has gone on to defeat every worthy African-American opponent including Fish (spiritedly played by Julian Parker), a young hopeful who is the only fighter Jay believes is worth his salt. He hires Fish as his sparring partner to prepare him for the fight that will change the course of history.

It’s a fight that only Jay believes he can win. Everyone else seems to think the idea is far-fetched, including his longtime boxing promoter Max (Philip Earl Johnson) and his sister Nina (passionately played by Mildred Langford) who comes with haunting news. It is his trainer Wynton (played with great composure by Edwin Lee Gibson) that reminds him he is alone in the ring, thus the ultimate decision is his. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Sweeter Option/Strawdog Theatre Company

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(l to r) Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart/Photo: Kyle Hamman

Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart/Photo: Kyle Hamman

We savor our mysteries for that flashpoint moment when all the pieces of the puzzle interlock perfectly. Red herrings can show up to dinner, as long as they make sense in the final analysis. Jagged changes in timeline can ratchet up the tension, as long as literality grants the audience equilibrium by the denouement.

Strawdog Theatre Company celebrates its 100th production with the world premiere of playwright John Henry Roberts’ second play, “The Sweeter Option.” This noirish murder mystery is served well by the scenic design of Joanna Iwanicka and the lighting of Jordan Kardasz. Director Marti Lyons’ cast fold and refold flats to create new scenes during the changes, push and pull furniture and props, and always remain in character. Intense moments shatter into darkness, and just as suddenly burst into awakening. Heath Hays’ sound design is a partner to the strategic madness that is just right for a thriller with a murderous, comedic bent. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Really Really/Interrobang Theatre Project

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(l to r) Ben TeBockhorst and Michael Holding/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Ben TeBockhorst and Michael Holding/Photo: Emily Schwartz

RECOMMENDED

Describing what Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Really Really” is really about is not easy. The play is a Molotov kegger of sex, class, politics and violence. It’s a finger, or maybe another ruder appendage, stuck right in your face and daring you to slap it away. Describe the play as an indictment of “enlightened” narcissism, ambition and class warfare and you leave out that its pivotal event is a rape. Now try saying “it’s a play about rape but it’s not really about rape” out loud without wanting to punch yourself in the face.

That the play refuses to play nice on this (it doesn’t play nice on anything) is going to make a lot of people really really (really) angry. And I also think those people should go and see it. That director James Yost and Interrobang Theatre Project have delivered a dynamite production certainly helps. Read the rest of this entry »