Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: HoliDaze/Step Up Productions

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(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

On my way to the theater I noticed the red-and-green lights burning Christmas-y atop the Hancock and her sister-skyscrapers; maybe this caused me to feel a little Grinch-y. Maybe my fingers were nervously drumming because I already knew the 110 minute evening was to be presented without intermission in a space where it was impossible to exit without crossing directly in front of the stage, leaving me to carefully consider my fluid intake. Or maybe I was just February-cold in November and it caused my heart to shrink two sizes. But whatever the reason, I found myself unable to make the “connection” to Step Up Productions’ theatrical Christmas card proposed by artistic director Elizabeth Antonucci’s program notes. Six musings billed as one-acts played as rehearsed skits, little moments of character and situation that could have fed on audience reaction and floated on improvisation, but instead suffered the cement shoes of over-scripting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lookingglass Alice/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Nobody could dislike the 2014 version of “Lookingglass Alice,” not even a Scrooge who had wandered away from one of the several “Christmas Carols” playing nearby. Lookingglass Theatre Company’s circus-style production, mounted in association with The Actors Gymnasium, is the perfect holiday family show, countering seasonal over-sentimentality disorder with a bracing blast of delightful and occasionally breathtaking nonsense.

Lewis Carroll’s barrage of dream logic leaves no Victorian value standing, as the author slyly deconstructs every certitude and tidy moral in sight. The masterful adaptation by David Catlin (who also directs) gets right to the heart of Carroll’s coolly subversive approach to childhood and life, integrating and balancing the writer’s linguistic anarchy with acrobatic spectacle and jaw-dropping theatrical effects.

The profusion of belovedly weird characters – the off-with-her-head/out-of-her-head Red Queen, beguiling Cheshire Cat (here grinless for some reason), feckless White Knight and reckless Humpty Dumpty, etc. etc. – are, amazingly, portrayed by a cast of just five, including one of two Alices, who alternate nights for this physically demanding role. I saw Lindsey Noel Whiting, whose droll, wise-beyond-her-years Alice is as lithe as a kitten and strong as a horse, swooping and twirling her way through the high-ceilinged circus ring of a space. (Alice #2 is Lauren Hirte, who starred in the original 2005 run.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tamer of Horses/Teatro Vista

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(l to r) Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

RECOMMENDED

Tales of troubled youth and the teachers who want to get through to them have long been illustrated in books, plays and films. Those stories remain relevant because violence by and toward youth has yet to cease. Director Ron OJ Parson explores this theme in Teatro Vista’s production of “Tamer of Horses.”

Many are familiar with the idea of “bad” kids. Many are also familiar with the concept that there are no “bad” kids, just “bad” teachers. While both the former and the latter are debatable, William Mastrosimone’s play concentrates on that certain something everyone has that can be dangerous: potential. When potential is harnessed for good, one’s abilities can reach heights of which many others might only dream. Likewise, when potential is harvested for evil, walls can form that an entire village would have to fight against to tear down and change.

This production tackles all of the aforementioned and illustrates a bit of what the writer does well—challenge the idea of balancing education with the realities of life. Mastrosimone did this especially well in the 1994 film, “With Honors.” In “Tamer of Horses,” the lead male isn’t struggling to finish his thesis in an Ivy League institution while learning valuable life lessons. Rather, the student here, Hector (Joshua Torrez), is illiterate and is running away from a youth home. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Goodman Theatre has perfected the holiday show in its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” with superb, consciously colorblind casting, terrific scenic design by Todd Rosenthal—including a rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge’s home that seems to contort in expressionistic ways at times, as well as backdrops and streetscapes that create a holiday-card version of London—and, above all, a commitment to Charles Dickens’ text, which seems to have otherwise suffered from cultural amnesia as a result of its cartoonification by the mass-merchandising machine. By blending the bite of the words with the pleasant taste of period-authentic music and dances, the production manages to deliver everything you’d want from a Christmas show, that is, a meaningful message softened by a strong current of joy and hope. And though one could certainly argue this is not a show for young kids as it’s full of dark, adult themes, that argument would be a lost cause. And so Goodman makes the show accessible to the little ones with strokes of broad physical humor and ghosts that excite and certainly scare their share of the wee ones. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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(l to r) Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Recently a friend asked me what my favorite show of 2014 was. I didn’t have a good answer for him. This has a lot to do with the fact that I see more shows than the average theatergoer (complimentary tickets make it pretty easy) and so my mental rolodex is pretty stuffed. But a part of it is that the sheer number of pretty good to pretty bad to pretty mediocre shows can make it hard to differentiate. I can’t recall the diamonds because my brain is so full of rough. These are shows that, regardless of quality, feel like shows that are being done because, well, because a show “needed” to be done. Everyone performs the duties required of their job description—including the audience members—and the whole thing feels like work. Not “work” as in it seemed especially difficult, but “work” as in it’s something you do not because you want to but because it has to be done.

“A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” is not one of these shows. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. It is seventy-five-minutes of pure, unadulterated joy. If I could turn in a review that was just 500 smiley face emoticons, I would. That is both what the show is, and how it made me feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It’s Christmas Goddamnit!/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

RECOMMENDED

Christmas is fast approaching. For those unfamiliar with the season, in the world of “It’s Christmas Goddamnit!” it’s that merry time of year when even the kookiest of families gather together under a shared roof to enjoy a collective meal while emotionally tormenting each other, reveling in both their familial similarities and their personality differences. Director Charley Carroll, along with a solid group of writer/actors, has created a cast of characters with eccentricities and mannerisms that highlight each comedian’s specific comedic strengths. To be clear up front, it is very seldom that any of these characters feel like real people; emotional realism takes a clear backseat to setups and punchlines, both physical and verbal.

Patriarch Bill (Jimmy Pennington) is welcoming his three children home for the holidays, along with his wealthy but ornery brother Eli (a frank and cocksure Lee Russell). He’s also invited his new bride Bev (Rosie Moan) and her mentally unstable and socially awkward son Cory (a stoic Ryan Ben). It’s only been two years since Bill’s first wife—the mother of his children—passed away and he’s hesitant to tell his kids that he’s remarried. As it turns out, his hesitancy may be well-founded as his adult children—a perpetually single tae-bo instructor (Bridget Ballek), a perpetually unemployed manchild (Jeffrey Murdoch) and a perpetually condescending psychiatrist (Jo Scott, a standout, constantly seeming to barely conceal a ready-to-break-chaaracter grin)—are perhaps not quite ready to welcome a new stepmother. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Always… Patsy Cline/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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(l to r) Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Patsy Cline was a true country gal. Born and raised in Virginia, she began entertaining at a young age. Some accounts say she started performing for friends and family by the age of three. Her sultry voice, spiced with hints of Southern twang, are unmistakable staples of some of her biggest hits, such as “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It is her genuine southern charm and her bona fide essence that “Always… Patsy Cline,” directed by Fred Anzevino, at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre aims to capture.

The show features more than twenty of Cline’s recordings, including “I Fall to Pieces,” the 1961 single that landed her on the top of Billboard’s Country chart. Cline’s biographical story is told through the eyes of Louise Seger (Danni Smith), a fan who befriended Cline at a show in Houston. Seger and Cline (played by Christina Hall) remained friends until Cline’s tragic death in 1963.

The best moments of the show happen when Smith and Hall interact. They seem to get along like old friends and play precisely to the type of relationship Cline and Seger apparently shared. Individually, Hall’s voice is strong, but doesn’t quite capture Cline’s down-home country contralto. However, she does certainly look like Cline and does the songs justice by embracing their emotionally charged lyrics. Smith on the other hand, who mostly narrates between numbers, definitely embraces the Southern atmosphere brought to life on set designer Adam Veness’ wooden, Opry-esque stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Testament of Mary/Victory Gardens Theater

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Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

I love Jesus. Could even say I’ve got a complex. Can’t really blame my Catholic school, they didn’t teach a damn thing about the scriptures. And admittedly a harsh history of my attractions may reveal a Mary Magdalene fixation. But I’ve never been much for the other, mother Mary. As undeniably as the various takes on Jesus are up to interpretation, Mary seems a pure white screen upon which believers project. The Mary that materializes in this one-woman show is intellectually defiant, emotionally devastated and remarkably well spoken for a peasant woman. She’s a full character with a historical chip on her shoulder. She’s a mother, not an icon, even if she is doomed to become the latter.

I’m a skeptic of religion and of theater, which may cast my credentials as an admirer of the Christ and a commentator on the stage in a suspicious light. So, crucify me. This show clearly casts doubt upon the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t quite make me believe in the need for its staging either. This play is based on a book—not the “good” book—but a novella by Colm Tóibín.  I left with doubts in the mission of adapting this book into a performance. Despite the unflinchingly gutsy performance by Linda Reiter and the tasteful and expressive set and projection design by Christopher Ash, I suspect everything Tóibín has to offer could be gleaned from reading this on the page. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Drury Lane Theatre for Young Adults

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Killian Hughes, Andrew Weir

RECOMMENDED

The tale of an old miser who has no interest in the holiday spirit until his past, present and future come haunting him one Christmas Eve is fairly well known. Though the story is told often, there is something that remains fascinating about the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

This Drury Lane production, directed by Scott Calcagno, is especially geared toward engaging young people. Many darker moments of the tale, like Scrooge’s visit from Marley’s ghost, have more of an element of surprise than terror, which hopefully limits the number of nightmares a parent might have to wake up to and deal with. Children in the audience the morning I attended were highly engaged with the performances, often laughing in comedic moments and frequently enchanted by the “theater magic” in front of them. However, there were several moments when the fog was a bit too heavy for those sitting in the first few rows, which easily disturbed the young patrons and pulled the rest of the audience out of the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iphigenia in Aulis/Court Theatre

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Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Watching a Greek drama is odd, because your moral compass gets completely rewritten. There’s a moment in Nicholas Rudall’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” when Clytemnestra says to her husband Agamemnon something along the lines of “Remember when you met me and murdered my (first) husband and killed my two sons in front of me?” Clytemnestra then goes on to point out how she eventually got over that and forgave him and became his loving wife and bore a gaggle of beautiful children, one of which (the titular Iphigenia) Agamemnon is going to sacrifice to the gods so that he and the rest of the Grecians can go fight a war. It struck me as I was listening to these words that I am watching a play in which a man murdered his wife’s first husband and her children and then married her and yet… that fact is incidental to the action currently at hand. It’s barely relevant. A footnote.

I repeat, he murdered her husband and both of her sons in front of her and the entire reason she brings it up is to point out how she totes got over it.

If I saw a modern-day play wherein someone dropped that little tidbit in the middle of an argument, it would stop the play dead in its tracks. There is no possible way that the play could be about anything other than that. It would be “the big secret” that gets revealed halfway through Act 2. Or maybe the play would be a marriage that pulls double duty as a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Agamemnon’s act would not be treated as incidental. It would be very, very integral. Read the rest of this entry »